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Change law to modernize LA municipal governance

Only in Louisiana is there the weird situation where generally small-town mayors don’t have enough executive power but too much judicial power for good government.

The vast majority of Louisianans who live in a municipality do so where there exists a city court, as this was required of those with populations greater than 5,000 prior to the latest 1974 Constitution. But where one is not established a municipal corporation up to 1974 was required to have a mayor’s court; since then, city courts cannot be established and so new municipalities either must have established a mayor’s court or a parish-wide court (as in a few instances) by the Legislature.

A city court has an elected judge presiding. By contrast, in a mayor’s court, the mayor acts as the judicial officer over a limited jurisdiction of cases over the certain laws and city ordinances, within the city boundaries. It thereby merges executive and judicial powers into one officer, and this arrangement, found in very few other states, federal courts have determined is of dubious constitutionality.

That as chief executive the mayor has fiscal responsibilities but as judicial officer has the power to generate revenues through fines from rendering guilty verdicts serves as the most questionable aspect of the dual roles. While in decades gone by it made some sense that, in an environment of limited transportation and information-sharing, a local magistrate who would know many of the accused could distribute justice in an efficient and even optimal fashion, these advantages have dissipated over time.

Still, except for the roughly two dozen municipalities operating under special legislative charters (all having populations fewer than 15,000), about three dozen others with some kind of home rule charter or consolidated governance (most of them with more than 10,000 residents), and a handful of others, mayor’s courts continue to operate. Most of these municipalities are small, but notable large exceptions are Central, Gretna, and Kenner.

Yet while a number of mayors have this judicial power, some of these don’t have direct control over their own cities’ law enforcement. That’s because the same act that establishes mayor’s courts also creates as a default for a municipality an elected police chief position. However, because of a large number of exceptions written in by statute to abolish the position, of many municipalities exercising the option under the law to make the job appointive, or because of adoption of a home rule or existence of a special legislative charter that says otherwise, only about a dozen or so of these positions continue as elective.

This anachronism from the late nineteenth century era of distrust of centralized government power today can be problematic for coherent policy-making. Mayors may lead alderman or city councils in budgeting for police operations, but the chief, who could be a political opponent of the mayor, runs all other aspects of law enforcement in the municipality (although, here again, state laws carves out some specific exceptions for some).

Interestingly, the politics of traffic enforcement illustrates the problems of mayors having too much judicial power and/or too little executive power. In Woodworth, controversy has spread over the mayor too aggressively, if not discriminatorily, using his court as a funding mechanism for city government, while in Washington a feud has broken out between the separately elected mayor and police chief over use of the police as a revenue-generating mechanism. Together, the pair of speed traps illustrate the shortcomings of these relics of governing theory from the past.

Thus, next year the Legislature should initiate reform. The guiding regulation, the Lawrason Act of 1898, should be amended to eliminate elective police chiefs (and as a matter of housekeeping all the exceptions regarding relations between them and mayors) to make all such positions appointive. This would not affect those municipalities operating under special acts or charters, so to extend this each separate act would have to be amended, and then the Constitution amended to do the same for those few instances such as Washington where a charter mandates elective police chief (although the municipality’s citizens may initiate their own charter changes).

Also the Act should be altered to abolish mayor’s courts. As the Constitution disallows establishments of city courts, a few can be folded into existing parish courts while the remaining several dozen can be served by district courts, as a handful of exceptions already are by law. They may some considerable resistance from mayors for this one, for some even in relatively small towns get paid a handsome sum (for example, Tallulah’s mayor makes $65,500 annually, or over $9 a resident) and running a mayor’s court can be used as a justification for such high pay. By removing their judicial duties, they might see this as a prelude to lowering their salaries to a level much more congruent with the actual nature of their duties.

Keeping executive power together and not fusing it with judicial power creates more efficient government less likely to serve its needs rather than the people’s. Elimination of mayor’s courts and elective police chiefs achieves both of these objectives.

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