Singer: two residents questioned, ‘complained’ about town employees’ work from home
📸 Charlton Board of Selectmen Chairman David Singer speaks during Charlton Board of Selectmen video conference meeting of April 7, 2020.
CHARLTON — A need for fiduciary transparency or a case of micromanagement? That was the question tossed about in a sometimes tense video conference meeting of the Board of Selectmen on Tuesday evening.
Selectmen debated the need for, and best method to, track the work being done by municipal employees from their homes during a more than 45-minute meeting devoted solely to the discussion topic. David Singer, chairman of the Board of Selectmen, said while municipal buildings were closed last month due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he has only seen reports offered by some department heads in the last week. Some of those reports, detailing the work being done by their respective employees and department heads, did not provide enough evidence of full work being done, Singer suggested.
“Unfortunately, there are a lot of reports that are missing. There were reports missing from employees, reports missing from department heads, reports that were just woefully inadequate — that would never stand up if we ever got challenged, saying you’re paying public monies to people to perform work and there’s no record of them doing the work,” Singer explained.
He added: “Basically, without that reporting, we’re one public records request away of being in trouble. That being said, I think it’s important that everyone be prepared. If we have all of the reporting we need of department heads and the employees next week, it’s a non-issue. If next week we come to our Tuesday meeting, and we are still missing reporting, and we’re missing detailed enough reporting to validate what we’re trying to do, then we’re going to have to have a very difficult conversation of whether or not we are going to have to have layoffs, or have to have furloughs, or offer employees to use [paid time off] if they don’t want to provide reporting on work from home, because we’re not allowed to, and it’s not ethical, and it’s also not legal.”
Selectman John McGrath quickly expressed concern with Singer’s comments.
“Where is this coming from? Could you please explain to me where this is stated in the law that we have to have exact data on what they did? I work for a very big state department and this is not what is taking place at our place,” said McGrath. “The way the state is approaching it is the way we should approach it. We have department heads who are responsible for departments. They are tasked with making sure the public is getting the services that they need to get from the departments, such as the building department, the conservation commission, the planning board, etc.; and also that we are doing the people’s work by processing all the paperwork that we have to process, which is at the assessor’s office, the tax collections, the treasurer’s office, and the other standalone departments that are actually out on the road doing the work.”
After Singer had made references and comparisons to the reporting required of many individuals working remotely for private businesses, selectwoman Karen Spiewak argued officials were not “comparing apples to apples.”
“These are unprecedented times. Yes, we have to be good stewards, we have an obligation to be good stewards with taxpayer dollars, but we also have an obligation to our employees as well,” she said. “We shouldn’t be micromanaging.”
Selectman Bill Borowski said the measure is “really about being proactive.”
He later added: “This is not the apocalypse, this is more of a let’s be ready in case the question comes up because a lot of people in town probably have been laid off or furloughed, not town employees, but just from their jobs, and if they start asking the questions I’d like to be able to go to them and say, ‘No, of course Town Hall is still working; look at all the stuff they’ve done,’ granted it’s been unusual circumstances.”
Furloughs discussed but owned by none
Singer stressed the need for accountability and reiterated his warning of a public records request potentially showing a lack of evidence of municipal employees adequately performing their duties while working remotely from home.
“No one has asked people to give minute by minute reporting. We’ve simply asked for summaries from the people what you’re doing. Quite frankly, if somebody wants to email back, ‘I’m sitting at home and I’m monitoring emails,’ and that’s what they’ve done for an entire week, then that doesn’t justify us paying people full-time salaries,” he said.
“I’m going to tell you flat out that we’re one public records request away,” Singer began to say before being cut off by McGrath.
“That’s a line of crap, David — ‘We’re one public records request away from this.’ What we want to do is if we think that the reporting is not being done correctly, we tell the department heads — who we’ve already charged with taking care of this — to take care of it,” McGrath said. “Threatening to furlough the employees is way beyond the realm. I usually don’t get too excited about things, I’m excited about this.”
Singer said “no one is threatening to furlough employees,” and instead suggested his request for greater reporting is “the absolute minimum.”
Selectwoman Deborah Noble said brief accounts of work completed sent to department heads, who in turn provide summaries to the town administrator for dissemination to selectmen would be “perfectly acceptable.” When it came to the possibility of reduction in staff during the coronavirus pandemic, however, Noble balked at the notion.
“I don’t like holding the threat of furlough over anyone’s head,” she said.
Noble later cautioned against the reporting of work activities becoming a form of “micromanaging the day to day operations of Town Hall.”
“If something does fall through the cracks, if a ball is dropped, we all know that we will hear about it — very quickly, probably,” she offered.
McGrath concurred, stressing a general outline of work completed would be appropriate. A “minute-by-minute detail” would not be necessary he said. Ultimately, the success or failure of local residents receiving the services their tax dollars pay for would be the arbiter of whether work is being done appropriately, he suggested.
“I have faith in the department heads that they’re going to tell us what’s going on in their department,” McGrath said. “The real litmus test is we’re going to hear from the citizens that are using these departments if they’re unhappy with the service that they’re getting.”
“If someone is sitting at home and using this time as a vacation, you’re not going to hear about that,” he opined. “You’re not going to get a complaint, but it’s also gross mismanagement and it’s also a fraudulent use of taxpayer money. That’s the concern. Asking for summaries is not much.”
