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Civil Service Changes 

Charles Maldonado gets a peek at proposed changes to the city's civil service system — and why workers are nervous

click to enlarge Deputy Mayor and Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin says proposed civil service rule changes are in a preliminary stage, but an internal administration memo shows new rules are expected to be approved in November. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber
  • Deputy Mayor and Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin says proposed civil service rule changes are in a preliminary stage, but an internal administration memo shows new rules are expected to be approved in November.

The Police Association of New Orleans (PANO) gave city employees a sneak peek at a long-proposed plan to overhaul New Orleans city government's civil service system when the union released preliminary draft reports — obtained through a public records request — outlining possible changes to the rules governing city personnel procedures for thousands of city employees.

  PANO also released an internal memo, dated in August, that contained a timeline of the project, anticipating a vote for approval by the New Orleans Civil Service Commission this fall and naming Commission Chairman, Loyola University president Rev. Kevin Wildes, as a "leader" in the plan's development.

  The drafts, prepared over the summer by the Minnesota-based consulting firm Public Strategies Group (PSG), contain recommendations to change current hiring and promotions rules that initially were put in place as protections against political considerations in personnel decisions. The draft proposals would give managers more leeway to pick prospective hires from a larger pool of applicants. It also would open all positions to external applicants as well as laid-off employees and those up for promotion, at management's discretion. The suggestions, as written now, would eliminate universal entrance exams, develop a merit pay system and seek to reduce the number of disciplinary appeals.

  "While civil service has never been a perfect system, it has been very active in protecting against political patronage," PANO attorney Eric Hessler said. "This goes in the opposite direction."

  Asked about the consulting firm's proposals, Deputy Mayor and Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin, who has helped lead Mayor Mitch Landrieu's civil service revamp efforts since 2010, stressed that the plans outlined in the drafts should not be mistaken for finalized proposals.

  "To make the conclusion that a preliminary recommendation will be identical to a final recommendation would be to assume that there's not an ongoing deliberative process," Kopplin said. "We've met with a bunch of department heads to get their feedback on some of these preliminary ideas. We're continuing to meet with other folks to get their feedback."

  Kopplin said the city is still collecting feedback, including reactions from workers, many of whom took an employee survey released in July. The suggestions in the draft proposals, Kopplin said, could still change significantly. In any case, he said, changes would ultimately have to be approved by the New Orleans Civil Service Commission, the five-member body that sets the city's employment rules.

  PSG's drafts, one from June and one from August, are largely identical in substance, though some wording has changed in the newer version.

  Major components include the creation of a new Human Resources Department (HR) within Kopplin's office. The new division would take over many of the responsibilities of the Civil Service Department. Under the current system, HR has seven employees and deals primarily with hiring unclassified employees outside of the civil service structure. Civil Service, meanwhile, has 18 employees and deals with hiring, promoting, demoting and transferring "classified" employees (those covered by civil service rules) as well as Civil Service Rules compliance.

  Under the draft proposal, HR would have 22 employees and handle all job placements, including classified positions. Civil Service would be reduced to six workers and would deal primarily with compliance issues and investigations related to HR placements.

  Currently, when a department has a vacancy, the Civil Service Department produces a list of three applicants. Consideration goes first to qualified applicants on the "reemployment list" made up of laid-off (not fired) employees with experience in the job, followed by those up for promotion, then new applicants. Each list must be exhausted before moving on.

  The new system would eliminate the so-called "rule of three" and allow managers to ask HR to make a list of any length, in theory giving priority first to veterans, then the reemployment list, then any applicant. There is no requirement, however, that managers hire qualified employees from the first or second group, and any job may be open to internal and external applicants at management's discretion.

  The new plan also eliminates civil service examinations as a requirement for all applicants, replacing them with tests to be administered only once a department has narrowed the field down to a handful of top candidates.

  "The issue here is, how do you ensure that the City of New Orleans and its managers hire the best-qualified employees for the job?" Kopplin said. "The philosophy ... is that hiring managers who are responsible for delivering results and who are responsible for that area of expertise actually know more about the capabilities and the background of the folks they're going to hire than somebody doing a paper resume review in the Civil Service Department."

  Another section of the draft addresses discipline. One goal outlined in the report is speeding up the often-long disciplinary appeals process and reducing the city's large volume of appeals. It suggests a series of managerial tactics, which, it appears, would not be considered formal actions and therefore theoretically would not be subject to appeal. Those tactics include additional training, mentoring sessions and increased feedback. The final one, however, is "moving an employee to a different job, in a lower classification," also known as a demotion. Under current rules, demotions are always considered formal actions and are always appealable.

