Walter Pierce

Why the Go Cup Matters

by Walter Pierce

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The push to pass an ordinance banning open alcohol containers in Lafayette's nightlife districts is more than a public safety- or anti-litter campaign. It's an encapsulation of what the city of Lafayette lacks and desperately needs - self-determination.
By Walter Pierce

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The push to pass an ordinance banning open alcohol containers in Lafayette's nightlife districts is more than a public safety- or anti-litter campaign. It's an encapsulation of what the city of Lafayette lacks and desperately needs - self-determination. By Walter Pierce

It seems such a trifle. A plastic cup. Pennies to produce, seconds to discard.

In less than a week, the City-Parish Council will vote on an ordinance for final adoption that would banish open alcohol containers from downtown Lafayette and from the McKinley and Simcoe strips. Police, the Durel administration, Downtown Lafayette Unlimited and a sizeable number of downtown (non-bar) business owners and residents support the measure. Cops say it would shrink the size of crowds on the street in these areas by keeping bar patrons inside the bars - no longer could they transfer their beverages into plastic cups and head out the door, hence the term "go cup" - as well as eliminate the so-called "trunk drinkers" who drive to these areas with their own alcohol and hang out, exacerbating an already difficult crowd-control situation for officers.

The downtown business owners complain about the litter strewn about on Friday, Saturday and Sunday mornings - hard evidence of the previous night's party. Attorney Thomas Guilbeau, who owns a building on Jefferson Street, told the council earlier this month that he spends nearly as much per month paying someone to clean his property as he does on property insurance.

And for others - for the relatively few people who live downtown as well as the DDA, the agency charged with promoting downtown and undertaking initiatives that further its redevelopment - the problem of too many partying people in too confined an area works against the future development of downtown Lafayette by scaring away the type of investment in the district that will give retail and residential development a lasting foothold. Downtown Lafayette needs a balance among restaurants, galleries, retail shops, residences and, yes, bars. (This is really a downtown issue; our community has devoted a lot of resources over the last dozen years to pulling the area back from the no-return point. The McKinley and Simcoe strips were thrown into the ordinance as window dressing - to dampen the perception by many of the downtown bar owners that they are being targeted by city fathers.) During the same Oct. 5 meeting at which Guilbeau groused about the garbage, downtown resident Julie Calzone was dead on when she acknowledged that a ban on open containers is "not the cure-all, it's not the panacea. But it's an important first step in helping us do what we need to do in the downtown area."

The council should pass the ordinance on Nov. 2, not because it's the right thing to do - although this newspaper believes it is - but because it is the will of the city.

You see, this isn't just about a plastic cup - the go cup - or the beer cans, Styrofoam daiquiri cups and sundry trash that litter areas where our world-famous joie de vivre is aggregated into a compact area. And it's not just about the other problems - the fights, the petty crime (and occasional violent crime), the stench of urine in alcoves and parking tower stairwells - attendant to the crowds.

It's also about the will of a city that is constitutionally prevented from exercising its will. That's why the go cup matters.
In my column last week I pointed to the Sept. 21 vote that originally killed the go cup ordinance as an example of Lafayette's lack of sovereignty, and it bears repeating and expanding.

The ordinance failed on a 5-4 vote. In favor were Don Bertrand, Jay Castille, Sam Dore and Keith Patin. Councilmen Jared Bellard, Kenneth Boudreaux, Purvis Morrison, Brandon Shelvin and William Theriot voted against it.

Now consider how the Lafayette Public Utilities Authority - a de facto Lafayette city council - voted on the ordinance: three in favor (Bertrand, Dore and Patin) and two opposed (Boudreaux and Shelvin). The LPUA comprises members of the council whose districts are composed of at least 60 percent city residents. It's a council within a council, codified in the Home Rule Charter for the express purpose of making decisions concerning Lafayette Utilities System, a city-owned public utility.

As a group the LPUA represents just under 97,000 of the city's 120,000 residents, based on a 2009 population estimate.
That's more than 80 percent of city residents. Conversely, the four non-LPUA council members count about 23,000 city residents among their constituents - just under 20 percent. Now reconsider the go cup vote on Sept. 21, bearing in mind that the ordinance applied only within the city of Lafayette. The council within the council - the LPUA or de facto city council - voted in favor of the ordinance 3-2. That's a simple majority. The ordinance passes.

Considered another way, factor the number of city residents each councilman represents, again based on the 2009 population estimate. In favor: Bertrand (19,190 city residents), Castille (8,648), Dore (22,423) and Patin (21,873). Opposed: Boudreaux (17,681), Bellard (6,102), Morrison (4,032), Shelvin (15,811) and Theriot (4,241).

Councilmen representing 72,134 city residents voted for the ordinance; councilmen representing 47,867 city residents voted against it. In other words, 60 percent of Lafayette residents, based on their council representation, favored the ordinance and 40 percent were opposed. Yet the ordinance failed. Unlike every other city in Lafayette Parish, the city of Lafayette doesn't have sovereignty, self-determination. It doesn't control its own affairs.

The numbers don't lie.

It didn't take long after the formation of Lafayette Consolidated Government that city officials became concerned about the LPUA being the sole decision maker for the public utility. Because the non-LPUA council members represented some city residents - roughly 23,000 of them - barring those council members from voting on LUS issues effectively disenfranchised the city residents represented by the "parish" reps. Preventing those reps from voting on a utility rate increase, for example, could rightly be seen as taxation without representation. To address this, the full nine-member council has long voted on LUS issues alongside the five-member LPUA. And while we've yet to encounter a scenario where the nine-member council has voted contrary to the LPUA, the possibility of that happening - of council members who represent non-LUS stakeholders trumping the vote of the LPUA and its city constituency - has hovered over the council like a circling vulture.

