City of Waukesha debates how to fill top-level jobs

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Published on: 7/21/2014

What should the process be for hiring a manager within the city of Waukesha?

It took more than a year for the city to hire a fire chief after the Common Council was reluctant to give the Police and Fire Commission money for a search firm. And hiring its most recent city administrator also took the city more than a year after a lengthy process that went through two search firms.

To find a more efficient process, the city's Human Resources Committee has been looking at creating a policy for when a vacancy of a higher-level position opens.

If approved, a minimum amount of $35,000 would be earmarked in the annual operating budget for hiring a search firm. If no positions open, the money would go into the city's general reserve fund.

Too much time

The idea hasn't gone over well with all alderman, causing some frustration for the city's chief administrator, whose own job will be up for grabs following his pending retirement.

"This whole business of using recruiting firms to hire management-level positions with the city seems to have taken on a level of controversy that in my mind is unnecessary," Henschel said at the July 15 common council meeting. "This was one attempt to create a policy so we don't have the ongoing debates of should you (hire a search firm), shouldn't you, when should we and all of those issues.

"As a result of not having a policy we waited 11 months to start a search for a fire chief, and from a management perspective that was unacceptable."

The policy applies for the positions of finance director, information technology director, human resources manager, Parks, Recreation and Forestry Department director, community development director, public works director and cemetery manager.

The $35,000 is based on conducting two executive searches per year.

"A recruitment is an investment the city is making," Henschel said. "When I was doing consulting work I would tell my client you need to look at this as a million dollar investment. You hope you have someone for five to seven years. Seven years is easily a million dollar investment for a management level position in the city of Waukesha."

Against the policy

While the policy, which states a recruitment firm will be expected to be used to fill vacancies, has other elements in the hiring process, the hang up for some aldermen was that it would set aside money in the budget for this item.

"What is planned here is a tax," Alderman Cory Payne said. "There's other ways to get the money if we needed it. I'd like to see the number of us go door to door when we're campaigning for positions and explain that (the city) might need it so we're just going to tax it and if we don't were just going to spend it somewhere else. To me that doesn't make sense."

Alderwoman Kathleen Cummings said she also sees it as a tax and that the city should use the money if needed from the contingency fund.

"I believe there is already a mechanism in play to provide those opportunities and we don't have to do it twice," Cummings said.

Seeing the benefits

Alderwoman Joan Francoeur said the Human Resources Committee looked at different approaches but found the proposed policy to be in the best interest of the city.

"The amount that it stands for isn't even a penny when we look at our tax rate," Francoeur said.

Alderman Joe Pieper added that providing a clear policy for the city is a wise move.

"There's much more to the policy than the dollar amount in it," Pieper said. "When you don't have a policy in place, when you don't have a road map for your city staff, time is wasted. I'm a big believer in opportunity cost. What is having an open position truly costing the city? What this policy does is (remove) a lot of needless steps."

After a long debate, Mayor Shawn Reilly, who said in a memo that "filling a department head position has often become a time-consuming and inefficient process," broke a tie to put the item on hold until more council members are in attendance. One-third of the council was missing from the meeting.

Open positions

Two of the seven director/manager positions to which this policy would apply are currently vacant.

Community Development Director Steve Crandell recently retired — a position that Henschel said is about "two weeks behind in the interview process." Henschel, nonetheless, said he has narrowed the field of candidates to four and was planning on interviewing three of the finalists this week.

Cemetery Manager Dave Brenner also recently retired.

Henschel is also retiring at the end of the year but gave the city six months to find his replacement.

The council last week approved spending $18,500 on hiring the recruitment firm GovHR USA to conduct the search in finding Henschel's replacement.

GovHR USA, which consists of Voorhees Associates and GovTemps USA, is a Northbrook, Ill.-recruitment firm. Voorhees Associates was the firm that helped the city select Henschel two years ago.