A Town Council too far in the weeds

A Town Council too far in the weeds
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By David Rogers. July 30, 2018. BLOWING ROCK, NC — Serving as a town commissioner is a serious responsibility that frequently becomes a thankless job because seldom can you please everyone. It is also easy to be seduced by — or should we say influenced by — the loudest voices. There is a good amount of truth to the adage, “The squeakiest wheel gets the grease.”

Often, though, town commissioners in many jurisdictions make it harder on themselves than the job needs to be. In short, they fall into the age-old trap of micromanaging the affairs of the town. Perhaps the hardest part of the job is knowing when and how to “back off.”

How Things Are Supposed To Work

In municipal government, the roles of the different players in the process are pretty well defined.  The Town of Blowing Rock has a hybrid form of local government that combines elements of a “council-manager” structure with a “mayor-council” type of government.

The entire group has been pushed in a direction by individual commissioners who don’t understand their roles, bend the deliberations to suit their private agendas (or egos), or don’t adequately prepare…

We do not intend this as a pejorative term, but Blowing Rock’s mayor has a “weak” position as town governments go. Our mayor is not an autocrat or a dictator, but instead is the ceremonial head of the town and serves as chairman of the Town Council meetings. The Mayor does not vote except in the event of a tie. With five members on Blowing Rock’s Board of Commissioners, ties are rare unless one of the elected Commissioners is absent due to illness or being out of town.

With a “weak” mayor, our form of governance is heavily weighted toward the council-manager structure. The voting Commissioners are each part of the elected governing body responsible for legislative functions such as establishing policy, passing local ordinances, voting appropriations (i.e., earmarking budget expenditures), and developing an overall vision for the Town (i.e. approving the periodic Comprehensive Plan). And yes, where variances from the Land Use Code are requested on development or redevelopment projects, they can approve or reject.  For all practical purposes, the role of any Board of Commissioners is very similar to the corporate board of directors in business, with particular parallels to publicly-traded companies where ownership of shares is widely distributed and not closely controlled by one or two individuals.

We should note that while the mayor of a municipality may not have a vote, so fits more into the “weak” role, his or her roles as the ceremonial head and as the chair of the Town Council meetings are significant. A recent book by James and Deborah Fallows, “Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey Into the Heart of America,” observes that the more influential and forward-thinking is the mayor, the better the town is likely to be at attracting and retaining those elements that ensure the attractiveness of a small town.

EDITOR’S NOTE: See below for highlights of James Fallows’ observations on “11 Signs A City Will Succeed”

The second half of this council-manager structure, the “manager,” is also very similar to what happens in the governance of publicly-traded companies. By majority vote, the Board of Commissioners collectively hires a professional Town Manager to oversee day-to-day administrative operations and implement the Board’s policies. Frequently that professionally trained town manager advises the Board on how certain issues that arise might best find a resolution.

A System Faltering, If Not Breaking Down

Somewhere along the way, Blowing Rock’s Board of Commissioners and, more broadly, the Town Council, have strayed from their intended purposes and gotten much too far into the weeds of local government.  To be blunt, they have been seduced into micromanagement of the Town’s day-to-day activities and decisions. The optimist in us would believe that they have fallen prey to this seduction subconsciously. The realist in us understands that the entire group has been pushed in a direction purposely by individual commissioners who don’t understand their roles, bend the deliberations to suit their private agendas (or egos), and in many cases don’t adequately prepare for dealing with the issues coming before them. And their colleagues may be too unsure or perhaps too polite to call them on it.

Whether in business or in government, when micromanaging becomes the order of the day it only compromises operational effectiveness and efficiency. It is disruptive. Worse, it serves to lower morale among the professionals the Town has hired to do specific jobs. It even steals from the Town the benefit of those professionals’ creativity, their ability to “think outside the box” in solving Town problems or challenges. Micromanagement reflects a lack of TRUST in the Town Manager and his team of hired professionals, whether they be the Police Chief, the Director of Parks and Recreation, the Public Works Director, the Planning Director, the Landscape Architect, the Emergency Services Director, the Finance Director, the Town Clerk, or any of the other town employees.

Somewhere along the way, Blowing Rock’s Board of Commissioners and, more broadly, the Town Council, have strayed from their intended purposes and gotten much too far into the weeds of local government.

