Government & Politics
 

Cantrell was given damning file on 911 director prior to firing

The former director of the city’s 911 call center — who was fired at Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s direction last month — was repeatedly accused of mismanagement, including payroll improprieties and racial and gender bias, according to records provided by the city.

Complaints about the former director, Stephen Gordon, were provided to high-ranking officials in Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration at least as far back as 2016, though no action was taken until last month.

Emails and memos obtained by The Lens describe a dysfunctional agency where money was moved around without authorization or documentation.

  • In a 2017 memo, then-Operations Director Shinar Haynes said that Gordon, who is white, “on numerous occasions … has demonstrated bias against women in general and women of color.” She described an incident in which he allegedly passed over a black job applicant in favor of a less-qualified white applicant.
  • Haynes wrote that more than $2 million in the 2016 budget was “moved around or unaccounted for.” Haynes also described finding a $500,000 Communication District bank account that was previously undisclosed.
  • According to a 2017 email from Tyrell Morris, who took over as head of the agency last month, Gordon refused to hire round-the-clock information technology personnel. Coincident with Mardi Gras 2017, the radio system crashed due to a “technology glitch,” and the call center had to wait for IT support to arrive from offsite.
  • In another 2017 memo, then-city Innovation Manager Eric Melancon, who now works for the New Orleans Police Department, said that Gordon allowed an employee to make changes to her own payroll record without any oversight.

“I’ve never been aware of these complaints being made,” Gordon said in a phone interview with The Lens.

Cantrell in early August abruptly demanded that Gordon be fired as the Orleans Parish Communication District’s executive director. And on Aug. 9, the Communication District’s governing board carried out her demand, appointing Morris, the agency’s interim operations director, in his place.

The Aug. 9 meeting appears to have violated the state’s Open Meetings Law. Officials provided few details of the meeting in advance, and a public notice did not indicate that Gordon’s possible termination was on the agenda. Nevertheless, the board voted unanimously and without discussion to fire Gordon, who had led the agency for 10 years following a three-decade career as a New Orleans police officer.

After the meeting, Cantrell’s communications director Beau Tidwell, who also serves as 911 board chair, refused to provide any details on Cantrell’s thinking. At the time, Gordon said Cantrell’s office had not contacted him to offer an explanation, and in an interview this month, he said that he still had not heard from the mayor.

Documents obtained by The Lens through public records requests show that Cantrell was in possession of a file of complaints against Gordon from city officials and communication district employees.

Even with these documents, Cantrell’s specific reasons for firing Gordon remain unclear. Through Tidwell, the Mayor’s Office declined to comment for this story.

Some of the most serious allegations in the documents involve other high-level 911 employees, working directly under Gordon’s supervision. And some of the allegations, such as allegedly illegal cash payouts to employees for vacation time, appeared to have been rooted in policies that predated Gordon’s employment at the agency, which began in 2008. Haynes’ memo is aimed not only at Gordon but at the agency’s governing board, particularly former board chairman, Col, Terry Ebbert. Ebbert is now Cantrell’s director of public safety and homeland security. He did not respond to a request for comment.

Emails leading up to the Aug. 9 meeting show that Cantrell was anxious to oust Gordon quickly.

“This should happen ASAP. We are in the middle of hurricane season,” Cantrell wrote in an Aug. 3 email to her Chief of Staff John Pourciau. “No time for bullshit in this most important department/system.”

Allegations of gender, racial bias

Some of the most troubling allegations against Gordon in Shinar Haynes’ memo involve gender and racial bias. Haynes, who was in charge of 911 operations at the call center, had been brought on in 2015 as the city was consolidating 911 call-takers and dispatchers under the Communication District. Previously, the Communication District employed only a small group of administrative staffers. Dispatchers and call-takers had worked for the police department, the fire department or EMS.

In a Sept. 15, 2017, email to Landrieu’s top deputy, Chief Administrative Officer Jeff Hebert, Haynes said she had grown frustrated with the “inefficiencies, inadequacies and deficiencies” at the agency. She said she planned to file a grievance against Gordon and the 911 board, citing gender, race and ethical problems.

In a memo she sent a week later, Haynes outlined some of her complaints. In one section she described Gordon discussing an applicant’s “legal status,” apparently referring to immigration status, in front of employees at a staff meeting.



“Not only is that a breach of confidentiality but also information like this is highly prejudicial and can contribute to a hostile work environment,” Haynes wrote. “Several employees felt uncomfortable when that happened.”

Later in the memo, Haynes alleged that Gordon had a habit of giving low ratings to job candidates who were women or minorities. She said that during one interview process, she noticed that Gordon “regularly scored female candidates low even when they interviewed very well and scored the interview with white male employees high when both performed poorly.”

In one instance, Haynes charged in her memo, Gordon passed over a black human resources applicant for a lower-rated white one, “despite there being considerable reservations [about]  previous quality of work and lack of knowledge of fundamental HR law.”

In an interview, Gordon denied all allegations of bias. Haynes, who is now the executive director of Tarrant County 911 in Texas, declined to provide details beyond what was in her memo. Tidwell declined to answer any of The Lens’ questions for this story.

