Stress center: Abrupt resignation further dismays dispatchers

Emergency Communication Center dispatchers are not pleased with the surprise resignation of their executive director—and they don’t believe it was on his terms. Photo by Sanjay Suchak Emergency Communication Center dispatchers are not pleased with the surprise resignation of their executive director—and they don’t believe it was on his terms. Photo by Sanjay Suchak

When the executive director of the city, county, and university’s troubled Emergency Communications Center abruptly resigned last week, questions and concerns started circulating among the center’s employees.

“Barry [Neulen] was doing so many good things for us, and we were singing his praises to anybody and everybody,” says one employee. “I wholeheartedly believe Barry did not leave because he wanted to.”

The employee, who requested anonymity out of fear of retaliation, says the crew of 911 dispatchers knew something was up ahead of a March 11 management board meeting, because Neulen, who had joined them as executive director just six months ago, had removed his personal photos from the office wall.

“We immediately connected the dots,” he says. “From the clues that we can gather from what we’ve seen and heard, [the board] asked him to resign.”

Neulen declined an interview request, and board chair Doug Walker declined to give any details.

Walker, who also serves as assistant county executive, put together a search committee to hire a new executive director. Tom Berry, the current executive director of emergency management at UVA, will take Neulen’s place in the interim.

The appointment of Berry has created another controversy, because while he will now report to the management board on behalf of the ECC, he also currently serves on that board.

Berry didn’t make the best first impression on the employees he will now direct, and multiple dispatchers have discussed quitting, says the ECC employee.

“Not only were we hit with the shock of [Neulen] leaving, Tom Berry left the office right after that meeting and didn’t say anything to anybody,” says the staffer. “If you’re going to be our new boss, you should be coming in to meet us immediately.”

The employee says the board will discuss whether to appoint someone different at a March 21 meeting, which Walker neither confirmed nor denied.

Neulen, a former director of field operations for the U.S. Department of Defense, joined the ECC at a time when the center was severely understaffed, spending his entire year’s budget in six months on overtime. It was his mission to hire enough new dispatchers—approximately 10—to get the team running smoothly again. To train the new hires, he planned to hire independent contractor Homeland Security Solutions, Inc. for $180,000.

That move raised questions at a January 8 board meeting, at which other board members, including Charlottesville Police Chief RaShall Brackney, questioned Neulen’s decision to hire people he knew from his time in the Marine Corps without investigating other groups that could potentially do it for less.

“I didn’t have the time or the inclination to cast a wide net because I knew what this company was capable of doing,” Neulen said at the time.

And ECC employees, the ones who most felt the burden of the understaffing, applauded his decision to hire help. Yet the following month, the board scrapped the independent training contract and decided to seek new bids.

This employee says ECC team members are upset because no one from the management board asked how they felt about Neulen.

“We’ve lost all trust in the board,” he adds. “Our morale went from a bright shining light of hope to nothing.”