Amherst leaders say personnel departures concerning

  • Amherst Town Hall

Staff Writer
Published: 9/21/2021 7:54:49 PM

AMHERST — An exodus of department heads over the past two years, including high-profile employees of color, is raising worries for Town Manager Paul Bockelman and members of the Town Council.

With recent departures such as the public health and senior services directors, along with the principal assessor, coming after two town clerks and a human resources director also cut short their tenures, an effort is underway to address any root causes.

In a memo to the council earlier this month, Bockelman wrote that he and current Human Resources Director Donna-Rae Kenneally met with the Personnel Board to discuss “a very large amount of change among staff right now.”

“While each of the departures has its own story, we are investigating if there are patterns that might identify things that need to be fixed in our leadership, supervision, work culture, etc.” Bockelman wrote. He noted that some people could be making work and life decisions “that may have been forestalled or accelerated by the pandemic.”

Bockelman said Tuesday that he talked to Kenneally about strategies and that she sought input from the Personnel Board, in particular since those who have left are all women, and there needs to be an investigation into whether there is a cultural or leadership cause.

But he cautioned that turnover is happening throughout the municipal services industry.

The latest to leave after brief tenures, in some cases less than a year, were Health Director Emma Dragon, Senior Services Director Mary Beth Ogulewicz and Principal Assessor Elizabeth Duffy.

In Shavena Martin, the former town clerk, and Evelyn Rivera-Riffenburg, the previous human resources director, District 2 Councilor Pat De Angelis said Amherst lost “two very highly intelligent, highly committed people of color.”

“I think we have to look at ourselves around that,” DeAngelis said.

Bockelman agreed that those departures were a glaring worry.

One solution Kenneally has suggested is to put a support team, or mentor-type team together, to build relationships so new hires are not overwhelmed.

She has tried to pinpoint reasons people give for leaving. “Our human resources director does do exit interviews for every person,” Bockelman said.

Kenneally is also doing “stay” interviews, to find out why others are sticking with their jobs.

District 4 Councilor Dorothy Pam suggested some sort of housing bonus could encourage people who work for the town to live in Amherst. and wondered if there is a connection to those leaving not having ties to Amherst, with Martin coming from Springfield and Rivera-Riffenburg from Chicopee.

Bockelman said most municipal workers in Amherst are already excluded from purchasing a house in town due to the high prices of properties, but he has found that people will travel a good distance to take a job. He added that it is unusual that in his office all staff lives in town.

The costs of providing a housing bonus wouldn’t be worth doing, he said: “I don’t know that that would be beneficial.”

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