Veteran Northampton Housing Authority employees fired after new director holds unannounced closed session with commissioners



Last modified: Tuesday, August 25, 2015

NORTHAMPTON — David Adamson has spent his 32-year career working at the Northampton Housing Authority, starting as a painter in 1983 and working his way up to maintenance director 15 years ago.

All that changed abruptly this week when Adamson, along with four other housing authority employees, were told they were being fired during meetings with the agency’s newly hired executive director, Cara Clifford, and housing authority attorney Kathleen Moore.

“I was shell-shocked,” Adamson, 57, of Ashfield, said after he was called in Wednesday to see his job eliminated. “I’ve been there 32 years and I had no idea it was coming. I feel disappointed.”

Others let go include seven-plus-year employee Michael Owens, who was assistant director overseeing administration and finance; Lynn Smith, a veteran administrative clerk in the maintenance department; John McKemmie, a longtime mixed-population services coordinator who works closely with tenants; and Paula Valencik, a leased housing specialist.

Clifford also informed part-time information technology consultant George Danziger this week that he was done and to turn in his keys, according to Danziger.

In interviews with the Gazette, many of the employees said they were told by Clifford that she was restructuring the agency and that their positions were being eliminated. The job losses come about a month after Clifford, of Springfield, succeeded Jon Hite, who retired after leading the housing authority for nearly 23 years.

“I didn’t see it coming,” said Smith, who worked 28 years at the authority. “I think we deserve better than what we got. I think it was a rotten thing to do.”

Both Adamson and Smith said in separate interviews that they would have considered a different or lower-paying job within the housing authority if that choice had been presented to them. “I think we should have been given the option,” Smith said. “I think I was a good employee. I was there all the time. I didn’t abuse my time. It is what it is, I guess.”

Executive session

Although the news came as shock to employees and some tenants at the agency, Clifford had discussed a reorganization plan with the housing authority’s board of commissioners during an executive, or closed, session Monday. That session was not posted on its meeting agenda, as the state’s Open Meeting Law requires.

Clifford did not respond to Gazette requests for an interview, although Moore, a housing authority attorney, provided a brief statement. Moore said the agency would not comment on the matter.

“If there is any issues involving a personnel action, if it even occurred, we can’t even validate anything because it would be inappropriate to give a statement,” Moore said.

Two housing authority board members interviewed Friday confirmed that an executive session had occurred Monday during which Clifford discussed plans for reorganizing the agency partly as cost-saving measures.

The Northampton Housing Authority oversees more than 600 federally subsidized housing units at the McDonald House on Old South Street, Forsander and Cahill apartments, Tobin Manor, the Walter Salvo House, Hampshire Heights and Florence Heights. It administers a Section 8 housing voucher program and works with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to administer HUD-VASH, or housing vouchers, for homeless veterans.

“The commissioners said we support the restructuring she felt was necessary,” board member Ron Hebert said of the Monday closed-door session.

Hebert said he wasn’t informed of all the specific positions that were being eliminated as part of Clifford’s plan, only that some were being eliminated and other job descriptions changed.

“She felt that there were a number of positions where people were being paid a lot of money and the jobs didn’t meet the criteria for making that kind of money,” said Hebert, who is a tenant at the McDonald House.

Toni Hockstadt, who is the governor’s appointee to the housing authority’s board, said that while she could not comment on personnel matters, the restructuring at the agency should come as no surprise. Hockstadt said the reorganization plan Clifford discussed with the board revolved around efficiencies, cost-savings and eliminating the duplication of duties.

“When you replace a leader after 24 years, it’s pretty common that things are going to change,” she said. “I don’t think it’s a shocking development in any way.”

Hockstadt said, “We asked her to come in and run the housing authority efficiently.”

The Gazette requested the Monday executive session minutes through Moore verbally on Friday morning, but did not receive them by Friday evening. Other board members, including Chairman Jeffrey Jones, could not be reached for comment.

Clifford was hired in June by the housing authority board after a lengthy search and began working in July. She is under a one-year contract that pays $103,000. The year-long limitation on her contract is mandated by law because she is a newly hired housing authority executive director with no public housing experience. She was formally a regional manager in the private sector with Konover Residential Corp. in West Hartford, Connecticut, where she worked for 18 years.

The housing authority also recently advertised a new position of assistant executive director, the status of which was not entirely clear as of this week.

Owens, who has been second in charge at the housing agency and oversaw administration and finance, said he was also called in Wednesday and told he would be employed another two weeks. But he was asked to hand in his keys and escorted from the building, he said.

Like others interviewed, he expressed concern about the unposted executive session Monday and about employees not having an opportunity to be notified and present for any employment actions involving them, if they were indeed discussed specifically before the board.

Northampton Housing Authority’s personnel policies state that all employees, apart from the executive director, who have been employed at least five years and who are “involuntarily separated from their position,” have the right to a hearing, according to state laws.

“If the elimination of my position or my name was brought up at that executive session, then I had a right to be there, is my understanding,” said Owens, of Easthampton.

Owens said he was also told by Clifford not to attend the last two board meetings — July 13 and Monday — because there was no reason for him to be there.

“I was basically told I wouldn’t be able to attend a public meeting,” he said. “I’ve attended probably every board meeting for the past seven years.”

Reorganization a surprise

Owens, who had applied for the executive director position earlier this year, also was unaware of any planned reorganization, he said. Neither was Danziger, the part-time information technology consultant at the agency, who went to Clifford this week after he learned from others within the agency that they should no longer go to him for IT help.

“She had given orders to people to stop reporting things to me,” said Danziger, of Northampton.

Danziger said he picked up a letter Thursday at the agency that informed him of his 30-day notice, which his contract stipulates, and instructing him to turn in his keys. He said he hasn’t turned in his keys yet because he said the way his contract termination was handled is unclear to him. Danziger was responsible for IT maintenance, installation and upgrades at up to 20 hours per month. He said he wonders who is doing that now given that the work must go out to bid.

“It’s an oddball situation,” Danziger said. “There’s no one there to do the work. If she’s bringing someone in to do the work, has that person gone through a bidding process? What is she doing? Who knows?”

The news of the staff losses was slowly making its way through the tenant ranks late this week, which irked at least one resident who found out about it after bumping into one of the fired employees.

“A lot of people aren’t quite aware of it yet,” said Mandi Blais, an 18-year tenant of the Walter Salvo House on Conz Street, who was not happy about the news.

“Apparently they just fired a bunch of people without any notice and without thinking of any of the impact of what that would be for the tenants. It seems like they really made the wrong choice here.”

Dan Crowley can be reached at dcrowley@gazettenet.com.


 


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