When Charles Preston was first elected St. Tammany Parish coroner in 2014, the job came with an $84,000 salary and financial control by the parish government — both reactions to spending excesses under his predecessor, the twice-convicted Peter Galvan, who paid himself more than $200,000 a year.
Thursday night, the Parish Council voted to increase Preston’s salary to nearly $138,000 — a 64 percent raise — and to put his salary and those of his employees on the parish government’s salary matrix. That makes the coroner eligible for annual increases.
But the pay hike didn’t come without strings attached. Before voting on the raise, Councilman Rykert Toledano offered an amendment requiring the coroner to work 80 hours every two-week pay period — in other words, full time — by including that stipulation in the parish’s cooperative endeavor agreement with the Coroner’s Office.
State law is silent on what hours a coroner has to work, but Toledano said Preston is logging a full schedule and has committed to doing so in the future. Toledano said he personally didn’t need anything in writing but said the amendment would give the public the same assurance.
In a debate that went on for well over an hour, council members and members of the public lavished praise on Preston, saying he’s been available night and day and has launched initiatives like a chaplain program and a sexual assault nurse examiner program.
Jan Robert, project manager of the Behavior Health Task Force, said the coroner has been a leader in promoting mental health issues — “more than a passive participant, working tirelessly, quietly, with dignity, empathy and honor,” Robert said.
Morris St. Angelo, a pastor who is in the coroner’s chaplaincy program, praised Preston for coming to the home of a suicide victim on a Saturday, offering comfort and needed information. He offered a biblical justification for the raise: “A laborer is worthy of his hire,” he said.
But some council members questioned the size of the increase.
Councilman Richard Tanner said that when the council first reduced the coroner’s salary following Galvan’s resignation, he suggested $150,000 as a reasonable amount. The rest of the council didn’t agree, settling on $84,000. But now, Tanner said, his constituents do not support such a large increase.
“I don’t agree with everything they say, but I represent them,” said Tanner, who voted against the raise along with Maureen O’Brien and T.J. Smith.
“People I talk to say, ‘He knew what the salary was when he ran, and he ran anyway,’ ” O’Brien said.
Councilman Jerry Binder said the council was working largely in the dark when the $84,000 figure was put in place. That decision was made after struggling with a coroner who was working only two to four hours a week, Binder said, eliciting gasps from audience members.
Galvan, who pleaded guilty to federal and state charges related to taking public money, was released from prison last month.
Galvan’s resignation and action by the state Legislature gave the Parish Council the power to set the job’s salary, but the council didn’t know then who would run or what amount of time the winner would commit to the job, Binder said.
Preston told the council the question before it was the value of the work. “You’re getting a doctor at the discount,” he said.
He pointed out that no other parish elected officials are required to work a specified number of hours. He joked that he had to thank the council for making the job less attractive to potential political rivals.
Some council members were clearly uncomfortable with the situation. Chairman Marty Dean said he was “embarrassed” that Preston had to come and ask for a raise.
Councilman Chris Canulette said concern over Preston’s salary seemed out of place considering the much higher salaries earned by some other parish officials — salaries the council does not control.
“It’s time to repeal Act 181,” the law giving the council control over the Coroner’s Office’s finances, Canulette said. “We need to get out of your business.”
Several council members noted they had not received any comments from the public about the issue or that they had constituents who thought Preston deserved a larger raise.
Staff writer Faimon A. Roberts III contributed to this report. Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.