Opinion: Criminal or Incompetent?
Updated: Jul 10, 2020
From the very beginning of trying to wrap my head around the current situation, I have wrestled with the ultimate question -- how much of this is bluster and how much of this real? Could we have a situation where we have a group of employees who are angry that the new(Ish) management has stepped up the workload and they are lashing out? Could we have a situation that all the deals regarding decks, silos, wells, and roads are all 100% above board, but the lack of good communication from the village makes it all seem shady?
Truth is, I have no idea the answer to this question. And at the end of the day, isn't that the real question here? How much of this above board and poorly communicated and how much of this covering up something truly nafarious? There are only a few people in our village who will be able to ever answer that question, but I know a few facts that lead me to believe that if nothing else change must occur.
First, I've never met at group of 5 people who can agree on where to have dinner, so I'm having a hard time believing that 27-30 past and present employees have gotten together and plotted against our CAO and President. I'll grant that no one has publicly said this was a plot in so many words; but it certainly feels like that accusation is bubbling just below the surface. So, walk down that path with me for a second and see how it plays out:
If the complaining parties fabricated their accusations, they would have had to work together to do this. I've had the opportunity to read every single written statement submitted to Mr. Younge prior to May 4, and there are so many that recall similar events; they either were in the same room or had a common author of the narrative. So, following this line of thinking, who stands to gain the most from being the common author?
The Police Chief? After all, it was his raising of his voice that kicks this whole fun off. But what would his motivation be? My understanding is that his job wasn't in jeopardy, despite the comment on the video that Mr. Stephan threatened his job a week before. He is universally beloved by every person I've spoken to. Seriously, you could only hope to live your life and have that many people, regardless of position on the matter, say such things about you. So -- maybe he dislikes CAO Smith and would rather a different supervisor? Ok, but his raising his voice to kick this off would seem like a super, risky way to kick over the first domino. After all, what would happen if the board chose not to speak to him about his actions and just fired him -- which they could do. So, I'm thinking that the yelling can't be the first domino.
Bryan Younge? Oh, my -- if you read the OpEd from Mr. Berman, this is certainly the author of the central narrative. After all, he went to the chief to find out about the yelling and came out with nearly 30 letters of complaint. So, naturally, it must be him. To what end? Mr. Berman has pulled up an email from Mr. Younge where he outlines a path to end the strife in the village. In ONE line, Mr. Younge attempts to calm the fears of a leaderless village upon the removal of the CAO and President, by offering to step up and pitch in. Now, I can see how easily that statement is twisted. CAO Smith makes a good salary and doesn't it seem easy to say that Mr. Younge is in it for the job -- you know increasing his $100/month Trustee salary to $158K/year would be a slight bump. BUT, Mr. Younge offered to step in with no pay and was just throwing it out there as an option. I have been asked multiple times, 'So, if the petition works and we get CAO on leave, who will do her job?' and the response has been 'the staff filled in for the turbulent months in 2017 where they saw no fewer than FOUR Village Managers. So, I think we can go a month or two with simply board oversight, right?
So, employee lead? But who? Who would have the respect and support of 27-30 other people to get them to lie? I've spoken to so many staff, former and current (though admittedly not all 27-30), I can tell you that while I enjoyed all my conversations with them, not a single one of the is charismatic enough to lead the Anti-Smith/Stephan campaign. Competent in their jobs, YES! Leaders of revolutions? Not at all.
So, we have no author of a single narrative. So, we must then have a series of small events that have been blown out of proportion. Ok, I'm going to grant this one as plausable -- mostly because again, I've read so many of the bullet-pointed lists of complaints. Here's one example:
Mr. Stephans, when first elected, referred to himself as the "Mayor of Lakewood"
Um, ok. That is also what his mentor, Paul Serwatka, refers to himself as. Yes, we are not a mayoral form of government. Yes, this statement is totally untrue, but if anything it's annoying, not complaint worthy. And I'm hoping I'm not speaking out of turn when I say, in the complaints there are a fair number of this level of 'annoyances' intermixed with disturbing complaints and concerns.
If we have a situation where we need to separate the complaints from the annoyances, what would a good manager do? What would someone who was skilled and experienced in managing people do to approach this situation? What would you like your boss or your children's bosses to do?
