Wednesday, September 1, 2010
Written by Walter Pierce

With neither gridlock nor gridiron, the charter commission is off to a dull start.

The Lafayette Charter Commission got back to work Monday after a two-week hiatus necessitated by City-Parish Council budget hearings. Although the meeting took place after this issue of The Independent went to press, and commissioners were scheduled to vote on whether to put a council term-extension proposal before voters by next spring, I can safely say it was mostly another dull but necessary affair — dull because the better part of the first three months of the nine-month process is given over to pedestrian presentations from department heads and other officials delineating the functions and processes of Lafayette Consolidated Government; necessary because, insomuch as the consolidated government beat is mine, understanding the complexities and nuances of the institution is vital. I didn’t know that I didn’t know much about LCG until this commission got going.

Thus far the nine commissioners have heard from City-Parish President Joey Durel and Chief Administrative Officer Dee Stanley on how their offices operate — the chain of command, etc. They also got a shock-and-awe PowerPoint bombardment from Chief Financial Officer Becky Lalumia on the Byzantine financing of LCG — a topic that is as important as it is boring. LCG has multiple bookkeeping accounts, 150 according to Lalumia, and it keeps the finances of city operations and parish operations separate, putting the joke to the C in LCG.

I didn’t know, for instance, that consolidated government’s assets  — the buildings, blinds and bulldozers — total $1.7 billion; that’s $8,200 for every man, woman and child in the parish. What the charter commission decides to do about those assets, about this conglomeration, is a pretty big deal. Do we bust it up and return to separate city and parish governments? Do we just tinker with it? The possibilities are many.

There are fewer than 40 consolidated governments in the U.S. — four of them in Louisiana: LCG, East Baton Rouge, Houma-Terrebonne and Orleans, the latter of which was the first in the nation to consolidate more than 150 years ago. Not widely known: Our town, Vermilionville, was able to change its name to Lafayette only after a town called Lafayette in Orleans Parish was abolished when New Orleans and its host parish consolidated.

It’s far too early to discern the constitutional proclivities of individual commission members, so predicting where this process will take us is premature. We’re beginning to get a hint of who might favor repeal of the charter and who will lean toward status quo, but the commissioners have a lot of data to digest in the coming weeks, as do I.

It won’t be until All Saints Day, Nov. 1, when this process starts to really get going. That’s when deliberations begin. Until then, it will be a steady diet of department diagrams and budgets.

A real eye opener of the charter commission meetings so far has been the profound absence of interest by the public, at least as far as the actual meetings go. (The meetings are also televised on Acadiana Open Channel.) Two weeks ago I was one of two media members in attendance, joined by a handful of public officials. The nine commission members could have struck up a baseball game against the audience. Only one member of the general public, as best I could tell, was there. That, my friends, is the sound of paint drying.

My modest proposal for the commission for the next two months is to just talk about football for two hours — NFL, college, hell, I’ll settle for high school. Will the Wreckin’ Rams dominate 5A again this year? Can the Cajuns defy preseason expectations? Did the Associated Press dis the Tigers by ranking them outside the Top 20? Will a short-yardage bruiser emerge from the Saints’ depleted running back corps?

I recognize this will not serve the civic purpose we’ve set out for the commission, but it will make the meetings a lot more interesting.

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