Landis, trustees spar over hiring process

The Fredonia Village Board began the new year by wrangling over who should make up the personnel committee in charge of interviewing potential hires.

Mayor Athanasia Landis and the trustees spent a good portion of Monday’s meeting clashing over an open-ended resolution that would give every board member the option to participate in interviews with applicants.

After inviting Trustees Phyllis Jones and James Lynden to attend interviews at their discretion, Landis asked the board to table the resolution, arguing it describes what is currently in place and could open a can of worms regarding quorums and the Open Meetings Law if more than three trustees show up to an interview.

“About a year and a half ago, while I was campaigning for this job, among the complaints that I heard was that they were very suspicious about the way hirings were happening in the village,” she explained to begin the conversation. “Some people were talking about lack of transparency, others were talking about they put their buddies there. When I started working … I thought I was going to look into the process and see if we can improve the process. I want to remove any personal bias.”

Before Landis, the mayor made a personnel committee of two trustees, who — with the village administrator — interviewed potential hires and brought their recommendation back to the board for a vote. Landis said she believes that was a flawed system, as the two trustees practically had the exclusive power to hire.

She changed the system last year, thereby forming a personnel committee consisting of the department head, the village administrator and herself, since she does not have a vote on the board to hire someone. She added the committee is not a “single-person venture.”

“It worked quite well, and some of the trustees were against that, and I have to say the (former) village attorney was against that, as well,” Landis stated. “According to them, trustees have to be part of the interview committee. Well, I never thought it was as important as it was until about three weeks ago, when I was having this operation (on my arm) and I wasn’t able to be at the meeting; this thing was discussed and it was agreed upon to ask the village attorney to come up with a resolution that would … make the trustees absolutely, positively part of the interview committee.”

She added after consulting with the New York Conference of Mayors (and the village charter and village law, which are vague on the topic), the process she had in place for the past year was perfectly legal. In fact, it is the process most villages have in place, she contended.

NYCOM also advised Landis that it is illegal to obligate trustees to attend interviews, though they are allowed to participate on their own free will.

The trustees — particularly Phyllis Jones and Marc Ruckman — initially disputed Landis’ argument, asserting the trustees should have the option to attend interviews as they see fit, since they are the ones ultimately voting on the hires.

“I think it’s important for all the trustees to meet the candidates and interview them and ask them questions,” Ruckman stated flatly. “What if we advertise it? We advertise it, (three trustees show up,) we do an executive session and there you go. I want to be part of the interviews; if that’s what we have to do, it’s what we have to do.”

“When we discussed it three weeks ago, even you said, ‘It’s an option,'” Jones told Landis. “We have a right to sit in on those interviews and you totally excluded the trustees stating because we are the ones who actually vote for the person. We (should) get notice from Rick (St. George, village administrator) that they’re going to conduct interviews and if we can make it, we can come. If it became a problem … if I came and there were three (trustees) there, I would leave so only two trustees …”

“But we always have a committee, and the mayor is in charge of (creating) the committee, so this is the committee I’m putting together,” Landis countered. “I just have to include in that that you’re not obligated to come.”

Jones asked why Landis assigned herself and Lynden to the personnel committee if there is no responsibility for them to attend interviews. Landis replied by saying she designated two trustees as a way to avoid holding an illegal meeting if three or more trustees show up.

“I’m trying to accommodate this need that seems to exist that you need to be a part of it,” she told Jones. “I’m fine; you can be a part of it. However, we have to understand that this is not an obligation. This was never an obligation.”

Landis mentioned to Ruckman that she cannot stop him from going to an interview. Ruckman told her she is not removing personal bias from the equation by appointing two trustees to the committee, though Landis pointed out the trustees will carry two of the five votes on the committee, unlike previous years, when two trustees had total control.

“I think it’s fair; it’s three people that are not voting and two people who have a vote,” Landis concluded.

The messy argument ultimately ended with the resolution being tabled unanimously. Ruckman said he would like to consult with an attorney to see where this should head.

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