The New Orleans Civil Service Commission voted Thursday to replace the attorney representing it in a lawsuit seeking to block Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s overhaul of city personnel rules.
The vote, which appears to violate the state’s Open Meetings Law, came the day before a scheduled hearing in that lawsuit.
A contract with the new attorney was set precisely below the price limit that would have required the commission to seek proposals from the public.
The Lens was not there for the vote, but according to Lisa Hudson, the city’s personnel director, the commission voted to replace attorney Gilbert Buras with Phelps Dunbar labor lawyer Kim Boyle. The vote followed an executive session closed to the public.
Buras will remain the commission’s general counsel.
The timing of the decision was surprising because it came so close to a key hearing in the lawsuit. Later Thursday, the hearing was postponed.
Landrieu unveiled the sweeping changes to rules on employee hiring, promotion and evaluation in April, calling them the “Great Place to Work Initiative.” Soon after, employee associations and the Civil Service Department raised concerns about fairness and, in some cases, constitutionality.
Landrieu pulled back on some of his proposals. However, the most controversial one remained: the elimination of the “rule of three,” which requires hiring managers to pick from the three top candidates based largely on test scores. The rule mirrored language in the state constitution; some employee groups believe that getting rid of it altogether is unconstitutional.
Shortly after the commission approved the new rules last month, the city’s largest police association, the Fraternal Order of Police, filed suit to block the changes.
Last week, a judge issued a temporary restraining order, blocking the rules from taking effect. A hearing on a permanent injunction had been set for tomorrow.
“I don’t see anything unusual about it at all,” said Commissioner Edward Paul Cohn, referring to Thursday’s vote. Cohn has been a vocal supporter of the mayor’s personnel rule changes since Landrieu introduced them. “I think you’re looking for a story where there is none.”
Asked why the commission replaced Buras the day before the hearing, Cohn said the agency wanted someone with “fresh opinions” who would “validate the views that we had.”
“I think we figured that working with our — in concert with our current counsel — that someone with a fresh view, someone whose attitude or positions had not necessarily been focused or projected, would give us all a new perspective on the new day for civil service,” he said.
Asked if that meant that the Commission was concerned that Buras was not fully on board with some provisions of the Great Place to Work Initiative, Cohn said, “I can’t comment on that.”
He declined to say anything more specific about the change.
“I have no idea why they did it at all,” said Ted Alpaugh, the attorney representing the police association in the lawsuit. “I’m kind of surprised.”
Alpaugh said the parties were negotiating a new hearing date, probably in October. An employee in Civil District Judge Ethel Julien’s office confirmed Thursday afternoon that Friday’s hearing had been postponed.
Commission chairman the Rev. Kevin Wildes did not immediately return The Lens’ request for comment about the vote. Commissioner Michelle Craig declined to comment, citing the ongoing litigation.
Buras declined to comment on the decision, citing attorney-client privilege. Boyle, his replacement on the case, also declined to say anything.
The vote set Boyle’s maximum fee at $15,000. Any more and the commission would have been required by city law to put the contract out for public bid, and it would not have been able to approve the agreement Thursday.
The executive session appeared on an agenda released before the meeting, but the vote to hire Boyle did not. Moreover, that vote appears to have been illegal.
The state Open Meetings Law requires a public body to vote before adding something to an agenda, and to solicit public comment before adding it.
Both must happen before the body votes on the new item itself. Neither occurred in Thursday’s meeting, according to an audio recording.
The commission also voted to issue a request for proposals for another lawyer for the lawsuit; that vote likewise was not on the agenda. The commission didn’t follow the law on adding that item, either.
Commissioner Rabbi Edward Paul Cohn said there was no agreement before Thursday’s meeting to hire Boyle. The suggestion, he said, was made during the executive session. He did not answer The Lens’ question about who made the suggestion.
“That was done in executive session, where decisions were made and suggestions were made,” Cohn said. Before the meeting, “no one knew exactly what was going to happen.”