Town employee layoff: Media and Advisory members question if voters were deceived

On Saturday, a new Southborough Wicked Local report cleared up misconceptions about how town employee Bridget Gilleney-DeCenzo was informed that her job was being eliminated. But it is also raising new questions about whether town administrators intentionally misled the Advisory Committee and town voters.

Last week, SWL reported that the Division Supervisor of Department of Public Works’ Cemetery Division is being laid off after 24 years. The layoff sparked protest, including a letter to this blog’s editor and several angry comments.

The initial report gave some readers the impression that Gilleney-DeCenzo was impersonally notified through a letter. According to the new article, DPW Director Karen Galligan met with Gilleney-DeCenzo to inform her and hand her the letter.

However, the article casts more suspicion on how the town planned its communications about the layoff to the public.

The letter to the editor, from resident Lisa Cappello, and some readers’ comments expressed anger that town voters weren’t informed that the DPW budget included a layoff. The layoff resulted from a budget decision to outsource, an undiscussed budget highlight in the back pages of the Town Meeting Warrant. Some people believe that by approving the budget, voters unwittingly approved the layoff.

Initially, Town Administrator Mark Purple explained that the layoff was the unplanned result of discovering after Town Meeting that another employee’s expected retirement didn’t come through. SWL examined public documents that indicate the town planned to eliminate the position as far back as February. And an Advisory Committee member’s comment on this blog indicates he is feeling deceived by Galligan and Purple.

SWL reports that pre-Town Meeting documents planned for the layoff. Pressed for answers, Purple is now saying they planned to eliminate Gilleney-DeCenzo’s position but move her to an unnamed employee’s position. It is that employee’s retirement that supposedly failed to come through:

Town budget documents created before Town Meeting, however, raise questions about whether officials were preparing for the layoff months ago.

In a budget given to the financial Advisory Committee on Feb. 12, the DPW does not list Gilleney-DeCenzo’s name on a list of salaried employees for fiscal 2015.

“The fact that her name is not on the budget for this year makes me question how the planning for this was coming about,” Advisory Committee member Karen Muggeridge said.

Neither Muggeridge nor Commitee colleague John Butler could recall Galligan informing them at budget meetings that there was a possibility Gilleney-DeCenzo would be laid off.

However, a budget document emailed to the Committee on Feb. 20 by Finance Director Brian Ballantine clearly refers to a layoff.

“Public Works is seeking to privatize cemetery operations, which would result in a savings and the layoff of one position,” the document reads. “Other positions would be assimilated into openings created by retirements.” . . .

Purple said Friday that the unsigned memo was an “early budget document” prepared by himself and Ballantine that was written at a time when a layoff was “more likely.” When pressed about Gilleney-DeCenzo’s name being left off the fiscal 2015 budget, Purple confirmed that her position had been proposed to be eliminated.

He maintained, though, that Gilleney-DeCenzo would have remained employed by the town had the unnamed employee retired.

Advisory Committee member John Butler writes that when Galligan presented the DPW budget to Advisory, she told them that she believed layoffs would be avoided due to an expected retirement. That same intention was printed in the Town Warrant. He is now questioning if the retirement was a ruse:

Mark Purple wrote an email [Friday] to Brad Petrician of [SWL and The Metrowest Daily News] attempting to explain how the employee name could have been missing from a February spreadsheet but the layoff not have been planned until after a supposed non-retirement following Town Meeting.  . . Purple’s email implies, as I read it, that the laid-off employee was going into another position, that the spreadsheet was declaring that her position was being abolished, not that she was being laid off. This however would require that there was another position for which she was qualified that was being vacated and that happened to exactly match her salary. Unless there is some other explanation, which we must allow as possible at this point, the story is incredible.

On the surface it looks like they decided to invent the retirement story to get Town Meeting to vote a budget that they could use as a justification for a layoff, and they forgot that they left their real plan sitting in the budget detail sheet on the Advisory web site. . . If they had really been surprised by some non-retirement and wanted to keep the employee, there would have been a lot of work to try to find some solution which would have stretched at least into into September, typically. . . It is possible that there was some potential retirement, and the layoff was merely their contingency plan. However, it was a contingency that was hidden behind written contrary declarations, when instead it should have been public and discussed. All that said, I will suspend any final judgment until the rest of the facts emerge.

To read the full SWL story, click here.

To read John Butler’s full comment, click here.

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Donna McDaniel
8 years ago

Yes, a small point in light of all that’s being presented here but I can’t help but note that Brad’s last name is spelled Petrishen, not the way it is in John Butler’s piece. Small detail? Perhaps. But the first lesson reporters must learn — if you can’t spell the person’s name right, then how can anyone trust the truth of what you’re reporting? Petrishen is not an easy name but it does appear at the beginning and end of most everything he writes. (And he’s doing a great job, especially in this last piece!)

