In a contentious meeting in an upper-floor City Hall conference room today, New Orleans Chief Information Officer Allen Square spoke to about a dozen current and retired city employees about Mayor Mitch Landrieu's plans to overhaul the civil service system, which governs personnel procedures for thousands of city workers.
Administration officials originally invited employee representatives to meet with Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin. Randolph Scott, of the Concerned Classified City Employees group, attended, as did Ellen Miletello, a lawyer at the Baton Rouge-based Smith Law Firm, which represents the employees' group. Kopplin, however, was pulled away at the last minute for city budget negotiations, Square said, adding that Kopplin was eager to meet with the group and that a second meeting would be scheduled as soon as possible.
Square said he was there to gather input on draft proposals written by Minnesota-based consulting firm the Public Strategies Group (PSG) over the summer. Those proposals, if unchanged, would relax rules on hiring, firing and promotions, giving department managers more leeway; reduce the size of the Civil Service Department, which works under the independent, quasi-judicial Civil Service Commission (CSC); turn over the department's hiring and recruitment functions to a Human Resources Department under the administration; and speed up the disciplinary appeals process.
As evidence that the city hopes to improve the system for workers, Square pointed to an employee survey, released in September, showing dissatisfaction with the current system.
"You've all seen the draft plan which we believe addresses some of those shortcomings," Square said at the meeting.
Scott, and others at the meeting, however, questioned the validity of the survey, noting that only about one-quarter of city employees responded and about 20 percent of those were unclassified employees, who are hired and work outside of civil service protections.
"I don't think we came to discuss the survey. With all due respect, we believe the survey was bogus. We'd like to hear from you what the city plans to do with civil service," Scott said. "These are very serious issues. You are threatening the careers of city employees ... I think that if we're going to start any conversation, let's converse about that."
Square, for his part, noted that 25-30 percent is actually a very high response rate.
(Not noted by either side: The survey, which included questions corresponding to points in the PSG draft, was sent out to city employees in July, a month after the first draft plan was written.)
Square also asked that employees not see the proposed overhaul, which will have to be approved by the CSC, as an attack on city employees.
"I'm not a person who just sits back and says that civil service doesn't work," Square said. "The mayor believes in government, but he also believes that government has to work."
Discussion moved on to a list of recommendations, prepared by Scott and his group, for the administration to consider. Among these, probably the most significant was that the city provide adequate resources to the Civil Service Department. A lack of funding and personnel — not the civil service rules — is the main contributor to inefficiency under the current system, Scott said.
Asked by Square to identify a model personnel system in another city government, Scott responded, "We believe this civil service system— We don't live in another city. This system works fairly well except for the fact that it's sabotaged and underfunded."
Other items on Scott's list: Keep current layoff rules, reduce provisional appointments (made at management's discretion outside normal testing and evaluation procedures), create a uniform evaluation system, implement cost of living adjustments tied to the consumer price index, and eliminate overtime pay for executive employees.
(That last one is a response to a recent Fox 8 investigation reporting that members of the mayor's executive staff — who are only eligible for overtime during emergency declarations — received about $230,000 in overtime and disaster pay during the Hurricane Isaac declaration.
Responding to the criticism, Square said, "Some folks were required to come to work. Some folks stayed home, left town, whatever they needed to do. The people who did not come in still got paid. They did not lose vacation time or leave time ... The people who came to work, should they not be given a little extra?"
Deirdre Lewis, a retired New Orleans teacher who attended the meeting, objected to that point. "People who make $30,000 per year getting a few extra dollars is different than people who already make $150,000. You're comparing apples to horses," she said.)
Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) attorney Claude Schlesinger, who attended but did not speak at the meeting, said that his organization is still waiting on its meeting with the administration about the proposal. He said the city has proposed a meeting but is yet to follow up to arrange a date and time. Asked whether the FOP has considered taking legal action against any civil service changes, Schlesinger said it was too early to say.
"They haven't gotten that far yet," he said, noting that the administration hasn't yet submitted a final plan to the CSC. "It will depend on what form it takes."