By Stephanie Grace | Nola.com | January 7, 2020
In general, New Orleans politicians aren’t shy about speaking up when they’re not happy with how their peers behave. But you’ve got to admit that Orleans Parish Clerk of Criminal District Court Arthur Morrell has a special flair for expressing his pique.
Morrell had what can best be described as a Friday afternoon meltdown when he abruptly announced on the second business day of 2020 that a supposed budget shortfall for the entire year was forcing him to suspend his office’s operations immediately. That meant that 80 employees, nearly all his staff, would be sent out on furlough. It meant that activity at Criminal District Court would be crippled, because state law mandates his office handle official court records. Most alarming of all, it meant people locked up in Orleans Justice Center wouldn’t be able to post bail because the state requires that this, too, be handled by the clerk’s office.
To say that this was not a proportional response to being budgeted $4 million by the City Council for the year that started January 1, less than the $4.6 million Morrell had requested but more than he got in 2019, is an understatement.
And it didn’t stand, not even until Monday morning. Whatever chief judge Karen Herman said in a Saturday phone call — whether reason, threat or some combination of the two — registered, and Morrell said afterward that his office would remain open. He and Herman met in person Monday, and Morrell then said he would put off action at least a week. Let’s hope this is a trend that continues.
But then, histrionics are kind of a go-to move for the long-serving clerk.
Most officials who get their money through the city’s general fund make their best case to the mayor, who proposes the budget, and the council, which has the final say. That happened this past fall, right on schedule.
But rather than live with the consequences and make adjustments, Morrell decided to throw a Hail Mary in the hope that — well, just what he thought would transpire next isn’t at all clear. All Morrell said was that he had “no choice but to take action and try to get the money that’s needed.”
Morrell has taken action before, including running to court to try to extract more money. He’s sometimes been successful, on the grounds that state law requires the city to fully fund his office. Just what constitutes full funding is the rub; Morrell generally claims that the city has forced him to operate short of staff, and the city usually counters that he hasn’t demonstrated why he needs the number of people he employs.
He certainly needs some workers on the job, though, in order to make sure the system doesn’t grind to a complete halt. So for him to claim that it’s the city that’s abrogating its duties reeks of projection, at best.
“He can run that office for most of the year on what the city’s given him. He’s got plenty of time to pursue the difference in the court system,” said Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission. “You don’t go to DEFCON 5; you don’t push the launch button if you don’t have to. And I think this is overkill. This is more about trying to create some publicity and less about what the real issue is.”
Goyeneche labeled the move a “stunt,” and it was certainly that.
But stunts don’t always have consequences, and, barring Herman’s quick intervention, this one would have. It could have created real hardship, for the clerk’s office employees who now have to worry about their paychecks, and for people who might get stuck in jail too long.
How sadly ironic that the only alleged victim Morrell seems to recognize in all this is himself.