A sad Oak Bluffs cock-up
The news last week from Oak Bluffs town counsel Ron Rappaport and labor counsel Michael Gilman that the selectmen have improperly entered into employment contracts with some supervisory employees is both welcome and discouraging. It is welcome because town voters need to know when their leaders are conducting municipal business in an irregular fashion, and the selectmen - all of them, plus their professional subordinates - ought to be pressed to correct their mistakes and bring town personnel practices back in bounds.
Just as the town's financial affairs are subject to regular independent audits, so should the executive practices of the five selectmen be steadily reviewed and improved.
At the same time, the news is discouraging because the selectmen's efforts to identify key supervisory positions and move to attract qualified and impressive candidates for those jobs, using negotiated employment contracts to improve accountability and leadership performance, is commendable. The management relationships between town executives - the selectmen - and town employees on the Vineyard have been historically limited in ways that can frustrate and defeat modernization, efficiency, and economy. The carefully designed and regularly updated job categorization that personnel committees struggle to accomplish does not necessarily serve the town's leadership needs in certain areas, for instance financial management and control, the one instance for which counsel found justification for the contract the selectmen had negotiated.
The thoughtful identification of those jobs that demand special accountability and highly developed management skills naturally leads to a desire to remove such posts from the relatively flat personnel organization most towns use. Doing so makes it possible to compete for and hire the most promising candidates for these jobs and then for the selectmen to hold these employees to the highest performance standards. It can be a valuable step forward for a growing community, and it is one Oak Bluffs has been wise to attempt.
But, it's a step the selectmen have bungled. Chief among the disappointments for town voters is the discovery that, had town counsel been asked to develop a system for moving to the use of employment contracts to govern the performance of some key employees, the selectmen could have proceeded confidently and properly. Consulting counsel after the fact is poor executive practice, and it leads to messes like this one.
In addition, while the selectmen did consult with the town personnel committee on elements of their effort to contract for some supervisory positions, they did not consult extensively enough with voters. Explaining to voters, not merely that an employment contract has been negotiated, or that several have, but describing in writing and in public discussions the goals for such an effort, would have allowed the selectmen to gauge the public's reception of the change. In Oak Bluffs, and with this group of selectmen who have not found a way to work together, explicit, detailed public discussions over changes such as the selectmen's flawed attempt to use employment contracts for key personnel, plus careful consultation with counsel, are necessary to avoid cock-ups like this.