Johnstown creates full-time HR officer job

PHOTOGRAPHER:

The City of Johnstown has created a new human resources officer position and plans to do away with the current system that tasks the treasurer with handling everything from health insurance questions to harassment complaints. 

The new full-time position, paying a base salary of $45,000, will handle issues such as sexual harassment and discrimination training, the onboarding of new employees, tracking city employee vacation and sick time, and overseeing employee benefits like health insurance and pensions, according to Mayor Amy Praught. The officer will also handle employee grievances, Praught said.

The funding for the job is in the 2022 budget since the city formerly employed an internal control officer – a position not included in this year’s budget, Praught said. The 2022 adopted budget includes $50,000 in human resource expenditures and no expenditures for an internal control officer, which accounted for $91,800 in 2021, the budget shows. 

“The reason I was involved in creating this position is because one person, one treasurer, cannot be your IT person, cannot be your human resource officer, cannot be your internal control officer, cannot be your benefits person, cannot be your affirmative action officer,” Praught said. “You can’t have that in an organization because that person burns out and things fall through the cracks.”

Praught also said she didn’t want politics to enter into potentially personal issues. 

“Human resources should never be entangled with an elected official. The treasurer is an elected official. He should not be in charge of human resources in the municipality as far as I’m concerned,” Praught said. “The treasurer’s position is very important, and it can be very overwhelming. It needs to be separated.” 

Things certainly got personal for former Deputy Treasurer Victoria Nellis, who retired in September along with her former boss, Treasurer Mike Gifford. Nellis’ ongoing dispute with the city is a good example of what a full-time human resources professional would handle.  

Nellis contends that multiple discriminatory harassment complaints filed with the city in the spring of 2021 were never properly resolved. One complaint, filed in March 2021, alleged that a police typist was getting paid for an hour of lunch while other city employees were not paid for lunch. Nellis said after she filed that complaint, the typist then took a photograph of Nellis that made her feel uncomfortable, leading to an additional harassment complaint. That typist is no longer employed by the city. 

Nellis shared paperwork related to the dispute with The Leader-Herald. 

In response to Nellis’ complaint, City Attorney Michael Poulin wrote a March 19 email to Nellis stating that he was told the issue of the picture was sent to the Fulton County Sheriff’s Department. 

“I was told the Fulton County Sheriff’s Department was called and investigated,” the email reads. “I was told no charges were filed as she [police typist] claimed she never took any picture of you, and there was no picture on her phone.” 

Poulin told The Leader-Herald he couldn’t comment on issues involving personnel. 

Nellis’ subsequent records request with the sheriff’s department regarding the alleged incident at City Hall turned up no results. 

“I was not able to locate any report where the Sheriff’s Office responded to or interviewed anyone in regards to an incident at the above-mentioned location and date,” Deputy Kevin Lenahan of the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office wrote to Nellis on March 29, 2021. 

On October 26, Treasurer Thomas Herr, then the city’s acting treasurer who had stepped in following Gifford’s departure roughly three months before his planned retirement, deemed the matter resolved. 

“Upon review of the findings conducted by the independent investigation, I am in agreement that no wrongdoing was done on the part of the individuals named in your complaints and find the allegations to be deemed unfounded,” Herr wrote. 

Nellis appealed Herr’s decision, but that appeal was closed by former Mayor Vernon Jackson on Dec. 7, 2021, in a letter saying he had never heard back from Nellis following a Nov. 22, 2021, letter requesting a follow-up discussion. Nellis said she was tied up with her family and Thanksgiving and didn’t have time to respond.  

“It’s not resolved because I was never interviewed,” Nellis said. “Thomas Herr, as the affirmative action officer, he never called me to say ‘give me your side of the story.’” 

Police Chief David Gilbo said he believes the issue has been properly resolved, and he couldn’t comment further because it deals with personnel. But Gilbo did say that asking about Nellis’ dispute was opening up a “can of worms.” 

Praught hopes that having someone employed by the city whose primary job responsibilities include handling complaints like Nellis’ can prevent these types of issues from escalating in the future. 

“The one thing I can’t stand is drama,” Praught said. “Leave it at the door.”

Nellis said she is “baffled” by the creation of a full-time human resources position when she says she and Gifford had been largely handling the duties for more than two decades. 

“It gives them less work to do,” she said. “I don’t understand [why this position is needed] when Mike and I were able to do all that for that amount of time.”

Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite. 

By Andrew Waite

Leave a Reply