Lockport Union-Sun & Journal Online

Communities

January 20, 2011

Layoff opponents blast Council

Hoffman supporters fill Council chambers

LOCKPORT — The position of the city superintendent of streets, parks and refuse will be abolished Feb. 2, so long as the Common Council votes to amend the city charter.

By a 5-1 vote in the packed chamber Wednesday, the Council called a public hearing date of Feb. 2 on a proposed local law “amending” the city charter by striking all references to the superintendent of streets.

Alderman at Large Joseph Kibler cast the lone “no,” repeating what he said last week after Mayor Michael Tucker laid off streets superintendent Michael Hoffman and handed off his supervisory duties to Director of Engineering Norman Allen.

“I’ve been against (the layoff and elimination of the superintendent’s post) from the beginning. I haven’t changed my mind,” Kibler said.

Before the vote, the Council faced a crowd that at one point was large enough to be called standing-room-only — and was overwhelmingly opposed to Hoffman’s layoff. Audience members’ comments about the charter change resolution consumed nearly an hour and 20 minutes. Among 14 public speakers, only one voiced support for moves the Council is making to cut city employee numbers and reorganize remaining staff.

In his private-sector work, Richard Nichols of Mill Street said, “I’ve laid off my best friends at times. Did I enjoy it? No. But the corporation will be better off for it. The people of this city will be better off for it. ... I applaud you for making that tough decision.”

The rest of the audience had no applause for Nichols, however. Its cheers were reserved for speakers who denounced the Council and Tucker for any number of alleged sins: short-sightedness, dishonesty about the “savings” that will result from the layoff, callousness and even cruelty toward Hoffman personally.

Doug Chapman of Prospect Street, a member of the city Republican committee, reminded Tucker that he’s among the officials up for re-election this year and suggested “the people” would remember their sins in November.

“You gave this guy the shaft. There’s no other way to say it,” Chapman said. “There are other ways to save money. It’s your job to find out what that is. Just listen to the people out here.”

Chapman’s suggestions: Lay off the mayor — or the most recently hired person in the streets or parks department — and use the savings to restore Hoffman’s job.

Most speakers were skeptical of Tucker’s assertion that eliminating the superintendent’s post will produce savings for the city, short- or long term.

Allen, the city director of engineering, will be taking over management of a 37-employee division on top of his other duties, for a $10,000 pay raise — and elevation of a current streets/parks employee to a supervisory position, which carries a $1,200 raise. The moves were recommended by an organizational consultant who’s been paid $18,000 for his services to date.

“Where is the savings if (Hoffman’s) salary is split up” and spent on other people? asked Hoffman’s neighbor, Steve Barnes of McIntosh Drive.

“How can (Allen) do 80 hours of work in 40 hours?” 16-year streets department employee Dan Cole asked.

Former veteran alderman Phyllis Green charged Hoffman was merely the latest department head to fall victim to personal dislike by Tucker. Former public works commissioner Gary Andes and retired Utilities Director Michael Diel were pushed out of the organization by “harassment” from their boss, she claimed at the microphone.

Asked during a break in the meeting to explain what she meant, Green said, “If you don’t agree with Mike Tucker, you’re in big trouble.”

Tucker brushed off Green’s accusation, saying “there are plenty of department heads I work with who wouldn’t agree with that.”

He tried explaining to the audience, repeatedly and seemingly to no avail, that eliminating the superintendent’s post had nothing to do with Hoffman.

“Reorganization isn’t about the person, it’s about the position. ... I removed the person with the position,” Tucker said. “You can’t complain about your taxes being too high and complain about laying people off. You can’t have it both ways.”

Before the vote to put a charter change up to a public hearing — which the audience met with steely silence — Hoffman had the last word among public speakers.

His voice cracked as he launched into an impassioned plea for the electeds to see that a full-time, dedicated streets superintendent will give inherently better “service” to residents than a manager of multiple departments.

“I recognize we live in tough economic times. That shouldn’t scare us into making rash decisions,” Hoffman said. “I love my job. I live it, I don’t just go to and from it.”

After the public comment period, 3rd Ward Alderman Flora McKenzie asked for a “recess,” a parliamentary maneuver allowing the aldermen to meet away from the public. The press was shut out after she also asked for an executive session to discuss “personnel” matters.

In that session, McKenzie tried appealing to the other aldermen to postpone any action on the charter change resolution for a few weeks, “to see how things go” for streets/parks under Allen’s supervision, she said. She did not get majority support for postponement — and then proceeded to vote for the resolution at hand.

The resolution sets a public hearing date of Feb. 2 on a local law ordering all references to the streets superintendent be stricken from the city charter. Amending the charter requires passage of a local law, which in turn requires a public hearing before the vote, City Attorney John Ottaviano said.

The resolution also pre-approved three actions — eliminating the superintendent’s job and salary lines from the 2011 budget, raising Allen’s pay by $10,000 and OK’ing creation of a second public works supervisor’s (foreman’s) post in the budget, by elevation of an existing employee from the rank-and-file, without replacement — to take effect when the charter change law is passed by the Council, likely the same night as the public hearing.

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