Spiewak encouraged selectmen to allow department heads to report the work done by their employees and for Golas to oversee those operations in his capacity as town administrator.
“It’s important that the department heads provide the information or the reports to Andrew and if he thinks that they need more work, they’re deficient or whatever, then he should provide them with that feedback,” she said. “I don’t think we should micromanage — and I’m not saying we’re doing that — but I think we’re borderline on that.”
Singer insisted the reporting was not a case of micromanagement.
“No one is micromanaging, and if you think this is micromanaging you’ve never been micromanaged,” he asserted. “It is up to Andrew to run this, and if he wants to have a standardized form that’s his call.”
Golas accepts responsibility for lack of summaries
Town Administrator Andrew Golas told selectmen he did not prioritize municipal employees submitting summaries of their daily or weekly work activities during the initial two-week closure due to COVID-19. Instead, he said, the focus was on keeping the town’s services active and ongoing.
“The conversation at the time was based on to make sure your departments are still operating,” he said.
While summaries were called for in the last week, Golas said any prior omissions were due to his focus being on more pressing matters.
“The fact that it hasn’t been done falls on nobody other than myself. I take full responsibility,” he said.
As the closures have since extended into next month, Golas said efforts are underway in ensuring work is being done appropriately over the more long-term change to Town Hall’s working environment.
“Obviously these are unprecedented times and we’re trying to do everything that we can to keep the wheels moving really in a way that we’ve never operated before,” he explained. “The first two weeks here have been kind of flying by just trying to figure out what we’re doing, how we’re doing it, and how we’re doing it a completely different way. Coming up with a way of documenting that, reporting back, well the official word to the departments of how to initially try to log that went to them last week. The fact that those hadn’t been done to that point falls on to nobody other than myself.”
He added: “We’re working together to try to find the happy medium that isn’t a micromanagement situation, but also keeps track of the hours to make sure it’s getting done.”
Golas said he has taken a sample offered by the Massachusetts Municipal Association (MMA) as a “best practice” based on the work of another community.
“I thought it seemed like a good template. It’s the same framework of reporting that came back on most of them,” he explained. “Frankly, if it’s not sufficient then I need to know that so that way I can notify people otherwise.”
Singer said he had provided Golas with the reporting tool he uses in his personal work, while McGrath and Spiewak encouraged Golas to utilize the template provided by MMA.
“For something that is way out of anything we’ve ever done before, I think he’s started with the best place,” said McGrath. “There is no need for us to reinvent the wheel. I think if Andrew keeps working with his peers, the other town administrators or town managers as to how they’re controlling this in their town halls, what are they doing.”
Origins of debate
Singer said the discussion and demand for increased reporting of work activity arose after two unidentified residents “complained” about the legitimacy of Town Hall employees working remotely. Singer affirmed that he was unable to explicitly inform these individuals what work municipal employees were doing.
Singer recalled: “In both cases they were flat out saying, ‘What’s going on? Why are you paying people to stay home? Are you paying people to actually work?'”
Singer told selectmen that when pressed by the inquisitive residents, he responded: “I don’t really know.”
Golas quickly offered an answer to the question, noting that all of the work that had been done inside municipal offices continue to take place remotely.
“The answer is we’re continuing to do our jobs,” asserted Golas. “We’re just not doing it at town hall.”
Nichole Neill, who works as Charlton’s assistant treasurer, expressed “concern” over Singer’s questions.
“I’m a little concerned by Mr. Singer’s concerns here. He’s had two townspeople asking what it is that we’re actually doing from home. We are, without a doubt, providing the same services that we provide when we’re working in the town hall offices from home. We are answering phone calls, we are answering emails, we are answering questions from lenders, from taxpayers — it is constant,” Neill attested. “I’m answering the phone on Saturday, on Sunday, on Friday, at night after 5 o’clock, at night after 7 o’clock on a Tuesday night. I do payroll for the town; I’m coordinating all of the payroll for the town. I’m a little confused as to who it is that’s asking the questions, and what it is specifically that they want to know, and what they think that we’re not accomplishing; because if there’s a townsperson that thinks something is not being done, I would very much like to know who that person is and how we can accommodate them. We are going way above and beyond to answer questions, to get the job done. It’s concerning to me that there are people out there that think that that’s not happening.”
Singer said that while “some employees have provided reporting,” some departments have not provided summaries or details of the work being done in their remote offices. He added there is a need for “uniform reporting.”
Neill stressed municipal employees are working under difficult circumstances, relying on one another for support, strength, and help while abiding by social distancing norms.
“This is unchartered territory. We’re all just trying to figure things out and we’re really, really working together and working as a team. This is ‘Town Hall Strong’ is what we’re calling it. We are working together to provide you the information you need to be able to feel comfortable when a townsperson does approach you and say, ‘Well, what are they doing? How can they possibly work remotely from home?’ We are really working very hard to do that for you,” she said. “It’s very difficult for some people to understand that the departments are very varied in their jobs. I may answer the phone 25 times on Monday, and I may not answer at all on Tuesday. It’s how it goes. However, there’s always something to do. We always have something to do.”
Borowski said he believes the work is being done.
“Let’s just do our best as a collective town hall team,” he said. “I’m confident it’s occurring now.”
Singer suggested municipal employees and selectmen ought to focus on the need to record and maintain evidence of work being completed on behalf of residents.
“People need to not make more of it than it is,” he said. “If people think we’re not under an obligation to the taxpayers, that’s a concern.”