Some of the most public and controversial fallout of the ongoing budget battle between Orleans Parish Clerk of Criminal District Court Arthur Morrell and Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration may have been resolved, but there’s no sign that tensions are easing.
The two sides agreed Friday that the clerk’s office can begin hiring staff for its evidence room and bond office, both of which had their schedules curtailed last year as Morrell complained that the city-approved budget for his office left it understaffed and unable to function properly.
But, as has become common in the now years-old dispute, exactly what that means depends on which side you ask.
About a dozen new employees will be hired to fill gaps at the clerk’s office, using about $450,000 available in the budget for the coming year, Morrell said Friday.
But while Morrell portrayed the move as a minor break in the impasse, city Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin said nothing had changed and Morrell in fact could have made the hires weeks ago. He put the blame on the clerk for failing to properly let the city know whom he wanted to hire.
The clerk’s office has been short-staffed and unable to hire new employees to replace those who have left in recent years. There are now 28 vacant positions in the office, almost a third of the 90 full-time positions Morrell says are needed to keep it running.
Following a meeting earlier this month, Morrell said Kopplin had agreed to start allowing the office to begin filling those empty spots. Previously, he said, Kopplin had not responded to paperwork asking to add new employees to the payroll, which meant they could be hired but not paid.
“I’m glad the chief administrative officer realizes the serious condition my office is in,” he said.
The money that’s available will pay for between 10 and 12 employees, Morrell said. They will be used to staff the evidence room, which has been open only two days a week since last year, and provide overnight staffing at the bond office, which has been closing at 7 p.m.
Those shortages have meant that prosecutors could not retrieve evidence for their cases most days and that inmates at Orleans Parish Prison have had to wait overnight to make bail.
“It’ll make sure that innocent people get out and the guilty people stay in jail,” Morrell said of the new staffing.
But Kopplin said nothing actually has changed other than the fact that Morrell’s office now is operating within the constraints of its budget.
“Unfortunately, it took about three or four years of not processing any of the clerk’s hiring requests or promotion requests to get him within the city-approved budget for personnel,” Kopplin said.
The clerk’s office actually first gained some wiggle room in its budget in October, when there was about $35,000 available for new hires or equipment, according to a letter Kopplin sent at the time. In the letter, Kopplin asked Morrell to let him know how to spend the money and in what order to hire people — something Kopplin said Friday the clerk never did.
Morrell said he has been submitting new employees for approval but never received the go-ahead to put them on his payroll.
“They can’t tell me who to fire or not to hire,” he said.
Morrell has been locked for years in a battle with the city over who holds the purse strings for his office.
The City Council approved a budget of $3.7 million for Morrell’s office this year, about $500,000 short of the amount he requested. That budget is more than Morrell has been spending, however, which will allow for the new hires.
Morrell has maintained that state law prevents the city from meddling with his budget, a position that gained some support last year when the state 4th Circuit Court of Appeal ruled the city must fully fund the office.
However, the court ruled the clerk’s budget can be trimmed by the city so long as his staff remains fully funded; it will be up to a Civil District Court judge to determine exactly what that means.
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.