Councilors consider limits on mayor's firing power

The city may consider a charter revision that would affect the mayor's authority in appointing and removing department heads.

WESTBROOK — The City Council may consider making a revision to the city charter that would affect the mayor’s authority in appointing and removing department heads.

Councilors on Monday met as a Committee of the Whole to discuss making more uniform the rules regarding the mayor’s authority. Doing so would require an extensive charter revision process.

Council President Brendan Rielly, who requested the meeting, said his desire to discuss the issue was “not an attack on (Mayor) Mike (Sanphy).” He said he wanted to be proactive and protect the city.

The city charter allows the mayor to appoint and remove department heads “for any cause … deemed sufficient.”

“One of the concerns I’ve raised is that it could potentially set us up for someone doing a massive clear of department heads,” Rielly said. “No one’s ever done that and hopefully they never will. It would really jeopardize our stability and ability to serve citizens.”

When former Mayor Colleen Hilton was elected in 2009 she announced in her inaugural address that she wouldn’t be reappointing Fire Chief Daniel Brock and Finance Director Sue Rossignol, among others. The announcement came as a surprise to those in attendance.

Since elected in November, Sanphy hasn’t chosen not to reappoint anyone. 

The city charter currently requires the City Council to approve five mayoral appointments and two removals. The charter specifically says the City Council has no authority regarding the mayor’s ability to appoint and remove the police and fire chiefs. It also says the City Council has no authority in the removal of the city administrator, director of public services, and the code enforcement officer.

To appoint or remove a city clerk, the mayor’s decision must be approved by five city councilors. To appoint or remove a finance director, the mayor’s decision must have the support of two-thirds of the City Council.

To appoint a city administrator, director of public services, and code enforcement officer, the mayor’s decision must have the support of three-quarters of the City Council.

Standards for the appointment and removal of all other department heads aren’t specifically mentioned in the city charter except to say that the mayor has full authority.

Councilor Lynda Adams said there should be a uniform process and standards for appointing and removing department heads.

“If we look at this it should be across the board,” she said. “We shouldn’t pick and choose department heads.”

Sanphy said he doesn’t object to the process in place now.

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense.”

Sanphy said making it so all appointments and removals go to the City Council for approval would “bring personnel matters into public discussion,” which he opposes.

The council didn’t discuss any exact changes it wants made to the charter, except that it should be more uniform. The city attorney said this isn’t a quick process and would require a charter revision instead of a simple amendment.

The city charter was last revised in 2012 to change the term structures for elected officials.

“I’m not excited about doing a charter review five years after we did one before,” Rielly said.

To start a city charter revision, residents first have to agree to it at referendum and elect a city charter commission. The commission is then charged with drafting the revision and submitting it to the City Council. Once approved by the council, it goes back to referendum for adoption. 

Rielly on Monday said he didn’t want to take “any concrete steps” yet, but asked his fellow councilors to think about whether they’d like to consider a charter revision in the near future.

Kate Gardner can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or Follow her on Twitter: @katevgardner.

The city may consider a charter revision that would affect the mayor’s authority in appointing and removing department heads.