The Mayor's Personnel Problems

To understand why Mayor Menino takes so long to fill the critical job vacancies that have hobbled City Hall, you have to understand the peculiar way he handles hiring.

Of all the high-profile appointees to abandon Mayor Tom Menino’s administration this year—a cadre large and experienced enough to govern a midsize principality—none departed with as much pomp as Merita Hopkins, the mayor’s former chief of staff, who left over the summer to become a Superior Court judge. Her early August swearing–in was held under the gilded dome of the House chamber, with dozens of relatives looking on. House Speaker Sal DiMasi gaveled open the proceedings, and Governor Mitt Romney read Hopkins the oath of office as Menino perched by her side, projecting the melancholic pride of a man giving away his daughter. Reverend Stephen Ayres, vicar of the Old North Church, provided the invocation. Before he began, though, he paused to tell a joke with un-clergylike bite.

Upon his arrival at the capitol that morning, Ayres said, Romney, DiMasi, and Menino had each demanded a priestly intervention. Ayres recounted that he had to inform Romney that “as a preacher, not a prophet,” he couldn’t forecast the governor’s presidential prospects, and told DiMasi that nothing could be done for his golf handicap. Finally, Ayres said, he let Menino know that when it came to finding a replacement for Hopkins, the mayor was on his own. “Trust me, everyone in this room and in this city will be saying that prayer for you,” he added.

The quip eased Ayres into a fawning account of Hopkins’s talents. But it also confirmed that Menino’s ongoing human-resources crisis had become dire enough to belong in the local comedic canon, a new dais punch line to join those about his diction and pothole obsession. In the time since Menino declared, following his landslide reelection last November, that “we’re looking for new faces in our administration to bring new energy, new ideas, as we move forward,” he has marshaled a parade of resignations while securing few of the promised bold hires; at one point this year, the fire, transportation, public works, information services, schools, and police departments—responsible for a combined $1.2 billion of the city’s appropriated $1.6 billion budget—were all helmed by bosses with titles prefixed by “acting,” “interim,” or “outgoing.” Other key positions have inexplicably sat unfilled for months, making the term that was to cement the sturdy mayor-for-life’s legacy most notable for its chronic understaffing. “There’s probably a little more turnover than in previous terms, but they’re getting more of a look because they are high-profile jobs,” says David Passafaro, an ex–Menino chief of staff who remains a mayoral confidant. Menino’s critics have been less charitable in their assessments: who’s minding city hall? the Herald brayed days before Hopkins’s installation. The Phoenix followed up last month with a screed headlined “City Hall Brain Drain.”

Maybe all the negative coverage is owed partly to the fact that Menino also lacks a permanent press secretary. Because for once, when it comes to the hiring and firing duties that are central to the chief executive’s role, Tom Menino actually has a system in place—and what Councilor John Tobin dismisses as its “glacial pace” is evidence that the mayor’s new approach is working exactly as planned.

At Hopkins’s ceremony, Menino related how he came to hire her for her first job in his administration, corporation counsel, in 1995. When Menino asked his friend Judge Regina Quinlan if she could recommend a lawyer who was “honest, loyal, and smart,” Quinlan suggested the one-time prosecutor, who was then holding down her own law practice. Menino called Hopkins and invited her to come down and talk. The two chatted in his office, and he immediately decided to hire her as the city’s top lawyer. “I never knew Merita from a cord of wood,” Menino says now.

The story of Hopkins’s hiring is a variant of another Menino likes to tell. That same year, when the school committee decided not to renew Superintendent Lois Harrison-Jones’s contract, Menino faced the challenge of filling a position that has historically been among the most politically contentious in town (and is now vexing Menino again). As a panel worked to assemble candidates, Senator Ted Kennedy contacted Menino and recommended Thomas Payzant, at the time an assistant secretary of education under President Clinton. Not long after, Menino, joined by mayoral aide Howard Leibowitz, found himself in New York City on the same day as Payzant. While Leibowitz went off to get his own lunch, Menino and Payzant sat down over corned-beef sandwiches at Carnegie Deli. When he returned an hour or so later, Leibowitz recalls, “they were talking as if they had known each other for 20 years. At that point, I knew things would work out.”

