Mayor LaToya Cantrell. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

The chair of the New Orleans Civil Service Commission for the last five years, Michelle Craig, was quietly replaced on the commission this month without any public discussion or explanation, even though she wanted to continue in the role and had the support of city Personnel Director Lisa Hudson. 

Mayor LaToya Cantrell actively lobbied the City Council to replace Craig with Ruth White Davis, who works for the Department of Veteran’s Affairs, citing concerns that there was an overrepresentation of union interests on the commission. And emails obtained by The Lens suggest that the City Council may have violated Louisiana’s Open Meetings Law when it confirmed Davis’ appointment from a list of three nominees.

The Civil Service Commission deals with employee discipline, newly created positions, promotions, furloughs, layoffs and other personnel matters of interest to the Mayor’s Office. The commission is meant to shield city personnel decisions from political influence.

Mayors have faced scrutiny in the past for alleged political interference with the commission. In 2014, The Lens reported on former Commissioner Kevin Wildes and his apparently close relationship with officials in then-Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration. Wildes, who served as the commission’s chair, was a key figure in the passage of a sweeping Landrieu-backed Civil Service overhaul.

Davis’ recent appointment comes as the city is contemplating significant cuts to personnel due to the potentially massive revenue shortfalls caused by the coronavirus crisis.

The City Council appointed Davis to the commission on Oct. 1, but she has not yet been sworn in during a commission meeting. She will replace Craig, who has served on the commission as the Dillard University representative since 2013. Four out of the city’s five commissioners are nominated by local universities. The fifth is nominated by city employees. 

Each university nominates three people to fill a Civil Service vacancy, and the council votes on an appointment. In the past, the council has considered all three nominees, either in a committee vote or in a full meeting. But that didn’t happen in this case. The council only considered Davis.

The day after the council confirmed Davis’ appointment, Hudson asked City Council Deputy Chief of Staff Eric Granderson how council members decided to choose Davis without considering the other two nominees. Granderson responded that council members had been able to “reach a consensus among themselves” regarding their preferred nominee. It does not appear that the consensus-building process occurred in a public meeting. 

The City Council’s Interim Chief of Staff Paul Harang told The Lens in a statement that “there was no communication that occurred between Councilmembers which violated the Open Meetings Law.” He did not provide further explanation and did not respond to follow up questions. 

Major personnel decisions on the horizon

The leadership change comes at a key time for the commission, as the city prepares for large personnel cuts due to coronavirus-related revenue shortfalls. Some of those changes will likely require action from the Civil Service Commission. Already this month, Cantrell’s administration asked the commission to waive noticing requirements to institute citywide furloughs.

In a letter to the Commission, Cantrell said that the furloughs would likely only be the beginning, and that further personnel cuts, possibly including layoffs, could be ahead. 

“Unfortunately, I anticipate that I may need to make additional requests of the Commission in the coming months,” the letter said. “When we introduce the 2021 budget at the end of this month, that budget will necessarily include personnel spending cuts.”

Cantrell also openly cast doubt on the commission’s decision-making under Craig’s leadership. On Sept. 29, days before the City Council voted to approve Davis’ appointment, Cantrell sent a letter to all council members, complaining that Civil Service was biased towards union interests and urging them to approve Davis’ nomination.

“As the City approaches what will be one of its toughest budget years since Hurricane Katrina, there is a significant risk that decisions made by the Commission will produce unfunded mandates for the City,” the letter said. “The vote before you on Thursday of the Dillard nominee to the Civil Service Commission is critical to making changes that are going to position the City to competitively attract and retain talent for years to come, and I urge you to support the nomination of Ruth Davis to the commission.”

Cantrell pointed out that the Civil Service Department’s executive counsel, Christina Carroll, once represented the city’s firefighters union and that Commissioner Clifton Moore — the city employees’ representative on the commission — is a member of the firefighters union. 

Cantrell’s letter charged that Craig didn’t take Carroll’s conflict of interest seriously enough and that Craig “has become more reluctant to deny employee appeals” since Carroll was hired.

The city’s Chief Technology Officer Jonathan Wisbey had already expressed the same concern in a September 4 email to a personnel administrator within the Civil Service Department.

