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Norwalk Council Committee endorses ‘communications manager/grants coordinator’ role

Norwalk Director of Personnel and Labor Relations Ray Burney reacts to Common Council commentary, Wednesday in City Hall.

NORWALK, Conn. – The proposal to merge the Norwalk grants coordinator position with communications duties is returning to the Common Council next week.

The Council Personnel Committee on Wednesday voted 4-2 to move it ahead after more than an hour’s debate centered on two phrases, totaling 17 words, and nearly half an hour of awkward efforts to move ahead procedurally to resolve the issue.

The proposal was first brought to the full Council – directly, with no Committee work – in December. Council member Doug Hempstead (R-District D) led a charge against the request made by Director of Personnel and Labor Relations Ray Burney and Assistant to the Mayor Laoise King, on behalf of Mayor Harry Rilling. It spent months in Committee before returning to the full Council 10 days ago, only to have Hempstead again inspire it being sent back to Committee for further review.

Personnel Committee Chairwoman Faye Bowman (D-District B) and Hempstead on Wednesday voted against moving it forward, with Greg Burnett (D-At Large), Barbara Smyth (D-At Large), Beth Siegelbaum (D-District C) and Doug Stern (D-At Large) voting in favor.

Also present was Tom Livingston (D-District E), who said Hempstead’s recent comments prompted him to compare the version presented by Burney in December and the one produced by the Committee, because he and other Council members had been giving the impression that something was missing.

“Contrary to what some people said, this is actually almost – very little stuff has been dropped out,” Livingston said.

Diane Lauricella, an activist who has been closely following this issue, was the lone member of the public to address the Committee.

“We taxpayers need to have relief and a full-time grant writer should have always paid for itself. What I think has happened is that you have been misinformed on purpose, by design, by certain staff. I am sad to say this,” Lauricella said. “… I am requesting for you to deny this particular request and I will be asking in a public way that this position be transferred to the Finance Department because they know how to manage money and finances. I believe the grant writer position has been mismanaged by the Moccia administration and by the Rilling administration because it never paid for itself and it was clearly mismanaged.”

The position was a grants coordinator, not a grants writer, Laoise King and others have said.

“There is no need for a communications director. There is a need for the City Clerk, Donna King, and her assistant to do the job that is in the charter, which is to help with messaging for the mayor’s office,” Lauricella said.

The City Clerk job description is in this PDF:

Communications manager 18-0131 grants info 20180201_0001

The Council discussion began with Burnett handing out a revision to the proposed job description, which Smyth said contained all the same language but in a different format, with bullet points and headers to more clearly define the roles of grants coordinator and communications manager.

“If the problems can be solved by headings, I am fine with that,” Stern said, with Smyth agreeing.

Hempstead, the lone Republican on the Council, questioned if perhaps the document had been handed out to some members beforehand, but not him. Burnett denied that, and the discussion moved on to the phrase, “two years of grant writing or equivalent experience.”

“What does that mean?” Hempstead asked, with Bowman agreeing that it was a problem.

“It’s a boiler plate terminology that’s used,” Burnett replied, calling the draft “somewhat repetitious” because “equivalent experience” was mentioned twice.

King spoke from the audience to remind the Committee that Committee member Nick Sacchinelli (D-At Large) had put that phrase in.

Sacchinelli was absent; Bowman said he had a family obligation.

The language would allow the personnel director leeway, Burney said. After further pushing for experience in grant writing, he commented, “We are taking ourselves out of the price range then if you want someone with four years of experience and you want to save the money by bringing them in the mid-60s, we are pricing ourselves out of the market by demanding that level of experience.”

The grant coordinator position pays $94,000 to $119,000 a year, while the proposed annual salary range for the communications manager is $56,315 to $81,344.

The problem is that the new position is weighted toward communications rather than grants writing, Hempstead said.

“The best way to construct qualifications profile is to leave the deciding department head a little wiggle room,” Burney replied.

Saying “experience is required” excludes a significant portion of potential candidates, Burney said, concluding, “I think it’s poor job description construction to limit the pool of potential candidates by crossing off the language that allows discretionary decision making by those who have either been elected to do that or have been appointed to carry out those responsibilities.”

