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:
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.