Lafayette chamber ponders city-parish charter change

A Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce task force is exploring a tweak to city-parish government that could give council members from the city more control over city affairs.

The move comes after voters in 2011 soundly defeated a deconsolidation proposal to undo the 1996 merger of the once-separate city and parish governments, with 63 percent voting against the measure.

The chamber had opposed the deconsolidation proposal but advocated for some arrangement short of separation that would give city council members more control over city issues, such as the budgets and oversight of the police department, the fire department and the city-owned utility system.

“We just think the public needs another opportunity to view the charter and how it applies to autonomy for the city of Lafayette,” said chamber Vice-President Bruce Conque, referring to the constitution-like charter that lays out the structure of city-parish government.

Conque said he and four others on the task force have been looking at the issue since mid-2012.

He said the specifics of any recommendation that might emerge are still in play, but “the group is in no way considering revisiting deconsolidation.”

The chamber’s board of directors would have to approve any recommendation before it becomes a formal position statement by the chamber.

Any changes to the city-parish charter would also require action by the City-Parish Council, possibly the formation of a special commission and, ultimately, approval by voters.

Conque said discussions so far have focused on bringing a proposal to voters by the spring 2014.

The debate over consolidated government has been ongoing for several years, but the deconsolidation ballot measure in 2011 was the first time a proposal for a major change was sent to voters.

The consolidation of the governments for Lafayette Parish and the city of Lafayette was touted in the 1990s as a way to bring a more regional approach to government and to improve efficiency.

The once-separate councils, administrations and departments of the city and parish governments were merged, but the city has remained a separate legal entity, with its own taxes and a fire department, police department and utility system that serve only the city.

Critics of that arrangement, including City-Parish President Joey Durel and most of the council members with large city constituencies, argue that council members who represent mostly rural areas should not have a say over city-only issues.

Durel said that he believes most residents see it as an obvious problem that council members from outside the city limits have a vote on how the city spends its tax revenue.

“They all agree that it is un-American that Lafayette has noncitizens voting on how to spend city dollars,” he said.

Durel said he would like to see a system where council districts are redrawn so that five of the nine members represent only city residents and the other four represent only residents living outside the city.

The full nine-member council would vote on parish-wide issues, he said, but city-related business would be decided only by the five city representatives.

“The four parish elected officials would leave, and the five city guys would conduct city business,” Durel said.

That plan had been considered but rejected by a special commission that decided to put deconsolidation on the ballot in 2011.

“I don’t like the concept very much,” said City-Parish Councilman Jay Castille, whose Carencro-area district is about 80 percent noncity residents and 20 percent city residents.

Castille said redrawing the council districts to create five city-only districts would give the city representatives a voting majority to control all issues affecting the parish.

“I don’t think that is fair to anyone,” he said.

Castille said the present system offers at least some balance because most council members with large city-based constituencies still have to answer to at least a small contingent of rural voters.

“I do agree there are some changes needed, but we need to be careful,” Castille said.