Council delays setting pay for coroner’s CEO

The St. Tammany Parish Council balked Thursday at deciding how much money the parish coroner’s chief executive officer should be paid, saying they don’t have enough information to make that decision and Coroner Peter Galvan should have come in person to address the issue.

A motion to take the salary question up as an item off the floor failed after a sometimes-heated discussion with council members grilling Charles Branton, an attorney who came to represent the coroner.

Setting a salary would have been the first decisive public step the council has taken in asserting control over an embattled agency that had enjoyed a high degree of independence but has been blasted for lavish spending, including skyrocketing salaries for Galvan and his top administrators.

The council’s authority stems from a recently adopted state law that strips financial control away from the Coroner’s Office, specifying, for example, that the parish — not the coroner — has oversight of revenue generated by a 3.5-mill property tax that supports the coroner’s office.

The law also gives the parish power to set salaries at the office — one of the key points that the Coroner’s Office is hammering in a lawsuit it filed the day after the measure was signed into law, challenging its constitutionality. The state constitution forbids any diminishment of the coroner’s salary during his or her term of office.

But it wasn’t Galvan’s $200,000 salary that the Parish Council discussed Thursday but that of the CEO, a position that has been vacant since the end of May, when Melanie Comeaux resigned. Comeaux was paid $125,000, but the Coroner’s Office was seeking a lesser amount for the post — $115,000 for her replacement.

Branton said the office conducted a national search for a new CEO, using SNA International to screen applicants. Of the 16 candidates for the job that resulted from the screening, Branton said only one met all the key criteria sought, including experience managing DNA, toxicology and mortuary services, which are important for the Coroner’s Office to retain its accreditation. If the salary issue can’t be resolved quickly, Branton said, the office will lose the candidate, who he said is interviewing elsewhere.

He called the salary requested a reasonable one for someone heading up a $5 million agency.

But Council Chairman Jerry Binder asked if the previous director was a forensic scientist or merely a manager. Branton said Comeaux was chief executive and in-house counsel but was not a scientist.

Councilman Jake Groby asked how the Coroner’s Office was able to get accreditation without a scientist at the helm. He said the decision should be postponed to the next meeting and that Galvan should come himself to make the case. “We need his input,’’ he said.

Councilman Marty Dean said he was offended by Branton’s insistence that the Parish Council would be responsible for causing a problem by not acting immediately.

“I see that the coroner made a mess of things … now you are telling us that if we don’t go along, then shame on you,’’ Dean said. “That’s not the picture I’m seeing … He made a mess of things, and we are having to clean that mess up.’’

Dean said it isn’t clear why Comeaux was making $125,000, and that while he wasn’t sure what the appropriate salary is, he is leaning toward $80,000 to $90,000.

Councilman Reid Falconer questioned why Galvan sent a lawyer to make the case instead of someone with the office.

Councilman Chris Canulette told Branton that the Parish Council doesn’t want to run the Coroner’s Office and never did but has been put in that position by Galvan.

A number of audience member also questioned the effort to set the salary. Kort Hutchison of Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany, called the proposed salary an insult. Jefferson Parish pays $72,000 for an equivalent position and Orleans Parish is in the same neighborhood, despite having a much higher work load.

He said that Galvan should do the work himself.

Rick Franzo, the group’s president, said prior to the meeting that the council should wait for a report from the state Legislative Auditor’s Office, which is investigating the Coroner’s Office.

The last action that the Parish Council took concerning the coroner was to adopt resolutions in March demanding that Galvan resign and return any money he received related to accumulated vacation time.

The council also adopted a resolution asking for the assistance of the state Attorney General’s Office in getting the documents needed to determine the minimum millage level needed for the efficient operation of the office.

The council’s action follows an announcement by Parish President Pat Brister’s administration last week that said the parish’s finance department is working with the Coroner’s Office to implement the law.

The parish is now depositing revenue generated by a 3.5-mill property tax that funds the Coroner’s Office into special accounts, and the parish finance department is working with Coroner’s Office officials to determine its financial obligations for the rest of the year to ensure that operating costs and debt service are met, the parish administration said.