Written by Walter Pierce
Wednesday, 14 April 2010

April 20, 2010, could turn out to be one of the most important dates in the city of Lafayette’s history.

I wish I could take back the observation in last week’s column that deconsolidation is dipping on our civic thermometer. It’s not for many in the city of Lafayette. The danger in writing for a weekly newspaper that goes to press Monday night and hits the street Wednesday morning is the matter of Tuesday evening. That’s when the Lafayette City-Parish Council throws up the big tent and stages its weekly political circus, and April 6 was of Ringling proportions.

Council Chairman Jay Castille’s ordinance creating a charter commission seemed innocuous enough: Most everyone agrees that short of repealing the existing charter, we as a parish at the very least need to lift the hood and do some serious tinkering on it. Plus, the ordinance that would put deconsolidation before parish voters is sitting in a 90-day holding pattern. Moreover, Castille’s ordinance was an introductory ordinance, and typically intro ordinances are moved along as a matter of rote. But, lo, there arose a great hubbub, and the city dwellers said, “It is good.”

The council took the extraordinary step of pulling the ordinance out of a batch of intro ordinances that were voted on in globo, in other words voted on as a batch without discussion. But discuss Castille’s charter commission ordinance they did. For over an hour. It was as entertaining and telling a political performance as I’ve seen from this council.

The ordinance ended up passing and will face a final vote on April 20, but not before it was savaged by some of the city men.

The problem with the ordinance from a city perspective, especially a pro-deconsolidation vantage point, is that it binds us to the existing charter, perhaps for perpetuity, and it limits the commission to merely suggesting changes to the charter.

The ordinance prescribes an 18-month life span for the commission. Assuming the commission works the entire 18 months, it would complete its duties at roughly the same time as the 2011 council election, and because state law prohibits an elected official’s term in office being cut short by a charter change, that gets us to 2016 before Lafayette Parish could return to the dual city and parish forms of government that existed pre-1996.

By then it will be too late. There’s a very real chance, according to a source who watches LCG closely and whose judgment I seek — that the redistricting that follows the 2010 census will flip the balance of power on the council to five rural and four city reps. While the city of Lafayette is still expected to contain a thin majority of the parish’s residents in the census count, redistricting the parish while maintaining two majority black districts, as the federal Voting Rights Act requires, could well necessitate drawing a majority of the districts outside the bounds of the city.

Here’s where it gets interesting: As I write this, the city reps are coalescing around a motion to amend Castille’s ordinance and give the charter commission wider discretion in what it recommends, including repealing the charter and returning the parish to dual governments.

Dual governments. Not dueling governments.

That’s not to say a charter commission would recommend deconsolidation; it might only suggest minor tweaks to the existing charter. And based on the deconsolidation town hall meetings that have occurred thus far, it’s no guarantee that any recommended changes to the charter — or the creation of separate charters — would fly parishwide.

But it’s increasingly looking like the city of Lafayette is at the edge of the precipice. It’s time to jump or step back. It will take a united city front to pull this off. The four parish reps will almost certainly vote against amending Castille’s ordinance, so if even one of the five city-majority council members votes with the parish reps for an ordinance that doesn’t promise at least some future level of sovereignty for the city, forget about funding for our festivals and our new art center and many of the other discretionary expenditures that make Lafayette cool.

Our only recourse then would be to secede from LCG, and that’s a whole other column.

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