How is this manifested?

Every Commissioner, just like every Blowing Rock resident, business or property owner, has their own set of things they value, their own agenda, if you will. That’s OK, but it is not OK to individually think they are the boss of the Town and expect a town employee to honor only their particular agenda. Instead, the Commissioners, along with the Mayor, should be working TOGETHER toward a unified agenda and interacting with the Town Manager and his staff as ONE boss, not six bosses and not six different agendas.

The trend has been developing for a while now, but especially in recent months our Town Council meetings, whether regular meetings or retreats have taken entirely too much time. Routine matters of relatively little importance receive far too much attention.  Rather than look at policy from the proverbial view at 30,000 feet and how a decision fits the big picture, individual commissioners are, for instance, interjecting their own personal preferences into a developer’s architectural design or business plan.

Usually, that design or plan has already been vetted by some combination of the Planning Board, the Appearance Advisory Commission (BRAAC), and maybe even the Historical Society. When 100 residents had viewed the recent plans for the redevelopment of 1150 Main St. and they had passed muster with the Historical Society, BRAAC, and the Planning Board, why does an individual Commissioner think their personal preference for trees over planters or eliminating a trellis on the side of the building should prevail over the approval of so many? Put in perspective, it is callous arrogance to summarily dismiss the work of so many others with far better credentials for understanding architecture, landscape design, and urban planning, not to mention a professional developer’s assessment of what the market wants or needs — and his willingness to bear the financial risk that might be inherent to his assessment. Instead of the two hours it took in the July Town Council meeting, this agenda item hardly required more than 15 minutes if the Commissioners were doing their jobs, understood their roles, and had adequately prepared.

Not all of the commissioners are guilty of micromanagement, but even those are not blameless.

Commissioners don’t need to get very far in the weeds to do their jobs effectively. When they micromanage, they become disruptive.

If the Town’s use of the Cone Rd. property is continuing to offend its neighbors, the Commissioners need only to instruct Town staff — the professionals we have collectively hired — to provide one or more options for bringing the Town’s ownership of the property up to the same standards we expect of every other property owner. At most, that discussion should take 10 minutes, not an hour and a half as it did at the so-called summer retreat in late June.

These are just a couple of recent examples. Others are abundantly available for public scrutiny.

Of course, not all of the commissioners are guilty of micromanagement, but even those are not blameless.  They need to speak up and encourage their colleagues to seek teamwork.  When routine matters receive far too much attention and consume excessive amounts of time, it indicates either a lack of preparedness on the part of an individual commissioner or reflects his or her need to be the center of attention. Neither serves the Town Council nor the public in attendance very well and the non-offending Council member needs to point this out. Very much to his credit, Mayor Charlie Sellers recently sent an email to his fellow Council members pointing out the ills of micromanagement. Although we didn’t think the message strong enough, it was a start.

It has also surfaced in recent weeks that one Commissioner has advanced the need for an evaluation of the Town Manager’s performance, including a 35-question document that each Commissioner is supposed to score, 1-5.

Micromanagement even steals from the Town the benefit of those professionals’ creativity, including their ability to “think outside the box” in solving the Town’s problems or meeting its challenges.

We would find that bizarre except that like a lot of people keeping an eye on Town government, we know this individual commissioner was in the minority when our current manager was hired.  This is just one more vengeful attempt to “win.”  Although outvoted by the majority, this commissioner continues to work against the hire. Instead of welcoming him on the Town “team” with the level of trust that his professional training and employment pedigree merit, this commissioner seems to be doing everything possible to disrupt and disrespect him, perhaps hoping that he will leave in frustration. If the Commissioners as a whole truly want to go down this path, then maybe they should also compose an evaluation document to assess the performance of each individual Town Council member. It might be useful to post the results at the ballot box.

Since Blowing Rock News was launched in August of 2010, Blowing Rock has had three different town managers. None of them may have been “perfect,” but each of them has had their strengths and, most importantly, are good people. They have also been professionally trained in public administration and really know far more about that subject than any elected Commissioner who may bring to the table success from a very different walk of life.  Those elected officials bring a valued perspective and, hopefully, are lending an ear to a broad segment of their constituents as they help fashion policies and that vision of the Town “from 30,000 feet.”

