Hearing could set the fate of Pittsfield Veterans Agent
PITTSFIELD -- A hearing that could lead to the firing of Veterans Agent Rosanne Frieri has been scheduled for Friday, according to Freri, who said she might consider legal action against the city and Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi.
Frieri was suspended by the mayor on Aug. 5, after she said she refused to attend a meeting with Bianchi "without a third party" being present. She said that was because the mayor had "badgered" her during a prior meeting in his office and she felt bullied.
Bianchi could not be reached Monday for comment. He initially said the issue was a personnel matter and he could not comment on it, but after Frieri talked about the suspension in the media he issued a release Friday. It said allegations include that Frieri did not prepare a fiscal 2015 budget for her office after being directed to do so and did not attend a City Council meeting when asked to do so to speak on the budget.
Frieri said Monday that she has received a registered letter from the city that stated it was possible she will be terminated from her job. The letter notified her of a hearing on Friday, she said.
Frieri said she has been conferring with her attorney, Albert J. Cimini, of Pittsfield, and will follow his advice in responding to the meeting notice. Contacted Monday, Cimini declined all comment at this time.
The locks on her office have been changed, Frieri said Monday, adding that it appears the mayor has made up his mind to fire her.
Frieri said she might consider legal action against the city, adding that she is reluctant to cause a distraction or added cost for the city, "but I am not letting this go."
She also said she's concerned some of the veterans she has been working with, who are seeking state or federal benefits, could have their claims delayed. In some cases, she said, she had obtained power of attorney to help a veteran file a claim.
Bianchi has said he believes the office can function without problems with Frieri absent, with other staff members handling the duties. He said there will be a priority on meeting the needs of veterans working with the office.
Veterans agents in Massachusetts assist veterans and act as an advocate on their behalf in applying for state and federal benefits, and by providing information on a range of programs. State programs are overseen by the state Department of Veterans Services, and federal programs are generally provided through the Veterans Administration.
Cities and towns in Massachusetts are required to have a designated veterans agent, although some communities have formed districts and jointly support a staff for the purpose. Such a district system for each region of the state has been discussed in the Legislature, and at least one study of regionalization and other veterans service issues has been proposed.
In Pittsfield, the position is full time and pays $49,843 annually, according to paperwork Bianchi recently submitted as part of a salary rate schedule change for supervisors that is before the City Council.
A military veteran, Frieri was hired for the post by former Mayor James M. Ruberto in 2007. Frieri also works as a private contractor, acting as veterans agent in Dalton, Lanesborough, Cheshire, Lenox, Peru and Richmond.
Frieri said she believes disagreements with the mayor over the operations of her office led to her suspension. Specifically, she cited an equine program launched this summer to provide therapy for veterans who are re-entering civilian life and have post-traumatic stress disorder or other brain-related conditions.
Although approved by the state Department of Veterans Services, which generally provides 75 percent funding to communities for programs, Frieri contends she met several roadblocks and delays in gaining approvals from city departments. An eight-week horse therapy program eventually was held in Richmond.
Some have been critical of Frieri's work in the office, reflected in comments on The Eagle's Facebook page and elsewhere. Others praised her work and voiced support.
The Eagle also has learned that a written statement critical of Frieri as veterans agent was submitted to the mayor in 2012.
Of the criticism, Frieri said Monday that some veterans are disappointed when they do not receive the government assistance they thought they were entitled to because of their service. "I can put it [paperwork] in pre-approved, but the state [Department of Veterans Services] has the final say," she said.
The same is true, Frieri said, of the Veterans Administration when it comes to approving or denying a benefit claim.
Issues that can be a factor in denial of benefit claims, she said, include false or incorrect information on applications or having a service discharge status that disqualifies a veteran for a particular program.
Veteran John Nesbit of Pittsfield, who participated in the equine therapy program this summer, said the program was beneficial to him and other vets and he hopes it can continue and be expanded.
Nesbit said of Frieri, "I have known her for years. She works hard, she's earnest; she's genuine. And she really came through for me when I needed this."
Frieri said that, at this point, she would not return to the city post unless there is a change in what she termed a "hostile" workplace.
"I take pride in what I do in helping veterans," she said, "but I can't work in a hostile environment. Things would have to change."
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