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Proposed Norwalk Chief of Staff scrutinized by Council Committees

Norwalk Mayor Harry Rilling explains the expected role of the proposed Chief of Staff during the Aug. 15 Common Council Personnel Committee meeting in City Hall.

Updated, 5:35 p.m.: No vote will be taken Tuesday; 8:11 a.m.: Copy edits

NORWALK, Conn. — A proposed Norwalk Chief of Staff position would have far more responsibilities than the Assistant to the Mayor position it would replace, according to city officials.  But some Council members feel the proposed salary range of $118,000-$162,000 per year is too high.

Common Council members at recent meetings have scrutinized Mayor Harry Rilling’s proposed administrative reorganization.  The discussion will continue with an Ordinance Committee public hearing Tuesday evening at 7 p.m. Norwalk Communications Manager Josh Morgan said at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday that no vote will be taken at the meeting, meaning the public will again be able to comment at a later meeting. 

Rilling’s reorg aims to reduce the number of staff members who directly report to him from 19 to nine: seven “chiefs” plus the Chief of Staff and Corporation Counsel.  The Ordinance Committee’s hearing will address ordinances to create the positions of Chief of Staff, the Chief of Operations and Public Works, the Chief of Economic and Community Development and the Director of Recreation and Parks.

reorg ordinance drafts 18-0821

The proposed job descriptions for the new “chiefs” have been the topic of discussion at other recent meetings.   Finance Committee members briefly reviewed the proposals on Aug. 9 and the Personnel Committee grilled Director of Personnel and Labor Relations Ray Burney last week, with Rilling on hand to answer queries about the proposed Chief of Staff position.  Assistant to the Mayor Laoise King is widely expected to fill the new role.

“It seems unusual for this position, which is an administrative/somewhat management position, to require a law degree,” Minority Leader Doug Hempstead (R-District D) said at Wednesday’s Personnel Committee meeting.

The job description says a law degree is “preferred,” not required, Rilling said.  Burney, an attorney, quipped that “Lawyers are generally very smart people,” drawing laughter.

Still, a degree in public administration would probably be more appropriate, Hempstead said.

“I don’t know that conceptually this job is primarily administrative,” Burney replied. “I think the design for the Chief of Staff … (is) not just administration of what the Mayor needs to have administrated. It’s counseling, advising, giving input on issues that the Mayor wants input on and in my experience… a lot of stuff that goes on in the mayor’s office ultimately ends up in Corporate Counsel’s office. So, having a law degree is not unreasonable.”

A candidate with a bachelor’s degree could qualify, as could a candidate with a master’s degree, Rilling said.  He noted that most job descriptions say “preferred,” which gives “flexibility to make a determination of which candidate, based on those things are going to be the best candidate.”

The discussion moved on to the proposed salary range, $118,000 to $162,000 a year, which several Council members believe is high.

“I pulled a bunch of government salaries, it does seem high,” Council member Nick Sacchinelli (D-At Large) said, asserting that the salary matches that for the U.S. Department of Defense Chief of Staff.

Hempstead said he’d looked for median salaries, and $116,000 was high.

“We looked at in ‘Norwalk first,’ in the context of who are the other people who directly report (to the mayor), their roles and responsibilities,” Burney said.  The recommendation is that all of the Mayor’s direct reports be on the same playing field, with the chief on the same level as the fire chief and the police chief, he said.

If you look at a list of Norwalk salaries, Burney’s own salary of $135,000 a year is 20th on the list, as “there are a whole series of unionized employees that make more,” Burney said.

“We have the salaries for other cities,” Personnel Committee Chairwoman Barbara Smyth (D-At Large) said, noting that that the Stamford Chief of Staff makes $165,000 a year, the Bridgeport Chief of Staff makes $134,000 and the New Haven version makes $120,000.

Responsibilities vary, so “not all are apples to apples but (the salary is) ballpark,” Burney said.

Sacchinelli commented that he’d challenged the salary as a member of the Ad Hoc Committee as well. “This being a newly created position, would say start the range a little bit lower,” he said.  “I think she is worth that but I think, since we are structuring this, we should eventually find some types of efficiencies in terms of the potential to optimize the labor overhead at some point in this process.”

The number one goal is to find efficiencies, Rilling said.  The City had someone lined up to become the new Chief of Operations and Public Works, a position that DPW Director Bruce Chimento isn’t looking to fill because he is retiring, but the candidate wanted $200,000 a year and walked away because he couldn’t get it.

“Regardless of what Peter Berman may say, Norwalk has traditionally had trouble attracting candidates because we are in Fairfield County and when somebody comes to Fairfield County from another part of the country, they have sticker shock, if you will, at the cost of living and all that,” Rilling said.

Stamford is also looking for a DPW director and Norwalk needs to be competitive, Rilling said. “We would lose a candidate who is ideal to Stamford, because Stamford is looking as well.”

