Abbeville goes off the rails

   

Our most recent stop on the campaign to transform all sixty-four parishes into a New Louisiana brought us to Vermilion Parish, specifically the City of Abbeville. For those readers unfamiliar with the City, it has a population of around 10,765. Like many cities across our state, Abbeville has been losing population over the last several years. At its peak in 1980, the population was around 12,400.

It was under a large oak tree, which may have been here since the city’s founding in the 1840s, where we joined dozens of concerned citizens speaking on various issues. It was fitting that such a group of humble, down-to-earth people would congregate in the tranquility of nature, but this was not necessarily by design. Some concerned citizens remarked on how the previous two selected venues, one being a local church, withdrew their invitations. Organizers were told the group wasn’t welcome because their grievances were “bashing” the Mayor.

Abbeville owes its very existence to a power struggle that began in Lafayette. Father Antoine Megret, sent to St. John the Evangelist Church in 1842, found himself in a dispute between the old pastor and his parishioners over who would control the church’s affairs. The marguilliers, or Board of Trustees, believed the pastor to be their hired hand. Father Megret quickly made it known that he answered to the Bishop. If the parishioners didn’t get in line, he would close the church and build a new one. Father Megret was attacked physically in the presence of several onlookers, including the Sheriff, who did nothing to intervene. Father Megret then acted on his promise to temporarily close St. John the Evangelist Church and construct a new church in Abbeville.

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‘Let the people in power know how we feel…’

The situation in Abbeville is far from engaging in physical attacks against leaders, such as with Father Megret nearly two hundred years ago. As one concerned citizen at the meeting remarked, it is the citizen’s job to ‘Let the people in power know how we feel…’ Another individual indicated that the City officials were well aware of this public meeting, yet not a single member of the City of Abbeville government attended to hear the residents’ concerns. Why is that?

The elected officials of the City of Abbeville include a Mayor (Roslyn White), a Chief of Police (Mike Hardy), and five Council members (Carlton Campbell, Tony Hardy, Francis Touchet, Jr., Brady Broussard, Jr., and Terry Broussard). Carlton Campbell has served on several Boards and Commissions in Vermilion Parish. Tony Hardy is the former Chief of Police for the City of Abbeville and the brother of the current Chief of Police. While Francis Touchet, Jr. also serves as the Superintendent of the Lafayette Parish School System. Brady Broussard, Jr.’s father was also a former Mayor of the City. Terry Broussard worked for the Vermilion Parish government for over three decades.

In short, these are not people who are new to politics. Many have either been actively involved or have been part of families with active involvement. So, again, why didn’t a single elected official attend the meeting? Perhaps they hope that, if ignored, citizens’ concerns will go away.

That’s not likely

It is doubtful that this group will disappear anytime soon. We have witnessed the same ferocity in other communities across our state. Members of the City of Youngsville wanted answers about the activities of their elected Chief Rickey Boudreaux. Those concerns ranged from ticket fixing to whistleblower retaliation, election rigging, usurpation, police brutality, etc. Months later, Chief Boudreaux resigned from office.

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The City of Breaux Bridge people likewise wanted answers regarding several matters in their community. They wanted to know about evidentiary issues, voter suppression, concealed pay raises, etc. The former Chief, Rollie Cantu, was later arrested and charged with one count of malfeasance and twelve counts of firearm theft. Two members of the Breaux Bridge Municipal Police Civil Service Board resigned, and Chief “Buzd” LeBlanc suffered a self-inflicted gunshot wound. LeBlanc survived, but the episode made him infamous among his fellow members of the Republican State Central Committee. Soon after, LeBlanc was voted out as parish chairman by an incredibly embarrassed Republican Parish Executive Committee. By all accounts, although figuratively, LeBlanc will likely continue to shoot himself in the foot repeatedly.

What are the concerns?

Back in Abbeville, residents have taken to online groups such as Concerned Citizens of Vermilion Parish to defy their local government’s lack of transparency and general direction. The Mess Around and Find Out podcast and the Southern Gents Facebook page have also been focused on the issues. What you are seeing in Abbeville is just a spark. That spark will ignite and spread; the only question is how fast. Well, that depends on how hard the political winds are blowing.

It seems like a simple question: What are the people of Abbeville concerned about? But shouldn’t the elected representatives be asking this question? It looks like they would want to know why the residents of Abbeville are upset. Many at the meeting don’t feel their elected representatives are concerned, nor do they want to hear the residents’ concerns.

Many of the concerns expressed at the meeting are not much different from those of other communities across our state. They want to know what is going on, transparency, assurances that no underhanded, back-door, crony deals are occurring, and their tax dollars to be used frugally and effectively. They want to feel safe in their own homes, and they want everyone to be treated fairly. Those are the shared values and concerns expressed at the meeting. That people feel compelled to organize and demand such noble objectives is absurd.

The Master Plan and Rails to Trails

A big concern in the meeting was the Master Plan for the City of Abbeville and the “Rails to Trails” project. The Rails to Trails Conservancy is a national organization based in Washington, DC. According to its website: “We’re bringing together the model projects, the leaders and champions, and the resources to accelerate the pace of equitable trail development nationwide, creating new access to this essential infrastructure and the benefits it brings for everyone in America.”

