Tuesday, October 26, 2021

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Disaffected, anonymous Burlington city workers voice concerns to council members

The job satisfaction of Burlington’s city staff could prove to be something of a “September surprise” in the city’s municipal elections – or so it would seem from a recent communiqué that has been making the rounds among Burlington’s elected leaders.

The letter in question, which comes from someone identified only as “Zeb,” was dispatched to members of Burlington’s city council in mid September, just as the city’s residents began casting early ballots in next week’s primaries for Burlington’s mayor and city council.

The author of this missive purports to have been “chosen” to speak for a group of “loyal, concerned employees,” who are nevertheless disturbed about issues ranging from staff turnover to a potential vaccine mandate for city workers.

In regard to the latter, the letter’s writer acknowledges that Burlington presently has no requirement for city staff members to be inoculated against COVID-19. The writer expresses the fear, however, that such a policy may be in the offing – and perhaps in a “round-about way,” through the imposition of different sick leave benefits for workers who have, and have not, been vaccinated.

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Another concern raised in the letter is the issue of staff compensation. The missive’s author insists that the pay of many veteran staff members has fallen behind neighboring jurisdictions, while the city dangles comparatively high wages to attract new hires to the same municipal departments. The writer goes on to accuse the city’s management of remaining tone death to the resentment that results from these practices.

“Leadership continues to call for pay studies that compare us to cities that are great distances away and that Burlington has never lost an employee to,” the author contends.

“Compare us to surrounding counties, cities, or state government if you want an accurate study completed. This is where most [employees] go if they aren’t leaving for the private sector.”

The letter proceeds to address some recent, high-level defections that the author ultimately lays at the feet of Burlington’s city manager Hardin Watkins.

“The last police chief [Jeff Smythe] left because of his unwillingness to work with Hardin Watkins any longer,” the writer asserts. “The assistant city manager [Rachel Kelly] that left recently [also] decided that she couldn’t handle Harkin [sic] any longer.”

The writer also blames Watkins for the departure of the contracted physician at the city’s employee health clinic. More generally, “Zeb” expresses “0% confidence” in the city manager’s leadership – a position that the missive also portrays as the prevailing view among the letter writer’s own circle of disaffected staff members.

“Zeb” goes to some pains, in the course of the epistle, to emphasize the political neutrality of this group of “loyal” but “concerned” city staff members. At one point, the council’s correspondent describes this coterie as one “comprised of conservatives, liberals, moderates, [and] even some that could[n’t] care less about politics.”

The timing of “Zeb’s” letter has nevertheless lent an inevitable political dimension to the appeals it presents to the city’s top brass. Coincidentally or not, the missive has surfaced in the midst of a particularly competitive campaign season – one in which five candidates are disputing the office of mayor while six others are duking it out over a pair of regular seats on Burlington’s city council.

Suffice it to say, the letter writer’s concerns have not gone unnoticed by the three current council members who are among the 11 candidates competing in next week’s municipal primary.

Burlington’s mayor Ian Baltutis, who is seeking a fourth term at the head of the council in this year’s election, emphasizes that the city’s elected leaders don’t normally “get directly involved in personnel matters” like those which “Zeb” has brought up.

Baltutis nevertheless concedes that he would support a vaccine mandate for staff “in order to provide continuity of service for residents” by ensuring that fewer city employees are sidelined by coronavirus infections. He also acknowledges that the question of turnover has been a recent preoccupation for Burlington’s city council.

“This is an issue that the council has talked about multiple times over the past several months. The same factors that contribute to turnover at other organizations affect us regardless of who the city manger is.

“The biggest factor in turnover is organizational culture. Under Hardin Watkins, the city has shifted to a more active, productive organizational culture . . . When you have organization change like that, you will have individuals who will select out – and many of those individuals were just coasting along. . . There was a lot of dead weight before [Hardin Watkins] came in.” – Burlington mayor Ian Baltutis

“This is an issue that the council has talked about multiple times over the past several months,” the mayor said in an interview Tuesday. “The same factors that contribute to turnover at other organizations affect us regardless of who the city manger is.

