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December 07. 2012 9:28PM

Committee members agree to appoint welfare chief by officials

MANCHESTER - Welfare Commissioner Paul Martineau and his frequent critic Alderman Joe Kelly Levasseur were in agreement this week: The job should be an appointed rather than an elected position.

Members of the Committee on Human Resources are considering a host of changes to the position, after a meeting on Tuesday that was notable for the accord between Martineau and Levasseur.

Changing the status of the position is not a simple matter. By city charter, it's an elected office, and this can't be changed without amending the charter, which could only be accomplished through the current Charter Commission or a charter amendment. In either case, voters would have to approve the change next November.

In the meantime, as members of the committee discussed, someone could be elected who had no qualifications to run the welfare office.

"You could make the salary $10,000, but to have all that power? I just want to make sure you understand, I have no problem with Mr. Martineau running the department. I have a problem with the pay scale and how it morphed into what it did," Levasseur said.

Martineau agreed that the position should not be an elected office. "I think it should be an appointed position. I think what Mr. Levasseur says is true. You can have someone off the street all the sudden be in charge," he told the aldermen.

Levasseur has been critical of Martineau's salary of $113,000, which is far more than any other elected official gets, including the mayor. The salary has swelled over the 11 years Martineau has been in office because it is classified within the Yarger Decker system, the same pay scale for appointed department heads and employees that awards annual raises.

The overall city Welfare budget for 2013 is $1.028 million, with more than $670,000 for staff salaries and about $230,000 for actual services and aid to the needy.

Martineau's salary is comparable to the heads of other departments but the size of his budget and staff is far smaller than other departments and has been further cut back in recent years.

Research conducted by the City Solicitor's Office has revealed conflicting actions by the aldermen in 1998 and 1999, when Yarger Decker was being instituted. They voted to explicitly exclude the position from the pay system, while, in other actions, they included it in the list of classifications covered by the system. One option for dealing with the conflicting ordinances would be to delete the position from the list of classified positions, and the assistant city solicitor has drawn up three proposed ordinances that would do so. In its place, the position would have to be given a set salary, and the human resources director has proposed a range of $80,000 to $95,000, based on a survey of other cities and a comparison to the salaries of others in the welfare office. The welfare commissioner position is also unique in that the city lists a detailed description of and qualifications for the job, which include a preference for someone with a master's degree in social science, public administration or a related field.

The aldermen voted to have the city solicitor examine whether it was possible to establish strict requirements for an elected position, thereby limiting the field of qualified candidates.

The committee tabled the issue to give the solicitor time to research the question.

Tuesday's meeting did not focus on allegations that Martineau's office has a pattern of turning away needy people or a recent state Supreme Court ruling that found that his office's eligibility guidelines conflicted with state law.

On the whole, members of the committee on Tuesday had kind words for Martineau.

"I think we should take a second look, not to affect Mr. Martineau, but to make it a department head that answers to the mayor," Alderman Ron Ludwig said. "I think it's an extremely important position, and I think he's done a remarkable job doing it. I know there's difference of opinion."

Alderman Jim Roy said that any changes that the committee proposes should not retroactively affect Martineau. "If I was in Mr. Martineau's position, I wouldn't give back the money either. He's entitled to that, but if these ordinances are not cleaned up, two years from now we'll be in the same place," he said.

Martineau said after the meeting that he hasn't decided whether he will seek reelection next November. "I'm going to wait and see. I'm 73, so we'll see," he said.

tsiefer@unionleader.com

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