“Then we’re back to square one,” Hempstead said.

Someone who is experienced in grants might not necessarily communicate well, while a communications person is going to be an excellent writer and will easily handle grants, Smyth said, concluding “I see the value in it being weighted a little more heavily toward communication.”

Basically, the job description states that the city doesn’t trust department heads to communicate, Bowman asserted. If the position is created as intended by Rilling, then, “We traded that position for someone to basically, possibly, speak to the papers. I think that it really the idea of what is happening here,” Bowman said.

The “first bullet point” says the new employee would “establish communications protocols for city departments and staff,” she said, questioning why a “low-level employee” would be given the responsibility to establish a communications protocol for the Fire and Police Departments.

“Are we hiring a spokesperson for the mayor?” she asked. “If we are hiring a spokesperson for the mayor then to what extent are they needed? Are we going to create a position for them and then basically trade off our grants person? Is that what we want to do?”

“It’s not a matter of the mayor having a mouth piece,” Burney said. “It’s an assessment by the mayor and his staff that the city would function better and the message would be cleaner and the message would be consistent if we had a funnel through, which the mayor’s message is delivered.”

He continued, “I am not talking about someone who is a front man, I am just talking – and this is not a foreign concept to larger institutions, to have their communications sent in a matter, and carrying the message that the executive wants it set in. That’s what we’re trying to establish here. It’s not an either or, it’s not, ‘if we do that, that person will never pay attention to grants.’ As we have said before, both Miss King and I have said, it’s an incorporation of all of those duties… into one person. There is no intention at all for anybody to miss opportunities or miss grants or let opportunities to get money for the city through grants fall by the wayside or be ignored.”

“We’re not adding a communications manager, we’re adding a press secretary the way it’s being painted,” Hempstead said. “I just want to know, do we have a record of miscommunications? … I can’t recall anything ever going out there.”

Burnett and Stern disagreed with that characterization.

“It’s pulling departments together, its communicating to the public everything that is going on in the city, which is substantial,” Smyth said. “We have projects going on, we have redevelopment, we have Walk Bridge. The public needs to know what is going on and it’s very hard. The only way that people can really know is to get to every meeting. And we all know that they can’t do that. So that communications person, that is one of their jobs, it is so much more than a spokesperson for the mayor.”

Bowman promised to poll city departments to see which duty they would rather have off their plate, grant writing or communications.

“You are making an assumption that this is coming off their plate and it’s not. They still have a very vital role in both of these,” Burnett replied.

“You don’t always have to wait until you do something wrong to make it better. You can be functioning at a certain level and you want to raise the level to an even higher level,” Burnett said.

“I got a call from the mayor’s office who said, ‘We have a lot of dead time, down time, and someone can do the communications piece from the people that are currently in the mayor’s office,’ and that they feel like this is political suicide for the mayor, and they do not understand why this is being pushed forward,” Bowman said.

“That’s their interpretation,” Burnett said.

“It’s on this kid, if he comes in, if he is selected, he had better not screw up,” Bowman said.

“We are spinning our wheels here so let’s try to get to end of game,” Burnett said, four minutes later.

Bowman and Hempstead returned to the “protocol setting” requirement, with Hempstead suggesting that “experience in managing and establishing protocols” be in the qualifications list.

“We are way too far into the forest on that bullet point,” Burney said. “My job is to negotiate collective bargaining agreements. I don’t do that in a vacuum. Right? I do that in complete coordination with the chief financial officer, with the mayors office, some of the Common Council  members. It’s not done in a vacuum.”

The Mayor would discuss protocols with the employee, who would then work to enact the direction that was specified, Burney said.

“There is no authority this person has or will have to do anything other than what the mayor’s office concurs with and blesses. So, it is a rudimentary function of a communications officer to establish protocols in the organization they are working for, about communications. That doesn’t mean that they have unfettered discretion to do whatever the hell they want,” Burney said. “…It’s all done under the mayor’s umbrella and it’s not final until the mayor says its final.”

“What are we voting on?” Burnett asked two minutes later.

Stern said the group was spinning its wheels for no good reason, and King spoke up to suggest he make a motion.

