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Summer Heats

We need the best candidates to help chart the future of our schools, our jail and our courts.

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What the summer heats are to Olympic athletes, qualifying is to candidates for public office. Early next month (Aug. 4-6), qualifying for metro area candidates will separate the pretenders from the contenders in races on the Sept. 18 primary election ballot. Runoffs, if necessary, will be on the Nov. 2 presidential election ballot. There are up to 20 public offices on the Orleans Parish ballot and two additional posts in neighboring Jefferson Parish. We need the best candidates our area can offer.

With a crisis in the New Orleans Public Schools and the city reeling from a surge in violent crime, we need qualified candidates for the Orleans Parish School Board and for the recently vacant office of criminal sheriff. Additionally, with the state judiciary stained in recent months by the misconduct of a few local judges, we also need honest and capable candidates to fill several vacant New Orleans judgeships, including a Civil Court seat and Juvenile Court judgeship that have been vacated by scandal. In addition, Jefferson Parish has an open School Board seat, and the Kenner City Council has a vacant district seat that we'd like to see filled by a peacemaker who can endure the harsh political battles that have recently marred the suburban city.

Sadly, a special kind of political toughness has long been required to serve on the much-maligned Orleans Parish School Board. "I think one should accept that it is a thankless job," says Gail Glapion, who is giving up her District 2 seat after 20 years on the board. "Once you accept that, you do the best you can." Glapion also says the last time board members even came close to working well with one another and the school superintendent was a full 12 years ago, in 1992.

A recent poll conducted by Loyola University's Ed Renwick notes that most School Board incumbents receive low marks from voters. However, as Gambit Weekly reported last week ("So You Want to Run for School Board?" July 13), even unpopular incumbents enjoy a name-recognition advantage. The district needs honest, innovative candidates who will mount vigorous campaigns. Our children deserve no less.

Public school failures often end up in jail. For the first time in 30 years, the office of criminal sheriff -- the administrator of the Orleans Parish Prison system -- is vacant. Long-time incumbent Charles Foti Jr. was elected state attorney general last autumn. The new sheriff will face the awesome responsibility for one of the five largest jails systems in the nation.

A new grassroots voter-education organization will debut this week with the stated aim to "spark public dialogue" about crime and prison issues in the sheriff's race. The Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition, a network of legal advocates, social service providers and community organizations, has been meeting since November to develop cost-effective ideas for reducing crime by improving inmate rehabilitation and discharge practices. Members include the American Civil Liberties Union, the New Orleans Jesuit Provincial Office, Hope House, the Loyola University Law School Clinic, Unity for the Homeless, and civil rights lawyers Eileen Comiskey, Mark Gonzales and Mary Howell.

On Tuesday, July 20, the coalition will issue specific recommendations for improving management of the prison and treatment of inmates. The coalition will not endorse candidates but will conduct at least two public candidate forums between qualifying and the primary, organizers say. Candidates will be asked to endorse the group's "Nine Point Platform for Change." Candidates who sign will be expected to comply fully with all federal court orders for operations and conditions at the jail, end the alleged practice of delaying jail discharges until after midnight, and establish an independent monitor office to make regular reports to the public about goings-on at the jail. The group also is calling for the new sheriff to leave juvenile detention to other agencies and to collaborate with social service providers on an inmate discharge plan.

The coalition advocates expansion of existing inmate education and vocational skills begun by Foti, as well as continued training and skills development for sheriff's employees. Some of the contributors to the group's report clashed with Foti when he was sheriff, but Sue Weishar, a founding organizer of the coalition and director of immigration and refugee services for Catholic Charities of New Orleans, insists the coalition's activities are not a referendum on Foti's administration. "A lot of people think Foti was a great sheriff," Weishar says. "We are not here to debate the past, we are here to focus on the future." The coalition also wants input from police and pro-law enforcement organizations. The coalition is taking the right approach by focusing on the possibilities of the future. Improved education and prison reform are essential to the quality of life in our city. On Sept. 18, voters have the opportunity to chart the future of public schools, the local jail and area courts. But first, we need good candidates to step up and qualify for the political season's summer heats.

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