Advisory Committee: $0.17 million to fight employee actions

The Advisory Committee met Tuesday, February 10, starting at 7:30 pm in the first floor south meeting room at Town Hall–hearing requests for distributions from reserves. Contrary to usual procedures for warrant articles before town meetings, subcommittees had not been convened to investigate the requests. In at least one case, that might have helped.

The committee considered three requests: one from Public Works to the Board of Selectmen for emergency snow funds, one from the Board of Assessors, for legal help to contest property tax appeals by utilities, and one from Human Resources, to fight employee complaints and lawsuits. The Advisory Committee has no statutory role in authorizing emergency snow funds and could hardly deny assistance for a tax appeal.

Human Resources, legal services: With approval from the Board of Selectmen the preceding week, Sandra DeBow-Huang, the director of the Human Resources Office, asked for an additional $0.17 million in legal services to fight employee complaints and lawsuits. For the current fiscal year, her department has a budget of $0.20 million for contractual services. The request represents a large overrun: more than 80 percent.

Ms. DeBow-Huang distributed to the committee a list of current employee actions involving legal services, with ranges of potential costs for each case. There were 15 active cases on this list, with pending costs during the current fiscal year estimated at $0.11 to $0.21 million for the active cases.

Jenkins v. Brookline: The most expensive item on the list was a dispute starting in the fall of 2011, when a member of the Information Technology staff was dismissed after being unable to work a full-time schedule, following an auto accident. It is now Jenkins v. Brookline, pending in the federal district court for Massachusetts. In a public filing, Ms. Jenkins stated that she was pressured and harassed, that another I.T. staffer was fired around the same time for taking sick days and that Human Resources staff were made aware of those issues at the time.

Ms. Jenkins, who is being represented through the B.U. Law Civil Litigation Program, has claimed civil rights and employee rights discrimination, in violation of the federal Family Medical Leave Act, Americans with Disabilities Act and Age Discrimination in Employment Act. She is seeking reinstatement with adjustment in seniority, compensation for lost income and benefits and for expenses, personal damages, legal costs and punitive damages. Potential costs to Brookline could be high.

Since January, 2014, the Jenkins case has been in “discovery,” with documents exchanged and depositions taken. A status hearing is currently scheduled for 11 am on April 3. Judge George A. O’Toole, Jr., took over the case from Judge Joseph L. Tauro last May. Since Judge O’Toole is also handling the high-profile case of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, accused of the 2013 Marathon bombings, the Jenkins case might be further delayed.

Union actions: In a memorandum to the Board of Selectmen, Ms. DeBow-Huang accused the union that represents many municipal workers in general services of piling up costs, by filing complaints of unfair labor practices with the state Department of Labor Relations. However, her list of cases did not sustain the claim. There were only four such cases listed. with estimated maximum costs about a quarter of the total.

In oral statements at Advisory, Ms. DeBow-Huang went on at length. “Frank Moroney” [a Brookline resident], she said, “is happy to spend a lot of money litigating against us…He has an open checkbook…Some employees went directly to him.” She claimed that Mr. Moroney’s outlook was, “We’re going to throw everything at the town…We’re going to make them bleed.”

Mr. Moroney is executive director of Council 93, for New England, of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME)–with over 35,000 members. He began his municipal career in the Water Division of Brookline’s Department of Public Works. In 1971, he became the president of AFSCME Local 1358, representing many Brookline workers in general services. He left the Water Division seven years ago and joined the staff of Council 93 full-time, becoming executive director in 2012. Bruce Genest of the Planning Department is now president of AFSCME Local 1358.

Despite accusations from Ms. DeBow-Huang, her list of legal actions includes more from Fire and Police, a smaller workforce, than from employees in general services. The list distributed at the Advisory Committee meeting might be incomplete. At least one recent termination dispute, one other union action and one widely reported potential civil rights lawsuit may not correspond with cases listed.

Years ago, legal disputes between Brookline and its mostly unionized employees were fairly rare, but after Ms. DeBow-Huang became the Human Resources director they appear to have become more frequent. According to union leaders, she tends to state a “position” and does not seem willing to negotiate. The state Department of Labor Relations (formerly the Division of Labor Relations) can arbitrate if negotiations fail or grievances remain unresolved.

– Craig Bolon, Brookline, MA, February 13, 2015

Active employee actions involving legal services, Human Resources Office, Town of Brookline, January 21, 2015

Jenkins v. Brookline, case 1:2013-cv-11347, United States District Court for Massachusetts, filed 2013

Board of Selectmen: snow removal, employee friction and marathons, Brookline Beacon, February 4, 2015

Craig Bolon, Brookline’s workforce: signs of strain, Brookline Beacon, January 9, 2015

Annual Report, Massachusetts Department of Labor Relations, 2014

Human Resources program budget, Financial Plan, FY2015, Town of Brookline, Section IV, pp. 5-8

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