Times have been tough for Mesa. Budget problems. Layoffs. Program cutbacks. Vacancies in key positions. But Mesa officials are working hard to turn things around. For instance, the city is now trying to refill its depleted ranks.
Several years of budget uncertainty left the city hesitant to refill vacant positions. Then there was a round of contract buy-outs, followed by mass layoffs last spring when voters rejected a city property tax measure.
The result? At least 250 vacant city positions.
“There has been a long period of time where we have not been aggressive in recruiting. It’s been a mode of holding positions,” City Manager Chris Brady said. “At this point, now we are moving ahead and giving the green light to go ahead and start advertising.”
But many positions remain open, and finding qualified candidates is proving to be a tough task for some city divisions.
Debbie Dollar, deputy city manager, said the city’s top choice for economic development director backed out several weeks ago. The city had to start from scratch to look for another qualified candidate, she said.
A few months before that, the same thing happened in the Utilities Department.
Dave Plumb, utilities director, said a candidate verbally accepted a top position as the Electric Division director, but later declined.
In departments such as Plumb’s — where there are roughly 42 vacancies — recruitment is proving difficult because of the degree of technical experience required for the positions.
“The skills-based positions are tough to fill because the work force is declining and the demand is not,” Plumb said. “Every consultant hires engineers. The other private and large public utilities hire linemen, and so we’re all competing for that fairly limited work force.”
Dan Cleavenger, who is filling in temporarily as the city’s transportation director, said his division faces similar hiring difficulties. In all, there are about 22 vacancies out of 150 positions.
“We’re not adding a lot of staff,” he said. “We’re getting back to where we used to be.”
City departments were asked recently to prioritize their vacancies so that the most critical jobs are filled first.
Brady said the Personnel Division is also in the process of studying salaries around the Valley so Mesa can gauge if its salary offerings are in line with other cities’.
Meanwhile, many of the city’s top leaders are new to the staff, including Brady and Police Chief George Gascón. Brady joined the city earlier this year from San Antonio, where he was deputy city manager. Last month, Gascón took over the police department after 28 years with the Los Angeles Police Department.
Officials said the city hasn’t changed its recruiting process, despite the recent string of high-profile hires from outside Arizona. Upperlevel positions have always been nationally advertised, they said.
What has changed, however, is that the city wants to classify more city positions as “at-will,” which means they wouldn’t have the same job protection as other government employees.
Several months ago, Brady instructed city department heads to come up with a list of employees whose positions require a higher level of education and supervisory experience. He will choose from the list which positions will become at-will.
Brady said he does not think creating more at-will positions will have an impact on hiring because protection from termination should not be a primary reason for someone to take a government job.
“What kinds of employees are you attracting if that’s their primary motivation?” Brady asked.
But leaders in Mesa’s two police unions are not so sure. They believe that making more at-will positions could have some unwelcome impacts.
Bryan Soller, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, said creating at-will positions could hurt recruitment efforts.
“There might be people that would not come here or rather go somewhere else, and it could hurt us in promotions,” he said. “If I’ve got 15 years on and (a job opening) is an at-will position, do I want to take it?”