Criminal Justice
 

Frustrated City Council members complain about continued lack of judicial openness

By Matt Davis, The Lens staff writer |

City Councilwoman Susan Guidry scolded elected criminal-justice officials for providing little to no advanced information Wednesday as they appeared before a council committee to provide mid-year updates on how they’re spending their money.

She complained that Traffic Court Chief Judge Robert Jones III was only then handing council members information, even though Guidry requested such information weeks ago. Still, that was better than Coroner Frank Minyard, who still hasn’t given the council any information.

The meeting was characterized by sharp questions from Guidry and Councilwomen Stacy Head and Cynthia Hedge-Morrell about a general lack of openness when it comes to budgeting.

Guidry said she wants to change this longtime culture in which many public bodies give the City Council little information about their budgets while asking for money at the same time.

The meeting followed last night’s story by The Lens, which showed more than $26 million is spent by judicial agencies annually without the level of public involvement required by state law.

Four leaders of criminal-justice agencies appeared before a joint meeting of the council’s Criminal Justice and Budget committees. Six more are scheduled for a similar hearing next week.

“These 10 agencies will collectively spend more than $150 million of taxpayer’s money this year, more than one-fourth of the city’s general fund budget,” Guidry said. “It is essential that we have a firm grasp on what our money is being spent on and whether we are receiving a return on our investment.”

Guidry said that she would continue to “hammer” these issues through the 2012 budget process, which is beginning now and ends Dec. 1.

Threat to pull traffic court funding without more openness

Guidry took Jones to task for passing out Traffic Court information just as his portion of the hearing was beginning. She threatened to recommend that no money be given to Traffic Court next year if more budget information isn’t provided in the future.

“This was just handed to us,” Guidry said, holding a manila folder containing the court’s budget information. “I think it was early June when we requested all this documentation, and we have requested it a number of times, and this is the first time we’re seeing it. This is the kind of thing we want to change for future years.”

Guidry cited the Louisiana Local Government Budget Act, saying she wanted to be like the state and recommend no money be allocated to the court if it can’t turn over information when it is asked for it.

Traffic court gets $940,000 from the city and brought in $14 million for tickets last year. Gov. Bobby Jindal has just signed a bill to raise court costs associated with contested red light camera tickets that will bring in much more.

Guidry probed the city’s $940,000 allocation to the court each year, and said the city needs to examine its relationship with the court. She asked about the court’s judicial expense fund balance of $3 million, and about the $1.4 million projected to come in from the bill to raise court costs.

“Wouldn’t you be able to operate Traffic Court without any allocation from the city?” Guidry asked.  “It would seem that if you can operate without the funds from the city, then the city’s general fund dollars shouldn’t be going in to help you operate with this huge reserve.”

Jones said that would be possible except for the state law requiring the city to pay judicial salaries.

“Legally, you’re going to have to give us the $458,000” for salaries, Jones said. “You don’t have to give us the extra $500,000.”

Guidry said that traffic court is doing a good job, but that she wants to look into slashing the funding as Jones described. Head appeared to be surprised that it takes $5 million to run Traffic Court.

Coroner’s office chastised for lack of openness

“It’s difficult to know what to budget when we don’t have the figures in front of us,” Guidry said, asking Minyard hadn’t turned over Coroner’s Office budget numbers when she asked for them.

Minyard said Mayor Mitch Landrieu is likely to begin work on rebuilding his office before Independence Day, but Guidry criticized him for not having spoken up about the poor conditions at his office before stories emerged in the newspaper.

“I think we’re going to have to get a lot more clear with our communications with the coroner’s office,” Guidry said.

Juvenile Court needs to show more detail in its budgeting

Guidry said the Juvenile Court hadn’t provided enough information to see how the city’s tax dollars have been spent.

“There probably needs to be a little more information provided before the 2012 budget process,” Guidry said.

Nevertheless, the court expects to stay within its budget for 2011. Chief Judge Ernestine Gray said she would be happy to turn over any supplemental information that Guidry asked for.

Police department expects to meet its budget this year

Guidry praised recent reforms to reduce arrests for minor offenses, which have already reduced the financial burden on the city by millions of dollars this year. And she said a move to start a pretrial-services program in Criminal District Court could save further millions soon.

Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas said the department has reduced arrests by 29 percent for the year between June 2010 to May 2011, compared to the previous year. In turn, the department has increased its use of summonses by 22 percent, Serpas said.

Serpas also thanked the Landrieu administration for purchasing new crime analysis tools and for securing a grant to purchase software that will aid in redistricting.

“Instead of using myth, superstition, Ouija boards and darts to assign our police officers, we’ll be looking at information to assign our officers,” Serpas said.

Serpas outlined some new performance measures, which the department will look to use to measure its success over the coming year. The department is receiving 107 complaints about officers per month compared to a target of 130, took 47 disciplinary actions against officers in the first quarter, and did six “integrity checks” against officers in the first quarter against a target of 240 for the year.

The department is also scheduled to come in $757,000 under its $43 million personnel budget this year because of the high attrition rate, Serpas said.

Guidry said she looked forward to seeing more performance measures coming online, and she asked Serpas what inefficiencies he has found in the department’s $109 million annual budget.

Serpas said the agency needs to be more aggressive in seeking grants, and in replacing its cars for better gas mileage and to avoid too much repair work.

Another meeting next week

The following agencies will report to the committee at another hearing at City Hall on June 29 at 2 p.m.:

  • Sheriff Marlin Gusman
  • Criminal District Court Chief Judge Terry Alarcon
  • Clerk of Criminal District Court Arthur Morrell
  • Municipal Court Chief Judge Paul Sens
  • District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro
  • Chief Public Defender Derwyn Bunton
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  • Deborah

    Great job council, especially CW Guidry. I’m very encouraged by her aggressiveness on this issue. That’s waaaay too much money going to the courts with no comprehensive oversight from the council who approves funding nor input from the public whose tax dollars fund these budgets. The courts must be made to comply with the Government budget act.