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Mayor denies harassment claim

May 29, 2013
<b>Mayor Gregory Neffinger</b> <br>Reminder Publications submitted photo

Mayor Gregory Neffinger
Reminder Publications submitted photo

By Carley Dangona


WEST SPRINGFIELD — On May 6, a complaint was filed against the town of West Springfield with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) alleging that Town Council Clerk Susan Pettazzoni was subject to discrimination from Mayor Gregory Neffinger, a charge he has since denied.

In the complaint, Pettazzoni stated, "I, Susan Pettazzoni, the complainant believe that I was subjected to harassment and was discriminated against by the town of West Springfield, on the basis of sex (female) and was retaliated against for reporting behavior I believed to be discriminatory. This is in violation of Massachusetts General Law chapter 151B, Section 4, paragraphs 1 and 4, and Title VII of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 as amended."

The complaint refers to an alleged incident that occurred on Aug. 31, 2012 regarding the arrival of new chairs for the Town Council office.

It states, "On Aug. 31, 2012, some new chairs I had ordered for the office arrived. Neffinger had canceled the original order for the chairs in June 2012 but I re-ordered them with [Town Council President Kathleen] Bourque's permission in early August 2012. When the chairs began to arrive, Neffinger began to yell at me repeatedly about the chairs. Neffinger asked, 'How did you get those?' and ordered me to get rid of the chairs. He was very aggressive towards me so I called Bourque and asked for her assistance. Bourque could hear Neffinger yelling at me in the background. Bourque told me to speak with Neffinger and to inform him that I had her permission to order the chairs. There are individuals who witnessed this event.

"Following this, I went into the reception area of Neffinger's office to speak with him. When Neffinger saw me, he walked toward me, got into my face and began to scream at me. I put my hand up to stop him and told him that if he had any questions about the chairs, he should call Bourque.

"Following this, I called two councilors, who came into my office to protect me against Neffinger. Later that day, Neffinger came into my office and again yelled at me and stated that I could not have the chairs. The chairs were later removed. Throughout the day, I told many members of management that I felt threatened by Neffinger and that I believed he was treating me that way because I was a woman. I stated that Neffinger did not treat men the same way he treated me.

"At the end of the day, Bourque came into the office and was accompanied by the police. They all went into Neffinger's office and told him that he was not allowed to talk to me. Following this, the police chief came into my office and had me sign a statement regarding the incident. He informed me of my rights as a victim and told me that Neffinger had told him that I should get 'thicker skin' and that if I was his employee, Neffinger would fire me."

In the complaint, Pettazzoni also alleges that Neffinger continues to walk past her office in "an intimidating manner to check in on me." According to her statement, the mayor will discard of trash in the hallway near her office and enters the adjacent employee lounge to wash his hands in order to make eye contact during the workday.

According to the MCAD complaint, in September 2012, Pettazzoni filed a complaint with the town's Human Resources Department director Sandra MacFadyen. At that time, MacFadyen stated that she and Town Attorney Simon Brighenti Jr. should not conduct the investigation since both directly reported to the mayor. She received a letter stating the investigation would start Oct. 18, 2013. Upon inquiring about it, Pettazzoni said she learned that MacFadyen and Brighenti were conducting the investigation.

"Because I had not heard any finding regarding my complaint [with Human Resources], I filed a police report about the Aug. 31, 2012 incident on April 10 [of this year]," Pettazzoni said.

In May, as part of the initial fiscal year 2014 budget, Neffinger altered Pettazzoni's position so that she would spend half of her hours as council clerk and the remaining hours as an office assistant for the Town Clerk. The mayor has since returned to clerk position to full-time status.

In her statement, Pettazzoni noted the mayor made an earlier attempt to change her position. She said Neffinger had attempted to reduce her salary in early July 2012, but that Bourque restored it later that month.

Pettazzoni told Reminder Publications, "In good faith I followed the town policy. Since this situation has remained unresolved since August, and due to other circumstances, I filed the original document from the day of the incident with the West Springfield Police Department in order to protect myself; to create a written, documented trail for others; and have asked the town of West Springfield to rewrite its policies of Workplace Discrimination/Harassment and Bullying for the benefit and protection of all employees."

Barbara Green, media liaison for MCAD, explained the investigation process is as follows: "The respondent [Neffinger] now has the opportunity to file a 'position statement' that details the respondent's side of the incident. A copy of that statement will be sent to the complainant [Pettazzoni] for her to review and file a rebuttal."

Green stated that once these steps were completed MCAD would conduct a conference with both parties present. The purpose of the debriefing will be "to get everyone on the same page" by informing both sides of the steps and timelines of the investigation process. At this time mediation services will be offered.

She said the MCAD investigator would ask questions of each party and may request additional documents, or even choose to conduct interviews with people connected to the event. Once the evidence is gathered, the investigator will determine if laws were indeed violated.

Green was unable to estimate how long the process would take since the length of the investigation varies with each case. She added that the law allows the complainant 90 days from filing with MCAD to decide whether to file in court. If the complainant pursues a court case, the MCAD will cease its investigation. The statute of limitations allows complainants to file within three years of the most recent incident.

On May 29, Neffinger responded to Pettazzoni's complaint in a press release titled, "Discrimination case is politically motivated: Insiders resent mayor's changes."

It stated: "This complaint filed by the City Council Clerk is 100 percent politically motivated. I know that the insiders don't like my cutting taxes and making positive changes in town. They had the opportunity to do this for 11 years but couldn't. I will not let my reputation in town be sullied by these political games.

"I am a father of two girls and I work hard to provide every opportunity they can have. Most of my department heads are women. To file this a year after the clerk was found violating the procurement laws is playing politics and goes too far. The complaint is pure fiction. To say the mayor walking down the hall is discrimination is an insult to the people of West Springfield.

"Back in March Mr. [Edward] Sullivan [who is running against me for mayor] tried to convince me not to run for mayor and threatened that things were going to get a lot worse. He warned me that they were going to do things like this and said I should get out of the mayoral race.

"Since they can't criticize me for all of the good changes I have made for West Side they are only left with attacking my reputation. I will continue to fight against the status quo. The people of West Springfield deserve better. I will not be bullied."

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