A local resident who is running for a Gonzales City Council seat that is designated as a “black minority division” is challenging a more than two decades old ordinance.
In 1992, local officials adopted an ordinance, which can be found in Chapter 2, Section 3 of the Gonzales city code, declaring Division D as a designated black minority division. The decision to set aside one particular seat was to ensure minority representation on the Gonzales City Council, as the percentage of minorities at the time was a little more than 20 percent, said State Rep. Johnny Berthelot, who was the mayor of Gonzales at the time the ordinance was adopted.
“We came up with an idea that would guarantee a minority would serve on our council in the future, from that point on,” Berthelot said.
Berthelot, along with attorneys Ryland Percy and Alvin Turner, Jr., brought the proposed ordinance to the Justice Department in Washington, D.C., who approved the law.
“The reason why we did it was because it was fair. That’s why I support it. At the time it was a good thing to do. We never experienced racial relations and we didn’t want to start to have any. We wanted to do what was fair, that’s why the council unanimously passed the ordinance.
Any ordinance that the city passes is constitutional unless proven unconstitutional. This particular ordinance, with justice department approval was never challenged,” Berthelot said.
Now, Wade Petite, a white candidate, is running for the open seat, though more as a statement to shed light on the ordinance he calls unconstitutional.
“I was taken aback when I first read this particular ordinance,” Petite said. “I had to do a double take and read it a few times. This is just a bad idea. You cannot run a democracy advocating any elected office as a standing race, gender, creed or religious background. It was an awful idea when it was enacted and it’s just as bad now.”
Petite, who is the owner of the website, The Pelican Post, said he stumbled upon the ordinance when he was researching for an article against the recall of two former councilmen in 2014.
“There are issues the city has to confront,” he said. “Gonzales is changing. The population growth is just that of the population growth in Ascension Parish. We got so much commercial investment and we are applying for much more investment. Gonzales is a much different place than it was in 1992.”
Now, 24 years later, the percentage of minorities in the city is much higher than the 20 percent it was in 1992. It is currently 44 percent, and the council sees more than one black councilmen representing Gonzales.
Though many believe the ordinance is now unconstitutional, Mayor Barney Arceneaux said the ordinance is still enacted because no one has challenged it to have it removed, even though the council does not enforce the ordinance.
“Nobody is questioning it or brought it before a court,” Arceneaux said. “It can be anybody on the street that wants to go to the court and say 'hey I think it unconstitutional,' so far no one has done that.”
Both other candidates running the for Division D seat, Timothy Riley and Tyler Turner, said that they became aware of the ordinance once they ran for office, and both agree that the ordinance is unconstitutional and no longer necessary.
"I think it is unconstitutional, based on my research, the way it was done, it wasn't done right," Riley said.
"Based on my research, every time there was a black minority seat, it was one third of an area that was called out for that particular seat, and those voters that were called out always voted for that minority seat, but this was not done like that, this was done just based on paper and everybody still has to vote for it, but no whites would ever run in that seat," Riley said.
Riley and Turner also agree that neither of them feel that they have an advantage in the race against Petite, despite what the ordinance reads.
“I think the citizens of Gonzales are great, smart citizens - they know how to pick and choose the best candidate or best person for that position for any council seat,” Turner said. “I just trust in the citizens of Gonzales.”
Arceneaux added that once November elections are over, the council will review the ordinance and make possible revisions, as that is the recommendation by city attorney, Erin Lanoux.
“We are going to get [elections] behind us and then sit down and look at it,” Arceneaux said.