By Kristin Schultz
NISKAYUNA — The Town Board is taking a closer look at its hiring process as part of regular policy review — and after hearing citizen concerns.
Board members Denise Murphy McGraw and Lisa Weber said they started to hear from residents concerned about the propriety of Michelle Della Ratta (wife of Councilman John Della Ratta) and Robin McPartlon (wife of Councilman Bill McPartlon) becoming employed by the town.
In 2017, the Town Board has unanimously approved the hiring of the two board members’ wives to part-time positions at the Niskayuna Senior Center.
Michelle Della Ratta’s employment was approved by the board last Jan. 19. Her husband was absent from that meeting.
Robin McPartlon’s employment at the senior center was approved by resolution at the board’s June 8 meeting. Her husband abstained from voting on the resolution.
Early this month, six citizens wrote an email to Town Board members, expressing concern about the spouses being hired and that it was an issue in last fall’s campaign.
“We wish to make sure that you are aware that the employment of the spouses of the two town board members resonated with voters and was the subject of much discussion and online engagement,” the letter read in part.
It went on to say: “The nature of the relationship between the employees and the members of the town board leaves the impression of patronage and nepotism. It is best for our town if their employment is beyond reproach.”
The Town Board, along with the town attorneys and new Supervisor Yasmine Syed are looking into the circumstances surrounding the hiring with an eye toward making changes to the employment policy.
Niskayuna does not have a stated, official hiring policy or procedure. Human resources issues are handled through Comptroller Paul Sebesta’s office.
According to Murphy McGraw and Weber, the normal, if unofficial, hiring process had been that applicants would be reviewed by the appropriate committee — Community Programs in this case — and the department head would recommend a candidate to the Town Board for approval.
The process was not followed in the case of Robin McPartlon. Weber said that in early June, then-Supervisor Joe Landry requested that the Community Programs meeting be postponed due to a scheduling conflict. Thinking nothing of it, Weber said she agreed.
Later that week the board held its regularly scheduled meeting and among the resolutions the board was to take up was the hiring of Robin McPartlon.
“I knew nothing about it,” Weber said. “I showed up for the board meeting and saw my name on the resolution.”
Both John Della Ratta and town attorney Alaina Finan recalled that the appointment resolution was put on the agenda without going through committee because an employee had recently left the position and it was urgent that the spot be filled.
Finan said in cases of emergency, the committee step is skipped.
Finan also said that Robin McPartlon, aware of the vacancy, applied, was interviewed and then approved by the board.
Weber said she told Landry that she was concerned about the optics of two board members’ wives on the payroll.
“I mentioned to Joe that people would complain,” Weber said. “He didn’t agree and didn’t really want to hear that. I thought people would complain and thought it didn’t look good no matter how qualified they were. Joe dismissed my concern.”
Landry, who was defeated in his re-election bid in November, did not return email or phone requests for comment.
Both Robin McPartlon and Michelle Della Ratta earn $18 per hour and work two days per week. It does not appear that there were any irregularities in Michelle Della Ratta’s hiring, which went through the Community Programs channel.
According to Weber, who heads the Community Programs committee, and senior programs coordinator Lisa Stevens, both women have been valued members of the Senior Center staff and are well-liked by the seniors they serve.
Syed, sworn in as supervisor on Jan. 1, is aware of the public’s concern.
“I have been in contact with the director of community programs [Lori Peretti] and am aware of the issue but am still gathering all the facts,” Syed said. Regardless of the outcome, she added that she would work to make sure there are no interruptions to services at the senior center.
Murphy McGraw said there is a dialogue to determine the best way forward for both the seniors and the taxpayers and the board is considering updates to the employee handbook to clearly spell out for department heads and board members a specific recruiting and hiring process.
Bill McPartlon said he appreciated the residents’ concerns and feels the proper policies and procedures were followed.
“The most important thing is the programs at the senior center and how things are being run,” he said.
John Della Ratta said he did not anticipate this negative response but understands it. He also said that if it was best for the town, Michelle has said she will resign.
“It’s unfortunate,” John said. “She doesn’t want to, but if a group has concerns and it’s better for Niskayuna, she certainly will.”
Town officials hope the issue can be resolved quickly and with little to no impact on seniors who come to the center.