Westfield Newsroom

City addressing operational issues

WESTFIELD – The Government Relations Committee voted Wednesday night to keep three issues in committee while awaiting legal opinions and a report from the University of Massachusetts.
The committee discussed the status of the proposed reorganization and consolidation of city departments; a request to have contracts executed by the executive branch submitted to the City Council, the city’s legislative branch, for review, and a request to the Technology Department to facilitate posting of council related data by the City Clerk.
Sue Phillips, the Law Department supervisor, said the city has commissioned the University of Massachusetts to do an assessment of consolidation and reorganization within the municipal departmental structure. That assessment will aid city officials in identifying reorganization that could result in savings and in greater efficiency through consolidation
A major focus of that study is the redundant functions of City Hall and the School Department. Phillips said that several functions have already been consolidated, while other functions, such as human resources, are being examined for consolidation.
“There have been a lot of positive changes, from my perspective, in the past year,” Phillips said. “There are some things we’re already doing.”
The School Department has relocated its payroll personnel to City Hall in an office located near the City Auditor’s Office. The Volunteers in Public Schools (VIPS) office and that of Frank Maher, director of operations, maintenance and food services, are currently located space renovated on the third floor of City Hall.
Another major reorganization was initiated with the creation of the Technology Department which had evolved as a function within the School Department.
Consolidation of the School Department Human Resources function with that of the City Hall office is still being assessed. The School Department hired a new Human Resource Director last fall, while the city is planning to name an Assistant Human Resource Director shortly to position the city for that possible consolidation. The school HR director would head the proposed consolidated department.
“There is still a significant gap between the school side and city side,” Phillips said. “There is a lot of teacher and staff certifications that need to be done on the school side”.
The school HR department is also required to perform CORY background checks of departmental employees, of the employees of contractor and even of volunteers.
That issue will remain in committee pending the UMASS report.
At-large Councilor David A. Flaherty initiated the request for contract documentation, including cost projections over the life of the contract, citing state law (Chapter 150-E, Section 7) that required the information be provided to the legislative branch within 30 days.
“I’d like to see this start happening so the council approves contracts as the law is written,” Flaherty said Wednesday. “The mayor is supposed to submit an appropriation to fund the first year of the contract.”
Flaherty requested that the cost estimate include “dollar estimates for salary or hourly pay, stipends, shift premiums, bonuses, education, incentive, taxes, benefits, future commitments and/or any other financial obligation that will be incurred as a result of the collective bargaining agreement.”
Phillips said that traditionally in Westfield that funding for bargaining unit contracts is included in the municipal department budgets for the fiscal year in which the contract takes effect.
“If there are sufficient funds in the budget, it’s not brought before the legislative body,” she said.
Ward 3 Councilor Peter J. Miller Jr., said submitting that data to the City Council would give the city “additional leverage when going through the collective bargaining process when (the bargaining unit) knows (the contract) has to go through another body.”
Phillips said that City Council cannot, by state law, negotiate any terms of the contract, an executive branch obligation.
“That could result in an unfair labor charge,” Phillips said. “It’s the responsibility of the mayor to negotiate. The (City) Council, as the legislative body, has no right to negotiate. It can approve it in whole or reject it in whole.”
“We’re looking at this,” Phillips said. “We’re working on an opinion, studying case-law. I ask you to take no action until you have that opinion.”
That issue will also be held in committee.
The third issue pertains to the release of information electronically by the City Clerk. Prior to changes in the state Open Meeting Law data was printed out and posted on bulletin boards. The revised law allows communities to perform that function electronically through municipal websites.
The new process requires departments to send that data to the Technology Department for posting.
Agma Sweeney, chairwoman of the Government Relations Committee said “some councilors feel that it slows communication and adds an extra step through the IT Department which may delay (dissemination of that information), that IT is between the councilors and their ability to communicate through the City Clerk.”
Sweeney also raised the issue that the Technology Department is within the executive branch which could exert control over the information coming out of the council.
“It is counter to the separation of branches of government,” Sweeney said. “The council is the legislative branch, while IT is under the executive branch.”
Phillips said that the Technology Department has the technical ability to support the City Council’s exchange of information, but that the Open Meeting Law places some restriction on that process.
“There is a distinction between what technology is capable of doing and what we, as a city, can do under the law,” Phillips said. “We have to make a policy for every one of these things. IT may be capable of doing it, but they’re not doing it until we determine if we can do it under the law. We still have to abide by the Open Meeting Law.”

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