Donna McDaniel
8 years ago
Reply to  Beth Melo

Beth… I didn’t mean it was your error! I don’t know blog rules–is it up to the editor to correct errors (with exceptions, perhaps, in noting an outright lie but then that’s a tricky business in more ways than one!). Also I wasn’t questioning John’s veracity but just something worth keeping in mind when writing.

Southborough Sorrow
8 years ago

I felt sorrow when I read about the layoff notice received by Cemetery Division Supervisor Bridget Gilleney-DeCenzo. This is a loss for our town as well as a loss for Bridget. Although layoffs are sometimes necessary, they should not be done without careful consideration of the many factors about a job position and the employee(s) affected.

I know from personal experience, when my 12 year old son died unexpectedly two years ago, an effective cemetery supervisor has to have many personal attributes that may not be necessary for other positions in a town. The supervisor must be thoughtful and have empathy as they are working with individuals and families making very difficult decisions during an extremely stressful time. My son died in his sleep due to a cardiac condition, Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy, that was not properly diagnosed (we found out the cause of his death many months later when an Massachusetts Medical Examiner’s report was finally issued).

In addition, a cemetery employee must be responsive because when planning a funeral and burial, a family and funeral director have to coordinate a number of things in a time sensitive manner. Bridget and George Mooney were so helpful as we planned our son’s funeral service at St. Matthew’s Church and burial at the Rural Cemetery. They were also a good resource later when we chose and installed a granite “monument” (a/k/a headstone) for our son’s burial site.

On Friday of this past week, I stopped into Ackerman Monument in Holliston, Massachusetts to request some information on a bronze memorial marker. The owner/operator of the company had heard about Bridget’s layoff. He works with several hundred cemeteries in eastern and central Massachusetts. The owner commented on how unique Bridget is among cemetery supervisors in that she is efficient and responsive, yet very understanding and kind hearted when working with families that have lost a loved one. He also observed that many towns have a lot of turnover in their cemetery division as not everyone has the managerial and personal attributes required for the responsibilities of the position. In trying to reduce or eliminate a cemetery supervisor position, towns have come to realize that you can not just pull another employee from the DPW to meet with a grieving family and/or a funeral director.

On Saturday morning, I attended a presentation at the Southborough Library. After the presentation at the library, a friend and I took a walk down Middle Road to get a cup of coffee at Red Barn Coffee. As we passed the back entrance to the cemetery, I noticed a truck and saw Bridget working on the grounds. Bridget was working on a Saturday because she was concerned about all the work to be done at the rural cemetery as well as the town burial grounds between the library and Pilgrim Church in preparation for the town’s Memorial Day ceremonies. Bridget had received her layoff notice the week before, yet she was working on a weekend because she truly cares about the citizens of the town and the cemetery. To Bridget, each cemetery site represents a life and she knows life stories of so many of the people buried there after patiently listening to the families and friends of these deceased individuals that visit to honor their loved one that has died. Because of Bridget, as well as other DPW employees who do work in the cemetery, it is a well maintained, lovely, peaceful place. Many residents that live on Middle Road or that area of town often stroll through the cemetery when they go out on a walk.

Most importantly, the cemetery is an important resource for the citizens of our town. Not to be trite, but as the quotation (attributed to several people including Benjamin Franklin) indicates, “The only two things certain in life are death and taxes”.

In conclusion, I sincerely hope that the Board of Selectmen and management in Southborough review the layoff of our cemetery division supervisor. Difficult decisions have to be made in times of financial uncertainly, however this is not the position and Bridget is not the person that should be sacrificed in the process of balancing a division budget.

David Parry
8 years ago

I echo the above sentiment very strongly.

I too had the same experience with Bridget when my wife, and then her parents died, all died within a few months of each other. Bridget is an unassuming treasure with great empathy. No “outsourcing” official can come close to providing the services she provided and can still provide. This was an ill conceived plan to begin with, and the way she was laid off was.so callous it is a disgrace to this town.

As one telling anecdote, I recently met, by chance, the elderly wife of a very elderly selectman (who shall remain nameless, out of respect). During our conversation, she suddenly became very sad and then told me about Bridget being laid off, she was on the edgeof tears at the mere thought of having to face a death without Bridget being there. It was very moving, and I had to console her, not knowing what had happened. That just shows how much this whole affair has affected so many people, so incredibly deeply. Residents who have not gone through this ritual, may not be able to appreciate the depth of caring involved by those who have.

