Government & Politics
 

Civil Service Commission rules city’s former parking director must be rehired

The New Orleans Civil Service Commission has partially granted an appeal by Zepporiah Edmonds, who was fired as city parking director in 2016, and has ordered the city to rehire her.

In a ruling issued Tuesday, the commission found that the city had proven just of one of its four stated reasons for firing Edmonds: that she had failed to fully aid an investigation by the Office of Inspector General.

But that was unintentional, the commission ruled, and didn’t justify her termination.

The commission did not, however, agree with Edmonds’ claim that the city retaliated against her for blowing the whistle on an alleged contract-fixing scheme.

In a phone interview, Edmonds said a Civil Service hearing officer will determine what discipline, if any, is warranted.

“To me, the definition of ‘misconduct’ is to willfully not comply,” Edmonds said. “In the report, they said it was unintentional. … But later they decide it was misconduct. That’s what has me perplexed.”

Edmonds said she has not been contacted by the Department of Public Works about coming back to work.

Erin Burns, Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s spokeswoman, said in an email that the city attorney’s office “is reviewing the opinion and evaluating the City’s options for appeal.”

The city’s Civil Service Commission protects the rights of people employed by city agencies by considering grievances and appeals of discipline and termination.

Edmonds’ case has lasted for almost two years. She contended her firing was the culmination of a retaliatory campaign by top city officials, including Mark Jernigan, who was then director of Public Works, and former Deputy Mayor Cedric Grant.

Edmonds said she was targeted for complaining about what she contended was an attempt to steer a multimillion-dollar parking enforcement contract to a preferred bidder, Duncan Solutions.

The city ultimately scrapped the bid, splitting it into three parts: delinquent collections, meter operations and ticket processing. Duncan later won the ticket processing contract.

She alleged the retaliation began in 2014, when Jernigan hired Linda Copeland as the department’s human resources manager. Edmonds contended that Copeland was brought in to undermine her and to provide Jernigan with an excuse to fire her.

In a hearing last year, Edmonds testified that Jernigan and Grant were aware of the alleged contract-steering scheme but did nothing about it. She also testified that Jernigan informed her at the time that former Deputy Mayor Andy Kopplin was “guiding the train” in the selection process.

Jernigan and Grant resigned last month in the wake of a series of revelations about problems with the city’s drainage system. Kopplin left City Hall last year to become CEO of the Greater New Orleans Foundation.

In its ruling, the commission said there was no evidence to back up Edmonds’ claim that she was the victim of retaliation.

By Edmonds’ own account, they noted, Jernigan’s alleged retaliation didn’t begin until more than two years after she had complained about the contract selection. Meanwhile, they wrote, Jernigan gave her “overwhelmingly positive performance evaluations.”

“The Commission does not find that the DPW perpetrated such a Machiavellian scheme,” they wrote.

Edmonds stands by her allegations. “It is very difficult to prove a whistleblower’s claim,” she said.

Jernigan cited four allegations when he fired Edmonds in 2016.

He claimed Edmonds tampered with witnesses in a sexual harassment investigation against another employee, retaliated against a coworker for criticizing her in an email, and settled a disciplinary appeal by an employee without getting Jernigan’s permission.

All those claims were baseless, the commission ruled.

Copeland, for instance, had claimed employees told her they wouldn’t cooperate in the sexual harassment investigation because they feared Edmonds would retaliate. The commission concluded Copeland’s testimony was “demonstrably false.”

The Department of Public Works “did not produce a scintilla of evidence to support its speculation that [Edmonds] attempted to tamper with the witnesses,” they wrote.

But they did find some truth to the most serious reason Jernigan gave for firing Edmonds — her failure to assist with the Inspector General’s 2015 report on parking control officers.

Investigators tried to verify claims that parking control officers had sat for hours inside downtown businesses and had issued tickets to customers and employees when confronted about it.

The lead investigator, Eduardo Hernandez, wrote in the report that he found just one incident because for months Edmonds ignored his office’s requests for parking ticket records.

Edmonds testified that she tried to cooperate, but Hernandez did not submit an official request detailing what he wanted.

The board agreed. “Apparently Mr. Hernandez himself was not sure of what information he had originally requested of [Edmonds] since, in December 2014, he asked [her] to send him the list of items he had originally requested earlier in the year,” the commission wrote.

Edmonds was in and out of the hospital at the time, and she was busy at work because the Parking Division was shifting to a new ticket processing contractor. Still, the commission ruled, she should have contacted the city’s old contractor to retrieve its digitized records or assigned staff to find them in the city’s paper records.

“However, we also find that [Edmonds’] lack of cooperation was unintentional, out of character based on her prior interactions with OIG investigators, and due in part to her heavy workload and illness,” commissioners wrote.

As a result, they found that the misconduct did not warrant her firing.

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