Schenectady

City Hall sees string of departures

Mayor calls turnover 'normal'
City Hall in downtown Schenectady at sunset in November 2016.
PHOTOGRAPHER:
City Hall in downtown Schenectady at sunset in November 2016.

Categories: News, Schenectady County

SCHENECTADY — A string of recent departures by management-level city employees may be an indicator of broader dysfunction within City Hall, according to interviews with current and former staffers.

While Schenectady has experienced significant progress in recent years, particularly downtown, several current and former employees question if those gains are passing over City Hall. In the past three years, nine department heads or senior employees have left their posts, and four key positions have been vacated in the past five months alone, exits that Mayor Gary McCarthy attributed to normal turnover.

In some instances, workers found more lucrative positions elsewhere. And while recent progress within the city has necessitated more activity within City Hall, it’s also caused some to feel overworked and undervalued, according to multiple longtime employees.

“That’s not common at all,” said former Mayor Al Jurczynski, who defeated McCarthy in the 1999 mayoral race. “If you have that many employees or managers bailing, those are red flags.”

LIMITED UPWARD MOBILITY

Of those who left their posts since mid-2014, many did so to take other jobs in the Capital Region. In many cases, the new titles came with better pay, though most said they were simply seizing new opportunities.

Jackie Mancini left as the city’s director of development in March for a $23,000 raise as Schenectady County’s human resources director.

David Fronk left as Schenectady’s director of operations in June to take on a similar role in Niskayuna, a job McCarthy said came with a pay increase. Fronk told a Daily Gazette reporter he’s known Town Supervisor Joe Landry for a long time and left to pursue a new opportunity.

Chad Putman, who will leave his post as deputy city clerk at the end of the month to work for New Choices Recovery Center, said he’s “taking a new opportunity where I feel I can do good work and be able to have an independent voice in the political arena.”

Steve Strichman left as the city’s director of planning and economic development in June 2016 to take a similar job in Troy, which came with a slight pay increase, though he said at the time that “it was time for a change.”

Carl Olsen served as the city’s commissioner of general services until October 2014, when he left to take a job with the state Office of General Services.

“It’s the nature where the pay scales at competitive levels of government tend to pay more than what we pay in the city,” McCarthy said, noting the city tries to promote from within to offer its employees better opportunities.

A few longtime employees said they found it difficult to move up the ranks in City Hall, which can spawn discontent and force higher-level workers to seek opportunities elsewhere.

“No movement creates a morale issue,” said Bill Winkler, who resigned as interim commissioner of general services in September 2015 due to health concerns. “There’s not the career ladder that the state offers when you’re in a civil service position. You can become frustrated because there’s little upward movement.”

NEGATIVE CULTURE

Others grew frustrated because of the workplace culture at City Hall.

Multiple employees criticized what they saw as a lack of communication and organization in the current administration, warning that more workers may leave if nothing changes. A few people said there’s an atmosphere in which staffers feel overworked and underappreciated, with the problem compounded by the recent number of unfilled vacancies.

“It’s kind of amazing to me that, in two years, there could be such a change in personnel,” Winkler said.

Mary Ellen O’Brien, who resigned in April 2016 after working for four years as a consultant in the law department facilitating the sale of city-owned property, said in her resignation letter she felt City Hall was a “toxic environment,” and that the administration’s values weren’t compatible with her own.

When Winkler resigned in 2015 — at 70 — he cited the workload and stress of the job was having an impact on his health.

“I’m old enough, I didn’t have to be there, fortunately, for income,” he said in a recent interview. “I didn’t feel well.”

In the wake of former Building Inspector Eric Shilling’s death, colleagues said he was frustrated at times with management and couldn’t get the resources he needed to effectively run the Code Enforcement Department.

Aside from a few union spats, McCarthy said he’s not had employees come to him with complaints about the working environment, adding that the city’s resurgence in recent years has made for more demanding expectations at City Hall.

In recent years, the city has seen significant development, particularly downtown. A long-dormant Brownfield site has given way to a casino, hotels and apartments. A pair of new affordable housing complexes are nearing completion in Hamilton Hill. Several new businesses have opened up on or near State Street, prompting the introduction of a downtown trolley service.

“There’s more pressure on the workforce to deliver services and support for things in the community, so sometimes the grass looks greener on the other side,” McCarthy said. “We are doing more than has been done in the last 50 years, so some people rise to meet those challenges and others don’t.”

For a staff of 600, McCarthy said, the city is experiencing “normal turnover.” The city does not calculate its turnover ratio, so it is difficult to compare to other, similarly sized cities.

One issue a few longtime city employees cited is the lag time between when key workers exit and when their replacements are hired, which piles additional responsibilities onto others in the meantime.

Shilling died in February. A new building inspector still has not been named.

Mancini left as director of development in March, and the post is still vacant. Deborah DeGenova, who retired in July 2016 as the city’s finance commissioner, was brought back on an interim basis to pitch in with those duties.

Fronk departed in June. At the time, McCarthy said he’d reassign Fronk’s duties internally, with no immediate plan to hire a replacement.

McCarthy said he expects to make an announcement “fairly shortly” regarding all three positions.

Jurczynski, who served as mayor from 1996 to 2003, said it’s almost inevitable some city employees will grow frustrated with the administration. However, he said, there needs to be some sense of togetherness for things to function well.

Many staffers acknowledge there’s been progress in Schenectady but question if that progress has extended to staffers in City Hall, said one longtime employee, who spoke on a condition of anonymity out of a concern for negative repercussions on the job.

“It’s unfortunate because the city is headed in a positive direction overall,” the employee said. “But until the mayor is able to kind of wake up and value the people around him, things will continue to go downhill.”

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