Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A demographer and former school board member believes he can satisfy the concerns of the city without blowing up the charter. By Walter Pierce

Mike Hefner thinks he may have the answer to the city of Lafayette’s creeping chagrin over its diminished autonomy.

A demographer by trade — these are tall cotton days for Hefner’s profession as cities, parishes and school boards gear up for redrawing districts based on the 2010 census, the results of which are expected as early as next month — the former school board member believes it’s possible to redraw Lafayette Parish’s districts so there are five city districts entirely within the city and four parish districts entirely outside the city while also satisfying the Justice Department caveat that Lafayette have two majority-black districts.

Hefner used 2000 census figures for his mock redistricting and says he managed to pull it off, although the city districts in this model are a few percentage points larger in population than the parish districts. It’s a given, however, that in the decade since the 2000 census the city’s share of the total parish population has fallen, and Hefner believes this population shift will help further balance the districts when they’re redrawn this spring.
He will brief the Lafayette Charter Commission on this issue tonight, Wednesday, Jan. 19. It could prove to be a turning point in the commission’s ongoing deliberations. Or maybe not.

The commission was created at the behest of city-minded members of the City-Parish Council — and those who have their ear — concerned that Lafayette Parish is growing to the detriment of the city, with population exploding in the south, outside the city. If the trend continues, they worry, eventually the City-Parish Council will have to become a five parish-four city board, and the city of Lafayette will be hostage to the prerogatives of non-city residents.

Hefner doesn’t see this trend holding fast, at least not in the short term.

“If it happens, this will take 30 or 40 years,” Hefner tells me. “I just don’t see the unincorporated area growing with the city of Lafayette remaining static. I think the city of Lafayette is going to continue to grow. I think you’re going to start seeing more of these neighborhoods go through the typical neighborhood life cycle where people are going to start moving back in, start having kids. We’re already seeing it in the schools, in the population of our schools.”

I see Hefner’s neighborhood life cycle thesis in my own neighborhood — Oaklawn, a leafy subdivision straddling Myrtle Boulevard between the Saint Streets and Four Corners. When my family moved there more than a decade ago, we had an abundance of elderly neighbors who had raised their own families in these cottage homes. Many have since moved on — literally and, uh-hum, figuratively — and young families are moving in. The population is being replenished and trending Nickelodeon and MTV.

The same neighborhood life cycle, Hefner says, is also happening in the Saint Streets and Greenbriar — neighborhoods in the core of the city.
Hefner believes his redistricting model could be the salve to sooth the city’s angst.

“I think it would address about 95 percent of the issues that are underlying a lot of discontent with the charter right now,” he says. “I’m going to be real curious to see how it works out with the 2010 numbers. What I’m going to show them is what may be possible. I just want to show that, hey, it is possible.”

Possible, yes. But where a plan like Hefner’s could still be a tough sell for city folk is that it doesn’t address the issue of executive leadership in city-parish government.

According to the current charter, the city-parish president can be elected from anywhere in the parish. Joey Durel is a city resident and, although he says all the right things about representing everyone in the parish, his administration has always been mindful of and responsive to city concerns.

That wasn’t the case during the eight years Walter Comeaux was in office. Comeaux was a Broussard resident and, I’ve often heard it said, his administration undermined the city. Annexations all but stopped, and to compound the matter LUS water was given away, which diminished the incentive for parish residents to agree to be annexed into the city for its sparkling, potable H2O. The small towns grew and developed while the city idled.

So while I like Hefner’s plan for the way it tidily addresses city of Lafayette autonomy, without a mayor all our own we’ll continue to be exposed to the possibility of having a chief executive who doesn’t have the city’s best interests at heart.

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