That drew a rebuke from Lauricella, who said King should have gone through Bowman, asserting that City Clerk Donna King hasn’t trained Council members on proper procedure.

“I think we have been talking about the same thing for five meetings now with very little substantive change,” Stern said, after another 15 minutes of debate about what should be done.

The issue was finally resolved after Hempstead made a motion to table it for another month. That failed on the same four to two vote mentioned previously. Stern’s amendment, removing one mention of “equivalent experience,” passed 4-0-2, with the amended version subsequently gaining approval.

Personnel Committee Chairwoman Faye Bowman (D-District B).

25 comments

Lisa Brinton Thomson February 22, 2018 at 5:57 am

Big mistake. The city is struggling to fund its budget and now this committee indulges the need for a second mouthpiece in the mayor’s office? Really? Common Council, please vote this down next week once and for all and demonstrate your responsibility to the taxpaying public instead of political cronyism.

John E. Tobin February 22, 2018 at 6:45 am

This is a fascinating comment:

“It’s on this kid, if he comes in, if he is selected, he had better not screw up,” Bowman said.

Sue Haynie February 22, 2018 at 6:52 am

Bowman and Hempstead and Dianne Lauricella, thank you.
Grand list increased by a mere 0.05%, large property tax increases coming this year and on.
Only $10,000 of property taxes are deductible now due to SALT negatively affecting most Norwalk property taxpayers.
No good ideas coming from the Mayor’s office, Rilling’s living off of ideas already on the table.
Donna King (city clerk) and Loise King (why do we need an Asst to the Mayor?) are already political positions, can’t work them too hard.
Someone needs to spin things, so they hire a Communication Director.
What an insult to property taxpayers.

jlightfield February 22, 2018 at 7:37 am

I sometimes wonder if Norwalk will ever embrace the 21st century. Today’s communication landscape is much more complicated than the 1980s, which for point of reference began 38 years ago–long before the Internet, social media and real time information demands of the mobile phone.

Information and data are the currency of well functioning city, and on this point the City of Norwalk has fumbled along in the dark ages of bureaucracy for many years by a failure to invest in the digitization of records, data integration across departments, and staffing positions that reflect today’s workflow.

Norwalk needs to function in today’s digital world by supporting staffing recommendations that reflect today’s skills. A communications manager is a step in the right direction.

Piberman February 22, 2018 at 9:20 am

Common Council again proves its a rubber stamp and seemingly indifferent to modern personnel practices. Will the Council demand Mayor Rilling employee Prof. Search to secure Top Talent for the position. Or will our Mayor use the traditional approach of hiring those already pre-selected. Will Norwalk ever have a modern government ?

carol February 22, 2018 at 10:07 am

how much more can the taxpayers take,this is getting beyond acceptable let the staff work together ,we do not need more people on the payroll.

Diane Lauricella February 22, 2018 at 10:11 am

@lightfield No need for additional personnel for communication…can reassemble existing staff paid to communicate and call them whatever you want.

Administration including select Council leadership has still not made the case transparently about why they can’t reassign an existing position for Communications Manager and what justifies NOT having a skilled, experienced, full time, well-managed Grants Coordinator/Writer.

The meeting last night was as much fun as having a tooth pulled…

Indeed, communications is an important part of a well-run City.

Agree that there is a need to embrace digital 21st century communications, including digitization of records.

HOWEVER the point here is that why add a new person with almost-entry level experience and remove a needed fulltime qualified grants position when the Administration can use current staff that we already pay to utilize those communication skills (with the caveat that if these select staff have not kept up with modern skills they may need to be trained and/or replaced)?

Examples of staff already responsible for public communications, including digital:

IT Department: A very important component of all City Communication. What role have they played to add to alleged City “miscommunication” or its repair? Why is there no mention of reforming/rethinking their role?

Department Heads and Other Department Senior Officials: Many of them have the capacity to articulate City messaging and coordinate with each other on a day-to-day basis. Don’t they all meet once a week with Mayor at Senior Staff meetings?

City Clerk, Asst. City Clerk and Assistant to the Mayor: My read of their duties is to assist Mayor and Council to communicate to the rest of us. Why does it feel like they just don’t want to? Are they being told not to?

