Government & Politics

On eve of scheduled court hearing about new personnel rules, Civil Service Commission suddenly changes lawyers

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.”

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About Charles Maldonado

Charles Maldonado covers the city of New Orleans and other local government bodies. He previously worked for Gambit, New Orleans’ alternative newsweekly, where he covered city hall, criminal justice and public health. Before moving to New Orleans, he covered state and local government for weekly papers in Nashville and Knoxville, Tenn.

  • nickelndime

    Regarding Cohn’s statement that you are looking for a story where there is none, he should have said, “You are looking for the TRUTH, where there is NONE!”

  • nickelndime

    “Commissioner” Michelle Craig, ESQ Craig? the attorney with Adams and Reese LLP – the attorney who is affiliated with state charter school networks (created the NOMMA Type 2 charter school and Pastorek served it to BESE on a platter) and Caroline Roemer Shirley’s LAPCS, advises and provides pro bono ( yeah, right – free money – have you ever heard of such a thing?) professional development for nonprofit charter boards – federal education Title dollars for-payment-of-services-rendered Craig!? This one? Say no more. Her motto should be, POLITICAL CORRUPTION – IT WORKS FOR ME AND WE CAN MAKE IT WORK FOR YOU! LMAsp (my pet snake) O !!!

  • nickelndime

    Michelle Craig provides professional development workshops to nonprofit charter boards on state Open Meetings Law. What does she show them how to do? Skirt around it and not get caught/cited? Cohn adds insult to injury! The electorate in this city is questionable, but the media should be a cut above the village idiots!

  • nickelndime

    “federal” education – initiatives, spending, i3 grants, Race to the Top, charter schools, nonprofit boards, nonprofit corporations, charter incubators, charter networks, Common Core, PARCC, Arne Duncan, etc.? It should be called “feral” education. It is WILD! Somebody (WE THE PEOPLE) must do better and work to deter the corruption levels in this city, state, and country, or Chinese will become the primary language. Few of us will catch on quickly (posters on classroom doors and body language will not help), and instead of the Limited English Proficient (LEP), it will be LCP. We will be a country of CLL (Chinese Language Learners) and the government bureaucrats and 1% of the wealthiest individuals in the US will shake their heads in disdain of the rest of us (including the poor) and say, “What did they expect?”

  • nickelndime

    Check out the link for September 09, 2014 about the DOJ, and also what one commenter has to say about an IRS quote: “We follow the law…whenever we can.” “Chinese for Dummies” – GET READY!!!