Naturally, you would want them to look into the complaints, separate the valid from the invalid, speak to the parties regarding 'cutting someone some slack' for the invalid ones and addressing the valid ones, right? But what if the person the complaints were about was this manager? How would a good manager address this situation in order to resolve the concerns and make everyone feel valued and heard?
Surely, that answer would be to hand off the complaints to the board and create an environment that feels like retaliation and hate on a daily basis, right? Surely, this manager would be looking to write up every person who complained for insubordination, when they did exactly what this manager told them to do? Surely, that's the mark of a good manager -- to humiliate the staff publicly in a board meeting and to then attempt to build a case that these employees are the incompetent ones to be able to fire them?
Oh, it's not is it? No, a good manager would recognize that there's a morale problem and seek outside help. A good manager would seek to be the 'better person' and pull disgruntled employees aside and ask, "What can I do to make this work better?" and listen to the response. A great manager would have done this LONG before the problems got this far.
I've managed people. I call among my closest friends some of the people I've managed -- though when I managed them, I kept a hard line between my friendship and my management. I would ask often, "How can I make your job better/easier/satisfying?" I'd listen. I've found that by being transparent with my employees, sharing with them some of what I struggled with, I often got the best ideas on how to make all processes better. But the core of that was that I set my own ego aside, I admitted that I don't know everything, and ultimately, I listened. I'd have employees come to me to vent and I'd begin with "I'll listen, but at the end of this you need to tell me if you need me to step in or just listen." I would praise publicly every great idea and admonish privately when it was needed.
So, at the end of all of this -- I've come to one single conclusion. If all the employee working-environment complaints were of the "annoyance" level (which for the record, they are not); then I still hold our CAO and President accountable for fostering an environment where this was allowed to fester. They appear to have tried to put down this 'revolution' with a sledgehammer and not with good, strong management skills. There's so place in senior leadership for out of control egos; the best managers I know are humble. And while egos abound, I'm seeing a shocking lack of humility.
Thus, we have poor senior leadership. Had our board not attempted to defer and deflect and dismiss, they would have seen this as a training opportunity and gotten some outside help. There are experts in leadership who can hold workshops and even communication exercises. This method would have cost thousands less than the legal bills the CAO and President have racked up in a CYA mentally.
Then there are the financial complaints. So many of those, it makes my head spin. While I assure you, dear reader, I'll walk through them in future posts, I want to summarize them all as falling into 1 of 2 categories:
Emergency Spending when it wasn't truly an emergency.
Incomplete Overview of the request.
The first is easy. Our board president loves the straw poll. He learned this at the feet of his mentor. So, in order to get people to agree quickly and without asking too many questions, he says something is urgent and can't wait two weeks (for a board meeting OR even a few extra days for bids to come in). I very much want to believe that deep down, President Stephan thinks he's doing the right thing and is a quick decision maker. My problem is that his quick decisions seem to always cost us more money or put priorities in the wrong place.
The second is an issue with the CAO. I've combed through board packet after board packet and I've never seen a more inconsistent pattern of requests for spending. Some appear to be well thought out complete requests with details and back-up and others look like someone typed up a post-it note to get it into the packet on time. I would propose that the board adopt a standard format to every budget spending request that includes the following in easy bullet points at the top:
Cost proposed to spend
Budget line item the spending is to come from
Amount currently in that budget line item
If not enough to cover the expense, the budget line item that will have to be given up in order to spend this money.
The anticipated balance of the one or two budget line items that are affected.
Then, an overview of the problem this purchase will solve.
A review of the bids received OR an explanation on why this was done as a no bid.
If that was done -- do you think our board would have passed a $20K irrigation well for Red Tail that will not bring fresh water into Turnberry Lakes and will likely not hit 50 gallons/minute at 150 feet -- when Red Tail is still trying to recover from losing a month of golfing AND was very much in the red last year?
Summing up -- forgive me for going on so long -- there could be something deeply sinister here. It could be merely incompetence. But either way, it requires action from the board. As of the writing of this, the board's majority response has been "There's nothing to see here." Which frankly only goes to fuel the flames that it is more sinister than incompetence. But do not be fooled, even if what we are dealing with is merely poor management, bad proposal writing, and general incompetence, that alone is enough to take action. Get outside help; stop trying to investigate yourselves, something you are wholly unqualified to do; and step up to do your jobs.