News analysis: Fix still far off for Pittsfield appointments process
PITTSFIELD -- The city's department head appointment process is generally described as a frustrating muddle -- and something the Charter Review Study Committee intends to tackle -- but the group appears split on a recommended fix.
The situation today, under Pittsfield's 80-year-old charter, is that the City Council is supposed to have review and approval authority over the mayor's appointments, but that doesn't always happen when appointees are considered to be in an "acting" capacity -- and sometimes remain there for lengthy periods.
In addition, "holdover" appointments -- officials who are retained by a mayor into a new term, or those who remain under a newly elected mayor -- apparently are required to go before the council, according to wording in the charter. But that isn't often the reality.
And then there are those people appointed under Civil Service -- the merit system for hiring and promotions -- regulations: Can they be considered "acting"? And if so, for how long? Are they automatically permanent and protected under the Civil Service system? And does the council have any role under Civil Service law?
"It's very confusing," said Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi, when discussing the status of police Chief Michael J. Wynn and fire Chief Robert Czerwinski and whether they fall under Civil Service regulations.
Both chiefs were appointed by former Mayor James M. Ruberto, but apparently as "acting chiefs."
Ruberto and Bianchi have said they believe the positions should be removed from Civil Service testing and selection requirements, but nothing has occurred over the past four years to clarify the situation. The hope is that this issue will be among those resolved in an overhaul of the charter.
After completing its study in April, the charter review committee is expected to recommend a number of changes to how city government operates, which would then need mayoral and council approval and a sign-off from the state Legislature before being submitted to the voters -- likely in November.
"The mayor should have the power to put in place a team that reflects his or her administration," Bianchi said of his position on appointments. "This would enhance professionalism long term. It would take the personal politics out of it."
The City Council, Bianchi said, can always investigate actions of the administration and request information from department heads they consider ineffective.
The position on appointments is one that has gained support among some councilors and other city officials and on the charter committee. However, members of the 11-member charter review committee balked at a recommendation vote. They have called for further study and information gathering, especially on technical and legal issues and Civil Service requirements.
The extended use of acting department head designations was perhaps the prime motivation for council members in calling for charter revisions to spell out time limits and other restrictions on such appointments.
In 2011, Ruberto vetoed a council proposal to limit the terms of acting department heads and other paid or voluntary appointments to six months. His veto was upheld in December on a 7-3 vote of the council with one abstention. Eight votes would have been required for a veto override.
The proposed ordinance would have given mayors up to six months to choose a permanent replacement for positions that had been vacated or whose term has expired and which are appointed by the mayor.
Ruberto, who did not seek re-election and was replaced by Bianchi in January 2012, argued that the ordinance would have hindered the ability of mayors to fill positions in city government.
Bianchi said last week that he agrees with the former mayor on that. "I don't see the benefit of a time limit," he said.
Ruberto also argued in 2011 that under the current city charter, the mayor has discretion in such personnel decisions and added that he believed the proposed ordinance would have run counter to that.
Councilor at large Melissa Mazzeo and others rejected that claim, and despite the failed ordinance, the focus began to turn in 2011 to creation of a charter review committee to make recommendations on this and other issues. Mazzeo had earlier proposed a 60-day limit on acting mayor appointments before a permanent official would have to be nominated.
Not only does the practice allow the mayor to avoid council scrutiny of appointments, Mazzeo said this week, but it makes appointees "beholding to the mayor," because he or she is serving "at the whim of the mayor."
She is one of the councilors who favors retention of council review of appointments, but with referral of nominee names to a council subcommittee first for initial discussion and a recommendation to the full council.
If the charter is changed to allow the mayor full appointment power, the issues of acting or so-called holdover appointees would naturally become moot.
Some councilors and others see mayoral appointments as dangerous if cronies could be appointed and prove incompetent -- particularly if a proposed four-year term for mayor is included in a new charter, meaning he or she could not as quickly be removed from office along with his or her appointees.
The idea of a recall provision that would allow a supermajority of the council to fire an appointee hasn't been discussed. Currently, the charter only allows the council in a supermajority of 8 of 11 votes to reject a mayor's attempt to fire an appointee.
Councilor at large Barry J. Clairmont, who favors having the mayor make the appointments without review, said a recall provision on appointees might be worth exploring during the charter process.
Of the Civil Service testing requirement, in which a mayor must choose from top scorers on a test for the position, Bianchi said, "I see it as limiting. Tests may not be a great assessment of leaders."
While a number of officials have said they favor allowing the mayor to make appointments, some want a few key officials, such as the police and fire chiefs and city solicitor, to be reviewed by the council. If the chiefs are to be hired under Civil Service rules, however, the council apparently would not then be able to reject that person.
To reach Jim Therrien:
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