Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s proposed overhaul of the city’s human-resources rules for classified employees hit a speed bump Monday at the New Orleans Civil Service Commission, where it met with a critical response from the commission’s staff and from unions representing police officers and firefighters.
The Civil Service Commission took no action on the package of proposed changes. Before voting, it will hold additional public meetings to allow the public to comment, said the Rev. Kevin Wildes, the panel’s chairman.
Landrieu has proposed changes to 34 civil service rules that would give City Hall supervisors greater flexibility in hiring, evaluating, promoting and rewarding employees. The minimum wage for city workers also would be raised to $10.10 an hour.
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.
But opponents, including the Civil Service Commission’s staff, said the changes would expose the city to discriminatory practices and might violate the state constitution.
In its report, the staff recommended that the administration seek legal opinions on the constitutionality of its proposals as well as input from a wider group of impacted parties before moving forward.
“As we all know, change is never easy, but it is required for growth,” personnel Director Lisa Hudson said. “Change should not be taken lightly or performed hastily. With something as important as civil service reform, change should be carried out methodically and with all stakeholders.”
The staff highlighted about a dozen proposed rule changes as problematic and provided recommendations to the commission on how to remedy the problems with them.
Some revisions — like one that appears to shift the authority to set minimum qualifications for civil service jobs from the personnel director to an “appointing authority” and another that would allow the city to select which candidates it wants to interview for jobs from a list of all candidates meeting the basic requirements and not just the three who scored highest on the exam — could violate the state constitution, said Shelly Stolp, a personnel administrator in the Civil Service Department.
Stolp said her “greatest concerns” were with a change that would do away with a hiring system that ranks candidates in order of their score on exams and then organizes them into bands, or tiers, for consideration. All the candidates scoring above a 90, for instance, would be in the top band, followed by those who scored between 80 and 89. Under the proposed new rule, the candidates would still be ranked but the tiers would be eliminated so that the candidates would all be considered equal.
Stolp said that proposal would open the door to “discriminatory practices.”
The staff also was critical of a proposal that would move oversight of compensation matters from the Civil Service Commission to the Chief Administrative Office.
The administration has said it needs the ability to deviate from an approved salary range when attempting to recruit top talent, as well as the right to give merit-based promotions and pay increases, instead of having to seek the approval of the Civil Service Commission.
But that change could lead to someone with the job title of Accountant I earning $40,000 if she was hired under the current rules and $67,000 if hired under the new rules, critics said.
“Without controls it would allow for inequities in pay for employees in the same job qualification,” said Robert Hagmann, another personnel administrator. That would be inconsistent with the principle of “equal pay for equal work,” he said.
Several opponents who spoke during the public comment period threatened legal action if the administration proceeds with its plans.
Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin said the city’s proposal does not violate the Louisiana Constitution.
The administration’s proposals have drawn support from a number of civic groups, including the Urban League of Greater New Orleans, the Committee for a Better New Orleans, Greater New Orleans Inc., the Young Leadership Council, Forward New Orleans and the Business Council for Greater New Orleans and the River Region. The Service Employees International Union, whose members include a small number of city employees, also says it supports the proposal.
Still, Kopplin expected the dissent. Before the staff gave its report, he addressed the commission on what he said the measure would not do if adopted. He said it would not eliminate the civil service system or make any changes to the state constitution or the city charter.
“We are not proposing anything like that,” Kopplin said. “We are strongly supportive of the civil service system and its mission of protecting city employment from political influence.”
That comment drew a laugh from the audience, an overwhelming majority of whom opposed the measure.
In fact, opponents argued that the administration’s package of changes is designed to give too much power to politicians and political appointees.
“It was designed to reintroduce political influence and corruption and political intimidation,” Eric Hessler, a Police Association of New Orleans attorney, told the commission. “It’s not enough that (police officers) do their jobs each day,” he said. The administration also wants “to demand the utmost loyalty in every aspect of their lives, and that’s simply not fair.”
“We’re not opposed to making these (rules) better,” said Donovan Livaccari, a Fraternal Order of Police attorney. “We’re opposed to these proposals because they are at the heart of the civil service system established in the constitution. Once the foundation has been removed, the door will be open to abuse.”