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Challenges for new city HR director

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Posted on: March 10, 2012

BY PAULA MINAERT — Chris Vermillion, Hyattsville’s newly hired human resources director, started work on February 27. It’s a new position, created by the city council last year.

Vermillion, by all accounts, has his work cut out for him. During his first week on the job, Public Works Director Patrick Ryan resigned, effective March 16, to accept a job in his native Midwest.

That makes the fourth director-level position without a permanent, full-time staff person. The department of code enforcement has had an acting director, senior inspector Chris Giunta, since 2009. Police Chief Douglas Holland is acting city administrator and Communications Manager Abby Sandel is acting director of recreation and the arts.

Longtime city employee Julia McTague is expected to be named acting DPW director, although at press time no announcement had been made. Last August, she was assigned to oversee various continuing DPW construction projects.

The city has struggled with staffing issues for some time. Recently, it had two parks directors and two treasurers in the space of two years. In addition, the assistant city administrator and newly created assistant treasurer positions are vacant.

Councilmember Shani Warner (Ward 2) said, “That’s why we’re paying [Vermillion] the big bucks [$110,000 a year] and more than we anticipated. We got the best person we could, one we thought had the capacity to handle all the stuff we’re going to throw at him.”

Vermillion understands the urgency. “Certainly, recruiting is a high priority for any organization,” he said.

However, it appears there is no real consensus on the council about what he should do in his first months on the job, despite several discussions during council meetings. The most recent occurred on February 27, the meeting where Vermillion was introduced.

Some council members said they wanted him to move immediately to address the city’s staffing problems, especially vacancies, and possibly introduce drastic changes in city structure. Others thought he should learn about the city and tackle basic human resource issues before making major changes.

Warner falls into the first school of thought. “He needs to get up to speed quickly. There isn’t going to be a nice honeymoon period where he can spend the first month just talking to people and getting a feel for the city.”

Along those lines, Candace Hollingsworth (Ward 1) said she thought the council should give Vermillion a clear list of priorities for the first 90 days, so the council can accurately evaluate his performance.

Mayor Marc Tartaro, however, said, “I want him to become familiar with the personnel manual and key staff, and come to understand how the organization works. He needs to immerse himself in the organization, not have judgment. Until we update position descriptions and redo the organizational chart so it’s functional, we shouldn’t try to make wholesale changes.”

Vermillion agreed that there are two schools of thought on the council about the priorities of his job, but added, “They’ve given me some latitude to determine which approach would be best and I assume they’ll get my input.”

In the past several months, the council has indeed discussed the possibility of a major reorganization of the city staff. Sandel said that that issue is “hanging out there. It’ll be discussed in the upcoming budget process but it’s a big conversation. It won’t be wrapped up in one budget cycle.”

When asked for his impressions of Hyattsville, Vermillion said that it’s a vibrant city and the people who work here have a real affection for the town.

“We have dedicated city employees who work hard to do their jobs.”







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