The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, October 19, 2007


Town Hall facilitator says employee problems persist

A review of Town Hall personnel management by an outside facilitator has pointed to unfair policies and a workplace culture that discourages independent thinking. Dr. Sheneet Thomson of Interpeople, Inc. was called in to investigate complaints that personality issues are causing friction and communication is poor among the Town Hall staff. Thomson's report was issued on June 25 and no action has yet been taken on her recommendations, which include a non-voting seat for an employee on the Personnel Board and the hiring of a human resources (HR) professional.

Town Administrator Madonna McKenzie was contacted but referred the Mosquito to the Selectmen for information on the purpose and results of the facilitator's report.

Last fall, issues surfaced between employees and McKenzie (see Mosquito December 1, 2006, "Town Administrator's review meets criticism"). Following this, Selectman Alan Carpenito spearheaded the hiring of a facilitator to work with Town Hall personnel. He said the Selectmen approved Thomson's $5,000 contract with the hope of "improving harmony between departments."

The three-page report indicates that Thomson conducted a three-hour workshop on dispute management and two mediation sessions which were "only partly successful." No further detail is given on what happened in those sessions. However, Thomson points to "personnel management and decision-making issues that have lead [sic] to tensions and dissatisfaction among a significant number of town hall employees" and also to a workplace culture "that discourages independent thinking among employees and frowns on dissension." She adds, "Among some employees there is a sense of intimidation and fearfulness" and decisions are often made "without consulting and disregarding the professional opinions of the departments involved."

Thomson also points to policies that seem unfair. The grievance procedure provides no avenue for resolving issues with the Town Administrator. The procedure begins with the Town Administrator, and she also sits on the Personnel Board. In addition, there are inconsistencies in treatment; for example, some employees are full-time at 30 hours while others require 40.

Suggestions for change

Thomson recommends two changes. The first is the hiring of an independent human resource professional reporting to the Personnel Board or Board of Selectmen, not the Town Administrator. This person would "relieve the Town Administrator of this highly specialized aspect of running Town Hall." He or she would upgrade employee policies and manage hiring and compensation, as well as providing an alternative to the Town Administrator in handling employee complaints.

The second recommendation is to allow a non-voting volunteer to represent Town Hall employees at meetings of the Personnel Board. Currently there is a feeling "the Personnel Board, despite its good intentions and hard work, does not really know them or take their concerns into account." This volunteer would be excluded from certain discussions. It is noted that "the fact that a volunteer employee on the board is not common in other towns does not mean this is not a good idea."

The last part of the report refers to "technical issues" involving a Global Information System (GIS) on the server that is not being made available to employees. David Freedman, former chair of the Planning Board called the GIS question "a small detail" but "symptomatic of the communication problem at Town Hall." A better example, he says is "how the [facilitator's] report itself was dealt with" noting there was a delay in sharing it with staff.

Recently, Jan Deyoe of the Recreation Commission stood up at a BOS meeting and requested that Thomson's report be put on a future agenda for discussion. Carpenito says the report may appear on the agenda soon and notes it was briefly discussed at a BOS off-site meeting in July at which the Mosquito was not present. The feeling at that time was that the "recommendations weren't really that good" in that they "echoed ideas we had heard quite a while" and previously dismissed. He said the Personnel Board has discussed the question of adding a non-voting employee member and, due to legal and confidentiality reasons, decided "that's not the way they want to go."

The other recommendation, to add an HR person, seemed more to the point, according to Carpenito. "It's really not [Madonna's] field of expertise, but we throw it on her. It's not really fair for Madonna to be Town Administrator and also have those responsibilities and have to handle that role." He notes that in many small towns an HR person is brought in infrequently, on a contract basis, perhaps once a week." But in the current budgetary atmosphere, he said, "we're done hiring for awhile. The way the FinCom [Finance Committee] is talking, we will be lessening the number of employees, if not this year, then next year."

Carpenito had hoped for "new ideas we could have used" that would not require additional hiring. For example, he sees the limited authority of the Town Administrator as contributing to a situation where "no one is in charge," and "the lines of authority aren't clear" and wondered if there were ways to improve the current organizational structure. He notes, however, the facilitator said from the beginning that her recommendations would be constrained by the knowledge her report would become a public document under the Freedom of Information Act. "She was very concerned that what she said would not make a bad situation worse."

Carpenito believes the group sessions accomplished some goals in that "it helped employees to voice concerns to an outside individual," and see those concerns openly documented. But now that an outsider has confirmed the difficulties at Town Hall, can that situation be ignored? Says Freedman, "I think that's not acceptable and not a trivial matter. It shouldn't be left to fester."

2007 The Carlisle Mosquito