Emails show political interference for years in Civil Service system

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Loyola University

The Rev. Kevin Wildes

The same day Pope Francis was elected last year, Loyola University’s president emailed a top city official, calling friendly attention to the opening sentence of Forbes magazine story about the new pontiff.

Like Francis, the Rev. Kevin Wildes, who has led Loyola since 2004, is a member of the Jesuit order of Catholics. At the time, Wildes was also the chairman of the New Orleans Civil Service Commission and quite familiar with his correspondent, First Deputy Mayor Andy Kopplin.

The article began: “If you have a tough job to do, hire a Jesuit.”

Kopplin answered with a bit of flattery: “Perfect. Still got the wrong guy!”

Then Wildes responded: “But then who would take care of Civil Service for you?”

What might be seen jovial banter becomes more telling — and to some, more troubling — when taken in the context of hundreds of emails reviewed by The Lens between Wildes, in his role as a volunteer city official, and top members of Mayor Landrieu’s administration.

As head of the independent, apolitical Civil Service Commission, Wilde’s primary responsibility was to protect about 3,700 rank-and-file city workers from political meddling. At the least, it should have an arm’s-length relationship with the administration. At its most extreme, some believe the commission should have an adversarial stance toward the city’s political leadership, serving as a shield against favoritism and political shenanigans affecting the workforce.

But the emails from Wildes’ tenure show his relationship with the Landrieu administration to be cozy, deferential and even reliant. This relationship perverted the intent of the commission in some cases, turning it into a panel that at times did the mayor’s bidding.

When he took over as mayor, Landrieu promised to, in his words, “reform” the Civil Service system, an effort which eventually came to be known as the Great Place to Work Initiative. The commission approved the changes in August.

Wildes resigned from the commission last week as The Lens was preparing this story, leaving his post nearly three years before his term expired.

The emails reveal the close relationship:

A review of Wildes’ chairmanship shows that the commission did not always cooperate with the administration, however. Some notable examples were the commission’s unsuccessful challenge of the city’s takeover of the police off-duty detail system, as well as its push for pay increases for the police department’s Integrity Control Officers against the department’s wishes. In Wildes’ last meeting as a commissioner on Nov. 17, the commission approved a 20 percent increase over three years for police officers despite the administration’s objections; ultimately, though, only a 5 percent increase in one year was approved by the City Council and the commission.

And in the emails, Wildes repeatedly appeals to the administration to fully fund Civil Service. This included the release of long overdue payments to its contracted lawyer, Gilbert Buras, whose legal opinions on employment matters have occasionally been in conflict with Landrieu’s law department.

EMAILS PASSED ALONG BECAUSE OF ‘DISTRUST’

Nick Felton, who heads the city’s firefighters union and is frequently at odds with Landrieu, provided The Lens with the emails. The Lens confirmed that the emails were authentic, complete and unedited by obtaining duplicate copies through a public records request to the city.

Felton said he passed the emails on because he thought they showed improper interference by the city and a lack of independence on the part of the commission ahead of the vote on the Great Place to Work Initiative.

“When I read these emails, I see the interference is definitely there and very rampant,” Felton said in an interview with The Lens. Although the commission is supposed to protect the interests of employees, he said, “I don’t think we’re getting that protection or representation. … My feeling and my distrust has been confirmed when I read them.”

The commission, which was created by the state constitution, is meant to ensure that city employees are treated fairly and hired and promoted based on achievement. A 1983 state Supreme Court opinion was clear on the intent of the commission, saying those rewriting the new 1974 state constitution clearly believed it should be “safeguarded and removed as far as humanly possible from any form of political influence or any suspicion of political influence or control.”

The emails span from just before Wildes’ confirmation to the commission in 2011 to just after the unveiling of the Great Place to Work Initiative in April 2014. They are mostly between Wildes, Kopplin and Alexandra Norton, a top Landrieu aide who was responsible for coordinating the Civil Service overhaul. The city has not yet responded to a Dec. 1 public-records request for emails covering the remainder of 2014.

The Lens last week requested interviews with Wildes, Kopplin and Norton, as well as Civil Service Commission lawyer Buras and Personnel Director Lisa Hudson, who heads the Civil Service Department as the chief employee of the commission. Each received a selection of Wildes’ emails. All but Wildes didn’t respond or declined to comment on the record. Landrieu spokeswoman Garnesha Crawford, to whom The Lens also sent some of the emails, did not respond to a request for comment.

Wildes responded in a written statement. After he was elected chairman, he wrote, he studied the Civil Service system and concluded it was “in need of major reform.”

“I took the necessary and prudent steps to speak with stakeholders throughout the city to educate myself on the nuances of our system and the reforms that were needed,” Wildes wrote. “In addition to my individual outreach, the commission held two open, public meetings where we received input from citizens, unions and the Civil Service employees.”

