‘Low Morale’ Creates Rush To Fredonia Exits
Former Fredonia Department of Public Works Supervisor Tony Gugino could see the writing on the wall. Months before he turned in his letter for retirement that was read at the May 10 Village Board meeting, he sensed the grind was becoming tougher each day.
It had nothing to do with serving the community. As previous DPW chief for years in Dunkirk before joining the village, he cherished the challenges.
Gugino also admired and appreciated his crew, heaping plenty of praise on each of those members. “My management style is very simple. I’m not your boss, we’re co-workers,” he told his staff from the first day he took on the job. “We have to be like a family. I will never not be here to support your needs or the village’s needs, but we have to work as a unit.
“They signed right onto it.”
Gugino took the post in the village in August 2018 under the helm of former Mayor Athanasia Landis. His leadership was apparent from Day One. Crew members had a greater sense of teamwork while projects that languished for years were suddenly getting attention.
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One of those projects, work on the James Place and Carol Avenue water lines, had given the village a blackeye for years. Homeowners there constantly complained about the brownish-colored water throughout the neighborhood. With Gugino at the helm, and some assistance from St. George Enterprises, new water lines were installed.
He also made an impact at the Fredonia Opera House and Village Hall. The front steps on Church Street were crumbling and unsafe to walk on for months. Gugino and Landis, with an assist from Andy Carapella, made the proper repairs.
Even the Eagle Street facility, once the look of a miniature landfill, was spruced up and organized. Overall, things were getting done.
Accomplishments, however, do not seem to matter in the village at this time. Board members — especially those not resigning — are more apt to look for problems and create controversy.
It is no secret that things in Fredonia have gone from bad to worse with this board. In a span of three years, department heads have fled.
Gugino believes those resignations and retirements are due to micromanagement by two current trustees, who he would not name during a 40-minute interview. “It’s not personal, it’s just my read on it,” he said. “They seemed to want to control everything … to a point where it was becoming very uncomfortable to work. We had handcuffs on us for everything. We got through the boil-water order (in September), we got through COVID … it was a miraculous, somehow survive, get stuff done type attitude.”
Viewers of the weekly meetings on cable access television and those connected to village government know exactly who Gugino is pinpointing in these comments: Trustees EvaDawn Bashaw and Roger Britz. Chaos and apparent brow-beating behind the scenes has made life very uncomfortable in Village Hall.
Consider the resignations, since Mayor Doug Essek won election in November 2019. They include:
¯ James Sedota, former treasurer.
¯ Dan Gard, former village attorney.
¯ Brad Meyers, former police chief.
¯ Kara Christina, former Village Board member.
¯ Ryan Walker, former fire chief.
¯ Heidi Powell, trustee from February to June.
Just how poor are the working conditions in recent months? One of last month’s meetings, included a visit by regional CSEA representatives, including Labor Relations Specialist Jill Ackerman who noted members opted to forgo a raise and extend a contract last year in recognition of the the village’s pandemic-related challenges.
One communication from a trustee regarding a worker concern included a “boo freaking hoo.”
“We’re not going to take this,” Ackerman said. “The village residents, I’m sure, will not be happy that this is happening. We are owed respect and the ability to have labor management meetings without being given the runaround. We deserve them to be prompt and in a professional fashion, and to complete our jobs with respect to village residents.”
Ackerman’s appearance was almost unprecedented in Fredonia. But it was significant in showing the disconnect and disrespect that is being sensed by the more than 80 employees whose salaries totaled more than $3.6 million in 2020, according to seethroughny.org.
All of these staff, including Gugino’s DPW, worked through the height of a 16-month pandemic. Very little praise has been publicly offered for this crew. Instead, according to Gugino, board members have tightened the screws leading to a lack of projects being completed.
“There’s so much disruption right now with low morale,” he said.
But Gugino is hopeful. With four seats being decided in November, there could be a new dynamic to the Village Board that is desperately needed.
“It comes down to an election,” he said. “Hopefully everyone can get over this current state of inertia and acrimony and get back to doing what we were doing: good things for the village.”
John D’Agostino is the editor of the OBSERVER, The Post-Journal and Times Observer in Warren, Pa. Send comments to email@example.com