A Lafayette Parish district judge has dismissed the Fix the Charter lawsuit ruling in favor of the city-parish split that was approved by voters last fall.
Judge John Trahan heard witness testimony and closing arguments today. The judge ruled from the bench, without a jury, stating that the clerical errors made in the precincts can be corrected via City-Parish Council ordinance.
“He intently listened to both sides and the witnesses that testified,” said Lafayette City-Parish Attorney Paul Escott. “We’re generally pleased with the court’s ruling that confirmed our original opinion to the council in addressing these issues was by ordinance.”
Keith Kishbaugh, who says he plans to run for a council seat, filed suit against Lafayette Consolidated Government along with the Louisiana Secretary of State and State Attorney General. They were seeking to invalidate an ordinance passed in March that corrected the errors. If they had won, a new election would have had to be called.
“I’m convinced the judge is absolutely wrong,” said Lane Roy, lead attorney for the plaintiff, as he walked out of the courtroom after today’s ruling.
Mike Hefner, who worked with LCG as a demographer on the district and precinct maps in preparation for the deconsolidation vote, testified that he made an error when he sent the final iteration of the city and parish maps in Lafayette, but did not update the written descriptions of those maps.
“It was the intent of the city-parish council not to use textual descriptions, but to base everything off of the maps,” said Travis Broussard, who was representing several local residents who intervened in the lawsuit. “The judge noted this was truly a classical, clerical error. He found it was everyone’s intent to focus on the maps, not the erroneous textual descriptions and that weighed heavily in his decision.”
“The issues in the case are primarily issues of law,” said Trahan before delivering his ruling. “There was nothing nefarious about the mistakes that were made. It was an innocent mistake. The way the mistakes happened leads me to conclude that they were clerical errors.”
Trahan ruled that the petition for injunctive relief would be dismissed at the cost of the plaintiffs.
An appeal to today’s ruling is possible and if one is pursued then time would be a factor.
Trahan said he would fast track the appeals process to ensure that if the case is heard by an appellate court it will have sufficient time for a ruling to be made before the Aug. 8 qualifying deadline for this fall’s elections.
Trahan said he would make himself available for a conference among the parties present at today’s trial to determine how an abbreviated appeals process may proceed.
Asked if there is any plan to appeal, Roy responded, “I will certainly recommend it. I’m not the client, but I will certainly recommend it. I also believe the Attorney General’s Office and the Secretary of State’s Office will do so also.”
Gary McGoffin, who was representing several local residents affected by the errors, said there is a small window in which a ruling can be delivered for an appeal ahead of this year’s election.
“There’s only 91 days until qualifying and it’s important for the candidates to be able to understand what districts are there and what positions are available,” said McGoffin.
KATC caught up with two Lafayette residents who had initially intervened in the trial after finding out that they were among the 329 residents who had been left out of the Lafayette city and parish precinct maps. However, they said they supported the intent of the amendment passed last fall and do not want another election.
“We elected to separate the city and the parish councils,” said Bruce Sawvel, a resident of Precinct 74. “We feel as though we were not represented by omission, but the maps show we’re okay.”
The proposed city and parish precinct maps and the errors that they initially contained were a central topic of today’s trial.
Hefner, who testified for nearly three and a half hours, said he believes the maps account for all voters and that the initial issues were nothing more than a clerical error.
“We think the demographer who testified this morning did a great job explaining what the error is, what his and LCG’s plan was for fixing it and why the judge should uphold that,” said Broussard.
Lane Roy, the lead attorney for Kishbaugh, said this is a straight forward legal issue. Roy maintains there is a need for this issue to go back to a vote of the people.
“You have to make the constitution of this city and parish corrected,” said Roy. “The charter is the constitution for the city and parish. It is a serious matter because the constitution is the will and rights of the people.”
But one of the residents who intervened in the lawsuit says the ordinance was enough to fix the issues and should stand.
“I think it’s ridiculous,” said Jane Sawvel, a resident of Lafayette Precinct 74. “It was already voted on. We have too many elections in this city every two to three months. We wonder why we have such low voter turnout.”