Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman (right) takes on mayoral staffer Katie Dignan at Wednesday’s meeting of the parish law enforcement district. Photo by Matt Davis.

By Matt Davis, The Lens staff writer |

Last time he presided over a meeting of the Orleans Parish Law Enforcement District, Sheriff Marlin Gusman lambasted the Landrieu administration for not tapping millions available through the district for capital improvements to the city’s criminal justice infrastructure.

At Wednesday’s follow-up meeting, where the administration proffered a long list of priority projects, Gusman had a frostier message: not so fast.

“I gotta tell you right now that there are no funds available for your projects,” Gusman said, before conceding that there are in fact millions of unspent money from a bond issuance in 2001.

The sheriff’s projects will be funded however. Gusman, the sole voting member of the district, used the 12-minute meeting to renew a 2.9 mill tax expected to yield $7.5 million for capital projects such as his new jail.

The Landrieu administration is currently facilitating a working group to decide on the final size of that jail, and relations between the two offices have been somewhat fraught as the working group delays a final decision on the total number of jail beds.

Wednesday’s meeting got off to a bad start when the Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s “project delivery manager,” Katie Dignan, showed up 20 minutes late.

Having approved the $7.5 million sheriff’s department tax renewal within two minutes of calling the meeting to order, Gusman turned to the list, which he said Dignan had emailed over before the meeting, referring to it as “this document that’s called the city of New Orleans mayor’s priority projects.”

Dignan’s list of priority projects includes two new courtrooms for Criminal District Court, a remodeling of Municipal Traffic Court, a new Youth Study Center and replacement of the New Orleans Coroner’s Office. Dignan said she had sent the list over to Gusman in an effort to coordinate funding for those projects through his district.

After acknowledging the unspent bond money available to the city, Gusman continued to bear down on Dignan in his all but whispery monotone. The mayor’s office doesn’t have  “a good handle on how this process works and how we have to work together in order for this to be successful,” Gusman said. “The point is that unless we have a real working relationship here, all of the plans that you make may really not come together.”

Dignan said she would do whatever she could to facilitate better communication with Gusman if he would only let her know what he required.

Gusman later challenged Dignan, saying he was “not exactly sure what your role is or what your position is.”

Gusman told Dignan that, even though voters approved further bond issuance in 2008, the district has not acted because it still has the unspent 2001 money.

“You’re new,” Gusman said. “I don’t know if you’re from here or not, not that it matters. Just a little background on it.”

District administrator Col. Julie Langham and attorney C. Grant Schlueter with bond attorneys Foley & Judell said the district stands ready to issue the 2008 bonds for the city once the Landrieu administration commits the 2001 money.

Gusman also raised concerns about the pace of the city’s delivery on a new office for Coroner Frank Minyard.

“It’s kinda disheartening to see that the coroner’s office is only going to be 12% complete by December 2011,” Gusman said. “It’s not moving along too fast.”

After the conclusion of the meeting, Gusman asked Dignan why a sign on the site of the new coroner’s office, near the Superdome, doesn’t mention the district as a funder.

“Maybe they found some money some place else,” Gusman said.

Dignan apologized for the omission and promised to correct the mistake on the sign.

It remains to be seen whether relations between the mayor and the sheriff will improve or deteriorate further once the jail’s size has been determined. Landrieu initially charged the jail working group with deciding on a final number of beds by Nov. 22, 2010, but the group last met in July and failed to raise the issue for discussion. No further meetings are scheduled, with the Landrieu administration saying it awaits a data analysis from consultant James Austin before the group settles on a final number.

“We have always agreed to be data driven, and we continue to follow that pattern,” said Landrieu’s spokesman, Ryan Berni, declining to comment further on Gusman’s remarks.

To listen to an audio recording of the meeting, click here.