Mismanagement

The Communication District was facing an anticipated budget shortfall in 2016, so in late 2015, its governing board voted to move $1.3 million from its capital fund reserves to cover expenses. But the transfer was never completed, according to Cantrell’s office and available documents.

“It is unknown why this decision was made,” Col. Jerry Sneed, who oversaw the consolidation of the agency for the city, wrote in a 2017 email. Sneed guessed Gordon or the agency’s Finance Manager Denise Clayville likely made the decision not to execute the transfer, resulting in a deficit for the year.

Morris, Gordon’s replacement at the Communication District, told The Lens in an interview that the agency ultimately didn’t need the full transfer in 2016. Some planned projects were delayed, he said, while others came in under budget.

According to board minutes from March 2017, the agency’s operating expenses for the previous year came to $11.6 million, $700,000 under its approved budget, but $300,000 more than what it took in. Sneed did not respond to requests for comment.

Haynes also complained about the decision, saying she believed Gordon and Clayville willfully  disregarded the board’s directive.

“Failing to follow the directions of the governing body is a direct neglect of duty,” Haynes wrote.

In his email, Sneed also tallied up what he said were about $2 million in “errors” in the agency’s $13 million budget for 2016, including an unspecified $500,000 “discrepancy.” Haynes’ memo likewise asserted that “2 million dollars’ worth of funds was moved around or unaccounted for by the Finance Manager” that year.


Melancon wrote that Gordon had allowed Clayville to access and change her own payroll records. He was also slow to fix errors in employee paychecks, such as incorrect hourly and overtime rates, Melancon wrote.

Morris, meanwhile, wrote in a 2017 email that Gordon refused to bring in 24-hour IT service, leading to delays remedying a system crash during Mardi Gras.

“There was a major technology glitch where the radio system crashed and that required personnel to respond to the center from their home or reserve police post,” he wrote. “This could have been avoided if [IT staff] were on site.”

Some of the alleged negligence at the agency may have broken the law, the documents charged.

Until 2016, administrative employees at the Communication District were given both annual vacation and “comp time,” additional time off in exchange for working extra hours. Those workers were scheduled for seven-hour shifts, five days per week. But many of them actually worked 10-hour days, thereby accruing significant comp time in addition to their regular vacation time.

Unused comp time didn’t have any cash value, but unused vacation time did. So, according to Haynes, employees used their comp time for vacations while allowing their vacation time to build up until they reached the agency’s cap. Any vacation time they accrued beyond that cap could be paid out in cash.

The combination of policies that led to these payouts predated Gordon’s tenure. But Haynes said she warned in a 2016 memo that the agency’s plan to pay a total of $15,000 in vacation payouts to three employees — Gordon among them — was illegal. She added that the policies weren’t changed until she later brought the matter to the board’s attention at a September 2016 meeting.

“There is nothing necessarily illegal about it,” Ben Chapman, the board’s lawyer, said at the meeting. But, he added, “there are ways to game the system.”

In an interview, Gordon said he wasn’t aware of the cash payouts.

In his 2017 memo, Melancon alleged that over a period of eight years, Gordon allowed “improper use of taxpayer funds for gifts and cash awards in probable violation of the Louisiana Ethics Code for public entities and employees.”

Melancon didn’t respond to a request for comment. But the allegation appears related to a fund that was used in large part for staff rewards — including lunches and gift cards — and an annual children’s poster contest that included cash awards totaling several thousand dollars. Melancon in 2016 questioned Gordon about using taxpayer funds for cash prizes. In a memo responding to the criticism, Gordon responded by email saying he discontinued using agency funds for cash prizes and gift cards after running the issue by the agency’s lawyers.

Referring to an attached budget breakdown, Gordon wrote: “As you can see the cash and gift cards totaled $8,170, most of it for the poster contest.”

“I have no idea what Steve does all day”

Since Tidwell declined to answer any of The Lens’ questions, it’s not clear if Cantrell’s office investigated or tried to corroborate any of the allegations against Gordon.

But complaints about his leadership went back at least two years, with an email from Sneed to Ebbert asking that Gordon be disciplined for a joke he made in an email to staff members.

Sneed would continue to email Ebbert with complaints about Gordon. Last year, in an email about Gordon’s alleged failure to finalize a set of agency policies, Sneed wrote, “To be very honest, I have no idea what Steve does all day.”


In a lengthy email about the agency’s financial dysfunction, he wrote, “After the last couple of weeks discussing the OPCD budget, I realize that Steve is probably even less knowledgeable about managing a department’s budget than I am.”

On January 6, 2017, Melancon sent a memo to Hebert, Landrieu’s top aide, titled “Need for New Leadership at OPCD.” He warned that the Landrieu administration should force Gordon out before state auditors became aware of the agency’s financial mismanagement.

“If these issues were to become public in an audit, the City and Board will be held responsible to the public for not taking action to resolve them,” Melancon wrote.

Haynes’ memo from later in 2017 also went to Hebert. Hebert, like Ebbert, did not respond to requests for comment.

Haynes said she didn’t know why nothing was done until last month.

“At least twice we were told something was going to be done. And we even called emergency meetings,” she said. But they were both called off at the last minute, she said.

Asked if she thought Cantrell and the board made the right move firing Gordon, Haynes said, “Without a doubt.”

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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.