Our Town Council changes every year or two. For many years, we – Town Council and residents — have relied upon the stability of Town staff to provide some continuity to the management of the Town’s business.
Don’t look now, but we are in a period of serious instability in both Town Council and Town Staff. Instability just from lack of consistency, lack of institutional knowledge. This is a different town and council is a much different job than it was 20 or even 10 years ago. Our Mayor and our immediate past Mayor might be the first ones to say so.
Our Town Manager has been here a little over two years. Many of our department heads have less than two years at the helm of their departments. There’s nothing wrong with being new, fresh faces and new ideas are good but it does take time to settle into a job and learn all the details.
Our Community Development staff has had almost 100% turnover in the past few years. And it’s not just that department. Since 2013, our Town has lost two Parks and Rec Directors, three planning professionals, a Town Manager, Finance Director, Environmental Science Coordinator and a Public Works Director. We’ve also changed our Town Attorney in that time frame. That’s just a short list, there are more casualties. And the real victim is the Town. And us.
This kind of turnover is not healthy for our Town. Where is the institutional knowledge? Who knows what was done and how for a problem that occurred just a few years ago? It would be a fair guess that not everything done by staff has a detailed paper trail that someone can pick up 5-10 years later and find the answer.
This morning, the Town Council is holding a Special Meeting and deliberating over two subjects – our Town’s financial condition and our Town Manager. If the Coconut Telegraph is any judge, there’s a good chance that we’ll be looking for a new Town Manager before the week is over.
If they determine that our Town would be better off with a different manager, council should approach the decision with eyes wide open. There are costs.
First the contractually required severance pay. Then the search costs, an expense that occurs regularly enough that it should have it’s own line item in the Town’s budget. A manager is the head of Town staff, productivity drops as everyone waits for a new boss.
A change could also impact us in some intangible ways. The departure of another Town Manager, when added to the ten departures of other professionals in the last 3 years would do nothing to bolster the Town’s reputation as a reliable place to work for any skilled management professionals that might be looking for a job. We need skilled professionals at Town Hall. There will be candidates apply, but will they be the right candidates – the ones we need – the ones who have the knowledge and skills to run our town smoothly?
We don’t need yes-people; we need staff that while understanding that council has the final say, are not afraid to voice their opinion. I fear those kinds of professionals will look at our Town’s record of churning professional staff and say, ‘no thanks.’
The lack of continuity at Town Hall could very well be part of the other topic of the special meeting Friday – Town Finances. More specifically, it seems that the Town has accumulated over $3 million in unpaid bills related to the water line project over the past few months. The Finance Department didn’t have them all in hand until just recently. So, while working on the state revolving loan application to pay for the water line project, the bills sat for months.
The obvious questions are, why was the loan application not submitted until early May? And what was the plan if voters had not approved the removal of the three-year debt limit from the Town Charter in March?
The council has an Audit Committee to advise on financial matters. They would be an excellent resource to assist in the development of a billing and payment system that has checks and balances and protects both the Town and staff. Let’s use the expertise that exists on that committee to benefit the Town.
It’s a critical time for our Town. Town Council will begin to look at the Town budget next week. We have a Finance Department, but budget preparation without an experienced Town Manager is a steep hill to climb.
We are in the middle of two major construction projects with Estero Boulevard and the Town’s water line project. We can’t afford the slightest hiccup in either project. We’ve just managed to convince the county and MPO that the road project needs to be fast tracked and be completed in five years rather than ten.
We are also about to finally address storm water problems that have plagued our community for decades.
We have a lot of very important and expensive balls in the air right now. It’s up to Town Council to make sure none of them hit the floor. If they decide that they want a new Town Manager, they have to make sure that these big projects continue uninterrupted.
If they vote to replace our Town Manager, they should seriously consider hiring an experienced interim manager, who’s not interested in the job long-term, so council has the time to find and hire the best person for the job, so we’re not repeating this dance in another year or two.