Easthampton mayor’s restructuring of city government ruffles some feathers

  • Nicole LaChapelle GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

@kate_ashworth
Published: 2/27/2018 7:55:12 PM

EASTHAMPTON — Mayor Nicole LaChapelle has only been in office two months, and already she has created two new positions, dissolved others and is restructuring how city work gets done.

She’s looking for someone to fill a newly created chief of staff position. She’s working on the job description for a new junior engineer position, and she’s creating a collections division to serve as a one-stop shop for residents paying their property taxes, water and sewer bills and other fees.

The way LaChapelle has been initiating these changes has drawn criticism from former mayor Michael Tautznik, who says the new mayor is not following the processes for reorganization outlined in the city charter. Tautznik said LaChapelle’s actions caught his attention because so many changes were happening “on the fly.”

“When you take the oath of office … it means you’re required by law to go by the charter,” Tautznik said.

Process questioned

Tautznik, who served as mayor for 17 years, said there are two ways of going about reorganization of city agencies. One is by using an ordinance, which would go through the City Council, and the other is by administrative code.

Under the administrative code process, which Tautznik said he used in the past, the mayor needs to submit a plan of the reorganization and must wait 60 days before it’s put into effect, according to the charter. During that time, the City Council can hold public hearings on the plan and vote to approve or disapprove it, but cannot amend it, the charter states.

Tautznik said the process lets councilors chime in on the changes, and public hearings make sure anybody who has a question gets a chance to ask it.

Another point Tautznik made is that non-union city employees — such as the new chief of staff — must be listed on the city’s pay plan. Amending the pay plan is also a process that goes through the City Council, he said.

LaChapelle said she is following the charter. She added that the chief of staff position would not need to be on the pay plan and that the mayor has the authority to employ someone through a personal contract.

“From my research … the charter allows this position,” LaChapelle said.

New chief of staff

City Councilor Dan Rist said he supports the creation of a chief of staff position, but he advised LaChapelle to have the city attorney review the job description to make sure it aligns with the charter. LaChapelle said she had it reviewed before it was posted.

The chief of staff job description states that in the mayor’s short-term absence, the chief of staff will act as mayor of Easthampton. The city charter states that in cases where the mayor is unable to perform duties for 10 days or more, the City Council president is to serve as acting mayor.

LaChapelle noted that “short-term” would mean less than 10 days.

Last week, the mayor instructed city councilors to direct questions meant for city employees through her office.

The chief of staff will serve as liaison between the mayor’s office and other city departments, City Council and state officials as well as supervise the city’s daily operations, the description states. The salary will be “commensurate with experience,” the description states.

Two positions dissolved

When LaChapelle took office, she was assisted by mayoral aide Nicolette Growhoski. Duties of the position transitioned to the collections division and Department of Public Works. LaChapelle declined to discuss the status of Growhoski, saying it was a personnel matter.

The office manager position at the DPW, a role Patricia Cotton held for about two decades, also has been cut.

DPW director Joe Pipczynski and Cotton were married last month. When asked if their relationship played a role in the removal of the position, LaChapelle said she could not speak about personnel matters.

With the consolidation of the human resources and payroll tasks in the new collections division, LaChapelle said DPW staff are more than capable of managing operational tasks in conjunction with the director.

Pipczynski declined to comment on the changes.

New engineer

Since taking office Jan. 2, LaChapelle has met with department heads to understand their needs. Within the DPW, LaChapelle said she found a gap in service involving the city engineer’s role.

The city currently employs one engineer to manage many high-profile, long-term projects, along with daily city assignments. Adding a junior engineer will allow for better project management and put in place a defined succession plan, the mayor said.

LaChapelle said she’ll work with the DPW and city planner on a job description for the junior engineer position and hopes to have someone hired within the next two months.

Reorganizing work

The mayor is also seeking to centralize services, a process that began with establishment of a dedicated department to oversee the city timekeeping and payroll system. Similar moves will be made for the offices of the treasurer and collector, which currently have responsibilities integrated into various departments, LaChapelle wrote in a memo to the City Council this month.

The creation of a collections division within the treasurer’s office, and shifting payment of water and sewer fees to this division, is one example of this centralization. Those fees have for years been payable to the DPW, which causes confusion to taxpayers while also creating extra efforts for the transfer of cash between the treasurer and DPW offices, LaChapelle wrote.

“Residents and members of the business community, or folks just stopping by, they have a one point of service to get information and to pay any bills or fees,” LaChapelle told the council this month.

 

Rist also said he asked LaChapelle to write up a “vision” that explains her intent for the changes.

LaChapelle said she looked into different communities of different sizes to gather information on what would be best for Easthampton to make government operations more efficient and to focus on complex projects.

Caitlin Ashworth can be reached at cashworth@gazettenet.com.


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