Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Lafayette Charter Commission’s one-80 last week is leaving city residents in the lurch.

Don Bacque talked me down from the ledge last week. I was incensed — incensed I tell ya! — with the way the charter commission backtracked on creating separate charters for the city and the parish. Bacque is a city resident on the commission who joined the four parish reps to effectively abandon the dual-charter path the commission had been on for months — a defection in my book because the other four city reps voted against the motion to leave intact the existing consolidated charter. Yet it wasn’t unexpected: Don has been steadfast in his opposition to deconsolidation.

He emailed me last week to chide me about my column in which I bemoaned Lafayette’s poor history of planning. He pointed out — rightly, I’ll admit — that this poor planning occurred when the city and the parish were unconsolidated. That precipitated an electronic exchange in which we both defended our positions on consolidation. Bacque thinks it works. I think it works, too, but is loaded with poison pills for the city.

Don and the parish commissioners were swayed by demographer and former Lafayette Parish School Board member (and non-city resident) Mike Hefner’s argument that the nine council seats can be redrawn so that five of them lie wholly within the city. If this can be done — I’m dubious — it would solve the vexing issue of non-city councilmen voting on issues related to city-owned LUS by creating a five-member de facto city council within the City-Parish Council.

I maintain that LUS isn’t the only issue that needs addressing in the charter. Many of us in the city aren’t keen on non-city councilmen voting on any issues related to the city or city finances. The horse farm and arts funding come immediately to mind.

But Don says a city council within the CPC could oversee all city affairs, and that a tweaked consolidated charter would include a mechanism for routine reviews of the charter for possible future amendments.

Fine. I’m cool with that. But why not at least give the city the opportunity to vote on whether it wants a separate city charter and the council and mayor that would go along with it?

Don tells me some members of the council are opposed to a multiple-choice proposition on the fall ballot — tweak the consolidated charter or replace it with separate city and parish charters — but that commissioners are awaiting a state attorney general’s opinion on whether a multiple-choice ballot is legal.

Don parried other objections I had, too, but there remain other concerns for us city folk, not the least of which is the city’s ever-declining share of the overall parish population. Currently the city is 54 percent of the parish, but that figure has been falling about 4 percent every decade for the last 20 years.

Let’s assume Hefner knows what he’s talking about: The rate of decline will slow and it will take decades before the city is a minority of the population of the parish. But it will come, and with that will come a shift in the balance of power on the City-Parish Council — Lafayette will have four seats, everyone else will have five. What then? Will routine reviews of a consolidated charter not forestall this?

And tweaking the charter doesn’t shield us from the next Walter Comeaux. With all due respect — Comeaux died last year — during his eight years in office Lafayette Consolidated Government’s first city-parish president’s loyalty was always to the second half of his hyphenated title. Comeaux was from Broussard and his governance reflected an affinity for the rural. The city of Lafayette’s growth through annexation all but stopped, and the clean, potable LUS drinking water that was once available only to city residents and served as a draw for newcomers became available through Comeaux’s beneficence to most of the parish.

I’m not claiming that the sun will turn to sackcloth and hordes of Coors Lite-swilling couillons will take over the city. But city residents should be able to choose whether we want self-determination. We should be in control of our destiny like every other city in the parish. The charter commission isn’t leading us there.

But if city concerns over consolidation eventually come to pass, there will be no “I told you so.” Don Bacque and I will have pushed up lots of daisies by the time this charter commission comes back to bite us in the ass.

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