New Lafayette city-parish position focuses on fighting litter _lowres

Advocate staff photo by BRYAN TUCK -- William Riehl is the first to hold the litter coordinator position for Lafayette Consolidated Government.

Bill Riehl often rides his bike to work, and cruising along at low speed, it’s easy to see the old cups, cigarette butts and other trash along the road that drivers in their vehicles might never notice.

“It’s amazing,” said Riehl, whose job now is to do something about it.

Riehl began work earlier this year with city-parish government in a newly created position dedicated to fighting litter and enforcing city laws against the temporary signs that sometimes seem to take over roadsides and utility poles.

The position is part of Project Front Yard, a beautification initiative launched last year by a coalition of community groups, businesses leaders and local government.

Tapping one person to spearhead enforcement is critical if the initiative is going to have real impact on litter and illegal signs, said Greg Manuel, owner of Lafayette homebuilding company Manuel Builders and a major supporter of Project Front Yard.

Manuel said he has long lamented Lafayette’s cluttered image, which can be a turn-off for potential residents and out-of-town business leaders scouting the area for relocation.

“You have to prepare people,” he said. “They will love the town after they’ve been here two or three weeks, but their first impression is not good.”

Riehl said it sometimes takes an outsider’s perspective to notice litter as a problem.

He recalled as a child returning each year to Lafayette from his family’s regular summer trips to the Smoky Mountains: “One of the things I did notice, as well as now, is the trash.”

Riehl’s background is in environmental regulatory compliance, and he most recently worked with Lafayette-based engineering firm Fenstermaker.

“I’ve always had a passion for issues that affect the community,” Riehl said.

He said education will be as important as enforcement in his new role.

One of his early projects will be to go around town and tag temporary signs with stickers that identify them as illegal, leaving the tagged signs out a few days with the hope that people will take notice.

Riehl said many residents might not even be aware of the local ban on most temporary signs, which can be seen along the side of the road advertising everything from lawn care and nail salons to discount cigarettes and tax services.

“Some people, it’s just good to talk to them and they understand,” Riehl said.

City-parish government at one time actively targeted the so-called “snipe signs,” removing hundreds of them in big sweeps, but enforcement has tapered off in recent years, in part because the work is labor intensive and staffing is short.

Riehl’s arrival is welcome news to David Begneaud, part of a small but active community group that has campaigned for years against the illegal temporary signs that sometimes seem to invade certain areas of town.

“We’ve been requesting this position for years,” he said. “We’re excited that it finally happened.”

The enforcement of litter laws also has fallen through the cracks, and one of Riehl’s duties is to reactivate the city’s “litter hotline.”

City-parish government launched a program in 2006 to allow residents to file their own reports on littering that could then be brought to a justice of the peace or constable for action, accepting complaints through a “litter hotline” telephone number.

But that program has been dormant for at least two years because of difficulties in finding local officials willing to pursue the violators.

The City-Parish Council last year approved a measure that allows the litter violations to be handled not only by justices of the peace and constables but also by regular prosecutors in city court and state court, expanding the venues with the hope of making it easier to act on citizen complaints.

Better enforcement of littering laws is needed, Riehl said, but the more difficult goal is changing a culture that seems to tolerate trash.

“The big challenge is reducing the amount that actually winds up on the ground,” he said.

Riehl said reaching out to children with awareness campaigns and involving them in cleanups likely will have the most lasting impact.

Katherine McCormick , who is helping organize Project Front Yard efforts for city-parish government, likened the effort to the yearslong campaign to promote the use of seat belts, a combination of enforcement and awareness that ultimately had a major impact on safety.

“The whole situation says people can change,” she said.