Opposition to splitting the Lafayette City-Parish Council into separate bodies has been muted and unorganized since the council voted four months ago to put a charter amendment proposal to that effect on Saturday's ballot, but is now starting to be heard.

Opponents have gotten louder in the days leading up to the election, most notably with Mayor-President Joel Robideaux’s Nov. 30 op-ed in The Daily Advertiser declaring he could not support the proposal to give City of Lafayette what many other U.S. city have: a city council. Robideaux had not previously announced a position on the proposal.

Public support for the charter amendment has swelled as well, including an open letter signed by Robideaux’s predecessor, Joey Durel, and former Lafayette Mayor Dud Lastrapes, who served three terms ending in 1992.

That support has been more organized since the beginning, with supporters forming a political action committee, creating a website and distributing printed materials with consistent branding.

Robideaux agrees with boosters of the proposal that the City of Lafayette needs to regain the autonomy it lost in 1996 when it consolidated with parish government. The Lafayette City Council dissolved with consolidation, giving way to a nine-member City-Parish Council. That body covers all of Lafayette Parish, including five other municipalities with their own city councils.

The current set up effectively allows residents of other cities a say in what happens with the Lafayette Police Department, critical assets like the old federal courthouse and the city’s utility system and fiber network. Supporters of the charter amendment say this is beyond unfair — some say it’s even un-American.

Robideaux told The Advocate he primarily objects to the proposal because, in his view, it creates a similar problem to the one it aims to fix. The ballot initiative includes proposed district maps for the new city and parish councils, each with five members. Three of the five proposed parish council districts are composed of majorities who live outside the City of Lafayette. That’s improper, Robideaux said, because the city’s population of a little more than 130,000 is about 55 percent of the parish.

Amendment supporters acknowledge that point while brushing it off, arguing that parish-wide drainage dollars are mostly what’s at stake, and those are best spent in unincorporated areas in any case.

The City of Lafayette, like the other municipalities, has its own drainage budget supported by city-only bonds, sales taxes and other revenue, including $22.4 million for capital projects over the next five years, according to the city-parish budget.

Robideaux’s predecessor in office, Joey Durel, said political necessity is part of the reason parish dollars are typically targeted in unincorporated areas, since mayors who are sensitive to favoritism keep close tabs on parish allocations.

The mayor-president’s argument that the proposed new parish council is improperly balanced, Durel said, “is kind of smoke and mirrors … It’s not factually significant.”

While supporters acknowledge the proposal is imperfect, they say the city’s need for autonomy is urgent enough to outweigh flaws that future charter amendments could fix. Robideaux and other opponents, however, disagree on the level of urgency, as well as how easy it would be to pass future amendments.

In fact, Robideaux said in an interview, all future charter amendments would be significantly more difficult. That’s because a two-thirds council approval is required to put amendments before voters. Robideaux, in consultation with his legal staff, observed that approval of four out of five members on both new councils would be necessary for future amendments.

In other words, the approval threshold among elected council members increases from 67 percent to a minimum of 80 percent, and two out of five members of either body could quash an amendment the other supports unanimously.

“The chances of amending the charter in any way in favor of the city is pretty remote,” Robideaux said. “That’s the whole fight we are having now. The non-city folks are controlling city issues. That’s not going to go away.”

Durel said he’s not convinced of Robideaux’s legal interpretation concerning what it would take to get future amendments before voters. Even if Robideaux is correct, Durel said, it’s more important to split the councils now, since sitting council members will complete terms next year.

It’s unrealistic to expect council members to put a similar measure on the ballot in the middle of their terms, Durel said. Another reason for supporters’ urgency is fear the city will lose its majority within the parish after the 2020 census, resulting in a City-Parish Council less sympathetic to calls for autonomy.

Annual U.S. Census population estimates suggest the City of Lafayette’s share of parish residents has remained between 54 and 55 percent over the last decade. But that’s a dip from nearly 60 percent before the last decennial census.

“We would be lucky to have another opportunity in four years,” Durel said.

Protection of the Lafayette Utility System and the city-owned telecommunications network, known as LUS Fiber, is one of the primary objectives of those who support the charter amendment. Robideaux said the city can achieve a level of autonomy to meet this objective, even if it wouldn’t satisfy those who believe an independent city council is the only way forward.

The utility system and fiber network are governed by the Lafayette Public Utilities Authority, or LPUA, which includes City-Parish Council members whose districts are composed of more than 60 percent City of Lafayette residents. Because some city residents live in other districts, the full City-Parish Council must ratify the authority’s decisions.

Robideaux suggested redistricting the council to ensure all city residents are represented by the LPUA, making it unnecessary for the full council to weigh in on utility matters.

Durel, without addressing the merits of that idea, said Robideaux’s timing is poor.

“That would have been a good thing to talk about when this was being proposed,” Durel said. “Right now we have something on the ballot, and continuing to move the target isn’t helpful.”

Robideaux, like he did with two property tax measures on the Nov. 6 ballot, waited until a few days before the election to register his opposition. Robideaux said he previously requested a revision to the proposed parish council makeup so it accurately reflected population distribution. 

Robideaux said he made the request more than four months ago, before the council's Aug. 7 vote on the measure. Robideaux said he did so in private because he figured others would point out what he believes is a glaring problem.

“I felt like it would come out as people were analyzing it,” Robideaux said. “But no one did, so ultimately I felt it was my duty as the leader of LCG.”

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Follow Ben Myers on Twitter, @blevimyers.