The first formal debate about splitting the Lafayette City-Parish Council into two bodies turned personal within minutes.
The council on Tuesday night voted to introduce an ordinance proposing charter amendments that would separate Lafayette’s legislative branch into two councils, one for the city and one for the rest of the parish. The ordinance must be approved July 24 to legally put the measure on the Dec. 8 ballot. Voters have final say over any charter amendment.
Nearly two hours of discussion, much of it bitter, unfolded prior to the 5-3 vote, which featured an unusual alliance in opposition: Councilmen William Theriot, Pat Lewis and Jared Bellard voting no, with all three claiming they were blindsided.
“Certain council members didn’t invite me into the conversation,” the normally subdued Bellard said in his opening comments. “I’ve never shown disrespect to anybody, and I’m very disappointed.”
While Theriot frequently votes in opposition to his colleagues, the other eight council members typically vote in unison, even when there are disagreements. A super majority of six votes will be necessary for final approval. Councilman Kevin Naquin, who supports the measure, was absent Tuesday.
The City of Lafayette and Lafayette Parish are distinct legal entities with separate budgets, despite the 1992 merging of administrative and legislative functions into the Lafayette Consolidated Government, which holds no assets.
The City-Parish Council votes as a single body on all matters affecting the unincorporated parish and the city, but its representatives are elected by all voters in the parish, including those residing in one of the five other municipalities.
Supporters of splitting the council say it's unfair that voters in other municipalities and unincorporated parts of the parish are allowed a say in city affairs.
“You hear about taxation without representation,” Conrad Comeaux, a former councilman who now serves as the parish assessor, said during the public comment period. “This is just the opposite. Representation without taxation.”
Comeaux added that City-Parish Council members are “trying to serve two masters” in matters that pit the interests of the city versus any other territory in the parish. Bellard, who lives in the city while representing both city and unincorporated residents, dismissed the point, saying he’s never felt torn between serving constituents with different domiciles.
Lewis, meanwhile, flipped Comeaux’s argument on its head: Two separate councils could end up competing for the attention of a still-merged administration, which itself would be in the position of serving two masters.
Beyond those points, opponents on Tuesday generally did not argue the merits of splitting the council, instead claiming the details of the proposal had not received enough public scrutiny, even for an introductory vote.
Theriot motioned to delay the ordinance two months, which would have pushed a ballot initiative into next year, at the earliest. That motioned failed by the same 5-to-3 split that propelled the ordinance forward.
Comeaux, along with another former councilman, Don Bertrand, urged the council not to defer the introduction, but also to take their time before voting on final approval to build public confidence. Comeaux, who in 1992 voted as a Lafayette Parish Council member to consolidate, said it is the only vote of his career he regrets.
“I’ve never said that publicly, but I’m saying it now,” Comeaux said. “What ended up happening here was really a disservice.”
The proposed city council district maps were a particularly sore spot for Lewis, whose 3rd District as presently drawn borders six of the eight other districts. That makes it the most centrally located in terms of shared boundaries, since no other district has more than four boundaries.
The present-day 3rd District is also arguably the least identifiable on the proposed city council district map. Other current districts that include city territory are comparable in shape to those on the proposed map, while the closest thing resembling the 3rd District is a narrow territory hugging the city’s western edge.
Lewis said he’d only seen the proposed maps for the first time on July 4, and revisions since then had shown improvements. Still, he said, he didn’t know how to explain the proposal to his constituents. He questioned the need to push forward now, since redistricting will likely follow the 2020 U.S. Census.
One of Lewis’s constituents, Ravis Martinez, echoed that point. Martinez, a business consultant who said he spends his days looking at numbers, said a more-thorough data analysis needs to occur over a longer period than the two weeks ahead of the next council meeting, when proponents want to vote on final approval.
Splitting the council is necessary, Martinez said, but it should be done “the right way.” The 3rd District, which is represented by one of two black council members, would stand to lose a large portion of downtown as well as a significant number of African-American voters, Martinez said.
“I just want clearer heads to prevail and we do the right thing for the citizens, and specifically for me and my family,” Martinez said.
Martinez’s call for clear heads came during a public comment period, long after the discussion turned ugly. That occurred within 20 minutes, when Councilman Jay Castille issued a vague threat to Theriot, who had questioned how the maps had been procured without council authorization.
Castille, one of the sponsors of the ordinance proposal, responded that he had merely asked for a demographer’s help, and that he hadn’t hired or paid anyone. He apparently interpreted Theriot’s comments as an accusation of impropriety.
“I’d be very careful of what you are accusing people of,” Castille said in Theriot’s direction. “You accuse me of that one more time, and you are going to have issues.”
As for those complaining of being excluded from the drafting of the proposed ordinance, Castille apologized to Bellard and not, pointedly, to Theriot.
“I wouldn’t include you, Mr. Theriot, in anything, because of your negative attitude,” he said.
Theriot followed by assuring Castille “the feeling is mutual,” then tried to enlist the city-parish attorney, Paul Escott, to referee the spat. Theriot directly asked Escott if any accusations had been made, causing the staid attorney to squirm.
“I don’t believe that’s an appropriate question for me as counsel for Lafayette Consolidated Government to answer as it relates to communications between members,” Escott replied.
Castille issued a news release Wednesday afternoon stating that local demographer Mike Hefner produced the maps as an unpaid volunteer. Any contract for “the formal maps that would be required” would be procured through public competitive selection process, Castille said.
While Castille said “it is more than appropriate” for him to share the information, he didn’t let up on Theriot, whose focus on procurement Castille called “an attempt to distract voters from the real issue.”
“I urge Mr. Theriot to engage in productive dialogue,” Castille said in the news release.