Government & Politics
 

Frustrated with changes, civil service employees argue case in appeals court

A city employees group that unsuccessfully sued to overturn Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s overhaul of the city’s personnel system took its case to appeals court on Friday, arguing that the New Orleans Civil Service Commission has been operating illegally for years and should be dismantled.

The lawsuit, filed by a group of city workers called the Concerned Classified City Employees, was dismissed by Civil District Court Judge Judge Robin Giarrusso earlier this year. She agreed with attorneys for the city that the group’s claim was legally invalid and with the Civil Service Commission that the group had no right to sue. Giarrusso did not offer a reason for her ruling. The group asked the state Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal to overturn the ruling, and on Friday a three-judge panel heard arguments from the group and the city. The Civil Service Commission did not send an attorney.

In August 2014, the Civil Service Commission adopted the Great Place to Work Initiative, a Landrieu-backed series of changes to Civil Service Rules that sought to give department heads more flexibility in hiring, promotions and employee evaluations. The Landrieu administration said the initiative would fix a personnel system that was outdated and inefficient. Detractors, including the city’s major police associations and its firefighters union argued that the changes would strip workers of protections guaranteed in the state constitution. The Fraternal Order of Police has since argued in a lawsuit that the rules ushered in under the initiative have allowed the most qualified officers to be passed over for promotions.

The Concerned Classified City Employees filed suit shortly after the August vote. Its claim centered on an issue that was seemingly unrelated to workers’ rights: the population of the city of New Orleans. They say it  is below a threshold set in the provision of the state constitution that sets up the New Orleans Civil Service system. As a result, the city should be compelled to revert to a “back-up” system — a seven-member commission that includes three employee representatives — found in the city’s charter, and the Great Place to Work vote should be nullified.

As the Lens reported last year:

The language in the constitution  applies to ‘each city having a population exceeding four hundred thousand’ or in smaller cities provided a local option election has been held. Without an election, the constitution says, municipalities with populations between 10,000 and 400,000 can opt create their own civil service systems through state statute or local law.

The city’s official 2010 Census population was about 344,000, down from 484,000 in 2000.

At Friday’s hearing, the group’s attorney, Arthur Smith, argued that the district court got it wrong.

“Because the population fell below 400,000 as of the last decennial Census, the charter applies,” he said.

Judge Paul Bonin, however, seemed skeptical of the argument, repeatedly suggesting that the provision was intended to apply specifically to the city of New Orleans when the constitution went into effect in 1975.“It looks like there’s no reference to any Census,” in the provision, Bonin said. “It’s just 400,000 … It was 400,000 at the time of adoption.”

Judge Max Tobias, who was a delegate to the state’s Constitutional Convention, said the language on population was simply a shorthand for the city.

“It really was intended, and the intent was, when we say ‘cities above 400,000,’ we mean New Orleans,” Tobias said.

Moreover, Assistant City Attorney Greg Feeney argued, the same section of the constitution mentions New Orleans by name. And it mandates that nominations for membership in the commission are to be made by the presidents of several New Orleans universities.

“You need to look no further than the plain language of the constitution,” Feeney said.

The lawyers and the judges spent little time on Landrieu’s Civil Service overhaul itself, though at one point Bonin asked Feeney just what the Concerned Classified City Employees group found so objectionable about it.

“It’s called the Great Place to Work Initiative,” Feeney began.

“That’s a great PR name,” Bonin said, then jokingly asked if it came with a raise for all city employees. Feeney didn’t answer.

As to why the group members objected to it, he said it was a question better suited for them. Smith, the group’s attorney, addressed the initiative in a brief statement later in the proceedings.

“The new rules substantially expand the power of the mayor,” in making personnel decisions, Smith said, “and leave it up to political patronage basically.”

In an interview after the hearing, Smith said he thought the judges were less impressed with the commission’s position that the group had no right to sue than with the city’s position that the group’s  argument on population was invalid. But it was unclear what arguments would remain in his case should the panel rule for the group on the former and against it on the latter.

“Ask me again after the decision,” Smith said.

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