Rilling: I will evaluate Norwalk department heads, when possible

Norwalk 022014 045
The panel at the recent Mayor’s Night Out in West Norwalk.

NORWALK, Conn. – Unlike the chief executive officer of a private corporation, Norwalk’s mayor does not have the ability to evaluate department heads and act accordingly.

So said Mayor Harry Rilling at the recent West Norwalk Mayor’s Night Out in response to questions from Farhan Memon.

Memon criticized the lack of diversity among Norwalk’s department heads and asked if there could be an evaluation process that could be made public.

“We’re asking our teachers to undergo these types of rigorous and data-intensive evaluations. I don’t see why perhaps it shouldn’t be extended to other areas of public services as well,” Memon said.

Rilling said the city’s leadership was not his doing, and he had only been mayor for three months.

“When you have certain conditions that exist and certain people are in place, well, it takes time before you have an opportunity to fill a position,” Rilling said.

“As far as evaluations go, there are certain department heads that can be evaluated and will be,” he said. “There are others who can’t simply because they’re members of a union and their bargaining agreement doesn’t call for it. So that can present a problem. I think we know of several circumstances where it would be nice to be able to evaluate somebody but it’s not in keeping with their bargaining agreement. You can’t just implement arbitrarily and capriciously because that’s against the bargaining agreement. So, there are people who can be evaluated, will be evaluated, and once we get the human resources director in place, which hopefully will be within the next month, we’ll be able to look at implementing an evaluation program for those that can be evaluated.”

He said the new HR director will work with Human Relations director Adam Bovilsky to “make sure that our affirmative action plan is up and running and in place and in keeping with the needs of the city.”

The next Mayor’s Night Out is scheduled for 7 p.m. March 27 at Columbus Elementary School.


22 responses to “Rilling: I will evaluate Norwalk department heads, when possible”

  1. Casey Smith

    So, it sounds like hiring people because they are competent is no longer the way things are going to be done in the City.
    Personally, I don’t keep a count of the gender or race of Department heads because I don’t much care, as long as that person is capable of doing his/her job. So I had to sit down and think about who was in what category. I’m sure I missed people.
    Right now, the director of Personnel is open. If memory serves correctly, the director before Mr. Haselkamp was a woman, specifically Sarah LeTourneau. It will be interesting to see who is hired for the position. And of course, one will now wonder if the new Director was hired because he/she was competent or because he/she filled some kind of diversity quota.
    Last time I looked, Michael Stewart was the Tax Assessor.
    The previous director of Human Relations/Fair Rent was also a woman, whose name escapes me at the moment. I happen to know that she left when she was offered a fabulous job with non-profit group. If I am not mistaken, the director before her was Sonia Devitt, who retired from the City.
    Karen DelVecchio is head of the IT Department, Lisa Biagiarelli is the Tax Collector. Atty. Margaret Suib is the Fair Housing Officer. They all appear to be competent women.

  2. John Hamlin

    Translation: nothing will happen and mediocrity and incompetence will continue. City jobs are not intended to serve the City. They exist as a welfare program for aspiring civil servants.

  3. bill

    so no evaluations for the least competent people in city government, i.e. the unions…how sad that someone can negotiate a contract that says they can’t be evaluated. What kind of a world are we living in when there is no accountability?

  4. Suzanne

    “You can’t just implement arbitrarily and capriciously because that’s against the bargaining agreement.” And there is the sum total of why Norwalk does not function at its highest and best level. How could reviewing the performance of an employee be against a bargaining agreement? The City Attorney and the Union representation need to get back to the table and hammer out a realistic approach to competence and excellence in employee work reviews – at any level. In addition, I still find these comments regarding the exclusivity of good work somehow race or gender based to be completely ridiculous. We are in 2014 people – there are plenty of talented people in both genders and in all the races you can think of. To delineate the two, as such, to be mutually exclusive is an exercise in race/gender bias.

