In The News › Jefferson Parish Charter Proposition 5 would overhaul personnel system

Jefferson Parish Charter Proposition 5 would overhaul personnel system

By Adriane Quinlan

NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune

November 19, 2014

The Jefferson Parish Personnel Board is designed to protect civil service employees, ensuring not only that they follow the rules but also that they are not hired, fired, demoted or promoted for political reasons. On Dec. 6, voters will consider a charter amendment that would more clearly define which employees are not subject to the board’s purview and would diversify the panel by adding members and limiting their terms.

The vote comes as New Orleans works through an overhaul of its own civil service commission. That panel gave managers more discretion over hiring and pay, and has seen stiff opposition from labor unions.

In Jefferson, the current board’s three members are nominated by two colleges and the parish president. Members may serve back-to-back six-year terms, with one recently retired member logging more than 20 years behind the dais.

Under Proposition 5 on the ballot, the board would expand to four members nominated by seven local colleges and a fifth nominated by the parish president. Members would serve for staggered five-year terms, with a one-term limit. The effect: a board with a regularly revolving door.

Reform of the Personnel Board was a focus of the charter advisory committee, which saw the classified civil service system developing the same entrenchment and cronyism that it was designed to resist, committee member Michael Fantaci said.

“The whole point of the civil service system is to prevent cronyism … patronage. But the way that civil service had developed had turned into more of a lifetime employment,” Fantaci said. “It’s not supposed to be a guarantee of employment. It’s supposed to be a guarantee you won’t leave your job for political reasons.”

Fantaci, a lawyer who focuses on employment issues, said Parish President John Young’s administration argued for changes that would lead to a board with members who would review cases with fresh eyes. “It had kind of gotten locked in place,” Fantaci said. “I think the administration was feeling a lot of frustration with trying to get reforms, or any action from the Personnel Board the way it was.”

But forced turnover on the board would come with a cost, as new board members get up to speed, said Personnel Board Chairman Alfred Stacey IV.

“There’s a learning curve on this,” Stacey said. “We don’t get that many appeals in a year. And they very rarely come before the board itself, so it takes a while to learn all the rules and understand how things work, and to understand some of the precedents.”

In its review of Proposition 5, the non-profit Bureau of Governmental Research sided with Stacey. It found the single five-year term to be “overly restrictive.”

Expansion of the board would solve a practical problem: If two members of the three-member panel talk business, they constitute a quorum and break public meeting laws “I think the five-member board is a definite improvement,” Stacey said.

The Personnel Board came into the limelight during the scandal that felled Aaron Broussard’s administration in 2010. The board investigated two political appointees, including the director of Inspection and Code Enforcement, who were not covered by civil service. Proposition 5 would clarify that the board investigates only classified employees who work in the civil service.

Another aspect of Proposition 5 would set the inspector general’s office and the Ethics and Compliance Commission outside of the Personnel Board’s purview, and would add several other offices to the rolls of unclassified employees who may be hired and fired at the whim of supervisors:

The office of the parish president

The offices of Parish Council members

The office of the parish attorney.

Employees in the parish president and council’s offices were defined as unclassified at the request of the administration, Fantaci said, in part because their appointment is political in nature and in many cases automatically ends when the elected official leaves office. Reviewing the idea, the charter advisory committee found that the change would affect only a “handful” of employees, Fantaci said: Of the 58 employees in the parish president and council’s offices, only nine are not political appointees, according to the Bureau of Governmental Research.

The parish attorney’s office approached the charter advisory board with a vision of how it could work more effectively, Fantaci recalled. “Under the Young administration, they’ve kind of turned their parish attorney’s office into an in-house law firm, so they wanted some flexibility to run that with the terms an outside law firm would have,” he said.

Though the current charter lists assistant parish attorneys, paralegals, and legal clerks as unclassified positions, some employees were working under civil service protections. An opinion from the Louisiana attorney general’s office interpreted the existing charter as making all employees above clerical workers unclassified. “The change is to clarify the language to comply with existing law,” parish attorney Deborah Foshee said.

And the clarification would not affect existing employees, as those who work under civil service would continue to do so, under an ordinance adopted by the Parish Council on Jun. 25. Only when they leave their posts will the positions will become declassified.

However, the Bureau of Governmental Research did not see the vision of an in-house law firm as a meaningful reason to declassify the positions and did not see the change as a matter of clarification. “They point to the difficulty of disciplining employees through the civil service system,” the BGR report reads. “They have not, however, articulated a basis that would justify treating the law department’s clerical employees differently from similar employees in other departments.”

Proposition 5 also would stipulate that personnel director is a classified position, with the same requirements and protections as the employees whom the director and Personnel Board regulate. That’s at odds with what the charter advisory board wanted, an unclassified director.

Fantaci said the advisory board worried that a classified personnel director, answering only to the Personnel Board that hired the person, could never be fired. “This position was largely untouchable,” Fantaci said. “For a position of that importance, that was unacceptable to our group.”

But interim Personnel Director Lauren Call told the Parish Council that without civil service protections, the position is “ripe for abuse” and could compromise the integrity of the Personnel Department.

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