“The biggest factor in turnover is organizational culture,” he added. “Under Hardin Watkins, the city has shifted to a more active, productive organizational culture…When you have organization change like that, you will have individuals who will select out – and many of those individuals were just coasting along…There was a lot of dead weight before [Hardin Watkins] came in.”

Baltutis added that he and his colleagues have already given the city’s management the authority to address any turnover that stems from staff compensation rather than a simple aversion to work.

The implication that the council has done enough to address turnover isn’t as self-evident to councilman Jim Butler, who is one of the four candidates challenging Baltutis for the office of mayor in this year’s election. Although Butler agrees that personnel matters aren’t ordinarily the city council’s purview, he concedes that the issue of turnover has been a topic of conversation for him and his colleagues – and may need to be revisited in light of the letter writer’s revelations.

“I think the letter deserves some conversation, but we have to move carefully, and we have to be factual. . . [The letter is] very factual and very specific, which leads me to believe that it comes from someone who has their finger on the pulse [of staff-level opinion].” – Burlington city councilman and mayoral candidate Jim Butler

“If we’re receiving feedback in our role elected leaders, we have a responsibility to investigate,” Butler told The Alamance News in an interview Tuesday. “I think the letter deserves some conversation, but we have to move carefully, and we have to be factual…[The letter is] very factual and very specific, which leads me to believe that it comes from someone who has their finger on the pulse [of staff-level opinion].”

The letter writer’s concerns about turnover have, likewise, given some pause to city councilman Harold Owen, who is seeking reelection to a second term in this year’s election.

Owen, who served as Burlington’s city manager before he ascended to the council in 2017, also confirmed that he has heard murmurs about staff’s alleged disaffection with his successor in the city manger’s office.

“I just hear rumors about some substantial discontent in a number of departments, and if we find it to be true; yes, it’s something that we need to look at.

“You’ve got to keep letters like this in perspective. But we can’t afford to continue to lose competent leadership.” – City councilman and former city manager Harold Owen

“I just hear rumors about some substantial discontent in a number of departments,” Owen told the newspaper on Monday, “and if we find it to be true; yes, it’s something that we need to look at.

“You’ve got to keep letters like this in perspective,” he added. “But we can’t afford to continue to lose competent leadership.”

Butler also acknowledged that the letter has left him with some food for thought about the city’s management.

“I think any good city council should assess the city manager’s performance annually,” he added, “and I do intend to talk to the city manger and let him know at least that I received the document.”

In addition to “Zeb’s” letter, misgivings about Burlington’s municipal leadership can be found on a Facebook page which discontented staff members have formed. An introductory post notes that the page “was created to help employees come together as a group to help tackle issues stemming from poor decisions made by leadership at city hall.”

“The city manger has plans and ideas that do not have employees’ best interests in mind,” the introductory post adds. “This group is your voice.”

Critiques such as these nevertheless fall flat with the city’s incumbent mayor.
“I have tremendous faith in Hardin Watkins as a manager,” Baltutis said. “I think that the city is heading in the right direction and staff has been empowered to be more effective.

“Zeb’s letter fits in the line of other anonymous letters we’ve received,” the mayor added. “I think that his grievances are limited in scope and do not rise to the level of the city council.”
Butler, by contrast, sees some potential for the issues expressed in the letter to be taken up not just by the council but by the local electorate in this year’s election.

Although the current council member and aspiring mayor conceded that the voting public has no actual say in the council’s choice of city manager, he insisted that Burlington’s upcoming mayoral election could also serve as a referendum on the city’s municipal leadership.
“I think if there are leadership issues, the mayor is the equivalent,” he said. “The mayor has an office in city hall.

“Instead of focusing on political rants that are not relevant to the advancement of our city and the health and well being of our employees,” he added, “we should be a lot more concerned about the vacant police chief, the vacant assistant city manager, and the vacant occupational health physician.”

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