Landrieu team takes 2nd stab at civil service reform

Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration will take another crack at revising what it sees as an outdated and inefficient civil service system this month when it presents its “Great Place to Work Initiative” to the Civil Service Commission.

The proposed overhaul would give City Hall supervisors greater flexibility in hiring, evaluating, promoting and rewarding employees. It also would increase the minimum wage for city workers to $10.10 an hour. The administration unveiled the proposals at a news conference Thursday.

The changes are intended, in part, to ensure that New Orleans can hire the best applicants for available positions and retain high-performing employees, Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin said.

He called the city’s current human resources system “antiquated.”

“We think it doesn’t reward or foster a culture of excellence,” Kopplin said. “And it doesn’t provide the career opportunities that our employees seek.”

The proposed overhaul is something of a retreat on the Landrieu administration’s part, at least compared with an effort in 2011 to change civil service rules. This time, the administration is not asking the Civil Service Commission to do away with the controversial “bumping rule,” a measure designed to protect workers with seniority. That plan drew the ire of many rank-and-file city workers and unions when it was proposed.

Of the city’s 4,362 employees, 3,721 are classified workers with civil service protection. The rest are unclassified employees who can be hired and fired at will, and who largely work for the mayor, inspector general, City Council or municipal, juvenile and traffic courts.

The new plan includes revisions to 32 personnel rules and the addition of one new policy. The changes are divided into five categories: better hiring techniques, better careers, better pay, better processes and better training.

No changes are proposed in the protections given to civil service employees regarding dismissals and appeals.

The proposed changes include the elimination of the “rule of three” policy, which requires managers to consider only candidates who fall in the top three hiring tiers for an available position based on how they scored on an aptitude test. The test score is one part of the hiring criteria. The Civil Service Commission also sets other qualification criteria, such as college education.

Kopplin said the current rule eliminates from consideration qualified candidates who could be a better fit based on characteristics other than having the highest test scores.

“This allows us to hire, we think, the best candidates,” he said. “We want managers to be able to outfit their organizations with people they think are best to do those jobs.”

The administration also wants to give managers the ability to occasionally deviate from an approved salary range when attempting to recruit top talent, and to give merit-based promotions and pay increases, instead of having to seek the approval of the Civil Service Commission.

The changes would allow departments to hire and retain better workers, said Charlotte Parent, director of the city’s Health Department. Parent said her office often loses employees to the private sector because it can’t match the pay.

Raising the minimum wage for all city employees to $10.10 would increase the pay for about 200 workers and add $350,000 to the city’s budget.

Landrieu called the proposed changes “commonsense reforms.”

“We need to create a workforce system where morale and performance are high and are rewarded,” Landrieu said. “This is all about making city government a better place to work and at the end of the day will result in better service for our residents.”

The proposed revisions are in sync with the types of changes the Bureau of Governmental Research has advocated for more than a decade. Janet Howard, president and CEO of the watchdog group, said that while BGR has not done a full analysis of the mayor’s proposal, it includes many of her group’s recommendations, including giving more flexibility in hiring and management to individual city departments.

“They haven’t covered everything we’ve recommended,” Howard said. “But they’ve covered the basics.”

Members of the City Council and the heads of Greater New Orleans Inc. and the Business Council of New Orleans and the River Region all expressed support of the proposal.

The plan appears unlikely to draw objections from the five-member Civil Service Commission.

Board member Rabbi Edward Paul Cohn said the administration has offered up “enlightened, progressive, fair, wonderful ideas.”

“Entering the room where the Civil Service Commission meets, suddenly one’s feet are covered in Super Glue,” Cohn said. “You cannot get anything done, and everything takes a very, very, very slow rhythm.” He said the commission “is absolutely supportive of the reforms, which will invest in our city’s workforce.”

But there certainly will be opposition when the board meets to consider the overhaul. Two police unions already have denounced the plan.

“Everything proposed is the antithesis and a complete contradiction of the purpose and process of civil service,” said Raymond Burkart, a spokesman for the Fraternal Order of Police. He said the proposed rule changes give too much power to politicians and political appointees. “Civil service’s mission statewide is to ensure that government, state and local workers are not beholden to an elected politician or family dynasty,” he said.

Michael Glasser, president of the Police Association of New Orleans, gave a similar assessment, though he said he had not yet thoroughly reviewed the proposal.

“The mayor is attempting to put things solely in his purview,” Glasser said. “We are definitely not in favor of this proposal.”

The police unions also spoke out against Landrieu’s similar proposals a few years ago.

Landrieu tried early in his first term to update what he said was an outdated civil service system. But the revision he proposed was lambasted for including a call to abolish the “bumping rule,” a policy that allows workers whose jobs are eliminated to take the jobs of employees in other departments who have similar duties, but less seniority.

Rank-and-file employees believed the proposed change was a harbinger of layoffs.

“It caused a lot of concern,” Kopplin said, adding that the city had to “regroup” after failing to get the measure passed.

“The first step out of the box didn’t go so well,” Kopplin said. “We lost some hearts and minds, and we want to make sure that this time we get them back.”

The administration hopes to present its proposal at the Civil Service Commission’s April 21 meeting. The commission can either vote on each change individually or adopt them all at once. The soonest the new rules could take effect is May 21.

The revisions involving changes in pay also would need the approval of the City Council.