Four members of the nine-member City-Parish Council represent fewer than 20 percent of city residents, yet their votes carry as much weight in "city matters" as their five city-majority colleagues.

Tension over the relative voting power of the LPUA and the full council, along with concerns about the timing of redistricting council and school board districts next year, finally prompted council Chairman Jay Castille early this year to create a charter committee to consider ways to address the issue. Castille couldn't have foreseen how inexorably the process would turn toward Lafayette's need for sovereignty; it was a sentiment that had been swelling in the collective chest of city residents who anticipate a day when the city of Lafayette is a minority in both the parish population and on the City-Parish Council - a day when city initiatives like LUS' fiber to the home project, the horse farm and arts/culture funding would be hostage to the prerogatives of residents with neither stake nor vested interest in them.

At the first charter committee meeting on Feb. 1, committee member and District 8 Councilman Keith Patin mentioned the "900-pound gorilla" in the proceedings: If the charter committee were to recommend repealing the Home Rule Charter and returning to separate city and parish forms of government, why would tweaks like changing the city-parish president's title to mayor-president matter? They wouldn't, and Patin's simple question set in motion a few months of parliamentary thrusting and parrying - the "parish" reps on the council, particularly William Theriot and Jared Bellard, have been staunchly opposed to any talk of repealing the charter - that eventually led to the formation of the charter commission.

This Monday, Nov. 1, 24 hours before the CPC votes on the go cup ordinance, the charter commission - nine residents, five of whom live in the city, the other four from unincorporated Lafayette Parish - will begin its deliberations. It has met for two months thus far, getting overviews of LCG operations and hearing observations from government officials throughout the parish, including the smaller cities.

But two weeks ago the commission's business took a turn toward the topic that many of us in the city had hoped for from the start: How to give back to the city of Lafayette the self-determination it lost when LCG came into being in 1996. Commissioners had met privately in small, non-quorum gatherings for several weeks to discuss the issue of city sovereignty. When Commissioner Bruce Conque on Oct. 11, using a PowerPoint presentation and a very simple rubric - Lafayette needs its own council and mayor - presented a model by which Lafayette could achieve self-governance cheaply and efficiently, many in the city let go a satisfied sigh.

Conque's model, I'll admit, is encumbered with arcane terms like "services districts," and the former city-parish councilman has largely abandoned such terminology. He and others on the commission also stay away from the term "deconsolidation," which has taken on a connotation akin to "nuclear option." But truth be told, Lafayette Consolidated Government is a big lie: The parish and city were never consolidated, not from a budget standpoint. LCG's finance department maintains more than 100 sets of accounting books and not a one is labeled "city-parish." We cannot deconsolidate what was never consolidated in the first place.

It seems clear at this point that the commission's deliberations will be directed toward self-determination for the city of Lafayette, as they should be. A few models will be considered by the commission. None affects the smaller cities in the parish. Broussard will remain Broussard, and so on. The biggest question is what to do about unincorporated Lafayette Parish, which from a revenue and resources standpoint has always been the ugly stepchild in the parish. What will likely emerge from the commission's deliberations is a parish council and manager, but a parish government without the bureaucracy of departments that duplicated the city's operations pre-consolidation - a lean operation that uses intergovernmental agreements to provide services to its constituents.

"Any shortfall that might occur by the addition or the separation of these councils or any of that management could easily be addressed by restructuring the tax," says Lafayette Assessor Conrad Comeaux. "It could generate enough if not more revenue than the parish needs to make up for anything it may incur by the separation."

A former Lafayette Parish Councilman, Comeaux was, like many leaders in Lafayette in the early 1990s, "wholeheartedly" in favor of consolidation. And like many of those same leaders, he now admits he didn't envision the way this thing would play out.

Lafayette Parish's interests are best served by having a strong, successful, self-determinative city of Lafayette.

Commissioner Don Bacqué, a city resident and former state representative, could prove to be the fly in the ointment. He has remained steadfastly opposed - unconvinced may be a better word - to adding any new layer of governance to parish operations. He's proposing simply designating what now comprises the LPUA as the official Lafayette City Council and making it the sole authority on city issues, a plan that is untenable because of the disenfranchisement issue already discussed. Bacqué is also floating the idea of creating an at-large council seat to represent only city residents. I don't see how that could possibly work, especially if it leads to the creation of a 10-member council and the possibility of 5-5 stalemates. (The commission was scheduled to discuss Bacqué's proposal at the meeting Monday of this week, after this issue of The Independent went to press.)

Questions about the relative voting power of the LPUA and the full council ultimately led to the creation of the charter commission.

When the charter commission begins its deliberations Monday, it must keep its eye on the very important goal of giving Lafayette back the measure of self-determination it shortsightedly signed away when it overwhelmingly voted in favor of consolidation in 1992. The argument that we made our bed and must now lie in it is ridicule-worthy. Some of the city's brightest lights favored consolidation. They didn't see this coming, "this" being the city's severely diminished ability to govern its own affairs.

The vote on the open alcohol container ordinance Tuesday by the City-Parish Council could again cast "this" in sharp relief.

That's why the go cup matters.