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.
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.”
“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.”