Two issues have come to a head in Southbridge and will result in either decisions or ongoing indecision in the near future.
The issues are the question of whether there will be one or two Principals at the new Southbridge Middle/High School and the growing disaffection between the Chief and the rank and file in the Southbridge Police Department.
These matters illustrate a fundamental issue in the role of managers and the bodies entrusted with overseeing their performance.
In the case of the School Committee we have a body that over the last three-quarters of a decade has engaged in an activist role in micro-managing the conduct, on almost a daily basis, of those entrusted to administer the system.
In the case of the town side we have a town council that has, for even longer, taken an essentially hands-off approach to the conduct of the town manager being compliant with virtually all of the wishes of the recent occupants of that office.
Both extremes are inappropriate and counter-productive. Both patterns of behavior are exemplified by sporadic, political and ultimately worthless performance review policies.
In the case of the School Committee it is time to accept that you have a Superintendent whose contract you have just chosen to extend. Give him the leeway to institute the management structures and operational policies he deems necessary to achieve the goals and objectives that it is your responsibility to define. Prepare a realistic and objective performance review template that will evaluate if, when and where intervention may or may not be necessary. In the interim, let the Superintendent do the job for which you have hired him. Let him assume the properly delegated responsibility for the consequences of his decisions but stop tying his hands in advance.
On the town side, the issue is essentially reversed. While everything I said about the need for a realistic process of evaluation applies, the contextual framework is entirely different.
While the School Committee has been dominated by a unified majority pursuing a micro-managing agenda, the council has alternated between a laissez faire, hands-off majority and an ineffectual, fractured and cobbled together coalition that resulted in the same outcome.
Individual councilors are wedded to the special interests of town departments – Fire, Police, Teachers, DPW, town hall employees, etc. This has allowed successive town managers to play off these individual interests to insulate themselves from the overriding reality of the ever-accelerating decline of the town by all objective measures.
It has allowed the councilors most wedded to these special interests to count on their support in annual elections from the members, family and friends of those departmental constituencies who are on, or hope to become part of, the taxpayer-financed gravy train.
In the interim the big picture has become hostage to the “what’s in it for me” mentality that has destroyed our community.
The town council has abdicated its oversight role in the pursuit of personal aggrandizement. It has now come to the point where there is a virtual rebellion in the ranks of what is essentially a paramilitary organization. The “head-in-the-sand” reactionaries will seek to dismiss this as simply “union politics”. Such a knee-jerk response is trite and simplistic. This level of response goes far beyond simple labor/management matters. It goes to the very core of unit cohesion, loyalty and effectiveness in an essential public safety function. We ignore its reality at our peril. The town council must, at some point, start considering the welfare of the whole rather than the benefit of a few. It must begin to exercise its appropriate responsibility of oversight of the town manager and those in his charge.