Thursday, July 19, 2018

Commissioners Fear Crisis In Understaffed Planning Office

City commissioners with planning responsibilities have expressed deep concern about the lack of staffing in the city planning office.  While the mayor and the city planner share the concern, both dismiss the notion that a crisis exists.

At the end of July, Zoning Enforcement Officer Michelle Ford, will be leaving Middletown's office of Planning, Conservation and Development.  Her departure leaves the already understaffed office with one less qualified employee.  Ford, the former Environmental Specialist for the city, is leaving for a position at Eversource.

Ford indicated that she is taking the new job because it is more aligned with her career aspirations as an environmental specialist, and not because she's upset with the situation in the planning office, but she said that the vacancies in the office make it difficult to get the job done, and frustrating for the public.

"We used to be a six person office, and now it's just Tom and me," Ford said.  "The phones are ringing, people are stopping by to get a question answered, and there's no one available to do that."

The office at full staff, typically hosts a Director, Deputy Director, a Zoning Enforcement Officer (ZEO), an Environmental Specialist, an Economic Development specialist and two clerical staff, will be down to Director Joe Samolis, Economic Development specialist Thomas Marano and the clerical staff, Cynthia Jones and Susan Nesco.

The departures leave the office without certified planning staff to make planning and zoning enforcement decisions.

This lack of staff has caused serious concern for commissioners on boards and commissions associated with the planning office.

A Certifiable Crisis

"It's a certifiable crisis not to have a Zoning Enforcement Officer," according to Planning and Zoning Commission chair Stephen Devoto (full disclosure: Devoto is also an author for the Middletown Eye).  "And we need the professional advice and guidance of a professional planner to protect the city from legal action as a result of rulings, and to encourage good development in the city."

"I was concerned last Spring, but now I'm past alarmed," said Liz Holder, chair of the Commission on Conservation and Agriculture.  "We’re very discouraged.  There are things that should be moving forward and they are not. We have grants for farmland preservation and open space that aren’t being applied for.  I’ve been told by the Planning Office that no grants are being applied for."

"Everyone on our commission is a lay person," admitted Joe Carta, chair of the Inland and Wetlands Watercourses Agency.  "Our hands are tied because we don't have the information previously provided by staff."

Carta explained that developers with applications to his commission can move forward with their projects if a decision is not granted within ninety days.

ZEO Position Already Posted

Both Mayor Dan Drew, and Director of Planning, Joe Samolis recognize the concern with Ford's departure, but assure the public that a ZEO will be hired expeditiously.

"Hiring for that position is moving foward as quickly as possible," Drew explained.  "Unfortunately, because of a transition in our HR office there has been a slight delay."

City HR director Tom Tokarz recently announced his departure after a short tenure.
The ZEO desk in the Planning
Office which will soon
be vacant.

"We've already advertised the ZEO position internally," Samolis said.  "We working as efficiently as possible to fill that position."

Beyond the ZEO spot, the possibility of backfilling the Deputy Director position and the Environmental Specialist position have come to a near standstill because of job description rewrites, negotiations with city unions, and contentious finger-pointing and blame between the mayor and the Common Council.

Mayor: Job Description Process is Antiquated

According to the City Charter, the Common Council must approve all job rewrites, a process that the mayor has described as "antiquated."  In addition, positions at the Director and Deputy Director level while hired by the mayor are approved by the Common Council.

"If it weren't for the quirk in the charter, we would have re-written the job description for the Environmental Specialist and would be well on the way to filling that postion," Drew said.

"Frequently reviewing these job descriptions, and filling these positions get held up at the Council because they are patronage positions that they want filled by friends or family," Drew added.  "The Council has blatantly refused to hear confirmation of my candidates."

"I think they're stuck in neutral up there," Common Council member Sebastian Giuliano said referring to the delay in hiring.  Giuliano, a Republican, is minority leader on the Council.

"It's unfortunate that the mayor would strike this tone, and make that kind of accusation," Democratic Council member Mary Bartolotta said.  "It's ridiculous, and absolutely not the case."

Job Openings Stalled For Months

Bartolotta explained that city ordinance requires the mayor to begin the process of filling job openings within ten days, and that many open positions have stalled for weeks and months.

"If we would just follow ordinance and move forward with posting jobs the way we should, we wouldn't see this kind of problem in any city office," Bartolotta added.

"If there are positions that don’t require Council approval, why aren’t you filling them?" Giuliano said. "I understand you may have reluctance to fill Council-approved positions because we’ve signaled that we won’t consider them, but not every position requires Council approval."

