NORWALK, Conn. – Mayor Harry Rilling is asking the city to hire someone he describes as “fair and firm” to be the next personnel director.
Emmet Hibson’s background has some similarities with that of former Norwalk personnel director James Haselkamp – his most recent job was in Stamford, and previously worked in an even bigger city, in this case, New Haven (Haselkamp worked for Bridgeport). He’s also a lawyer.
Rilling touts Hibson’s legal skills as a possible tool toward financial savings in labor negotiations, and said Norwalk’s labor union officials see Hibson as firm but fair, an opinion that is not something he shares in common with Haselkamp.
Hibson’s nomination was unanimously approved Wednesday by the council’s Personnel Committee, and will be voted on Tuesday by the full Common Council.
Wednesday night, the first question came from Councilwoman Phaedrel “Faye” Bowman (D-District B). Hibson left Stamford just last month after four years on the job as director of human resources. Bowman wanted to know why.
“The new mayor decided to go in a different direction. That was that. Different administration, different party. The mayor had a philosophy with the unions and the new mayor wanted a different one,” Hibson said.
Rilling said he had contacted new Stamford Mayor David Martin, a Democrat, and gotten the same story.
Rilling referred to a “contentious” issue.
Stamford’s professional fire union accused previous Mayor Michael Pavia of attempting to break the union in a dispute over volunteer firefighters, according to news reports.
Hibson called that the biggest issue he had to deal with.
“There they had a very controversial issue,” he said. “It’s been in litigation for a long time. The mayor at the time was very leaning toward the volunteers. The legislature was for charter change. The volunteers and the paid professionals really did not have a good relationship. So I would say that was probably one of my worst dealings and there really wasn’t much you can do. It was probably one of my hardest environments I’ve had to deal with,” he said.
Rilling said he interviewed five people. He was very impressed with Hibson’s resume, his ability to articulate difficult issues and his level of involvement different human relations functions, he said. He would like Hibson to negotiate as much of a contract as he can.
“I’d like to save as much money as we could possibly save rather than going out all the time for 4,5,6,7 different contracts and using outside counsel,” he said. “I know the outside counsel can over the period of a year if they are delivering multiple contracts can cost $200,000 to $300,000 or more. Those are the kinds of savings I’d like to see if we can accomplish by having Mr. Hibson involved to the greatest degree that he possibly can without getting into a situation where he becomes the enemy of the union rather than the friend.”
Rilling said that in his previous role as police chief he was familiar with the process of going to Hartford to settle grievances. Hours are spent, lawyers and negotiators are paid for and it’s an expensive waste, he said.
“You end up doing exactly what you could have done sitting in a room back here,” he said. “So I think with Emmet’s skills and ability you can find some savings, some ways that his ability can be used to save the city some money if it’s something that we feel comfortable with.”
Hibson said he was hired as New Haven’s director of organizational development (labor relations and human resources) in 2008 because of a dispute with the fire department that went to the Supreme Court. “The mayor wanted a lawyer to handle HR,” he said.
Councilman David McCarthy (R-District E) asked how being an attorney would influence Hibson’s approach to the job.
“I have been the person who has done not only the negotiation but also put the cases on the majority of the time,” Hibson said. “I’ve also put on my own grievance hearings. So that would be a comfort level the city would have, whether they are comfortable with me doing that or not. That is a conversation that I guess I would have with the Corporation Counsel’s office. … I think there’s a balance there and I’ll tell you why. For the majority of the stuff that you do, day to day, routine grievances, I think its fine to handle inside. When you have issues that are potentially sticky and could cause problems and hard feelings in those cases I think it makes sense to outsource. That’s typically what we did in New Haven. The mayor would make a decision.”
Hibson and Rilling had lunch with the president of the firefighters union, Rilling said. He has been told that Hibson is acceptable to the firefighters and police unions, Council 4 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and Local 2405, Rilling said.
All of those unions endorsed Rilling in his bid for election, saying they wanted to be treated with “respect.”
“Everybody they checked with said Emmet was not only firm but fair in his dealings and they felt comfortable that he was a person with whom they could sit down and discuss things and try to get things resolved,” Rilling said.
Councilwoman Michelle Maggio (R-District C) said she had contacted Norwalk’s police and firefighters unions and gotten positive feedback about Hibson. Councilman Glenn Iannacone (R-At Large) also said he had called the firefighters union.
Bowman asked about diversity hiring. Hibson they had very active campaigns in New Haven to try to get residents on the police and fire departments. They recruited in the schools, although potential police officers had to wait until they were 21. They advertised in nightclubs and on radio stations to broaden the pool, he said.
One more thing.
“Out of 20 contracts in New Haven, I only had to go to arbitration one time,” Hibson said. “We were able to deal with it without going to arbitration. We were able to get fair contracts.”