Government & Politics
 

City wants to move 911 operators to state agency, but officials not sure it’s possible

In what city officials say is an effort to speed emergency response times, they presented the Orleans Parish Communication District’s board of commissioners Tuesday with a draft agreement to consolidate the city’s 911 operations, which are now run by three city departments and the state-authorized Communication District.

The board could vote on whether to approve consolidation as soon as their next meeting, in November. A yes vote appears likely. The board is made up of 11 members, six of whom work for the city. Mayor Mitch Landrieu has long sought to consolidate 911. And the board members who don’t work for the city have supported the effort. But after Tuesday’s special board meeting, it’s not clear that the city can secure unanimous support for the deal, at least in its current form.

The draft agreement, which the city did not send to board members for review until late Friday afternoon, has a “ton of loose ends,” board attorney Juan Lizarraga said at the meeting.

Among them are still-unanswered questions about 911 call-takers’ jobs. Under the draft agreement, operators who now work for the Police Department, the Fire Department and Emergency Medical Services would become employees of the Communication District. But the city would pay their salaries.

Lizarraga said that the deal would mean those employees would “essentially be terminated by the city” before their jobs are moved to the Communications District.  What’s unclear is whether the law requires that call-takers, whose jobs now fall under the city’s Civil Service protections, remain in Civil Service after consolidation.

As of earlier this month, the answer from the city seemed to be no. But after Louis Robein, attorney for the firefighters union, brought it up, the City Attorney’s Office is looking into it. Assistant City Attorney Chad Dyer provided no answers on Tuesday. Nor did he say what effect the move would have on the firefighters’ collective bargaining agreement, which includes the Fire Department’s call-takers, or whether the operators would still be eligible for up to $6,000 in state-funded supplemental pay for firefighters.

“So this is a work in progress. Nobody’s fired yet,” Robein said at the meeting.

Lizarraga was also concerned about whether consolidation, as it is now contemplated, is even legal.

He brought up several potential problems. One involved a surprise move creating a new administrative position.

As recently as  a board’s meeting earlier this month, a city-created organizational chart showed that district Executive Director Stephen Gordon would be in charge of the consolidated call center.

But the city added a new job to the draft agreement. The position, the Director of 911 Operations, would be a city employee, not an employee of the Communication District, but call-takers would answer to him or her. The director would be nominated by the mayor and selected by an up-or-down vote by the board.

“When we received this cooperative endeavor agreement on Friday, I said, ‘this is consolidation plus,’ ” Lizarraga said. He said the director of operations position was not contemplated in the legislation that created the district.

Board Chairman Col. Terry Ebbert, along with attorney Ben Chapman, who was also advising the board, said they were worried about a confused chain of command under two leaders.

“You’re creating this bifurcated chain of command,” Chapman said. “If the purpose of consolidation was to create more efficiency, this does not do that.”

“Are you aware that there are currently four separate chains of command?” Deputy Mayor and Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin, who’s also on the board, said in response to Chapman.

Ebbert said in the event of an emergency affecting call center operations, such as a hurricane, it should be clear who’s in charge.

“There’s no first responder organization with two people in charge,” Ebbert said.

Kopplin said the two-person leadership was proposed to ease the transition and was not intended to be permanent. Still he said, if the idea of two directors could stall consolidation, he was prepared to do away with that and move immediately for consolidation under one director.

Lizarraga, however, urged caution. He said it’s not yet clear if the Communication District can employ call-takers directly. The move fundamentally changes its nature, and he wasn’t sure if that is legal under the legislation that created the district.

“When this district was created it was funded to create a 911 telephone system. That is all it was created to do,” he said.

Making it responsible for operations therefore might not be allowed. That, he said, could jeopardize the telephone fees that fund the call center equipment.

Lizarraga recommended that the board vote to request an opinion from the Attorney General Buddy Caldwell’s office as to whether consolidation is legal.

Kopplin argued against it, saying the board has the option, if it feels it’s necessary, to take the agreement before a judge for validation.

Getting an opinion often takes months even when the Attorney General isn’t running for re-election, as is now the case, Kopplin said.

Kopplin’s resistance to the idea appeared to annoy Vice Chairman Brobson Lutz, who was strongly in favor of getting the opinion.

“Are we going to get an attorney general opinion? Do you care? You don’t care, do you?” Lutz said.

Kopplin said the city’s attorneys have signed off on the agreement.

“Attorney general’s opinions don’t have the force of law,” he added.

“Sort of like city attorney opinions,” Lutz said.

On a voice vote, the board ultimately decided to request the opinion.

 

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