Edgartown and Oak Bluffs moved quickly this week to repair serious self-inflicted damage to their reputations as well-run small towns. But, it’s not really the towns whose reputations have been harmed. It is the standing of the selectmen in each town, who ought to be regarded as careful, responsible leaders, and for the moment, at least, cannot be. It’s not enough to patch up the immediate wounds. What’s demanded is some serious revamping of the way these two panels of municipal executives understand and do their jobs.
The circumstances of the cock-ups in the two towns differ significantly in several respects, but in several respects they share common, witless elements.
After all, what are voters to think when, in Edgartown, lax oversight of the town’s wastewater plant and its revenue stream have resulted in inadequate controls, thousands of dollars lost to the town treasury, special indulgences extended to customers of the plant (including a member of the wastewater commission), and even a criminal charge against a waste hauler. And, none of this was discovered soon enough, not for years of its crooked life. It was unearthed by the town treasurer, auditors, police, town counsel, and an independent investigator. The selectmen reached a settlement with the plant’s manager, who will be leaving at once.
(And, this isn’t entirely unfamiliar to Edgartonians. Voters will recall that a while back, personnel issues associated with the Edgartown Council on Aging came late to the attention of the selectmen, who found themselves engaging outside consultants to get at the underlying problems and recommend solutions.)
And in Oak Bluffs, the mess is worse, the details even more disconcerting. Financial pressure, which has been unrelenting on this horribly run town and extends to the wastewater plant that operates at a loss, led members of the wastewater commission in that town to behave like untutored, childish members of a grammar school student council and eliminate the job of the manager of their plant.
They did so without alerting the man who holds the job, or the town finance committee, the personnel committee, the town administrator, the town counsel, or the selectmen, that they intended to do so. This week, their hands held by town labor counsel, they’re walking that decision back.
Aggravating this imbecility is the fact that one of the elected wastewater commissioners is a lawyer, who ought to have known better than to have done what she and a colleague so abruptly and heedlessly did.
And, not only is she a lawyer and a wastewater commissioner, but she is a selectman. So much for the regard – and the collegial heads up – she owed her colleagues among the selectmen.
In the end, the ultimate responsibility falls upon these selectmen, in each town. They are in each case the chief executive officers responsible for the effective, efficient, and economic management of all of the towns’ departments. The five Oak Bluffs selectmen and the three in Edgartown have let their constituents down badly.
It is reasonable to say that part-time, volunteer, elected selectmen, despite their eager ambition for their chief executive roles, cannot be expected to perform as genuine chief executives, without professional help. Edgartown and Oak Bluffs should find the means in their multi-million dollar budgets to fund enhanced professional support, in the form of a kind of chief of staff, reporting directly to the selectmen.
This support should be in the form of a roving portfolio charged with troubleshooting the array of appointed and elected town agencies, on the lookout for inefficiencies, bottlenecks, waste, poor planning, financial messes, and personnel explosions awaiting detonation. The charge should be to assist town agencies that need management advice or close oversight and to bring to the selectmen early word of problems that require their attention. It will be money well spent, and it will reassure voters and taxpayers that someone in the chief executive chairs is paying attention.