Mayor Steve Noble has backed off a request that the Common Council create a new deputy superintendent’s position within the Department of Public Works, a post to which he had planned to appoint his wife, Julie Noble, on a provisional basis.
But Noble asked aldermen to push ahead with the remainder of his proposal to fold the city’s Parks & Recreation Department into DPW.
Noble’s proposal comes as longtime Parks & Rec chief Kevin Gilfeather prepares to step down in April. Noble’s plan calls for the Common Council to pass a local law enabling DPW Superintendent Ed Norman to assume overall control of Parks & Recreation. Recreational programming and other non-parks maintenance tasks would be overseen by a new “Recreation Leader.”
Noble said the reorganization would end duplicate services and clear up confusion about responsibility for maintaining open space around the city. The move, said the mayor, would also clear up a conflict in the city charter which already places responsibility for city parks with DPW.
But one element of Noble’s plan — to create a new position of deputy superintendent of environmental services and provisionally appoint his wife to the job — stirred major controversy. Julie Noble has worked full time for Parks & Rec since 2007 and currently serves as the department’s environmental education and sustainability coordinator. Last year, her salary and overtime totaled $53,604.
Noble’s plan called for the creation of a new deputy superintendent’s position to oversee environmental programs as well as DPW’s sanitation division. Noble had planned to provisionally appoint his wife to the post which comes with an annual salary of $73,185. Noble defended the proposal by pointing to his wife’s record of service in the department and noting that as a provisional appointee she would need to take a civil service test and score in the top three applicants to maintain the job.
The proposal drew strong pushback from the public and some members of the Common Council who said that the appointment smacked of nepotism. Ellen DiFalco, one of Noble’s opponents in last year’s election, filed a complaint with the city’s ethics board over the proposal. Former Ward 7 alderwoman Maryann Mills said that she had filed a similar complaint with state ethics officials. At a Feb. 19 meeting of the Common Council’s Laws & Rules Committee, several members of the public spoke out against the proposal with some questioning whether the entire reorganization scheme was simply intended to place Julie Noble in a senior post while avoiding a situation where she reported directly to her husband-something prohibited by the city’s ethics law.
“When I heard about this my first thought was what is wrong with what the setup is now?” said former Planning Board member Jamie Mills. “Why are we transferring jobs to one person and the next and splitting things up? And I came down to the only reason it’s happening is because Julie can’t get the (Parks & Recreation superintendent) job.”
Noble appeared at the meeting and requested that the council table consideration of the Deputy Superintendent’s position while pushing ahead with the remainder of the reorganization plan. Noble said he believed that adopting the entire proposal was key to implementing “ambitious work plans” of both departments in the coming years. But, in a letter to the Common Council, Noble conceded that his wife’s candidacy for the proposed new job could undermine public trust in government. In his letter, Noble asked the Council to table discussion on the new post until a later date while moving ahead quickly with the merger plan, something he said was critical to prepare for the upcoming summer season.
“I recognize that my proposal to establish a Deputy Superintendent of Environmental Services is inextricably linked to my family because my wife, Julie Noble, is a candidate for the position,” Noble wrote.
Laws & Rules Committee Chair Jeffery Ventura Morrell (D-Ward 1), however, expressed skepticism about the reorganization plan. Morrell suggested that reorganizing the department would simply put off for the time being the issue of a deputy superintendent.
“It gives [Norman] two full-time jobs to do with no pay increase and double the amount of people to manage. I feel like that’s setting him up to fail,” Ventura Morrell told Noble. “I feel like inevitably in six months when he comes back to us and says, ‘I can’t do this job, I need a deputy,’ we’re back to square one with your original proposal.”
Speaking a few days after the meeting, Common Council Majority Leader Rennie Scott-Childress (D-Ward 3) was even more definitive regarding the future of the deputy superintendent position. Scott-Childress said that since the committee had not taken a vote on the issue the proposal was not “tabled,” in a procedural sense, and as far as he was concerned, was in fact dead.
“That issue is off the table, we are not going to consider creating a position for the mayor’s wife,” said Scott-Childress. “No matter how dedicated she is, no matter how good of a job she has done, the perception is just too problematic and too understandable that there is something not right with that.”