It is sad that the high level of partisanship and self-interest that now infects national politics has filtered down to local government. Representative forms of governance such as ours on every level require a certain brand of statesmanship and grace in marshaling together multiple constituent interests toward goals that benefit the entire community.


ADDENDUM (Extracted Relevant Thoughts of Interest)

James Fallows also authored a March 2016 article in The Atlantic magazine entitled, “Eleven Signs A City Will Succeed,” extracted from a summation of the Fallows’ 54,000 mile trip around America examining successful as well as failing small towns and cities. In summary, of their observed successes:

  1. Divisive national politics seem a distant concern. “…overwhelmingly the focus in successful towns was not on national divisions but on practical problems that a community could address. The more often national politics came into local discussions, the worse shape the town was in.”
  2. You can pick out the local patriots. “Who makes the town go?…What mattered was that the question had an answer. And the more quickly it was provided, the better shape the town was in.”
  3. Public-private partnerships are real. “The more specifically a community can explain what their public-private partnerships mean, the better off the city is.”
  4. People know the civic story. “Their value is in giving citizens a sense of how today’s efforts are connected to what happened yesterday and what they hope for tomorrow.”
  5. They have a downtown. “…downtown ambitions of any sort are a positive sign, and second- and third-floor apartments and condos over restaurants and stores with lights on at night suggest that the downtown has crossed a decisive threshold and will survive.”
  6. They are near a research university. “Research universities have become the modern counterparts to a natural harbor or a river confluence…Over the longer-term, they transform a town through the researchers and professors they attract…Research universities have become powerful start-up incubators.”
  7. They have, and care about, a community college. “Just about every world-historical trend is pushing the United States (and other countries) toward a less equal, more polarized existence: labor-replacing technology, globalized trade, self-segregated residential-housing patterns, the American practice of unequal district-based funding for public schools. Community colleges are the main exception, potentially offering a connection to high-wage technical jobs for people who might otherwise be left with no job or one at minimum wage.”
  8. They have unusual schools. “The common theme was intensity of experimentation.”
  9. They make themselves open. “Politicians, educators, businesspeople, students, and retirees frequently stressed the ways their communities were trying to attract and include new people.”
  10. They have big plans. “When a mayor or city-council member shows me a map of how new downtown residences will look when completed, or where the new greenway will go, I think: ‘I’d like to come back.’ Cities still make plans, because they can do things.”
  11. They have craft breweries. “A town that has craft breweries also has a certain kind of entrepreneur and a critical mass of mainly young (except for me) customers. You may think I’m joking, but just try to find an exception.”

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3 Comments

  1. Frank J. Thomas

    David,
    Excellent long article on Blowing Rock municipal government. I’ve been there ( another town).
    I attended the meeting and noted the “micro managing”. This town has always had excellent government. At least compared to what I have observed elsewhere. Your reference to James Fallows in the Atlantic showed a very literate editor.

    Reply
  2. Suzanne Miller

    David Thank you. We do ALL need to work together to make B R he Best Place to live. I think we have worked on that for ever. A new day is here and we need to have a positive out look as to how we move forward. WE are gifted with many of the items above. Good schools, good medical , outstanding environment and best of all we have people who can think out of the box, people
    who spend thousands of volunteer hours working on making B R the Greatest. not this is bad oh no.
    To look at where the town is going we need to begin from a positive stand point if there are things that need changing. Begin with a positive to change a negative. Not to start from a negative to get to a positive.
    Thank you for you interest in making Blowing Rock the BEST EVER !!
    Suzanne Miller

    Reply
  3. Keith Tester

    David, I have just now read your editorial on Town Council micromanagement. As a former Blowing Rock Commissioner, I found myself thinking, “Boy, I wish someone had given me this message when I was first elected to Town Council.” I think most council members have a good general understanding of the scope of their responsibility. However, it is so easy to get lost in the discussion of important issues and forget that the professionals you so carefully selected for their jobs want “community supported” direction, so they can use their expertise to manage the town functions to develop and maintain the high level of community standards we all want for our town. I hope the current Council members will read this and see it as positive feedback and constructive criticism. If they do, and make some simple adjustments in their approach to the job, they can be a very effective Council. I firmly believe that the key to being an effective commissioner is continuously looking for community feedback and making appropriate adjustments. Thanks for writing this article.

    Keith Tester

    Reply

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