Inside the News Room
 

The Lens’ Week in Review: At mayor’s urging, 911 board abruptly fires director

The governing board of the Orleans Parish Communication District, which runs the city’s 911 service, fired longtime Executive Director Stephen Gordon in a meeting that, to put it mildly, was unusual.

The move came at the strong recommendation of Mayor LaToya Cantrell, who doesn’t directly run the 911 board but has considerable sway over it. She made the decision early this week and urged the board take a vote as soon as possible. But it’s not at all clear why.

What’s more, the board’s meeting appears to have violated the state Open Meetings Law.

The communication district announced the special meeting several days in advance. It was called for by Cantrell’s Communications Director Beau Tidwell, who’s been a member of the board since July.

But no one would tell the public exactly what it was about. The relevant agenda items, namely the firing of the head of a public agency and the appointment of his replacement, were summarized in two words: “Personnel Action.”

The board is a government body working with public money and doing the public’s business. State law demands that when it meets, the public should know what’s it’s meeting about.

In the days leading up to the meeting, The Lens repeatedly tried to point out the problem to the board, requesting a full agenda. But Tidwell, speaking on the board’s behalf, refused, saying “personnel action” was reasonably specific, which is the legal standard.

“I would say that language is not reasonably specific,” said Lori Mince, an attorney who has represented media outlets in a number of government transparency suits. “When they say personnel item, we don’t know what that means. Are they going to hire a new receptionist?”

Notably, the votes to fire and replace Gordon were quick and unanimous, with little discussion other than a statement from Tidwell.

Your weekly Harney charter school update

As a Lens reader, it’s possible that you’ve heard of the Edgar P. Harney Spirit of Excellence Academy, a charter school in Central City.

Yes? Good. Here’s the latest.

This week, reporter Marta Jewson learned that the Orleans Parish school district believes Harney may have violated federal law when it held onto tens of thousands of dollars in employee retirement contributions, keeping them the school’s bank account for months instead transferring them to employees’ retirement accounts.

The move may have denied the school employees unknown amounts in investment earnings. Yet when the school finally deposited the payments, it didn’t include any interest or account for those potential losses.

The district also cited the school for failing to provide adequate services to special education students.

“At this time, Edgar P. Harney is not meeting expectations with regards to its legal obligations to enroll and serve students with disabilities,” a district official wrote in an Aug. 1 warning letter to the school. “It is critically important that your organization address the concerns noted by the [state Department of Education] immediately.”

The school has racked up nine warnings for financial and operations problems this year.

Meanwhile, Harney has been dealing with some administrative turnover. Its chief financial officer — who’s under investigation by the state ethics board — was recently fired. And last month, its board selected a new school leader, for the fourth time in a little over a year.

Three top school district officials resign

Speaking of turnover, the Orleans school district’s central office has recently experienced some of its own.

Three top Orleans Parish school district administrators have resigned from the central office, district officials confirmed.

Assistant Superintendent Adam Hawf and Chief Strategy Officer Colleston Morgan Jr. resigned at the end of July. Forrest Collins, the director of new school development, resigned June 22.

The shakeup came as the Orleans Parish school district took control of all state-run Recovery School District charter schools in a unification plan set into motion by state legislators.

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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.