The New Orleans Civil Service Department on Monday came out against a key provision of Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s long-stalled proposal to bring the city’s 911 operations under one agency. Department staff members, asked to review the plan, said there is no need to remove Civil Service protections from workers once they’re moved into the consolidated system.

Call-takers and dispatchers now work for one of three agencies: police, fire or EMS. To improve call response times, the Landrieu administration has proposed consolidating call-takers and dispatchers under the Orleans Parish Communication District, which runs the 911 call center.  They would no longer be city employees, but would instead work for the Communication District, under a contract with the city.

The Communication District is a state-created agency, overseen by a board of commissioners, that is responsible for the call center and a small number of administrative employees, but not the operators and dispatchers who work there. Consolidation, as envisioned by Landrieu, would change that.

The proposal, four years in the works, is waiting final approval from the Communication District’s Board of Commissioners and the City Council. But it hit a snag in September when an attorney for the city’s firefighters union questioned the planned removal of Civil Service protections. The attorney, Louis Robein, also asked how consolidation would affect the firefighters’ collective bargaining agreement.

Civil Service staffers didn’t address the collective bargaining agreement. But they did offer a counter-proposal. Rather than taking approximately 130 employees out of the Civil Service system, designed to protect merit-based hiring and provide employees with disciplinary appeal rights, the city could simply create a new, consolidated city department.

Jerry Sneed, a former deputy mayor who is overseeing the consolidation for Landrieu, said that employees in the newly consolidated system will be given pay raises. And Eric Melancon, an administration official also working on the effort, said all employees who now work in the call center will be offered jobs there after consolidation.

“There will be progressive HR policies put into place,” Melancon said. He added that among his main goals in the contract between the city and the Communication District will be allowing employees to retain their benefits, accrued leave and credit for years of service.

Robert Hagmann, who presented the department’s report before the Civil Service Commission, said the administration’s proposal leaves a number of questions unanswered, especially when it comes to employees keeping their accrued benefits.

“Removal of Civil Service status will require that the employee be terminated from city employment,” he said, meaning it’s not clear how they’d retain their annual and sick leave balances. He also said the staff doesn’t know what the city means when it promises employment protections because the proposed agreement doesn’t mention a disciplinary appeals process. Sneed said an appeals process will be included.

Representatives of the affected employees objected to the proposal.

Nick Felton, the president of the city’s firefighters union, said he was concerned about future employees.

“You know what they’re talking about to you? Current employees,” he said. “The new ones that are going to come in after our dispatchers leave? They’re going to get thrown under the bus.”

“One thing I haven’t heard is why these 130 employees are deserving of everything and more, but they’re not deserving of civil service protections,” said Eric Hessler, an attorney for the Police Association of New Orleans. Referencing the promise of policies that will protect the employees, he said, “What does that mean? We don’t know because it hasn’t been written yet.”

Hessler said the proposal is an attempt to undermine job protections.

“We all know this administration is against Civil Service. You can say otherwise. But we all know it to be true,” he said.

The determination will be left to the commission. When the city moves to take services and employees out of its control, the commission reviews it to determine if it’s being done to enhance city service or as a Civil Service workaround. The commission did not take any action on the matter on Monday. It is scheduled to review it again during its next meeting in January.

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...