Menino is fond of the Hopkins and Payzant stories because they cut against one of the prevailing myths of his leadership: that he hires only old campaign loyalists. “That’s the media: I just hire my friends,” Menino huffs, visibly angered by the suggestion. “How many friends do I have?” He goes on to recite a list of previous appointees, proudly noting those with whom he had no prior ties. “Lisa Signori wouldn’t know what a campaign is if she fell on it,” he says of the city’s chief financial officer. What is quintessentially Menino about the Hopkins and Payzant hirings is that he developed an almost instant rapport with them. “He’s very instinctual,” says Leibowitz, now executive director of the Boston Public Market Association. “He wants to get his sense of the person. You can be the smartest person in the world, but it doesn’t help if you don’t have a vision that’s compatible with his.”

These days, however, the mayor is supplementing his gut with a more cerebral filter. Shortly after triumphantly demanding resignation letters from all his department heads in November—and with none of the same fanfare—Menino quietly brought in Barbara Berke, a former Boston Consulting Group vice president who had been Mitt Romney’s director of business and technology, as a volunteer adviser. “She’s trying to help us with how we do government differently,” Menino says. “She’s been in that process a lot in the private sector and she helps guide us. Sometimes you tend to wander—she keeps us on track.” Others say that Berke serves as a sort of Menino Whisperer, turning mumbled orders into bullet-pointed job descriptions. Berke, says Passafaro, takes what Menino wants and “translates that to getting the right kind of people to apply. She does a great job of articulating what the mayor wants.”

Berke’s influence could be seen in a run of summer hiring announcements that—for what seemed like the first time in a while—featured names that weren’t plucked from elsewhere in city government. To replace public works boss Joe Casazza, a 37-year veteran who had been a lame duck since resigning last December (and who once told Menino “the problem with running the department of public works for you is you know more about it than most people”), Berke engineered a merger of that office with the transportation department. Menino gave the newly created cabinet-level post to Dennis Royer, a top deputy in Denver’s public works department. The previous month, Menino had appointed Bill Oates, the chief information officer of the Starwood Hotels company, to take over from acting CIO William “Bo” Holland, a lobbyist and political operative whom Menino had known since the 1970s. (Holland’s predecessor, Craig Burlingame, the city’s first CIO, was an old government hand who’d come to the job with no college diploma.) When asked about Oates, the first laurel Menino offers is “I never knew the guy!”

Royer and Oates both came to City Hall through job searches far more methodical and expansive than Menino’s personal reliance on a friend’s referral and a chat over sandwiches. Instead of listing the positions only in the Globe and the New York Times and on a City Hall bulletin board, aide Pat Canavan posted them on employment websites like, with the goal of reaching more private-sector candidates. She also turned to a California company that specializes in municipal hiring, Alliance Resource Consulting—which Boston had never used—to prepare a detailed booklet about the job to be distributed through the firm’s national network. “Usually, ‘nationwide search’ in this town is said with a wink. Usually, ‘nationwide’ means Brookline,” says Tobin.

When the committees tasked with evaluating prospects started sorting through the more than 50 résumés received for the public works job and the around 300 that came in for the CIO post, Berke’s hand was felt again. “She looks for nuances on how people would manage, how they would act in a certain situation,” says Canavan, who has coordinated three of the administration’s job hunts. For the search for departed Fire Commissioner Paul Christian’s replacement, Berke invented a role-playing exercise centering on the city’s liquefied-natural-gas facility, subjecting candidates to a classic corporate consultant’s inquiry about how they would deal with various scenarios. That process yielded Roderick Fraser, commanding officer of the USS Underwood, who had come across the opening through the Military Officers Association of America, where the search committee decided to post it after concluding firehouses were not the only places to look for the necessary combination of leadership and logistical skills.

Even after the finalists have been rigorously vetted, Menino still insists on performing his own round of due diligence. One particular convention of résumé writing invites his skepticism. “References are a lot of hoo-ha! You wouldn’t give references unless they were a good reference,” he says. “I always love that part: ‘References will be furnished upon request.’ You give your mother-in-law, your wife, and your three kids. You think you’re going to give a bad person’s name? Give me a break!” Instead, Menino says, “I flash over them. I’ll look at it. If I know some things about the companies, I’ll check with some people”—suggesting that he has disqualified otherwise promising candidates based on what he learned working the phones.