Hmmmmm.

Pick Me, Harry February 22, 2018 at 10:33 am

Communication failure is precisely why naysayers fail to understand the need for this hire, hence the urgency.

Key job functions will include:

– retweeting Duff’s traffic reports
– Facebook trolling of Hartford baddies who shaft us on ECS
– writing “Norwalk Emergency Notifications” in haiku format

The Mayor will continue to personally record the emergency haiku notifications.

Taxpayers may notice a sudden increase in anonymous pro-Rilling Nancy on Norwalk comments.

Last, let’s be fair and balanced on this and lay the blame squarely where it belongs — with Lisa Brinton Thomson, whose successful campaign against four-year mayoral terms makes this position necessary. She’s got some nerve to criticize it after what she did!

Sue Haynie February 22, 2018 at 10:44 am

Diane Lauricella, You make excellent points.

The purpose of this ‘communication’ position is not about communication as much as it is about putting a secondary person between in-the-know department heads/staff and the public’s timely right to know.

The Mayor doesn’t communicate. What does the six-figure + benefits ‘Assistant to the Mayor’ do again?

Patrick Cooper February 22, 2018 at 10:59 am

@Diane Lauricella – just go ahead and say it. Harry wants a “spin Dr.” – because he struggles to articulate all the good news and “truthiness” that’s happening around town. The albatross that is the Walk Bridge, the massive thud that will be the mall, the spot zoning approval (payoff’s) for his campaign contributors, all of this needs to be presented with a smiley face and two thumbs up to the few remaining Norwalk taxpayers who pay attention. Harry’s hand-picked professional liar will tell us it’s a good thing Norwalk is a sinking ship because we’ve needed a bath for quite some time.

Harry is practiced in the art of mushroom management. When are taxpayers going to get wise?

Donna Smirniotopoulos February 22, 2018 at 11:25 am

For any other purpose anywhere other than the Mayor’s Office, the added expense would be negligible. But the Mayor’s Office now costs us nearly $1,000,000 annually, exclusive of future pension payouts. The spinmeisters already employed there dedicate taxpayer time and money to controlling the message TODAY. In addition to the needless expense, I struggle with any additional effort on the part of the Mayor to use tax dollars to make himself look good. We know from the Tuesday meeting that part of the takeaway given to the Superintendent, the BOE and others relates to controlling the message. I’m not much on conspiracy theories, but it sure seems like a lot of business gets done in the dark in this City. We’ve talked about body cams for cops. Why not body cams for Mayors?

James Cahn February 22, 2018 at 12:10 pm

They “endorsed the position.”

Of course they did. Why would they not? They know there’s no real consequence for ignoring public opinion.

Frustrated NoN commentors (myself included) need a reality check. Pay attention: The common council doesn’t really care what you want or if you object to the way they spend your money. Least of all because by all accounts most of their financial expertise didn’t even get as far as “checkbook balancing 101.” What’s of highest and best importance to them is remaining in their elected position and handing the administration and players whatever they decide they want. Remember this when they come around in two years with their “campaigns” which consist primarily around asking to put a sign in your yard and asking you to come to a “fundraiser” with mediocre food.

Ordinarily, they’d at least demonstrate some awareness that they might be voted out next time around and act accordingly. But, they’re secure that the chance of that happening is somewhere between “slim” and “laughable.”

The sensible move here (given public sentiment) would be an announcement from the Mayor’s office that, “After taking a closer look and in view of the appearance of a further inevitable expansion of the municipal government coupled with continued disappointing data from our grand list, we’ve decided to make due with what we have and put the request for this position on indefinite hold with no intention of revisiting.” But you’re never going to hear that because there’s no reason for that statement. I mean, really, what’s the penalty? They’ll have to see the same 6 commenters cry about it on Nancy? Who cares about that? Those people are “never going to be happy no matter what.” They’re laughing at us.

Only in municipal government could “full time Facebook and Twitter account manager” be a $70,000 a year job. In the real world, this is the type of unpaid internship that college juniors compete to do for $10,000 as a college internship.

