By Matt Davis, The Lens staff writer |

A search firm paid $42,000 to find a new city recreation director warned officials today that the longer they take to make a decision, the more likely they are to hire the interim director already in place.

The more time the process takes, the less rival candidates are likely to stay in the race, according to the headhunter and one candidate who dropped out of the running Monday.

That candidate, Robert Bernardi now at Nicholls State University, also said that the New Orleans Recreation Development Commission appears likely to appoint Vic Richard, over any of the national candidates. Commission members, though, said Wednesday that the process is open to the four remaining candidates.

Landrieu’s key staff were absent from a meeting of the Executive Director Search Sub-Committee of the New Orleans Recreation Development Commission this morning, meaning it couldn’t narrow down the a short list of candidates for the job. Photo by Matt Davis

Over the objections of the search firm, DHR International, the commission decided that the successful candidate does not have to have a college degree, according to minutes from the commission’s October meeting. That move was pushed by Andy Kopplin, Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s chief administrative officer and a member of the commission.

That change favors Richard, who was chosen by the Landrieu administration as the temporary NORD director; he is one of two finalists without a college degree. Further, the administration has said it’s happy with Richard’s performance.

The recruitment process is unfolding as members of the recreation commission have fought to counter  suggestions that the Landrieu administration is pulling the commission’s strings. WDSU-TV reported in May about the administration’s efforts to script the meetings, providing lines for each of the board members.

The commission’s role in selecting a new recreation boss is seen as pivotal in establishing its independence.

Landrieu is under pressure to ensure the recreation commission’s success, having publicly acknowledged its role in tackling the city’s spiraling homicide rate, by providing safe recreational alternatives for the city’s children.

To recruit a new chief executive, the commission signed a $42,500 contract with DHR International in October, and Deputy Mayor Judy Reese Morse said at the time that she hoped to name a new chief in December.

Morse and Kopplin were absent this morning from a meeting of the commission’s committee that’s screening candidates, and attorney Christian Rhodes could only dial in by phone, which meant the six-member sub-committee did not have a quorum and could not vote as it had planned to narrow candidates for second round interviews. Members of the subcommittee seemed perplexed as to how to move forward.

“Not to speak for the entire commission, and obviously we can’t vote because we do not have a quorum, but I think the public has waited long enough for us to come to a decision as it relates to the new executive director,” commission Chariman Roy Glapion said.

The full commission is meeting this evening. Further, the search committee is scheduled to meet Friday to select second-round candidates, and a final decision on a candidate is not expected until Feb. 7 at the earliest. The delays prompted the headhunter to suggest this morning that such a drawn-out process is likely to alienate potential candidates.

“When you are in a process that has been extended as this, your top end of the candidate pool will start making some assessment of what the protracted nature of the search lends itself to saying about their own candidacy, particularly when you have referenced it as such a critical position to be filled,” said DHR Executive Vice President Robert Clayton.

The commission members asked Clayton to delay a return flight to Washington, D.C. so that he could attend Friday’s meeting. He said he had other clients to attend to but that he would try.

Bernardi, athletics director at Nicholls State University, who dropped out of the race on Monday, echoed Clayton’s sentiment in a phone interview with The Lens.

“As I re-evaluated it, I think my responsibilities here and the timing of it were the deciding factors,” Bernardi said. “It was kind of a long process and it carried on into the start of the academic year here.”

Bernardi also changed his mind about the job after watching a December recreation commission meeting on cable-access television, realizing that the commission already has an interim director, he said.

“I saw that they had an interim director who interacted with the committee, and I think things were in place, so that made me think,” Bernardi said.

Bernardi also sent an email to Clayton, saying Richard’s appointment as the permanent recreation boss seemed like a foregone conclusion. The Lens obtained the email through a public-records request this afternoon.

“As I have learned, the gentleman who is the interim CEO (Victor Richard) was personally appointed by the mayor, and has held the position for more than a year,” Bernardi wrote. “By all accounts, the commissioners seemed pleased with his job performance. It seems to me that his appointment as the permanent CEO is likely.”

Now, out of 94 applications, the choice now is between just four candidates.

“The Mayor has said that Vic has done a good job standing up the recreation program thus far,” wrote Landrieu’s spokesman, Ryan Berni, in a text message, when asked whether Landrieu favors Richard for the job. “There is an ongoing process to hire the next CEO/permanent director.”

Richard would not comment on the speculation surrounding the position after a meeting of the NORD Commission on Wednesday afternoon. But he did say that it was an honor to be considered.

“I’m a very simple guy,” Richard said. “I was already home in New Orleans when I got the call to be the interim director. I want to give back, and we’ve only got one chance to get it right. I knew, coming in, that there would be a national search. And my commitment, right now, is a passion. It’s not a career.”

Instead of attending the search committee meeting this morning, Kopplin attended a press conference where Landrieu discussed the major events in town over the past week, although Kopplin did not speak.

Berni did not respond to a clarifying question asking whether the headhunter’s fee is drawn from taxpayer dollars or privately raised money.