Job Description: A Helpful Personnel Tool

(from Maine Townsman, July 2008)
Lee Burnett, Freelance Writer

Working relationships at Acton Town Hall have been frayed from months of disagreement over job descriptions.

Richard Neal, a long-time former selectmen, returned to office in January to serve out the remaining six months of an unexpired term and he came in with a vow to implement job descriptions for key personnel. But personality conflicts and disagreement over exact job duties stymied resolution and when Neal left office at the end of June, job descriptions for town clerk/tax collector/registrar of voters and for the treasurer were still up in the air. Residents, meanwhile, got a fresh reminder of the importance of job descriptions.

“This is part of our problem. We don’t have job descriptions,” said Neal in a recent interview. Neal says he’s not surprised that it proved so difficult to adopt job descriptions because their absence is part of an informal way of doing business that’s difficult to change, he said. “Putting things in writing, getting proper procedures, it’s all intertwined. And when you don't have it, the system falls apart.”

Neal, who was accused (by town clerk/tax collector Jennifer Roux) of over-reaching in his selectman’s job in dealing with employees, is now in a contrite, conciliatory mood about his own behavior. “I may have gotten upset and maybe I shouldn’t have,” said Neal. He goes on to praise the professionalism of Roux who opposed Neal on the contents of her job description. “She’s really smart with computers, she wants to do things right, she’s on the ball,” he said.  Neal claims the unpleasantness could have been avoided had job descriptions been in place that clearly spelled out lines of authority.  “If you don't have job descriptions, how do you hold employees accountable and how do they know really what they are supposed to be doing?”

A job description is one of those mundane personnel management tools that is easily taken for granted. They’re usually cobbled together when someone is hired, then forgotten and left in a file to grow stale with age as a position evolves over time. This may be okay while working relationships are good, but when conflict develops, a job description can be a big help in restoring harmony, or in holding employees accountable. Without one, conflict can fester unresolved. That's certainly the case in Acton, a community of 2,300 year-round residents along theNew Hampshire border.

The Controversy in Acton

Jennifer Roux, an experienced town clerk and tax collector from the neighboring town of Shapleigh, was hired three years ago in part to straighten out a department in disarray. The town was losing untold income by failing to properly file tax liens against delinquent taxpayers and was also in poor standing with the state for having repeatedly failed to file required financial reports. Roux  was so valuable that she assumed duties beyond the normal. Selectmen paid her for an additional 10 hours to maintain the town's website, and to back up all changes in the assessing and mapping software.

Among key Town Hall personnel, only the selectman's secretary has a job description. “I think there was one [job description] for the treasurer, but she complained she had never seen it,” said Neal. “They [town clerk/tax collector and treasurer] both wanted job descriptions.” Roux became a particular target because it rankled some people that she was getting paid extra for computer responsibilities and she relinquished all but three hours extra pay for the website work, according to Neal.

Neal took it upon himself to write job descriptions for those two positions and for an administrative assistant’s position that he hoped the town would approve. Neal says he felt qualified because he had served as selectman for nine years, adding that he was also asked to provide input into the Municipal Officers Manual when it was published in the early 1990s by MMA.  Try as he did, Neal failed to persuade the other two selectmen. “It wasn't resistance,” said Neal. “They kept saying, ‘we'll get to it, we’ll get to it.”

A job description is usually not controversial, particularly for a town clerk/tax collector because the duties are spelled out in state law. As Roux said, “If you pulled job descriptions [for the position] from a number of towns, they’d all look pretty identical.”  In Acton, the bone of contention became an open-ended clause at the end of the job description, requiring the employee to assume “additional duties as may be requested” by the board of selectman. Roux insisted the wording be restricted to additional duties “relating to the town clerk/tax collector’s office.”

Neal viewed Roux’s position as being insubordinate. “That allows employees to dictate what’s going on," said Neal. “Who runs the show? The employer is boss. You can’t have the employee telling the boss what they’re going to do.” Neal insisted the wording be left open-ended to give selectman flexibility to ask staff to perform incidental duties beyond the normal scope of their job.

Roux claims Neal’s real motive was to reduce her $34,000 pay. “Certain people decided I was overpaid,” she asserts. “They were looking for me to pick up those additional duties and put them into my regular job.”

Both Roux and Neal were hoping town meeting voters would authorize creation of a new administrative assistant’s position, which they   viewed as a “first step” toward a more formalized working relationships at Town Hall, but voters defeated that measure in June. Still, Roux said she is confident that job descriptions will soon be written.

Public Sector Needs Them

Managing employees in municipal government tends to require more formality than in a private business because the laws are different, explained Phil Nadeau, currently Lewiston’s deputy city manager. Generally, employees in the private sector work “at will,” which means they can be terminated for almost any reason without recourse, while many employees in the public sector cannot be dismissed without a finding of “just cause.” An additional complication is that unions in Maine are more common in the public sector than in the private sector. Nadeau said he used to own a restaurant employing 20-25 people and thought nothing of having no job descriptions or personnel manual. He sure wouldn't be caught going without either tool now that he's working in the public sector.

“In municipal government, if you take action against an employee, you have to have good reason,” he said. “...You have to show you followed the personnel manual and CBA (collective bargaining agreement).”

Nadeau said job descriptions are good insurance. “The harder you work at the front end,  the fewer the problems  you’re likely to encounter,” he said. Nadeau recommends making explicit to employees not just duties and responsibilities, but organizational philosophy and culture. “You’d think it was common sense, but it doesn't always work out that way.” He says it’s just as important for small towns to adopt job descriptions as for large communities.  Small town may even be more susceptible to making a decision that could have legal consequences, he added.

What's In A Job Description?