“Equitable trail development”? What does that even mean? And “essential infrastructure”? We are not in the 1800’s. Trails do not constitute essential infrastructure in the City of Abbeville or anywhere else in Louisiana. Maybe they’re still relevant in some third-world countries, but not here. We rely on streets, highways, rails, and air travel to get people and goods from point A to point B. The essential infrastructure we depend on the government to handle is a safe water supply, sewage and sanitation, roads, and bridges. Not bike and walking trails. These are exceptional items not all cities have, much like sidewalks.

Wants vs. Needs

In a KATC report last month, it was noted:

“A coalition of business owners, avid bike riders, and parish organizations proposed the idea a couple of months ago.

The proposal, which is in its early stages, suggests transforming the nine mile railroad tracks that travel from Abbeville East past Delcambre, into an area that avid bikers and tourists can use.”

This is a want, not a need! To make matters worse, this project proposal represents a select few and not the community as a whole. Then there is the big question: Who will pay for it?

That is where CPEX comes in, according to many meeting attendees. According to their website, the Center for Planning Excellence (CPEX): “is a non-profit organization that coordinates urban, rural, and regional planning efforts in Louisiana.” Their model is based on a “20-minute city”, or a place where residents can reach shopping, health facilities, services, and schools within a 20-minute walk from their homes. The key word there is “walk”. That is because they are aligned with the Biden Whitehouse goal of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

More than just a Rail line

The situation is much bigger than converting a rail line into a trail. It involves property rights. Several citizens spoke of the railroad being granted a right of way through their private property. That means the railroad doesn’t own the property. Once the railroad ceases to utilize the rail line, the right of way reverts to the land owner. That may be the case, but many fear the City of Abbeville will declare the project a “public necessity” and use eminent domain to steal your land. It happens all the time!

Other folks said the rail line has been an unintended flood barrier since being erected. That’d be similar to the hotly contested removal of Cypress Island Spoil Banks. The natural flow of water was modified when the rail line was constructed over a hundred years ago. Complete or partial removal of the rail line could flood many areas, including those that have benefited from the intentional placement of retention ponds. There are also pipelines which run under some parts of the rail line. Amendments to the rail lines could also result in a costly endeavor to move the pipelines further below ground.

Local Lawfare

Other residents spoke about the local lawfare being waged on certain citizens. KLFY reported on the claims of 71-year-old Abbeville resident Sandra Goodman a few weeks ago. Goodman received a bill above $2,000.00 following work performed by the City on her property. Workers allegedly removed a downed tree in a corner of the property, which wasn’t cause for public concern. City of Abbeville officials removed the tree under the pretext that it was a local ordinance violation. If Goodman cannot pay the City’s bill, a lien could be placed against her property, ultimately impacting her ownership.

While Goodman is being targeted by officials, the City is riddled with dilapidated and abandoned structures that aren’t being addressed. Why not? One citizen indicated that they refuse to address these structures because they serve as shelters for the growing homeless population in the City—a population that City Officials allow to set up a homeless camp every evening at the public library.

Another resident recalled her experiences with the homeless population at the public library. Experiences range from her dog getting into human feces on the ground to prostitution, drug usage, and the recovery of a suitcase filled with drugs.

Crime Remains a Big Concern

Despite the City of Abbeville proclaiming that there were no homicides in the City in the year 2023, crime remains a big concern for many in the community. An off-duty police officer attending the meeting and speaking as a concerned citizen said that the rails to trails project would likely result in increased criminal activity. They stated that drugs being transported every day on Highway 14 and other roadways in the City are intercepted because they occur on public roads. The Rails to Trails project would create a backdoor conduit for illegal and illicit practices. It would be much more difficult for law enforcement personnel to address trafficking due to the remote nature of portions of the proposed trail. Additionally, traditional patrol vehicles cannot respond to issues or even patrol these trails.

While the Rails to Trails drug pipeline may be speculation, it’s not far-fetched. Those of us who have been around Abbeville most of our lives remember the drug pipeline of the 1980s. A multi-agency investigation referred to as “The Bulldog” was launched following the 1983 attempt to smuggle 280,000 pounds of marijuana into the United States just south of Abbeville. By 1988, that investigation resulted in the indictment of 170 people who had allegedly smuggled 500,000 pounds of marijuana and cocaine into the U.S. and were plotting to smuggle at least a million more pounds.

Attempted mass shooting

It just so happens that as we were meeting outdoors on Saturday, May 11, 2024, police cruisers were observed on Charity Street, traveling at high rates of speed and running traffic lights with sirens blaring. As it turns out, they were en route to St. Mary Magdalen Catholic Church, where a teenager entered the Church with a rifle while sixty children were making their first communion. But don’t worry: Officials say there is no need to worry about crime problems in Abbeville!

What you see in Abbeville is a small but agitated group of citizens concerned about their community. You don’t see the hundreds and thousands who feel the same way. Rest assured, though, their voices are being heard.

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