Warren council discusses employee discipline behind closed doors

WARREN — Council President Jim Graham broke a rare 5-5 vote Wednesday to determine if council should go into executive session to discuss the discipline handed out to operations employee Celestino DiVieste.

After the mayor’s report, Councilman Ken MacPherson, D-5th Ward, attempted to discuss the discipline given to DiVieste and Safety Service Director Enzo Cantalamessa’s role in reviewing allegations that the operations department employee had been taking city-owned equipment during his work hours to a family-owned restaurant to conduct personal business.

MacPherson has been questioning whether Cantalamessa should have had any role in the investigation and, later, the discipline because he is related to DiVieste.

After Graham refused to allow MacPherson to question the administration about DiVieste’s discipline — saying it was a personnel matter that required council to go into executive session — Councilwoman Helen Rucker, D-at Large, demanded a vote.

“I asked for a vote to go into executive session because all of council knew what Councilman MacPherson was trying to do, but he did not know the proper procedure,” she said. “He had the right to request the vote.”

“Does this mean I support his legislation on the merit pay for safety service director?” she said. “No.”

Councilmembers John Brown, D-3rd Ward; Cheryl Saffold, D-6th Ward; Eugene Mach, D-7th Ward; and MacPherson voted to support Rucker’s request. Councilmen Larry Larson, D-1st Ward; Alford Novak, D-2nd Ward; Mark Forte, D-4th Ward; Eddie Colbert, D-at Large; and Dan Sferra, D-at Large, voted against going into executive session. After a momentary pause, Graham agreed they should go into executive session.

Mayor Doug Franklin questioned why they were going into executive session to discuss the issue because Human Resources Director Brian Massucci was not at Wednesday’s council meeting.

Prior to the meeting, Cantalamessa said the grievance hearing filed by DiVieste appealing the 40-day unpaid suspension is scheduled June 19. The hearing date could be changed based on the schedules of the union and city personnel, Cantalamessa said.

DiVieste’s suspension began on June 3 and is scheduled to end on July 15.

However, DiVieste filed a grievance with the city and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employee Local 74 stating the administration’s disciplinary action was too significant and does not follow the progressive order of punishment that is provided by the bargaining agreement.

DiVieste was given the suspension for driving his city-owned vehicle to the family-owned restaurant from 10:45 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. May 3 to conduct personal business.

Brown said he told city officials during conversations about DiVieste driving his city-owned vehicle to the Sorrento’s restaurant for several hours per day during his work days.

In a disciplinary letter written by Cantalamessa, DiVieste was found guilty of gross misuse of city equipment, dereliction of duty and being absent without leave.

“While the city follows progressive discipline, in this case the violations are serious and warrant significant penalty,” Cantalamessa wrote in the disciplinary letter. “I feel it necessary to send a strong message to all city employees that this conduct is unacceptable.”

Cantalamessa said he has followed the law in every action he has taken.

Because the grievance hearing will be before the human resources department director, its personnel supervisor and himself, Cantalamessa said the grievance ruling also will be made by him.

“I recognize that by the letter of the law, Mr. Cantalamessa has the legal right to lead this disciplinary procedure, but to Warren residents, this appears inappropriate,” MacPherson said. “What we need is to have a policy meeting to discuss what should happen going forward.”

MacPherson said the city has good employees and what they want is a consistent sense of fairness.

“I have been distraught over this,” MacPherson said. “This is not personal. What I want is a best-practices policy that our employees can believe in.”