The current delay in assessing Director and Assistant Director level jobs by the Council is because of the ongoing investigation into the mayor's office ordered by the Common Council.  The investigation is exploring allegations of discrimination and harassment in the office of the mayor and human resources.  That investigation is being conducted by an outside attorney, and, according to several sources, findings will be reported to the Common Council in August.

City commissioners are concerned that the restructuring of positions will leave the office shortchanged when it comes to planning experience.  Samolis would like the Deputy Director to be a "community development" position with the Deputy responsible for financial oversight, responsibility for filing and supervising the grants, and for management of the office when the director is not available.  Samolis was not willing to share how the Environmental Specialist job description would be rewritten.

Samolis was hired as director of the planning office by the mayor, and confirmed by the council despite his lack of certification and experience.  His hiring was contingent upon his pursuit of planning credentials and certification.

Commissioners and Common Council members indicate that Samolis has not shared his thoughts on how the Environmental Specialist position will be rewritten.  In addition, Samolis has not forwarded the job description to the General Counsel Commission for review, as expected.

"Joe has been talking about rewriting that job description since our preliminary budget discussions early in the year," according to Bartolotta.

"I’m concerned that we’re planning to hire a Deputy Director whose main duties will be to write grants, and a third in command who will be an environmental expert." Holder said.  "That’s backwards.  The person with the expert knowledge should be at a higher level."

"If the dysfunctionality at City Hall is at such a level that we're willing to accept whatever's expedient, the city loses out," Devoto said.  "We require expertise to create planning regulations and we rely on the staff to review applications and confirm that submitted applications conform to the regulations."

"And it affects economic development" Giuliano added.  "If word gets out to devlopers that the process for approval is dysfunctional, the investment is not coming here."


Anonymous said...

This is another situation caused by our mayor. In order to give his friend the director's position, they changed the certification and expirience required. His actions also drove another certified employee to quit for a job in Cromwell. So now we're left short handed without qualified people.
Just to forwarn you, the same situation is happenning in another major department, where the staff has been down by a third for more than 2 years.
We're doomed with this guy leading our city.

Anonymous said...

Doesn't Joe Samolis have things covered with his 'expertise?' How is the AICP (American Institute of Certified Planners) certification coming along? Having someone with no experience in planning is a disservice to Middletown residents, businesses, and taxpayers. The few qualified employees can't do all the work, so It shouldn't be a surprise that they are leaving.

Anonymous said...

How is this not considered a crisis? We can't have a planning department without a planner. And the deputy director position advertised was really not for a planner at all - it was for someone to fill out paperwork and grants. How are applications being processed?

By some miracle, something serious hasn't happened. But don't think someone won't come in and take advantage of the situation. This department is different from all others. This involves people's property and their ambitions to develop it. You can't monkey around and "fake" it.

Last, I can't help but notice the new developments of late around town are things that just don't fit in. Is more of this what we have to look forward to? Lord help us.

Anonymous said...

The Mayor is disturbingly delusional. It’s not the council but him that has caused this mess. He put his crony Who is completely unqualified in the seat. What a joke. I think Crony Joe needs to go and so does drew. Let’s start Dump now! And take crony joe w you!

Anonymous said...

Where's Ed and his outrage at all the anonymous postings?

Anonymous said...

Yet the same critics were all in favor of the creation & cherry picked environmental position that was eliminated from the budget & essentially hired illegally. The city already had a environmental person at the time too.

Anonymous said...

There hasn't been a zeo report since Linda Reed left in June 2017. Michelle Ford was made acting in October 2018, and permanent zeo in January. No zeo reports. Why hasn't the chairman ever mentioned this?

john milardo said...

I hate to say it.....but I told you so!

Anonymous said...

What a broken mess. Why doesnt the council get some back bone and create a new line for a town planner and just transfer money from that so called deputy that Samolis is trying to get his crony from Tighe and Bond into. Please council members stand up to this. We need more Blanchards and Bartolottas and less Samolis Drew and Nocera or Daleys. Out with the old.

Christine Bourne said...

As the Union President for AFSCME, Local 466 I have been asking for many months about the filling of the Environmental Specialist position, with no response until approx 10 days ago when I was informed that the City wanted to revise the job description. We have still not heard about any potential revisions. I wanted to make it clear, as I did to Chairman Devoto that the union is not holding this up, but rather anxious to get our job filled.

EnzoDast said...

Depressing to read all of this. I would love for a real instigative news team to come in and interview city employees and dig into all of this nonsense we read and hear about.

Anonymous said...

The mayor should know a thing or two about politicians re-writing job descriptions to hire cronies, given that he did exactly that to hire the current city planner. How's the inexperienced former archaeologist doing on his AICP certification?

Anonymous said...

