Support or Dismiss. Give Us Clarity, Commissioners

Score one for those of us who look at the “LPAC” committee as a tool dreamed up by Mayor Gow Fields and City Manager Doug Thomas and whomever else to buy time and space to allow scandal fatigue to fully set in.

Evidence?

Commissioners spent hours Monday morning flailing about over whether to endorse a committee without a scope or mission. They did this instead of discussing the blockbuster story that Rick Rousos wrote Sunday in The Ledger about how poorly the city manager and staff vetted Chief Womack’s time in Elgin, Ind. You know, the place she worked just prior to coming here — where there was a major sex scandal, where she took public criticism for her communication with the public and media, and where she got fired, errr, was forced to resign.

Go read the entire thing. Here’s an important excerpt:

Lakeland officials said they knew about the sex scandal in Elgin but never asked to see a 700-page report into the investigation surrounding it. That led a police consultant to question whether Lakeland did a thorough search in hiring Womack.

Lakeland also didn’t ask for open-to-the-public emails connected to the affair between a deputy chief and a sergeant serving under Womack, and it didn’t hire an investigator to check out Womack’s background, something the consultant said is standard procedure. He also said the city “had an obligation to get all of the facts.”

Nor did Lakeland City Manager Doug Thomas, whose decision it was to hire Womack, ever interview the current city manager in Elgin who forced Womack to quit her job there. A local political science professor said that’s bothersome.

Rick’s story also skillfully displays the personalities of both Womack and Thomas.

In Womack’s case, she gets into a minor cross-country spat, in print, with the wronged husband of the woman at the center of the Elgin scandal. Womack had traveled with the affairing couple for at least one and perhaps more cross country conferences. And the woman was her accreditation specialist. That led the cuckolded husband to say Womack must have known about what was happening. Womack denies that — in her own inimitable style.

“How could I not have known?” Womack asked. “How could he not have known either? I didn’t know, but I didn’t live with either one of them. He’s wrong if he says I knew.”

Let me help you, chief. The correct answer is something like, “I did not know, and I’m not going to go back and forth in the paper. It’s not professional.”

This chief seems constitutionally incapable of taking the high road in any dispute. That’s not a good leadership quality for anyone, much less a police chief. And you wonder where we get a police department with a recent record of treating the public with contempt even beyond the sexual contempt they display for each other. See “the Spitter”, the “traffic funnel,” various beatings, et. al. But then, I’ve never taken part in Leadership Lakeland, so what do I know?

Do we think Doug Thomas read that story and called up his most important department head to counsel her about getting into cross country print spats with people from her old department? Good lord, chief? Is there anyone you can’t escalate a fight with? Jerry Hill and The Ledger aren’t enough? Cool it. Let me tell you: I would have made that call. I would have made it months ago about Jerry Hill and The Ledger, too. But then I’m not a leader.

This is what leadership looks like in Lakeland, again from Rick’s story:

In an email of two short questions, The Ledger asked Thomas whether Lakeland ever asked to see the lengthy investigative report into the Beeter-Welter affair that occurred during Womack’s tenure. And if not, why?

Thomas’ lengthy reply reiterated all the things the city did right and all the steps the city took in hiring a chief, but he didn’t answer either yes or no to the questions about the report.

This is what it looks like in Greensboro, North Carolina, which I suspect is fancying itself pretty darn smart these days:

In July 2010, Womack was one of the two finalists for the chief’s job in Greensboro, N.C. John Hammer, editor of the The Rhinoceros Times, a weekly newspaper there, said in an editorial the city might want to take a pass on Womack.

“City Council members (in Greensboro) have expressed concern about someone who was essentially fired from her last job, particularly when she was fired from her last job and we don’t know why,” Hammer wrote.

I go through all of this for two reasons:

1) To acknowledge Rick’s outstanding work. It deserves acknowledgment. This was a tough to report, skillfully written piece. It is generally indicative of the quality of work your local newspaper has done on this hugely important story. Sorry, haters. The Ledger is doing its job and doing it well. It’s tough to have people angry with you all the time. Reporters don’t like it any more than anybody else does, despite their often gruff exteriors. It’s exhausting. These men and women, with their $35 to $40K salaries, are doing outstanding publicly-focused work at a time when they have no certainty about the economic future of their industry and lots of people question their motives. The rest of us should take our missions as seriously.

