Casting aside objections from some civil service workers and the Civil Service Department staff, both of whom urged it not to pass Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s proposed overhaul of the city’s human resources rules for classified employees, the city’s Civil Service Commission on Monday approved the sweeping package of changes.
The critics argued that the proposal as written would leave the city’s hiring and promotional process open to discriminatory practices. They also chided the city for waiting until last week to make the latest revisions to the proposal available for review.
The civil service staff said they didn’t have time to fully review what they said were 15 changes to the previous draft, which came out in June.
Three commissioners — the Rev. Kevin Wildes, Michelle Craig and Rabbi Edward Paul Cohn — voted in favor of the measure. Commissioner Ronald McClain abstained after an amendment he proposed failed to win a second. Joseph Clark voted against the measure.
Clark said he couldn’t “in good conscience” vote in favor of the proposal because the commission did not have enough time to review the administration’s latest changes. He also was perturbed that the administration didn’t provide the commission with a marked-up copy of the new rules so that members could easily identify the latest additions and omissions.
“How can you vote on something that you just received?” Clark asked. “We are the Civil Service Commission. We have the power of legislation. We can write the rules in two ways. We can W-R-I-T-E them or we can R-I-G-H-T them.”
Landrieu introduced the “Great Place to Work Initiative” in April. The document proposed revisions to more than 30 civil service rules that together would give City Hall supervisors greater flexibility in hiring, evaluating, promoting and rewarding employees.
The changes are intended, in part, to ensure that the city can hire the best applicants for available positions and retain high-performing employees, Landrieu administration officials said.
“For decades, the city’s personnel system needed modernizing, and today our Civil Service Commission approved a series of reforms that moves the city of New Orleans into the 21st century,” Landrieu said in a statement after the vote.
“Since taking office, we committed to delivering New Orleans residents a more effective government that responds to their needs,” he said. “By working closely with the Civil Service Commission, we have preserved the safeguards that protect our employees, made them a priority and improved our employee evaluation system that has been criticized by employees and managers alike. Through the Great Place to Work Initiative reforms, the city will be a more attractive place for employees, and our managers will be able to choose the most meritorious and fit candidates from a larger field of qualified candidates.”
The initiative also raises the minimum wage for city employees to $10.10 an hour. That change will affect about 200 workers and will increase personnel expenditures by about $600,000 a year, the city said.
The mayor’s original proposal has undergone several revisions over the past few months. The latest changes were submitted to the Civil Service Department staff the evening of Aug. 20, in violation of the timeline the Civil Service Commission had set for making changes to the document, Personnel Director Lisa Hudson said.
“There were significant changes made to the June 12 proposal, and the staff does not feel it has had the opportunity or the time to fully respond to those changes,” Hudson told the commission.
Beyond that, she said, she could not support what she did have an opportunity to review because “in some cases it amends the rules … in order to reduce accountability and transparency.”
The commission did adopt one change the staff said would help to hold managers accountable despite the greater power the changes will give them. It added a measure proposed by the Police Association of New Orleans that would give an employee who believes he or she has been wrongly denied a promotion, appointment or allocation the ability to challenge that decision to the personnel director and ultimately the Civil Service Commission.
But the commission did not consider other concerns raised by staff members.
Shelly Stolp, a personnel administrator in the Civil Service Department, said the administration’s most recent revision included 15 new rules and three amended rules, some of which had been recommended by the department’s staff.
Landrieu aide Alexandra Norton called that count “misleading” and argued that the administration had added just one rule. The other changes were only “edited” versions of previously presented rules, she said. In pushing the commission to adopt the proposal, Norton said the administration had made “deep and wide-ranging efforts” to compromise and reminded commission members that they already had met four times on the matter.
“The proposals have been heard for many months, in multiple public forums,” Norton said. “The commission has heard publicly and received in writing viewpoints from everyone who chose to do so. There are no new topics here.”
But in a demonstration of just how far apart the administration and the staff still seemed to be, Hudson and Norton faced off directly during the meeting. Questions during meetings typically come only from commission members, but a seemingly frustrated Hudson pressed Norton for answers on how the department’s staff is to enforce some of the changes.
The greatest source of division still seemed to be the proposed elimination of the “rule of three” provision, which allows department heads and hiring managers to consider only the top three eligible candidates for a promotion or an open position, based on how they score on an aptitude test.
The administration has said the rule eliminates from consideration qualified candidates who could be a better fit for a job based on characteristics other than having the highest test scores, such as additional years of experience.
Critics said dropping the rule would open the door to discriminatory practices and might violate the state constitution.
They urged the commission to vote down the plan because of that point.
“Nepotism is not an option. Sexism is not an option. Racism is not an option. Fascism is not an option,” the Rev. Oliver Duvernay told the commission. “I submit to you today that this proposal in its entirety is not an option.”
Cohn, who offered a motion to approve the proposal about four minutes into Monday’s meeting, said the arguments against the measure were not enough to sway him.
“This is a significant change, a long-awaited one, for civil service,” Cohn said. “People who are tied to the past are going to be looking at how they can try to prevent change.”
Added Craig: “To be honest, we’ve discussed this to death. That wasn’t persuasive to me because we’ve had so much discussion about it.”
However, Donovan Livaccari, an attorney for the Fraternal Order of Police, said he was struck by how much discussion was not happening Monday, particularly from commission members, who asked few questions of their staff or the administration.
“What I have not heard is any discussion by the commissioners regarding these proposals, which leads me to believe that either there are discussions going on behind closed doors or that y’all are just willing to accept this proposal blindly,” Livaccari said.
The FOP filed suit later Monday challenging the commission’s action. The suit requests a temporary restraining order and temporary and permanent injunctions until a court hears the argument that the rule changes are unconstitutional.
Cohn’s motion was crafted with the expectation of future litigation. It says that even if “any rule, section, subsection, clause, sentence, phrase or part” of the initiative is found to be “unconstitutional or invalid,” the remainder of the document should not be affected. The motion also declares the initiative “severable” and says the commission would have passed the initiative “irrespective of the fact” that one or more of its parts may be declared invalid.
“From what we’ve been listening to for several months, (litigation) seems inevitable,” Cohn said. “But by the same token, litigation comes up from things far less important than this.”
The commission requested that the administration and the Civil Service Department provide reports on the implementation of the new rules to the commission “on a regular basis.” The first report is due in six months.