Times Union Watch:Tara Gaston and Wendy Liberatore’s Unholy Alliance Continues To Damage Lives

[JK: This story involves three articles written by Wendy Liberatore that appeared in the Times Union newspaper on June 30, July 9, July 11]

Karen Gregory who had been the executive director of Shelters of Saratoga (SOS), was summarily terminated in a manner that raises serious questions about the competence and ethics of the SOS board of directors.

The recent coverage by the Times Union raises additional questions about the role played by Supervisor Tara Gaston in this unfortunate business.

The board of SOS declined an inquiry by Ms. Liberatore regarding the basis for Ms. Gregory’s termination, but the article asserts that Ms. Gregory was terminated for two reasons.

“…those who are close to the situation say that Gregory…was dismissed…because of her poor working relationship with staff as well as officials in Saratoga County government, which funds its Cold [sic] Blue winter shelter.”

TU June 30, 2020

Supervisor Gaston is the only cited source for the article, and she is quoted extensively. Gaston has been a regular source for Wendy Liberatore and has a history of conflict with both Gregory and Mayor Kelly in Liberatore stories.

Gaston met with the executive committee of the SOS board on at least one occasion as part of their inquiry leading to Ms. Gregory’s termination. It is more than a bit disingenuous for Liberatore to present Gaston as entirely ignorant of the events as she does when she writes that Supervisor Gaston didn’t “… know what happened with Gregory, but she is hoping her predecessor [sic] will work with the county” and quotes Gaston as saying “‘I assume the board made the best decision for them as a board as a whole.’”

In fact, in this article Liberatore repeats the thoroughly debunked narrative promoted by Gaston that “By not working with the county, Gregory lost her opportunity for FEMA reimbursement” for expenses related to housing the homeless in the Saratoga Springs Holiday Inn.

In earlier posts I have documented that this story, promoted by Supervisor Gaston and reported on by Wendy Liberatore, is grossly inaccurate. This narrative portrays Supervisor Gaston and the Saratoga County Board of Supervisors as champions of the homeless frustrated by the intransigence of Ms. Gregory and Mayor Kelly.

It fails to acknowledge that Ms. Gregory entreated both the Saratoga County Commissioner of Social Services (the welfare department) and the Director of the County Health Department to assist in housing the homeless early on. Ms. Gregory was told by both that they could not provide help except to persons with confirmed cases of the virus. I would remind the readers that this is the same county government that also exploited the pandemic by awarding hundreds of thousands of tax dollars to its employees as time and a half bonuses. Saratoga County apparently easily found the discretionary money to dramatically increase the pay to many working for the county including some of its top administrators but was unwilling to spend money to house the homeless safely during a pandemic

To site “….a poor working relationship….with officials in Saratoga County…” as a reason for Ms. Gregory to be summarily terminated from her job as director of SOS makes no sense. It would be more fitting to terminate the employment of those at the county who continually refuse to address the needs of the most neediest amongst us and those on the County Board of Supervisors who oversee and condone this practice.

The SOS Board’s Termination Of Gregory Is Tainted By A Broken Process

I admire people who volunteer to serve on community boards. They donate their time to causes they believe in.

This however does not absolve them of the responsibility to oversee their respective organizations in a professional manner.

Poorly trained boards are prone to capricious actions and gross mismanagement because informality invites trouble.

I have been told by a number of sources that Karen Gregory’s termination consisted of a brief telephone call and a followup email.

Ms. Gregory was never afforded even the most minimal opportunity to address the allegations that resulted in her termination as far as I can determine.

That’s right. The board’s “deliberations” did not include seeking Ms. Gregory’s responses.

The evidence for the allegations about her problematic management style came from a survey of past employees done using Survey Monkey.

In a July 9, 2020 article, Ms. Liberatore reported that the TU had secured a copy of the employee questionnaires. Apparently, in error, the surveys were uploaded to the Saratoga Springs city website. They remained there for four days before the mistake was uncovered and the surveys were taken down. She writes:

While some of those interviewed [JK: They were not “interviewed.” They responded to a survey designed by a member of the SOS board] cited the pandemic and returns to school as reasons for leaving, four of those interviewed said Gregory’s leadership style drove them away.

Liberatore article of July 9, 2020

Bear in mind that according to the TU, the survey went out only to past employees. According to the Times Union the survey had only twelve responses and of those only four were critical.

Even assuming that the criticisms in these four responses are true, they come from “ex-employees”, and while they merit investigation should not in and of themselves be the basis of immediate, summary termination. As someone who has been a manager (I was the executive director of the Saratoga County Economic Opportunity Council for sixteen years) these responses illustrate why information like this is better gathered in structured face to face exit interviews where issues can be explored more extensively rather than web based surveys.

The article also reports:

Not everyone disliked Gregory. Two former employees referred to her kindly with one saying “I love working with Karen” while another said that they were happy Karen was available for the team training.