“I would also like to just raise the issue of the fact that in all of the other positions we have men. And are we unwilling to pay a woman the same salary,” Smyth said.

It’s an “unfortunate truth” that everyone knows King is up for the Chief of Staff job, Sacchinelli replied.

“I think she is fantastic and I am happy to see her be successful and do well, but I think we are creating a new role with the assumption that we don’t know who is to come, we are tailoring a job description not to know who is to come after her,” he said.

That’s why it’s a salary range, Burney said.

Hempstead said he didn’t think male or female had anything to do with it.  He believes the position is “a more enhanced assistant to the mayor” and “the range went way up versus assistant to the mayor, I think that’s why some of the discussion.”

“The city has not presented this job change to you as simply an enhanced Assistant to the Mayor,” Burney said. “It’s more of an advisory position.”  Rather than the Mayor issuing orders to an assistant, “it’s, ‘What I’m thinking about doing, can you give me some suggestions on how to get it done?’”

“I have Laoise doing lots of things, going to meetings, making sure she is on top of issues,” Rilling said. “She also comes back with recommendations and advice. It’s a team effort, quite frankly.”

Finance Committee Chairman Greg Burnett (D-At Large) questioned the definition of “new positions.” Burney explained that everyone knew that the present department heads would be in line for the new chief positions.

If the positions were new, the City would have to invite new candidates, Rilling said.

“That means everybody is out of a job and they have to apply for a new job. That’s not what a reorg is intended to do,” Rilling said.

Other comments in the lengthy discussion, after Rilling left to attend another meeting, touched upon the proposed Chief of Community and Economic Development, who would oversee Planning and Zoning Director Steve Kleppin and Chief Building Official Bill Ireland, as well as business development/tourism and transportation, traffic and parking.

“I don’t like to see Planning and Zoning under an umbrella,” Hempstead said, adding that he is “perplexed about the qualifications” for the job.

It’s not a matter of “subject matter expertise” for the role, but managerial skills, Burney said.  “It would be very hard to find someone who is a subject matter expert in all four of those disciplines, tough person to find, particularly for $140,000 a year with a crappy pension plan.”

Laughter followed.

“Are you speaking from personal experience?” Hempstead saked.

“I didn’t mean to editorialize,” Burney replied.

“I think the essence… is coordinating that effort and making sure that code enforcement and the chief building officer know exactly what is going on with business development/tourism and planning and zoning. Which apparently, that interaction was not as ideal as we would like it to be,” Burney said. “I think we got some of that at the Ad Hoc Committee when Kleppin came and spoke about his support for this exercise.”

15 comments

Sue Haynie August 21, 2018 at 6:37 am

And the Danbury Chief of Staff makes $45K+/-, a city that mirrors Norwalk in size, demographics and growth–convenient that everyone fails to mention that.

Laoise King’s record of experience is primarily the mess that’s called the City of New Haven. New Haven was used as one of the ‘models’ for Norwalk’s re-org.

Here from today’s CT New Junkie: “If New Haven’s Broke, Can the MARB Fix It?” The article continues: “It sounded like a magic solution to New Haven’ long-term fiscal mess: Surrender control to the state in return for one of those big bailouts…….The suggestion has arisen since the city raised taxes 11 percent this year”

Norwalk taxpapyers already, for the first time under Rilling, are paying for a assistant to the mayor. Norwalk taxpayers don’t need to pay for 2 Mayors–taxes go up, home prices are going nowhere.

carol August 21, 2018 at 8:46 am

two mayors are unnecessary-one has to go-we cannot afford these salaries as seniors cannot afford to stay,move,or live here. we need HELP!!!!!!

Andrew August 21, 2018 at 8:51 am

This all would be nice if it could be afforded, or maybe was accompanied with reductions in spending somewhere else. As it is after the next election the resulting increases in taxes are going to shock many homeowners.

Piberman August 21, 2018 at 9:04 am

Lets not pay any attention to the $45k salary for Staff Chief in Danbury. After all Danbury spends 30% less per capita than Norwalk for a similar sized City and its Mayor was a serious candidate for Governor.

Isn’t the real argument that with Norwalk Mayors traditionally lacking business and management experience why have a Chief of Staff similarly without business and management experience. And why increase the Mayor’s staff given his reluctance to follow basic rules of business management, e.g. use Prof Search to secur top talent, reward key staffers for saving monies, not always spending more, etc.

Anyone who reviews the job specifications for key City Hall positions understands why Norwalk not only overspends with punitive taxes but doesn’t enjoy a reputation for competent governance.

A Mayor really dedicated to making Norwalk’s governance “cost efficient” would seek to appoint a Chief of Staff with strong business and management positions. His preferred candidate has niether. Will the Common Council be a “Rubber Stamp” here or insist on securing a business and management background. Last thing we need in City Hall is another attorney w/o business background.