  5. Inquiring Mind

    Suzanne –
    I agree with your statement “We are in 2014 people – there are plenty of talented people in both genders and in all the races you can think of. To delineate the two, as such, to be mutually exclusive is an exercise in race/gender bias.”
    At the same item, it’s important to remember that when there are complaints about any group of people not being diverse enough, it’s a fluid situation. People come and go for a variety of different reasons. When jobs open up, among the qualified candidates, some may simply not apply because they are not interested, other because the salary is not acceptable, or maybe they would have a long commute. Sometimes the jobs have specific conditions attached, like a residency requirement or licensing. And during the interview process, no one knows what the candidate said or didn’t say that earned them points or ruled them out.
    So, I have trouble with those who constantly claim a group of any individuals isn’t “diverse” enough or there should be more diversity in hiring simply because there are too many variables involved.

  6. Piberman

    Let’s give the Mayor some room here. Can’t recall any previous mayor evaluating Department Heads or doing anything other than granting annual raises for meritorious raises. Every year. Similarly the Common Council has been completely asleep here for decades on performance evaluation. Ignorance of basic business practices is behind our governance problems. Nobody hires Norwalk’s administrators and managers and for good reason. Not best in class and overpaid usually.

    A good start would be to ask for 5% smaller Dept budgets and see what’s forthcoming.

    Under the current system both the Council and BET (see their minutes) lack financial management expertise. So the Finance Head runs the City. Annual tax hikes are the result with stagnant property values. Our elected officials really do need a Finance 101 course.

    Best of all worlds is asking for resignations and then judging which ones worthy of rehire. We do that routinely in the real world with good results. Why not hire the best available rather than live with past decisions ? Not rocket science.

    We elected Mayor Rilling by a large margin because we were dissatisfied with the previous team. Including administrators and Department Heads.

  7. LWitherspoon

    Didn’t all the municipal employee unions endorse Rilling during the last election? Does Mayor Rilling intend to negotiate an evaluation system for union employees at the first opportunity?

  8. Casey Smith

    A good start would be to ask for 5% smaller Dept budgets and see what’s forthcoming.
    Mr. Berman,
    I would be surprise — let’s make that very surprised — to find out that the departments haven’t already had their budgets cut several times over during the last five years. But there comes a point of diminishing returns. That’s when a department has been gutted either through lack of staff or supplies so virtually they can not perform the day to day routine tasks.
    From previous remarks you have made, it seems like you are familiar with economics. Well, if you are, then you should realize that there are items in the budget such as fixed costs – benefits, health care, debt service, utilities, etc. It’s one thing to say cut the Public Works Department, and it sounds great until your street doesn’t get plowed because they simply don’t have enough drivers to man the trucks. Slash Parks and Recreation. Okay, but don’t expect the trash to be picked up at the beach, any of the parks, or the lawns to be mowed. Sure, you could fire all the department heads because their salaries are too high, but the legal team will be racking up the fees because the lawsuits will come in fast and furious.

    Also, I believe it is standard policy for each and every department head to present their department budget to the Board of Estimate and Taxation. The BET quizzes them on the costs of various items and how line items are estimated.
    Remember, the State obligation towards Norwalk is strictly based on what they want to give Norwalk, i.e. the profits from the Indian gambling casinos was severely slashed last cycle and I think the State also was going to reduce the PILOT payments (Payments In Lieu Of Taxes) for hospitals, colleges and other state owned property. When the State does that, the municipalities have to make up the difference.

  9. Anonymous

    Well said Casey. Next people will be complaining that there are cracks in the sidewalks and that crime is up. Can’t have it both ways. Want to keep reducing the budgets, fine. It does come at a cost…

  10. Suzanne

    Five percent cuts? Why not two and a half percent, seven percent, ten percent? Without data about how things work in our City Departments, how money is spent or not and how processes work, efficiently or not, to cut a department’s budget based on a “by guess, by golly” strategy just isn’t good business strategy.

