Buffalo’s top human resources post has a history of trouble, turnover - The Buffalo News
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Buffalo’s top human resources post has a history of trouble, turnover

In Buffalo City Hall, the human resources commissioner gets a six-year term – two years longer than the mayor.

But those who hold the post usually don’t last that long.

Patricia P. Folts, who left last month, worked for the Brown administration for just more than two years.

Karla L. Thomas lasted from September 2008 to January 2011 when revelations that the city paid nearly $840,000 in improper benefits led to her firing.

Leonard A. Matarese, appointed by then-Mayor Anthony M. Masiello in December 2002, almost made it through a full term, but he left the post under a different mayor.

While Mayor Byron W. Brown has stripped the human resources post of some powers, the person who holds the job still plays an important role in city government: making sure city departments follow civil service and affirmative action laws along with Americans with Disabilities Act provisions, administering employee benefits, accepting discrimination complaints from employees, making sure city workers comply with residency requirements, training employees, and evaluating the costs of each new collective-bargaining agreement.

So the turnover, particularly Folts’ departure, concerns some Common Council members.

“It’s supposed to be long-term so you can get in there and do your job and not be influenced by any political activity or pressure from various political factions in City Hall,” said Council Member Michael J. LoCurto of the Delaware District.

Folts, praised by union leaders and Council members for her independence, held the post from September 2011 to January 2014. Her term would have expired in 2017.

Staffing difficulties

Folts declined to say why she left. But last year, she said a “severe staffing shortage” hampered her department. She also refused to certify the city’s payroll after she determined that the administration’s staffing practices violated state civil service law.

“Working for them has got to be a heavy burden,” said Fillmore Council Member David A. Franczyk.

Brown said he is “not concerned” by the department’s turnover. “As I indicated, we have very talented people working in city government,” the mayor said. “From time to time, they have other offers, other options.”

His administration did not pressure Folts to leave, Brown said.

So now Brown must search for a commissioner again. The City Charter requires the mayor to convene a search committee, Brown’s third such committee.

In the meantime, the administration has appointed Gladys Herndon-Hill, director of personnel, as acting commissioner.

The commissioner’s position was created as part of City Charter changes following a 1999 referendum.

The current job pays a $91,374 salary. And it comes with protections. Besides the six-year term, the human resources chief does not work at the pleasure of the mayor. The commissioner can be removed only for cause, which is what happened to Thomas.

When Brown was elected in 2005, he wanted Matarese to reapply for his job, even though Matarese had a six-year term that expired in 2008. Matarese, who at the time said he was “stunned” by the request, stayed on the job until February 2008 but resigned with nine months left on a six-year appointment when he left for a new job.

The protections in state law are designed to shield human resources commissioners from political pressure when dealing with hiring and firing, following state civil service laws and dealing with a workforce with patronage jobs and those represented by labor unions.

After Thomas was fired following revelations that the city was still providing health benefits to dead workers, she accused the Brown administration of being far too involved in hiring and firing at the expense of civil service laws.

The office has fewer powers in the Brown administration. The Law Department now negotiates labor contracts and handles union grievances. Recent commissioners have had fewer employees to do the work.

“Who would want that job now?” asked Prasad Balkundi, associate professor of organization and human resources in the University at Buffalo School of Management, speaking generally about management principles.

“A person who is good at this job – they’re basically made perfunctory,” Balkundi said. “Their own skills are eroding so rapidly. Why would they want to remain in this job?”

High turnover not new

Indeed, past commissioners have found better-paying jobs elsewhere.

High turnover in the human resources commissioner’s post, or its predecessor position, isn’t new, said former Council President George K. Arthur.

A similar post that predated the Charter change also had near-constant turnover. Matarese was Masiello’s sixth chief labor negotiator in eight years.

“They were gone every few years,” said Arthur, who served on the Council in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s.

“It’s a position with no real longevity,” even with state laws intended to protect commissioners from political pressure, he said.

Elsewhere in City Hall, the Brown administration has maintained a group of experienced department heads. Even the mayor’s most vocal critics on the Council praised his appointees during a recent confirmation hearing. All were reconfirmed for Brown’s third term, which began Jan. 1.

Independence at issue

City Hall personnel disputes are not confined to the human resources commissioners. In 2012, Civil Service Director Olivia A. Licata decided to leave her appointed post and return to a union-protected position after a disagreement with First Deputy Mayor Steven M. Casey.

The disagreement centered on how he defined the start date of some new hires, a determination that could have affected their pensions. After a long career in City Hall, Licata retired last year.

The city’s hiring practices are also the subject of a 2009 federal lawsuit filed by a Public Works Department employee who contends that the city passed him over for promotion as retaliation for his refusal to contribute money to Brown’s re-election campaigns. A federal magistrate judge ruled recently that the case can go to trial.

The firefighters union has an r interest in who fills the post next.

The next commissioner should follow civil service law, take any complaints about harassment in the workplace seriously, and competently administer employee benefits, said Thomas P. Barrett, vice president of Local 282, Buffalo Professional Firefighters Association.

“To us, it’s important to have a human resources commissioner who is independent and is not in line with whoever the mayor will be,” Barrett said.

UB’s Balkundi said the successful candidate must negotiate so that he or she has operational control over the department.

“The problem,” he said, “is the mayor has access to the resources.”

email: jterreri@buffnews.com

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