HOLYOKE — Gov. Charlie Baker said he is appointing Cheryl Lussier Poppe, superintendent of the Chelsea Soldiers’ Home, interim director of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home while a search committee is formed to find a permanent superintendent.
“She has led the Chelsea Soldiers’ Home with distinction, and I am grateful for her willingness to ensure that our veterans at the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke continue to receive the excellent services they deserve during this period of transition,” Baker said in a letter dated Monday to the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home board of trustees (see below).
Also, a union official said Tuesday that labor contract violations, lack of respect for workers and intimidation can be added to the leadership issues at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home.
“Given the litany of issues our members have brought to our attention, it seems a change in management is long overdue,” Mark DelloRusso, president of Service Employees International Union Local 888, said in an email.
The union, which represents most Holyoke Soldiers’ Home employees, will attend a special meeting of the facility’s board of trustees Wednesday, he also said in a phone interview.
The meeting at 10 a.m. in Conference Room A at the 110 Cherry St. facility has been called to discuss last week’s leadership turnover: Superintendent Paul Barabani, Deputy Superintendent John Paradis and Steven E. Como, chairman of the board of trustees, all announced they were leaving.
State Sen. Donald R. Humason, R-Westfield, and state Rep. Aaron M. Vega, D-Holyoke said their understanding is complaints have arisen about questionable state support of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home and problems with bureaucracy. Humason and Vega said they would attend Wednesday’s meeting.
The trustees’ meeting could be followed by a “town hall” meeting in the canteen for officials to take questions from residents, their families and staff. The time of 11:30 a.m. has been discussed for such a session, officials said.
State Department of Veterans Services representatives will attend the Wednesday trustees’ meeting, a spokesman said.
Overlooking Interstate 91, the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home is a state-funded health care facility for veterans established in 1952. It employs more than 300 people, has 265 long-term care beds and 30 private rooms for veterans and serves 2,200 veterans a year with its in- and out-patient facilities.
Barabani, Paradis and Como all declined to discuss whether state funding or other issues with state bureaucracy contributed to their exits.
In the letter to trustees, Baker said he was confident that Poppe and Barabani, both of whom spent decades in the National Guard, will work together on a beneficial transition for the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home.
Baker thanked Barabani, Paradis and Como for their work. He said Como, who had said last week his resignation was effective immediately, had agreed to stay on until Baker appointed a new chairman.
Finding a new superintendent will mirror the process that resulted in Barabani being appointed by former Gov. Deval L. Patrick in February 2011, Baker said. Como Wednesday will appoint a search committee, which will recommend candidates from whom the governor will choose a new superintendent.
“This process reflects standard practice for boards operating under the supervision of the executive department, and I look forward to receiving the board’s final recommendation,” Baker said.
In a tour of the region Friday, Baker said that the situation at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home had his administration’s attention.
DelloRusso said he had “mixed emotions” upon hearing that Barabani, Paradis and Como were leaving.
Without providing specifics, DelloRusso said there have been contract violations, lack of respect for workers and intimidation of nurses, certified nursing assistants, janitors and kitchen workers, he said.
“Long time workers have complained of low morale, the worst it has ever been, even though they love their work and the people they care for,” he said. “Frankly, they are sick of arbitrary decisions made without regard to workers rights, and a penchant for blaming public service for the lack of proper application of earned sick time and personal days.”
The Holyoke Soldiers’ Home’s budget is $22.7 million, which Baker said is a 7 percent increase over a year ago, and consists of state and federal funding.
“The Baker Administration now has a chance to change the tone and direction of the Home for the better, that meaning the best care for our veterans,” DelloRusso said.
The Veterans Services Department appreciates the union’s concerns and will work with employees, spokesman Joe Truschelli said in an email.
“The administration takes these concerns seriously, as it works with the board to appoint new leadership for the Home. We have reached out to the union and look forward to working with them to ensure the highest quality of care for the veterans at the Home,” Truschelli said.
Como said he resigned because it was time, having been chairman and a board member for eight years, and he felt it was proper to let Baker, a Republican, appoint his own board chairman. Como was appointed by Patrick, a Democrat.
Barabani, who has been superintendent since February 2011, said he would leave after the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs does its annual evaluation of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home in January.
Paradis said he resigned because he had no desire to work with a superintendent other than Barabani, whom he praised for devotion to the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home.
The trustees are Western Massachusetts residents appointed by the governor. Besides Como, who represented erkshire County, board members are Brian Q. Corridan, Margaret E. Oglesby Daniel J. Smith and John J. Fitzgerald, of Hampden County, Ben Cluff, of Franklin County and Spiros Hatiras, of Hampshire County