Criminal District Court Clerk Arthur Morrell warned Tuesday that, as of next week, his office will no longer have enough staff to process overnight bail bonds due to what he said is the refusal of Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration to adequately fund the office.
With frustration in his voice, Morrell accused city officials of waging a personal vendetta against him in the form of a hiring freeze that has pushed the Clerk’s Office to the brink of being incapable of fulfilling its statutory mandate.
Beginning Monday, he said, people seeking to bail someone out of Orleans Parish Prison after 11 p.m. “may as well wait until the next morning, because we do not have any bonding clerks available to do that.”
Morrell pointed to the loss of two bonding clerks — one died, another is retiring — that left his office with nearly two dozen vacancies.
“Sooner or later, if something isn’t done soon, we’re going to have some kind of crisis over here,” Morrell said at a news conference in his office.
“I don’t have any reserves. I don’t have anything I can fall back on,” he added. “I just have to suffer, and that’s what we’re doing. We’re shifting people around just about every day to make sure the courts get what they need to operate daily.”
Andy Kopplin, Landrieu’s chief administrative officer, responded by accusing Morrell of “political posturing” on the eve of a hearing before the 4th Circuit Court of Appeal, which has been asked to weigh in, for the second time in as many years, on the budget feud between the city and the Clerk’s Office.
Kopplin said he met with Morrell a few weeks ago and told him “that he could now start replacing folks as they leave,” adding the city would approve the hiring of new bonding clerks.
“The good news is that, after a couple of years of a hiring freeze on the clerk, he is now operating within his budget,” Kopplin said. “I told him that he has now got his personnel spending within the budget and, as people leave, now they can be replaced.”
Asked to respond to Kopplin’s remarks, Morrell said, “He’s a liar, and you can quote me saying that.”
Morrell said he has never been told the hiring freeze was being lifted. “Not mistaken. Not misunderstood. He’s lying.”
The conflicting accounts underscore a long-running dispute over how much the city should have to pay to staff Morrell’s office and whether the Landrieu administration has the discretion, under the City Charter, to reel in the office’s spending.
Morrell, for his part, claims the city owes his office $1.2 million dating back to 2012, and he says his staff is stretched so thin that it is barely able to handle certain court proceedings.
Without any other funding mechanism, Morrell said, his office is wholly dependent on the city. He said it should have 90.5 employees but currently has 68, a staffing level he called unacceptable in light of a 2013 state law that said that his expenses and salaries for his staff “shall not be reduced by the city of New Orleans without the consent of the Legislature.”
“State law says you have to fund the Clerk’s Office 100 percent,” Morrell said. “The city’s trying to run my office. I’m not a city agency. I’m an agency of state government.”
Kopplin countered that Morrell has overspent his budget each year for the past three or four years, and that the city has the right to require the office to operate within a reasonable budget. While many city agencies saw cuts in light of the nearly $100 million budget shortfall the city faced when Landrieu took office in 2010, Kopplin said, the allocation for the Clerk’s Office has held steady. City officials, have, however, pointed to budget deficits at the office in refusing to allow new hires.
“What we’ve done is asked him to live within his budget,” Kopplin said. “There’s not an organization in the city that hasn’t figured out how to adapt to changing times to do more with less, to use technology, to be more efficient.”
The city has offered several times to send an internal consulting team to the Clerk’s Office to find ways to save money, Kopplin said, but Morrell has refused to help develop a budgeting strategy. Morrell said Tuesday that consultants “don’t know anything about the criminal justice system.”
“We’re there to help the clerk live within his budget, but just like every other agency, he’s got to live within his budget,” Kopplin said. “No other agency comes and says, ‘I have permission to overspend the budget that the City Council gave me.’ Why does the clerk think he’s got the ability to overspend the budget that the city gave him?”
Morrell said there would likely be an interruption in overnight bonding services even if the city moves immediately to hire more bond clerks, the employees who verify the paperwork for criminal defendants seeking to post bond and be released from jail.
“You can’t just throw somebody over there to handle bonding because that’s very important,” he said. “These people go through a training process.”
The news conference Tuesday marked the second time this year that Morrell has publicly blamed Landrieu as he announced the curtailing of a Clerk’s Office service. In April, Morrell said he would have to begin shutting down the court’s evidence room two days a week, a move he acknowledged would place an undue burden upon prosecutors.
Morrell has filed suit against the city, claiming it has illegally withheld funding, blocked the delivery of office supplies and prevented the hiring of numerous employees to fill vacancies. The lawsuit claimed city officials violated state law because they have prevented the Clerk’s Office from operating properly.
“When they say I’m over my budget, I’m not over my budget,” Morrell said. “I’m over their budget, which is different.”
In December, after a lengthy back-and-forth, Morrell appeared to pull ahead in the legal battle when Civil District Judge Sidney Cates IV ruled the city must fund Morrell’s full staff and barred the city from holding back money appropriated for the office for 2012. The judge based his decision on a 2013 state law that prohibits the city from slashing the clerk’s budget for salaries without legislative approval.
Landrieu’s administration petitioned Cates to suspend that decision pending an appeal, set to be heard Wednesday.
“The mayor is stubborn. I’m stubborn,” Morrell said. “But I have the law on my side.”
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.