Written by Walter Pierce
Wednesday, 17 March 2010

A weighted vote could be the salve that soothes our consolidated sores

The breathless deconsolidation talk that swept Lafayette began Feb. 1 when a charter committee advanced an ordinance that would put repeal of the City-Parish Home Rule Charter up for a parishwide vote. It wasn’t supposed to be that way.

One of the main reasons City-Parish Council Chair Jay Castille appointed the committee in the first place was to look at tweaking the existing charter, particularly with regard to wording in the charter concerning the Lafayette Public Utility Authority, the governing body of city-owned Lafayette Utilities System — our multi-billion dollar public utility. We’re all pretty well versed now in why the LPUA issue was troublesome: The charter says the five members of the council with at least 60 percent LUS customers in their districts shall comprise the LPUA. But if LUS matters are decided by the LPUA only, some LUS customers in the other four districts don’t get a seat at the table. That’s a few thousand people disenfranchised. So the whole nine-member council has a say about LUS. Consequently, non-LUS customers in the parish, through their council members, can influence decisions about LUS. That’s a big problem.

The perfect remedy is a weighted vote, and it’s a remedy Castille favors and is likely to be considered by a charter commission appointed in the coming weeks.

Here’s how it would work: On matters related to LUS, a council member’s vote would represent the percentage of all LUS customers residing in his district. According to recent demographics, the vote of Sam Doré of District 6, the most populous city/LUS district, would count for 19 percent of the total vote, followed by Keith Patin (18 percent), Don Bertrand (16), Kenneth Boudreaux (15), Brandon Shelvin (13), Jay Castille (7), Jared Bellard (5), William Theriot (4) and Purvis Morrison (3). Doré’s vote would count for six times that of Morrison, who has six times fewer LUS customers in his district.

If a weighted vote were instituted, the LPUA could be abolished; there would be no need for it — all LUS customers, the utility’s stakeholders, would have a say in their public utility. As important, non-LUS customers would effectively be shut out of the conversation, as they should be.

Now before we commence the hue and cry of “one person, one vote,” let’s acknowledge that a weighted voting system isn’t a totally alien or new system. I can’t find an example of it being used close to home, but a statewide taxing body in New York uses it; those districts that collect more taxes have more say than those that collect fewer taxes. And the use of a weighted vote is common in the corporate world — it is how decisions are made at shareholders meetings — the shareholder with 5,000 shares has 10 times the voting power of the shareholder with 500 shares.

So take for example the Feb. 2 vote on the LUS rate hike. It cleared the full council 5-4. Voting in favor were Doré, Patin, Bertrand, Castille and Morrison; Shelvin, Boudreaux, Bellard and Theriot voted against. If that vote were weighted, the rate increase would have passed 63 percent to 37 percent. That’s actually a stronger margin of victory than 5-4.

To introduce a weighted vote to the Lafayette City-Parish Council — it would only be used for city-related votes like LUS; votes on parish matters would remain full-council, one man-one vote — the council would and could adopt an electronic voting system similar to what the Lafayette Parish School Board uses. The existing charter, however, prohibits electronic voting.

Castille, who has directed the LCG legal department to draft an ordinance creating a charter commission, hopes that commission will look into adopting both electronic voting and the weighted vote. I asked him if he was OK with his vote on LUS being worth only 7 percent of the total. “Yes sir, because that’s the amount of people I represent that use the service. I don’t have a problem with that,” was his ready response.

Short of deconsolidating Lafayette Parish, this could solve a lot of our problems.

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