How should towns approach hiring a town manager?

Above, Garry Brumback speaks at the Italian-American Festival opening ceremonies in August, just a few days before his retirement was announced. Now, Southington is struggling to find the right process for replacing him once he leaves his position in 4-6 months.

By JOHN GORALSKI

EDITOR

Town Manager Garry Brumback announced his retirement earlier this month, but he will serve the town through the end of the year. With 4-6 months remaining in his tenure, councilors on both sides of the aisle have been disagreeing about policy and procedure when it comes to replacing Southington’s top public official.

A special meeting of the Town Council has been scheduled for Aug. 21. The agenda won’t be released until later this week, but councilors have announced that replacing Southington’s Town Manager will be on the top of the agenda.

Controversy has arisen with representatives speaking out in local media. Charges about illegal meetings, forced agendas, and questionable procedures have sparked a debate. How should towns approach the hiring of top town officials?

Southington council minority leader Chris Palmieri (D) said that he believes that the council should hold off on naming a replacement until an open hiring process can be held. He said that there is no apparent reason to rush.

“This is about process,” Palmieri said. “The last time, the full council was involved right from the very beginning. We all were a part of it. We all reviewed every application. We all decided together. We met. We discussed things. We came up with the candidates that we had come forward for interviews.”

Town Council chair Mike Riccio (R) has been the focus of much criticism for setting the agenda for the Aug. 21 meeting where the required five votes are already allegedly committed to hiring Deputy Town Manager Mark Sciota as Brumback’s replacement. Riccio returned our calls but said that he did not want to engage in finger pointing.

“This is not an issue that I’d like to debate in a newspaper,” he said.

So what are the options for Southington officials? Southington has only had to replace a Town Manger once in the last 50 years. At the time, the council decided to open up a national search that resulted in the hiring of Brumback.

“During my tenure on the council, one of the most important decisions I have been a part of is the hiring of a Town Manager,” said Palmieri. “The manager is the day-to-day CEO of the town. Town Councilors are all volunteers with daytime jobs. We can’t be available every day for the day-to-day, but the manager is.”

The actual procedure for hiring a town manager is not spelled out in the town charter, and communities have had various approaches. Berlin is currently in the hunt for a town manager, and their government is set up very similar to Southington’s. Like Southington, Berlin has no hiring process outlined in their charter.

“How we’ve approached it is through common sense,” said Berlin Town Council Mayor Mark H. Kaczynski (R). In Berlin, the mayor is a councilor, and the position is similar to Riccio’s position as council chair.

Berlin appointed their public works director, Jack Healy, as the town’s interim manager during the search. Kaczynski heads up a hiring panel that includes every councilor and they have been collaborating with town’s human resource director. Like Southington, they dismissed the idea of a national search, focusing instead on local and regional candidates.

“We came out with a job description, and we put it out on a few different websites and different places,” said Kaczynski. “That was the least expensive method to start.”

Berlin has already interviewed a number of good candidates, and Healy has been scheduled for an interview already after the interim manager expressed interest in the position. The town’s HR manager helped come up with standardized questions for each candidate to avoid any controversy or challenges.

“We’re trying to be very bipartisan…I think it’s very important for the town,” said Kaczynski. “Listen, I don’t want the town manager to be a partisan choice. That’s not the best thing for anyone. I don’t think anybody on our council wants to see this become a partisan position.”

One of the things that Brumback accomplished during his tenure was to establish the Southington’s human resource department three years ago. Councilors didn’t have an option to consult anyone during the last search, but Theresa Buchanan has been Southington’s human resource generalist for the past three years.

“We don’t have any policies that limit or direct the scope of how a position is filled. It all depends on what position it is,” Buchanan said. As far as the Town Manager position, she said, “It’s totally up to the Town Council. They drive the process.”

The town has been inconsistent in recruiting prospects for top level positions. When Peter Stallings was hired for the water pollution control superintendent, there was a regional search due to certification issues and DEEP requirements. Brumback was hired through a national search, and the town was considering hiring a firm to help with hiring of a fire chief.

“The fire department has withdrawn that request, but the fire department is still going through the process of a search with a committee to make sure that it’s the right fit for that department. I would argue, shouldn’t we be doing the same thing on behalf of the town?” said Palmieri. “Shouldn’t we be making sure that this is the perfect and best person for the fit? It might even be that the candidate they have right now is the right one, but I don’t know because we weren’t part of the process.”

That’s what makes these high level hirings such a challenge. With high level positions, qualifications and duties can be unique, but the process should be sound. Since councilors can’t agree on the process, it’s unlikely they’ve discussed if the process would stand up against any potential lawsuits.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 applies to private employers, but it also specifically applies to state and local governments and other institutions. It protects applicants and employees from discrimination in hiring, promotion, and other aspects of employment.

Connecticut’s state laws also prohibit discrimination in the recruiting and hiring process. Southington does have to comply with federal and state laws, but they are free to do it however they want as long as the process doesn’t discriminate against certain classes.

“My fear is that decisions were made behind closed doors, and it excluded people that could have potentially been opposed to the viewpoint that was presented,” said Palmieri. “That’s not open and transparent government to me, and I don’t want to have any part of that. I want to be open, honest, and transparent.”

To comment on this story, email Observer editor John Goralski at JGoralski@SouthingtonObserver.com. Staff writer Jen Cardines contributed to this article.

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