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EDITORIAL: Another reform kicks in

January 03, 2009

The impressive push New Orleanians made for government reform in Hurricane Katrina's aftermath is still bearing fruit -- and giving us something to celebrate in the new year.

Effective Jan. 1, three New Orleans agencies with separate real estate functions were consolidated into one, a move that should streamline services and save taxpayers money.

Under the new structure, the civil clerk of court's office is absorbing the functions of the recorder of mortgages and the registrar of conveyances.

As a bonus, the obscure elected positions at the head of the two absorbed offices are disappearing. There was no reason for these posts, which perform clerical functions, to be elected. The public will now save the expense of those citywide elections.

Civil Court Clerk Dale Atkins, whose office will now double in personnel, needs to evaluate whether further personnel savings can be made. She's vowing to produce a system that will be more efficient and user friendly by extending office hours. Just as important, she said she will create a single indexing system to offer the public "one-stop shopping" for all real estate records.

That would be quite an improvement from the previous system, which often required stops at all three separate agencies to complete common real estate transactions.

Metro area residents have already seen the improvements government consolidation can bring. The 2006 merger of the area's local levee boards into two regional bodies improved the professional expertise at the head of agencies and focused them on their core mission: flood protection.

Another major reform, the voter-approved consolidation of New Orleans seven tax assessors into one, will take place next year.

It's not all good news on the consolidation front, however.

Responding to public sentiment, then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco two years ago pushed lawmakers to approve a bill that ordered the consolidation of Orleans Parish's criminal and civil courts by Jan. 1, 2009. But at the urging of the judges and under the leadership of New Orleans state Sen. Ed Murray, lawmakers last year postponed the deadline until 2014. Gov. Bobby Jindal signed the bill.

There was absolutely no reason for that delay, especially considering that the original legislation gave judges more than two and a half years to get ready.

When they lobbied for the delay last year, judges themselves asked for only a 12-month delay. They did not have valid arguments even for that, yet lawmakers gave them five years -- enough to let judges avoid consolidation for another full term in office. That also mean taxpayers have to shell out the unnecessary expense of keeping separate courts for a reduced population. There's no reason for that.

The judges' true motive was political. They are trying to avoid the reality that post-Katrina New Orleans no longer needs two separate courts and their 27 judges. Even using New Orleans' rosiest population estimates, the separate courts yield one judge for every 11,800 residents. Jefferson Parish, by contrast, has a consolidated criminal and civil court with 16 judges. That's one judge per every 27,000 residents.

For all these reasons, lawmakers should revisit the timeline for the consolidation of Orleans Parish courts at the next regular session. At the very least, they should set a more realistic deadline that restores the people's mandate to streamline government.



September 2006