The head of the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind is stepping down from his post of four years, the state announced Tuesday, just days after a Globe report detailed turmoil within the agency, including allegations of verbal abuse, questionable spending, and subpar services.
David D’Arcangelo, who was tapped to lead the commission in 2018 by then-governor Charlie Baker’s administration, will leave his post Friday, according to an e-mail sent to employees by Health and Human Services Secretary Kate Walsh.
D’Arcangelo will stay on in an “advisory capacity” while officials search for his successor, Walsh added.
The Globe investigation revealed Sunday that D’Arcangelo had been the subject of multiple HR complaints alleging verbal abuse and inappropriate comments, several of which are pending. Five current employees and six former members of the agency told the Globe that D’Arcangelo had slashed resources and services while pursuing costly projects, including a television studio in Boston and a comic book unavailable in Braille and nearly unusable on screen readers used by many blind people.
“This is a vital first step,” Amy Ruell, a longtime advocate and former member of the agency’s statutory board, said of D’Arcangelo’s departure.
“It took several years for the commission to deteriorate as it has,” she added, and returning it to its former level “will take months and perhaps years.”
A spokesperson for Governor Maura Healey referred inquiries Tuesday to the state’s Executive Office of Health and Human Services. A spokesperson within that agency said D’Arcangelo will be paid for his advisory role, but declined further comment. As commissioner, he made more than $99,000 a year, per state comptroller records.
Deputy commissioner John Oliveira, a 36-year-veteran of the agency, will serve as its acting leader until a replacement is found.
In the last three months, both the union representing a majority of the agency’s employees and the board of the state’s largest advocacy group for blind and visually impaired people took votes of no confidence in D’Arcangelo, and wrote to Healey’s administration calling for his removal.
In a statement, union leaders said Tuesday that “after years of calling for systemic change and the removal of the Commissioner, we are celebrating his resignation.”
“We are excited that the administration has shown their commitment to protecting our communities,” said the statement from SEIU Local 509, the union that represents most of the commission’s roughly 130 employees.
Advocates, consumers, and employees had already planned an event Wednesday in front of the State House to protest D’Arcangelo’s leadership. Plans for the gathering were still on as of Tuesday evening, said a spokesperson for SEIU Local 509.
D’Arcangelo’s resignation allows administration officials to sidestep an unusual provision in state law that allows commissioners for the agency to serve at least five years without exceptions. His term had been set to expire in August.
A Health and Human Services spokesperson did not answer questions about whether administration officials intend to change the statute.
When a Massachusetts resident is declared legally blind, eye care providers are required to send their information to the commission so the client can be registered and provided services. The commission caters to more than 25,000 blind and visually impaired residents across the state, offering training, accessible technology, and other resources.
The agency, which operates on a $36 million annual budget consisting of state and federal funds, was created in 1906 by a group including Helen Keller. It’s one of 22 state-level agencies in the country dedicated specifically to blind and visually impaired people.
D’Arcangelo, who is legally blind, came up through Republican political circles. He was a city councilor in Malden and in 2014 was tapped by the party to run for secretary of state alongside Baker.
D’Arcangelo lost, but Baker was elected governor and tapped D’Arcangelo soon after to lead the state’s disability office. Near the end of Baker’s first term, D’Arcangelo was appointed to run the commission.
Soon after, complaints about D’Arcangelo’s stewardship of the commission began to pour in. The Globe reviewed more than half a dozen letters sent to the Baker and Healey administrations dating back to late 2020, outlining concerns about his leadership and behavior and calling for more oversight.
Those concerns ranged from one employee reporting “the worst morale that I have seen in over 20 years” at the agency to an advocate warning about an increasing “lack of transparency” from the commissioner. The agency’s previous commissioner, Paul Saner, also wrote to then governor-elect Healey’s office with several concerns, including that services had been “greatly compromised” and that D’Arcangelo “has no financial acumen.”
At a public advisory board meeting earlier Tuesday, new board members and several members of the public asked pointedly about the agency’s spending, services, and marketing like the comic book. D’Arcangelo, who had called out sick both Monday and Tuesday, didn’t attend. Chief financial officer Shandra Gardiner, who is also leaving the agency this month, deferred answering several questions, including how much money was in the agency’s private emergency fund.
Debbie Macaulay, who is legally blind and receives services from the commission, said she is eager to see consumers’ concerns taken seriously instead of “just getting brushed under the carpet.”
Now that the commissioner is departing, she said, “I would like there to be a serious review of the money.”