Inspector general: Give City Council budgetary control over New Orleans Traffic Court _lowres

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- New Orleans Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux

Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux is calling upon city leaders to seek changes to state law that would return budgetary authority over New Orleans Traffic Court to the City Council, saying that a series of legislative amendments years ago has produced a judicial body with “no fiscal oversight.”

Quatrevaux, in a report published early Wednesday, said the City Council has been hamstrung by laws requiring the city to fund Traffic Court even as the court covers the bulk of its budget through the controversial Judicial Expense Fund, a self-generated revenue stream that the inspector general says represents a conflict of interest because it gives judges an incentive to find defendants guilty.

The report recommends that “the entity overseeing the cost of the court and the entity funding the court should be one and the same.”

Returning budgetary control to the City Council would remove doubts about the influence of “financial concerns on judicial decisions,” the inspector general said, “and make court expenses more transparent.”

“State law essentially authorizes the court to grow as big as the judges want, regardless of other financial needs of the city,” Quatrevaux said in prepared remarks. “We want the City Council to determine the budget for the court.”

New Orleans Traffic Court, which Quatrevaux described as the only court of its kind in the country, takes in some $11 million a year in traffic fines and fees, more than $5 million of which goes into the city’s general fund. In recent years, however, city leaders have contended the court has become too expensive and is grossly overstaffed.

Quatrevaux determined that overstaffing has been made possible “because state law required the city to pay for all judicial staff hired by the court, thereby undermining City Council authority to control court spending.”

“We think City Council budgetary oversight will cause Traffic Court to be more efficient,” Quatrevaux said. “The court will have to submit budget requests that are based on rational defensible needs, and in order to do that, they’re going to have to measure their performance.”

The report also found Traffic Court officials failed to report “performance measures that could document (the court’s) efficiency,” and that the court used deficit spending to fund payroll expenses — claims denied by the court’s judges.

The judges, in an official response, dismissed Quatrevaux’s analysis as “stale.”

“In limiting its analysis to years 2008 through 2012,” they wrote, “the report fails to reflect current positive trends in reduction of staff.”

They added, “Certain statements in the report appear to be intended to cast the Traffic Court in an unfavorable light.”

Quatrevaux has said in the past that the court has more judges than necessary.

The Mayor’s Office released a statement late Tuesday from Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin, agreeing with the IG’s recommendation that “responsibility and authority of funding for Traffic Court should be with the city.”

Because Traffic Court is a local court, Kopplin said, “its budget should be set by the mayor and the City Council through the normal annual budgeting processes established by the Home Rule Charter.”

He added, “We have already started making some changes recommended in this report, and will carefully review each recommendation to take additional steps where necessary.”

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