Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Lafayette mulls calling vote

The Advocate carries an article which mostly just sustains the story we already know is in place. The city is looking at calling a vote on a referendum. That's been pretty obviously the case since Hebert's decision; if there is news here, it is that the possibility is being talked about in a public forum. The gist:
"City-Parish President Joey Durel said Monday night that he believes support for the project is so strong right now Lafayette could win an election, even if private companies spend a lot of money fighting the proposal."
The city-parish has to be torn between two very real desires: 1) the desire not to invite your own mugging; and 2) the desire to move ahead as quickly as possible.

I think the people of Lafayette—at least those who follow the controversy—now understand that the city will be vastly outspent and that the interests and hopes of BellSouth and Cox are not the interests of Lafayette and her people. That is not enough to shake some people's support of the incumbents but even they, I believe, recognize these fundamental truths. The city's fear that being outspent in this way will be accompanied by an unprincipled attempt to induce fear of the future, mistrust of public institutions, disdain for local officials, and misinformation about technology is not something we have to speculate about. We have only to look at the initial campaign the incumbents waged to prevent a positive vote in the council to know with certainty what their strategy will be. BellSouth and Cox will attempt a mugging.

What the administration, LUS, and the council have to hope for is that the long lead-in will have innoculated the people against the line these outside entities will take. Someone who is not to be trusted will not be listened to. To some degree this will be a test of how small a town Lafayette really is. If she is still a small town where opinions are formed at the barbershop, where people know who understands this political issue or that technical problem, then Lafayette will find it easy to shrug off the siren calls of money-fueled propaganda. If, on the other hand, Lafayette has become a modern media market whose people form as strong a tie to characters in ads as to their neighbors, then we are all in trouble. (And not just over our little bit of an attempt to determine our own future.)

But what is less well understood than the money differenetial is the fact that the city will be fighting with one hand or both hands tied behind its back. It can only run "factual, educational" advertising. It cannot directly advocate a "yes" vote. BellSouth and Cox, on the other hand, will not be constrained to even the (dubious) level of truth it embraces in ads for its own products. It is illegal to lie in commercials and companies are regularly brought to heel for doing so. Ah, but in a political ad almost all lies are protected--even speech that would be libelous in another context. So the city is restricted by state law to a squeaky-clean good-government routine and its opponents are licensed by federal law to say pretty much anything they want. Even if they could spend the same amounts of money, this would still be an unfair fight. Going into that mugging with your hands tied behind your back is damned scary, I am certain.

On the other side is the undeniable fact that the current legal ruling opens up endless routes for delay. The opponents can sue about the venue (city/parish), they can sue for clarification (of all sorts), they can sue for the first petitition and when that fails, sue for the additions to the first petition and when that fails, sue for new rules they'd like a bit better than the old rules. Certainly there has been no hesitation to sue to date--and no hesitation to use the big guy's bottomless pit of money and lawyers. The choice might be shaping up be to one between a mugging and an endless war of attrition stretching into a future where the endless money and resources of BellSouth and Cox grind away, waiting for a slip in attention or a shift in circumstance. (Like what, you ask. Oh, another BellSouth lobbyist-written bill that does what the last bill failed to do: outlaw municipal participation completely and take away the right of local communities to act on their own--by vote of their representatives OR vote at referendum. The call for a referendum is not a call based on principle for those funding the suit.)

The city has to decide whether it prefers a sharp dangerous fight in an alley or a long grinding war of attrition that still might end in fight in the alley. I can understand their hesitation. Either way, we here are up for the fight.

But I for one hope they follow out the logic of the path they've started on: they were honestly shocked at Hebert's decision; they think it wrongly found and should appeal. The one misstep that I can see in their to-date brilliant campaign was being so sure that the law was with them that they were rocked back by the decision and didn't instantly have an alternative to go to. They still believe they are right. It makes sense to follow an expedited appeal that goes straight to the Louisiana Supreme Court and ask for a quick decision. This is something local governments can request. Since they honestly believe they are right, they should stay with that principle. I don't think there will be any significant publicity hit from taking a principled stand here if it's clear that they are pushing for as rapid a decision as is possible. (What hit this voting tactic can produce for the incumbents has already been taken--and it has been surprisingly small.) I hope they couple an appeal with encouraging (rather than discouraging, as has been the case until now) the formation of several PACs prepared to spend money and one or more citizen groups to be ready to face a street fight if it comes. It would be good to have some people in that alley on your side who don't have their hands tied behind their backs.

Fight hard in court. Prepare to fight hard back home.

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