The circus is almost ready to leave St. Bernard Parish.
That’s the attitude among many local officials and residents, who have given up urging their embattled first-term parish president, David Peralta, to resign amid his mounting legal troubles.
Peralta faces pending criminal charges in three separate jurisdictions. Unable to remove him from office because he hasn’t been convicted, the Parish Council instead passed measures to chip away at his authority.
It led to one confrontation after another, culminating in a brief, bizarre state of emergency that Peralta declared this summer after the council canceled a controversial parish contract with a technology firm run by an ally of his.
Their hands tied, many council members and residents have been waiting impatiently for the Oct. 24 primary so voters can decide whether it’s time to move on.
A former New Orleans police sergeant and a retired major with the St. Bernard Parish Sheriff’s Office, Peralta is now a long shot in his bid for a second term. In August, he was charged in a 22-count indictment that includes allegations of malfeasance in office and abuse of power. His other legal problems largely stem from the bitter breakup of his marriage.
But that hasn’t stopped him from running. “I’m getting, quite honestly, mixed results” to his campaign, said Peralta, who blames his legal woes on an overzealous state Attorney General’s Office that he alleges is in cahoots with one of his opponents.
The seven-way race seems certain to lead to a runoff Nov. 21.
Others vying for the post include three veteran parish officials: Parish Council member Guy McInnis; former Councilman Tony “Ricky” Melerine, a community liaison at the Port of St. Bernard; and former Councilman Wayne Landry, also the former head of publicly owned St. Bernard Parish Hospital.
Political newcomers in the race include Louis Pomes, of eastern St. Bernard, who is a veteran of parish government, though he has never held an elective office; Roland “Jimmy” Roques, of Chalmette, who worked as a patrolman for a large landholder; and Johnell Young, of Violet, a longtime St. Bernard sheriff’s deputy.
The group generally agrees on a few issues. Among them: More needs to be done to protect the parish’s water supply from the Naegleria fowleri amoeba that killed a young boy in 2013 and was detected again this summer. And residents should reconsider their rejection last year of a slate of nearly $10 million in tax renewals to fund services such as fire protection, garbage, libraries and recreation.
All but one of the candidates also agree on something else: that St. Bernard needs to turn the page on the past two years, when they say Peralta’s legal troubles gave a black eye to a parish that already found itself the butt of occasional jokes by its neighbors.
Landry, 56, a Democrat who lives in eastern St. Bernard, served on the council from 2008 to 2012. He said his business savvy is just what St. Bernard needs.
Landry helped spearhead establishment of the $70 million parish hospital. He served without pay as its interim CEO after the nonprofit Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady Health System withdrew from managing it in late 2012. He left that post earlier this year.
A lifelong parish resident, Landry lost a bruising race for sheriff in 2011 to Jimmy Pohlmann.
Among his priorities, he said, are operating parish government more efficiently; attracting new businesses; improving youth recreation offerings and reducing fees for them; and holding quarterly meetings with residents to update them on issues and gather their views.
“I’m good at what I do — managing — and it’s going to be a tough job for me, turning this around,” he said. As for his opponents, “They’re clearly not in any way, shape or form prepared to take this financial disaster that we will inherit and undo it.”
Landry said he ran the hospital with a lean budget, which gave him the experience he would use as the parish’s leader.
“I am the only candidate in this race that has managed literally hundreds of employees,” he said. “I’m the only one who has not just done it for a year or two but done it for my entire career. None of my opponents can say that.”
McInnis, 52, of Meraux, has worked as a teacher and basketball coach at Chalmette High School for the past 16 years. He has no party affiliation.
Cleaning up the community and eliminating blight are the major issues facing St. Bernard more than a decade after Hurricane Katrina left it in ruins, he said.
McInnis said his range of experience makes him well-suited to lead the parish. An accountant by trade, he was Parish Council chairman and served on its Water and Sewer Committee. He also was elected a justice of the peace in 1996 and managed the Sheriff’s Office’s finances in the mid-1990s.
“Seeing some of the problems that we’re facing, I have a unique set of skills to approach a lot of different areas: water, recreation and finances,” he said. “Right now, St. Bernard needs to work on its image. I’m a lifelong resident, and I think that will afford itself a good image for the parish.”
Other issues, McInnis said, include promoting transparency in government, placing public records and contracts online for public scrutiny and making sure St. Bernard government is in compliance with its parish charter. He said officials should develop a five-year capital spending plan, which would prioritize necessary infrastructure improvements and detail the costs involved.
With a new leader, McInnis said, residents may be more willing to reconsider the tax renewals they rejected last year.
Melerine, 65, a Democrat from Violet, spent eight years on the Parish Council beginning in the late 1990s. He resigned shortly into his third term amid health concerns.
