Harsh review sparks change at Edgartown Council on aging

Edgartown voters will decide, at a special town meeting next week, whether to complete a restructuring of the town’s Council on Aging staff.

A proposed article would change personnel bylaws as recommended by an independent management consultant, who issued a highly critical report on the agency in April this year.

The report describes a long, pitched battle of personalities within the council, with festering disputes, fear of retaliation, favoritism, and people choosing sides. It calls for the agency’s director to be moved to a new position.

Nearly all of the consultant’s recommendations have been implemented, according to town officials. They say the recommendations helped improve what the report called a “toxic” work environment, and they assert that the agency is now running smoothly.

“The community is being very well served, as it has been in the past,” Diane Durawa, acting administrator of the Council on Aging, said this week. “We’re all looking forward, moving ahead. It’s a positive move. I think everyone is supportive of it, and that’s the most important thing. We’re all on board with this.”

But one key recommendation, which called for selectmen to designate the Council on Aging board as a governing board, responsible for oversight and management of senior programs, has not been implemented. Consequently, management responsibility remains undefined. In the past, it rested with the agency director, Laurie Schreiber, while the board played an advisory role. Ms. Schreiber effectively made all decisions on hiring, employee evaluations, and all other personnel management issues.

The critical report, a matter of public record because it was commissioned by the town and the council, came to the attention of The Times through interviews with people associated with the council.

Issues and answers

Strategic Policy Partnership, a West Tisbury firm headed by Robert Wasserman, researched and wrote a report, entitled “Issue Review.” Mr. Wasserman’s firm is familiar to Island officials for its work evaluating the Tisbury Police Department. Strategic Policy Partnership’s recent clients, mostly in the law enforcement or security sectors, include the U.S. Department of Justice, London Transport Police, and the Milwaukee Police Department.

The Council on Aging review included interviews with the selectmen, council board members, staff, and a broad range of elder citizens, over a three-month period.

“There was concern brought to the Council on Aging, and they brought it to the selectmen,” said Margaret Serpa, chairman of the town selectmen. Ms. Serpa is the selectman who took the most active role in trying to resolve the issues. “We decided to ask an outside person to look at the situation, to talk to various people, and put together a report and suggestions.”

Selectmen accepted the report at a joint meeting with the council board, held Wednesday, April 28, at 10:30 in the morning. The acting administrator was present, but Ms. Schreiber was not, according to the meeting minutes. Mr. Wasserman explained his findings and recommendations. Selectmen issued a copy of the report to everyone present, but it was not widely circulated outside that meeting. Few outside the agency knew of the turmoil.

“I don’t think that was the intention,” Ms. Serpa said. “We tried to handle it and resolve the issues.”

Senior services

The Council on Aging manages a variety of programs for older Edgartown residents, including a popular Friday lunch, exercise programs, social activities, and social service outreach for people with financial or health issues. The organization’s mission statement says it promotes “vital aging, growing older with dignity, independence, and health.” It is located in a historic Daggett Street building known as “The Anchors.”

Edgartown voters appropriated $305,415 to operate the agency in the current fiscal year. Of that amount, $226,435 is for staff salaries. Ms. Schreiber earns $78,086.

According to the most recent town report, 536 of the 1,352 Edgartown residents aged 60 and over, were served by some council on aging program or service during the year.

Trouble brewing

For five years, according to the Wasserman report, staff members complained about insensitivities and inappropriate workplace behavior of council director, Ms. Schreiber. At various times, according to the report, council board members intervened, professional mediators were hired, and a private investigator was called in. None of these efforts resolved the issues.

“The level of discord requires that a new management structure be put in place,” the report says. “As happens with sports teams, when the team is in disarray, the coach is moved and a new leader is brought in.”

The report uses blunt language to describe the workplace atmosphere. Its findings offer both high praise and harsh criticism for Ms. Schreiber. For example, the report says the director “has a deep commitment to serving the elderly community in Edgartown and has handled many of the administrative tasks, such as budget, program design, and related activities with effectiveness.

“At the same time, the director has been less than skilled in managing the group of human service professionals who provide services at the Edgartown Council on Aging, and has displayed mercurial behavior during a number of situations.”

“When asked,” according to a report footnote, “for comment on specific allegations made by staff, the director either claimed the allegations were false or that she didn’t remember the situation.”