Times Union July 19, 2020

So apparently one of the two reasons Ms. Gregory was terminated was because four of the twelve past employees who responded to a survey were harshly critical of her. We have no idea what the history of these employees is. For example, we do not know if they voluntarily left the agency or were terminated for cause.

The only way I could understand such a minimal number of complaints requiring the summary termination of Ms. Gregory would be if she had been accused of something egregious. Things like sexual harassment, discrimination based on race or gender, or documented theft could merit such an extreme board action but this was not the case.

What I cannot fathom was that the board did not responsibly investigate these complaints properly which would have included discussing them with Ms. Gregory.

As someone who was the executive director of an agency and who has served on boards, I find all of this simply stunning. It raises fundamental questions about the competence of the people involved.

I wrote to Peter Capazzola who is the president of the SOS board. I asked him whether it was true that the board had not allowed Ms. Gregory a formal venue to address the allegations against her. I also asked for a copy of the SOS personnel policies. I noted in my inquiry that I was not asking about the particulars of why she was terminated which would appropriately be privileged. My question was about board procedure. Responding to these two requests would not violate their responsibility to Ms. Gregory regarding privacy.

He responded with an email stating, “As this is a personnel matter, the board will refrain from comment at this time.”

I do not believe that SOS is subject to the Freedom of Information Law. I do believe that as an organization that depends heavily on public support, transparency is important.

To me Mr. Capazzola and the SOS board are abusing the principle of privacy in order to avoid answering some uncomfortable questions.

His unwillingness to answer a simple question about board procedure or to provide a copy of their personnel policies only serves to add weight to skepticism regarding the integrity of the SOS board’s handling of this dismissal.

Addendum: Liberatore Publishes Additional Article

Following the July 9 article, Ms. Liberatore wrote an additional article for the July 11 edition of the Times Union.

In the July 9 article she obliquely referenced Lisa Shields, Deputy to the Mayor. In this most recent article she outs Ms. Shields as the person who mistakenly posted the SOS employee surveys. Ms. Shields had been a member of the SOS board during the events surrounding the termination of Karen Gregory and resigned the night of the firing.

In this latest article’s version of the events Liberatore writes that the documents “…painted a damning portrait of its former Executive Director…”

So the four questionnaires out of twelve that were critical of Ms. Gregory have now morphed into a “damning portrait.”

SOS board president, Peter Capazzola, who had heretofore refused to discuss anything associated with the termination has also experienced a change of mind. In this article he responds to Wendy and reveals that Ms. Shields resigned from the board the same night the board terminated Ms. Gregory.

Unfortunate Comments From John Franck

In the article, Commissioner Madigan, who the director of IT reports to, told Ms. Liberatore that the posting “…was an unintentional and unfortunate accident.”

Liberatore also contacted John Franck who, regrettably, expressed skepticism that the posting of the surveys on the city website had been an accident and expressed concern about the potential for legal liabilities.

I assume that the timing of Ms. Shield’s resignation was precipitated by her differences with the SOS board over the termination. It makes no sense that she would intentionally post the surveys on the city’s website.

I find Commissioner Franck’s speculation that inferred that Ms. Shields had acted maliciously extremely disturbing.

Over the Mayor’s tenure in office I have met with Ms. Shields on numerous occasions. Politics too often attracts people who enjoy intrigue and conflict. I expect the people who read this blog have observed this kind of person more than most of us would like.

Lisa Shields is the very opposite of this kind of person. She is quiet spoken. She is a listener and a consensus builder. When you meet with her it becomes clear that she truly wants to know what your concerns are and clearly wants to find a way to address them. One hardly ever sees her name in the media because she is really a modest person.

Knowing her as I do, I feel badly that her regrettable error has become entwined in the very intrigues and publicity that she has so carefully eschewed.

I respect John Franck. He is one of the smartest elected officials I have met over the years. Still, I think in this case he owes Ms. Shields an apology.

3 thoughts on “Times Union Watch:Tara Gaston and Wendy Liberatore’s Unholy Alliance Continues To Damage Lives”

  1. John, you nail the word “process.”

    What is the “process” that was followed to review whatever issue was at the core of Ms. Gregory’s termination?

    What elected officials were part of this “process”, and more importantly, why were they involved in this review “process?”

    Was Ms. Gregory part of a review “process”, or simply on the receiving end of a phone call announcing her termination?

    What part of a “process” dictates a leadership style?

    Did Ms. Gregory receive regular feedback on her leadership as part of the operating “process” of SOS?

    As you mention, did the “process” of an employee’s separation from the organization include a reason for departure as part of the exit interview process?

    What part of the 18 month tenure of Ms. Gregory has been documented as disregarding set forth “processes?”

