New Year, New Louisiana

   

The state [of Louisiana] can and MUST do better!” Those were the words penned by Citizens for a New Louisiana to the State of Louisiana – Office of Community Development in an e-mail exchange in December of 2022. Whether those words fall on deaf ears or become the basis for resolutions moving into the New Year rest upon the State and the 70,000 (+/-) employees in the bureaucracy. But if any branch or employee of the State is looking for lofty goals to set upon in 2023… We have a few suggestions.

A New Louisiana is more accountable

Being accountable is the condition of being responsible for your actions or lack of action. A lack of accountability in government manifests in many forms. Whether it be a lack of personal responsibility (i.e. “I am not the person responsible for…”) or a broader lack of group responsibility (i.e. “The Office of Community Development is not responsible for…”), both serve to corrode trust in government institutions. After all, many people just want answers to questions. Whether or not the person agrees with that answer is largely irrelevant if an answer is never provided. The questions raised by Citizens for a New Louisiana often come in the form of public records requests. That’s because we believe you should have an opportunity to review the record and arrive at your own conclusions.

By law, the custodian of public records must within five days of receiving a request notify the person making the request in writing whether the requested record is a public record. Additionally, the custodian shall immediately present to a requestor any public record that is immediately available and not in use. However, when you operate in the nexus of state bureaucracy, three days can quickly become three years. [Pay careful attention to the timeline].

Bottle Art Lofts

In the closing act of the Lafayette City-Parish council, on December 3, 2019, the Lafayette Bottle Art Lofts received a $1.5 MILLION ‘loan’ approval from the City of Lafayette. The motion was made by Pat Lewis (3/10) and seconded by Nanette Cook (2/10). The loan was to be repaid by the low-income apartment complex, but only if it made a profit. If the project didn’t turn a profit, the money was a gift from the taxpayers of Lafayette.

Then, on April 21, 2020, Nanette Cook (2/10) made another motion to re-arrange monies in the capital improvement sales tax fund to fund this private, for-profit project. Several months later, on December 2, 2020, it was Nanette Cook (2/10) again who made another motion to ‘reimburse’ the Bottle Art Lofts an additional $129,033 for paving the parking lot!

Bad ideas are rarely original

At the time, we wondered if anything like this had happened anywhere else in Louisiana. If so, we wondered if the “loan” was being paid back. So, on December 7, 2020 a request was submitted to the State of Louisiana – Louisiana Housing Corporation concerning the Blue Plate Artist Lofts program (circa 2010). Almost one year later, on November 4, 2021, a follow-up request was submitted, and Citizens for New Louisiana was advised that the person handling the request was no longer with LHC. Apparently, over the last eleven months no one else at the agency had worked on resolving the request.

On November 16, 2021 we were provided with a response from LHC indicating that they did not have any documents responsive to our request and that we should submit our request to the State of Louisiana – Division of Administration – Office of Community Development. So that is what we did. On November 17, 2021 we submitted our request to OCD and on November 24, 2021 we were informed that there were no records responsive and were referred back to the LHC.

In December of 2021 we were again informed by LHC that the did not have any records responsive to our request and was again referred to OCD. We submitted another request on December 15, 2021 and was advised again on the very next day that they didn’t have any records responsive and that we should contact the LHC. Following another exchange of e-mails, the State of Louisiana – Division of Administration now recommended we contact yet another arm of the state, the State Bond Commission. So that is what we did.

While awaiting a response from the State Bond Commission we were informed by LHC on December 17, 2021 that they were able to locate some responsive records. The State Bond Commission then inquired as to whether the records provided resolved the request. The answer was no. Records reflecting the “repayment history” by the Blue Plate Artist Lofts have yet to be provided. In January of 2022 the State Bond Commission responded that they believed OCD should be in possession of the records and “If they don’t have the records of repayment I can’t honestly figure who would have them.” So of course, we asked OCD AGAIN!

A New Louisiana is more transparent

The term transparency, in government, is generally thought to be the quality of being open to public scrutiny. However, it is often a lack of transparency which captures the public’s attention. Being transparent is better described as allowing objects to be seen, rather than making them undetectable. Shining light into the dark corners of government normally begins as simple requests. Bureaucrats often transform these requests into arduous, lengthy, and, therefore, costly affairs.

In our January 11, 2022 public records requests to OCD we expanded upon our original request for records hoping that by casting a wider net we may finally get answers. We were wrong! What followed for the next several months was a series of template responses.

