Senate passes St. Tammany Parish Coroner bill

The state Senate gave final legislative approval Monday evening to a bill that would strip St. Tammany Parish Coroner Peter Galvan of financial control over his office.

House Bill 561 would shift control to the Parish Council and the Parish President’s Office.

The Senate voted 38-0 in favor of the legislation, sending it to the governor’s desk. The House passed the legislation on a 92-0 vote April 30.

State Rep. Tim Burns, R-Mandeville, said he filed HB561 after payroll skyrocketed under Galvan’s supervision. Galvan took home more than $200,000 a year for the part-time job. Office funds also apparently were used to make trips to Napa Valley and Hilton Head, buy groceries and acquire two take-home cars for the coroner.

“I’m very happy that it passed,” Burns said Monday night.

Burns said he was going to speak with Gov. Bobby Jindal on Tuesday to see how the governor wants to handle signing the legislation into law.

“The sooner, the better, obviously. The sooner we can get control, the better we can restore the public’s faith to government,” Burns said.

St. Tammany Parish President Pat Brister testified last week before a Senate committee: “This has been a black eye for us. We have been embarrassed by it. We want to correct it as soon as possible.”

The Legislative Auditor’s Office is looking into the reports of lavish spending, inflated salaries and other problems within Galvan’s office.

The legislation would repeal state law making the St. Tammany Parish coroner “solely responsible for the fiscal operation of the coroner’s office.” Parish government would control contracts and salaries.

HB561 also would call for Galvan to transfer all funds on hand from property taxes to the parish, except the amount needed to operate his office for the remainder of the calendar year.

Rick Franzo, of Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany, filed paperwork with the Louisiana Secretary of State’s Office in May, launching a recall campaign that must get 53,000 registered voters’ signatures in 180 days to force a new election.

Since the coroner is elected, not appointed, that’s the only way to replace him before his term expires in three years.

The Parish Council passed a resolution in early March asking Galvan to step down, but he has not responded to that request.

Calls to Galvan and Franzo were not immediately answered on the evening of the Memorial Day holiday.

“We are one important step closer to bringing back the financial oversight of the coroner’s office to the Parish Council and parish government,’’ Brister said in a prepared statement Monday evening.

“I have consistently said that there is no place for a public servant that goes down the road of abuse and squander. For this reason, among others, the bill was essential,’’ she said.

Carl Ernst, of Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany, said the action rights a wrong made by the state Legislature in 2007 when legislation was passed that gave the St. Tammany Parish Coroner’s Office complete control over its finances.

“It’s really a blow for good governance and oversight for St. Tammany Parish and the whole state,’’ Ernst said. The coroner was responsible to no one and accountable to no one, he said, and this bill ensures that there will be oversight.

In terms of resolving questions that have been raised concerning Galvan’s financial management of his public office, Ernst said that he will still await the recall effort his organization has launched and the workings of the justice system.

This story was modified on May 28, 2013