The report also criticized the council board. “Recent chairs of the council appear to have taken positions based on personal relationships with staff rather than objective review of the issues being raised.”

The report also noted that there was no cause for firing the director. “Even given the fact that some of the allegations made by staff appear to be accurate and cause for concern, the failure to document those concerns over the last few years, coupled with the excellent director performance evaluations signed by the council, do not provide cause for termination of the director.” This, although elsewhere in the report, the consultants noted that Ms. Schreiber prepared material for her own performance evaluations by the council board.

The report cites the grievance procedure and employee fears of retaliation as an issue of concern and frustration. “The grievance process for the Council on Aging has been confused, at best and ineffective,” the report said. “In addressing this issue, the town needs to ensure that there is protection against complainants being retaliated against once they have filed a complaint.”

That issue lingers. In interviews this week, two people with knowledge of past disputes spoke to a Times reporter, only on the condition that they not be identified in any way. The Wasserman report says employees interpreted intervention by council board members as a threat of being fired.

Action plan

Two sections, under the headings “The Corrective Steps,” and “The Recommended Implementation Actions,” provide a detailed plan to resolve the issues. They run nearly eight pages of the 21-page report.

“Given the seriousness of the issues raised by employees about staff treatment and what was perceived as bullying, and the evidence that there were substantive issues that needed to be addressed, both in the director’s style and lack of effective employee collaboration, it is clear that a different kind of leadership, at a different level, is needed to manage the council’s activities.”

Among the key recommendations: Make the council board a governing body with responsibility for hiring and managing council activities. The report suggests limiting the board to five members who welcome a governing and oversight role.

It calls for hiring a new administrator to oversee all council programs and report to the council board and its chairman. It recommended that the director, Ms. Schreiber, become a director of elder programs, reporting to the administrator, with no management authority over council employees.

Also among the recommendations: Adopt a chain for the submission and processing of grievances by council staff; have outreach staff report to the administrator; make sure the council does performance evaluations of their administrator, and the administrator does performance evaluations of the staff.

In a fix

The council board has implemented nearly all of the recommendations in the Wasserman report, according to town officials.

The town hired Ms. Durawa as acting administrator, even before the report was issued. Ms. Durawa retired five years ago, after serving a dual role as founder and director of the senior day program and assistant director of the council. Ms. Schreiber moved to a position directing agency programs.

The question for voters at next week’s special town meeting would amend personnel bylaws to reflect the new staff structure. It would eliminate the positions of director and assistant director. It would create new positions of administrator at grade 11 on the town’s compensation scale, and director of senior services, at grade 9 on the scale. That is essentially how the agency operates now.

Ms. Schreiber is set to earn $78,086 in the current fiscal year, the pay rate she received as director. Though her duties changed significantly earlier this year, her pay remains at the same level, according to the town’s personnel policy.

If town-meeting voters approve the changes, the responsibilities Ms. Schreiber is now handling would be rated at grade 9, and she would have to reapply for the job. If she is hired, her pay would remain as it is now, again, according to the town policy. If another candidate is hired, that candidate would start at the grade 9 level.

Selectmen, the board chairman, and agency employees say the council is now operating efficiently, and that the mood of staff, among them Ms. Schreiber, is good.

“The review dealt with broader governance issues,” Ms. Schreiber said this week. “The complaints were never substantiated in any grievance or forum for due process. That was the past. My spirit is very high, and I’m moving forward to provide the best programs and services for Edgartown seniors.”

Ms. Durawa said her experience since returning to the agency this year has been all positive.

“There has been an improvement in the structure,” Ms. Durawa said. “The staff is a really good group of people.”

However, one person with knowledge of council operations, who did not want to be identified for fear of retaliation, called the descriptions of a smoothly running agency a whitewash by town officials.

The issue of governance roles has not yet been addressed. The report recommends that selectmen designate the council board as responsible for managing programs and hiring employees.

“Ultimately, it is the board of selectmen who must push for the changes that will strengthen the effectiveness of management employees of the town,” the report says.

“We haven’t decided that’s something that is doable,” selectman Art Smadbeck said this week. “That’s why it hasn’t been done. It’s still under consideration.”

Uncertainty remains among board members and employees on the governance issue.

“We accepted most all of his recommendations,” Nancy Shemeth, chairman of the council board said. “We weren’t sure if we’re going to become a governing board.”