What has Joe Samolis accomplished for the positive in 18 months other than be Mayor Dan Drew’s crony? Answer is ZERO! Crony Joe. Ironic that Mayor would say it’s the Council members trying to hire cronies. It’s really the Mayor. Just look at Crony. Joe. He is unqualified and untrained and even so arrogant to think he doesn’t need to take a single class like he promised to do. Only thing he has done is expand his office and put in new furniture. Yes we on the commissions have seen it. You have no confidence of this commission. Crony Joe must Go!

Anonymous said...

In order to just apply for the certification exam, you need an accredited degree from a planning school plus experience. Without such a degree, you need a minimum 36 months of working under a planner (with all work documented), plus all the background, legal precedents, planning principles, skills. You can’t get this from reading on-line. You need to have a back-and-forth to talk about case law and details. You need classes where you measure and evaluate and draw. You need to test regulations in the field and see how things suit different places differently. You also need to understand progressive tools like form-based codes, transfer-of-development rights and principles of sustainability. This is not to even begin to mention computer skills for analyses, creating diagrams, GIS and map-making.

You simply cannot acquire these skills for the first time and gain enough facility with them while also working full-time - it just can’t happen. You need to concentrate and focus as you learn them.

Joe will never have the credentials for taking the AICP exam unless he goes to college full-time, then works under a certified planner for 3 years. If the requirement from the council was 5 years to get the certificate - and that was 18 months ago - it is difficult to see how that requirement will be met.

Anonymous said...

This situation with Samolis and a broken Planning Dept. is only one example of decades of cronyism and backward thinking in this city that prevents it from moving forward and being vibrant. We adopted trends in other cities 15 years late if at all. Never developed the riverfront - a true gift of a resource that could make millions for the city.
Now projects will cease to exist at all with a planning director who knows about as much about the area as I do. What about getting that AICP credential as the position requires ?? Do you expect your doctor to understand medicine ? Council said yes to that and now it bit them.....of course developers will go elsewhere when they cannot have a discussion with a knowledgeable planning professional !

Best solution - implode city hall and start over with people truly qualified to lead departments and have some real brains. Amazing what gets accomplished when people actually know what to do professionally. Not to mention the current waste of money on inflated wages of unqualified people who are someone's cousin/spouse/sister. Michelle Ford is a large loss of a true professional who was not allowed to to do what she is qualified for in such a mess. Eversource's gain.

Anonymous said...

Ed, where are you? So many anonymous posters!

Sara said...

Ed only posts what is not reflective of his friends evil deeds. About Joe Samolis, this only showing negative comments. We know there are positive , Not saying that the Mayor is any good, But your just full of fake news!

john milardo said...

Anonymous said:
"Anonymous, July 28, 2018, at 7:05pm,
Ed, where are you? So many anonymous posters!"
I say....Why are you anonymous?

Anonymous said...

Actually Joe has cleaned up Saybrook Rd businesses that have been operating illegally on residential land for years.....which all started under the former regimes watch. It's all documented and in the courts as Ispeak......Huge Changes.....

EnzoDast said...

Is there a deadline to when he has to get this certification? I have no confidence in our town hall to enforce any requirements around this. Maybe he's studying for it while on the job also? Much like another city official (highest one) who got a degree while on the clock from a school that didn't offer virtual classes?? Hmmmm

Anonymous said...

Let’s correct this misconception: The enforcement work addressing zoning issues on Saybrook Road and Dripps Road was NOT done by Joe Samolis, but by the former certified zoning officer, Linda Reed under authorization by the former certified Director Michiel Wackers AICP. Her work disecting the history of illegal activities and presentation to the zoning board is the only reason this is now in court. It is NOT Joe’s work.

Anonymous said...

YES, Linda Reed did do all of the leg work which was SUPERIOR work compared to the formers. But then left her position. Joe completed the work , Issued the Cease and Desist orders and now the properties are in the Courts and have stopped the BS that has been occurring for years. UNDER THE OLD REGIME. Thanks Linda and Joe. People who care more about residential families than businesses trying to expand and operate on Residential property.

Anonymous said...

BTW.......MOST ALL of the information WHICH IS IN THE COURT RECORDS NOW came from citizens who researched and compiled the data....... So RESIDENTS did 60 percent of the work. FROM TOWN RECORDS.....It was all there in BLACK and WHITE... Some folks downtown didnt want Ms Reed to see anything.... But she found all she needed.......which was most of the businesses didnt have any site plans available !!!!! Imagine that ! PS , why is the moderator editing blog comments ? Thats is censorship on a scale I cant believe ! A BLOG IS A FREE EXCHANGE OF IDEAS. My last statement was cut in half by you ! sad indeed.