  • January 12, 2022 – “We are conducting a search for records. Once the search is finished, the records will be reviewed for privileges and exemptions. We will contact you as soon as the review is completed, and all non-exempt records will be made available to you.”
  • January 18, 2022 – “…the Division of Administration is still searching for records and/or reviewing them for privileges and exemptions. It is estimated that the records will be available on or before February 8, 2022.”
  • March 22, 2022 – “…the Division of Administration is still searching for records and/or reviewing them for privileges and exemptions. It is estimated that the records will be available on or before, March 29, 2022.”
  • March 29, 2022 – “…the Division of Administration is still searching for records and/or reviewing them for privileges and exemptions. It is estimated that the records will be available on or before, April 8, 2022.”
  • April 12, 2022 – “…the Division of Administration is still searching for records and/or reviewing them for privileges and exemptions. It is estimated that the records will be available on or before, April 22, 2022.”
  • May 9, 2022 – “…the Division of Administration is still searching for records and/or reviewing them for privileges and exemptions. It is estimated that the records will be available on or before, May 20, 2022.”
  • May 24, 2022 – “…the Division of Administration is still searching for records and/or reviewing them for privileges and exemptions. It is estimated that the records will be available on or before, June 10, 2022.”
  • June 13, 2022 – “…the Division of Administration is still searching for records and/or reviewing them for privileges and exemptions. It is estimated that the records will be available on or before, June 24, 2022.”
  • June 27, 2022 – “…the Division of Administration is still searching for records and/or reviewing them for privileges and exemptions. It is estimated that the records will be available on or before, July 8, 2022.”
  • August 8, 2022 – “…the Division of Administration is still searching for records and/or reviewing them for privileges and exemptions. It is estimated that the records will be available on or before, August 25, 2022.”
  • August 31, 2022 – “…the Division of Administration is still searching for records and/or reviewing them for privileges and exemptions. It is estimated that the records will be available on or before, September 14, 2022.”

Back-and-forth communications in this same vein continued. It would be October of 2022 before any meaningful dialog with OCD would occur. Then in December of 2022 we were informed that our requests had been ‘misinterpreted.’ Eleven months had passed without producing a single record responsive to these requests and the explanation is the request was misunderstood.

A New Louisiana is more fiscally responsible

There are a great many public officials who run around claiming to be “fiscal conservatives.” However, getting them to define that term is like trying to nail jelly to a wall. Pause for a moment and think of a public official who has made this claim. Now consider if they have actually demonstrated, to your satisfaction, that they are, indeed, fiscally responsible?

Continuing on… Our public records request dating to 2020 sought information concerning the Blue Plate Artist Lofts program. On or around 2010 the Blue Plate Artist Lofts received a loan from Louisiana’s Office of Community Development. According to an OCD official, “there were also bonds issued and four percent low-income tax credits.” Of interest was the amount of money that had been repaid on the loan after over a decade. This is considering that Lafayette City-Parish Government had recently involved themselves in a nearly identical project, Bottle Arts Lofts, with this same developer.

On December 8, 2022 we were advised, still without any records being produced, that “…our grant reporting system reflects that to date $283,085.54 in program income has been generated by this loan, meaning repayments in that amount.” According to records obtained the original loan amount was for $9,000,000.00 in 2010. Over a decade later only three percent of the loan has been repaid. By our calculation, interest charges alone would be about $477,257.

It was in April of 2020 that the Lafayette City Council unanimously voted to give $1,535,000 to the Lafayette Bottle Arts Loft. So far, not a penny has been repaid. Based on Blue Plate Artist Lofts, it will be decades before we ever see any of that money returned. Even If that money makes it back into the local government coffers, how much will taxpayers have lost to inflation alone?

Resolve to be part of a New Louisiana

We are Citizens for a New Louisiana for a reason. We’ve heard all the same old rhetoric and campaign promises of accountability, transparency, and fiscal responsibility. Keep those stale, unfulfilled promises to yourself. We need a clean break. What we really need is a New Louisiana.

“A government big enough to give you everything you want, is a government big enough to take away everything that you have.” Or in the words of Jefferson, “The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield, and government to gain ground.” It is time to reclaim the territory government has encroached upon by decreasing its scope and size and reclaiming those areas for the next generation of citizens.

For those in office and bureaucracy, do your part and resolve in 2023 to become part of a New Louisiana. Become more accountable for your actions and the actions within your agency or department. Resolve to be transparent in your affairs and dealings with others. Decide to be fiscally responsible at every turn.

For those who are on the outside of the political structure, remember the words of Plato, “One of the penalties of refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.” Like politics, change starts at the local level. If you are waiting for a single person to be elected that will finally usher in a New Louisiana, you are waiting on a moment which never will arrive. That person isn’t coming. If there is going to be a change it has to start with you.

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Stand with us in victory

It staggers the imagination that such a minuscule organization as ours (yours and mine) has made such a tremendous impact in the state of Louisiana. Our name echoes in every parish and our reputation has been duly noted by the New York Times, NBC News, USA Today, CNN, National Public Radio, The Advocate, the Advertiser, the Illuminator, and countless others. There are hundreds of organizations whose goal is reforming Louisiana. What is it about Citizens for a New Louisiana that has everyone's attention?

We've managed to gain even international acclaim with only two chapters: Lafayette and Baton Rouge. Just imagine what you and I could accomplish if CFNL had a chapter in every parish. Changing Louisiana certainly needs your prayers. However, expanding operations to more places requires resources: human resources and financial resources. Your faith is only made complete by your individual action. Will you join us?

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