Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Why shouldn’t Lafayette enjoy the same self-determination as its neighbors? By Walter Pierce

Now we’re getting somewhere. That somewhere is an independent city of Lafayette.The Lafayette Charter Commission is still more than a week away from beginning the deliberations phase of its nine-month task, which will carry it into next spring, but the process took a promising turn last week when commissioner Bruce Conque, a former City-Parish Councilman, framed the panel’s task in terms of the largest city in the parish regaining what every other municipality has always had: sovereignty.

“Give the citizens of Lafayette equal status with those who reside in Broussard, Carencro, Duson, Scott and Youngsville,” Conque told his fellow commissioners at the end of a PowerPoint presentation. “Give us our own council and mayor.”

Under the plan floated by Conque — it’s a modified version of consolidation in place for 42 years in Jacksonville, Fla. — the parish would be divided in services districts, six urban services districts for the municipalities of Broussard, Carencro, Duson, Lafayette, Scott and Youngsville, and a seventh general services district for unincorporated Lafayette Parish. Each would have its own council and mayor, save for the general services district, which would have only an elected council and would use intergovernmental agreements with the urban services districts for public works projects and the like. This would spare the general services district from needing a departmental bureaucracy; it could exist with its council and just a few employees. (The streamlining of services by eliminating redundancies among city and parish operations was a major sell in the run-up to consolidation in the early ’90s; Conque’s model answers this cost-saving benefit through intergovernmental agreements.)

The term “services district” is a semantic distinction, another way of saying municipal boundaries. The smaller cities in the parish wouldn’t be affected by this model. They would retain their councils, their mayors, their bureaucracies and their self-determination. The elected officials would still be allowed to wear knit shirts with their names and titles embroidered over their hearts.

What would change, according to this plan, is that the city of Lafayette would throw off the yoke of consolidation and get, like the smaller cities, its own council, mayor, bureaucracy and, most important, self-determination.

Conque was careful to avoid terms like “charter repeal” and “deconsolidation,” although, semantically again, the model he’s proposing would in effect do both.

At their most recent meeting, Monday of this week, commissioners were expected to talk about variations of the model. (This issue of The Independent went to press a few hours before the meeting.) The commission appears headed toward figuring out how to give Lafayette the self-determination it presently lacks.

Consider this canary in our civic coal mine: On Sept. 21 an ordinance that would ban open containers at three nightlife districts, each within the city limits of Lafayette, failed by a 5-4 vote. Three “parish” councilmen joined two “city” councilmen in killing the measure. But the vote among the councilmen who represent majority-city districts — councilmen, in fact, who represent the vast majority of city of Lafayette residents — was three in favor, two opposed. The will of the city, based on its elected officials, was to approve the ordinance. It failed through the votes of three councilmen who represent a smattering of city residents.

Until Lafayette has its own city council and mayor, there will be more scenarios like this, and they will be amplified when — and it’s not a matter of if; it’s when — the city loses its majority on the council. Banning “go cups” may be a minor issue, and that measure will face the council’s vote again on Nov. 2, but they won’t always be minor.

Let’s admit, fellow city residents, our vote for consolidation was a Pollyanna one. We failed to anticipate the problems it would accrue. But the model proposed by Conque, or some variation of it, must still get necessary traction; five of the nine commissioners will have to agree to put it to a parishwide referendum.

Yet hovering above these proceedings is the question that must be answered: Why shouldn’t Lafayette enjoy the same self-determination as its neighbors?

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