Government & Politics

Firefighter promotion case could lead to rollbacks in civil service overhaul, employee groups say

The New Orleans Fire Department’s promotion of a few dozen employees has become a referendum on Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s overhaul of how the city hires, promotes and disciplines employees.

The package of changes in 2014, called the Great Place to Work Initiative, gave managers greater leeway in how they make hiring and promotion decisions, in part by reducing the importance of civil service tests.

Before the Great Place to Work Initiative passed, promotions and hiring were based in large part on test scores. In the run-up to the vote, employee groups said that was the best way to ensure decisions are based on merit — as the state constitution requires — rather than favoritism.

At the time, the Landrieu administration argued that the existing rules did not allow managers enough flexibility, often forcing them to settle on candidates who were unsuitable for jobs.

Two years later, the fire chief promoted 41 employees to captain, passing over a number of employees who scored higher on civil service exams.

One of the firefighters who was promoted ranked 117 out of 120 candidates.

Forty-seven of the firefighters who weren’t promoted appealed those decisions to the Civil Service Commission. It oversees personnel policy for the city, with jurisdiction over city departments and the Sewerage and Water Board of New Orleans.

Commissioners heard the firefighters’ case on Monday.

In hearings last year, Fire Department Chief Tim McConnell and his top deputies couldn’t say exactly how they assessed the candidates. Though they had a list of criteria, they had no system to describe how they were applied and no documentation of their evaluations.

In December, Civil Service Department Personnel Director Lisa Hudson released a report saying the promotions violated personnel rules and recommending the promotion of 15 candidates, retroactive to September 2016.

And she recommended rescinding that portion of Great Place to Work.

Employees’ groups said this week the firefighters’ case could lead to an undoing of a portion of Landrieu’s overhaul, which supporters considered a major accomplishment in his administration’s effort to clear City Hall of underperforming bureaucrats.

“That’s what we’re aiming for,” said Aaron Mischler, president of the New Orleans Firefighters Association.

Donovan Livaccari, a lawyer for the Fraternal Order of Police, the city’s largest officers’ association, said he thinks the case could spur some changes.

His group has two similar appeals before Civil Service hearing officers.

Mischler said the firefighters’ union has contacted Mayor-Elect LaToya Cantrell’s transition team, hoping to secure her support to change the rules. Reached Tuesday morning, a spokeswoman said she would check into the matter.

In Monday’s hearing, Christina Carroll, the lawyer representing the firefighters, argued the fire department acted illegally when it chose not to promote her clients.

“In this situation, were my clients’ constitutional rights violated? And it’s clear from the record that they were,” she said.

Two Civil Service Commissioners raised concerns about how the changes they approved in 2014 have played out.

“We’ve implemented Great Place to Work. We’re beyond the test,” Commissioner Michelle Craig said. “This is not what we anticipated. And we are not pleased. At least this commissioner isn’t.”

Commissioner Clifton Moore said if the city is taking the position that Great Place to Work allows the fire chief to promote based on any criteria he chooses, “then the validity has to be reviewed.”

Under the new rules, civil service test results are used to create a promotion list. Assistant City Attorney Corwin St. Raymond said because of the 2014 changes, managers can pick any name from that list.

“I don’t think there’s any basis for anyone to appeal If your name appears on the list,” he said.

McConnell did create a list of 15 criteria that were supposed to be used as a less-subjective measure of the candidates. But the Civil Service Department never approved the criteria. And it was provided to firefighters only after the promotional list had been created.

According to Hudson’s report, the department did not have a scoring system for candidates based on the criteria, and it didn’t provide the Civil Service Department with a list of questions asked during interviews. Interview minutes showed only the date and time of each interview.

“There is no documentation to support why the Fire Superintendent reached down and selected a candidate ranked number 98 on the competitive eligible list instead of a candidate ranked number 3 on that list,” Hudson wrote.

Confronted with those problems on Monday, Assistant City Attorney William Goforth conceded that the “documentation wasn’t the best.”

Hudson’s report, released in December, concluded that the promotions had been made arbitrarily. She wrote that a disproportionate number of black candidates were promoted in front of higher-ranked white candidates, suggesting reverse discrimination.

Hudson recommended the commission return to a test-based system.

“A promotion is no longer merit-based if the appointing authorities can, for all practical purposes, select anyone he or she wants,” she wrote.

Hudson and her staff have long been critical of the Great Place to Work Initiative, particularly the changes in hiring and promotions decisions.

Commissioner Ron McClain voiced a number of concerns about the way the firefighter promotions were handled. But he was reluctant to change promotion policy based on employees’ appeals.

“I don’t think we’re here at this point to relitigate the Great Place to Work rules,” he said. “There’s some concern about some of the representations” in Hudson’s report.

Last week the commission added a last-minute item to the meeting agenda: a closed-door discussion of the “professional competence” of Hudson and Civil Service Executive Counsel Brendan Greene.

Prior to the meeting, The Lens asked Moore and Commissioner Stephen Caputo to explain the addition and whether it was related to the report. They both declined to comment.

Greene denied a public records request for emails related to the agenda item, saying they were exempt from disclosure under protections related to employee evaluations and attorney-client communication.

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About Charles Maldonado

Charles Maldonado covers the city of New Orleans and other local government bodies. He previously worked for Gambit, New Orleans’ alternative newsweekly, where he covered city hall, criminal justice and public health. Before moving to New Orleans, he covered state and local government for weekly papers in Nashville and Knoxville, Tenn.