New Orleans Deputy Mayor Andy Kopplin made an appearance in the D.H. Holmes Ballroom at the Chateau Bourbon Hotel on Monday, Sept. 12, to brief members of the Bureau of Governmental Research (BGR) of the Landrieu Administration's progress in reforming city government.
"Today is the 500th day in the Landrieu administration," Kopplin said, a fact no one in the room seemed know but which lent the mostly dry policy speech an air of significance. "We have 960 days to go."
Kopplin reminded the audience of the mess the Nagin administration left Mayor Mitch Landrieu — blight, disorganization, a bad image, a reputation for corruption, budget problems and more.
Then he listed the many new initiatives Landrieu and his staff have enacted to deal with some of those problems, particularly those started since last March, when consultant David Osborne of the Minnesota-based Public Strategies Group (PSG) called New Orleans government the most dysfunctional he's seen in his more than two decades in public policy
Osborne made that now-infamous comment as he presented PSG's report City of New Orleans: A Transformation Plan for City Government. That document, a two-phase strategy that putatively seeks to remedy inefficiency, improve customer service and use public dollars more effectively, has been fully embraced and adopted by the administration as its blueprint.
The audience, which included City Council President Jackie Clarkson and mostly BGR members (i.e. local business leaders with a heavy emphasis on finance and real estate development) ate up the report, or seemed to.
BGR president Janet Howard says Kopplin and the city so far have failed to address one area she believes is paramount to any true reform strategy: civil service rules, which guide procedures for hiring, firing, layoffs, discipline and promotions for the more than 5,500 City of New Orleans employees.
"The city needs a comprehensive approach to civil service reform," Howard says.
Under its "Cut Red Tape" section, the PSG report makes nine recommendations for changing civil service rules and procedures, including simplifying job classifications, broadening pay grades, easing restrictions on hiring and firing, and aggressively recruiting from outside city government.
"[Kopplin] touched on the subject," Howard says.
In very general terms, Kopplin said the city will push the rules changes through the Civil Service Commission, the five-member body that makes and amends civil service rules. But it was one of the last and shortest parts of his presentation. When a BGR member pressed the issue in the question-and-answer portion, Kopplin mentioned the new appointments of longtime New Orleans public library employees Joseph Clark and Loyola University President the Rev. Kevin Wildes to the commission. He predicted the two will work to adopt whatever recommendations come from City Hall.
The commission is made up of five members, one chosen by city employees and four chosen by local universities — Dillard, Loyola, Tulane, the University of New Orleans, Southern University at New Orleans and Xavier University. Whenever there is a vacancy, each group will get to present three nominees to the council.
Clark, who has indicated he favors civil service reform, was the employees' third choice of three.
Wildes, who replaced Chairman William Forrester Jr. and was nominated by Tulane University, is seen as friendly to the administration — Landrieu also nominated Wildes to his position on the New Orleans Public Belt Railroad's Board of Commissioners — and hostile to labor. That's what the Concerned Classified City Employees group argued when it attempted to file an injunction against Wildes' appointment. According to documents in Orleans Parish Civil District Court, the group cited Wildes' 2006 "Pathways" plan to make Loyola — then facing a $15 million deficit — solvent after Hurricane Katrina. The plan eliminated 14 majors and professors who were tenured or on a tenure track. Faculty in the university's College of Humanities and Natural Sciences recorded a 61-19 vote of no confidence in Wildes, due in large part to his handling of the plan. In media reports attached to the injunction, professors said Wildes hadn't followed proper protocol and had failed to consult faculty before making the changes. Judge Paulette Irons denied the injunction and, on July 21, City Council approved the appointment in a 4-2 vote with Council members Cynthia Hedge-Morrell and Jon Johnson voting no and Councilman Arnie Fielkow abstaining. Wildes did not respond to Gambit's request for comment.
Wildes and Clark will be sworn in at commission meeting Sept. 19. Members of the Concerned Classified City Employees group are also scheduled to speak at the meeting.
Many city workers believe both those appointments, along with the city's first proposed change in layoff (or bumping) procedures, signal the beginning of an overhaul that could leave city workers in constant fear of losing their jobs or having their departments privatized, with few protections.
"When the Civil Service Commission had a hearing on bumping, 200 city employees spoke," says Helene O'Brien, president of Service Employees International Union Local 21, which represents 600 city employees. "Workers are scared."
In June, the administration presented the commission with proposed changes to civil service rule XII, known as the "bumping" rule, which governs layoff procedures. Under the current system, when positions are eliminated, veteran employees are placed in positions within or outside their department, "bumping" someone else. It can cause a chain reaction.
The administration's position is that the bumping preference is based primarily on seniority rather than merit, which echoes both PSG and a 2004 report the BGR released on civil service. Still, the mayor wasn't proposing an elimination of the current system, but rather a change to keep bumping within departments affected by layoffs rather than bumping employees from one department to another.
O'Brien, on the other hand, says an employee's rating in three-year performance evaluations are what determine an employee's eligibility, a position backed by Lisa Hudson, city personnel director.
Even if that's the case, Howard argues, the evaluation system is flawed. Managers, aware that evaluation will determine layoff status, are often reluctant to be honest.
"You can't have a merit system without a proper review process," she says.
O'Brien and Howard both have criticisms of the PSG's take on civil service reform. They both say it's not detailed enough and that PSG did not do thorough research into real problems.
"It's almost anecdotal, the way the report is done," O'Brien says. She notes that PSG interviewed only 60 people — city employees, politicians and residents — but doesn't say who those people are. Hudson tells Gambit that personnel were involved in its development, but only minimally.
"I think I remember meeting with them for about an hour," Hudson says. "I don't really see what the big deal with that report is. It's mostly just ideas we've seen in earlier reports [such as the 2004 BGR report]. There aren't a lot of original ideas in there."
In many cases the complaints cited in the report are not actually addressed by the recommendations, O'Brien says.
"[Employees] believe in reform," she says. "They just don't believe civil service rule reform is the problem ... I think you'll find the real problem is not the rules. The real problem is the management. The workers are the victims of that bad management. And the workers are being blamed for that bad management."
She says management and private sector contractors who work for the government will see most of the benefits from the types of civil service rules reform that PSG, the BGR and the Landrieu administration want. Howard disagrees.
"There's resistance to change in general and there's going to be tremendous resistance to civil service change in particular," Howard says. "While some people may be opposed if they believe it will hurt them, reform will certainly be advantageous to a lot of people, especially those people who are doing a good job. The city cannot deliver service to the public unless it has a good work force."