Merger this week puts property offices together. Efforts to streamline government in New Orleans are at a midway point
Tuesday, December 30, 2008
By Frank Donze, Staff writer
Continuing a trend of streamlining local government, three New Orleans agencies with separate real estate functions will be folded into the civil clerk of court's office this week, ending the career of one of the city's longest-serving elected officials in the process.
The changes, which take effect Jan. 1, follow the 2006 merger of southeast Louisiana levee boards and precede a voter-approved consolidation of Orleans Parish tax assessors in 2010. Following those consolidations, the Legislature has ordered a merger of the city's civil and criminal district courts by 2015.
All the modifications share the same goal: to inject efficiencies into traditionally balkanized and politicized local government structures, even far down the political pecking order.
With the change, two obscure elected posts -- recorder of mortgages and registrar of conveyances -- will cease to exist. In addition, a vital repository for city architectural records, the notarial archives office, which the state has run for nearly 150 years, will now be run by Civil Court Clerk Dale Atkins.
The 80 or so employees who run the three agencies will work for Atkins, whose staff will double under the new setup.
Together, the three offices will be a hub for the real estate industry. Many common transactions -- ranging from taking out a loan to recording a lease -- require a visit to one or more of the offices.
--- Schiro out of office ---
The consolidation notably will end the career of Registrar of Conveyances Gasper Schiro, who has served since 1978. Though many New Orleanians may have never heard of Schiro and haven't the faintest idea what his office does, he has frequently fought off formidable political challengers.
Schiro's three decades of service make him the longest-tenured citywide public official after Coroner Frank Minyard. Schiro won the first of his eight terms in 1978; Minyard, who was returned to a ninth term without opposition in 2006, took over the coroner's job in April 1974.
Schiro, 72, has survived all manner of opposition over his tenure, defeating, for instance, civil rights icon and former City Councilwoman Dorothy Mae Taylor and former Playboy model and television personality Rhonda Shear.
He did so despite several storms of bad press, including a revelation that he asked his office employees to cough up $400 each for the campaign kitty and an unrelated six-month suspension of his law license.
In 1998, Schiro withstood a spirited challenge from a lawyer who ran with the vocal support of then-Mayor Marc Morial, who was at the height of his popularity at the time.
After the ballots were in that year, Schiro supporters said the Morial camp may have underestimated Schiro's ability to turn out his vote, a skill he honed during two decades of nearly nonstop, hands-on campaigning.
"On any given day, you can find Gasper at a wedding, a funeral, a birthday party, a christening or a meeting," said former City Councilman Lambert Boissiere Jr., who backed Schiro in that race. "He's everywhere. He's a natural campaigner."
Despite his unbroken string of victories at the polls, it's unlikely many voters had a clear understanding of what Schiro was responsible for as head of the conveyances office.
The agency, patronized primarily by real estate professionals and lawyers, is the storehouse for most official documents signed in the city, including leases, acts of sale, subdivision plans and similar instruments.
--- New mortgage division ---
The reform effort also will claim another citywide elected office, the recorder of mortgages, which has been filled for the past year by an interim appointee. Desiree Charbonnet, who took office as recorder in 1998, stepped down in November 2007 after winning a Municipal Court judgeship. Charbonnet appointed her chief deputy, Carol Carter, to serve until the job was dissolved.
Carter, who ran a title abstract business before joining Charbonnet's staff, will continue to work in the reorganized clerk's office in what will now be known as the mortgage division of the clerk's office, Atkins said.
Though the recorder's office will be under different management, its functions will remain the same: maintaining records on mortgages, judgments and liens for residential and commercial real estate, along with papers that show when a mortgage is paid off and other changes.
The remaining piece of the puzzle is the notarial archives office, a state agency that also falls under Atkins' control as of Jan. 1.
The custodian of the office has been filled by a gubernatorial appointee since its inception in 1867.
Atkins said the current custodian, lawyer Stephen Bruno, will return to private law practice after the changeover takes place. Bruno was appointed to the job by former Gov. Kathleen Blanco.
--- Records predate nation ---
The notarial archives hold Orleans Parish land records. The city of New Orleans was founded in 1718, predating by more than 50 years the formation of the United States, and officials say many of the architectural records on file in the archives date back to 1734.
The agency has two divisions: a filing office that receives and stores current property records and a research center that offers historical review services to the public.
The research unit houses more than 5,000 original watercolor drawings that are used to restore historical properties.
Prior to the 2005 hurricane, the conveyance and mortgage offices, along with the archives, were located in the basement of the Civil Courts building at the corner of Loyola Avenue and Poydras Street. Storm flooding forced officials to temporarily move the agencies to the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center.
All the real estate offices now are housed in the Amoco Building, 1340 Poydras St., which serves as a City Hall annex. Atkins said all three agencies will remain there, with the mortgage and conveyance offices operating on the fourth floor and the notarial archives on the fifth floor.
Atkins said she plans to extend the offices' hours and to create a single indexing system that will allow for "one-stop shopping" for all real estate records in the near future.
While it is unclear how much money will be saved by the consolidation, Atkins predicted the new system will be more efficient and user-friendly.
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Frank Donze can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 504.826.3328.