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Wednesday, February 5, 2014

On council, questions about hiring process for Public Safety Director

Posted By on Wed, Feb 5, 2014 at 5:26 PM

As Bill Peduto assembles his leadership team, he's taken flak from City Council both for hiring people and for not hiring them. Last week, the residency status of his pick for city solicitor, Lourdes Sanchez-Ridge, came under fire. That got resolved in council chambers yesterday, when council approved her appointment after getting a green light from the city's Law Department. But today, Peduto took some shots for deciding to restart the search for a Public Safety director. Before casting the net this time, Peduto wants to sweeten the job offer by raising the position's salary from $105,000 to $125,000. The salary hike was among a series of budget amendments discussed today, and some councilors weren't happy.

Darlene Harris, who is fixing to become a thorn in Peduto's side, noted that the administration had received a short-list of qualified applicants from Talent City, a foundation-funded, avowedly non-political hiring process that Peduto has pledged to rely on.

"It appears by the list that you have from Talent City that people have put in their applications" at $105,000, Darlene Harris said. So with qualified candidates in hand, why seek to pay someone more? "It must be somebody that the mayor has in mind that he can only get for $125,000," she surmised. "That's the only conclusion I can get to. "

Matt Barron, the mayor's policy director, denied that at the council table. "The mayor has asked for a new round of applications," he said. "He didn't feel that the ones we received were at the level he was looking for."

That reasoning appeared to satisfy Ricky Burgess, a frequent Peduto foe. "Our job is to give the mayor the tools he needs to do his job so that the city becomes better," he said. Noting the poor status of police-community relations in black neighborhoods especially, Burgess added that if Peduto needed another $20,000, "I am willing to give him that tool … [T]he public-safety director, whoever that person will be, is going to need very special skills."

But Theresa Kail-Smith voiced special concern for the current Public Safety Director, Michael Huss, who is seeking to retain the post. "I don't know how anybody could rank higher" than Huss, she said. While acknowledging that there were ethical lapses within the police bureau during his tenure, she said, "When something questionable occurred, he was the one who reported it … I think this is an attempt to find somebody to get his position, even though he is the person who is most qualified."

"Director Huss made the list," she later added. "He is one of the top candidates."

Well ... maybe. But Huss was certain to be a "finalist" in the Talent City process, regardless of whether he was ranked among the best candidates, or the worst.

Talent City's process is confidential, and no one would speak to how Huss fared in the rankings. But as a matter of policy, "An incumbent who reapplies for his or her position automatically becomes a finalist," says John Ellis, a spokesperson for the Pittsburgh Foundation, which is financing the Talent City search.

"We were asked to evaluate those candidates, just as we were everyone else," says David Donahoe, a member of the screening committee that reviewed public-safety director applications. "But my understanding was that the incumbents would be a part of the final list, no matter how they ranked."

What's more, Donahoe says, "It's always been my understanding that the mayor was under no obligation to choose one of the finalists."

Sal Sirabella, another screening-committee member, agrees. "The intent was always that we would send names to the mayor, and they could pick anybody from the list, or choose someone who wasn't on our list originally, or come back and say 'give us your next group of people,'" says Sirabella, himself a former city Public Safety Director under the administration of Tom Murphy.

As Sirabella and Donahoe describe the Talent City process, consultants reviewed the initial pool of applicants, culling it down to a short list of those who fulfilled the job requirements. That list was sent to the screening committee. (Sirabella says there were "over 100" applicants for the public-safety post, and he reviewed "between 15 and 20" on the short list.) Working independently from each other, screeners reviewed resumes and application letters, ranking candidates according to various criteria. Consultants weighed those scores alongside interviews and other factors, to come up with a final list presented to the administration.

Will an additional $20,000 make a difference in the applicant pool this time? Sirabella suspects that the lower salary might have been a bar for some would-be applicants. So could the city's residency requirement: Sirabella says it often complicated recruiting efforts during the Murphy years. (In fact, "When I got hired by the city, I had a residence in Collier," says Sirabella, who is currently that municipality's township manager. "I'd go home and help the kids with homework, and then come back to my place in the city. I know just what [Lourdes Sanchez-Ridge] is going through.")

And could Peduto have a candidate in mind that he wants to hire at $125,000, as Harris suggested? Sirabella seemed dubious. If Peduto had his eye on a particular choice, he says, "I would think they'd offer them the salary" and seek council's approval for it afterward, he said, "as opposed to going through the whole process again."

That process, in fact, just got a little longer: At council today, Kail-Smith asked for a special council meeting to discuss how Talent City works.

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