Bridgeport resident Phil Smith, a student of the Bridgeport City Charter, files this commentary about the recent hiring of Pauline Mize as acting manager of the city-owned airport. Years ago Smith directed proposed changes to the City Charter presented to voters.
We appear to be well on the road to another controversy at Sikorsky Memorial Airport due in large measure to the Finch administration’s insistence on doing what it wants to without regard to the Charter, the city’s finances or the public good. I wish I could say I’m surprised.
This latest controversy is the result of the administration’s appointment of Pauline Mize as the acting airport manager following the termination/retirement of former airport manager John Ricci.
It’s important to note the airport manager is not a mayoral appointment. It is a classified, competitive position under the city’s civil service system and is subject to all of the rules of the civil service system, rules which are designed to prevent the politicization of city employment.
Those rules, set forth in the charter and the regulations of the Civil Service Commission, generally require positions in the classified service to be filled on the basis of a competitive examination. There is an exception to those rules which allows a temporary “provisional” appointment “if necessary to prevent the stoppage of public business or inconvenience to the public, but not otherwise.” (City Charter, Chapter 17, Section 214).
It’s fair to ask why the appointment was needed. The airport continued to function after former airport manager John Ricci’s suspension and has continued to do so since his subsequent termination. According to the Connecticut Post, on September 3 Mayor Finch told the Airport Commission that the airport’s longtime operation manager was in charge while a nationwide search was conducted for the position. In short, filling the airport manager’s position on an acting basis does not appear to have been “necessary to prevent the stoppage of public business or inconvenience to the public” as required by the charter. In short, it was illegal.
It is also worth noting the airport is currently operating at a deficit. Leaving a job paying almost $100,000 a year vacant for a time would help reduce that deficit.
But that’s just the beginning of the problems with this dubious appointment.
Under the civil service provisions of the charter, the responsibility for hiring and firing decisions with respect to a classified employee is vested in the “appointing authority” for that position. The appointing authority is defined as “the officer, commission, board or other body having the power of appointment to subordinate offices or positions in any municipal department, office, board or institution.”
According to Mayor Bill Finch, he fired John Ricci.
According to the Connecticut Post, Pauline Mize, was hired by Charles Carroll, the Director of Public Facilities.
But neither one of them appears to be the “appointing authority” for the airport manager’s position. That’s because chapter 7, section 12 of the city charter vests the responsibility for “the care, management, control, operation and administration of, and the use of, all airports” in the Airport Commission. That body appears to have played no role in either Ricci’s termination or Mize’s hiring.
To be fair, another part of that same section of the charter does make it clear “the powers, duties and functions of the city engineer, the director of public facilities, the director of parks and recreation and the board of park commissioners and of all other officers” extend to the airport. But nothing in that language suggests the public facilities director has any authority over the management of the airport or the hiring of the airport manager. Indeed, my understanding is historically the “appointing authority” for the airport manager’s job has been the Airport Commission.
Finally, a provisional appointment requires the approval of both the Personnel Director and the Civil Service Commission. It’s not clear whether those approvals were ever given.
Legalities aside, it is even more troubling that, at a time when the Sikorsky Memorial Airport is facing both controversy and the need to complete an important runway safety project, the Finch administration has chosen to fill this important position behind closed doors, with consideration limited to a few candidates whose resumes the city solicited. That approach is fundamentally at odds with the open, merit-based, selection process the civil service system requires.
The taxpayers of Bridgeport, and the users of the airport, deserve better.