Acting Appointments Issue Back Before Pittsfield Council

By Joe DurwinSpecial to iBerkshires
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PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The City Council will again consider limiting the mayor's ability to make acting appointments.

The council's Committee on Ordinance and Rules voted on Monday to send the full council a retooled ordinance that requires the city to appraise acting department heads every 90 days. The vote was split, 3-2, after a half-hour debate on its continued relevancy with a new administration and different philosophical approaches to overhauling city governance.

This marks the third time in less than a year that an ordinance of its kind has been proposed. Some have seen the use of such appointments as a way to circumvent the council, which has to approve permanent posts. Acting appointments have provoked periodic debate for nearly a decade — peaking during the final term of former Mayor James Ruberto.

The first petition to limit mayoral appointment power came last May from at-large Councilor Melissa Mazzeo after the former mayor removed from council consideration the nominations of Patricia Farley-Bouvier and Gregory Yon as directors of administrative services and the city's maintenance department, respectively, instead appointing them in an acting capacity. 

(Both have since left their posts: Farley-Bouvier was elected to the Legislature and Yon resigned last month.)

Mazzeo's proposal called for a 30-day time limit, with one 30-day extension. It was rejected by a 4-1 vote in the subcommittee, and 6-4 in the City Council, with Ward 1 Councilor Christine Yon, Gregory Yon's wife, abstaining.

A subsequent modified petition from former Ward 2 Councilor Peter White first put forth last July called for capping appointments to 180 days. It passed in the council by a 7-3 vote, with Yon again abstaining, but was vetoed by Ruberto a month prior to the end of his term. The council voted 7-3 to override the veto but this failed to garner the required eight votes, with Councilors Gerald Lee, John Krol and Kevin Sherman voting to uphold it.

"This new petition is very different," said White, whose current petition before the city specifies unlimited 90-day extensions of an acting appointment by the mayor until he or she sees fit to put it before the council for approval. "I think mayors can be trusted to do what they're supposed to do but I want to see that we maintain that the council plays their part and has their say. ... This keeps those checks and balances in place."

White said such an ordinance would also serve public transparency, in that having to return to the City Council for each 90-day extension would apprise the public as to why an individual should stay in a position in an acting capacity.

"I really don't think that this is a business best practice," said Mayor Daniel Bianchi. "I've worked for Fortune 200 companies, you don't hire and select people in this type of manner."

Bianchi felt that an oft-discussed charter review commission, which he intends to put forth soon, was the appropriate way to re-examine the city's current practices. 

"A charter commission would be the perfect opportunity to be able to determine what is the proper format for the relationship between the mayor and the City Council as it relates to the selection of department heads," he said.

Council President Kevin Sherman, who does not sit on the committee but attended to speak, also opposes the petition, calling it a tendency to treat public employees as though they were public property.

"I opposed this petition in its first incarnation, its second, and now,"  he said. "These individuals are professionals who work very hard and to bring them before a public review every 90 days would be, I think, another layer of bureaucracy we don't need."

Ward 4 Councilor Christopher Connell favored tabling to give a charter commission time to come together.

"When this was first brought up, a year ago. ... It appeared to be the right petition at the right time, because of the perception of the council being taken out of the loop as far as appointments," said Connell. 

Councilor Barry Clairmont said he, too, tended to favor approaching this issue through charter review, but would vote to send it back to the full council for discussion while reserving the right to vote against it at that time. Furthermore, he felt that as written, the petition could easily be circumvented by any mayor who chose to simply through temporarily laying someone off and then re-hiring them.

Clairmont put forth the amendment that if a department head working within the 90-day trial period left that employment, they could not be rehired for that department without going forward with approval from the council.

Mazzeo expressed ambivalence on the issue.

"I can see going either way with this... I can agree with tabling this if charter review will take place soon," she said.

Ward 6 Councilor John Krol rejected the idea that what might have been appropriate under the previous administration would no longer be appropriate now.

"I was against this last time around, and I'm inclined to be against it this time around," said Krol.  "When we make rules, and we make ordinances, we don't make them for particular mayors."

Councilor Jonathan Lothrop said his position also had not changed and said that a charter review process could take as much as two full terms of the city council to complete.

"I supported this exact petition three months ago, and I'll be supporting it tonight." 

The petition passed the committee on a 3-2 vote with Clairmont, Lothrop and Mazzeo voting for and Connell and Krol opposed.

Tags: appointments,   ordinances,   

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