There can be no acceptable remedy except to restore Bridget to her rightful employment. Secondly, it is important to get to the very bottom of what lies behind this affair, how it was handled, or rather bungled. John Butler and Karen Muggeridge, of the Advisory Committee, are doing the town a service by insisting on the facts. Brad Petrishen of the MWDN is to be commended for his stories and his relentless pursuit for the truth.

Respectfully
David Parry

Al Hamilton
8 years ago

I have spent some time reviewing the DPW layoff situation and believe that corrective action is the proper thing to do. Please excuse the length of my reply and its neutral tone. The length is necessary to explain my thinking and plan. The tone is intended to not add fuel to the emotional fire that surrounds this issue.

First The Facts:

1. In 1991 Town Meeting and the Voters approved and sent to the State Legislature “Special Legislation” to create the current DPW. This is now state law. This law creates the position of Superintendent which, like our Chiefs, this is a “strong” manager position. The law gives sole authority for hiring and firing DPW employees to the Superintendent. This was presumably done to prevent the BOS from meddling or engaging in nepotism. Neither the BOS, the Town Admin, nor Town Meeting has the authority to direct the hiring and firing of DPW employees state law leave this authority in the hands of the DPW Superintendent.

2. A few short weeks ago, Town Meeting overwhelmingly defeated proposed special legislation that would have increased the Town Administrator and BOS’s day to day control over the DPW.

3. Regardless of what you think about the layoff, it does appear that the DPW Superintendent met with and informed the employee in person about this situation. The letter is standard procedure and good practice in this difficult circumstance. The minimum standards of decency were met in a difficult situation.

4. The current employment situation is unsafe. I believe that the employee works alone in the cemetery building for long periods of time. Many companies will not permit this because if something happens to the employee there is no one to summon help. Regardless of the outcome this needs to be reviewed.

Opinion:

1. Based on my conversations with citizens and several officials I believe that the appropriate standards of openness and transparency were not observed. It is inevitable that we will face this issue again in the future. The unsustainability of our financial model dictates that we will have to review other operations for cost effectiveness and alternative service delivery models. These discussion need to be held very publicly so that citizens have the opportunity to participate and understand the decision process. We failed at this in this case.

What is to be Done:

1. Since the appropriate standards of transparency were not met and those are essential for public and employee confidence going forward, I will seek funding for the position by proposing a transfer from the Reserve Fund. The reported unexpected decision of an employee to not retire meets, in my opinion, the unexpected expense standard required for a transfer. Since the town is responsible for unemployment benefits this transfer may be less than expected.

2. I will request a review of the position to determine whether there is still a full time need for the role given the changes in the department. If there is not, I will strongly encourage the Superintendent and TA to seek alternative productive work for the employee within the town. (At this time I have no predisposition on that question). We owe this level of consideration to a long time employee while recognizing that we have to be able to take steps to make all town operations more efficient.

3. We need to have some guidelines in place to make sure that in the future, when we consider staffing requirements, we do so in an open and transparent way. This will be uncomfortable, but is better than the process we have just witnessed.

Desiree Aselbekian
8 years ago

I have been away from reading the blog the past few days, so I apologize for not having a more timely post.

I and many others are forming a Citizens Committee to Restore Trust and Transparency in Town Hall. We’re poised to restore Bridget to her full capacity as Cemetery Division Supervisor. Additionally, we’re going to push for an investigation of the management of Town Hall and the DPW, and hold our elected officials accountable for their role in ensuring transparency in our government.

In doing so, I have put together 4 petitions for the public’s consideration. Unfortunately, due to proper procedure enforced by the Town Clerk, we have to have separate signatures for each initiative. I ask for your patients in signing all four documents to ensure we force the Board of Selectmen to do the right thing in this situation and beyond. There is a bigger problem than just Bridget’s “layoff”; there is a lack of oversight and transparency in our government.

The petitions are being circulated around town this week, and I and others will be present on Saturday throughout town to gather more signatures. I will personally be at Red Barn Coffee Roasters (Rte 9 West) this Saturday from 8:30-10:00am followed by the transfer station with these petitions.

An outline of the petitions are as follows:

1. Citizen’s Petition to call a Special Town Meeting: this outlines the reasons why we need a special town meeting, which is to restore funding to the Cemetery Supervisor Position and eliminate privatization of the cemetery. This requires 200 signatures. It is my hope we will not need to go to a special town meeting, but we have to be ready in case the Selectmen refuse to do the right thing. I currently have no faith in the current body to do so. They haven’t even called a public meeting to discuss the issue, and it’s been in the news for 2 weeks with many outstanding questions. Perhaps with the new 5 member board, we will have more attention to this matter, but until then, we need to be ready and united in forcing them to rectify the situation.

2. An article to be placed on the Warrant to restore funding to the Cemetery Supervisor Position: this would ensure money available to fully fund Bidget’s position if a Special Town Meeting is necessary.

