Smithfield Town Council bedeviled by Personnel Board issues

Smithfield Town Council bedeviled by Personnel Board issues

SMITHFIELD - The municipal Personnel Board fits right in with Halloween: It's a phantom group that exists, but cannot be seen or heard.

In 2008, voters amended the municipal charter, creating the three-member agency to oversee municipal hiring and keep it transparent - but the board has yet to morph into actual human form.

There's a good reason why: Despite a lopsided election mandate, the Town Council at that time, and two subsequent councils, have never appointed any members.

Soon, that might change.

Nearly a year after its election, the current Town Council has begun a process that could turn the spectral agency into flesh-and-blood reality.

At its Oct. 22 meeting, the council agreed to ask the recently appointed Charter Review Commission to iron out any wrinkles in language that created the Personnel Board with an eye toward getting it up and running.

Whether that will actually happen is still unknown, because a number of factors have led to the delay, including political disagreement during the 2008 election over whether the board should be created at all, with Republicans generally against it and Democrats in favor.

Republicans worried that with only three members, at least two of whom could be from the same party according to the charter amendment, the board might inject politics into municipal hiring.

In fact, Republican councilwoman Maxine Cavanagh raised that concern again last week, as the GOP-dominated council discussed the issue before deciding to move forward at least with cleaning up some conflicting language in the amendment, which voters supported 4,720 to 3,533.

Town Solicitor Edmund L. Alves Jr. has said that among flaws in the amendment's wording is lack of clarity over what jurisdiction the board would have over the School Department.

Last week's move toward bringing the board to life came from the two council Democrats, Suzanna Alba and Bernard Hawkins.

Alba said it's clear from the 2008 vote that a Personnel Board is the will of the people.

Republican Council President Alberto LaGreca Jr. said one of the board's major duties would be to winnow down the field of job applicants to the best-qualified three, so that officials who make the final hiring decisions would not be burdened with interviewing a long list of candidates.

The board would also be charged with creating a job classification system, setting up pay grades to ensure equal pay for equal work, defining job duties, and setting qualifications.

Municipal hiring is currently handled by Town Manager Dennis Finlay and the human resources director, sometimes with the aid of temporary selection committees chosen by the manager.

Among factors that pushed Personnel Board appointments to the back burner was lack of response to advertisements seeking volunteers to serve on it, council members said in 2009.

In fact, Cavanagh said at the time, response was so poor that she personally tried to recruit townspeople.

A requirement for unpaid board membership is experience in personnel administration.