Donna Smirniotopoulos February 22, 2018 at 1:15 pm

@Pick me, Harry, best laugh of the day. And sadly spot on accurate, right down to the haikus.

Rick February 22, 2018 at 2:30 pm

Its funny how a few Rowayton Fire Dept members got a grant on their own a few years back for equipment.

Pick me Harry works on Quintard ave , now we truly have the blind leading the blind.

Communication failure is planned in Norwalk it keeps the guilty from harms way why change it now with a new name or position that costs more money.

We have a lot to be thankful for, we know who is trying to carry and conceal, the figures given last week was for those who work for the city and come from fairfield county not Norwalk was good.

Our new fire chief comes from the city , yet inspectors sometimes don’t a breakdown of all depts should come this easy .Building expectations from the fire dept was great this week is Norwalk ready for the mall? Doesn’t sound like it.

public’s timely right to know in Norwalk is a problem with the taxpayers Firetree is a classic example its who decides what information gets delivered on time or at all is the problem.

Today’s communication landscape was talked about in South Norwalk this week ,business is having a problem with the service and their own communication in South Norwalk its 21st century stuff not working right.

Has the city suffered enough failure? .It comes with a price tag , is there a back log in court cases as well?

The city needs a physical

Ron Morris February 22, 2018 at 4:29 pm

Is the lack of a communications manager the reason we heard zero from the Mayor or chief of police in regards to the lock down of Norwalk High. I would like to hear what Rilling and his protege the chief feel about locking the kids in the building not knowing which one had the gun.

Paul Lanning February 22, 2018 at 8:58 pm

At the risk of appearing naïve, I don’t understand why the mil rate would increase. The many newly-built apartment buildings should generate enough new tax revenue to maintain the previous rate. Why wouldn’t all the new buildings bump the grand list up?

Donna Smirniotopoulos February 22, 2018 at 10:07 pm

@Ron Morris, no one had “the gun”. But thanks to social media, innocent kids are feeling the backlash.

Ron Morris February 23, 2018 at 2:14 am

Donna
You do realize that the NPD did not know that when they locked the children in the building. Thankfully no one had the gun or we would have had a disaster due to the mistakes made by the NPD

Donna Smirniotopoulos February 23, 2018 at 9:36 am

@Ron Morris, you do realize that schools from Houston to PG County, where I grew up, were placed on lockdown recently due to the presence of an actual gun on the campus. That is standard procedure. What is the alternative that would keep kids safer, and are you also suggesting that no police department in the US is doing this right?

Piberman February 23, 2018 at 10:23 am

Well managed public and private entities across the nation are reducing administrative and management outlays courtesy of the computer hi tech revolution. But in Norwalk – “CT’s Greatest City” according to our Mayor – we’re always adding more staff and spending more to provide same services. That’s a funny way to leave a Legacy. City Hall staff is growing like topsy under the Mayor’s “management”. Without the results. Lets keep raising taxes forcing out homeowners and bringing on renters and Developers.

Ron Morris February 23, 2018 at 1:09 pm

Donna
This is not A debate. You have your right to your opinion . What you cant seem to understand is the Norwalk Police did NOT know who had the gun. If someone did in fact have a gun then that person was locked in the building with the innocent children. It is beyond me how anyone can think that is ok. Yes I am suggesting that NO professional police department would lock children in a building if one of them could have a gun. The Norwalk police are a comedy of errors and this proves it. FYI I will not be responding any further to you posts as I have said what I have to say.

Rick February 24, 2018 at 11:38 am

Norwalk pd is under staffed and overworked simply look at the overtime.

They did the right thing at the Hospital right after the incident where a
car was driven into the walk-in entrance at Middlesex Hospital’s emergency room on Thursday morning then lit on fire

A similar crash happened Monday night in Hartford. A car crashed into the emergency room at Hartford Hospital shortly before 7:45 p.m..

when will city hall realize the dept is stretched and not for things that are always start in Norwalk.

I think we would feel a lot better if we all had confidence in leadership. Right now Norwalk has a target on its back as the mall is built, and doubtful it will go awaay once built.

Norwalk usually responds after the fact this budget everyone is talking is a classical example.

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