3. An article to be placed on the Warrant to eliminate the privatization of the cemetery administration, grounds, and maintenance: this article may be moot with the previous one, but we need to be prepared for anything if we must go to a special town meeting.

4. A petition to the Selectmen saying we have had enough: this petition states we have no confidence in the Town Administrator or the Superintendent of Public Works. It is a non-binding petition that we will submit to the Selectmen to let them know we do not have faith or confidence in these two employees and we want them removed and replaced by any means necessary. This town needs leaders we can trust and not leaders who deceive us and mislead us. Not to mention, those leaders who potentially open us up to lawsuits and financial liability. These individuals are not good for this town, and we need to let the Selectmen know we are not going to stand for this anymore.

I urge and ask for citizens of this town to stand with me, stand with our citizens committee, and assert ourselves to make change. This is our town, and we need to stand united to fight for honesty and trust from our elected officials and their hired leaders.

Please feel free to contact me if you wish to sign anyone of these petitions. I will make sure you’re voice is represented. If you would like to be part of our citizens committee, please let me know. My home phone number is 508-485-0167.

Thank you for your consideration,
Desiree Aselbekian

Al Hamilton
8 years ago

Ms Aselbekian

I will sign the petition for #2. I hope that it will be unnecessary. I have suggested that a transfer from the reserve fund is the most expeditious way to proceed providing that the Advisory Committee agrees. I believe the transfer meets the unexpected criteria. I do not believe that Mr. Cimino’s creative and well intentioned plan to use funds that were allocated for a police cruiser is feasible. That would require a transfer between budget line items which, for municipal spending, would require a vote of town meeting. It should be recalled that the items to be purchased were specifically called out and part of the appropriation.

I hope we can resolve the funding side of the issue without resorting to a Special Town Meeting.

I do not believe that item #3 will pass muster. The Special Legislation (State Law) that created the DPW gives the Superintendent of the DPW broad, independent, authority to run the department. It further reserves for the BOS the right to make policy for the DPW. I believe, based on this state law (which was approved by Town meeting and the voters) does not give Town Meeting the authority to make this sort of policy decision.

Beyond that, we have no choice but to consider alternative service delivery models. We owe it to the taxpayers of the town to provide the required services at the lowest practical costs. We will face this issue more and more as we move forward.

Regarding item 4. In 5 days we will have a new 5 member BOS. It will have at least 2 new members. I think we should give the new board (even if I am not on it) 3-4 months to review the current situation and take whatever action they deem appropriate. It should be remembered that both the employees in question have contracts with the town and wholesale change, if necessary, will be very expensive. I think we should give the new board a chance to make things right.

Paul Cimino
8 years ago
Reply to  Al Hamilton

Al, as the MWDN article accurately reports, I did not suggest sacrificing a police cruiser, I suggested the DPW Director’s new vehicle. The idea would be that it would have to wait a year while we funded Bridget instead. The Police Department has nothing to do with this, and I never mentioned it.

Paul Cimino

Paul Cimino
8 years ago
Reply to  Paul Cimino

By the way, I should have said above that I do not believe Mr. Hamilton’s error regarding my funding idea was intentional. In any case, for those watching the replay of the Candidates’ Night my commentary on this begins at 1:11:11.

Paul Cimino

Al Hamilton
8 years ago
Reply to  Paul Cimino

My bad, sorry.

Desiree Aselbekian
8 years ago
Reply to  Al Hamilton

Thank you, Mr. Hamilton, for your response. Many of your statements I agree with. In fact, it is my sincere hope it is not necessary to force a Special Town Meeting, as that is timely and costly. However, we can not go in unprepared to force change. That would be like a parent grounding a child, and not following through with the punishment. Well, I’ve made a promise to pursue this issue to the fullest extent humanly possible, and I intend to follow through.

It is my sincere hope the new Board of Selectmen will do the right thing by restoring the cemetery division supervisor position and begin an internal review of the entire leadership structure. My hope is that this is public and transparent, which I know you are supportive of. While I realize these department heads are under contract, that does not mean their leadership is effective or acceptable. It is the responsibility of the Board of Selectmen to have greater leadership, themselves, in this process. Petition #4 mans the new BOS with evidence of citizen discontent with leadership, which they need to know about and have in writing.

I agree that we must give the new BOS a chance to respond. That is why I have made a request to be placed on the BOS agenda this Tuesday. I will, however, come with my petitions ready to enforce. We are not playing around here. The citizens will no longer accept deceptive behavior. It is that simple. In collecting signatures and taking a stand, the future elected officials leading this town need to know we are watching.

Patty Peafreen
8 years ago

Hello, has this been resolved? Has Bridget been reinstated to her position? Tx.

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