  11. Casey Smith

    Suzanne –

    I believe that the budget process is far more structured than a “by guess, by golly” method.
    I’m almost positive the schedule for the budget process is on the website. From what I understand, the departments are required to submit a budget in September or so for the following July, and the department heads are informed that they have to cut their budget by X% or that there will be 0% increase in their budget. The Finance Department releases the Mayor’s budget, and then the BET starts interviewing Department directors. Somewhere in there, the Council puts a cap on the budget figures and the public hearings start. After all these hurdles are cleared, there is a final vote on the budget. Everyone breathes a sigh of relief and goes back to their desks to figure out how they are going to cover the gap between the rising health care costs and the decreasing departmental budget. They have about 3 months to do that and then it’s budget time again.

  12. EveT

    Getting back to the topic of the article, department heads and overall performance of city employees. Sometimes it is little things, not necessarily very expensive to fix, like allowing weeds to grow in the planter beds at City Hall. For goodness sake, pull the weeds, show a little pride. If a department head can’t notice and tell the workers to do that, probably 15 minutes of work, what does that indicate about the department head’s commitment to quality?

  13. Suzanne

    Casey Smith: Thank you for the explanation BUT (and there is always that BUT when it comes to budgeting in Norwalk), how do the department heads determine their budgets? Is there a quality vs. performance check of processes in each department to see where work can be streamlined and/or expenses have increased? How is this determined? How is the percent increase determined without this data or is it provided and, back to the beginning, how is performance vs. expenditures evaluated? Without this data, how does the Council determine a budget cap? It seemed a rather random process when the Council was trying to decide whether half a million or a million and a half was to be cut from the budget. What accounts for this difference? How could such a wide-spread but generally insignificant amount be determined by the Council with so little budgetary review or understanding? I think it IS a “by guess, by golly” methodology if real data, real expenses, real performances are not available nor reviewed. While I sympathize with rising health care costs and believe me those who have health care understand what that means, managing by walking around and finding out what the employees are doing and how they are doing it, codifying this and documenting this and coming up with real numbers, seems to be missing. While the ship does not appear to be sinking, it does seem to be listing fairly badly since reasonably intelligent people of our City Council can’t seem to determine what departmental costs are given the absence of REAL data.

  14. Casey Smith

    I think all the expenses and revenue data is available to the Council members in their budget book. Someone from the Finance Department or the Council Finance/Budget Committee would be the one that would have the answers your questions.

  15. piberman

    Re Commentators above:

    Across CT’s 169 towns there are broad disparities in per capita City outlays mostly related to income. For example, Greenwich (highest income, lowest crime) has the highest number of police officers and outlays per capita while Bridgeport (lowest income, highest crime) has far fewer police officers and outlays. Norwalk has long had among the highest per capita costs of providing various City services, e.g. fire, police, public works. Not because of its modest income but because its elected officials willingness/indifference towards paying top dollars. That our teachers are the 5th highest paid in the state despite our modest incomes says it all. CPEC in Hartford has long tabulated per capita City outlays among the 169 towns. No knowledgeable person would claim Norwalk’s highest cost municpal services reflects highest quality. Our politicians like public unions.

    Our City is handicpaped betcause the BET, Mayor and Common Council have largely relegated all financial budget decisions ot the Financial Dept. Head. Reading the minutes of the BET and Coouncil affirm the validity of that statement. Consequently there’s no effective control by elected officials of the City budget. So year after year the City budget increases – up 55% over the past 2 decades per capita. Even though our per capita income has been just about unchanged over that period.

    Similarly the BET, Common Council nor the Mayor traditionally have no problems with annual raises for all City administrators and Dept. Heads without revealing any reasons for the “merit raises”. So not surpriingly Norwalk has among the very highest costs of City government in CT. Not the best, just among the most expensive. Stagnant Grand Lists, property values, reluctance of business to invest, delayed redevelopment, surge of rentals and low population growth reflect the consequence of high cost government. Reportedly few City workers live in Norwalk.

    How to change ? Citizens have an opportunity to elect Council members with management and/or financial backgrounds. Both the Mayor and Council have the opportunity to appoint BET members who have both senior level financial and management backgrounds. Its a long standing problem. Simply Norwalk is not well served by its elected officials as a group. Finance is not their game.

