January 11, 2012
What’s the Deal?
Last week’s council leadership elections were a bizarre and possibly revealing harbinger of the year to come. Is 2012 shaping up to be the Year of the Veto?
By Walter Pierce
Photos by Robin May
The enemy of my enemy is my friend. It’s an old expression, but it seems abundantly applicable to what happened last week when the extreme ideological margins on the City-Parish Council folded together in a bizarre kumbaya moment during the elections for leadership posts on the City-Parish Council and Lafayette Public Utilities Authority. That’s a prevailing sentiment in some political circles in Lafayette where behind-the-scenes deal making is routine and expected. It’s evident, the conventional wisdom goes, that some sort of quid pro quo was struck between Jared Bellard and William Theriot on the right and Brandon Shelvin and Kenneth Boudreaux on the left.
Shelvin, according to multiple sources, was jockeying for a nomination as council chairman as late as Tuesday afternoon and trying to line up votes just a few hours before the council meeting and leadership elections. During the meeting, when he wasn’t nominated for council chair but was instead nominated for the LPUA chairmanship, politicos in the council auditorium realized the jig was up. A deal had been arranged.
Imagine two black Democrats voting for two (redundancy alert) white Republicans to serve as chair (Bellard) and vice-chair (Theriot) of the council. Could this be a fluke?
Councilman Don Bertrand, a moderate Republican who has more or less been aligned with City-Parish President Joey Durel on key fiscal and LUS issues, was a candidate first for council chairman and then for LPUA chairman. Bertrand is ideologically in the center on this council, yet Shelvin and Boudreaux passed over Bertrand to vote for their polar opposites. There was no middle ground. No median.
The election also bucked the historical “gentleman’s agreement” on the council that leadership be split between a parish rep and a city rep. Now we have Bellard and Theriot, two parish guys who have been unsympathetic to the city of Lafayette running a council whose primary responsibility is the city.
On the surface it was like David Lynch directed the meeting — but bizarre only until we consider the common denominator in this dynamic: Durel.
The former pet-shop scion, now in his third and final turn as parish government’s chief executive, has rubbed each of the four council members the wrong way over the last four years. Shelvin/Boudreaux are natural political adversaries, being Democrats representing Lafayette’s most urban, economically distressed districts, and Durel being a Republican from the affluent south side. Oil and water, they.
Durel rankled Boudreaux two years ago when the administration lobbied former District 6 Councilman Sam Doré to support Keith Patin as council vice chairman over Boudreaux, who wanted the post. Durel’s preference was a garden-variety political calculation: Democrat Jay Castille was the leading candidate for chairman and Durel wanted the like-minded Republican Patin as vice chair. Castille won the chairmanship. Patin beat Boudreaux for vice chair 5-4 with Doré’s help.
Durel has also had anything but a cordial working relationship with Shelvin, who in his sundry failed business deals and financial peccadilloes is not unlike the ferrets Durel used to sell.
But well-publicized tension has also crackled and buzzed between Durel and Bellard/Theriot. (Would it they were a celebrity couple so we could christen them Bellariot.) The C-P president went so far as to put the kibosh on public-works projects in their districts as not-so-subtle payback for the councilmen’s repeated opposition to administration priorities, mainly funding the comprehensive master plan and everything else Durel supports.
Durel even backhandedly referenced Bellard and Theriot in early November when he urged supporters to not send him “another person that is simply ‘against’” and to vote for Jared Doise over Tea Party-backed Andy Naquin in the Nov. 20 runoff.
Voters paid no never mind. Naquin won handily, bringing to three — out of the five Republicans on the council — the number of Tea Party-favored councilmen Durel will have to deal with for the next four years.
Which brings us to Naquin
The building-materials salesman and conservative Republican campaigned on a platform of less spending, lower taxes and “fiscally responsible leadership” — he used the slogan in a campaign video — and was fêted by the local Tea Party at at least one fundraiser during the election cycle.
Being the new rep for District 6, which is one of the five LPUA districts (along with Districts 3, 4, 7 and 8), Naquin voted last week in the LPUA leadership election. It was his third vote ever as a city-parish councilman, the first two being for council chair and vice chair minutes before, and he voted for Shelvin, arguably the most liberal member of the council. But what’s stunning is that Naquin passed over fellow Republican Bertrand to cast his lot with Shelvin.
This is where political junkies get their fix. How does a Republican vote for a Democrat over a fellow Republican, especially a Democrat with the well-chronicled financial problems of Shelvin — “The guy can’t even balance his own checkbook!” fumes one source flummoxed by Naquin’s vote — to basically be chairman of the board of a $240 million enterprise that employs more than 460 people?
