Charter commish gets first taste of issues

by Walter Pierce

The rural-versus-urban tension that is at the genesis of the Lafayette Charter Commission simmered to the surface during the panel's first meeting Monday evening.

The rural-versus-urban tension that is at the genesis of the Lafayette Charter Commission simmered to the surface during the panel's first meeting Monday evening in the City-Parish Council auditorium as the nine-person commission, short two out-of-town members, heard from the Durel administration and several councilmen who conveyed their concerns with the current City-Parish Home Rule Charter. The commission will spend the next nine months studying the charter, hearing from representatives of Lafayette Consolidated Government as well as voters, and will make recommendations on improving the charter - including going so far as to recommend repeal of the charter. The commission's recommendations will go directly to voters, likely in the fall of 2011.

City-Parish President Joey Durel, the first to address the commission, painted consolidated government with mostly broad, positive strokes. "Overall, from a day-to-day operational standpoint, it works pretty good," Durel told the members, recalling a conversation he had with the mayor of a major city in an unconsolidated county who is at frequent loggerheads with county officials.

Durel told the commission he believes his position should be called mayor-president, rather than city-parish president, and that it should be the highest-paid office in the parish, although Durel was quick to note that he supports those changes taking effect after he leaves office. Roughly 10 officials in LCG, many of them credentialled professionals like Lafayette Utilities System Director Terry Huval, an engineer, earn more than Durel. The current charter places a 10-percent cap on raises for the city-parish president; consequently, after three or four years of receiving cost of living allowances, the parish's chief executive hits an earning plateau, even though most LCG employees typically receive annual raises in the 3- to 4-percent range. (Few if any are set to receive raises in the 2010-2011 budget Durel submitted to the council last week.)

But Durel expressed concern over what he termed "representation without taxation," that is, council members who don't live in the city of Lafayette or pay Lafayette property taxes participating in decisions about the allocation of Lafayette city tax revenue. That is an unavoidable consequence of the form of partially consolidated government adopted by Lafayette Parish voters, and it's in its most sharp relief with LUS; the city-owned utility, despite being officially governed by the five members of the council who represent city-majority districts, has long been subject to votes of the entire nine-member council, although some of those councilmen represent very few city voters.

That is an especially raw subject for District 8 Councilman Keith Patin, whose district is almost entirely within the city of Lafayette. "I represent more LUS customers than any councilman - close to 30,000," Patin told the commission, "and yet my vote competes with councilmen who represent 5,000."

The subject of the city of Lafayette's autonomy was returned to repeatedly during the meeting, a topic growing in urgency since the receipt of census results next spring could show that the city has fallen to fewer than 50 percent of all residents in the parish. The result - the city losing its five-seat majority on the CPC - is a very real threat to the city's ability to maintain some level of sovereignty going forward.

District 7 Councilman Don Bertrand, who represents Broussard as well as parts of the city and unincorporated parish, provided commission members with examples of consolidated governments that have a mayor-president, but maintain separate city and parish/county governments. "It's a hybrid today, and I think it should be a hybrid when you're done," he said of LCG, adding that consolidation of services is "probably the biggest success" of our current form of government.

District 9 Councilman William Theriot, the only parish-majority councilman to attend Monday's meeting and an outspoken opponent of deconsolidation, reiterated his theme that consolidation is best for everyone, including the city of Lafayette. "One cannot survive without the other," Theriot said, taking issue with the city men's concerns about the rural vote interfering with city progress. "Has there been one single incident where a parish councilman has destabilized the city of Lafayette?" he asked, answering his own question with an emphatic "no."

Charter commission member and former District 6 Councilman Bruce Conque recommended that the panel place on its next agenda a discussion about asking voters to approve a one-year extension on the current terms of Durel and the council so that any changes recommended by the commission, if approved by voters, could take effect four years earlier than they would under the current election schedule. "It is critical that we take this initial action now," Conque told his fellow commissioners, directing LCG's legal department to research the issue.