Brookline’s workforce: signs of strain

As Brookline developed a management system, starting shortly after World War II, employee relations became steadily more complex and tension-prone. First the Board of Selectmen hired an executive secretary, a purchasing manager and a personnel manager. A volunteer Planning Board built a professional staff. A pre-war accumulation of independent departments and officials was consolidated in stages.

A much maligned traffic czar left, and a Transportation Board was created. The position of executive secretary gave way to a town administrator. The personnel manager was replaced by a human resources director, and a human resources board was organized. In more recent years, new missions have settled within a committee forest that has yet to be pruned. At each step, town functions tended to become more varied and complex.

A distant workforce: Even more profound changes have come from workforce unionization and abandonment of local residency, during the 1950s through the 1980s. Only fragments of the pre-war “family” of town workers remain. Safety services are probably the most conservative groups, still struggling with race relations–over 40 years after the town set up a Human Relations Commission.

To cope with issues raised by African-American firefighter Gerald Alston, Jr., the Board of Selectmen recently announced review by “an outside attorney.” So far, the board has not authorized hiring outside counsel in its weekly agendas of budget and contract items, yet the review is looking rushed.

Last December 17, the board met behind closed doors to discuss “potential litigation.” Two days later, its office distributed a press release about Mr. Alston and the “outside attorney.” For January 6, the board’s agenda listed another closed-door session, this one including Paul Ford, the fire chief, to consider “the discipline or dismissal of, or complaints or charge brought against a public officer, employee, staff member or individual”–whatever that might mean.

Some of the particulars in Mr. Alston’s case reached the public because Mr. Alston chose to make them public, but such an approach is unusual. Employees who encounter problems generally don’t make them public and won’t talk about them on the record. The playbook for Brookline officials remains constant. As the recent press release put it, “The town is limited by privacy laws from speaking publicly….”

Friction: Another Brookline employee who encountered workplace friction recently left: Timothy Richard, employed for over two years as a planner in the Department of Planning and Community Development. His recent duties included keeping records of Planning Board meetings and acting as liaison between the Planning Board and Zoning Board of Appeals.

Mr. Richard is an urban planning graduate who intends to make a career in government service. His case does not appear to involve race, sex or ethnic elements or any of the so-called “protected classes” of people that might underpin a discrimination complaint. Instead, it focuses on a supervisor whose escalating pattern of complaints led Mr. Richard to seek medical help and also focuses on a recently hired department head who engaged mainly with the supervisors, not with the other employees. A previous employee in Mr. Richard’s position, a woman, appears to have encountered similar friction.

After receiving a three-day suspension, Mr. Richard filed a grievance through his union, choosing to make the hearing open to the public. Accounts of the hearing suggest a one-sided procedure that left Mr. Richard even more unsettled. Shortly afterward, he resigned. Mr. Richards did not conduct a media event, like Mr. Alston, but he met and corresponded with news writers.

Although Brookline has human resources staff, they do not look to have been very helpful in this case. Their correspondence is stiff and formal, with no public, written evidence that human resources staff sought to assist in a constructive way. Like many aspects of Brookline, the town’s zoning is complex and can take years to master. Mr. Richard had made considerable progress, but now Brookline has lost continued benefits from his knowledge.

Discord and churn: During the past year, the office of the town clerk, generally a quiet and predictable place, has had unusual turnover. A long-term staffer was abruptly dismissed. Another left to take a full-time position in the Department of Public Works, after that staffer’s former position was cut to half time. No reason for the dismissal has been posted in public information.

While stories say that a lawsuit is underway, as usual no one in a position to know what happened is likely to say, for the record. Other stories, also off-the-record, say that a female employee was recently the target of outrageous slurs from a male supervisor and that a complaint from her was brushed off by human resources staff. If an employee cannot get help from the human resources staff, the only significant alternative could be a grievance hearing–not necessarily helpful either, as Mr. Richard found.

In recent years, departments have lost key personnel to other communities. Last year, a skilled and experienced engineer left Public Works. According to comments made at a public meeting, Mike Yanovitch, formerly the chief inspector in the Building Department, left to take a job in Walpole. The average salary of elementary school teachers remains well below the level that would occur if teachers had an average 15 or more years seniority, as used to occur in stable times.

Municipal and school services share an information technology department, but they maintain separate human resources offices. Brookline pays for duplicate leadership and overhead, while neither office posts regular, public information about employee turnover or job satisfaction. Apparently increasing churn suggests that neither office may be particularly effective at employee retention or at maintenance of strong morale.

Budget cuts related to coping with increasing school enrollment may be a significant factor in discord and churn. However, the Override Study Committee of 2013 had little to say about those issues, instead focusing on its numerical models–all but ignoring morale and effectiveness of town services. The Board of Selectmen absconded from civic duty when appointing members of this key committee as a slate. Now they are reaping what they sowed.

– Craig Bolon, Brookline, MA, January 9, 2015

Outside attorney in personnel dispute, Brookline, MA, Board of Selectmen, undated press release received December 19, 2014

Board of Selectmen: firefighter Gerald Alston, Jr., speaking, Brookline Beacon, December 6, 2014

Override Study Committee of 2013, Final Report, Town of Brookline, MA, August 14, 2014

Brookline government: public information and the committee forest, Brookline Beacon, August 1, 2014

Override Study Committee: $5 million tax override, plus Devotion School debt exclusion, Brookline Beacon, July 31, 2014

David R. Kerrigan, Are local residency requirements legal?, Kenney & Sams, Boston, MA, 2014

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