The New Orleans Civil Service Commission unexpectedly approved two changes to city personnel rules Monday after a closed-door executive session. But in an unusual move for a public body, commission members declined to explain exactly what those changes to city  policy accomplished, and they wouldn’t confirm after the meeting who voted for or against the changes.

The changes appear to address concerns raised in a lawsuit against the commission, which  contends that overhauls of employment rules in August violated the state constitution.

The agenda for the meeting said only that the board would meet in private to discuss that lawsuit, an exception allowed by the state’s Open Meetings Law. But when the public portion of the meeting reconvened, members added the two changes to the agenda without explanation. Such late additions are allowed under state sunshine laws, but public bodies are expected to explain why late additions were necessary and unanticipated.

Typically, the commission takes comments for 30 days before making changes to the city’s hiring policies. On Monday, the process took less than 30 minutes.

Commissioners declined to respond to repeated requests from members of the public, made during the public-comment portion of the meeting before the vote.

The speed with which the vote was taken raises questions as to whether commissioners or employees in Mitch Landrieu’s administration were privy to the changes. Cherrell Simms, a lawyer in the City Attorney’s Office, signaled that the administration approved of the rule changes, even though she and other members of the public had only a few minutes to read them before the vote.

The new rules deal with hiring, promotion and reinstatement for employees who were either laid off or left voluntarily. They appear to be an attempt to rectify changes made in August, as part of Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s Great Place to Work Initiative, that have since faced a legal challenge from the the city’s two largest police officers’ association and the firefighters union.

“It was an attempt, I’ll say that,” said attorney Claude Schlesinger, who represents the Fraternal Order of Police. In a phone interview with The Lens, he said the changes don’t adequately address the issues raised in the lawsuit.

One change addresses the so-called “rule of three,” which, until August, required the city’s personnel director to give hiring managers only the top three candidates — ranked by exam scores and job status. The August change removed any reference to three candidates, instead requiring the personnel director to forward all names of candidates who passed the exam.

A lawsuit filed by the Fraternal Order of Police — since joined by the Police Association of New Orleans and the firefighters union —  noted that the “rule of three” used similar language to the Louisiana Constitution. Therefore, removing it entirely would be unconstitutional, the suit alleges. In testimony and written analyses presented to the commission before the August vote, Civil Service Department staff members also said they thought the change might violate the constitution.

Monday’s measure uses language directly from the constitution, but instead of setting three as a maximum number of finalists, the new rule uses the number as a minimum. It also eliminates language requiring hiring managers to consider top candidates first when hiring or promoting.

With the change on Monday, “They can just go from anywhere on the list,” Schlesinger said.

He and attorney Ted Alpaugh said that the Fraternal Order of Police is awaiting a December hearing on the lawsuit, which will determine if any of the changes — made in August or on Monday — are legal.

A second change made Monday would return a preference for military veterans when reinstating workers who left their jobs voluntarily or were laid off. It also mandates that managers take length of service to the city “into consideration” for appointments and promotions. The Fraternal Order of Police’s lawsuit brought up both points.

It was initially unclear what the changes did when the commission took a vote. Commission Chairwoman Michelle Craig declined to address comments and questions from the public about what the changes accomplished.

She instead just referred attendees to the written proposals, a one-page document heavy with legal language, made available to the audience given without any supplemental written explanation. The document did not include language from the existing rules as a comparison; typically, proposed changes include highlighted additions and deletions.

“This seems like a booby trap,” Schlesinger said to the board during the public comment portion of the meeting. “The appropriate thing is to put it on the regular agenda and allow people to comment on it.”

The head of the Concerned Classified City Employees group, which is also suing over the Great Place to Work Initiative, also asked the commission for time to review the changes.

“You need to give us some time to look at this because everything you do is going to have a real long-term impact,” Randolph Scott said.  “We need to have a thorough explanation. And we’re not getting anything?”

Approached by reporters after the meeting ended, Craig and other commissioners declined to comment, citing the ongoing litigation.

Landrieu spokeswoman Garnesha Crawford declined to comment on the vote, writing in an email that the city doesn’t comment on pending litigation.

But The Lens’ questions were related to Monday’s votes and whether the administration had knowledge of the two Civil Service Rule changes prior to the meeting, not the lawsuit. And Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin, who was attending city budget hearings at City Hall, declined to comment about today’s meeting.

The commissioners would not even clarify how they voted on the changes. It was unclear if the voice votes were 4-to-0 or 3-to-1, with Joseph Clark, who represents city employees on Commission, dissenting. The Rev. Kevin Wildes was not present for Monday’s votes. Civil Service Department staff members did not immediately respond to a public-records request for meeting minutes.

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...