COLUMN: The city of Lafayette is trapped in consolidated government

Large piggy bank broken with a piece laying on a person
Illustration by Peter DeHart

When I walked into the voting booth two years ago to split the city-parish council, I thought I was voting to give the city of Lafayette autonomy. But instead of fixing the charter, we’ve made some things worse. The last 10 months prove it. For the city to control its own affairs, this failed experiment in consolidation must end so our city can be free to govern itself.

To be fair, splitting the councils did restore the city’s control over police, fire, LUS and LUS Fiber. And that’s a big deal as those four departments account for $300 million of Lafayette Consolidated Government’s $600 million in annual appropriations. But in the process of doing that, the city lost control over the rest of its budget.

As it stands today, the City Council can’t spend city dollars for city services without the Parish Council’s approval if those dollars are being spent through a department or budget line item that is consolidated.

Take, for example, the Parks and Recreation Department. After Mayor-President Josh Guillory unilaterally slashed budgets and laid off employees for the city’s rec centers, the City Council voted to spend city dollars to restore that funding, but it was prevented from doing so when it failed to secure enough votes on the Parish Council.

Even if the City Council were to get the Parish Council to go along, that may not be enough. Because if the mayor-president vetoes their combined efforts, they need four of five votes on each council to override. Put another way, with the support of just two members of the Parish Council, the mayor-president can veto anything the city wants to do through consolidated government and there’s nothing the City Council can do about it.

The city is simply trapped — both by the structure and by the people occupying it.

Guillory was carried into office by a dominating vote in the parish, narrowly losing the election in city limits. With the population outside the city growing faster than inside, eventually the mayor-president could theoretically get elected without a single vote from the city. City government is being run by the guy who won the race to be parish president.

That means the mayor-president is ultimately accountable to the parish and not necessarily the city, which creates an incentive for the mayor-president to adopt a parish-centric governing strategy. And Guillory has arguably done just that, by ignoring concerns about the parish not paying its fair share of consolidated government, by slashing the city’s quality-of-life budgets without consulting anyone, and by adopting a combative stance toward the City Council through repeated vetoes and lawsuits.

Spending city money on city services used to be easy. Now it’s not. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be this difficult. Guillory’s administration has chosen to interpret the charter this way. The City Council has questioned that interpretation. From its perspective, the city council members have sole legislative authority over city money and therefore should have the ability to spend city money without the Parish Council’s permission.

That brings us to another structural deficiency of the charter that’s been exacerbated by politics, namely the city’s struggle to secure its own legal counsel to get a second opinion about who controls how city dollars get spent.

There is a conflict of interest inherent in having one city-parish attorney attempt to fairly represent the City Council, the Parish Council and the mayor-president. These three types of elected officials don’t always agree with each other, but there’s no mechanism built into the charter to deal with those situations, a flaw pointed out by former Mayor-President Joel Robideaux when he opposed the charter amendments.

But it’s only a flaw if the people running things make it that way. And they have. Back in April, during a discussion about the city-parish attorney’s strategy of not defending the city against the lawsuit filed against special taxing districts created in city limits, City-Parish Attorney Greg Logan, a big Guillory donor, made clear to the City Council that his job is to represent the mayor-president’s prerogatives. To be clear: This is not a standard view. This is Greg Logan’s view.

For the last three months, the City Council has tried to secure its own lawyer to get a second opinion on Logan’s interpretation of the charter. But Guillory and Logan have been fighting that effort at every turn: first by claiming the City Council couldn’t hire its own special counsel, then by Guillory vetoing the ordinance to hire special counsel, followed by Logan trying to fire the special counsel, and finally by Logan filing suit against the attorney the City Council is trying to hire to prevent her from serving. Guillory published an op-ed the Daily Advertiser emphasizing his case and warning that the City Council was being politically divisive.

Legally, Logan may be right. But the damage may well be done. He has positioned himself as an obstacle in the way of what the City Council perceives to be the interests of the city of Lafayette and openly declared that he represents the administration first and foremost.

That leaves the city in quite a quandary. Because it means that the City Council has no means to seek independent legal counsel when it disagrees with the mayor-president’s interpretation of the charter, which for example means it has no way to affirm its right to having sole legislative authority over how all city money gets spent.

Just sit back and think about this for a moment. The fourth largest city in Louisiana, which makes up more than half the population of its parish, not only doesn’t get to elect its own mayor, it also doesn’t get to control all of its own budget. And if its City Council ever has a legal disagreement with the mayor-president — which has already happened repeatedly in the first year of this new charter — there’s nothing it can do about it without the mayor-president and city-parish attorney’s permission.

The city is trapped.

It’s now crystal clear that no amount of additional amendments can fix the charter. The only way to free it is to end consolidation altogether.