4 Investigates: Critics say proposed changes to Civil Service system would be step backward

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wwltv.com

Posted on September 12, 2012 at 10:28 PM

Updated Wednesday, Oct 30 at 7:04 AM

Brendan McCarthy / Eyewitness News
Email: bmccarthy@wwltv.com | Twitter: @bmccarthyWWL

NEW ORLEANS -- Mayor Mitch Landrieu will soon propose huge changes to the city’s Civil Service system, a move that would affect thousands of city employees.

Landrieu’s administration is relying on a consultant’s report that found the city’s decades-old hiring and human resources system to be cumbersome, complex and largely ineffective.

A representative for more than 500 city police officers says the shift would be a step backwards.

Draft documents obtained by 4 Investigates outlines these proposals, which leaders have been planning for months and will likely announce in coming weeks.

The changes could mean a faster hiring process and the elimination of tests for promotions. Also, bosses would be given much more power and could use financial bonuses to reward good work.

For example, departments could create “alternative compensation plans” that reward units or employees who meet their goals.

Landrieu spokesman Ryan Berni said the changes are much-needed and long overdue.

“What we know is that city government has to get more effective, especially the ability to be able to hire folks and have them advance in the system,” Berni said.

Eric Hessler, attorney for the Police Association of New Orleans, said the proposals strip away employee safeguards and leave room for political meddling.

“Civil Service in the past has protected against political patronage and other abuses, and this initiative seems to be a direct attack on those protections,” Hessler said.

Among Hessler’s most serious concerns is that the new plan would make it easier to fire workers.

Berni, the mayor’s spokesman, said those concerns are misguided. He called the proposals preliminary, noted that employees took surveys on the issue, and that the administration is incorporating their ideas into their platform.

"On some of this stuff, it's too early to say,” Berni said. "It hasn't been a secret that we are looking to reform Civil Service."

A memo from Alexandra Norton, the mayor’s director of Organizational Effectiveness, outlines the plan for reforming the city’s Civil Service Commission next year.

The memo, sent to Landrieu and copied to his top deputies, notes that in order to implement the reforms in 2013, City Hall officials must submit the changes to the Civil Service Commission at its mid-October meeting, and that they need to be approved within a month.

Norton’s memo also explains their strategy and target dates in unveiling the changes. In fact, someone wrote “sh-sh-sh!” on the internal documents.

In making their proposals, Landrieu’s administration is leaning on the work of a Massachusetts-based consultant, Public Strategies Group. That company studied the city’s hiring and human resource systems and issued numerous recommendations to the mayor.

You can read that report here.

Their report quotes city managers as saying job descriptions are out-of-date and irrelevant and that the system doesn’t produce the best job candidates. Managers also reported that the tests are largely irrelevant, and that the hiring process is too long and arduous.

The consultants also recommend creating a new Human Resources department under Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin. That office would have significant powers, according to the memos.

One suggestion gives a recruiter under Kopplin the opportunity to winnow down a pool of all job applicants into a much smaller group. The recruiter then has the option to issue a standardized test to finalists. Currently, all applicants are tested and picked from a larger pool.

More than 5,000 classified city employees, including cops, firefighters and Sewerage and Water Board works, would be affected by the changes. City employees would still retain Civil Service protections under the proposed plan, though a significant portion of the Civil Service Commission’s staff would likely be cut.

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