The obvious and inescapable answer many are reaching is that a deal was brokered: Bellard and Theriot convinced Naquin to hold his nose and vote for Shelvin because Shelvin agreed to back out of the council chair race. That means there’s something in it for Naquin, no? Voting for Shelvin couldn’t have been pleasant.
So goes the theory.
On his Facebook page Naquin last week congratulated Bellard and Theriot on their ascendancy in the council. No mention of Shelvin and Boudreaux.
But Naquin has a simple explanation for why he went with Shelvin in the LPUA vote: “Mr. Shelvin reached out to me,” Naquin says. “He came to talk with me. He acted like he wanted to work with me, and Mr. Bertrand never reached out to me at all.”
Naquin says no deal was made with Bellard or Theriot and, moreover, he wasn’t aware of Shelvin’s disconcerting financial history, confirming once and for all that Andy Naquin does not read The Independent.
So could the LPUA’s new leadership push something like repealing the LUS rate hike? (The new chairman and vice chair of the LPUA voted against it two years ago.) Highly unlikely. Durel would veto it, wipe his behind with it and then veto it again. And Bertrand and Patin would never acquiesce to a veto override.
Worth noting — arguably — is that one of Shelvin’s campaign contributors in the last election cycle was Cox Communications, which publicly opposed the creation of LUS Fiber. The cable company gave Shelvin $250 dollars last summer at a fundraiser — not a handsome sum, but according to records with the state Ethics Board, Shelvin is the only member of the council to be benefit from Cox’s largesse. And now he’s chairman of the LPUA. Just sayin’.
A large part of Durel’s opposition to Naquin being elected to the council was a perceived antagonism by Naquin toward LUS Fiber — perceived because Naquin had nothing (as far as we know) to say about LUS leading up to the election. But, at the same time, it’s scripture on the far right that government shouldn’t be competing with private enterprise, plus folks with close ties to the Tea Party of Lafayette fought the creation of LUS Fiber beginning in 2004 and would love nothing more than to see it fail so they can wag their bony, bedazzled fingers and say, “I told you so!”
Yet according to sources, Durel and LUS Director Terry Huval aren’t overly concerned about the new leadership on the LPUA because the posts are for a year only and LUS isn’t expected to “need anything” in 2012 from the council. Plus, Naquin says he supports LUS Fiber. Actually, “not opposed to it” would be the better expression as the new councilman characterizes the fiber project as a big, expensive operation — boondoggle maybe? — owned by Lafayette taxpayers and, like it or not, we’re stuck with it and had better make it work.
Truth be told, he’s an affable guy and strikes me as reasonable — he also says he supports the horse farm deal and funding Festival International and other cultural, quality-of-life entities that attract tourism. But the full council, now headed by a pair of parish “antis,” is thornier than ever for Durel & Co.
Chairmen can, although they haven’t historically, exert considerable control over the business of the council, first and foremost in interfering with ordinances getting on the agenda — there’s some disagreement in LCG over whether a chairman can truly block an ordinance — a prerogative that can be used as leverage in deal-making with fellow council members and the administration.
So could a council chairman like Bellard for whom arts funding is anathema line up an extra vote or two and a bid to slash LCG dollars for the Acadiana Center for the Arts in exchange for fast-tracking someone else’s ordinance? Maybe, but again not likely. Durel still has veto power and, though it’s more tenuous than in years past, he has enough support on the council to beat back an override on most issues.
(Bellard and I played phone tag during the development of this column, although he did call me back. Boudreaux didn’t return a call, and we didn’t even bother contacting Shelvin because he hangs up on us.)
Sources close to Durel, meanwhile, say the administration is a bit queasy — and upset with Naquin’s vote for Shelvin — because of what a critical year 2012 will be, notably with the hatching of the comprehensive master plan, to which Bellard is unsympathetic. The administration has opened communication lines with the new council chairman, and Durel even tapped Bellard to serve on a panel that will act as a springboard for comprehensive planning in the parish. There is hope in the administration that the new council chairman will come around. The three — Bellard, Theriot and Durel — even released a bizarre, what’s-the-point press release late Friday pledging their cooperation in the year to come.
But Durel has little to say publicly about the weird events of Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2012, and those council leadership elections.
“One of the great things about my position is I get to sit back and be entertained,” he did say the day after. “It’s amusing to me to see the extreme right and extreme left working together.”
in case you missed it