Clerk of Criminal District Court Arthur Morrell took the witness stand Thursday to argue that the city illegally shortchanged his office in 2012 and beyond by refusing to pay for all the staff members he says he needs.
Morrell’s long-running legal tiff with Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration returned to Civil District Court, where Judge Sidney Cates IV is slated to rule on how much, if anything, the city owes Morrell’s office based on a state law requiring the city to pick up the tab for the salaries of his staff.
While the case applies only to 2012 — when Morrell said the city’s chief administrative officer, Andy Kopplin, cut his budget and refused to pay for new hires to fill a handful of vacant posts — the outcome figures to hold broader implications for the city’s power to control the cost of the office.
Morrell, who won a new term this year for a post he’s held since 2006, leads an office that oversees court records, criminal evidence and local elections.
Last month, a panel of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeal ruled that while the city could cut some parts of Morrell’s budget, state law requires it to fully fund his staff — an obligation bolstered by a 2013 law that requires state legislative approval to reduce his funding. The appeals court sent the case back to Cates to decide on an amount.
Morrell claims his staff has dwindled to 65.5 full-time employees — 25 fewer than the number budgeted for his office for several years. He claims Kopplin has been refusing to approve new hires he’s submitted to fill vacancies, and that the running tally on the city’s failure to pay for a full staff has reached $2.7 million.
The city argues that it owes nothing.
Morrell has said the staffing losses forced him recently to halt overnight bail bond processing, so people seeking to bail someone out of Orleans Parish Prison must wait until morning. He also has sharply curtailed staffing in the evidence room.
Kopplin, who also testified Thursday, has long claimed that Morrell repeatedly overspent his budget and that the city has the right to keep a lid on his spending. The city claims it ended up spending well over Morrell’s $3.7 million budget in 2012, after first trying to cut it back by 3.8 percent.
“My budget is not a dollar figure,” Morrell insisted. “My budget is what it costs to pay those full-time positions. You can’t put a money figure on it.”
City Attorney Sharonda Williams sought to poke holes in that argument, questioning Morrell on his claim that the city is bound to fund 90.5 employees based on historical precedent. She pointed to positions, such as accountants and assistants, that don’t seem to fall under the state funding mandate for clerks.
“You’re saying what we’re obligated to fund is what the city has paid in previous years?” Williams asked.
“That has been established, what my funding was,” Morrell said. “The city doesn’t tell me who to hire, or what positions I have. I tell the city.”
Cates ordered the parties to file more briefs within 10 days and said he would rule on the case soon after.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.