Over the objections of a roomful of city employees and union representatives, the New Orleans Civil Service Commission voted today to approve Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s plan to consolidate the city’s 911 call center operators and dispatchers — who now work for the Police Department, the Fire Department or EMS — under one agency, the Orleans Parish Communication District, a state-created agency outside of city government.

The commission’s vote means that it could find no evidence that the plan, which would remove Civil Service job protections from more than 100 employees, was motivated by politics.

Representatives from the city’s firefighters union and its two largest police associations, as they did at the commission’s December meeting, argued that there was a clear political motivation: weakening the Civil Service system.

“It’s a political decision motivated by the diminution or elimination of the Civil Service system,” Louis Robein, a lawyer for the firefighters union, said during the meeting. Fire dispatchers at the 911 call center are also covered by a collective bargaining agreement, a benefit it appears they would lose because they would no longer be employees of the Fire Department.

Eric Melancon, a Landrieu administration official working on the consolidation plan, however, said the decision to move the employees out of city employment was motivated by financial concerns. Melancon noted that state law requires fire communications personnel to receive salaries at least 25 percent higher than firefighters. Since consolidation requires training all call center employees to take any type of call — police, fire or medical emergencies — that would have to be extended to all of them. Melancon said that would cost the city nearly $1 million annually.

The commission’s approval does not mean the consolidation plan is complete. That will require a vote of the Communication District’s Board of Commissioners, which is meeting Tuesday, and, finally, the City Council. It does, however, mean that the commission does not plan to challenge the plan in court.

That came as a disappointment to much of the audience attending the meeting, largely made up of city employees and their representatives, several of whom spoke out against the plan because they feared the loss of guaranteed Civil Service protections — including the rights to appeal firing or discipline. But as commission members, and attorneys for the commission and the city, repeatedly reminded attendees, when making a determination on whether outsourcing city work is justified, the commission doesn’t have the authority to vote on what’s best for the city or even the employees. Under a 2003 Supreme Court decision, the commission can only apply two criteria to make a decision.

They first must determine if outsourcing plans would affect Civil Service employees. In this case, the answer was yes. All would be terminated, although Col. Jerry Sneed, who has been leading the consolidation effort for Landrieu, has repeatedly said that everyone who works at the call center now will be offered a job there after consolidation. Then the commission must weigh in on whether the decision is being made “for reasons of efficiency and economy” rather than politics.

Sneed and Melancon both said that call center employees would be receiving raises — enough, they said, to make up for the loss of state supplemental pay for municipal first-responders — if they stayed on post-consolidation. Job protections, they said, would be part of a yet-to-be-unveiled HR policy. But employees in the audience were skeptical, with several calling out during discussion, saying that the figures the two cited were actually below their current pay rates.

“These people don’t trust the city,” said Eric Hessler, a lawyer for the Police Association of New Orleans. He pointed out that moving the employees out of city employment would place them under the authority of the Communication District board. A majority of the board’s membership is made up of high-ranking officials in the Landrieu administration, including his First Deputy Mayor, Andy Kopplin.

“You know who sits on the board of the OPCD? Mr. Kopplin, several other political appointees,” Hessler said.

Before the vote, Robein, the firefighters union attorney, appealed to the commission to consider the objections of the employees.

“I suspect that nine out of 10 would retain their civil service status, as well as their collective bargaining rights” if given the choice, he said.

But Civil Service commissioners said they found no clear evidence that the plan was motivated by politics. Commissioners Tania Tetlow and Ronald McClain voted in favor. Joseph Clark, the official representative of city employees on the commission, abstained, citing the concerns of the employees. Commissioners Michelle Craig and Cordelia Tullous were absent for the vote.

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...