Louisiana Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin said Friday he believes Lafayette Parish should hold another election to determine if the City-Parish Council should split into separate bodies, a move that voters approved in a charter amendment on Dec. 8.
At the same time, Ardoin acknowledged he does not have the authority to force a new election, and said his only goal is to ensure that all voters have representation under the new system. Recently discovered discrepancies between technical descriptions of the new districts and corresponding maps have raised questions as to whether some voters have been excluded from representation on either of the new councils.
Ardoin said he will take legal action, or involve the Attorney General’s Office, if the problem is not fixed in time for qualifying for the Oct. 12 municipal elections, adding that the mechanism for fixing the problem is a local decision.
“I can’t force a new election,” Ardoin said in an interview with The Advocate on Friday. “I can only advise them. I can’t tell them how.”
The validity of the landmark Dec. 8 election splitting the Lafayette City-Parish Council into separate bodies has been thrown into question.
The descriptions are enshrined in the charter, and Ardoin said he therefore thinks a new election is necessary. He cautioned that the city-parish might be exposed to a legal challenge from private groups if it decides not to hold another election.
“I know what my legal team is saying, and I’m going to advise them the best way moving forward,” Ardoin said. “Beyond that, if they choose to do something differently, I would almost assuredly think they would end up in court. Somebody would challenge it, but that remains to be seen.”
Mayor-President Joel Robideaux, who opposed the amendment splitting up the council, told City-Parish Council members in an email Thursday morning that Ardoin had advised him over the telephone the matter “MUST go back to a vote of the people.”
Ardoin said that characterization of the call was “fair.” He said his urgency in the call was based on the legal deadlines involved with holding a new election. The only eligible election date to redo the charter vote is May 4 if the city and parish are to proceed with electing new city and parish councils in October.
For a May charter proposition to be legal, the city-parish must formally call for the election before March 11. The council is next scheduled to meet March 12, since Mardi Gras will disrupt the normal schedule of meeting every other Tuesday.
Ardoin has called a meeting on Monday morning with Robideaux, City-Parish Council Chairman Jared Bellard, local election officials and others, including a representative of the Attorney General's Office. Bellard said Thursday he thought a new election might be necessary, but clarified on Friday he will wait until after the meeting to take a position.
Ardoin said he is prepared for “a healthy discussion” as to whether a new election is necessary.
“I’m fully open to a full discussion of all possible solutions moving forward,” Ardoin said. “I’m going to convey where we believe we are, but we are not going to close the door on any possible solution.”
The December election followed a contentious campaign, with "Fix The Charter" organizers and their supporters arguing that the City of Lafayette needed its own city council, like the other municipalities in Lafayette Parish. Opponents didn't argue that point, but said those pushing the charter amendment moved too fast. Bellard reinforced the opponents' argument Thursday, as news outlets reported on the problems.
“It’s a big deal because the public was misled. I’m thinking they rushed this through and did it wrong,” he said.
A Fix The Charter organizer, Kevin Blanchard, said City-Parish Council routinely adjusts precinct lines and district boundaries with ordinances -- not charter amendments, which require voter approval -- to account for annexations and shifts in population. The needed fixes in the recently amended charter are no different, he said.
"We can reapportion those districts to fix those problems well in advance of qualifying,” Blanchard said, referring to the Aug. 6-Aug. 8 qualifying period for candidates entering the October election. "We reapportioned these districts multiple times over the years without going to a vote of the people."
Lafayette Parish Clerk of Court Louis Perret, who plans to be in attendance at Ardoin's meeting on Monday, agreed the council has previously adjusted district boundaries with ordinances. At the same time, he noted, the discrepancies currently being scrutinized arose from a charter amendment. Perret said he was not clear on the appropriate fix, but that one is needed soon.
"There are registered voters in my parish who are not going to be allowed to vote in this election. I don’t think that’s legal. You can’t have an election and disenfranchise people,” Perret said. “I would love it if we could quickly solve this problem."