    Below, is a link to the current job posting for Ms. Gregory’s replacement. I’ll include the full text as a post script out of respect of readers time.

    The posting reads like a plain vanilla, blah blah blah of duties and qualifications.

    I understand that an Executive Director serves at the pleasure of the Board. That said, an Executive Director does not serve at the pleasure of elected officials, which is what I am sensing is part of the issue here.

    I have hired, led, and promoted hundreds of employees in my career. I have also terminated many individuals from my organizations. No one was ever hired, promoted, or terminated without a “process.”

    Where are Spencer Hellwig, Tina Potter (especially), Preston Allen, Tara Gaston, and Matt Veitch with regard to the “its the way it is”, “we can’t do that”, “it’s a State mandate”, “that doesn’t work”, “no”, or worst yet, zero response or urgency to a request from SOS, the City Council, or the Collaboration to End Homelessness? The State has been vastly open to finding ways to help deviate from pre pandemic policy. Did Tina Potter ever ask the State to help? Did Spencer Hellwig ever ask (dare I say direct?) Tina Potter to ask the State for help? Did the Board of Supervisors ever ask Spencer Hellwig
    to have Tina Potter ask the State for aid that is ordinarily above and beyond normal mandates? I will assume no, unless someone wants to share emails to the contrary.

    Where are our leaders?
    Bueller? Bueller? Bueller?
    Hellwig? Hellwig? Hellwig?
    Potter? What’s your job Potter? Potter?
    Veitch? Veitch? Veitch?
    Gaston? Gaston? Gaston?
    Allen? Never mind, not worth asking.

    I liked working with Ms. Gregory, and enjoyed getting to understand her vision for SOS. During our interactions, she asked tough questions, provided direct feedback, challenged my thinking, and unknowing to her, taught me. I did not work for her, but the leadership that I saw was indicative of a leader looking to turn an organization around.

    In my opinion, Shelters of Saratoga will continue to serve our community well. I wish the next Executive Director nothing but success and an ability to value the organizational gift being presented to them.

    https://www.indeed.com/m/viewjob?jk=b2489fc834858ce5&from=serp&prevUrl=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.indeed.com%2Fm%2Fjobs%3Fq%3DShelters%2Bof%2BSaratoga%26l%3DSaratoga%2BSprings%252C%2BNY

    P.S.

    Executive Director
    Shelters of Saratoga
    Saratoga, NY
    Employer actively reviewed candidates 2 days ago
    Job details
    Job Type
    Full-time
    Number of hires for this role
    1
    Benefits
    Pulled from the full job description
    401(k)
    Dental Insurance
    Employee Assistance Program
    Flexible Spending Account
    Health Insurance
    Paid Time Off
    Vision Insurance
    Full Job Description
    The Board of Directors is looking for a highly capable person to lead the organization in its effort to materially reduce homelessness in the County. The Executive Director role combines both operational and strategic responsibilities that include;

    Directing and managing the day to day operations of the case managed shelter, transitional housing apartments, outreach programs and Code Blue emergency shelter program,
    Advancing the strategic goals and objectives of the organization
    Representing the organization and people experiencing homelessness publicly and privately to advocate for policies and programs to address homelessness.
    Fiscal Management:
    Human Resource Management
    Communication Marketing and Community Outreach
    QUALIFICATIONS

    Education:

    BA or BS degree in a related field required; Master’s preferred
    Experience:

    Minimum of 5 years experience in progressive responsibilities for non-profit agency
    Proven track record with implementing organizational strategic plans
    Experience in writing federal, state and foundation grants preferred
    Skills:

    Possesses a passion for improving life opportunities for people experiencing homelessness
    Proficiency with Microsoft Office products
    Strong communication skills both written and verbal
    Strong organizational skills and attention to detail
    Ability to function independently
    Effective team building skills
    Ability and willingness to work flexible hours including some nights and weekends
    Job Type: Full-time

    Benefits:

    401(k)
    Dental Insurance
    Employee Assistance Program
    Flexible Spending Account
    Health Insurance
    Paid Time Off
    Vision Insurance
    Schedule:

    Monday to Friday
    Work Location:

    One location
    Company’s website:

    http://sheltersofsaratoga.org/
    Company’s Facebook page:

    https://www.facebook.com/SheltersofSaratoga
    Work Remotely:

    No
    – 6 days agoreport job
    If you require alternative methods of application or screening, you must approach the employer directly to request this as Indeed is not responsible for the employer’s application process.

    Like

  2. “Cold Blue”

    For those of us who love newspapers, it’s sad to see a mistake like that.

    This post works as a companion piece to the one about the decline of the Saratogian. Many editors and reporters have either quit or been laid off from the T.U. The ones who remain haven’t had a raise since 2008.

    Ms. Liberatore was a theater critic before they put her on the Saratoga beat? I think I read that somewhere, but I don’t remember where.

    Like

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