There’s a new parlor game in St. Bernard Parish: speculating about whether embattled first-term parish President David Peralta will resign and who might run to replace him.
Peralta, 60, turned himself in to authorities Friday in St. Tammany Parish, two days after he was indicted by a grand jury on a charge of stalking his ex-wife, Sharon Schaefer. He was released on a $35,000 bond.
The latest charge follows an earlier indictment in April charging Peralta with one count of sexual battery for allegedly raping Schaefer, his then-wife, on her 49th birthday in the couple’s Meraux home last October. Peralta has said he engaged in “rough sex” with his wife on that occasion, at her request, and pleaded not guilty to the charge, which is pending.
Though he has dismissed earlier calls for him to step down, many parish observers expect this latest legal turn will lead to Peralta’s resignation. Perhaps setting the stage for such a move, he last week appointed parish Finance Director Ross Gonzales as interim chief administrative officer, placing him first in the line of succession.
A former New Orleans police sergeant and a major with the St. Bernard Sheriff’s Office, Peralta served as chief administrative officer for two years under former President Henry “Junior” Rodriguez.
Peralta initially kept his job as CAO when Craig Taffaro took office as president in 2008, but Taffaro fired him later that year.
Three years later, Taffaro and Peralta squared off in a four-way race for the parish’s top job. Taffaro led in the primary with 44 percent of the vote, while Peralta got 42 percent. A month later, Peralta ousted the incumbent in a highly charged runoff by a margin of 584 votes.
Just when Peralta might quit — if he does — is anybody’s guess, and he did not return a call for comment Friday.
The uncertainty hasn’t slowed the rumor mill about who might run in a potential March special election to fill out the balance of his term, which runs through 2015. So far, a few familiar faces have thrown their hats in the ring or seem prepared to do so.
If Peralta resigns in the next few days, the Parish Council will have 30 days to appoint an interim parish president, who will hold the position until the special election. The regular election for a full four-year term is scheduled for October 2015.
Former parish councilmen Tony “Ricky” Melerine, now a community liaison at the Port of St. Bernard, and Wayne Landry, the interim chief executive of publicly owned St. Bernard Parish Hospital, said they intend to run in a special election if one is held. Parish Council Chairman Guy McInnis said he is considering entering the race as well.
Both Melerine, 64, and Landry, 55, said they believe Peralta should step aside.
Melerine learned by watching
“I think he should resign for the good of the people, for the good of himself, and let this parish get on doing what we do best, you know, to get this parish running straight and work on issues that need to be worked on,” Melerine said.
Melerine served for eight years on the Parish Council, resigning a few months into a third term — after winning almost two-thirds of the parishwide vote — in 2008 amid health concerns. He was first elected in 1999 — his first bid for public office, though his name already was well known in the parish. His father and his grandfather had spent decades in parish government.
“I had to resign because of health issues, and I always did miss it,” he said last week. Since then, he said, his doctor has given him “a clean bill of health.”
In the time since his first run, St. Bernard’s population has dropped by nearly a third, to about 43,500 residents in 2013, largely as a result of Hurricane Katrina’s destruction nine years ago.
Melerine said he made up his mind to run for president about a year ago, even before Peralta’s legal troubles mounted, and he’s set up flags throughout the parish to announce his intention.
He said he believes the Parish Council generally has been doing a good job since he resigned but that it could benefit from a seasoned parish leader who has plenty of experience working out disagreements between the executive and administrative branches. His decades as a manager at the former Bumble Bee seafood processing plant in St. Bernard give him that experience, he said.
Having served under Rodriguez and Taffaro, as well as former President Charles Ponstein, Melerine said, he “got to see exactly what each of them did good and which one did bad and made mistakes.
“I learned from that. The main thing is to manage the people that run this parish. That’s what I’m good at. I’m good at people management.”
Landry: ‘I fit the bill’
Landry, who served on the council from 2008 to 2012, said he also believes his business savvy is just what the parish needs. He became the interim CEO of the parish-owned hospital after the nonprofit Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady Health System withdrew from managing the facility in late 2012. He has been serving in the role without pay.
In an interview last week, Landry — who lost a bruising race for sheriff in 2011 — rattled off a list of qualifications that he believes the next parish president should have. Many of them, unsurprisingly, line up with his own background.
He insisted that he hates dealing with the politics that come with the job, but that he wants to see his parish get the best candidate possible.
“I think what our parish needs on a go-forward basis, and I’m not saying this is me, but this is what they need: somebody who has the business experience to control a budget of that size,” he said. “They need somebody that’s going to be honest in that office and do the right thing for all the people, and that’s what the parish is going to need to get out of this slump.”
Landry added: “They’re going to need someone that’s going to go in there and actually get the job done. It just happens that I’m the guy that fits those qualifications, but that’s not my fault.”
As for the hospital’s finances, Landry said he has run a lean budget “with no graft in it.”
“The problem we have in St. Bernard is we have been electing parish presidents who really aren’t businessmen and really aren’t people with great government experience,” he said. “Look, I’m not just saying that because I fit the bill. Obviously, I’m the guy that cares about what happens in his community.”
McInnis: no decision yet
McInnis, meanwhile, said he’s still thinking about his decision.
“There’s a long time to go before candidates even qualify, so I have plenty of time to make that decision,” he said. “I’m going to be speaking with a lot of people and trying to come up with that decision.”
One factor likely delaying McInnis’ decision is the outcome of an upcoming public vote in December on amending the parish’s charter, which is fuzzy about whether sitting council members can run for the parish’s top post without resigning their seat a full year ahead of time.
A 2009 charter amendment barred council members from holding “other elected public office” until “one year after leaving office.” Some council members, including McInnis, have said that wording is confusing and seems to prohibit a sitting council member from even running for another council seat — such as a district member seeking an at-large seat — without that one-year gap. They say that was not the intention of the 5-year-old amendment.
In the past, McInnis has said he would not resign his council seat with a year to go if he does decide to run for parish president next fall. He has asked state Attorney General Buddy Caldwell’s office for advice on whether the charter’s current language in fact requires a one-year waiting period or whether the “legislative intent” in 2009 overrides the apparent literal meaning of the provision.
In the meantime, as parish residents sit back and talk about what may happen, the consensus among a group of men huddled by the bar at De Pope Launch & Tavern in Violet on Friday afternoon was that change is needed at the top.
“I don’t know why they even say ‘resign.’ Once this happened, (Peralta) should’ve been out right there,” said the bar’s owner, Lionel Alphonso Sr., as he sipped a beer.
Even without the legal troubles, though, Alphonso said he isn’t convinced Peralta’s political life would have extended for another term, though he admits that it’s hard now to separate his personal life from his public one.
“I think even if it wasn’t happening,” Alphonso said of the latest indictment, “he wouldn’t have been re-elected anyway.”
Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.