Is Worcester Heading Toward A Leadership Vacuum?
Thursday, September 19, 2013
In a written notice, O'Brien, who has reigned supreme as Worcester’s CEO since 2004, let Mayor Joe Petty and the City Council know about informal job talks that he’s had with Boston-based Winn Companies, a national real-estate developer. Nationwide, the 43-year-old Winn has more than 3,000 employees and owns or manages more than 95,000 mixed-use and residential units.
The surprising news about O’Brien comes as two other long-time, top-ranking City Hall leaders get ready to retire in a few more weeks. Bob Moylan, commissioner of the Public Works & Parks Department, plans to retire at the end of this December. And City Auditor Jim DelSignore is set to put in his final day early next January.
One factor in O’Brien’s decision to talk formal turkey with Winn could be informal conversations between him and the Council that will start this December regarding his next contract. His current three-year contract extension – which, in 2010, the Council tacked on to his at-the-time five-year pact - expires in March 2015.
‘One of the most capable, qualified city managers in the country’
On September 16, O’Brien told the Council he had been in informal talks with Winn since late August. Under Massachusetts law, he is required to notify the Council of "any particular matter existing, or which may forseeably arise," in which he may financially benefit.
The notification is required in this case because Winn either owns or manages properties in Worcester, and several city employees who report directly to O’Brien, deal with the firm regarding. For example, they approve project plans, issue permits, conduct inspections, or establish property values for taxing purposes.
District 2 Councilor Phil Palmieri, a big backer of O’Brien, tells GoLocalWorcester that it’s “premature to have any discussions” with O’Brien about a contract renewal. Mayor Joe Petty, he adds, indicated on September 17 “that it’d be likely sometime in December that there’d be some informal discussion” by Petty with O’Brien.
Palmieri calls O’Brien “one of the most capable, qualified city managers in the country,” adding that he says so “without hesitation.” He says he’s “not surprised” that a national firm such as Winn has offered a job to O’Brien. "All you have to do,” he adds, “is look where the city came from, when he started [as city manager eight years ago], to where it is today.”
Palmieri sounds much less concerned about the pending retirements of both Moylan and DelSignore. Moylan has run DPW for 20 years and worked for the department a total of more than 42 years, while DelSignore has been city auditor for 22 years. DelSignore has postponed retirement twice in the past three years. He was originally set to retire in January 2010, but agreed to remain for another two years at the request of the Council. Last November, he agreed to a Council request to stay on for yet another year, until next January 7.
On July 1, O’Brien promoted Paul Moosey, then assistant commissioner of engineering, to deputy commissioner of public works and parks. The city manager said his goal is to make Moosey acting commissioner once Moylan retires.
Palmieri points out that Moylan will be replaced by “an exceptionally competent guy” in the way of Moosey, who he says “won’t miss a step.” He adds that “no one is going to really replace a status, stature [and] intellect of Commissioner Moylan. But I have all the confidence in Paul Moosey to be an excellent commissioner of public works.”
Palmieri does not expect to see DelSignore stay on as city auditor for yet another year or two. He hopes there will be “an adequate replacement” for the auditor. He says DelSignore “has served the city well, and I’m sure that the city auditor would not retire unless he was comfortable that his replacement would be more than adequate for the City of Worcester.”
Palmieri displays no concern about a big gap developing in Worcester’s top leadership. “I don’t see a major vacuum,” he says.
Petty, who also chairs the Council, has yet to respond to GoLocalWorcester’s request for an interview regarding O’Brien’s job talks with Winn.
‘Outstanding city employees’
Like Palmieri, David Schaefer, professor of political science at the College of the Holy Cross, thinks Moylan and DelSignore’s pending departures are quite different from the possible loss of O’Brien. That, Schaefer observes, is because Moylan and DelSignore are retiring, and not considering taking a job elsewhere.
For fiscal 2012, in gross pay, Moylan received $168,344, ranking 17th among all city employees, while DelSignore got $144,272, ranking 59th. Could it be that they just don’t want to work as much for what they may regard as not enough pay?
“Neither of those retirements signifies insufficient compensation, but just the normal retirement process,” Schaefer responds. “I don’t know if you offered them $10 million a year, whether they’d stay on longer. Lots of people, when they reach a certain age – as in their mid 60s – decide that they would rather retire and do other things. So I don’t think you can read anything, compensation-wise, into those retirements.”
Schaefer calls both Moylan and DelSignore “outstanding city employees.” It would have been great if both men had stayed on for another decade, he adds, presuming they were up to it. “But we can’t stop either the aging process,” he says, “or many people’s desire to retire from such demanding jobs at this point in their lives.”
Regarding whether now is a good time for major changes in the top ranks of City Hall leadership, Schaefer says, “I would hardly say it’s a good thing or a good time, but it’s obviously something we have to adapt to. I hope we will be able to find comparable replacements – it won’t be easy.”
For O’Brien, Schaefer also expresses high praise. “I don’t know anybody who doesn’t think that Mike has done a terrific job at the top,” he says, “and so it will be unfortunate for the city if he’s moving on to another job, which he has indicated is a possibility.”
O’Brien’s fiscal ’12 gross pay was $184,792. That ranks him No. 4 behind Police Chief Gary Gemme ($198,699), Deputy Police Chief Mark Roche ($193,304) and School Superintendent Melinda Boone ($188,400).
Schaefer says he assumes that if O’Brien does go to work for Winn, “it would be for monetary reasons.” If that does happen, he adds, he also assumes the Council “might be willing to negotiate a somewhat higher salary, if that’s what it took to keep him.”
Should O’Brien join Moylan and DelSignore in exiting their prominent municipal posts, Schaefer says it would make for “an even harder blow for the city. … I have to wish Mike well, and yet as a Worcesterite, I have to hope that it will be possible to retain his services.”
Steven Jones-D'Agostino is chief pilot of Best Rate of Climb: Marketing, Public Relations, Social Media and Radio Production. Follow him on Twitter @SteveRDAgostino.
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