2) I want to point out that we already have ample information to answer the only question that really matters: does our city government’s senior leadership deserve to stay?

You know where we “Billy Townsend-type” people stand. Where does the City Commission stand?

The Twitterverse tells me our commissioners Monday morning were quick to claim sole prerogative in taking any action in relation to senior leadership.

Even Edie Yates, the human absence, who apparently has no access to phone or computer or any other method of public communication during her extended vacations that happen to overlap with the most serious moments she’ll ever encounter in this job, even that Edie Yates said “the buck stops” with the City Commission. (One wonders if the bucks in her city check stopped coming during the time she wasn’t doing her job. Sorry, I digress.)

The upshot of the Monday discussion was this, LPAC can do and say what it wants, but we hire and fire the city manager and attorney. The city manager hires and fires the chief. So there. even though we created LPAC ourselves. That’s exactly correct. I agree.

That’s why commissioners should go on record at the next meeting and issue a long-term vote of confidence for the city manager, city attorney, and chief. Or call for their dismissal. The gooey ambiguity you’re rolling around in, commissioners, is destroying everyone’s will to live. I only slightly exaggerate.

Two sentences. Pick one. Only one of you needs to do it.

  • I move we dismiss the city manager and city attorney and appoint an interim city manager to dismiss the chief.
  • I move that we express confidence in our senior leaders and expect them to remain in place as long as they choose to remain.

See, that isn’t so hard.

Someone will second. Then you can discuss, either way.

Here are the questions that I, as a citizen, would like you to answer.

1) Do you think the city manager cares more about making full vesting at 10 years than he does about addressing the core problems of his government? Answer honestly.

2) How many problems touching on the strategic goals of city government have been left to fester, particularly recently? I look at LPD; at the sell Lakeland Electric brouhaha; USFP and FPU; CSX; the endless alphabet soup of downtown organizations and the fiasco over who gets to put a bar where; etc. In fairness, I think current leadership handled the Lakeland Electric FMPA contract as well as it could, and it has overseen creation some nice new parks and public spaces. You should weigh all of that. But ultimately, the core job of a leader, in my humble opinion, is to confront problems with as much clarity as possible, even if that comes with personal consequences. That’s why leaders get the big bucks.

3) Remember this:

In an email of two short questions, The Ledger asked Thomas whether Lakeland ever asked to see the lengthy investigative report into the Beeter-Welter affair that occurred during Womack’s tenure. And if not, why?

Thomas’ lengthy reply reiterated all the things the city did right and all the steps the city took in hiring a chief, but he didn’t answer either yes or no to the questions about the report.

How has that governing personality worked with the big issues that confront us? How does it work when there are no answers to satisfy everyone, no easy 7-0 vote to be had? With all of our advantages as a city — location, LE money, low property taxes, Publix — are we underachieving?

4) And finally, I want you to discuss how the city manager and city attorney communicate with you, both behind the scenes and in public. Say this for Doug: he’s unfailingly polite in public. Can you say the same about Tim McCausland? This matters, because when those two talk to you, either in private meetings, or on camera, they are talking to me. They are talking to the public, for whom they work.

Consider all that and then vote your conscience. Heaven knows you’re not paid enough in that awful job you have to vote anything else.

That vote, whichever side you choose, will carry consequences. Governing effectively demands choices and accepting consequences. Period. Unity is a terrible goal in politics. It generally means nothing gets done, no choices get made, or some group really suffers terribly if a choice does get made. Votes in representative government are the way we solve political problems and disputes without killing each other. Give me a 4-3 vote on a real question over a 7-0 vote on nothing any day of the week. We don’t live in 7-0 world. 7-0 worlds are illusions. Just look around you.

You owe it to your city, commissioners, to at least escape from this endless labyrinth of process and scope debate signifying nothing. If you envision the same chief and city leadership in one-year, five years or 10 years, say so. I will criticize you. But that hardly makes you bad people. And it will allow the city as a whole clarity, so it can organize itself accordingly. We wouldn’t have to infer the future from your inaction. Maybe we could all stop banging our heads on the desk. Lakeland government is too small to have Kremlinology and too big not to confront itself seriously.

If you can’t bring yourself to provide your constituents with clarity in this matter, you should resign and go tend to you lives and businesses. And I don’t say that nastily.