Rick August 21, 2018 at 9:45 am

I have to defend Harry on this one, take yesterday he could of been in court concerning himself and Firetree but sent inexperienced council instead. Mario must be busy going after that guy Jason on wall st.

The need to run the city once the so called mall opens will need many smart people stating with voters. That in itself will take most of the Democrats stepping up to the plate and learning how a city this size should be run.

I know its an observation but But some Council members feel , too bad they couldn’t think like Doug.

law degree is “preferred is reasonable but don’t we have many lawyers as it is working city hall probably even in the coffee shop.

Lisa Brinton Thomson August 21, 2018 at 10:58 am

For what its worth – City officials repeatedly refer to New Haven as a benchmark/model for the reorganization changes (Hmmm, isn’t the assistant mayor from there?) New Haven raised taxes 11%, are fiscally unstable and want a bail out from the state. They also just saw 50+ overdoes in their park. Is that the model we want to emulate?

Diane Lauricella August 21, 2018 at 11:20 am

NON Thanks for the article. Rich Bonenfant and I spoke during the Personnel Committee public participation portion before you got there.

NON fans, Please either attend tonight’s Council Ordinance public hearing @ Room 231 @7 pm or send in written job description and reorg suggestions. The City’s future depends on it!

Democracy is NOT a spectator sport!

Al Bore August 21, 2018 at 12:45 pm

This to will pass meaning the democratic council will pass the position requested by the democratic mayor. I wish Harry would try to pass higher property values for us tax paying homeowners. To our two mayors, work on quality of life in Norwalk, bring our stagnant low property values up for the homeowners who pay your exorbitant salaries and benefits through our exorbitant property taxes. Stop bleeding us dry, enough already just say NO TO MAYOR chief of staff KING. I’m Al Bore and I approve this message! Not paid for by the out-of-town developers of Norwalk.

JP. Joe August 21, 2018 at 4:13 pm

Let’s stop wasting everyone’s time , energy , and money on this so called position of Chief of Staff which is not needed. We have an elected mayor who should be leading this city, it’s his his job to do just that. To use New Haven as an example is way off the grid.
I’m in favor of reorganization but a much better and thought out planning needs to take place.
What’s the rush to ram this position down the throats of Norwalk’s tax payers? The Common Council appears to be asking the right questions but the reasons given for this new position are not convincing to make a clear decision.

EnoPride August 21, 2018 at 5:04 pm

Yes, Al Bore! You have said it all! I wish City Hall would more aggressively tackle some real urgent city issues rather than expend energy coming up with new excessively paid positions and throw more money we don’t have at all these in many cases overpaid city positions. $$$$$$$ could easily be skimmed off of these city jobs and allocated elsewhere, solving countless problems. The excess is mind numbing when you look at an itemized list of these salaries and watch them grow from year to year. Ms. King should insist that her increase go instead to the funding of the 300 children who will bust the seams of the NPS school system this year as a result of City Hall’s lack of zoning enforcement (illegal apartments) and frivolous, pro big development, urban sprawl hobby.

I always imagine, wouldn’t it be interesting if a NON City Hall Dream Team could be assembled?! Now THAT would be SOME Common Council! You have got all the talent, passion, awareness, commitment, bellicosity, intellect and business savvy you need to assemble a fierce Common Council posting on NON every day. Frustrating for the people of Norwalk is that many feasible solutions to City Hall’s problems are written up in great detail on this site regularly, if only City Hall could be less detached and more aware (I hope reading NON is required homework for them) and LISTEN to the people! Would love Lisa Brinton Thomson as the Mayor and some of the amazing regular NON posters as the Common Council! Aaahh… NOW we’re in business!!!

Piberman August 22, 2018 at 11:36 am

Has anyone notice the impetus for the Reorg Plan is not to save the City mayor sums of monies – the usual reason de etre for such plans – but largely to give the Mayor’s current Assistant the elevated rank of Chief of Staff with a major salary boost. So far the Mayor hasn’t demonstrated the advantages of recently hiring his “Assistant”. Why expect a new title and very major salary boost (up to $162k) would improve City Hall “efficiency” as claimed by the Mayor.

Of course if our Mayor had a business background and was interested in offering affordable City services he’d create a Chief of Staff position designed to attract a serious business management professional to do what a political Mayor is unable to do – effectively manage the Cityh’s $400 million budget. But this is Norwalk where employing modern business management techniques to run our City hasn’t quite been noticed.

In proposing a Reorg Plan whose apparent purpose is to elevate a current Assistant to new position with the elevated title Chief of Staff with a huge salary plan our Mayor demonstrates again the imperative to secure Professional Management to save Norwalk from further deterioration. Best I can judge no resident with a major business background has supported the Mayor’s Reorg Plan. Why is that ?

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