Mixed results for personnel matters in Special City Council meeting

WESTFIELD – Following 3-0 recommendations for the reappointment of Attorney John E. Garber and the approval of the personnel director job description in the Personnel Action Committee, Chair Cindy C. Harris brought both matters to a Special City Council meeting on Oct. 8, where Garber was reappointed and the job description nixed.

Harris described Garber as an expert litigator who was reappointed unanimously by the CIty Council in 2017 for the part-time, three year position in the city’s Law Department.

Harris said Garber oversees all litigation for the city in superior court, and consults with department heads and school personnel on employment issues, reducing the need for the city to hire outside counsel.

PAC member Ralph J. Figy said he had the “highest compliments” for the work of Attorney Garber. He then asked Garber several questions that he had received from Councilor Kristen Mello regarding the chain of command and accountability for the position, as well as a question regarding the Cross St. playground which Garber could not answer due to pending issues.

“My mandate is pretty clear, to protect the best interests of the city of Westfield,” Garber said, adding that he takes direction from the city solicitor or acting solicitor.

Regarding any consequences to losing a case, another question from Mello, Garber said there is a winner and a loser every single time. “if the decision relates to the conduct of the litigation, any adverse consequences are my responsibility,” he said.

Garber also responded to the question of whether his process is altered by various mayoral changes. He said no, and that he rarely consults with the mayor directly on cases. He said if there are differences of opinions in the Law Department, they discuss them. “I would not take a course which I believe is detrimental to the city,” he added.

PAC member William Onyski also endorsed the reappointment.

Before unanimously approval of the reappointment in the City Council meeting which immediately followed, Mello thanked Garber, Figy and Harris for indulging her in answering the questions, adding, “A lot of residents have wondered about how the process works.”

Approval of the description for the personnel director did not fare as well.

In the PAC committee and again at the City Council meeting, Harris explained that as a human resource expert with national and international experience, she had made a motion to accept the job description for immediate acceptance at the Oct. 1 City Council meeting She said the Law Department and acting personnel director had approved the job description, and the hiring process was underway with a multitude of applicants.

Harris said although the City Council had elected to instead send the job description to the PAC, no councilors outside of the personnel committee had submitted any questions for the personnel director. “I made a motion to accept the job description to help our city,” Harris said.

During the discussion, several councilors raised questions about the qualifications needed, especially due to the frequent turnover of personnel directors in recent years.

“We should be looking at why we have such turnover in this department, and tweak the job description. Specifically under education and experience, municipal experience should be required, knowledge of state laws and civil service should be required. Just having five years in another company isn’t enough,” said At-large Councilor Dave Flaherty, adding that he didn’t like the idea of a three year contract for somebody new.

Council President Brent B. Bean, II said he was intrigued by the comments raised by Ward 4 Councilor Michael Burns about needing a lawyer for the position. He said he was not 100 percent sold, but having someone with a legal mind would help.

“I don’t want to limit our applicants; we all heard that some people applied. The Acting Personnel Director works 10 hours a week. That was the bulk of my interest at this point,” Bean said.

Figy said just because someone is a lawyer doesn’t mean they would be qualified for the position. He said a good task for a new personnel director would be to review all of the job descriptions in the city.

“If we do any changes, effectively turning down the job description, all candidates who have already applied will have to go through this all over again,” Figy said, adding that with his recent experience on the auditor’s search committee, “There’s no way they would recommend somebody they think couldn’t do the job.”

After further discussion about the experience required for the job, the council did not recommend the job description for personnel director by a vote of 6 to 5, with 7 yes votes required for passage. Councilors Allie and Morganelli were not in attendance.

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