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City planning director abruptly steps down

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The day after a tense exchange at the May 22 Springfield City Council meeting, Susan Istenes, director of the city’s Department of Planning and Development, resigned. 

Istenes, who was in her role for 16 months, submitted her resignation the afternoon of May 23, effective immediately. Brendan Griesemer, former assistant director, is now listed as interim director. 

Cora Scott, the city’s director of public information, said Griesemer has worked in Planning and Development for a long time, and no disruptions are anticipated. 

No reason was given by the city for Istenes’ resignation, which came after she had been on the job for 15 months.

Reached through Facebook, Istenes described the issue as a private matter between her and the city, and she declined to comment further. 

Istenes helped drive Forward SGF across the finish line in her first year on the job. The plan was passed by council Nov. 14. 

With Istenes’ departure, the city has lost three department heads since February 2022, when Dwayne Shmel resigned as director of the Building Development Services department, also without giving a reason publicly. 

Sally Payne, director of Workforce Development, resigned Oct. 19, citing bullying. Payne said she was retaliated against after questioning a city finance department employee’s use of workers’ compensation. She alleged City Manager Jason Gage and others accused her of providing prescription medications to staff and issuing city contracts to friends, but she denied those claims. 

Unfamiliar with document 
At the council meeting the night before her resignation, Istenes stepped up to the podium to offer a routine report on a resolution by Councilmember Craig Hosmer. The measure proposed an administrative delay for a vote on a zoning change at the corner of Sunshine Street and National Avenue, where development company BK&M LLC is attempting to put a commercial establishment. 

Though the explanation of the council bill was marked as “Submitted By: Susan Istenes, Director of Planning & Development” and dated May 16, Istenes told council she had not known her name was on the document, and she had first read the explanation only a half-hour before. 

When Hosmer first proposed the administrative delay at the Jan. 23 council meeting, he accused Istenes of changing the staff position on the measure.

A council bill explanation at that meeting showed Planning and Development staff opposed the delay, which would have provided 210 days for a corridor study at the intersection, but Hosmer produced an earlier draft of the document that showed staff recommended a delay – a tool that had been used by council for its Grant Avenue Parkway project and in several neighborhoods.

At the January meeting, Istenes said a line that indicated planning staff support had been included in the original draft in error. 

“After a discussion with the manager, they reversed their support,” Hosmer said in an interview May 25, in which he characterized the change as resulting from micromanagement by Gage. City officials did not confirm this account. 

“You should want professionals in their position to give you their honest professional opinion and not be filtered,” Hosmer said. 

Hosmer said he believes staff is sometimes directed to do things that may not be the best practice, in their opinion, because of pressure from Gage. 

Faced with Hosmer’s critiques and asked for his response, Gage said via email, “The City Council hires the city manager to lead all staff and serve in the best interest of all councilmembers for the benefit of the community. That is always in the forefront of my mind and something I work very hard to do well.” 

On Istenes’ departure, Gage said the city does not comment publicly on personnel matters. “With that said, we certainly wish Susan well,” he said. 

Micromanagement alleged 
Asked if all is well in city hall, Hosmer said he sees a pattern of professionals with expertise being pushed to the corner, and he said that is counterproductive. 

“It will be hard to get people in those positions if they know that they’re going to be micromanaged,” he said. 

Following Hosmer’s allegations of strong-arming by Gage and the loss of three department heads, including one alleging bullying by the city manager, Springfield Business Journal reached out to Mayor Ken McClure to inquire if he intends to launch an inquiry into the work climate in city hall. McClure did not respond to several requests for comment for this story.

SBJ then reached out by email to all councilmembers separately to ask if they plan to launch an inquiry. 

Monica Horton was the first to respond, noting, “I am like you. I have more questions than answers for you at the moment.” 

Mayor Pro Tem Matthew Simpson responded to several questions, first noting the city’s charter prohibits council interference with personnel decisions and saying it would not be appropriate for a council member to be involved with those decisions. He said the council has a role in evaluating only the city manager and city clerk, and any issues should be raised as part of the regular evaluation process. 

He added that councilmembers should not comment on personnel decisions in an attempt to influence them, as doing so is prohibited by the charter. 

The city manager is the city’s chief executive and administrative officer, according to city code, which adds that the manager is “responsible to the council for the proper management of all the city’s affairs.” 

The other members of council did not respond to emailed requests for comment by press time. 

City responds
The city ultimately responded to allegations of toxicity in an emailed statement from Scott’s office.

“We have protocols in place for our employees to forward concerns regarding just about anything,” the statement said. “On any given day, a handful of our 2,000 employees may have a concern or experience an issue within their function. While we strive for perfection, that is normal for even the highest-performing organizations.”

The email characterized the city as the most functionally diverse workplace in the community, with a wide variety of responsibilities and services provided.

“Our co-workers serve the taxpaying public relentlessly every single day, often doing dangerous and challenging jobs,” the statement continued. “It is not for the faint of heart.”

Several departments, among them the police and fire departments, health department, parks and public works, were noted to have achieved professional accreditation, and others have received regional and national recognition.

“City employees build their communities while they build their careers, and they are engaged in decision-making and empowered to do the high-quality work the city is known for,” the statement said. “Over the past five years, the city manager has provided higher salary increases than in any other time in recent history.”

Additionally, the city, which has a geographic footprint roughly the size of Boston’s, has accreditations and rankings that rival almost any other city in the country, the statement said.

“The city manager is fair and has high expectations for integrity and performance, because that is what taxpayers deserve,” it noted.

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