The job interview, a ceremonial nicety for some politicians, is the crucible of the Menino process. “The mayor wants to make a personal connection. That’s what he does best,” says Passafaro. “We’ve learned if you put someone on the phone with the mayor, you’re not doing the applicant a favor.” When it comes to the content of those face-to-face discussions, Menino says, it’s “about everything other than the job, really. About the kids, where they live, other interests they may have—to see if they have any soul.” Afterward, Menino will tell aides whether he clicked with a candidate. When he doesn’t, “it’s like throwing a ball and nobody catches it,” says Canavan. If he likes someone, he will go back to Canavan to confirm his instincts, a task that used to fall to Passafaro. “He uses the inner circle as a bit of a reality check,” Leibowitz says.

The new approach manages to use a corporate sensibility to identify candidates without abandoning Menino’s gut as the final arbiter. That process, though, is not exactly swift, demanding not only the bureaucracy of internal committees and outside firms but also the cooperation of Menino’s pizza schedule. “To get on the mayor’s calendar can take a couple of months,” Passafaro says. Often, after one sit-down “he wants to do it again—over a cup of coffee or lunch or dinner.” It took around five months to pick Royer and more than a year to settle on Oates, far longer than the couple of hours it took Menino to swoon over Payzant and Hopkins.

The result, however, is that Menino has hired precisely the type of people—an out-of-town technocrat, a corporate leader, and a naval officer, none of whom had local political contacts to vouch for them—who rarely would have found their way into City Hall when Menino first came to office. “He may have not been comfortable about the situation 10 years ago, but he’s easily comfortable with that today,” says Passafaro. “He’s changed over time, where he’s now willing to take more of a chance—he’s more comfortable hiring people who he hasn’t known for a long time. The mayor is much more comfortable in his own skin. He’s much more comfortable being mayor.”

Menino’s only uneasiness now seems to lie in reconciling his newfound reliance on outside managerial expertise with his self-conception as the mayor who proudly leads by intuition. While Menino will happily talk about his hiring style, his press aides repeatedly refused to make Berke available for an interview. “We don’t use outside search firms,” Menino declares when asked. “They have the same résumés in each pocket; they just take out the same names and give them to you,” he adds, reaching into the pocket of his pink dress shirt to illustrate the metaphor. “We wanted to find the candidate out there who hasn’t gone through 15 interviews and been refused 15 times.” Menino’s dramatic demonstration notwithstanding, the only reason Royer ever submitted his résumé for public works director was because he saw the booklet prepared by Alliance Resource Consulting. “His boss got it and gave it to him,” says Canavan.

The exodus of talent from top city posts began in earnest with the surprise May exit of Police Commissioner Kathleen O’Toole, and it’s Menino’s seemingly lackadaisical efforts to fill that slot, even as shootings spike, that’s earned him the most grief. After the mayor moved quickly to install Superintendent-in-Chief Albert Goslin as interim boss and appoint former John Hancock CEO Dave D’Allessandro to lead the hunt for a permanent replacement, the search went distressingly quiet, leading the Phoenix to speculate it was all a sham concocted to offer the mayor cover when he ultimately hires an insider. While Menino may yet make his pick from within the department (at press time, the job was still open), the way he’s handled the vacancy appears driven by different tactical considerations. “It doesn’t get me into a fast way of getting a commissioner,” Menino told Passafaro after installing Goslin.

While observers call for a greater urgency about personnel moves, Menino seems to relish having crucial positions in limbo. “I think acting positions are the best positions. They want to prove they can do the job,” he says. “Acting? They’re not ‘acting’—they’re working to keep their jobs and maybe to get appointed permanently.” It’s perhaps natural that a mayor in perpetual campaign mode—always out cutting ribbons and shaking hands—would expect his employees to excel in that environment. The purest form of a Menino meritocracy, one imagines, would be an entire acting government in which everyone from chief of staff to street sweeper is constantly stumping to stay employed.

Instead of feeling rushed to shore up his legacy, Menino is leading with the metabolism of a man who may be expecting another campaign of his own. In mid-August, a week after the Herald reported that yet another department head had decided to leave, Menino suggested he wasn’t particularly concerned with whether his homeland security director, Carlo Boccia, would stay or go. “Nobody’s given me a letter yet. You can read whatever you want in the papers. Until I have a letter in my hand, it’s not official to me. Everybody’s going to leave someday. Pat’s going to leave someday. Jennifer’s going to leave someday,” he said, gesturing toward the two aides sitting with him in his office. In the permanent mayoralty staffed by temps, the one vacancy Tom Menino seems unable to come to grips with is his own. “I’ll leave someday, yeah. Either walking out or them carrying me out. I haven’t decided yet.”