The legal fight against Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s overhaul of city personnel rules broadened last week when a city employees group filed a lawsuit arguing that the current composition of the city’s Civil Service Commission, which voted to enact Landrieu’s plan in August, violates state and city law.

The group wants the commission’s vote voided, and is seeking an injunction prohibiting it from “enforcing, applying and/or implementing the changes to the rules” adopted in the vote. This is the second lawsuit filed by employee groups seeking to overturn Landrieu’s Great Place to Work Initiative. One filed by the Fraternal Order of Police was delayed until October after the Civil Service Commission took a surprise vote to replace its lawyer on that case.

Gilbert Buras, the Civil Service Commission’s general counsel, said on Monday that he has only taken a brief look at the newer lawsuit and has not spoken to commission members about it.

Landrieu spokesman Hyma Moore declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.

Concerned Classified City Employees, a group that has for years opposed Landrieu’s proposal to change how employees are hired, promoted and evaluated, says that the city’s charter calls for the Civil Service Commission to have seven members, not the five it has. The Commission’s three-to-one vote in favor of Landrieu’s plan was therefore not a legal majority, the suit alleges.

The group’s argument stems from inconsistent language on the Civil Service Commission in the city charter and the Louisiana State Constitution.

The charter does, in fact, mandate a seven-member commission, with nominees selected by local universities and city employees and appointed by a City Council vote. However, that was trumped by a section of the 1974 state constitution — clearly designed to apply only to New Orleans when it was written – that calls for a five-member Commission.

The problem, however, is the language in the constitution applies to “each city having a population exceeding four hundred thousand” or in smaller cities provided a local option election has been held. Without an election, the constitution says, municipalities with populations between 10,000 and 400,000 can opt create their own civil service systems through state statute or local law.

The city’s official 2010 Census population was about 344,000, down from 484,000 in 2000. And New Orleans residents have not voted on the issue since the city’s population went below the 400,000 mark post-Katrina.

“The population dipped below 400,000 according to the latest census under the constitution,” said Arthur Smith, a Baton Rouge-based attorney representing the group, in a phone interview. “The city charter becomes operable.”

But the constitutional provision that created the five-member New Orleans Civil Service Commission does not say anything about the most recent Census count, as the sections on smaller cities do. The city’s population was above 400,000 when the language was approved. Moreover, a subsection lays out the process for nominating five commissioners for the New Orleans Civil Service Commission. That part specifically names the city of New Orleans.

“I think what you have to do is you have to put those provisions together. You have to make sense out of both of them,” Smith said. “I read the Constitution as a whole. When it goes under 400,000, the charter kicks in.”

Charles Maldonado

Charles Maldonado is the editor of The Lens. He previously worked as The Lens' government accountability reporter, covering local politics and criminal justice. Prior to joining The Lens, he worked for...