A QUIET, QUICK DEPARTURE

Wildes’ tenure on the New Orleans Civil Service Commission came to an unexpected end last month. It only became public last week with a vote by the City Council to replace him with a law professor, one of three candidates nominated by her employer, Tulane University.

The mayor’s office is ostensibly kept at a distance from the nominating process for Civil Service commissioners. Local university presidents nominate four of the five members. The other is nominated by city employees. The City Council reviews and confirms nominations.

The new appointment was surprising because councilmembers did not vet the nominees in a committee meeting, which is the usual practice. Council President Stacy Head apologized during the meeting for the departure in procedure, saying she was concerned about having a full complement of Civil Service commissioners.

Wildes’ resignation came nearly three years before his term was set to expire in June 2017. In a Nov. 18 resignation letter, he told the City Council that he needed to focus on his main job.

“Given the increasing demands of my job as President of Loyola University I have decided that it is best for me to resign from the Commission,” he wrote.

THE HEART OF THE CONTROVERSY

Though cut short, Wildes’ time on the commission was productive. It was also highly contentious. He was chairman for most of that time, leaving the position in September, a month after the commission passed Landrieu’s Great Place to Work Initiative.

The package of changes gave department heads and hiring managers — generally political appointees who report to Landrieu or Kopplin — much greater control over personnel decisions.

The Landrieu administration said the changes would streamline the bureaucratic personnel system and lead to more qualified hires. Opponents of the changes — among them both major police officers associations, the firefighters union and a loosely organized group of city employees and retirees  — argued that the Great Place to Work Initiative would open the door to political patronage, gutting the merit system that the commission was meant to protect.

One of their main concerns is that hiring managers will not be required to choose from the three top-scoring candidates. Instead, they’ll get at least three names, with no limit on how many others are offered. The unions believe this could lead to less qualified people in more jobs.

Wildes was well aware of the opposition. As the vote approached and critics signed up to speak against the initiative in a series of commission meetings, Wildes emailed Kopplin and Norton with a suggestion. The administration, he wrote, should line up its own speakers.

“Might I suggest you get others, eg from the Bus. Council, on the agenda,” Wildes wrote in April 2014. The Business Council of New Orleans & The River Region was already on the record as supporting the initiative. Chairman Paul Flower had appeared at Landrieu’s side less than two weeks before at a news conference announcing the policy overhaul.

WILDES APPOINTMENT CAUSED INITIAL CONCERN

The news conference was a shining moment for Landrieu. After his first-term effort to change Civil Service rules was defeated, Landrieu told The Times-Picayune that he would work to install more friendly commissioners.

Critics of Landrieu’s plan said right away that Wildes was just such an appointment. In 2011, a group of employees led by Randolph Scott — whose organization, Concerned Classified City Employees, recently sued the Civil Service Commission following the Great Place to Work vote — signed a petition protesting Wildes’ appointment. They cited Wildes’ 2006 plan to keep Loyola fiscally healthy after Hurricane Katrina by eliminating academic programs and employees. In July 2011, the City Council voted 4-2 in favor of Wildes’ confirmation.

One month before that, Wildes discussed his nomination to the commission with Kopplin via email. He offered Loyola’s services as a fiscal agent to help the city bring in the Public Strategies Group, a Minnesota-based consultant, to draft the Civil Service overhaul. The company already had criticized the Civil Service system in a 2011 report that was funded in part by Loyola.

Rather than procure Public Strategies Group directly, the city wanted an outside fund to pay the company. According to city officials, using such a fund would mean the city could pool public and foundation money for the work. It also allowed the fiscal agent to hire the company without a public bidding process.

In 2012, Wildes changed his mind, saying his position as chairman on the commission now created a conflict of interest.

Baptist Community Ministries eventually took on the role of the fiscal agent for the project.

OPEN MEETINGS LAW CIRCUMVENTED

Late in 2011, Kopplin suggested Wildes meet Norton, the administration’s point person on Civil Service changes, and the two began corresponding regularly. Over the next year and right up until the passage of the Great Place to Work Initiative, they worked closely together. The emails suggest they repeatedly violated state sunshine laws.

Norton jumped right in to suggest the administration’s plan, showing Wildes exactly what policy changes the administration had in mind, including giving hiring, promotion and salary-setting authority to department directors — which would essentially “turn civil service into a consultancy.”

She followed up a few days later with a request to meet with Wildes.

“I need to get your ideas on what our goals should be – both big and detailed,” Norton wrote, then added that because a provision in the state constitution applies New Orleans’ Civil Service system to cities with a population greater than 400,000, and that the city had gone below that mark, “Do we need to have civil service?”

A little over a week later, apparently following their first in-person meeting, Wildes responded: “great to meet today! stay in touch. We can make this happen!”

Because the state Open Meetings Law prohibits the convening of a majority of a public body outside a public meeting, Norton would not be able to speak confidentially or meet with the entire commission about overhauling Civil Service, or any other topic, at once. But in March 2012, Wildes had a thought.

