There has been a bit of talk lately about “Astroturfing.” For those of you who aren’t familiar with the idea of astroturfing, it is when advocates for a certain issue or matter solicit people who aren’t really interested in the issue to appear and give the appearance that there is more support for or opposition the issue at hand. It recently came to light with regard to Entergy’s use of paid actors to appear before the New Orleans City Council to advocate for a new Entergy power plant. The article linked here is about the City Council investigating the use of paid actors by Entergy.
You may be asking yourself what this has to do with the New Orleans Civil Service Commission’s recent decision about whether the New Orleans Fire Department complied with the Civil Service Rules and the Louisiana Constitution. This decision by the Civil Service Commission was in response to the NOFD’s “appeal” of the New Orleans Personnel Director’s decision in appeals by NOFD employees who took the Captain’s test and felt as though they had been improperly passed over for promotion pursuant to Civil Service Rule VI, Sec. 6.1. The Civil Service Commission couldn’t actually act in an appellate capacity, so they conducted an investigation of the NOFD promotions and whether those promotions complied with Civil Service Rules and the Louisiana Constitution. So, the Civil Service Commission’s decision did not overrule the Personnel Director’s decision.
The Personnel Director’s decision held that the NOFD botched promotions in almost every conceivable way. She held that NOFD violated Civil Service Rule VI, Sec. 2.1, 2.3, and 3.1. The Personnel Director also held that NOFD violated the EEOC’s Uniform Guidelines on Employee Selection Procedures. The Personnel Director went on to recommend that some of the people passed over should be promoted and that the rules should be modified to prevent the types of overreaches by the NOFD.
The Civil Service Commission tried their best to decide that the NOFD did nothing wrong. However, given the facts, that was impossible. So, the Civil Service Commission’s decision held that NOFD complied with the Civil Service Rules but they did not comply with the requirements of Louisiana Constitution Art. X, Sec. 7, which requires that promotions be made after consideration of merit, efficiency, fitness, and length of service, as ascertained by examination, which should be competitive. They concluded that since so much time passed between filing appeals and the decisions that followed that there wasn’t much they could do except pledge to put safeguards in place to prevent this from happening again.
I know there is still no connection to astroturfing. Here are my thoughts on that: The Civil Service Commission goes out of its way to cite a number of individuals and groups who testified in support of the Great Place to Work Initiative (GPTWI) when it was being discussed before being passed. For those who don’t know, GPTWI is where we lost some protections like the rule of 3 as it pertains to promotions. I suggest that GPTWI is where we lost competitive promotions in the City of New Orleans. It is also where many city employees lost all faith in the overall fairness and transparency of the promotional process. Anyway, the decision cites Andy Kopplin, who was CAO at the time, Dr. Charlotte Parent, the Director of the Department of Health at the time, as well as NOFD Superintendent Timothy McConnell, and other Mayoral appointees. The decision also cites the Bureau of Governmental Research and Bright Moments — more cheerleaders for former Mayor Landrieu.
When the public comments on the GPTWI began, it was quickly obvious that the Civil Service Commission’s meeting room would be insufficient to hold the people who wanted to comment on the proposed rule changes. The Commission moved the meeting to the City Council Chambers to accommodate the larger-than-average audience. The first day in the City Council Chambers didn’t disappoint. The Chambers were full of employees and former employees who were lined up to speak out against the proposed rule changes. You could count the number of people speaking in favor of the GPTWI on one hand and those people clearly had an incentive to speak up — they held positions appointed by the Mayor.
It was pretty obvious that some phone calls were made after the poor showing on day 1 in the Chambers. On day 2, a few more people showed up to testify in favor of GPTWI. The Bureau of Governmental Research and a few other groups, or at least some leaders from those groups, came to testify in favor of the GPTWI.
This is just another form of astroturfing. The Mayor lined up people who were indebted to him in one fashion or another and solicited their support for an issue they had little to no real interest in. These folks testified before the Commission and gave media interviews in support of Mayor Landrieu’s initiative. My guess is that if the records have not already been destroyed that a public records request would probably reveal emails, phone calls, and meetings with the folks that appeared in favor of the initiative soliciting their appearance. The most disturbing part of all this is that after overwhelming comment in opposition to the GPTWI combined with the lackluster commitment shown by those who actually testified in favor of the rule changes, the Civil Service Commission still voted to enact the “reforms” with little, if any, discussion. The only difference between this type of astroturfing and the type of astroturfing used by Entergy is that Landrieu’s people only needed to give the appearance of influencing the Commissioners. The real influencing had already been done.
I expect to see a decision in the NOPD promotion appeals soon. It should be close to the NOFD decision. The only real way to remedy this problem is to change the Rules. A change reinstating the Rule of 3 and the banding system in use before GPTWI would restore some confidence in the promotional system in New Orleans. More importantly, it would protect our public servants, and the public, from the favoritism, discrimination, political interference, etc. that are the inevitable consequence of giving each appointing authority an unlimited amount of discretion.