OPINION: Challenging Staff Recommendations OK, But Who Knows Best?

Council decides it knows more about managing than its professional managers

At least twice this year the Common Council has decided it knows more about what it takes to run city departments than the professionals running those departments. The Council is right to challenge department heads, to request justification for items that require Council approval, especially when they involve spending taxpayer dollars, but the aldermen may need to put a little more faith in the professionals.

A case in point came at last night’s Common Council meeting. When the Council voted to deny Parks and Recreation Director John Kelliher and Economic and Tourism Director Bob Duffy permission to create a marketing assistant staff position, they told the two that they knew more about managing people and departments than did Kelliher and Duffy, the professionals.

While there were several arguments made against creating the position, the argument that seemed to resonate the most with the aldermen said the city was better served by changing the proposed position from full-time (one person) to two part-time positions, employing two different people.

Proponents for splitting the position said that the city won’t have to pay benefits to either part-time position, saving dollars as a result. They also didn’t accept Kelleher’s argument that a full-time position, with benefits, would attract higher quality candidates and that often people willing to take part-time positions did so only until they could find full-time employment.

As someone who has worked in environments where the use of part-time people, splitting a full-time job, was common, let me say that Kelliher is correct; it does not produce optimum results. Productivity is lower, there are communication and training issues, and turnover, which is very costly, can be high.

Earlier this year the Council also ignored a staff recommendation that it not accept the lowest bid for a $50,000 contract, because the difference between the lowest and next highest bid was only a couple of hundred dollars.  DPW Director Mark Frye argued that the vendor favored by staff had a proven track record with the city for the type of work required and that it had established lines of communication with his staff. In other words, it was known commodity. City staff knew they could work with the firm. The Council responded by saying no, ignoring a department head’s learned recommendation.

There are times when ignoring staff or department head recommendations is acceptable and maybe desireable, but the Council needs to make sure that its actions are carefully considered, understood, and deliberate, not emotional, when it takes such action.

In Kelliher’s case, the Council needed to conduct research on job sharing before making it the cornerstone of a no vote. Had the Council consisted of seven experienced personnel managers I think the vote would have been different and Kelliher and Duffy would be moving ahead, not going back to the drawing board.

 

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