The Rev. Kevin Wildes, president of Loyola University and until recently the chairman of the Civil Service Commission, consulted often with Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration as the mayor pushed through a hotly debated package of changes to city rules protecting civil servants, email correspondence between Wildes and the Mayor’s Office shows.
Wildes, who joined the commission’s board in 2011 and resigned from the volunteer post last month, was a consistent champion of remaking civil service rules, mostly in the manner envisioned by Landrieu. The mayor vowed to reform the rules after his election in 2010, saying then that if the current board didn’t respond well to his ideas, he’d try to find board members who did.
The commission approved Landrieu’s “Great Place to Work” initiative in August by a 3-1 vote, with one abstension. Wildes was among the three “yes” votes. Perhaps the overhaul’s most controversial aspect was that it removed the so-called “rule of three,” which limited department heads to hiring from among the three highest-scoring applicants for a position. Critics, including employee unions, said dumping the rule might open the door to favoritism and patronage.
What’s more broadly at issue in the dustup over Wildes’ emails is the independence of the commission, which is meant to protect the city’s workforce from political machinations or favoritism in all facets of employment, including hiring, firing, promotion and discipline. A 1983 state Supreme Court opinion said the commission should be “safeguarded and removed as far as possible from any form of political influence.”
And it’s for that reason that the mayor isn’t supposed to have any involvement in selecting board members: Rather, one of the five members, is nominated by employees, and the other four are nominated, respectively, by the presidents of Dillard, Loyola, Tulane and Xavier universities. The City Council then makes the final selections. Wildes was nominated for the post by Scott Cowen, then president of Tulane.
There’s no evidence that Landrieu meddled directly in that process, though Wildes has links to the mayor, who had previously nominated him to the board of the New Orleans Public Belt Railroad. Several other recently minted board members also have ties to Landrieu. And the employee member of the commission, Joseph Clark, was selected by the City Council even though he was the No. 3 choice of city employees who took part in an election; he was the only one of the three who did not announce his opposition to the mayor’s plan. (He wound up voting against it.)
Once Wildes joined the board, the emails show he began corresponding regularly with top Landrieu aides, including Deputy Mayor Andy Kopplin and Alexandra Norton, who was spearheading the “Great Place to Work” plan.
The emails evince a friendly relationship — an inappropriately close one in the eyes of some critics who believe that Wildes violated his oath of neutrality. The correspondence also suggests that debate that should have taken place publicly in some cases was happening through private communications.
In one exchange, Kopplin suggests that Wildes would have made a good pope.
“But then who would take care of Civil Service for you?” Wildes replied.
“When I read these emails, I see the interference is definitely there and very rampant,” Nick Felton, head of the firefighters’ union and a staunch opponent of the civil service changes, told The Lens. Felton, who was the first to request the emails from the city, said that after reading them, “my feeling and my distrust has been confirmed.”
Felton shared them with several media outlets, including The Times-Picayune and The Lens; The Lens filed its own public-records request to verify their accuracy. The emails are posted at The Lens’ website.
Wildes sent a statement to The New Orleans Advocate in which he described his conversations with Landrieu administration officials as part of his due diligence.
He said he realized after his appointment that “our civil service system was in need of major reform,” and that talking with “stakeholders” such as members of the administration was both “necessary and prudent.”
Wildes also noted that the commission had “two open, public meetings” where the proposed changes to civil service — and the objections to them — got a full airing.
Kopplin also sent a statement, in which he praised Wildes for working to “modernize the City’s personnel system for the first time in generations.”
Like Wildes, Kopplin said there was nothing nefarious about the back-channel communications.
“Of course we worked with Father Wildes, other commissioners, Civil Service staff, employee organizations and unions, and good government and citizen groups such as BGR, Urban League and the Business Council to understand their collective vision for improving our Civil Service system,” he said.
Wildes submitted his resignation from the commission post last month. His seat on the commission is now occupied by Tania Tetlow, an associate provost at Tulane University and a professor at Tulane’s law school, whose nomination was approved by the City Council last week.
Editor’s note: This story was changed on Dec. 18 to correct Tania Tetlow’s title.
Follow Gordon Russell on Twitter, @gordonrussell1.