The parochial offices of Orleans Parish coroner, clerk of Criminal District Court and sheriff are up for grabs on Saturday (Feb. 6), and each anchors part of the criminal justice system — medical investigation, evidence and records storage, and the jailing of suspects and convicts.
Prior to this election, the criminal sheriff and civil sheriff's offices were separate. They were legislatively consolidated after Hurricane Katrina. The new sheriff will be tasked with managing Orleans Parish Prison, executing all of the writs, orders, and processes of the traffic, municipal, and criminal courts, and enforcing decisions by the civil court. Technically there is no incumbent in the race, but with Civil Sheriff Paul Valteau opting not to run, incumbent Criminal Sheriff Marlin Gusman is the clear frontrunner. He has one opponent: retired NOPD officer Pat Peyton.
Peyton says Gusman is a career politician who never served in law enforcement prior to becoming sheriff and adds that he (Peyton) has 31 years of experience at NOPD. He promises a more hands-on approach as sheriff, and says he would welcome a full audit by the Office of Inspector General. With little campaign money and even less publicity, Peyton says his campaign is a grassroots effort. "The cow ate the grass and we're the roots," he says.
As an attorney, former chief administrative officer for the City of New Orleans and incumbent criminal sheriff, Gusman, a Democrat, says he knows the operations of the civil and criminal sheriffs' offices. During his term as criminal sheriff, he says, he has been focused on rebuilding prison facilities damaged by Hurricane Katrina. The local jails underwent $20 million in repairs and renovations before reopening in 2009. Gusman says he also has increased staff training, rehabilitation efforts and community service by inmates, which includes street cleaning and storm drain cleanouts.
"We have been fighting through difficult times with severely damaged facilities and very tight financial resources, but public safety has always been protected," Gusman says. He has been endorsed by the Alliance for Good Government, the Regular Democratic Organization, Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro and Valteau.
Clerk of Criminal District Court Arthur Morrell, a Democrat, says he began reorganizing the office and the damaged evidence facilities, which flooded following the levee failures, as soon as he took office in May 2006. In addition to storing and making available evidence for Criminal Court, his staff has been bar-coding and scanning records, purging out-of-date evidence, and conducting a complete inventory of the evidence facilities, which has never been done before.
"The biggest challenge I'll face is getting a building built next to the courthouse for evidence property and records housing," says Morrell, whose endorsements include the Alliance for Good Government, Orleans Parish Democratic Executive Committee and the Forum for Equality.
Harold Weiser, an attorney with no party affiliation and Morrell's sole opponent, says his first priority as clerk will be to increase funding by cutting his salary, implementing a profitable online computer service and utilizing volunteers. Weiser says the current clerk's office requires substantial improvement. "They need someone who is basically going to fix the court system," says Weiser. "The clerk's office is dilapidated, and employees aren't consumer friendly."
Dr. Frank Minyard, Democrat, has been the parish coroner since 1974 and is seeking a 10th term. Minyard celebrated his 80th birthday last August but thinks he can get a new, state-of-the-art forensic lab built before he leaves office. He already has secured $5 million for construction, he says; the proposed facility would combine the NOPD's crime lab and the coroner's lab.
Dr. Dwight McKenna, a fellow Democrat and former school board member, is challenging Minyard and says McKenna is more qualified because he is trained in trauma, whereas Minyard specializes in obstetrics and gynecology. He thinks its time for Minyard to retire.
"He's been there for 36 years, and he's done nothing," says McKenna, who is endorsed by the Orleans Parish Democratic Executive Committee, BOLD (Black Organization for Leadership Development) and the New Orleans Coalition. "This [coroner's office] is a joke. It's in the Middle Ages."
McKenna, who was convicted of federal tax evasion charges in the early 1990s, ran against Minyard in the 2002 election and lost a three-way race by a vote of 56 percent to 37 percent. McKenna also ran unsuccessfully for the school board in 2004 and 2008.