For towns interested in adopting job descriptions for the first time, learn from your neighbors, says LaNiece Winslow, personnel director for  Presque Isle. “The easiest thing is to contact other communities, towns and cities, and see what they have. MMA also has samples,” she said. Then tailor the description to the situation at hand. “Talk to the people doing the job and get the department heads to sit down and discuss it... The key is to keep it general. Don’t tell specifically how to do the job.” Winslow also recommends giving an employee an opportunity to review and suggest changes to the job description at each evaluation. On occasion, jobs have too many duties, she said.

“It can happen. We try to keep an eye on people’s hours, even salaried people. If someone is consistently working long hours we pull the job description and try to figure out what part of the job is taking so long and maybe see who else might do those duties.”

A typical job description will, at the least, describe an employee's duties and responsibilities and whom that person reports to. This is not always cut and dried, such as the situation of code enforcement officers, whose supervisors may include planning board or planning director, board of selectman or municipal administrator. Job descriptions usually go far beyond that.

Ellen Blair, personnel director for Augusta, ticks off a list of job description content that includes pay grade, essential job duties, supervisory responsibilities, minimal qualifications and educational expertise, working conditions, and whether the position is exempt or non-exempt from overtime pay. “We get pretty detailed,” she said. She also writes into every job description an expectation that employees should “get along with co-workers” and should “observe safe work practices.”

Are They Flexible?

For some municipalities, having job descriptions or not boils down to time and flexibility in managing the employees.

Blue Hill Selectman (and State Representative) Jim Schatz told the Townsman that job descriptions are "probably a helpful thing" but he adds, "the smaller your organization the more open-ended it needs to be to build in flexibility."

In Fort Fairfield, Town Manager Dan Foster says, "I certainly don't ‘poo poo’ them [job descriptions].  I agree they're a good idea. It's just that in the real world, when you're doing your job, it's very fluid.  I'm very hands on. I see department heads every day, the council does as well."

Fort Fairfield has a couple of unique positions. The executive director of the Chamber of Commerce works under the Fort Fairfield town manager, but also reports to the Chamber’s board of directors. The salary for the position is shared equally by the chamber and the town. “I don't know of any other community that does it this way,” said Town Manager Foster. “It’s worked very well for us.”

Also unusual are the seven job titles held by Richard A. “Tony” Levesque Jr. Among them: community development director, tax assessor,        code enforcement officer, compliance coordinator for disability and equal employment issues, building inspector, plumbing inspector and E911 municipal addressing officer. “He’s Mr. Fort Fairfield, that’s his role in life,” said  Foster.  But Foster is not sure Levesque has a job description. “We don’t have a lot of them [job descriptions]. We don’t worry about it.”

Job Evolution and Cross-Training

Positions also evolve over time. In Millinocket, employees in the town office (including the clerk, tax collector and treasurer) have been cross-trained in each others job since 2000 when the town council opted to fill a full-time vacancy by hiring someone half-time. Cross training helped fill in the gaps, said Town Manager Eugene Conologue. “It’s worked out fine. That’s not to say it’s been no burden because there is a lot to it ... but it’s worked out well for us. And we got the full-time [position] back.”

Perhaps no jobs have evolved more than information technology positions, notes Nadeau. “The job description of 15 years ago wouldn’t cut it today,” said Nadeau. “The position has changed so dramatically, necessitating a very different set of skills.”

In small towns, key positions often start taking on added responsibilities and with these responsibilities, a new job title is given. In Blue Hill, the treasurer has evolved to the point where she functions as an administrative assistant. “We’re unique for our size in that we don't have a manager or administrator as such,” explains Selectman Jim Schatz. “We rely on the treasurer.”

In South Berwick, the position of executive assistant to the town manager has recently been upgraded to assistant town manager. The change came at the request of Roberta Orsini, who has served as executive assistant for the past seven years and twice stepped into the role of acting manager.

“My responsibilities have evolved,” she said. “For the last three years I've done all the research on back-up stuff for town council, and the budget spreadsheets. I’ve taken on more and more responsibilities.” Orsini consulted the job descriptions of assistant town managers in Old Orchard Beach, Cape Elizabeth and a few other towns and realized she was doing the job of an assistant town manager without the title. The urgency to make official the title switch came this spring when it became apparent no one was empowered to step in quickly with the sudden departure of Town Manager Jeff Grossman. Town offices actually closed for a few days until an emergency measure was pushed through authorizing Orsini to take over. Upgrading Orsini’s position involves a pay hike from $49,000 to $54,000.

“If we make an assistant town manager position, then if the town manager is incapable of performing duties in event of a car accident or family emergency, then someone could automatically step in,” she said.

Orsini said she requested the title change because it more clearly reflected her duties and because she felt uncomfortable with the idea of moving from a colleague role to a supervisory role and back again.

The job description of the assistant town manager will be written after a permanent town manager is hired, she said.

Managing “Elected” Administrators    

Complicating adoption of job descriptions in many small towns is the prevalence of elected, administrative officials working along side appointed employees. Kittery Town Manager Jon Carter dealt with that issue when he was town manager in Wells, where the town clerk is an elected position and where family members also worked in the town clerk’s office.

“It was kind of a fiefdom, good and bad,” said Carter. “At times, even though my relations were always very cordial, she could tell me to take a hike. There weren’t major problems, mostly nuance.”  The biggest conflict came over making the position appointed, “We thought there was an agreement to make it appointed, but we found out it wasn’t in her desires... It didn't go very well.” The position remains elected.

Carter said he sees other complications ahead. A prospective change in the work week to four 10-hour days and an energy saving measure currently under consideration in Kittery and several other communities, could cause a rewriting of some job descriptions, he said. “The ramifications on job descriptions and labor agreements is quite large,” Carter said. “It will entail going through labor agreements and job descriptions,” said Carter. “There’s a bunch of things to look at.”