Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman takes questions from reporters in front of the jail in July, 2021. (Nick Chrastil/The Lens)

Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman was scheduled to present his proposed 2022 budget in front of the New Orleans City Council on Wednesday, but asked for a last-minute delay, to the frustration of a number of advocates who showed up to the meeting.

In a statement, the Sheriff’s Office said that they needed to delay their presentation pending a  meeting with a Budgetary Working Group, which was convened under court order in 2014 as part of the jail’s long-running federal consent decree. OPSO said that the meeting will take place on Monday.

A statement from the Sheriff’s Office said the hearing will not take place until “shortly after” the Monday Budgetary Working Group meeting, putting it after Saturday’s municipal primary election. 

Gusman is up for re-election this year in Saturday’s primary, with former New Orleans Independent Police Monitor Susan Hutson widely seen as his top challenger. There are three other candidates: Janet Hays, Quentin Brown and Christopher Williams. If no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two will advance to a runoff in December. 

Tommie Vassel, a New Orleans CPA who chairs the Budget Working Group, said it was Gusman’s decision not to present his budget on Wednesday. A meeting with the working group was not required. 

“Nothing prevents them from going before the City Council,” Vassel said. “That’s their decision whether they prefer to have a meeting with the group that I chair prior to going. But nothing prevents anyone from going before the city council.”

A spokesperson for the city said in an email that the sheriff’s office just reached out to them on  Monday to schedule the Budget Working Group meeting, which was not enough time for them to make it happen. 

“The OPSO only notified the City of their request to schedule a Budget Working Group meeting on Monday of this week, two days before they were meant to present to the Council. Given the short notice, convening the working group prior to the scheduled hearing was not possible.”

Several advocates with the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition, a group that has consistently been at odds with Gusman over things like the size of the jail and a controversial Phase III mental health facility, gave public comment at the meeting denouncing the last minute scheduling change.

But members of the council said they had just been informed of the change themselves that morning. 

Lexi Peterson-Burge, deputy director of the organization, said after the meeting that it was “yet another example of how Sheriff Gusman has historically evaded public participation and how he continuously fails to be an accountable public servant to New Orleanians.”

According to a budget template submitted to the council, OPSO is asking for over $2 million more than Mayor Latoya Cantrell’s proposed $76 million allocation. 

“The City has requested and is awaiting additional anticipated expenditure information from the OPSO, which will be needed in advance to ensure a productive meeting,” the spokesperson for the city said. “The Mayor’s proposed 2022 budget was based upon financial information provided by OPSO during the budget process and represents the largest annual City appropriation for OPSO expenses in history. The City does not support further increases without firm financial data demonstrating a clear need for such funds.” 

Among the budgetary issues at play in the election is the cost of phone calls for detainees at the jail, for which they are charged 21 cents a minute. Several of Gusman’s opponents would make those calls free for detainees, arguing that it is wrong to fund jail operations on the backs of the families of people who are incarcerated. The Times-Picayune published a story about the issue on Tuesday, one day before the budget meeting was set to take place. 

Gusman, however, has said that it is a much needed revenue source for the jail, and would cost around $2 million to make them free.  The estimated revenue from detainee phone calls put forth by both the Sheriff and the Mayor is $400,000. According to the template, the Sheriff’s Office expects about $874,000 in 2021 revenues for the calls by the end of the year.

Nick Chrastil

Nicholas Chrastil covers criminal justice for The Lens. As a freelancer, his work has appeared in Slate, Undark, Mother Jones, and the Atavist, among other outlets. Chrastil has a master's degree in mass...