With the end of an arduous campaign for St. Tammany Parish coroner almost at hand, the two remaining candidates faced off Monday night in Lacombe, each jabbing the other while making a plea for voters to elect them Saturday.
Mandeville psychiatrist Leanne Truehart and retired Slidell emergency room physician Charles Preston have spent the past several months rushing to draw distinctions between themselves and incarcerated former Coroner Peter Galvan.
On Monday night, each also was eager to point out what he or she considered shortcomings in the other’s experience or plans for the office.
For instance, Preston said he would open staff meetings to the public, something Truehart said would be foolish.
“I strongly disagree with making the staff meetings open,” she said. “There is very sensitive information discussed in those meetings. It is not recommended.”
“It may not be recommended by her, but it’s recommended by me,” Preston shot back.
The exchange led to a lengthy argument over how to keep the public informed about how the Coroner’s Office is spending its money. Both said the office should spare no effort in keeping the public in the loop. Truehart repeated that staff meetings are not an appropriate place to discuss office spending and should be closed to the public, while Preston said he would open those meetings while restricting sensitive information to closed sessions.
The two also differed over the value of the other’s experience. Truehart extolled her experience as the Coroner’s Office’s mental health director and her cooperation with law enforcement agencies and the judicial system.
Preston, as he has throughout the campaign, boasted that his experience owning a business with roughly the same budget and number of employees as the Coroner’s Office, in addition to his years as an emergency care physician, made him the better candidate.
During the two-hour debate, the candidates were asked questions by moderator Denny Schaffer, of WRNO radio, including one question each prepared by their opponent. There was also an extended period for audience questions.
Truehart’s question for Preston was whether he would maintain his board certification if elected coroner — an attempt to show that Preston, who is retired, would not maintain his certification after taking office. Preston said he would, and added that the American Board of Emergency Medicine has no requirement that a physician continue to practice.
Truehart insisted that Preston isn’t on the cutting edge of medicine. “He is part of the old school,” she said.
Preston pressed Truehart on her approach to the coroner’s mental health role, saying the parish can’t “commit itself out of a mental health crisis.” The office decides whether people should be committed to mental institutions.
“She’s been the mental heath director for two years,” he said. “The numbers haven’t gotten better.”
The two were able to find common ground on whether they would seek restitution from Galvan for money he misused while in office. Galvan is less than one month into a 24-month federal prison sentence.
“In this case, incarceration probably doesn’t hurt enough,” Preston said. Galvan is one of the few defendants who can actually afford to pay back what he illicitly spent, he said.
“You have heard us disagree on much tonight,” Truehart said. “But on this we agree.” However, she said, any legal action would have to weigh potential recovery against potential costs.
After Galvan’s troubled last year in office, which culminated with his resignation and guilty plea to a single count of conspiring to steal public funds, Truehart and Preston spent much of the early campaign emphasizing how much they value transparency and accountability. Once the primary was over, the two increasingly focused on telling voters why they are the better candidate.
Monday night’s forum gave the public its first opportunity to hear the candidates question each other on issues in the race. Turnout was far less than for a session in February, when several hundred people packed the John Davis Center in Lacombe to hear the four candidates in the primary. On Monday night, perhaps 100 people were scattered through the cavernous gym.
Truehart led the primary with 30 percent of the vote. Preston finished with 27 percent, just ahead of Adrian Talbot at 25 percent. Robert Muller finished fourth, at 18 percent. Talbot has endorsed Truehart.
Because of the attention surrounding Galvan — nearly a year of media reports and state and federal investigations — this coroner’s race has been one of the most closely watched on record.