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Scrap new N.O. personnel rules that discriminate

Although the problem may find proper resolution beforehand, when New Orleans Mayor-elect LaToya Cantrell assumes office in five months she may have the chance to prevent a flaw in city civil service rules from violating Louisiana’s Constitution if not individuals’ civil rights.

Last week, the city’s personnel director Lisa Hudson ruled a batch of Fire Department promotions were tainted by discrimination. In 2016, Chief Timothy McConnell promoted dozens of firefighters to captain’s rank, under revised rules stemming from Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s “Great Place to Work” Initiative. The package’s promotion claims the effort is to “create a merit-based employment structure where decisions about hiring, promotion, and pay are made based on the individual employee’s abilities and performance” and it would “modernize – not eliminate – our civil service system.”

Civil service systems exist to ensure extraneous factors that don’t bear on doing the best job possible don’t influence decisions to hire, fire, promote, demote, or other reward or punish government employees. But changes made under the initiative’s aegis allowed precisely this.

The old rules specified that hiring would occur with the number of candidates equaling the number of slots – jobs or promotions – open plus two. These also permitted for large numbers of openings to be organized by bands according to similarity in score values, where the appointer had to exhaust the band’s population prior to moving on to the next, lower one.

The new rules sweep away these requirements. These abolish the banding strategy and state that hiring or promotion occurs from the entire register of individuals who score passing on the merit provisions governing that personnel action.

Following those, McConnell took the 120 and promoted 41. However, he jumped all over the list, promoting someone who had ranked 114th while rejecting that for dozens who scored higher. This prompted 47 passed over to ask for the ruling. McConnell justified this by saying other factors such as education, training, and interviews informed his decisions. Yet none of these were encapsulated into the rules as permissible criteria, if not prohibited.

Further, that apparently runs afoul of the Louisiana Constitution, which forces upon New Orleans, with its system specifically written into the Constitution, that it uses the rule of openings plus two and that qualifications be “ascertained by examination which, so far as practical, shall be competitive.” The results caused a problem in the distribution of promotions – disproportionately elevating blacks, with many of lower scores gaining it while higher-scoring whites did not.

Hudson therefore called for abolishing the initiative’s rule changes. She did not address whether McConnell consciously had picked black candidates over whites, but the initiative did explicitly call for diversification of the city workforce in a new rule that states “The City shall make efforts to provide recruitment opportunities intended to attract qualified candidates who reflect the demographics of the city.”

Regardless of motives, the rules do seem to contravene the Constitution, and the city should follow Hudson’s recommendation, at least as far as the procedures dealing with openings. Yet whether Landrieu, who initiated and trumpeted the changes, would abandon it with the subsequent blow to his pride and legacy seems doubtful.

He may have the city appeal to the its Civil Service Commission or into the judicial system, which if not upholding Hudson’s decision probably would provoke one, some, or all of the 47 not promoted to appeal further into the judiciary. Hudson recommended 15 additional promotions from the 47.

By contrast, when assuming office, Cantrell has no vested political interest in the system. Avoiding likely years of litigation over rules of dubious constitutionality is in the city’s best interest, so if the issue still burns at her inauguration, she should scrap the initiative and deliver redress to aggrieved firefighters.

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