“The administration believes that by recently hiring an attorney that was the attorney of record for a city labor union for many years, Civil Service has already demonstrated a willingness to hire attorney’s with conflicts of interest,” he wrote. “Altogether, it is difficult to consider the current environment a fair and neutral forum conducive to hiring a fair neutral attorney.”

One day before the commission’s Oct. 8 vote on the furloughs, Wisbey emailed Hudson to ensure that Davis would be installed on the commission in time to cast a vote. 

“I wanted to express the city’s desire to add the additional agenda item of swearing in the new Civil Service Commissioner Ms. Ruth White Davis prior to the proposed commission vote,” Wisbey’s email said. “It seems prudent, given the council’s actions, that Ms. Davis be appointed in time to cast such an important vote.”

But the commission is only meeting via videoconference, and under a new law, public bodies are only to meet electronically to discuss essential matters. It was not clear that the swearing-in met the criteria.

In response to questions from The Lens, a Cantrell spokeswoman said that “Mayor Cantrell has already outlined her concerns regarding Civil Service,” and forwarded its letter to the council urging Davis’ confirmation. Davis could not be reached for comment. Craig declined to comment.

‘Consensus among themselves’

In late August, Dillard President Walter Kimbrough submitted a list of three nominees for Civil Service Commissioner after Craig’s term ended. The list did not include Craig, and put Davis as the top nominee. 

But less than a week later, Kimbrough amended the list.

“I was under the impression that Michelle Craig was no longer eligible to serve but was notified today she can serve another term and is interested in continuing,” he said in an email to Hudson.

The new list put Craig as the top nominee, and moved Davis down to second. 

“Fabulous!” Hudson responded. “Michelle has been our Chair for several years and we have really appreciated her leadership.”

But on Sept. 21, Kimbrough amended the list once again. The third list had the same three nominees as the second list, but Davis was bumped up to the top nominee, and Craig was pushed down to the third listed nominee. 

The order of the nominee list is important. According to New Orleans’ city charter, the top nominee is automatically installed on the commission if the City Council doesn’t take action within 30 days of the nominee list submission. In his email to Hudson, Kimbrough only explained the change by saying that he “left off the wrong person when submitting the names.”

In an email to The Lens, Kimbrough said that his final list prioritizing Davis over Craig came after he “received information Davis really was interested in being considered.”

“It made no difference to me who was on the list so if people expressed an interest I had no problem honoring that,” Kimbrough said. “I was simply trying to fulfill a requirement for a political task we have no stake in.”

Kimbrough wouldn’t say exactly who gave him the information that Davis was interested in the seat. He instead argued that it was unnecessary for Dillard University to be involved in the process at all. 

“Since I have been here I have hated this system where universities have to play a role in political appointments, particularly because events like this are bound to happen,” Kimbrough said. “Because Dillard has no interactions with these commissions, we seek input from those who do interact with them.”

According to the October email from Granderson to Hudson, the City Council was using the second list submitted by Kimbrough — which listed Craig as the top nominee — since Kimbrough’s third list was sent outside of the allowed time frame. He said the City Council central staff prepared motions for all three nominees and sent them, along with nominee questionnaires, to the City Council Governmental Affairs committee. 

Those motions never appear on any Governmental Affairs committee meeting agenda, however.

“Committee chairs can include or not include instruments on committee agendas according to their discretion,” City Council Interim Chief of Staff Paul Harang told The Lens in an email. 

Those motions, although never appearing on a committee agenda, were then forwarded to the full City Council, according to Granderson’s email.

“Members review all nominations and attempt to reach a consensus among themselves and if they do, submit a motion for that individual,” Granderson’s email said. “That is what happened in this instance.”

Louisiana’s constitution mandates that “no person shall be denied the right to observe the deliberations of public bodies.” The state’s Open Meetings Law prohibits members of public bodies from meeting in a quorum, or majority, to discuss or decide on public matters. 

State Attorneys General has upheld that this also applies to “walking quorums,” where a public body never had a physical meeting with a majority of members, but were able to gain a consensus among a majority by strategically having people enter or leave the meeting, emailing absent members or polling a majority of members.

Michael Isaac Stein

Michael Isaac Stein covers New Orleans' cultural economy and local government for The Lens. Before joining the staff, he freelanced for The Lens as well as The Intercept, CityLab, The New Republic, and...