Friday, April 12, 2024

Richard C. Rossi began a three-year contract as city manager July 1.

With the city facing seven discrimination lawsuits from employees and questions lingering from a previous six, the City Council’s Civic Unity Committee is holding a second meeting at 6 p.m. Wednesday at City Hall on the topic of “lessons learned.”

“It appears to me that no lessons have been learned … If lessons had been learned, there wouldn’t be [seven] more pending lawsuits,” resident Sylvia Barnes said during public comment at the first meeting on the topic, held June 16. “There is something broken in our administration.”

But City Manager Richard C. Rossi, who started work July 1 after three decades as deputy to Robert W. Healy, talked at that first meeting about reforms:

Aggregation No. 1An Employee Fairness Committee, as proposed by city councillor and committee chairwoman Denise Simmons to handles grievances “proactively” alongside the formal process of supervisor and Personnel Department complaints, won approval from Rossi. “I like that idea very much,” he said. “I see a similar structure necessary.”

Aggregation No. 2Opportunity exists for even more simultaneous approaches, such as outside mediation – what  councillor Ken Reeves and Mayor Henrietta Davis referred to as an ombudsman position – for people uncomfortable exploring a discrimination complaint within the city’s system. “We can figure out what the models are,” Rossi said. “Some people may not feel comfortable talking to people within the city. What are the outside opportunities we can bring in?”

Aggregation No. 3Minutes of the June 18 meeting would become “mandatory reading for all the major department heads in this city,” and Rossi would solicit ideas on how to prevent discrimination lawsuits from the department heads. “I want to see whether or not people have ideas different from what I have,” he said.

Aggregation No. 4In addition, he would “invite an employees’ forum, an open discussion” with at least himself, his deputy and the personnel director hearing suggestions about dealing with worker issues and disputes. “That’s a valuable thing we could do,” he said.

Aggregation No. 5He announced an open-door policy for complaints in the city managers’ offices. “I would welcome any employee that has an issue who feels that they want to talk to me or somebody at my level. That is an opportunity I offer to any and all,” he said. “Most people know I don’t shun meetings. My door is open to just about anybody in the city who wants to have a reasonable conversation. I’m willing to do that. My offer is genuine: that any employee can come talk to me.”

Aggregation No. 6There will be a monthly “testing of the waters” among the departments to see if there are disputes or issues brewing that can be settled before they grow too large. “I’m going to try really hard to make that happen,” Rossi said.

Aggregation No. 7Employee exit interviews “are something we need to formalize more,” Rossi said. The interviews, now used in only some city departments, can look for patterns and practices in personnel issues, Personnel Director Sheila Keady Rawson said, but they are handled piecemeal rather than through a central office – which could make it harder to spot those patterns. Rossi said of exit interviewing that he was “not aware of every single departments’ actions in that regard. I do know of departments where this takes place.”

Councillor Minka vanBeuzekom urged the city to take a centralized approach, which is already encouraged by Keady Rawson.

Aggregation No. 8Rossi said he and his staff would be monitoring complaints, questions and concerns to see that they were dealt with in “a timely fashion” and that decisions would be given quickly “whether they are decisions that people like or dislike.” He said he would hold review sessions with the Personnel Department to deal with departments where he saw problems arising, and Davis agreed there was a need to not just get atop such situations early and “not let them fester,” but to ensure that a worker making a complaint didn’t feel ostracized for it, a situation she called “oppressive” and “unfair.”

Aggregation No. 9Asked how the city polices the actions of those who enforce its anti-discrimination policies, Rossi said, “we will be conducting personnel evaluations of senior managers and myself. I assume I will be evaluated by the City Council. I will have to be prepared for that, and I certainly welcome that conversation as to how things are going … I will try as hard as I can not to take it personally.”

Aggregation No. 10“I will be revisiting policies with a large group of city staff to make sure” the policies are working as intended, Rossi said. “Policies are good and sometimes they get stale. Policies need to get reviewed periodically.”

In answering a question from vanBeuzekom, Rossi assured the councillors he took the issue seriously:

I have my own way of doing things. When I say to you that this is something I want to do, I don’t really feel like I you’re going to have to turn around and order me to do it. You remember what I said; if I don’t do it, challenge me on it. I want you to trust that I feel this is an important thing, and I want all departments to understand this is a very important conversation we talked about today.

There is already an employee handbook that got major revisions in 2001, three years after discrimination cases from five women of color working for Cambridge city government arrived in court. (Two of those plaintiffs dropped out over the years; two were awarded settlements totaling $3.9 million; and Malvina Monteiro won in court in May 2008 and was awarded $4.5 million in damages, growing to $6.7 million as the city appealed its case but lost for the final time in August 2011; including costs to Monteiro’s lawyers, the city made an $8.3 million payout – a total $12.2 million in just those three cases.) Although Rossi said he would be looking at the handbook with an eye toward another round of revisions, Simmons said she thought councillors should see the current handbook, and vanBeuzekom suggested it – or a link to an online version – be included in the meeting minutes.

In addition to the handbook, Keady Rawson said, new hires get an orientation packet with policies and procedures, and union members get a copy of a collective bargaining agreement that outlines a grievance process for clashes with management. There also exists a city Human Rights Commission and Affirmative Action Advisory Committee that can hear employee complaints.

Officials see “denial,” residents eye Healy

Yet with all these options in place, the city still was still drawing lawsuits even as it was settling a round of others. An order by councillor Craig Kelley some 13 months ago compelled a Law Department memo revealing the half-dozen lawsuits weighing against the city, and a June 17 closed-door council session with the Law Department showed the number had grown to seven since then.

“How can the liberal city of Cambridge have seven cases pending?” Reeves asked. Looking back at the previous round of of accusations against the city, he said he expected that with so much indication of a systemic problem in City Hall “why wouldn’t you kind of circle the wagons and figure out that there’s something the matter here? But the response was largely one of great denial – ‘This is happening, but we’re not talking about it and they’re all just wrong. They’ve imagined this.’”

During public comment, residents Elie Yarden and attorney Richard Clarey said they saw firsthand the damaging effects of Healy’s approach toward Monteiro and her work as executive secretary with the Police Review & Advisory Board, the citizen oversight board for the police department, with Clarey saying that the then city manager not only fired her in 2003, but had tried to avoid interviewing and hiring her in the first place in the 1990s. Yet Healy was also the official deciding to fight Monteiro’s lawsuit and, after the city’s loss, to appeal the case twice.

With the city’s Law Department overseen by the city manager and having a questionable record in resolving discrimination problems and responding to council requests for information – in fact, seemingly going out of its way to avoid providing information – both Kelley and Reeves have suggested that the City Counsel get its own lawyer.

Resident Steve Kaiser described Healy as having “very strong personality flaws” that included being “very stubborn and resistant to criticism” and not very interested in talking to or hearing from his constituents, especially opinionated ones. Kaiser said his last conversation with Healy was 23 years ago, despite being a resident for nearly 50 and active in politics and policy for decades. “The manager sat there as if he didn’t want to have the meeting, was not interested – totally close-minded, even with the mayor present,” Kaiser said.

“Opinionated people may have some difficulties with this manager. And if you add in the factors of being black and being a woman, that may have made things worse,” Kaiser said.

Healy may simply have stayed in office too long, he said.

“I’m hoping that starting July 1 we [have begun] to have the sort of dialogue to try to resolve this, to try to patch up the misunderstandings so we don’t have to go to court every time,” Kaiser said.

Barnes said she too was hopeful.

“There’s a new administration in July. So I’m hopeful things will change. Things cannot continue the same way decade after decade,” she said.