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Councilors mum on new contract; O'Brien talks seem stalled.

Byline: Nick Kotsopoulos

COLUMN: POLITICS AND THE CITY

So, what's up with City Manager Michael V. O'Brien's contract talks with the Worcester City Council?

It's really hard to say.

Though it has already been three months since Mr. O'Brien received a glowing job review from his 11 bosses (the council) - that triggered talk about giving him a new contract even though he still has a couple of years remaining in his current one - there are no signals coming out of City Hall that a new deal is imminent.

There had been some previous talk at City Hall that a council vote on a new contract for the manager could take place before the end of this month, but the way things are looking, that looks doubtful.

Even though Mr. O'Brien is in the midst of a five-year contract that doesn't run out until March 2012, some city councilors broached the idea of initiating talks with the manager about a new contract after the unprecedented job review it gave him in June.

It was the most favorable evaluation any city manager received since the council began evaluating the city manager's job performance each year in the mid-1980s.

"If (Mr. O'Brien) is doing as well as we're saying, and I believe he has done more than any city manager or mayor in municipal government, then we should think about rewarding him for that," said District 2 Councilor Philip P. Palmieri the night of the manager's job review. "We need to at least broach the subject. It is fair and important, and it is time for us to step up and start making decisions about the future of our city."

The City Council Municipal Operations Committee was subsequently given the task of negotiating a new deal with the manager. The committee held two executive sessions with Mr. O'Brien - July 20 and Aug. 10 - and while no details of those meetings were made public, it appeared the contract talks were on track.

Just after those two meetings, Councilor-at-Large Michael J. Germain, chairman of the Municipal Operations Committee, asked for an executive session involving all council members for Sept. 7, so his three-member committee could have an opportunity to brief all councilors on the status of the contract talks.

To those on the outside looking in, such a request appeared to signal that the committee had completed its work with the manager and had hashed out a framework for a new contract.

The council agreed to hold that executive session on Sept.7, and going into it there was some talk at City Hall that the manager's contract might even be brought up at the end of the regular meeting that night under suspension of rules, so a vote could be taken on it as early as this Tuesday.

But that never happened.

It is not exactly known what the status of the manager's contract talks are, because councilors have been pretty much tight-lipped about it, and Mr. O'Brien isn't talking, either.

As a result, it isn't known if members have major problems with what the Municipal Operations Committee presented, or whether their concerns might be minor in nature.

As one councilor privately put it: "I wouldn't call it a bad meeting," in reference to the Sept. 7 executive session. "It just seems that some (councilors) might want to go in a different direction."

That said, there is no word or indication on what might happen next.

The Municipal Operations Committee does not have any meetings scheduled, so it doesn't look like it has been asked to go back with Mr. O'Brien to resume contract talks. Meanwhile, the council has no executive sessions scheduled in the foreseeable future, either; a sign that the manager's contract may not exactly be on its front burner.

To some councilors, a new contract for the manager isn't so much about rewarding him for his job performance as it is about ensuring stability in leadership at City Hall in the coming years.

They feel that is important because city officials have repeatedly warned that as tough as the city's fiscal situation is today, things are expected to get even worse in the coming years. It could be as many as five years or so before things get better financially for municipalities.

Given that, those councilors believe it makes sense to get a new deal done with Mr. O'Brien now, before more tough budget decisions have to be made down the road, rather than wait until his current contract runs out.

Their big fear is if the manager's contract and action on employment status is put off until then, it could become a distraction at City Hall and weaken the city administration's ability to make the kind of difficult budget decisions that will have to be made.
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Title Annotation:LOCAL NEWS
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Sep 19, 2010
Words:796
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