“What [if] we had individual meetings like had with joe with each of the

other Civil Service commissioners?” he wrote to Norton. “I could host them. Might be worth the investment.”

As it turned out, Norton already had meetings scheduled with two commissioners: Amy Glovinski and Dana Douglas. Wildes offered to arrange another with Commissioner Debra Neveu.

It’s not clear from the emails what was discussed at the meetings. If they talked about commission business, the meetings could be considered walking or rolling quorums, “a device used to circumvent the Open Meetings Law so as to allow a quorum of a public body to discuss an issue through the use of multiple discussions of less than a quorum,” the Louisiana Attorney General’s Office wrote in a 2012 opinion. It goes on: “The effect of such action permits a public body to know how a majority of the public body would vote on an issue without the public having the benefit of observing such a discussion. This practice is not permissible by the Open Meetings Law.”

Having made arrangements for the meeting with Neveu and Norton, Wildes wrote to Norton on March 28: “Great….what is your timetable for bringing all this to the commission?”

In a much clearer violation of the law later in the year, Norton requested individual meetings to discuss the administration’s first firm policy proposals. The next month, Norton sent another email to Wildes and two other commissioners, a majority of the board, indicating that they had met.

The collaboration between Norton and Wildes became closer in the spring of 2012, when Norton submitted a letter to Wildes calling for all parties interested in Civil Service to work together on a reform plan. The letter, however, was not a message from the mayor’s office to the commission. The letter ostensibly was from the Civil Service Commission, though it’s apparent that Norton was the author and the commission had never seen it.

“Am I the author of the letter?” Wildes wrote back. No, they decided. It should be from the entire commission. Norton, who had been meeting individually with commissioners, said that would be best “because they do all support reform.”

When the letter was ready to go out to the other commissioners, Wildes even asked Norton to provide a summary, should he be asked.

“I am going to get it out to each of the commissioners. in 25 words or less, if asked, what’s the purpose of the letter (what do we hope to accomplish)?”

Wildes indicated to Norton that he at least edited the letter.

SEEKING HELP IN FILLING THE COMMISSION

Earlier this year, a report by NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune indicated that Wildes didn’t understand the nominating process — even though he’s the president of a university that nominates members to the Civil Service Commission. The report showed an email exchange between Wildes and Hudson. Hudson asked Wildes to approve a letter she was about to send to Xavier University asking for nominees.

“Have you done this in the past? I thought this was the duty/job of the mayor’s office,” Wildes emailed back.

Other emails show that on at least two occasions, Wildes alerted the mayor’s office to vacancies on the commission and asked for recommendations, including for Loyola’s spot.

Neveu, Dillard University’s nominee, resigned in April 2013. Wildes forwarded a copy of her resignation letter to Kopplin, writing “Call Walter! Then I’ll call him,” presumably referring to Dillard President Walter Kimbrough.

Kopplin replied by saying he would “circle up over here” and get back to Wildes.

“Just let me know what you need,” Wildes responded.

In September 2013, Glovinski, Loyola’s appointee, resigned. Again, Wildes forwarded the news to Kopplin.

“Let me know any suggestions you have as Amy was nominated by Loyola,” he wrote.

Several days later, he reached out to Kopplin again, asking to “chat sometime about a new nominee to the Commission.” In his next email, sent to Kopplin, Landrieu, Council President  Jackie Clarkson and the offices of the other nominating universities’ presidents, Wildes said he would step away from making the nomination and hand it over to the other universities.

“I hope, in doing this, we will avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest,” Wildes wrote.

STANDING ON PRINCIPLE, BUT KEEPING OPTIONS OPEN

In some instances, Wildes broke from the general pattern, challenging the administration and expressing a desire for an open, transparent process. In one April 2014 exchange, in which Norton and Wildes are discussing Hudson’s markup of the Great Place to Work Initiative — and how to address it before a meeting — Wildes said he wanted the process “to unfold … in public.”

In another, Wildes, whose academic field of study focused on ethics, refused Norton’s request for a copy of one of Buras’ legal opinions.

“What I have from Gilbert is a work product for the Commission. I am bound by that confidentiality and, unless the Commission gives permission to release it I am bound,” he told Norton. A year earlier, though, he forwarded one of Buras’ legal analyses to Norton. He did not say in the email if he sought permission from other commissioners before doing so.

Still, in the majority of the exchanges, especially those dealing with the Great Place to Work Initiative and its earlier incarnations, Wildes seemed chummy behind the scenes, and all too willing to accommodate the administration.

In October 2013, a difficult Loyola Board of Trustees meeting was approaching. The university faced a large budget shortfall due to sharply declining enrollment, and the board was set to consider options for cutting its deficit and raising money.

Wildes wrote an email to Kopplin just before the meeting. Wildes ended the message with a quip about the possibly contentious gathering.

“I may be out of a job by tomorrow, since I serve without contract, so I could go to work for you full time!”

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