The first round of New Orleans Police Department promotions made under a controversial overhaul of local civil service rules pushed through last year by Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration has been met with a swift lawsuit from the local Fraternal Order of Police lodge and a pair of officers who were passed over for advancement.
The lawsuit, filed in Orleans Parish Civil District Court on Saturday, a day after the promotions were announced, claims that Landrieu’s “Great Place to Work Initiative” violated the state constitution by eliminating the so-called “rule of three,” a system whereby only the top three performers on an aptitude test were eligible for promotions or open jobs.
Eliminating that rule was part of a broader set of changes proposed by the mayor and approved by the Civil Service Commission in August.
The police officers group argues that Landrieu’s reforms leave the door open for politically motivated hiring and promotion decisions, but a judge tossed out an earlier suit by the group, saying it was premature because no officers had been injured yet by the new rules.
That changed late last week, when the department elevated eight officers to the rank of sergeant and 18 to lieutenant.
“These new leaders represent some of the best men and women that the NOPD has to offer, and we will provide them with a comprehensive training curriculum to equip them with the tools and resources they need to be successful,” NOPD Superintendent Michael Harrison said in a statement Friday.
Among them, Sgt. Samuel Palumbo made lieutenant despite ranking 62nd out of 65 on the list of eligible candidates based on test scores. Sgt. Ray Byrd, who ranked third, didn’t get a promotion.
Officer Damond Harris, meanwhile, was leapfrogged by all eight candidates who made sergeant, according to recent test rankings.
Byrd and Harris are both plaintiffs in the lawsuit, which names the city and the Civil Service Commission as defendants.
Attorney Donovan Livaccari, the local FOP spokesman, said the Landrieu administration is playing fast and loose with a provision in the state constitution that mandates that the city certify no fewer than three eligible candidates for promotion.
Under the new rules, Livaccari said, the Landrieu administration can pick among the entire eligible list for promotion, and it did so last week.
Livaccari said it was clear that the Legislature meant to limit the number of finalists for promotion when it carved out the rules 40 years ago. He said state lawmakers at the time tossed out the idea of choosing from among five candidates, deciding that was too many.
“The ‘at least three’ language was not intended to be three or 103,” Livaccari said. “The constitution was written in such a way that it was intended to prevent political interference, discrimination, favoritism and things like that. The ‘great place to work’ rules opened the door to all of those problems resurfacing.”
Livaccari said he saw no glaring problems with the officers who won promotion. Among them was Nicholas Gernon, until now a sergeant who commands the NOPD’s Homicide Division.
But Gernon ranked at the top of the list of eligible lieutenant candidates, while three of the others promoted to lieutenant ranked lower than 50th among the 65 who made the mark in testing. Seven of those promoted to lieutenant ranked in the bottom half of the eligible list.
Brad Howard, a spokesman for Landrieu’s office, did not respond to the lawsuit but defended last week’s promotions as a positive result of what he called “a series of reforms focused on making government more efficient and responsive for residents.
“Now, city leaders like Chief Harrison are able to make hiring and promotion decisions based on merit and an individual employee’s performance instead of being hamstrung by the old system that often tied managers’ hands,” Howard said. “Thanks to these civil service reforms, Chief Harrison is able to promote the most qualified and best-performing officers, helping to ensure quality supervision at NOPD, and that’s exactly what he did.”
Another group of city workers calling themselves the Concerned Classified City Employees took a different tack in a lawsuit last year, arguing that the makeup of the Civil Service Commission that endorsed Landrieu’s plan last year violated state law. The group lost in the first round of that fight and filed an appeal this month.
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