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Real Reform 

Louisiana lawmakers gave final legislative approval to a pair of major governmental reforms last week, marking a milestone for reform advocates and for Gov. Kathleen Blanco, who threw the might of her office -- and her own political capital -- behind both measures. By significant margins, both the House and Senate passed bills to merge the New Orleans court systems -- including a handful of parochial offices -- and to reduce the number of New Orleans' elected assessors from seven to one. The court-merger bill will be phased in over the next decade, starting with moves to consolidate the fiscal management of New Orleans' criminal and civil courts. Combining the assessors' offices is an ongoing effort because it requires a constitutional amendment. Supporters of the idea have already mustered the requisite two-thirds majorities in the House and Senate; now they must convince a majority of voters both statewide and in New Orleans to approve the measure in a November referendum. If passed, the amendment would allow the city's seven assessors, six of whom were just re-elected, to finish their current terms.

The two measures are significant because they send a message to the rest of the nation that Louisiana is serious about reforming its antiquated, wasteful ways. It would be nice if we could say that they also signal the end of political corruption and cronyism, but we all know those dragons will not be slain easily. Still, these changes should streamline New Orleans' Byzantine political bureaucracy, improve accountability and efficiency, and tell the world that the city's nascent recovery will bring meaningful change and not just put the same old practices back in place.

The scope of both reforms is sweeping, particularly the bill to consolidate the two court systems. New Orleans stands alone among Louisiana parishes and judicial districts because it has separate criminal and civil district courts. Everywhere else in the state, judges hear both criminal and civil cases, and in most instances they hear juvenile and misdemeanor cases as well. All other parishes also have only one sheriff. New Orleans has two -- a criminal sheriff who functions as the city's jailer, bailiff, process server and security chief at Criminal District Court, and a civil sheriff who serves similar functions at Civil District Court. All other parishes also have just one clerk of court, but New Orleans has two -- plus separate offices for filing mortgages, conveyances and notarial acts. This palette of political fiefdoms has long made New Orleans the object of scorn in other corners of the state, and their continued existence has provided a convenient excuse for legislators at the state and federal levels to vote against the city's interests.

Under the provisions of Senate Bill 645 by Sen. Willie Mount, D-Lake Charles, the Orleans Parish Civil and Criminal District courts will merge on Jan. 1, 2009 -- but their finances will be combined at the start of 2007 and will be managed by a panel of judges from civil, criminal, juvenile and parish courts. The two court clerks' offices and the Orleans Parish civil and criminal sheriffs' offices will merge in May 2010. The bill also abolishes the offices of register of conveyances, recorder of mortgages and custodian of notarial archives as of Jan. 1, 2009. The clerk of Civil District court will assume the functions of those offices, and when the civil and criminal clerks' offices are consolidated in May 2010, the clerk of the combined office will assume those duties from the civil court clerk. The mergers will be complete in the year 2015, when the judges at Juvenile Court will join the new 41st Judicial District Court -- the name of the merged civil and criminal courts.

If that merger schedule sounds complicated, it's because the current system is far-flung. Merging all those offices at once would be traumatic as well as troublesome, not to mention unfair to the officials who have sought and won election to those offices. In addition to phasing in the consolidation plan, Mount's bill preserves all current judgeships. It calls for a study to recommend the proper number of district court judges, but provides that any reduction shall be by attrition or retirement -- so that no sitting judge will be forced out of office by the consolidation. This is fair.

Looking ahead, voters in New Orleans and across the state should vote for the proposed constitutional amendment to combine the city's seven assessors into one office. Like the city's separate criminal and civil court systems, our seven assessors have become a symbol of New Orleans' archaic and patronage-laden political infrastructure. This is not an indictment of any individual assessor or of the elected assessors as a group. Rather, this criticism reflects the general distaste for a long-entrenched system that perpetuates artificial differences in New Orleans -- differences that cost the city political credibility in the halls of power and hurt us economically because we are easily portrayed as comfortable in our excesses. Moreover, study after study has shown that having seven assessors led to inconsistent assessment practices from district to district.

We applaud Gov. Blanco and all lawmakers who voted for these measures. They represent real reform. As New Orleans struggles to rebuild its infrastructure and its neighborhoods, it's reassuring to see our political leaders working to rebuild our image and our governmental systems as well.

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