BRATTLEBORO -- The Selectboard is talking about instituting a hiring pause that would require department heads to sit down with the board before filling a position when an employee retires, resigns or is fired.
Selectboard member Kate O'Connor said she wanted the board to consider the new policy in an effort to get a better handle on personnel levels as well as to get a jump on next year's budget process.
"During our budget discussions it sort of became clear that we have to think in advance," O'Connor said. "There are a lot of decisions that are made that impact the long term. So I just wanted to talk about, before a position's filled, that we have the opportunity just to have a conversation about it."
The board talked about the proposed policy for about 30 minutes Tuesday but did not take a vote.
The board is expected to vote on the new policy at its next meeting.
O'Connor said the most recent budget discussion felt rushed and she said the board put too much pressure on the department heads, and on themselves, in trying to come with ways to save money.
By talking about filling positions as they open up, O'Connor said, the board should have a better understanding about how to staff the town departments when it is time to talk about the FY 2016 budget later this year.
"It's going to be hard in the next fiscal year and I'm hoping that if we do this we can avoid what we just went through in eight weeks," she said. "That doesn't mean I want people to freak out. That doesn't mean we're never hiring more people. I think it's just important that we take a deep breath and just look at what we're doing so we can all better understand it, and give us opportunities to plan better for the future."
The hiring pause was talked about late Tuesday night and three department heads waited around for the discussion, with each voicing opposition to the proposal.
"You hire the town manager and the department heads to run the divisions and I think there is a balance here that needs to be respected," Department of Public Works Director Steven Barrett told the board.
Barrett said the town had a similar policy in the 1990s and after working with department heads for a few months it became clear that the discussions were not really benefiting the board members or the department heads.
"Over time the board found that it was really not useful," Barrett said. "The practice is more useful in the budget, which you can control. During the budget the board has the chance and the opportunity, based on the recommendations of these department heads to make cuts and I'm wondering why we would have this additional layer."
Police Chief Gene Wrinn said he was concerned that a hiring pause would have an impact on how quickly he would be able to hire new officers and send them to the academy for training.
"We already have a hiring pause built in because we can't hire without going to the town manager," Wrinn said. "This will affect staffing and productivity and public safety will suffer."
And Fire Chief Mike Bucossi said the policy might lead to more overtime if he has to schedule paid staff to fill in.
He agreed that the time to discuss staffing is during the budget process.
"You folks approve staffing levels for the next budget year and for us to come here and jump through the same hoops that we jumped in during the budget process doesn't make a lot of sense," Bucossi said.
"I don't want to micromanage. We are not trying to run your departments or the town," O'Connor said. "I just think this would be helpful for us. Because once we hire somebody, we don't want to fire or lay them off, so we're putting ourselves in a position where we are just continuing some of those issues we've been having."
Selectboard Chairman David Gartenstein disputed the department heads' claims and said he was in support of the new policy.
Gartenstein said the policy might require the board to initially discuss hiring in executive session, though the board debated whether ultimate decisions on hiring would require votes in open session.
And he said if the discussions are not worthwhile the board can always give up on the policy.
"I am personally in favor of using this as another tool to do year round budgeting," Gartenstein said. "This is not an across the board decision not to hire people. It is not an unreasonable request for the Selectboard to have a relatively quick discussion in executive session to understand what the position entails and why it should be filled. I am at least in favor of giving it a try."
The other board members were not as clear on how they might vote on the proposed policy in two weeks.
"The board has a responsibility to do our best thinking about how to be more proactive in relationship to the budget," board member Donna Macomber said. "And it is the department heads' responsibility and the interim manager's to push back against our ideas and suggestions in a way that creates that healthy tension so we can arrive at something that actually makes sense. It is important for us to give it our best effort and for you all to say that it makes you nervous. If we can continue that dialogue over the course of the next few months we may find ourselves in a different place next year with the budget."
Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at 802-254-2311 ext. 279 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Howard on Twitter @HowardReformer.