A last-minute reprieve late Friday afternoon from the Louisiana Supreme Court kept Mayor Mitch Landrieu from having to spend his weekend under house arrest.
It was an anti-climactic end to a day that saw a flurry of legal filings building to what was expected to be a defiant speech by Landrieu on the steps of his Uptown home before he accepted a court’s order confining him there for 48 hours.
As the drama fizzled, the Landrieu administration and firefighters union ended the day essentially where they were weeks ago, seemingly still far from reaching a deal on how to pay up to $142 million the city owes in back pay and interest.
Landrieu had been expected to be put under house arrest this weekend under an order by Civil District Court Judge Kern Reese. The judge last week held the city in contempt of court and said the mayor could either present a proposal for paying back the money that met Reese’s requirements by 5 p.m. Friday or else clear his weekend calendar for the foreseeable future.
No plan was put forward by the Landrieu administration, and the mayor said he would rather spend the rest of his term under house arrest than give in to firefighters’ demands, which he said would cause massive cuts in services.
The only response from the administration was a radio ad and email to supporters stressing the latter point — a response to an ongoing public relations campaign by the firefighters — plus appeals on Friday to the state 4th Circuit Court of Appeal and state Supreme Court.
The 4th Circuit rejected the attempt to stay Reese’s order in the afternoon, and as the clock ticked down toward 5 p.m., the apparently unprecedented event of a New Orleans mayor being put under house arrest seemed imminent.
The Supreme Court’s decision to put off the punishment while Reese’s order is being appealed came just minutes before it would have gone into effect. The gaggle of reporters and photographers in front of Landrieu’s house on Octavia Street quickly moved to City Hall.
Landrieu’s news conference there was extremely brief as it came on the heels of reports that a New Orleans police officer had been injured in a shooting at the Columbia Parc housing development in Gentilly. Landrieu read a brief statement and then left immediately for the hospital.
“I never imagined in my wildest dreams when I became your mayor that I could lose my freedom for doing my job and protecting the taxpayers of the city,” Landrieu said.
He said the ball is now in the firefighters’ court.
“The firefighters union has rejected every reasonable offer,” Landrieu said. “I’m looking forward to receiving a reasonable counterproposal from them. It can’t decimate the city’s budget, and it’s got to help fix the broken pension system so we can protect pension benefits for the firefighters that are with us today.”
Firefighters union President Nick Felton said his side would be putting forward a plan at the negotiating table.
“We still need to get back at the table, leave the personalities at the door, roll up our sleeves and do what we have to do,” Felton said, referencing earlier complaints he’s made that administration officials want to fight rather than negotiate with firefighters. “We’re going to do whatever we need to do to make this work, if that’s what they’re looking for.”
He said the day’s events shouldn’t be seen as a victory for Landrieu.
“All (the court) said was, ‘Guess what, you don’t have to be at home this weekend,’ ” Felton said. “The matter is still alive and well pending further decisions from the courts.”
The city and firefighters have been battling since 1979 in a lawsuit over the city’s failure to grant state-mandated raises to firefighters. The city has agreed to a judgment saying it owes the firefighters $75 million from that suit, though firefighters contend another $67 million is due in interest and tens of millions more are due in payments that should have been made to their pension system to account for the higher wages.
How much will ultimately be paid, and over how long a time, remains in dispute.
The Landrieu administration has put forward five plans to pay the firefighters. All are tied to changes in their retirement system, which is all but unfunded due to poor investment decisions over the years. Four of those plans also would have required firefighters to accept far less than the full $75 million. Each of them has been shot down by the firefighters.
The most recent proposal would pay $75 million, but firefighters rejected it because it would stretch the payments over 30 years — time the union argues many of the now-aging plaintiffs don’t have. That issue was compounded by the fact that the bulk of the payments would be tied to passage of a new property tax; if it did not pass, firefighters would not start to see that portion of the money until 2031.
That proposal, which came after earlier ultimatums from Reese, also apparently didn’t meet the judge’s standards; it came just days before he held the city in contempt.
Mediation efforts continued throughout last weekend and this week, but there was no sign the two sides were getting any closer to an agreement. Attorneys for the city filed motions asking Reese to suspend his house-arrest ruling until it could be appealed, but he did not respond.
That sparked emergency petitions by the city to the 4th Circuit and the state Supreme Court on Friday, arguing that it was improper to put the mayor under house arrest, particularly while the issue was being appealed.
Those filings sought to distance the mayor from the process, arguing the City Council is responsible for appropriating funds. However, while the council has held meetings on the matter in executive session, it has largely followed the administration’s lead so far.
A three-judge panel of the 4th Circuit turned down the request 2-1. One of those voting to deny the city’s request was Judge Dennis Bagneris, brother of former Civil District Judge Michael Bagneris, who faced off against Landrieu in the mayor’s re-election bid last year.
The Supreme Court looked on the administration’s case more favorably, saying that if Reese did not suspend his order, then the high court would step in itself. About the same time, though, Reese denied the city’s request for a “suspensive appeal,” meaning that his earlier ruling would be suspended pending the result of all appeals.
Felton said none of the day’s actions means the city is off the hook.
“None of this goes away. This is by far not the final chapter, and we will absolutely continue to do what we need to do to make sure the citizens and the firefighters get the best deal possible,” he said.
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.