Melerine’s name already was well-known in St. Bernard: His father and his grandfather had spent decades in parish government.
As he eyes the top job, Melerine touts his nearly four decades in management, including more than a quarter-century at the former Bumble Bee processing plant, where he was the manager until it closed four years ago.
A lack of “pride and confidence in parish government” among St. Bernard’s residents is an issue that needs to be addressed, Melerine said. He believes he’s the right guy to fix it.
“My heart and soul is in this,” he said. “I know what we can do. I’m not the most educated one in here, but I’m the most ethical.”
If elected, Melerine said, he intends to focus on promoting economic development and attracting new businesses — such as a bowling alley. Those goals would be aided by making the parish more attractive, with improved roads and better landscaping, he said.
“When I get in, (developers) better not come in front of me with another dollar store,” he said.
In an interview, Peralta expressed frustration that he hasn’t had the opportunity to stand trial on any of the charges he faces ahead of the election.
The 61-year-old Republican from Meraux maintains that his legal issues haven’t interfered with his responsibilities as parish president. He’s continued to make strides for St. Bernard, he said, pointing to nearly $200 million in capital projects that either began or were finished on his watch.
“I can’t sit here and tell you that I haven’t heard people say, ‘Wow, what’s going on with these charges? What’s going to happen?’ ” he said. “I have to be honest with people and say, ‘I can’t be sure. I feel like I will be vindicated, but I certainly can’t be sure of that.’ ”
Still, Peralta insists that his personal problems have not painted a black eye on the parish, instead boasting that his administration was perhaps “the most transparent government in probably the metropolitan area, if not the entire state.”
He still has a shot at winning, he said, despite the criminal charges.
If he doesn’t win, he said, he will accept that. He could use a vacation, maybe take two weeks to clear his head, then potentially seek a teaching job once he returns, he said.
“This is my parish,” he said. “I want this parish to move forward, too, so if the people do not feel that I’m the right person any longer for this job, I respect that opinion.”
A Democrat running for office for the first time, Pomes, 51, of eastern St. Bernard, believes residents are eager for a new face with leadership and drive to take over — someone like himself. “What they’re looking for is honest, good, strong leadership, and they’re looking for someone who’s actually willing to work side by side with everyone,” he said.
As of last year, St. Bernard’s population was about 44,000 — a third less than before Katrina struck. To grow further, the parish needs to attract new industry that brings well-paying jobs, he said.
“It’s going to take strong leadership with very good government that people can actually trust in, and that’s going to be part of bringing industry back,” he said. “I really believe if there’s industry to support the population, you’re going to get your population back.”
Pomes rose through the ranks of parish government, starting out in the Office of Coastal Zone Management in the early 1980s and later retiring as assistant public works director. He also served on the Lake Borgne Basin Levee District for three years.
He said that experience gives him the advantage of understanding how to best stretch taxpayers’ money.
“I actually have the knowledge and the experience of hands-on, in-the-field operation in just about every department in parish government and administration,” he said. “I know what it takes, and what exactly we can do in-house and what we can’t do in-house to save money.”
Roques, 73, a Republican from Chalmette who worked for decades as a patrolman for a large coastal landholder, also is making his first run for office.
At a candidate forum last month, Roques noted that he is “not a professional politician.” If elected, he pledged to recruit new businesses, protect the coast, maintain government transparency and finish his first term with a $2 million budget surplus, though he was short on specifics about how he would get it done.
He said he also plans to hire an inspector general to review the parish’s finances and cut down on wasteful spending.
Roques, who moved to St. Bernard five years ago, spent 17 years working for the New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board. That experience, he said, gives him an understanding of how to solve St. Bernard’s ongoing water issues, which will be a key priority.
“You’ve really got to run the hydrants. You’ve got to keep that water moving through those pipes,” he said.
As he’s campaigned and talked with residents at stores and gas stations, Roques said, he’s found many people want change and haven’t yet made up their minds on who should lead the way. He hopes to win them over.
“A lot of people are undecided,” he said. “They’re very, very undecided.”
Also making his first bid for office, Young, 39, of Violet, said he decided to run because he’s tired of what he views as cronyism in parish government.
Like other candidates, Young has heard plenty from residents who are eager for a fresh face for the parish’s top job.
“Give everybody an equal chance in this parish,” he said. “It’s been a buddy system of who you know, and we need to take the household names out of this equation and just be fair to everyone.”
Born and raised in St. Bernard, Young is a deputy at the St. Bernard Parish Sheriff’s Office, where he has worked for more than a dozen years before taking a leave to enter the campaign.
Young said he’s a political outsider, which he hopes will play in his favor at the voting booth.
To him, “It’s about the budget and basically cleaning up the past corruption within the administration,” he said. “Those are the two biggest issues that we need to focus on before we can have this fresh start.”