SECTION: METRO; NEW ORLEANS POLITICS; Pg. 1
LENGTH: 1003 words
HEADLINE: Was Rice shown the door at City Hall?;
ALSO: City Hall's revolving door; Power to the worker
BYLINE: By Gordon Russell and Frank Donze and Martha Carr, Staff writers
The unanswered question about the departure this week of Charles Rice, the second chief administrative officer to resign during Mayor Ray Nagin's three years in office: Did he jump ship, or was he pushed?
Did Rice go because he was tired of the job's demands, wanted to spend more time with his kids, and had a tempting offer with a law firm on the table? Or did Nagin want Rice out?
The party line is that Rice's departure was completely voluntary, but the truth may be in the middle.
At Monday's news conference, Nagin warmly lauded Rice, a sharp contrast with the tepid sendoff he gave his first CAO, Kimberly Williamson Butler.
The mayor commended him for everything from pothole repairs to new parking meters -- and tried to put to rest any speculation about Rice being forced out.
"This was his decision," he said. "If he wanted, he could come back as CAO tomorrow."
Rice was similarly effusive. In a teary speech, he said he thinks of Nagin "as a brother."
But some people close to Nagin have suggested otherwise. They suggested a story like more like this: Nagin's most important political asset is integrity. Rice, while never accused of any malfeasance, was front and center on a few deals that emitted an odor of patronage -- among them the no-bid deal for trash cans that went to a company with ties to his brother -- leading to grumbling among certain aides and head-shaking from Nagin supporters.
Others say that Nagin didn't push Rice, but that his stock with the mayor had fallen -- and his influence with it. They say the power of an once-omnipotent office, , partially neutered in the Butler days, was further diminished by Nagin's recent tweaks to City Hall's contract-selection process, which shifted more power to the city attorney's office. Seeing the writing on the wall, Rice may have pursued an exit strategy.
But some Rice fans believe he had grown tired of taking the hits for the administration's decisions.
Another slice of the New Orleans political world -- not all of it Nagin-friendly -- saw Rice as a man who could be reasoned with, a breath of fresh air in an administration not always known for diplomacy.
"This is going to be the biggest void," Councilman Oliver Thomas said. "He was the go-to guy for the mayor."
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SHRINKING CIRCLE: For several months, there has been talk that Nagin didn't want to see any more top aides leave before the February election.
But now Rice has left, adding to the long list of high-ranking advisers who have begged off before the close of the first term -- a number that dwarfs that of previous administrations.
Since Nagin took office, the departed include Butler, Economic Development Director Beth James, top political adviser Garey Forster and Communications Director Patrick Evans.
Of the original "inner circle," the only one left standing is Greg Meffert, chief technology officer -- a post that didn't exist when Nagin took office. Other high-ranking appointees still in the fold include top housing aide Alberta Pate, Executive Counsel Kenya Smith, Finance Director Reggie Zeno and City Attorney Sherry Landry, who took over that position for Rice when he became CAO.
By comparison, the top tier of former Mayor Marc Morial's administration remained nearly intact into his second term. And those who left did so because they had gotten an obvious promotion; political aide Paul Sens, for instance, left to run for the Municipal Court bench.
To some observers, the turnover suggests Nagin didn't do the greatest job of hiring top executives. But Nagin addressed those critics this week, saying that in the corporate world he came from, longevity is rare.
The mayor, who led Cox Communications of Louisiana before becoming mayor, said that he generally expected his top brass at Cox to move on to bigger and better things every couple of years. In staying three years, Rice exceeded his expectations, Nagin said.
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END GAME: The unusual three-step process used to seat a city employee on the New Orleans Civil Service Commission has reached its final stage, and the decision is now in the hands of the City Council.
Council members have three weeks to choose from among the three top finishers in a recent balloting to winnow the five-candidate field. The three top finishers, selected by city employees in a runoff election, are: Jerry Davis, longtime personnel administrator for the Civil Service Department, 436 votes; Howard Eugene Noland, a support services administrator with the Sewerage & Water Board, 435; and police officer Neville Payne Sr., 320.
Eliminated were Recreation Department analyst Marie Henley and water board engineer Barham "Bob" Moeinian, who received 297 and 286 votes, respectively. The five finalists survived a first round of balloting that featured 10 contenders.
If the council takes no action, Davis, the top finisher, will be automatically appointed to the five-member board, which handles appeals of disciplinary actions against city employees and oversees City Hall's other personnel actions, from establishing wages to testing prospective workers.
City workers got the right to place one of their own on the panel in 1993. Before then, all members were chosen by the council from lists of nominees submitted by local universities. A seat was designated for a city employee after the closing of St. Mary's Dominican College.
While the other four commissioners receive a $50-per-meeting stipend, the employee representative gets no compensation other than time off from work to attend meetings. All commission members serve six-year terms.
The representative will replace Pamela Davis, compliance manager for the city's Neighborhood 1 housing program, who finished second in the 1999 election but was later picked by the council. Davis did not seek re-election.