By Matt Davis, The Lens staff writer |
Three City Councilwomen pushed the District Attorney’s Office and the Clerk of Criminal District Court to set better performance measures for how they spend taxpayer money this week.
Their remarks came at the last of three joint meetings of the council’s Criminal Justice and Budget committees Thursday.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s budget director also expressed an interest in working with the state legislature to expunge old statutes that set up a variety of obscure, and in many cases now defunct, collection funds for various criminal justice agencies.
Councilwomen Susan Guidry, Jackie Clarkson and Stacy Head led the last of the three hearings, which were held for the council to be able to hold criminal justice agencies accountable midway through the year and well before the 2012 budget is finalized on Dec. 1.
Guidry asked the District Attorney’s Office whether it is subject to the Louisiana Local Government Budget Act, a law about budget openness, which The Lens dusted off in an investigation two weeks ago.
Guidry said the act is a powerful tool for someone in her position to seek more financial openness from the agencies funded by the city.
“It makes me a lot more comfortable actually in asking a lot of agencies to be more transparent with their budgets because I now see that there’s a state law that requires there to be a public meeting,” Guidry said.
District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro responded by saying that his office had not followed the law in the past. But he said his office did hold a public meeting on its 2012 budget on Tuesday morning.
“We apologize, and I appreciate you calling that to our attention,” Cannizzaro said. “We had not been in compliance with that particular provision, and I take responsibility for that. Since that was brought to our attention, we have since come into compliance with that, and we have completed that inspection process earlier this week in the D.A’s Office.”
Cannizzaro’s office also failed to comply with an Open Meetings request filed by The Lens, asking to be notified about the meeting so that we could attend and report on it.
Assistant District Attorney Christopher Bowman wrote in an email that this was an “oversight,” made “in our rush to come into compliance with the Local Government Budget Act.”
Bowman gave The Lens access to minutes from the meeting today.
Cannizzaro handed the council documents showing his agency is likely to meet its budget this year.
Guidry also pushed Cannizzaro to consider including alternative performance measures in the budget requests filed by his office. She questioned Cannizzaro’s focus on the goal of holding 600 jury trials a year, when for the last three years, the Criminal District Court has averaged just 336 trials a year, according to Cannizzaro’s statistics.
“I think it’s more complex than the number of trials you have each year,” Guidry said. “Because when you look at it, going to trial is the most expensive way to dispose of a case.”
“You can’t just say, ‘Oh, the D.A’s trying a load of cases, he’s a total success,’” Head said.
Cannizzaro said he emphasizes being ready to go to trial as a way for his assistant district attorneys to negotiate effectively over cases.
“In order for us to be efficient in terms of negotiation, the guys on the other side have got to know that my guys mean business when we say we’re going to trial. They can’t be powder puffs in the courtroom,” Cannizzaro said.
Clarkson also encouraged Cannizzaro to consider setting up some new performance measures, pointing to the success of his diversion program in reducing recidivism as one example. That program has less than five percent recidivism, according to Bowman.
“You can become the standard on this,” Clarkson said.
Guidry said the city should consider following the example of Municipal Court Chief Judge Paul Sens, who worked with the state legislature in 2011 to attempt to clear up a series of old statues, which set up various funds to be collected from court costs and distributed among various criminal justice agencies by his court.
In many cases those funds do not exist any more, or they do exist, but the revenues are not collected, and the presence of the statutes on the books makes criminal justice funding confusing, Guidry said.
“It seems like over the years the legislature has passed laws willy-nilly,” Guidry said. “It’s just amazing how many of these override each other, contradict each other.”
The administration’s budget director, Cary Grant, said it was a good idea for the city to clarify its own policies, but also to work with the legislature to try to work out any kinks at the state level next year.
“We can straighten out our laws, obviously, but then we can also have that as part of our legislative agenda for next year. That is a great project that needs to happen,” Grant said.
Guidry plans to work with Clerk of Criminal Court Arthur Morrell on creating greater openness in his budgets, and on setting performance measures to judge the effectiveness of his office, she said.
The administration gave Morrell’s office $3.85 million in the 2011 budget, but Guidry said she wanted more detail, such as monthly expenses, from Morrell’s office.
“Right now we don’t have the infrastructure to do this,” Morrell said. “Once we get everything put on the computer we can easily get a printout, but right now a lot of this stuff is still being done by hand.”
Guidry responded with surprise.
“That’s an amazing fact,” she said.
Morrell needs to change the performance measures that his office uses to measure its success, Guidry said. For example, Guidry suggested that instead of measuring the number of criminal charges filed – “I mean, that’s something you have no control over,” she said – Morrell include measures that “show that the work you’re doing is improving the efficiency and effectiveness of your office.”
Guidry also asked why Morrell’s self-generated revenues for bond fees and closed cases had fallen so drastically. Morrell told the State Legislative Auditor’s Office he earned $827,000 from those services in 2009, but told Guidry in documents Thursday that his office earned just $54,000 for them in the first six months of 2011.
Morrell invited Guidry to his office to review the details.
Guidry said there were other significant revenues reported to the auditor in 2009, which Morrell had not included in his memo to the city.
“I’d like to see the 2010 legislative audit and then get with you,” Guidry said.