By Karen Gadbois, The Lens opinion writer |

Ever played Jenga, the Parker Bros. game where you stack up a bunch of wooden blocks and then take turns easing them out of the middle of the stack, one at a time – until the whole thing falls down?

With a hiring freeze on at City Hall, some wag over there has photoshopped a picture of the game to give it a local feel: some of the blocks near the top of the heap  are emblazoned with the names of key positions in the Landrieu administration.

The message: While deputy mayors and department heads remain in place, the lower ranks of staffing are being undercut by the freeze.

Jenga is the imperative form of the Swahili verb “to build,” which might make it the perfect game for a post-disaster recovery period. But the picture in circulation carries a different message: How long until the whole thing wobbles and falls down?

The administration went public with the freeze at a City Council budget meeting last month where it was revealed that, as of the mid-year mark, city departments had already spent 70 percent of  $175 million budgeted for operating expenses this year and were on track to exceed personnel budgets for 2011 by close to $10 million.

Andy Kopplin, Landrieu’s chief administrative officer, said the administration had responded by imposing the freeze and, while searching for additional cost savings, had put $2 million in vehicle purchases on hold.

Council Member Stacy Head is concerned: “The administration should carefully consider the impact of a blanket hiring freeze,” she said Thursday. “Some departments, in my opinion, remain over-staffed, while others are under-staffed. Moreover, blanket freezes can negatively impact our city’s revenue-generating ability.” As examples, Head mentioned tax auditors and city employees who grant permits for development.

That also includes the Planning Department, according to a staffer who requested anonymity, not being authorized to speak for the department. One staffer has departed and can’t be replaced because of the freeze. Meanwhile, it will be at least January before the current backlog of planning proposals is processed, the employee said.

Closer to the top of the Jenga tower, some hiring is still going on, however. Deputy Mayor for Operations Michelle Thomas began her first full week on the job after the Fourth of July weekend. The post, which pays Thomas $160,000 a year, had been vacant since September when her predecessor resigned amid scandal.

Mayoral spokesman Ryan Berni failed to respond to repeated requests for information on other new hires at City Hall and for an updated organizational chart that shows the top tiers of municipal government, one that includes recent high-profile hires such as Brian Lawlor, who arrived recently from New York to be the new director of Housing Policy and Community Development.

For all the clever artistry, whoever doctored the Jenga picture hasn’t come forward to claim credit, as yet, maybe out of concern that, amid the freeze, he or she will get the cold shoulder.

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...