The New Orleans Civil Service Commission on Monday reaffirmed a controversial Nov. 3 vote that made significant changes to city personnel practices, apparently related to litigation over Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s Great Place to Work Initiative.

That effort was a sweeping overhaul this summer of the city’s policies on hiring, promoting and evaluating employees. The commission agreed to the reconsideration in response to public outcry about its previous vote. The Nov. 3 vote was not announced in an agenda beforehand, and commissioners provided no explanation for why the changes were necessary. Even so, commissioners on Monday again provided little explanation for the policy changes before taking a vote.

The commission also approved a pay raise plan for police officers, even though the proposal is twice as high as a pay raise funded in Landrieu’s 2015 budget.

As The Lens reported earlier this month, the commission’s Nov. 3 vote targeted the most contentious part of the Great Place to Work Initiative, the so-called “rule of three,” which addresses how job candidates are selected. Until August, when the commission adopted Landrieu’s overhaul, the rule 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 the requirement, but a lawsuit filed by the city’s largest police association alleged that the change was unconstitutional.

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.

On Nov. 3, commissioners voted to return a reference to three candidates to the Civil Service Rules, but it set three as a minimum, not a maximum. The change also removed a requirement for hiring managers to consider top-ranked candidates first.

The agenda for the meeting earlier this month only showed a closed-door session to discuss the police lawsuit. But when commissioners returned from the session, they introduced the rule changes. By way of explanation, the commission offered a single sheet of paper with the new rules’ wording.

Commissioners refused pleas from members of the public to explain the changes, citing the lawsuit. The meeting left the impression that the commissioners considered these public policy changes, which have the force of law, to be mere legal tactics, meaning debate on them can be shielded from the public. Moreover, despite having little time to read and consider the new policies, an employee with the City Attorney’s Office almost immediately said that the Landrieu administration approved of them.

On Nov. 4, in response to “concerns raised,” the Civil Service Commission Chairwoman Michelle Craig reconsidered,|The Times-Picayune reported. She requested that the vote be taken again.

On Monday, Commissioner Ronald McClain, who moved for the re-vote, briefly explained that the new policies were related to the lawsuit and left open the possibility that commissioners would tweak them based on public input. He provided little explanation beyond that, not even, once again, an explanation of what the policies would do.

When it became apparent that the commission intended only to hear, but not respond to, questions from the public, employee group representatives, speaking after the commission offered the proposal up for public comment, again urged a transparent discussion.

Rather than protecting city workers, “You are focusing instead on trying to advance the agenda of the city administration,” Fraternal Order of Police Attorney Claude Schlesinger said to the commissioners.

Firefighters union chief Nick Felton said failing to hold a public debate could affect litigation on the Great Place to Work Initiative.

“The intent and the testimony on what the language changes are have extreme importance and value,” he said. “Every day in court, we get two people debating on what the law does and doesn’t do.”

Following public comment, the commissioners voted unanimously to retain the wording they approved earlier this month.

In another move related to Landrieu’s overhaul, commissioners voted to retain lawyer Kim Boyle in litigation related to the Great Place to Work Initiative. Boyle was brought in on an interim basis in September, pending a public bidding process. Her firm was the top scorer among six bidders for the contract.

Later in the meeting, the commission approved a 20 percent pay raise for police officers, based on a recommendation from the Civil Service Department staff. Under the proposal, officers would receive a 10 percent bump next year, to be followed by 5 percent increases in years two and three.

Landrieu’s 2015 budget proposal, however, only accounts for a 5 percent increase, and Landrieu has not committed to continued raises in 2016 and 2017. Funding for the raises will ultimately have to be allocated by the City Council.

The commission approved the proposal above objections from a top Landrieu aide. Alexandra Norton, the city’s director of organizational effectiveness and the chief architect of the Great Place to Work Initiative, said she would support a resolution to the City Council supporting police pay raises.

“I don’t know if you are aware, but the mayor made a recommendation in his budget that he supports a pay increase as well,” she said. But, she added, she didn’t think it was appropriate to attach a specific number to it.

Landrieu’s budget sets aside $4.2 million for a 5 percent increase in 2015. The 10 percent increase, as well as subsequent year raises, would have to be approved by the City Council, which is expected to vote on the 2015 budget later this week.

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...