By PETER HUSSMANN
Newton City Administrator Bob Knabel and Newton Mayor Mike Hansen today attempted to assuage local residents over the city's handling of the promotion of City Planner Erin Chambers to the new position of Director of Planning and Zoning, as well as clarifying the actual costs involved.
Last month, the council agreed to a new organizational structure that not only promoted Chambers, but advanced Bryan Friedman to the new position of Direcor of Finance and Development, retitled and advanced in the pay the current financial assistant and created a new support staff position.
In order for the plan to go forward, the council was faced with the fact that Chambers, in her new position as a city director, did not comply with the city's current residency requirement of living within eight miles of the Newton city limits. As City Planner, a non-director position, she had previously been exempted from the requirement through the current ordinance.
The ordinance change proposal released to the public in advance of Monday's meeting allowed the city administrator the discretion to waive the residency requirements for new employees and those being promoted should he find - with the consent of the three-council-member Employee Relations Committee - "personal hardships, operational concerns or appointment issues." No explanation on why it was being put up for consideration or that it was being done to allow Chambers to take her promotion was included in the report.
On Monday, without discussion on the complete makeover of the ordinance proposal, the council adopted first reading, waived the second and third readings and adopted a change to the current ordinance that adds the Director of Planning and Zoning position to those positions exempt from the eight-mile city limit radius requirement. It further removed the City Planner position from the exemption and set a sunset clause on the Director of Planning and Zoning position exemption should a change of employment occur.
Newton City Administrator Knabel said on Tuesday the "handling of the ordinance by staff was confusing and not carefully done, and for that I take the blame."
"The staff looked at a number of options at addressing the residency issue," the city administrator said. "It was my desire and decision to appoint Erin Chambers to the position believing she had the experience, background and knowledge within the organization to lead this area. Her leadership in the Comprehensive Plan and our nuisance efforts convinced me she was best suited for the position. Plus when you can, it is best to promote from within. Finally, in conversations with individual Council members they agreed that Erin was the best choice.
"However, her position as City Planner was exempted from the residency requirements and as such, I needed to address that in some official manner, meaning that we had to amend the ordinance. We had two or three options that we looked at and the one that was in the packet and distributed early, while it could meet the objectives of appointing Erin, it also expanded the possible use of the waiver/exemption provisions.
"After it was put out it became clear that it would not be the preferred way of addressing it, nor was it the best approach to achieve the purpose. As such it was withdrawn.
"The alternative ordinance that was placed before the Council Monday evening allowed for the position to be exempted, but with the provisio that once Erin left the position the exemption would go away. It was clear in my discussions with individual Council members that they agreed with the appointment but did not want to give a permanent waiver to a Director. This new ordinance seemed to be the simplest and most direct way to make it happen while not making the exemption permanent."
Newton Mayor Hansen addressed the financial impacts of the reorganization after it was found the salary figures provided to council members and put out to the public concerning Chambers' current pay rate and proposed increase were incorrect.
The initial figures presented showed Chambers making $60,766 at Range 8, Step 8 on the salary schedule. However, as City Planner she was actually being paid $67,838 at Range 9, Step 9. It was proposed that she would move to Range 11, Step 1 at a salary of $64,521, well below the amount she was paid in her non-director position. Addendum information included with the initial report, however, correctly listed Chambers' actual pay.
Hansen said today that Chambers will move to Range 11, Step 4 on salary schedule at $71,141.
In addition, he noted, including both Chambers' and Friedman's salary increases due to the reorganization, as well as the advancement of Lisa Frazier from her financial assistant position at Range 5, Step 13 ($52,571) to the readjusted comptroller post at Range 7, Step 8 ($55,759) and the hiring of a support staff position at City Hall, the city will save between $21,925 and $28,691 compared to the previous reorganization plan adopted by the council. The variance in savings is due to the discretion the administrator is granted in deciding the Range 5 step placement of the person hired for the support staff position - anywhere from entry at $36,781 to Step 5 at $43,547.
Chambers was officially appointed Director of Planning of Zoning for the City of Newton on Tuesday.