Robert W. Healy was city manager in 2012 during grievances about discrimination and retaliation that led to legal payouts of millions of dollars. (Photo: Rachel Offerdahl)

Echoes of costly discrimination and retaliation lawsuits from 2012 were heard Monday by the City Council, whose E. Denise Simmons said she’d been contacted by municipal workers who feel trapped in a system with a “woefully inadequate” process for handling grievances. 

It was some seven years ago that the city paid out around $14 million in legal settlements and damages to female employees of color who said they felt discriminated against and then victims of retaliation when they complained. The most prominent of those cases was brought by Malvina Monteiro, who took the bulk of the millions after repeated failed legal appeals by then city manager Robert W. Healy.

“I hoped we had learned our lesson that we had to do something different around employee grievances,” Simmons said. “I’m tired of hearing the same type of complaints from the same departments coming from city employees year after year.”

Councillor E. Denise Simmons, seen in 2018, says she has heard new grievances from city workers. (Photo: Ceilidh Yurenka)

The city’s Information Technology Department was identified as just one source of complaints from women who said they “feel trapped in a toxic environment” where they are not treated as equals with the same rules or chances for advancement. “Those who find themselves out of favor with supervisors often find themselves harassed and intimidated,” Simmons said.

In two instances, two African American women retired recently “because they couldn’t fight it anymore,” Simmons said. While fearful of retaliation, “they nevertheless felt compelled to blow the whistle [to Simmons] because they felt the city’s process of reporting, investigating and resolving employee grievances is woefully inadequate.”

Simmons’ order asks City Manager Louis A. DePasquale to report back by the end of this calendar year on whether the existing system for worker grievances is functioning or needs updating.

It passed unanimously, with councillor Dennis Carlone saying it was only by making such issues public “do we get change.”

Change at the top, if not below

After Healy’s three decades running every aspect of the city’s administration, the council appointed his deputy to replace him in 2013 for a three-year term: Richard C. Rossi, who spoke about lessons learned from the Monteiro cases and promised that he “would never, ever take retaliation against somebody because they came to me and wanted to talk about something they felt uncomfortable with in the city.”

He promised to change the tenor of treatment and ensure complaints were addressed quickly and fairly, and outlined several steps he was taking to ensure complaints got an objective hearing – from handing out reading material to following up daily with department heads and others on resolving grievances that existed at the time.

At the end of Rossi’s term, the council found a new city manager in DePasquale, the city’s longtime head of finance. But whatever Rossi said was being implemented did not take, Simmons said. She called her order “years in the making.”

“They would not be coming to me if a system were in place,” she said of the distressed city workers.

While the order says Cambridge’s charter gives “ultimate authority” for most worker hiring, firing and disciplining to the city manager, the charter itself does not address discipline or bar councillors from investigating wrongdoing or malfeasance at any level of city government. It says merely that councillors won’t “direct or request … or in any manner take part” in the appointment or removal of city employees.

Law Department’s approach

The council, however, takes its legal advice from the city’s Law Department, which would likely argue for a stricter interpretation based on its past practice.

As the Monteiro racial-discrimination case labored through 11 years of Superior Court proceedings, the city’s own Human Rights Commission and its trained mediators faced opposition from the city’s Law Department under then city solicitor Donald A. Drisdell when it sought to discuss the matter. (Since Drisdell’s retirement, the department been run by Nancy Glowa, who was on staff under Drisdell.)

Commission members said they were even blocked from seeing public records in the case.

The commission “needed to know the status” of the case, explained Marla Erlien, chairwoman at the time. “City government needs a set of procedures to head off discrimination.” 

But despite its stated mission, members were blocked by the Law Department from mediating or even knowing what was going on.

“We thought we were trying to become informed, and we got our hands slapped,” said Susan A. Ostrander, a commissioner from 1998 until the summer of 2011.