Plainly, something has gone awry in Buffalo’s Human Resources Department and whether the problems are caused by the mayor or not, the fact is that it is his responsibility to fix them.
The position of city human resources commissioner is designed to shield the job from political pressure, yet not one of the past three has served a full term in the job. Is it because the job is that difficult to perform? Is it because commissioners are tempted into the private sector, where salaries may be higher? Or is it because of political interference?
Any or all of these issues could be at play, though Mayor Byron W. Brown began his first term in office by meddling. While then-Commissioner Leonard Matarese still had three years left on his six-year term – a period meant to shield him from mayoral and Common Council pressure – Brown asked him to reapply for his position. Matarese later quit with nine months left on his appointment. With that, Matarese joined the private sector, where he has prospered, and Buffalo lost one of its most effective human resources commissioners in memory.
We understand that a new mayor wants his own team in place, but the commissioner’s six-year term is designed specifically to insulate the post from political pressure. And, indeed, it quickly became clear that Matarese wasn’t wanted.
Since then, the job has been a revolving door. Karla Thomas succeeded Matarese, but wasn’t suited to the job and was forced out after just over two years following revelations that the city paid nearly $840,000 in improper benefits. Her successor, Patricia P. Folts, resigned last month after just over two years on the job. Her term didn’t expire until 2017.
In a News story by staff writer Jill Terreri, Folts wouldn’t say why she quit, but she said last year that a “severe staffing shortage” hampered the department. She also won few admirers in City Hall when she refused to certify the city’s payroll after finding that the Brown administration’s staffing practices violated state civil service law. Whatever the reason, she’s out.
The human resources commissioner has wielded less authority under the Brown administration than it did under previous mayors. In addition to having fewer employees, responsibility for negotiating labor contracts and handling union grievances has been given to the Law Department.
But the job is still important. And while it hasn’t been unusual for commissioners to leave for the greener pastures of the private sector, other factors are at play regarding Matarese, Thomas and Folts, and what they have in common is the Brown administration.
That makes it the administration’s responsibility to act. If the problem is political pressure, then Brown needs to ensure that it stops. That is his responsibility. Indeed, after Thomas was fired, she accused the administration of meddling in hiring and firing, in conflict with civil service laws. That is similar to the determination later made by Folts.
If there are other issues, including staffing and the commissioner’s salary, then the administration and the Common Council need to examine them. This is not something to put off.
The city’s personnel matters were best handled in recent times by Matarese who – for a time, at least – was left free to do his job, who was competent and who served nearly a full term. There could be a lesson in there.