FITCHBURG -- Mayor Lisa Wong fought back against her critics Monday, explaining the process she used in hiring Jerry Beck, the city's new economic-development director and defending the only two applicants for the position.
Wong's response only garnered further criticism from councilors -- including the one who alleged that she predetermined the hiring of Beck.
In a formal response sent to city councilors Monday evening addressing their questions over the process used in hiring Beck, Wong also revealed the other candidate to apply for the job is her assistant, Nate LaRose, and said both were deemed qualified for the position.
Wong provided answers to each question laid out in a recent email by Councilor-at-Large Dean Tran, whose successful petition brought back the economic-development position late last year. But some councilors are saying her responses are inadequate and only raise further questions about hiring processes for different positions in the city.
Tran said Monday night he appreciates Wong's responses and he respects her, "but it's clear by her calculated answers that the process was premeditated and the individual hired was predetermined."
"The mayor did not exhaust all her options to find the ideal candidate," Tran said via email. "The mayor chose not to perform a search for additional résumés, rather she submitted two résumés to the selection committee with absolutely no economic-development experience. The selection committee had no choice but to select one.
Wong took offense to Tran's allegations, calling them "baseless."
"Neither I nor the selection committee were aware of the applicant pool in terms of numbers or names until after the due date, so I think we all take offense to these baseless allegations," she said via text message Monday night.
In her earlier email to councilors, Wong said the typical process is to post a job internally, then on the city's website, and then on more websites if no qualified applications are received.
"Two qualified applicants were received via postings internally or on the website, and the committee made the determination that both were qualified," she wrote.
She said that if there had been no qualified candidates, the committee could have recommended expanding the process.
Wong defended entering a three-year contract with Beck, saying it was the only way to clearly lay out salary and conditions of employment, because it is not a union or department-head position.
According to Beck's resume, before working at the Fitchburg Art Museum, he worked for five years as a volunteer art and science-program director at Beyond Benign, a foundation of the Warner Babcock Institute in Wilmington.
From 1984 to 2009, he served as founder and artistic director of the Revolving Museum, a contemporary art museum in Lowell.
Missing from Beck's resume was his time at Innovation Academy Charter School in Tyngsboro. Beck worked there from January 2009 to late 2010 as a high-school art teacher and "resident innovator," according to Sentinel & Enterprise archives.
Wong said Beck was hired at a $65,000 annual salary, which will increase to $68,000 July 1, 2015.
Wong said all positions are funded annually and subject to funding by the council, though positions are not immediately eliminated through these means, as there are labor laws to be followed, including providing unemployment.
She continued to claim that the title of the position is semantics, and said if the council prefers she change the name to economic-development manager, she can, but the function of the position is more appropriately titled as economic-development director and chief marketing officer.
Wong said she chose to form a five-member committee due to the "broad job requirements" of the position. She said the council president was not asked to appoint a liaison to the selection committee, and that she has only requested council representation when a position is subject to council confirmation, such as the city treasurer.
She also said she has previously directly asked councilors to be on committees due to expertise or other qualifications.
Wong provided reasons for choosing each member of the selection committee, citing:
* Ken Ansin's financial-sector experience and leadership role in the Fitchburg Plan, a group of local business leaders working on economic development plans.
* Mary Chapin Durling's experience as director of Fitchburg State University's CenterStage series and her roles in the Fitchburg Cultural Alliance, the development of Riverfront Park and other initiatives.
* Ellen DiGeronimo's expertise in transportation, business and economic development through former roles as state public-works commissioner, Fitchburg downtown coordinator and director of two chambers of commerce.
* Dolores Thibault-Munoz's then-role as Ward 4 councilor and former positions as director of the Cleghorn Neighborhood Center and Growing Places Garden Project.
* Fitchburg Access TV Executive Director Dave Svens' extensive media background and "countless efforts to promote and build Fitchburg" through many means.
Wong also said Bernie Stephens, as human-resources director, is not always on every selection committee, and in this instance, he provided support through answering questions and giving input but did not serve as a voting member.
Council Vice President Marcus DiNatale called Wong's responses to councilors' questions "grossly inadequate" and "unsatisfactory," and said new concerns have been raised as a result.
DiNatale, the council appointee to the search committee that chose new City Treasurer Calvin Brooks, said that to his knowledge, council representatives on selection committees have always been appointed by the council president, not the mayor.
He said he's concerned Wong chose a councilor on her own to represent the council rather than allowing the council president to make that choice, and that the rest of the council didn't even know that a councilor -- Thibault-Munoz, whose term ended in 2013 -- was on the search committee until the hiring of Beck was reported by the Sentinel & Enterprise on Dec. 13.
Thibault-Munoz said she reported to the council and vouched for the choice of Beck for the job at the council's Dec. 19 meeting.
DiNatale maintained that due to the council pushing for the position to be brought back, the hire should have come before the council for approval.
"If councilors knew that the position would never be before us for confirmation, and that the council would not select a representative for the search committee, and that she would just pick -- I don't see how that wouldn't be construed as an issue for anyone on the City Council, now or then," he said. "It seems almost like the rules are being written as we go."
DiNatale also took issue with the contract, saying the council "was never on board with giving the position a contract," and cited concerns about possible legal issues arising if the contract ever needed to be broken due to funding or any other reason.
At the Council as a Whole Committee meeting called to discuss the matter, scheduled for Feb. 25 at 6 p.m. at Memorial Middle School, DiNatale said he intends to go through the rules for many positions in the city, and why they appear to be different in some instances versus others.
He gave the example of the building commissioner and the housing director, both of whom report to the Board of Health director, but the former is confirmed by the City Council and the latter is not.
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