By Ariella Cohen, The Lens staff writer |

Since Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s inauguration nearly a year and a half ago – he’d know how many days it has been –  he’s enjoyed an amicable relationship with the City Council that serves as his legislative check and balance.

Members laugh at his jokes. Often, they praise policy choices – and even seem to mean it.  Councilwomen kiss him on the cheek.

Given that friendly relationship, it was no big shocker a year ago when the council approved a 7.75-mill tax increase, and stood by the mayor when he doubled sanitation fees.

Councilwoman Stacy Head, left, and some of her staff talk Thursday with Mike Sherman, right, Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s chief of intergovernmental relations. Photo by Ariella Cohen

“Our new mayor has asked us to provide him with these resources,” City Councilman Arnie Fielkow said. “It is, at the end of the day, a vote in the spirit of partnership.”

But today, during the third day of budget hearings in City Council Chambers, a rare public moment of combat between the two bodies exposed growing friction. The instigator: a hiring freeze that council members say affected the rank-and-file workforce constituents depend on for the basic chores of government — garbage pickup, pothole fixes, public safety measures and permitting — while sparing the mayor’s own executive level staff.

Amid a conversation about the freeze’s effect on the City Planning Commission, Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer directed a simple question to Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin.

“But has the administration hired?” she asked.

After a brief pause, Kopplin responded that, yes, the administration had filled critical positions in the past six months.

“If it’s a true partnership, I would have hoped you would have looked at our priorities,” Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer said. “We have made cuts… and yet there have been hires in the administration in the last six months.”

In July, for instance, the city hired Deputy Mayor for Operations Michelle Thomas. The post, which pays Thomas $160,000 a year, had been vacant since September 2010 when her predecessor resigned amid scandal. Earlier this summer, the city hired a former New York state housing commissioner Brian Lawlor to be the city’s new Director of Housing Policy and Community Development.

Landrieu spokesman Ryan Berni did not respond in time for publication to questions about how many other employees were hired after the city announced a hiring freeze, and what these employees were hired to do.

The Landrieu administration has consistently presented the freeze as an across-the-board move that affected all sectors of City Hall.

“We had to do major cutbacks to deal with our health care costs and pensions,” budget director Cary Grant said today. “The cuts and the hiring freeze were across the board.”

The executive-level hires rankle council members who say scarce tax dollars would be better spent on the lower-paid civil servants who perform government’s most basic tasks, the priorities that residents asked for when the mayor recently held a series of public hearings on the budget.

At today’s council meeting, members buzzed over the number of suit-and-tie-wearing mayoral staffers working on laptops in the audience.

“Outside of this building, I’ve got a few streets that could use a trash pickup,” Councilwoman Stacy Head said.

A proposed budget cut to the City Planning Commission instigated the tussle. The $440,947 reduction would, among other changes, force the department to fire one of its 16 staff planners and prevent it from filling an opening. The positions had been created less than a year ago, budgeted by the council after last year’s annual departmental hearing. One of the two positions was never filled because of the hiring freeze imposed by the mayor.

The council wrote the planners into the 2011 budget after a widespread post-Katrina push for more community involvement in neighborhood planning.  They defended the expense to the mayor as needed to help neighborhoods continue their rebound from Hurricane Katrina, and participate in the ongoing creation of a new citywide Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance.

Starting salary for a planner is $75,000, including benefits, the department’s assistant director Leslie Alley said.  Alley said she and her board are working with the administration to keep all staff on board using Disaster Community Block Grant funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“We’ve paid for planners using disaster grants before,” she said.

Though Landrieu has millions of dollars in federal disaster grants set aside for program management and administration costs, he and Kopplin have often spoken about the need to get away from using one-time disaster money to pay for recurring personnel costs.

Also on Thursday, the council heard presentations from Safety and Permits, the Historic District Landmarks Commission and the Vieux Carre Commission. All face cuts ranging from a 35 percent cut for the HDLC to a 4 percent cut for Safety and Permits.  That compares to 7.6 percent cut for the mayor’s office, from $11.4 million to $10.5 million, and a 6 percent cut for the office of right-hand man Kopplin, from  $50.9 million to $47.8 million.

The Office of the Chief Administrative Officer handles myriad internal affairs including the Office of the Budget and Landrieu’s signature performance management program, creator of the quantitative metrics and statistics he relies onto prove his administration’s effectiveness.

The council must approve the budget on Dec. 1, the same day it will vote on a proposed roll forward of the city’s millage rate.

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