    To us old timers the City is much different than it was 3 or 4 decadesa go when a strong small business community actively participated in politics and kept City officials on their toes and kept salaries modest as befits “civil servants”. Big Box pushed small business sout of the City and our legion of civic minded citizens. And the nearly flat income growth over the past 2 decades illustrates a major transformation with new demographics with renters replacing home owners.

    Its not rocket science but a City with only modest incomes, either per capita, median or family household, rnaking only at the bottom of the top third inthe state, isn’t going to prosper paying its City employees the highest slaaries of any city in the state. The disparity between Norwalk and Stamford is growing sharply. As long as citizens are indifferent to City budget affairs, taxes and City salries the future is not promising. No matter what the politicians say. And the new majority of our citizens wishing to pursue the American Dream in Norwalk will find the going that much harder.
    Especially attempting to establish new small businesses.

    There is a reason the proportion of old timer home owners in Norwalk has sharply declined over recent decades while the porportion of transient renters has sharply increased – now making up a 1/3rd of our population. There is a reason why Stamford is propsering and Danbury will soon overtake Noralk in population. High cost municipal services, taxes and salaries send strong signals for well informed potential new entrants to look elsewhere. Its not rocket science. Properous cities remain so because City services are kept in line with City incomes. Norwalk beats to a different drummer. Why should anyone be surprised ?

  16. Suzanne

    Mr. Smith, While that may be so, it belies the content and dialogue in the Budget Committee/Council meetings as to the understanding of the data in those booklets. How does one come up with such data if there is no evaluation of performance? Even the Mayor has said some of the Department Heads and others may not be allowed to be evaluated due to union constraints. What business in America could operate like that? If “someone from the Finance Department” has this information, well step up to the plate. Performance reviews have been lacking in City Hall for many years and that is a fact to which all of the Council as well as the government will admit. Without performance reviews including the ACTUAL COSTS and ACTUAL evaluations of the numbers, then whatever is in those booklets is not of use. How can a proposal of any stripe be put forth as legitimate when departments have no accountability for how they do their work? If anyone at all in business, particularly those who have been down sized in the last ten years, were to be involved in an organization which did not actively measure the cost and evaluate the processes and employee work (some ending up out the door as consolidation and cost-cutting has occurred in business, especially the financial sector), there would be no profit. There is no saving for the taxpayer, no meaningful consideration of how money is received and spent from the citizenry if HOW this money is spent is not evaluated based on a BUSINESS model, not a governmental bureaucracy model which has led to overpriced employees, high salaries and what measurable output? I am saying those Department Heads don’t know and, if they do, it is never, ever expressed in the public meetings to which the constituency is invited, the forum where these cost-cutting measures, evaluations and accountability for expenses should be clearly communicated. We are paying for it, we should know.

  17. LWitherspoon

    I find it surprising that nobody bothered to ask who are the department heads that can be evaluated and who are the ones that can’t. Which department heads can be dismissed by Mayor Rilling at any time and which ones have contracts or other restrictions that prohibit dismissal? Of those with contracts, when do the contracts expire?

  18. Inquiring Mind

    Suzanne –

    Clearly you have far more experience than I do in this area. Why not submit your name for Personnel Director or Finance Director?

  19. Suzanne

    Inquiring Mind: Asking the questions, as I hope every taxpayer would who is interested in where their hard-earned money is going, does not qualify anyone to be a Finance or Personnel Director. If that were the case, the respective offices would be awfully crowded. BTW, I agree that hiring is always a “fluid” situation but I do not agree, again, that highly talented people of every stripe exists in the world. Make the process color/gender neutral and I think there would be less of a single demographic and more diversity than there is now.

