Durel and Sticking Up for La. Cities

Joey Durel, as the newly elected president of the Louisiana Conference of Mayors, has declared the theme of his tenure in that position:

Durel said he intends on focusing on “working with the Legislature to give local governments more ability to control their own destinies while not placing roadblocks in the way of our progress.”

That’s pulled from this morning’s “Around Acadiana” feature in the Advocate. Now what “roadblocks” could he mean?

The fact of Durel’s election and that statement require some unpacking.

It’s got to be somewhat unusual for a mayor in his first term to elected to the presidency of that organization. It also unusual for a large city mayor to seek the position. It appears that big city mayors are, for the first time in memory, occupying leadership roles in the organization with the presidency, the vice presidency, and the secretary’s positions being held by Lafayette, Baton Rouge, and Alexandria respectively. (Past presidents came from Rayne, Gretna, Bastrop, Woodworth, Ball, and Gonzales.)

What’s afoot? One conclusion is that more active days are ahead for the organization. Folks have complained that the LMA is that its not been very vigorous in pursuit of its members interests — and that when the Baton Rouge staff (headed by former Baton Rouge Mayor Tom Ed McHugh) does decide to go after an issue that the elected officers tend to hold them back. That’s what happened during the state-wide video franchise battle. The staff grew impassioned about the threat to municipal income and local control of municipal property. But at the crucial final moment, the elected officials, mostly from villages, allowed the incumbent telecom providers to scare them into reigning in their Baton Rouge operatives. A week’s fast “education” by the staff about what was at stake brought them back into the fold to (successfully) urge a Blanco veto but embarrassingly the LMA was nowhere to be found during the final vote. If the big guys are taking up leadership roles on the elected side we can expect that there will be smaller gaps between the “big city” professional staff and the League’s leadership and fewer such gaffes.

What’s important enough to draw the league out of its lethargy and get the membership more involved? What do Durel and the new cohort want to accomplish? Surely they’d like to avoid the state taking away their control over locally-owned rights-of-way and the revenue they produce; since the legislature made clear during the video franchise battle that they couldn’t be counted on to protect local interests if so much as one out-of-state monopoly wants a new law that wreaks havoc on local control and local revenue.

For Durel’s part he says that he wants to convince the legislature to give local communities more self-control. Municipalities are legally the creatures of the state and only get the freedom to run their own affairs that the state allows. Most states have “Home Rule” laws and Louisiana’s is written into the constitution. Home Rule guarantees give municipalities some protection from a meddling, know-it-all big brother in the state capital. The ’74 constitution weakened this protection and post-74 home rule cities (like Lafayette) have less defense. Lafayette, for instance, would have been subject to the video franchise law while Baton Rouge and New Orleans would not. Most municipalities have no protection at all from state meddling.

The cities should have considerable political power. If all the municipalities and police juries would hang together and put real public pressure on any legislator that crossed them they could move mountains. But for the most part muni power lies unused. And power unused is power that no one takes seriously. And the local governments do not hang together. Just in the telecommunicatios arena that is the focus of this blog that has been obvious. When BellSouth and Cox aimed an arrow at the heart of Lafayette’s fiber project with the “Local Government (un)Fair Competition Act” no rallying of the cities was visible. The New Orleans delegation largely supported the bill with some saying that they wanted to make sure their city could never try such a thing! Lafayette had to rely on the veto threat of her daughter in the Governor’s chair to wring even the lousy compromise law they eventually accepted out of the legislature. (Blanco insisted on a compromise. Apparently an outright veto of any law–which was what was really needed–wasn’t an option she offered.) Lafayette, sadly, returned the favor after Katrina when New Orleans, whose free post-storm wifi network was in violation of the new law. Lafayette did not support their (admittedly selfish) bid to make an exception for themselves (New Orleans turned down overtures to collaborate on a broader bill also useful to Lafayette and the rest of the state.) Finally Lafayette introduced bills that would have ameliorated the law for all (and one version that would have repealed it). But then Lafayette withdrew those bills in a bargain with BellSouth where they killed their ameliorative bills in return for BellSouth’s promise to drop all the lawsuits against the fiber project. (We know how poorly that worked out–the Naquin-Eastin suit, clearly based on BellSouth’s logic and framework — and, many still suspect, money– went forward regardless. Lafayette got nothing but a trip to the State Supreme Court.) New Orleans had to give up its wifi system. And the rest of the state had to live with the law. I’ve already mentioned the mess that ensued when the LMA’s opposition the state video franchise law collapsed due to internal discord just before the final vote. Only Blanco’s veto following a belated unifed delegation saved the cities.

And that’s just telecom…the localities also had a lot at stake when they tried to get the state to leave more of the road/car tax monies in local coffers. That too went nowhere.

So a movement to unify the state’s municipalities and police juries makes good sense. In the words of Ben Franklin: “We must indeed all hang together or, most assuredly, we will all hang separately.”

And I’m personally hoping that the phrase “working with the Legislature to give local governments more ability to control their own destinies while not placing roadblocks in the way of our progress” is aimed directly at the “Local Government Fair Competition Act.” It would go a long way toward repeal if just the cities that are on the new officer list, Lafayette, Alexandria, and Baton Rouge, could hang together on the topic. If, in addition, New Orleans has learned anything by losing its wifi system to corporate greed and also supports repeal of the law the most obvious roadblock “in the way of our progress” could be eliminated.

Here’s to hoping that they’ve all learned their lesson and will make up for prior bad behavior.