Middletown Council Splits on Florsheim Plan for Internal Hire

Bobbye Knoll Peterson (Credit: Peterson)

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MIDDLETOWN — Mayor Ben Florsheim’s proposal to appoint Bobbye Knoll Peterson as the city’s new director of economic and community development has raised concerns among some town officials, who say that the city should conduct an external search to fill the position. 

In an email that addressed to Democratic members of the Common Council on Thursday, Florsheim wrote that Peterson — who is currently acting director of economic and community development and the mayor’s chief of staff — was the best qualified person for the job. Florsheim underscored that Peterson had already been working on the city’s major economic development projects.

But some elected council members said in response that, rather than having the mayor appoint an existing staff member to the position, there should be a formal search to allow people from outside town government to apply for the job. 

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“My feeling is that it’s not appropriate if we want to get the best people working in town and that anyone who is interested in applying for, or being in one of those positions should go through a process, which opens it up to other candidates. And we do have that process available,” said Council Member Ed McKeon. 

McKeon raised the hiring of former Planning, Conservation and Development Director Joe Samolis, who was appointed to his position by former Mayor Daniel Drew. McKeon said he feared that the appointment of Peterson would continue a pattern of hiring internally without conducting wider searches. 

Council Member Tony Gennaro said that he didn’t believe it was right to forgo a fuller search. 

“I think [Peterson] could do the job, but it’s always been my experience [that] when you go through a process and you do get a job, you can be proud of that,” he said. “And me, personally, I’d want to go through that process, even if I was her. And even if she is the best person for the job.”

Florsheim told CT Examiner that he understood some council members were concerned with the optics of hiring someone from within without an open search, but said the city has taken a different approach to filling different positions, depending on the circumstances.

Florsheim emphasized that if it wasn’t already clear to him that Peterson was the right fit for the job, he would feel differently, but he’s confident she is.

“I understand being worried about optics, but my responsibility is making sure we’re doing what’s best for the city, and making sure that we’re not allowing projects to be stalled,” Florsheim said.

A question of time 

Florsheim said in the email that he believed that time was of the essence for this appointment, given the city was taking up a “record number” of projects and the department had recently undergone a significant amount of turnover. 

He said that engaging in a national search would be not only time consuming, but a waste of taxpayer dollars. Florsheim told CT Examiner a search process would not only delay filling the director position, but delay filling other positions in the economic development office, which he said is being restructured to focus more on community outreach and “front-facing constituent services.”

“We’re in a situation where, with millions of dollars of investment coming in, with so many good projects underway, we can’t afford to wait six or nine months to fill every position that’s outstanding,” he said.

Democratic Councilman Eugene Nocera, the majority leader on the council, said the Department of Economic and Community Development needs to be “rebuilt” after several key departures, including Samolis, and Economic Development Specialist Tom Marano. 

“The department has lost a lot of key people, so that’s a concern,” Nocera said. 

But McKeon referred to this objection as a “red herring.” 

“The person who gets this job will be there for a long period of time. As the mayor says, we have a lot of important development coming before us in the next decade, and we ought to have the person that’s appropriate for that job. And if it takes a little more time to do it, I’m for taking a little more time,” said McKeon. 

Florsheim also wrote to council members that Peterson would bring diversity to town government leadership, which he described as “overwhelmingly white and male.” He also said that he Alice Diaz, currently the acting chief of staff, would be qualified to take on the position of chief of staff.

Appointing Diaz and Peterson, he said, would not change any of the current operations of the town — it would simply give the two women “job security” and “full pay and benefits for the work they are doing.” 

“It would be regrettable indeed if the outcome of this process, where qualifications, diversity, and “optics” have been emphasized to me as the Council’s primary concerns, was the loss of not one but two qualified, passionate women from city service,” he wrote. 

The city’s managerial union also said they supported Peterson’s hiring. Ann Gregg, president of the local UPSEU in Middletown, told CT Examiner in an email that the union had asked that the position be filled as quickly as possible in compliance with the collective bargaining agreement. She added that the position of Director of Economic and Community Development was, under the town charter, one of the positions the mayor had the right to make appointments from. 

“It is our understanding that there is a qualified female candidate that the Mayor has put forward for appointment and we hope that the Council confirms an appointment soon to comply with our contract,” Gregg wrote. “We look forward to welcoming a new union member and to relieve some of the pressures felt by other members working in that department.  This position is critical to the seamless operations and growth of our City especially given the many projects on the horizon.  Any further delays would be a detriment to our members and the public we serve.” 

“They worked hard to get this position” 

Not all the council members were opposed to the mayor’s proposal to appoint Peterson. 

Republican Councilman Phil Pessina, the minority leader on the council, said it makes sense to look inside the city first when filling positions. He said Florsheim has successfully hired for high-level positions from within before, and it’s reasonable to promote employees who have worked hard with aspirations of reaching senior management positions. 

“I’ve got to put myself in the employee’s shoes. They worked hard to get to this position, and then the city goes out and looks somewhere else,” Pessina said. “Then someone else comes in who can’t hit the ground running and has to learn about the city’s procedures.”

It’s an important position for the city to fill, especially right now as the city prepares to undertake a major redevelopment of its riverfront, and while redevelopment is speeding up downtown, Pessina said. 

“We want someone who cares and loves the city like we do, who’s going to do the best for the economic vitality of our city,” Pessina said. 

Florsheim wrote to council members that besides her work with the city, Peterson has run campaigns, directed nonprofits and that she currently operates a small business, as well as having been trained as a realtor. T

But those who objected to the mayor’s proposed appointment did not question Peterson’s qualifications. 

“She’s smart. She’s done a lot of work,” said McKeon. “She has a resume that says that she has some of the qualifications for this job. But I think myself, along with other members of the council, we just feel that it’s appropriate that if she’s the best candidate, then let’s put it out there and have her present her credentials against other candidates.”

McKeon said that a director of economic and community development would ideally have knowledge in a wide range of areas, including city planning, community organizing, architecture, land use and the ability to negotiate with “savvy” developers from places like New York City and Boston. 

Nocera said that while there were council members on both the Democratic and Republican sides who had questions about the process, he doesn’t think anyone’s issue is with Peterson or her qualifications. He said she’s done a good job as Florsheim’s chief of staff, and stepping into the economic development role since Samolis left in May. 

“Out of disagreements come better solutions”

Nocera said he has met with Florsheim to discuss the economic development position, and is confident that they can “work this situation out.”

“We were elected to get the job done, and to provide essential services to the city,” Nocera said. “We’re under a lot of pressure now with rebuilding our infrastructure, economic recovery, with health concerns that are still with us, so that’s our plan, is to get the job done.”

In a recent meeting, the Democratic caucus refused to place the appointment of Peterson on its agenda for the August meeting of the Common Council. But Florsheim told CT Examiner he’ll continue to meet with council members, and said his hope is that Peterson will be named the permanent economic development director in August.

“I think we have the opportunity to bring in someone who has experience to come in on day one ready to get the job done, but who also doesn’t come from the world of City Hall, and has decades of experience doing economic and community development work in the community itself,” Florsheim said.

Nocera said he has another meeting scheduled with Florsheim on Monday, and he’ll continue to work towards bringing an arrangement back to his caucus that they can agree with. He said it wouldn’t be appropriate at this point to say what he thinks that an acceptable arrangement would look like, but he was confident they could find a way forward over the next few weeks. 

“Disagreement doesn’t bother me,” Nocera said. “That’s what happens. And out of disagreements come better solutions.”