Sunday January 13, 2013

PITTSFIELD -- The idea of creating a new "deputy mayor" or "chief of staff" to handle day-to-day management of city departments at the direction of the mayor has gained traction in Pittsfield during the ongoing charter review process. However, the real issue is likely to be: How much would it cost?

Several members of the City Council said during a Charter Review Study Committee meeting in early December that they favor changes that would bring continuing, nonpolitical management expertise to City Hall in the form of a trained professional.

The first option for some was the city manager/council form of government, in which the mayor is a member of the council, which hires a professional manager to oversee city operations. In Massachusetts, eight communities have the manager format. But that option was rejected in a preliminary vote of the charter committee on Jan. 2.

The committee also voted 6-3, however, to consider a new administrative position to handle most management duties, leaving the mayor more time to create a vision for Pittsfield and work to implement it.

"Mayors do get eaten up" by management issues in dealing with the public and with city departments, committee member Michael J. McCarthy said before the vote.

The three members who voted against a new administrative position raised questions about how the position would be defined and about the exact duties, responsibilities and powers the official would have under the charter.

Salary costs also were a concern with many who have said they don’t believe a new position is warranted, as it would carry a significant salary if a professional manager were sought. In addition, the need to raise salaries for the mayor and department heads to attract top candidates also was expressed by several speakers, including Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi and some councilors.

Bianchi, whose annual salary is $87,000, said hiring for administrative posts such as department heads has been difficult in recent years because other communities often offer higher pay.

And most who spoke before the charter committee said they favor paying School Committee members, who now are barred by charter from being paid. This would add more salary cost to the budget unless it would be balanced by cuts elsewhere and could have a bearing on how much is proposed for an administrative position to assist the mayor.

As for the role of a professional manager, Lowell City Manager Bernard F. Lynch and Mayor Patrick O. Murphy lauded the format as a way to focus on long-term planning and avoid political wrangling that can hamper progress.

Lowell, a city of about 106,000 that switched to a mayor/council governmental format during the 1940s, has had Lynch as its manager for six years; he has been a professional in the field for 26.

Lynch said managers are hired by the council, which includes the mayor, and hiring is based on training, education and experience. The managers in Lowell’s history have averaged four years in the job, he said, and managers’ contracts range from two to three years. Lowell’s manager is paid $175,000 annually.

The manager assumes an executive role in city government similar to a town manager hired by a select board.

Murphy, a member of the City Council, said the mayor is elected by councilors. He is paid $17,000 annually and councilors $15,000 each.

The Lowell mayor, who assumes a ceremonial but not an executive role in representing the government and serves on the School Committee, said the format tends to promote cooperation on economic development, multiyear planning and in other areas. He said he prefers it to a standard mayor/ council format, and he credited Lynch with a lead role in pulling Lowell out of fiscal difficulties during the recession and off a state Department of Revenue watch list.

"But no matter what format you have, it depends on the people in it," Murphy said.