Before city employees had Civil Service, public employment was dolled out as part of the spoils system. Politicians often made wholesale changes to the public payrolls when they were elected based solely on the political connections or affiliation of the appointee. In 1940, following Huey Long and a brief stint by Earl Long as governor of Louisiana, New Orleans attorney Charlie Dunbar proposed a merit based system of employment for public servants. This effectively eliminated the spoils system and was repealed in 1948 during Earl Long’s second of three appearances in the governor’s mansion. In 1953, the Civil Service system was made part of the Louisiana Constitution and was continued in the 1974 revision to the Louisiana Constitution.
There have been several relatively recent modifications to the State of Louisiana Civil Service system under the guise of “reform.” Whether these reforms will be successful remains to be seen. Here in New Orleans, the current administration has been planning “reforms” of their own. The New Orleans reforms look much more like an effort to repeal Civil Service than to make it better. If the current “reform” package is implemented, we will soon see a return to the spoils system of Huey Long.
At this point in time, no rules changes have been presented to the Civil Service Commission and these “reforms” exist only in the form of the administration’s wish list. Without changes to the Civil Service Rules (which have the force and effect of law), the administration may be planning the old end-around.
The New Orleans Police Department currently has one active promotional register for the position of Police Lieutenant. This list has been extended for the final time and will die in May, 2013. Once this promotional list dies, that will leave the New Orleans Police Department with no active promotional registers. How do we know that? Because the Civil Service Department requested $140,000 in its budget to conduct promotional testing in 2013. We also know that the funding for promotional testing was denied. If the budget is approved in its current form, the Civil Service Department will not have any money available to conduct testing for Police Sergeant of Police Lieutenant.
Well, what happens if there is promotional register but there are open positions? The administration can request permission to make provisional appointments. Rule VI, Section 5.3(a) allows the provisional appointments. They are supposed to be limited to a duration of 1 year. However, recently the New Orleans Fire Department had provisional District Chiefs in place for more than 10 years. They finally got a promotional register and had to fight with the administration to be able to promote firefighters into permanent positions.
As a practical matter, provisional appointments are troubling for a number of reasons. As noted above they can last much longer than the 1 year anticipated by the Civil Service rule. It can also be much shorter. A provisional employee has no Civil Service protection at that rank.
A provisional Sergeant could be anyone. The idea of merit for a provisional appointment is solely in the eyes of the Appointing Authority. But let’s imagine that the Appointing Authority selects the most qualified person available. Let’s further imagine that provisional Sergeant is faced with an ethical dilemma and despite political pressure that provisional Sergeant chooses to “do the right thing.” Let’s also imagine the possibility that there is another Sergeant who thinks he can be a provisional Lieutenant or a permanent Lieutenant who thinks he could be a provisional Captain (Major, Commander, or whatever the flavor of the day is) and would benefit from that provisional Sergeant’s demise. What if that ethical dilemma resulted in adverse media coverage despite doing the right thing. The provisional employee has no recourse and can be demoted as quickly as promoted. The only appeal available to the provisional appointee is in the case of discrimination.
What if a permanent Police Officer is made a provisional Sergeant, then a provisional Lieutenant, then a Commander? Do we really need Commanders who have never had to take a single promotional exam? Everyone will be screaming for the return of the merit system if that happens.
The Civil Service rule regarding provisional appointments exists to allow for the possibility that a department would need to make promotions quickly while they arrange for promotional testing. That is why there is a 1 year limit on provisional appointments. The department makes the provisional appointment to fill the immediate need, but in the meantime they are preparing for promotional testing so that a list of eligibles can be developed and permanent appointments can be made from that list. However, the Civil Service Department was denied funding for new promotional testing in 2013.
The NOPD has already tried to kill the current Lieutenant’s Register. In May, they will be successful.
The “reforms” being prepared by the administration create a system where promotions can be made with great discretion afforded to the Appointing Authority. In addition, people can be demoted with great discretion afforded to the Appointing Authority. The administration has been trying to sell civil servants on the idea of these reforms. The “survey” conducted in 2012 by the administration was designed to show civil servants that civil servants want the changes proposed by the administration. It is difficult to sell a system that was designed to promote merit and promise a return to the spoils system.
How does the administration circumvent the Civil Service Rules so they can implement a new spoils system? The answer is provisional appointments. The use of provisional appointments allows the Appointing Authority to make promotions with only the approval of the Civil Service Director. If the administration refuses to fund promotional testing, it is not difficult to imagine circumstances where the Civil Service Director would have no choice but to allow provisional appointment even though to do so is adverse to the merit based Civil Service System. We have dedicated Civil Service Director and Staff. However, if the administration continues to cut their budget, which they have done consistently for the last several years, they will eventually create an emergency system which warrants provisional appointments (or the implementation of the administration’s reforms since they have funded a Human Relations Department).
All Civil Service employees should be wary of these reforms. These are not tweaks designed to improve the efficiency of the system while maintaining the merit-based Civil Service system. Don’t be an accomplice to circumventing the Civil Service Rules in the name of reform. Police employees should be wary of accepting provisional appointments. You could be a provisional sergeant one day and a patrolman the next, working hand in hand with the officers you just had to write up. Our current system may not be perfect. It could probably use some updating and efficiency engineering. However, it is preferable to having to suck up to the ward boss so Baby Huey doesn’t kick you out of the door.