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Newton

Questions on turnover in city jobs

The abrupt departure last month of two high-level managers in Newton City Hall has sparked concern among some aldermen about employee turnover as the city launches several ambitious building projects and Mayor Setti Warren finishes his first term in office.

“There’s obviously some concerns, because we’re embarking on some major projects in the city and we have key positions vacant,” said Scott Lennon, president of the Board of Aldermen.

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The terse announcement by the mayor’s office last month that buildings commissioner Stephanie Gilman and chief information officer Robert Barrett no longer worked for the city caught many officials off guard. Both were Warren appointees, and Barrett had held the job for only eight months.

Warren, who is up for reelection in November, would not comment on why he dismissed the two employees, citing personnel reasons. Gilman declined to comment, and Barrett did not respond to a request for comment via e-mail.

Their exits were the latest in a string of personnel shake-ups at City Hall during the last year, many at the management level. And they raise fresh questions for an administration that prides itself as an example of effective government.

The secretary of the city’s elections commission retired in January on short notice, just two months before a citywide vote on a property tax increase. The city’s transportation director was dismissed last July, a month after a transportation engineer resigned to take a state job.

Newton hired a new performance manager late last year, the second person to fill the position since its creation three years ago.

‘All of the decisions we make are based on having the highest performance possible. We take our job seriously at City Hall.’

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The city’s police chief was fired in October after he allegedly made inappropriate comments to female staffers. His replacement was sworn in last week.

And early this month, Dolores Hamilton, the city’s longtime director of human resources, announced in an e-mail that she would take a new, lower-paying position handling labor relations for the city. The new position is included in the mayor’s proposed budget for the fiscal year starting July 1, and the city will hire a new personnel director.

“I realized that I really enjoy the labor relations, and have decided to move into this new position,’’ Hamilton said in the e-mail.

Warren defended his staffing and administrative decisions.

“All of the decisions we make are based on having the highest performance possible,” Warren said. “We take our job seriously at City Hall, we take taxpayer money seriously.”

Warren discounted concerns expressed privately by some aldermen that employees may be reluctant to speak out or question the administration for fear of being fired.

“We welcome and enjoy at all levels a vigorous discussion of options on the table,” Warren said. “We challenge our employees to think outside of the box.”

Warren pointed out that he meets with department directors every day at 9 a.m. to exchange ideas, and that his administration has adopted employee-driven ideas, such as using city workers to cut trees instead of a contractor.

Bob Rooney, the city’s chief operating officer, said the staff changes are predictable. Workers leave or change jobs for a variety of reasons, including better opportunities or a better fit elsewhere, which account for some of Newton’s departures, Rooney said.

“I think this is all healthy; this is part of the normal turnover of staff,” he said.

Rooney pointed out that the city has about 31 vacancies, or about 3.4 percent of its nearly 900 positions. That’s well below the 5 percent vacancy rate that Newton tries to maintain, he said.

However, at least nine of those vacancies are managerial positions, and some have been open since last July.

The dismissal of Gilman, the public buildings commissioner, particularly worried several aldermen since it came the same week that Newton voters approved an $11.4 million annual tax increase to pay for a series of replacement school buildings and a new fire station.

The public buildings department will oversee the construction of those projects.

This is “a critical juncture to be without a leader,” said Alderman Ted Hess-Mahan.

Rooney said the city has advertised the building commissioner job and plans to fill it soon. The administration also hopes to boost the staff in the public buildings department to handle all the new capital projects, including Angier, Cabot, and Zervas elementary schools, the renovation of Carr School, and the construction of two new fire stations.

The 2013-2014 budget proposal, which Warren will present this week, includes two new building project managers, Rooney said.

“It doesn’t all rest on one person,” Rooney said. “Certainly we need leadership on these projects. But certainly we have expertise.”

As part of the reshuffling of the building department, the city also plans to move the sustainability project manager from public buildings to the mayor’s office, and expand the duties associated with the position, Rooney said.

The employee in that job will not automatically move to the executive office with the position, but he is free to apply for it, Rooney said.

Lennon said he supports Warren and the personnel changes he has made. The administration wants the staff in place to ensure that its goals will be met, Lennon said.

“I think there’s an expectation, the mayor has laid out his plan, and he’s holding people to expectations,” Lennon said. “You want to make sure you have the right person.”

Several former employees reached by the Globe declined to comment.

Ryan Ferrara, a former administrative services director in Newton’s public works department, said he left the city in November for a better position in Middleton as the community’s assistant administrator.

“It was more responsibility,” Ferrara said of his new job, adding that he enjoyed his work in Newton.

When asked about morale among Newton’s employees when he worked with the city, Ferrara declined to comment.

Lennon and Rooney said they have not heard any complaints about declining morale among city workers.

“I think people are doing a great job,” Rooney said. “We’re continuing to break new ground to make government more efficient and effective.”

But Alderwoman Deb Crossley said that as Newton tries to manage upcoming projects, the city needs to have the resources and staff in place.

“Not only the bodies, the skills, but we need continuity among competent staff people,” Crossley said. “And we need teamwork.”

Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@ globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.
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