Pittsfield Charter Review Hits Nerve With Mayoral AppointmentsBy Joe Durwin
05:00PM / Wednesday, January 16, 2013
The Charter Review Committee ultimately made no decision on what seemed to be the most passionate debate yet.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The Charter Review Committee struck a nerve Tuesday when it discussed mayoral appointments.
The 11 member body formed in late 2012 tackled a number of key issues Tuesday night in its ongoing task to make recommendations for a revised governing document, but none occupied as much time as that of how to manage appointments of such key figures as police and fire chiefs and other heads of municipal departments.
"I think we've struck hit a nerve here tonight," said Michael McCarthy of the deliberation, "I think this is the reason that this committee exists. I think the city councilors who brought this to the attention of the city and of the mayor, really wanted the charter looked at because of this issue of appointments of department heads."
Under the charter, a mayor makes appointments to fill many top positions which are then subject to approval by the city council. While this approval has historically mostly been an assured formality, a few appointments have sparked controversy in recent years, as has the ongoing practice by mayors to hire or retain department heads in an "acting" capacity instead of bringing them forward for council approval.
Discussions arising from these controversies throughout 2011 and 2012 resulted in several proposed ordinance changes as well as prompting renewed calls for a full review of the city's charter.
Some on the committee believe this should be changed by creating stronger mayoral power in the charter, and removing such personnel matters from council scrutiny.
"I think mayors try to do the best possible job... to get people that they know that are the best qualified to run departments," expressed Michael Filpi, who suggested that only chiefs of fire and police departments, along with possibly the city solicitor, should require council approval.
A few on the committee called for more time before formulating the committee's collective opinion, and asked to hear more from officials involved in personnel about the current roles of key appointees.
"I would feel more comfortable making an informed decision," Brad Gordon, who said he was leaning toward stronger mayoral appointing power but stressed the importance of "making sure we have excellent department heads."
"We've talked about a city manager, we've talked about a mayor, but the reality is what's going to drive the city in its day to day work is its department heads."
Peter Marchetti echoed sentiments that the current ambiguities in appointment process had been a factor in initiating the charter review, including unclear language which led to doubts about whether the process had been taking place in accordance with the current charter.
"I'm not so sure that process takes place currently," said Marchetti, who said that due to debate over civil service "We haven't had a police or fire chief without the term 'acting' in front of them for at least five years."
Currently, neither the city's fire or police chief has brought before the council for approval, though only one is listed as "acting" on the city's website.
In other department appointments, the former councilor pointed out, questions were raised about the reappointment of directors serving beyond the appointed terms of prior administrations, and that while the current charter seems to indicate a list of personnel that should be appointed or reappointed within 30 days of a new administration that is not necessarily happening.
"We have personnel in the city that have not been appointed to their term by this mayor or the former mayor," Marchetti said.
Not everyone agreed that a detailed examination of appointing department heads was needed by this committee.
"I think we're making this a little too complicated, and digging too deep," said Deborah Sadowy, "We're talking about empowering the mayor, and then getting into all these little details that he's going to have to compartmentalize around because we're putting language in there."
After lengthy discussion of the many aspects of the appointment process, the committee determined to wait on forging a consensus on this point pending further study at a subsequent meeting.
Some overall agreement was expressed, however, in votes of consensus on several other points of governmental structure. The group was unanimous on retaining the current council structure of seven ward and four at large representatives, but split 8 to 3 on their term length, with Sadowy, Marchetti and Bill Barry favoring a four year term over the majority desire for two.
The committee also deferred a vote on heavily debated topic of whether or not to allow for compensation and/or benefits for members of the school committee as well as for the city council.