by Hatcher Hurd / September 02, 2008 / Appen Newspapers
Well another episode has closed on "As Milton Turns." Tune in next week (or sometime next spring) to see who will join the cast as Mr. City Manager.Once again Milton has shown it has a great talent for making canny hires of its city managers, but it doesn't seem to know how to hang on to them. When Billy Beckett turned in his resignation, it wasn't about money, it wasn't about a chance at the dream job coming open.The man with 30 years on the job said he just wasn't going end his career going from one harangue to the next.The City Council just nagged him to death until he thought he could no longer be effective in his job.
It has only been four months, but he could see the handwriting on the wall. Only in this case it was more like the e-mail on the wall.Since he came on board the City Council, especially Julie Zahner Bailey, Alan Tart and Tina D'Aversa, kept him either busy running down endless requests for information or insisting on political correctness rather than his best professional advice.I first knew Billy Beckett 18 years ago when he was the Fayette County manager and I was editor of the local newspaper there. I always enjoyed our frank, straightforward discussions, and in interviews he was always candid without betraying a trust. He just told it the way he saw it, and you can't ask for better than that.
What he is not is a yes man. He sees his job as that of the professional who is runs the departments, carries out council policy and gives council members the benefit of more than 30 years of experience and education in his field.It is a common mistake on governing bodies that the elected officials somehow confuse the idea of weighing the public interest and the information at hand and then making the hard policy decisions with actually running the day-to-day operations.They should stay out of the office. That is what the manager is for. Worse is when a council member tries to influence or bully staff to make what the council member considers "the right decision." For my part, such people ought to be impeached and turned out of office.Right behind that, however, is to squander good people in whom the city has made an investment. Especially the person with the thankless task of making a city work.
Top-notch professionals are hard to come by. Most cities are not so frivolous with their best personnel. Rather they treat them as their prime resources and husband them jealously.After a long talk about the situation at Milton with Mr. Beckett, I had to say I was not surprised. In all fairness, this is still a young City Council, and it has made its share of mistakes and likely will again. Such is the human condition.But what is alarming is the seeming inability to learn from mistakes, but rather repeat them.
Two city managers are gone in less than two years of existence? What kind of top-drawer professional can the city expect now to jump in and take the reins of the city?Especially when the council has a reputation for being fractious and prone to mind-numbing meetings to cover the same ground (usually sewer) again and again? A council scarcely is moved by the real issues: Transportation, sidewalks, city policy, parkland acquisition, recreation and intersection improvements. You have a small staff, almost none of whom actually work for the city.Council members treat the manager as if he or she works for each of them personally, tying up valuable time running down information and requests to the point of distraction.If council members are not able to do their own research on issues or if their time is too valuable for such mundane work, then the city should give them aides to do it.
It certainly should not be the manager's job.In the end, this as much as anything was the last straw for Mr. Beckett. He told me he just was not able to apply his talents in the way he had always done. He found the way certain council members only contacted him by e-mail exasperating and also insulting.Here I have to agree totally. E-mail is the lifeblood of desktop publishing and the way I make my living. But it does not replace face-to-face conversations with the give and take of social discourse. E-mails are in black and white and therefore have no tone or softening.Since no one seems to remember how to write courteously anymore, especially at the computer, these messages can easily sound rude and pompous. Neither do e-mails invite polite discourse on the subject. And if the e-mails we have seen from council so far are any indication, they sound didactic, whiny and shrill as well.In fact, the only time Mr. Beckett got peckish about the situation was to say if he was going to have a fight, he preferred it to be face to face rather than through electronic sniping.Mr. Beckett said he no longer felt he could be effective, and he says he takes responsibility for "not being a good fit," as he put it. Given the growing pains that council is still going through, I would agree.And there is the rub.
The council can put the blame on Mr. Beckett and continue on as before, and in six or eight months perhaps be in the same position.Or it can heed his parting piece of advice. Come to a consensus on the role of the city manager. Understand the position is not to serve seven individual bosses but one collective boss.He suggested there be some conduit for the council to take requests to the manager, either through the mayor or in some other method agreeable to council. That certainly makes sense.The worst thing the council could do is not recognize this episode as a wake-up call to re-examine its role and that of the manager.