A secret 5 percent pay hike awarded to the Bristol Housing Authority’s director in June drew harsh criticism Wednesday.
Mayor Art Ward said he was upset and bewildered that housing commissioners would give Mitzy Rowe a 5 percent pay hike in the middle of a recession.
“I don’t see how they could not have realized” the need for them “to demonstrate the severity of the conditions” in Bristol’s economy by keeping any salary hikes minimal, the mayor said.
“Everybody around us is not getting raises,” said Ward, who voted this year to slash the mayor’s pay by 5 percent in the coming term to ensure the city’s leader sets the right tone.
Rowe received her pay hike to $100,000 annually in a closed-door executive session in June after the board reached a consensus to hike her salary by 5 percent. The decision was never ratified in public until Tuesday night, after city Councilor Ken Cockayne and reporters began asking questions about it.
“It was really an oversight,” said Brian Wolverton, the chairman of the housing commission. “There was never any intent to keep it out of the public forum.”
Wolverton said that Rowe, who declined to comment, got a raise starting July 1 because of her outstanding performance in the job and because the authority could afford to pay her. He said nobody talked about whether it was appropriate to hike the salary so much during hard times.
‘Honestly, if someone brought it to the table that evening and said maybe this wouldn’t look so good, I would have given it consideration, but honestly it just didn’t come up that night,” Wolverton said.
Cockayne said that in “this tough economy,” when the city and state governments are asking workers for concessions and “the federal government is up to its eyeballs in debt,” he questions whether it is “morally right to take a 5 percent increase.”
Cockayne said that Rowe should not have received more than the 3 percent pay hike that BHA workers got this year.
“A fair raise would have been what the workers below her received,” Cockayne said. “If they’re good for a 3 percent raise, then why wouldn’t the director be good for a 3 percent raise?”
Wolverton said the panel wanted to give Rowe an increase over and above the norm to reward her for a solid performance in a difficult job.
Though housing commissioners said the failure to record in the minutes that Rowe received a raise was an oversight, several officials said privately it was done deliberately to avoid letting the BHA workers’ union know how much more the director would receive.
The commission didn’t want to complicate negotiations, the officials said.
Wolverton said it’s possible they meant to keep it secret.”We may have been glibly instructed” to keep it quiet until negotiations were over with the union, he said, but he doesn’t remember it.
“That would be true for the management increases” generally, he added.
The housing panel was told this week by its attorney it did not have to vote in public because there was no dissent about the pay hike, but opted to do it anyway, Wolverton said.
“We decided it was just a matter of good form to officiate it in the form of a vote,” Wolverton said.
The Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission’s Valicia Hamon said Wednesday she urged Vitrano to push the commissioners to vote in public because it would ratify the solid performance review done behind closed doors.
She said, though, that it doesn’t appear an improper vote was taken in executive session in June because it was “really a performance review” more than a discussion about pay levels.
“The executive session wasn’t about how much. It was about how great,” Hamon said.
It did, however, result in a pay hike that Rowe began receiving in July without public notice.
Wolverton said the commission is establishing new procedures to make sure it evaluates managers in the right way and awards raises in public in the future. Transparency is crucial, Wolverton said.
Wolverton said he regrets the way this was handled.
“It was a very regrettable chain of events, I think,” Wolverton said.
Ward said the housing authority operates separately from the city government, but because the mayor appoints commissioners, he felt “a moral obligation” to speak out against the raise that Rowe received.
He said that his own decision to support a 5 percent pay cut for whoever is elected mayor next month shows the magnitude of the fiscal crisis that’s hit the community.
Taking a 5 percent salary increase in such times, Ward said is wrong.
“They really need to be cognizant of the effect on the community” that so large a pay hike can create, the mayor said.
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