Political appointments stir debate on advisory panel

Jefferson Parish’s political appointees have become a bit of a sticking point in Jefferson Parish Charter Advisory Board’s discussions as board members search for a palatable compromise.

Monday’s meeting was dominated by discussions about which employees should have the protections and responsibilities granted by the parish’s civil service classification and which employees should be exempt from those guidelines. In fact, the board ultimately decided to remove the parish’s Inspector General Office and Ethics and Compliance Committee from the civil service system completely in an effort to protect the independence of those entities and allow them more flexibility.

The parish’s political appointees have been an area of focus for Parish President John Young’s administration, which is pushing for broad latitude in the hiring and firing of assistant department heads and clerical staff members in the parish attorney’s office. Chief Operating Officer Chris Cox told the board Monday that he thinks the charter should avoid being too specific and urged the board to ignore the issue of “special, noncompetitive, limited-term employees” or “sncltes”.

“I think the charter should take a broad approach,” Cox said.

“Sncltes” are those employees hired outside of the standard civil service testing process by politicians. They still enjoy civil service protection and accrue civil service benefits but are not guaranteed jobs beyond a politician’s tenure. Examples include council member’s aides or the parish president’s secretaries.

Those positions were not included in the parish’s initial charter but were created as a compromise during negotiations. Young’s administration has pushed for the expansion of their ranks because officials argue that civil service rules limit the parish’s ability to hire qualified personnel.

Officials complain that civil service job descriptions and testing can prove onerous. The parish attorney’s office couldn’t hire a well-qualified legal secretary recently because of civil service testing, and there were questions raised Monday about how civil service rules regarding overtime could affect some offices.

Board member John Litchfield suggested the board consider simplifying the charter to make all employees either classified or unclassified employees and then allow all unclassified employees to be approved by the parish council through ordinance. Board member Mike Fantaci said the board has an opportunity to enact broad civil service reform that will guide parish priorities for years to come.

He said the purpose of civil service protection needs to be re-examined.

“I think this committee is the proper place to take a bigger picture look,” Fantaci said.

Lauren Call, a representative from the personnel board, said some of the concerns expressed by the administration and board are already addressed in the civil service guidelines.

For example, any employee can be required to work overtime as long as they are compensated properly, according to the rules.

She added that the board should avoid “change just for change’s sake.”

Ultimately, the board delayed a decision on the classification issues, but Chairman Louis Gruntz said it will need to be addressed eventually.

“The issue has fallen in our laps,” he said.

The board did decide to exempt the newly created Inspector General’s Office and Ethics and Compliance Board from civil service rules. Attorney Steven Scheckman, who represents the ethics board, said having those agencies’ employees governed by civil service rules would mean they would ultimately answer to the parish’s personnel board.

That would conflict with the mission of those agencies, which is to operate as completely independent entities monitoring parish activities.

“The bottom line for us is, we’re concerned about the independence of both offices,” Scheckman said. “Where the money goes basically you can expect the inspector general to go.”

Scheckman said the search for the new inspector general is narrowing, and there are about four candidates who will likely be called in for interviews. He said once an inspector general is chosen, final decisions will be made on staff size.

The office is funded by a 5 mill tax formerly used by the street lighting department.