Edie Yates seems to have this work-life balance question answered pretty well. But I genuinely worry about the toll this job takes on the rest of you as people. And I think we desperately need to pay commissioners 50K or more if we want them to do this job in the manner the public expects it done. In case you haven’t noticed, almost no one wants to run for this awful, awful honor. If you don’t feel like you can manage it, again, it doesn’t make you a bad person.

Indeed, the previous pope of the Catholic Church, who I did not much like, is a model. He recognized himself as incapable of addressing the massive problems his institution faces. So he got out of the way. That’s honorable. In doing so, he set the conditions for a new burst of life in the Church. It should not prove more difficult for Lakeland city government to find clarity about its future and leadership than it was for the Vatican.

3 thoughts on “Support or Dismiss. Give Us Clarity, Commissioners

  1. Patton said it well. “We herd sheep. We drive cattle. We lead people. Lead me, follow me or get out of my way.”

    What exactly do they teach those people down at Lakeland CheerLeadership?

  2. Well said. Most folks I talk with agree. Will the Commission act? Some of us are skeptical.

  3. A COUPLE OF MORE OBSERVATIONS AFTER YESTERDAY’S POLICE ADVISORY COMMITTEE MEETING:

    1) I NOTE HERE THAT I E-MAILED EACH OF LAKELAND’S CITY COMMISSIONERS, AS WELL AS SPOKE IN PERSON WITH ONE FOLLOWING THE PAC MEETING. MY MESSAGE WAS BASICALLY THE SAME ONE THAT I MADE IN THE MEETING MYSELF; THAT THE PAC SHOULD STRIVE TO MEET AT VARIOUS TIMES AND PLACES IN ORDER TO GIVE THE LOCAL CITIZENRY AN OPPORTUNITY TO BE HEARD IN A PUBLIC FORUM AT TIMES WHERE THOSE WHO WISH TO ATTEND MAY DO SO AND REACH THE LOCATION IN A MANNER THAT IT WOULD NOT MAKE ATTENDENCE AN INCONVENIENCE (IN MY BRIEF REMARKS, I SUGGESTED THE COMMUNITY ROOMS AT EITHER OF THE CITY’S LIBRARIES AS EXAMPLES). SADLY, THE ONLY RESPONSE TO MY E-MAIL EARLIER THIS WEEK WAS FROM COMMISSIONER DON SELVAGE; AND I DID HAVE A BRIEF WORD AFTER THE MEETING OUTSIDE CITY HALL WITH COMMISSIONER KEITH MERRITT. WHILE MY COMMENTS WERE VERY BRIEF (AT ONE TIME I SPENT 15 YEARS IN BROADCASTING HERE AND IN MY NATIVE MISSISSIPPI; MY HEALTH HAS TAKEN A ROAD DOWN IN RECENT YEARS.)

    2) PER THE COMMENTS MADE BY MY PREDACESSOR AT THE PODIUM, THERE ARE CERTAIN AREAS, SUCH AS PERSONAL AREAS LIKE AN OFFICER’S MARITAL STATUS/STATUS, WHICH ARE NOT FOR PUBLIC ISSUE. CHAIRMAN BRUCE ABELS NOTED PROPERLY THAT FACE IMMEDIATELY THE SPEAKER FINISHED.

    3) I SHOULD QUESTION, WITH ALL DUE RESPECT TO MAYOR GOW FIELDS, WHY HE DECIDED TO APPOINT ALL MEMBERS OF THE PAC, INSTEAD OF NOT ASKING ONE OR MORE OTHER COMMISSIONERS TO AID WITH THE MAKEUP OF THE PANEL? ACTUALLY, THE MAKEUP IS VERY GOOD, BUT I DO BELIEVE THAT SOME ASSISTANCE FROM THE MAYOR’S FELLOW COMMISSIONERS WOULD HAVE BEEN HELPFUL.

    4) ONE FURTHER POINT OF ORDER: MR. FRANK O’REILLY, WHO IS A MEMBER OF THE ADVISORY PANEL, HAS BEEN AND CONTINUES TO BE, AN ACTIVE MEMBER OF THE POLK COUNTY SCHOOL BOARD FOR DISTRICT 1. JUST A POINT OF INTEREST.

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