By Karen Gadbois, The Lens staff writer

The final day of more than three weeks of budget hearings ended today with a final request: that the council pass on the extra time they had to review the budget on to the public.

The New Orleans Coalition on Open Governance, of which The Lens is a member, asked that  the council  release its proposed changes to Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s 2011 budget a week before the council must take final action.

Traditionally, the council has scurried to make all its changes and then approve the budget all on Dec. 1, the deadline mandated by the city charter.

David Marcello of The Public Law Center represented the coalition this afternoon.

“We have seen a lot of wonderful innovations in this years budget process” from community meetings to the release of the mayor’s budget two weeks earlier than required by city charter, Marcello said.

An early look at the council’s changes would contribute further to this new spirit of government openness and accountability, he said.

Council President Arnie Fielkow, who is also chairman of the Budget Committee, was open to the suggestion, as were all other council members who addressed the point.

“You have our pledge to do what is humanly possible” to get the budget to the public early, Fielkow said.

Landrieu’s budget point man, Assistant Chief Administrative Officer Cary Grant, embraced the idea, saying it would ease the pressure on the administration to react to last-minute changes.

“I can’t restrain myself,” he said, speaking up uncharacteristically during public comments. “I did it two weeks earlier this year and I am sure you can too.”

Fielkow said he appreciates that the public wants to look over the any changes, but he also expressed frustration that so few citizens attended the daily hearings to offer suggestions on the front end.

Councilwomen Stacy Head and Kristin Gisleson Palmer hit that point as well, saying the council might consider changes to encourage more participation.

Marcello said the coalition plans to be more active in monitoring spending in the coming year, and that will likely lead to more informed input during next year’s budget cycle.

Councilwoman Jackie Clarkson jovially suggested that the release not happen next Wednesday – the day before Thanksgiving – because “some of us are the cooks.”

Both council members Susan Guidry and Jon Johnson expressed concerns that they lobbied for additional time from the administration and were fearful of giving up that time.

But even if the council delivers the proposed budget early, the council still retains the power to make further changes.

The New Orleans Coalition on Open Governance is comprised of the Committee for a Better New Orleans, Neighborhoods Partnership Network, Puentes, Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, The Public Law Center and The Lens.

Civil Service grilled

Before that discussion, the council questioned a proposed 30 percent increase in the city’s Civil Service budget from $1.4 million in 2010 to $1.8 million in 2011.

“At a time when Civil Service is being re-evaluated here, why would we be changing in a significant way the budget?” Fielkow asked. “I don’t know that this is a year to be expanding at all.”

The increase is for a deputy director, on a salary of $110,000 including benefits, a 7  percent increase in pensions and to restore furloughs across the 21-member department, Personnel Director Lisa Hudson said.

“We’re not really expanding,” Hudson said. “We are barely keeping things running. We barely have enough employees in our department to keep things going as it is. Without these employees I don’t know how we would even function.”

Fielkow wasn’t buying it.

“You’re adding 30 percent to this year’s budget,” he said.

Head also pressed the issue, asking whether the Civil Service had implemented any quick fixes suggested by the Bush School of government in a recent report. Some of the plans were in the department’s vision for the future, Hudson said.

Gisleson Palmer said she was confused as to the reasons for increasing the budget, while councilman Jon Johnson also raised concerns.

“Do you think there’s a need for reform of the Civil Service Commission?” Johnson asked, telling Hudson that she should “feel free to dance around the question,” if she chose.

Hudson did not suggest any reforms, but said the department has had 74 percent of its disciplinary decisions upheld over the past five years.

Staff writer Matt Davis contributed to this report.

Karen Gadbois

Karen Gadbois co-founded The Lens. She now covers New Orleans government issues and writes about land use. With television reporter Lee Zurik she exposed widespread misuse of city recovery funds and led...