  "We've seen what happens even under civil service protections. I've represented dozens of officers who've been fired, and fired inappropriately," Hessler said. "In a perfect world where you have managers who can keep out politics ... you wouldn't have these complaints. It's going to be that much easier for them."

  Randolph Scott, head of the group Concerned Classified City Employees, criticized the ideas in stronger terms, calling the plan the "destruction of civil service as we know it." Scott expanded on "as we know it" by adding, "Defending workers from political patronage and protecting equal rights for all workers."

  Mayoral spokesman Ryan Berni said the suggestions in the draft reports give the Civil Service Department more power and, without recruiting responsibilities, more time to investigate potential wrongdoing.

  "The Civil Service Department would be given much broader authority to halt decisions that it deemed to be political or violating the merit system," he said. "There would be an investigation and then it would be turned over to the commission."

  Kopplin acknowledged that the goal of the initiative is to increase personnel efficiency. Deliberations on hiring, pay plans and disciplinary procedures between the administration, the Civil Service Commission and Civil Service Department staffers sometimes stretch out for long periods. But, he said, the proposals also keep employee protections in place.

  "I would argue that a move in this direction is in furtherance of assuring that merit-based hires are the ones that are getting made," he said.

  In Hessler's view, the city already has shown a lack of consideration for workers, which, he said, is what prompted the public records request in the first place. PANO has not been in contact with the mayor's office since a meeting in July, after the group released the results of a police department employee satisfaction survey. Hessler said city officials made it "quite clear" at the time that they weren't interested in addressing officers' concerns outlined in that report.

  "We've been hearing rumblings and information that led us to believe this initiative was going on. We weren't hearing information from official channels," Hessler said. "It appears to me that there was a lot of behind-the-scenes work because the tone of the documents make it appear as if it's a done deal."

  He cites an internal administration memo — also obtained and released publicly by PANO — by city Director of Organizational Effectiveness Alexandra Norton. It's addressed to Landrieu and members of his executive staff. The memo suggests that the city may present a final plan to the five-member Civil Service Commission as soon as its October meeting.

  Norton's memo presents a timeline, including the Oct. 15 introduction of new rules to the Civil Service Commission and a Nov. 19 approval of those rules. The timeline ends on January 2013 with the words: "Adhere to new rules and procedures."

  Hessler also points to a sentence in the memo that suggests Civil Service Commission members, including Wildes, have seen, been involved in developing and may already have signed off on the plan's broad outlines.

  "Under the leadership of Fr. Kevin Wildes and the Civil Service Commission and First Deputy Mayor and CAO Andy Kopplin, we are working to develop a package of Civil Service Rules Reforms and a reorganized Civil Service Department and Human Resources Department," the memo states. The document goes on to predict that the new rules will improve the process.

  Wildes' name also appears in a PowerPoint presentation that dates from April, which was obtained by Gambit from a city employee who requested anonymity. The presentation is titled "Civil Service and Human Resources Transformation." In it, Wildes' name appears alongside Kopplin's and Deputy Mayor Michelle Thomas' at the top of a "reporting structure" related to the plan's development.

  "You ought to talk to Fr. Wildes about that, but again, our goal has been to work with the commission, because ultimately, we want to have a shared vision about how to improve the HR system," Kopplin said. When asked, Kopplin said commission members have not, to his knowledge, violated the state open meetings law, as there have been no meetings about the plan between city officials and a voting quorum of commission members.

  Wildes did not respond to Gambit's request for comment.

  The city also is using a consultant who has, in the past, indicated dissatisfaction with the current personnel system. In 2011, PSG prepared a report called "A Transformation Plan for City Government." That report — produced at Landrieu's request but paid for by a number of local nonprofit groups — addressed problems throughout city government and also called for streamlining civil service procedures for hiring, firing and promotions.

  "We were looking for a consultant that had experience in HR transformation. We wouldn't have hired one that didn't have experience in HR transformation," Kopplin said.

  To bring PSG on, the city entered into a partnership last May with Baptist Community Ministries (BCM), which controls the mixed public-private funded "New Orleans Innovation Fund," to pay the firm's costs. If it had contracted the firm directly, through a Requests for Proposals process, PSG would have had to enter into a competitive bidding process. However, as Kopplin pointed out, by using the fund, which has a maximum value of more than $500,000, BCM is able to solicit outside donors — such as the Business Council of New Orleans and the River Region, which has contributed — thereby reducing the city's costs.

  "That's just because we have private money contributed into it, so we could make the taxpayer dollars go farther," Kopplin said, adding that the city is proud of its partnerships with local foundations that have expressed an interest in working with city government. "That's exactly what you'd want to achieve."

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