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Nationwide search is urged as city seeks new human resources chief

Buffalo should launch a nationwide search for a new human resources chief and ensure that the process puts qualifications ahead of politics, some city lawmakers said Tuesday.

The comments came a day after Mayor Byron W. Brown fired one-time political ally Karla L. Thomas as human resources commissioner.

The termination followed disclosures a year ago that the city paid health insurance premiums for 170 dead retirees. Brown insisted that Thomas' failure to take timely corrective steps cost taxpayers nearly $840,000.

But Thomas was a lightning rod for criticism long before a city comptroller's audit uncovered problems in her department. Some Common Council members tried to block her appointment in September 2008, questioning her qualifications and her high-profile political activities. Until her appointment as commissioner, Thomas headed Grassroots, a political group that helped launch Brown's career in elective office.

The human resources chief heads all personnel functions in City Hall. As a result, the position is supposed to be insulated from politics. What's more, state law requires that personnel administrators be hired for six-year terms.

"There needs to be a national search with advertising that reaches beyond Buffalo," said Council Finance Committee Chairman Michael P. Kearns of the South District.

The City Charter requires the mayor to appoint a search committee of no more than five city residents "with professional training or experience in human resources." At least one appointee must have public-sector experience. After the advisory panel recommends candidates, the mayor would send a name to the Council for confirmation.

Brown faced criticism for the search process used to appoint Thomas. His three-member advisory committee included Finance Commissioner Janet E. Penksa; attorney Adam W. Perry, who has made political contributions to Brown's campaign in recent years; and Jack Kennedy, a local union official.

Critics suggested that Brown's appointment of insiders to the search panel weakened a safeguard that was imposed to try to insulate the process from politics.

Delaware Council Member Michael J. LoCurto said Brown should empanel a search committee that can offer an independent perspective.

But Council Majority Leader Richard A. Fontana of the Lovejoy District said he sees no inherent conflict in appointing someone such as Penksa to serve on the mayor's search panel. He said Penksa has a wealth of fiscal and governmental experience that would make her valuable on such a committee.

"On a football team, you're going to give the ball to your best players," Fontana said.

Meanwhile, Council Members Bonnie E. Russell of the University District and Demone A. Smith of the Masten District said they don't believe that a national search is warranted.

"I believe we have the best and brightest right here," Russell said.

Thomas' termination came shortly after a hearing officer issued a report concluding that the mayor would be justified in firing her. Brown notified Thomas in early September that he intended to remove her from the $91,374-a-year post. By law, however, Thomas had the right to challenge the decision in a public proceeding.

e-mail: bmeyer@buffnews.com

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