N.O. firefighters vote to replace reps on pension board

New Orleans firefighters last week delivered a rebuke to their representatives on the board that governs their beleaguered pension fund, voting to replace all four members who serve on their behalf — including their local union leader, Nick Felton.

In a relatively high-turnout vote — 935 current and retired firefighters cast ballots, out of 1,547 who got them in the mail — Felton, Richie Hampton, Terry Hampton and Darryl Klump lost their seats. They were replaced by Martin Gaal, Angelo Marchese, Nick Lavene and Tommy Meagher.

At a board meeting on Wednesday, Meagher took over from Hampton as secretary treasurer, and Gaal became president, replacing William Carrouche, who didn’t seek re-election.

The fund that pays out retirement benefits for firefighters in New Orleans has been under severe pressure for decades, underfunded by the city and singed by ill-advised investments. Mayor Mitch Landrieu has been lobbying the state Legislature to give City Hall full control of the fund, arguing that firefighters have to pay more into their own retirement and take less generous benefits, an effort resisted by the firefighters union.

This year, lawmakers in Baton Rouge gave the mayor a partial victory, cutting the number of board members to seven from 10 and requiring five votes on any cost-of-living increases, meaning at least one of the mayor’s representatives on the board would have to go along. The mayor’s director of finance, Norman Foster, sits on the board along with Landrieu’s appointed fire department superintendent, Tim McConnell, and one other appointee, Scott Jacobs.

In a statement this week, Landrieu said, “I am hopeful that the newly elected board will work to make this pension fund more sustainable so that it can honor the promises it has made to our firefighters, and the city does not have to sacrifice critical services.”

Still, it’s unclear whether the new slate of board members elected by firefighters will give the mayor any more leverage over the fund. At the board meeting Wednesday, Foster argued for waiting to appoint a new secretary treasurer and president until Jacobs, who did not attend, could be present. But he was overruled by the rest of the board.

Felton, the union leader, came to the meeting as always and made his opposition to Foster’s suggestion clear, shaking his head and mouthing, “No.”

Felton acknowledged that he would have liked to have been re-elected to the board, but said he didn’t take it as a knock on his leadership. “The guys who are steering the ship has changed, I will admit that,” Felton said. “But I was sitting in my same chair doing my same thing, and we’re going to continue to do what we do.”

Still, the vote almost certainly means a new approach to investing the fund’s assets. “The members, both active and retired, felt they wanted a total change,” said Gaal, the new board president. “My platform was, I think we need a new direction, we need to get out of a lot of the real estate and into investments that are earning money.”