Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Sheila Keady Rawson, right, at a June 20, 2017, public forum with then-police commissioner finalist Branville G. Bard Jr. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Cambridge’s longtime personnel director is leaving to “explore new challenges,” she told colleagues in a Friday email. The last day in office for Sheila Keady Rawson will be March 15, she said.

“It is with mixed emotions that I write today to let you know I have notified the city manager and chief people officer of my upcoming retirement,” Keady Rawson wrote. “In conversations with friends and employees, I often mention my belief that we should enjoy life and explore new challenges while we are able to do so. After much reflection, I have decided to follow my own advice so that I can embark on new adventures, complete my quest to visit all 50 states and spend more time with my family, particularly my parents.”

Keady Rawson said she answered a Cambridge City Hall newspaper ad in The Boston Globe roughly 35 years ago – in 1988 – with “no clue what type of journey lay ahead of me.” After getting hired as a personnel technician, over the decades she rose to run a 13-person office within the city’s finance division with a $3.2 million budget in the 2023 fiscal year, according to the 2022-2023 annual budget for Cambridge.

City Manager Yi-An Huang, though, identified problems in the department immediately upon taking office in September 2022. Reform was one of his first initiatives, and on Oct. 3, 2022, he called the department 21 percent to 43 percent understaffed for a city with 1,636 full-time employees, more than 1,100 part-timers and a dozen unions, in part because it was using paper-based practices. “We all recognize the irony that as a hub of innovation, we are still using technology and processes from more than 20 years ago,” Huang said at the time.

He won approval from the City Council to create the role of a chief people officer – Raecia Catchings, who began work June 6 – who would be above Keady Rawson. The department is now known as Human Resources and has grown to a staff of 16.

Worker complaints

City councillors and worker lawsuits, meanwhile, were sounded alarms about unaddressed employee grievances. Councillors passed an order unanimously in the fall of 2019 to determine whether the complaint system was “functioning” that got no response. 

Unaddressed worker grievances and resulting stories of retaliation led to a $14 million series of losses for the city in discrimination lawsuits wrapping up in the early 2010s under former city manager Robert W. Healy.

His successor, Richard C. Rossi, spoke of lessons learned and promised to change the tenor of treatment and ensure complaints were addressed quickly and fairly. By the time Louis A. DePasquale took office after Rossi, though, the council order in 2019 was described by councillor E. Denise Simmons as “years in the making,” with conflicts identified by councillors and lawsuits within Public Works and Information Technology.

“A privilege and an honor”

Most recently, mayoral staff reported going to Cambridge’s human resources department with complaints of a toxic workplace and coming away without help. The complaints were reported by the Globe on Oct. 16. Cambridge Day tried to address the personnel aspects of that story Dec. 27; the city ultimately opted not to make department officials available to address its processes.

“I am tremendously proud of the work done by the Personnel/Human Resources Department and am so fortunate to have been surrounded by talented and dedicated HR staff, past and present,” Keady Rawson said in the letter announcing her departure. “Supporting the work of the city’s almost 40 departments and connecting with so many wonderful colleagues over the years has been a privilege and an honor.”

Keady Rawson called the moment “exciting and bittersweet.”

“I am energized about the future, and the experiences that lie ahead, but it will take some time to get used to saying I am a retiree (not an employee) of the City of Cambridge!” she wrote.

It’s another departure of longtime departments heads for Cambridge. City solicitor Nancy Glowa retired Sept. 15 after some 30 years with the Law Department; head of finance David Kale retired in early July, ending 33 years in public service between City Hall and Cambridge Public Schools; Inspectional Services Department commissioner Ranjit Singanayagam retired at the start of 2023 after more than 39 years.