  20. Casey Smith

    Ms. Suzanne,

    I’m not sure what I said that upset you so, but I don’t think I deserved the tone of your post.
    Once again, I suggest that if you want the “Raw data” as you claim, you need to contact either the Finance Department, members of the BET or members of the Council Finance/Claims Committee. They have the number, the data and actually know how the figures are calculated for the budget. Personally, I’m not interested in arguing the evaluation of an employee’s performance.
    People constantly harp on “doing more with less” and as I said in another post, there comes a point when peak efficiency is reached. Despite the popular idea of someone giving “110%”, it’s actually impossible. Not only that, but there have been numerous studied done where employees who were performing well were constantly told they could do better. The end result was that they stopped trying so hard and scaled back to an average work output. Why? Because their best efforts weren’t appreciated. And at the end of the day, or at the end of the job, that’s all you’ve got.
    So, go ahead. FOI the data if you need to. Analyze to your heart’s content. Fire everyone at City Hall if you can. Knock yourself out. If you can find a better way to maximize output and performance, you will become very rich. Good luck.

  21. piberman

    To Casey Smith:

    Suggest you read the monthly minutes of the BET over the past several years. Ditto for the Council Finance Committee or the Council itself to better familiarize yourself with the financial oversight of our elected officials. To be charitable the oversight is “modest”. Our neighboring towns take a much more careful look at their budgets.

    On City management doing more with less is standard practice in the private work and even in more enlightened governments. The facts are that in Norwalk there is no effective management oversight of City Department Heads. Year after year they only increase budgets and are rewarded by annual pay hikes without any reported evidence of why those pay hikes were properly earned ? It’s just the Norwalk way.

    How do we do better. It would be nice to have BET and Council officials with appropriate financial and management experience. Meanwhile there’s much to recommend an ad hoc appointed group of capable citizens with appropriate business and financial experience to advise the Mayor and Council on the City’s management and budget. It’s a common enough assist in many municipalities. Even better might be an elected Board of Finance. But to suppose that long tenured City officials managing the City’s budget without any effective management oversight is a good solution to our longstanding overspending is believing in the “tooth fairy”.

    You might want to ask yourself how come per capita City spending rose 55 over the past 2 decades (CPEC data) while per capita City incomes just about barely changed – up only 10%. Is that “responsible governance” ?

    And, yes I do have an economics background. Finance, too. And major league financial management experience. Even running a large factory. Union too. It’s only the politicians who claim that cutting budgets means cutting services. That’s because they usually have never been managers in the real world. Its part of the territory. We even do it in the military. But not in Norwalk. So we have the stagnant property values and Grand Lists to show for our errors. And, last time I looked other towns are not recruiting Norwalk’s administrators and department heads.

  22. Suzanne

    piberman, You always say it much better than I do! I think it is a legitimate question to ask how management has arrived at the numbers for budgets in the various departments in the City of Norwalk. Given the salaries being paid especially. This is why I probably evade Mr. Smith’s insistence (despite my apparently offensive “tone”) that I look at the existing numbers. I do not consider them valuable because I do not think management operates properly to make an accurate “diagnosis” of the issues/problems/processes which actually exist “on the ground” at City Hall. This all started with an article about Mayor Rilling’s ability to evaluate department heads and he stated that he could not do that with an unknown number of persons regulated by unions. Can you imagine? I mean, really, can you? Was this a condition of doing business when you were running a union shop? There is no successful business out in the world that does not measure its success/failure in the work they do. Whether it was hyperbole or not, I thought Matt Miklave’s idea of evaluating performance,line by line, department by department to see what processes could be done more efficiently or even eliminated was a good, data-based approach. I think some people thought it was excessively “nit-picky” or would cost too much. I maintain that the way Norwalk has been operating costs the taxpayer too much anyway. Why not make the budget process better, more transparent, more real to actual costs vs. work? And, Mr. Smith, as to whether evaluations hurt employee performance? It is all in how the news is delivered. Some people actually want to know how they are doing so they can do better. The greatest single factor at work desired by employees (from many studies) is appreciation. Employees can be appreciated for the integral work, the valuable work they do for an organization while also advised as to how they can work better. That does not lead to disillusionment but, rather, to more security with one’s work and a greater desire to do it.

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