Squabble over pre-trial program erupts as hearings plow forward

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Lady Justice is blindfolded — unless racial bias is at play.

Hum-dee-dum.

Discussion over Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s proposed 2013 budget proceeded in routine fashion for much of Tuesday, with New Orleans City Council members questioning the mayor’s senior aides on ways to squeeze small savings from various programs.

Things heated up in the afternoon, however, when the mayor’s office presented its plan to spend $184,000 on a new program that releases some alleged criminals before they go on trial.

The so-called pre-trial services program was created in April with funding from the federal Department of Justice and is run by the Vera Institute of Justice, a New York-based non-profit, with about $200,000 in city funds this year.

Two executives from Vera’s New Orleans office branded the program a success, saying it kept accused non-risk offenders out of the city’s overcrowded prison until they go to trial. That saves the city money, they said.

“The program is off to an extraordinarily good start,” Jon Wool, the institute’s New Orleans director, told the seven council members.

“We’re decreasing the jail population while identifying those at high risk (of fleeing if freed before trial),” said Elizabeth Simpson, Vera’s project director.

Vera asked for more money from the City Council than the $184,000 proposed by the mayor’s office for 2013. The program needs $623,000 for the year, Wool said.

Deputy Mayor Andy Kopplin said Landrieu supports Vera’s work but believes that the Department of Justice or a local non-profit such as Baptist Community Ministries could fill the funding gap.

Positive comments about the program were harshly countered by denunciations from members of the public:  a political consultant who said he was representing a citizens group, two ministers who said Vera is protecting criminals, and a bail bondsman who said Vera is trying to put him out of business.

Kevin Stuart, who later acknowledged in an interview that he is a political consultant, told council members that the city’s money is going to high-salaried Vera executives who earn more than New Orleans judges and Mayor Landrieu.

“Our city employees could be paid to do the same job,” said Stuart, prompting several supporters in the crowd to burst into applause.

After his talk, Stuart showed a reporter Vera’s tax return, which is public. It listed Wool’s salary as $138,000 in 2009, before the New Orleans program began. Stuart was wearing a T-shirt with the name of what he said was a citizens group: ReviveNola.

Interviewed after his public comments, Stuart said neither he nor his political consulting firm – Teddlie Stuart Media Partners, which was founded by the late Ray Teddlie, former Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s long-time political strategist—received payment to organize against Vera.

“I have my own political views,” Stuart said.

He said that ReviveNola exists “largely on the web” and “takes an interest in how taxpayer dollars are spent.”

Stuart said the group was created about a year ago, but he could not identify who founded it or who serves as its president.

“I don’t know that it’s a top-down organization,” Stuart said, adding that he hasn’t known the group to have “a physical meeting. People are busy these days.”

Stuart was followed at the microphone by the Rev. Tom Watson, the senior pastor at Watson Memorial Teaching Ministries, who complained that Vera got its role screening accused criminals for pre-trial release without competitive bidding.

“That’s unfair and unjust,” Watson said. “I call them carpetbaggers. We have a lot of people who could go to the jails (and screen the defendants) for a lot less.”

A second pastor, the Rev. Joseph Merrill, of New Kingdom Missionary Baptist Church, said it was “nonsense” to have “folks from New York come to try to solve our problem.”

Merrill was followed by bail bondsman Matt Dennis, owner of dennisbonding.com, who said the Vera program “is turning the offender into a victim.” He added, “They’re trying to drive us out of business.”

The pre-trial program represents a financial threat to the bondsmen because the defendants get released without having to post bond.

The back-and-forth comments prompted a response from only one City Council member, Susan Guidry.

Guidry, who chairs the council’s criminal justice committee, said Vera had come to New Orleans in 2007 at the council’s request and was involved in discussions for two years before this year’s program began. She said the Justice Department chose Vera, which is why the program had not been put to through competitive bidding process. “It would be a very big mistake for us to pull the people who have been with the program for two years,” Guidry said. “It’s been a success.”

The Rev. Antoine Barriere, senior pastor at Household of Faith Family Worship Church International, had earlier endorsed Vera’s work before the council, saying the project “was going in the right direction.”

Afterward, in an interview, Barriere said the opposition to Vera surprised him since the critics had just surfaced.

“Now they come in and divide everyone,” Barriere said. “Somebody is connected to somebody who is getting bail bond money.”

Tuesday’s meeting was the fifth day the council has devoted to parsing Landrieu’s $491.4 million general-fund operating budget, a process akin at times to watching paint dry. Throughout, Landrieu officials acknowledged council members’ complaints about proposed budget cuts but said the cuts are necessary to maintain spending on programs aimed at keeping citizens safe from crime.

“Council member,” city budget director Cary Grant told Guidry at one point, “our belt is really tight. We’ve had belt tightening all over the place.”

Kopplin said his budget as the city’s chief administrative officer would drop from $56.4 million in 2012 to a proposed $47.8 million. A loss of $7.3 million in federal grants accounts for most of the cut.

Kopplin said the city planned to buy 100 new police vehicles in 2013 with a one-time FEMA grant of $5 million. (City spokesman Ryan Berni said in an email after the hearing that the police department currently has 1,084 vehicles and wants to retire one-sixth or one-fifth of them per year.)

Asked whether the new vehicles might be fuel efficient, Kopplin said, “We have possibly the lowest fuel efficiency of any fleet imaginable.” He blamed the low gas mileage on older cars and New Orleans’ bumpy streets, which he said require heavy vehicles. (Asked by email whether gas mileage might improve, Berni said that the make and model of the new cars has yet to be determined.)

Kopplin also said, in response to questions, that the city expects to become more energy efficient by buying new LED lights for burned out streetlights. He said a portion of the money would come from a proposed $10 million increase in the franchise fee paid by Entergy – a cost that Entergy passes on to consumers.

Meanwhile, Allen Square Jr., the city’s chief information officer, admitted that the city’s computer system often works poorly. “We need to do better,” he said.

Michelle Thomas, another deputy mayor, noted that an outside consulting firm has recommended that the city require employees to pay 75 percent of health care premiums and dependents to pay 60 percent.

Berni said employees will pay 68 percent of the cost in 2013. The city has 6,372 employees and retirees enrolled in its health plan (the plan includes the sheriff’s and the district attorney’s offices) and another 6,195 dependents, he said.

Finally, Iftikhar Ahmad, aviation director at Louis Armstrong International Airport, said the facility has cut costs and improved its finances while Landrieu has been mayor. Ahmad said, for example, that costs per enplaned passenger were projected to be $16.31 but have been reduced to $8.49 in 2012.

“The airport is no longer being run like a political patronage operation,” Guidry said in complimenting Ahmad.

“The airport is reducing debt and continuing to progress,” added Council Member Diana Bajoie.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated how many days the City Council has held budget hearings.

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