Friday, March 10, 2006

After video review, the penalty stands

Last night, the BWG analytical staff spent an unpleasant hour reviewing video of the infamous Berkowitz termination fiasco from last Tuesday's council meeting. Although painful, we strongly suggest that every Gray citizen watch this sordid episode in order to fully understand what an embarrassing liability your town council has become. On DVD, the spectacle begins at the 3:45:30 mark and runs for about 37 minutes.

The basics: Mitch Berkowitz has resigned as town manager. He will continue working through March 17. After that, he'll be out of the office on accrued offtime but will remain on the payroll until May 2. He is town manager until then, and will make himself available to answer administrative and transition questions from council and staff.

The council officially accepted this arrangement at a previous "workshop". Actions of this sort aren't supposed to be taken at workshops, but the Politburo recently decided that workshops are now official meetings...another story.

Late on Tuesday night, Skip Crane introduced a proposal to relieve Mitch of his duties immediately - a substantive change in the terms of Mitch's resignation agreement. Crane offered no reason for such an accelerated termination other than therapeutic platitudes about everybody needing to move on with their lives. While he agreed in principle that Mitch's overall compensation package should remain unchanged, Crane was unprepared to discuss certain specifics that would be affected by this change in departure timing, such as medical insurance coverage. Nevertheless, Crane was fully prepared to proceed with his motion, even proposing to immediately designate an interim town manager.

Now, it is not too hard for most of us to see that Crane's proposal is significantly at odds with the legally binding terms of the termination agreement that the council had unanimously accepted the previous week. Crane's motion was tantamount to firing Mitch without cause, and if it had passed, the Town of Gray would not only be dealing with a premature managerial vacancy; it would also probably find itself on the losing end of another expensive lawsuit (see Nathan's post on golden parachutes below). Sadly, common sense is a rare commodity with this council, and what followed ultimately proved humiliating for everyone involved.

You really have to watch the video to get the full flavor of the thing -- Crane's stubborn refusal to acknowledge legal reality, his descent into sulking petulance as the wheels came off his plan; Upham's aggressive, blustering certainty in a fatally flawed idea; Foster's initial tepid support, then his equally tepid opposition; his halting nervousness and inability to control the situation, the circular logic, the parliamentary paralysis, the hot-potato handoffs, the frozen stares, and the final ignominious collapse of a profoundly bad idea under its own weight. It was such a monumental display of failed leadership that it actually became painful to follow, and it accomplished nothing except for embarrassing all of the participants.

For her part, Denise Duda was obviously troubled by Crane's motion but unhelpfully incoherent. Only John Welch quickly understood the stakes and reacted appropriately, describing the motion as "not only wrong, but wrong-headed." John deserves thanks for his efforts in pulling the town back from the brink of an expensive debacle. Also, a tip of the hat to Brad Fogg, whose experience with public employee contracts led him to advise the councilors that they were driving dangerously close to the edge of a very high cliff.

The most comic moment, such as it was, came when a sycophantic Janet Neal publicly expressed her fervent belief that the councilors would never, ever do something like this without first talking to a lawyer -- only to be told a few moments later that none of them had, in fact, ever talked to a lawyer. Welcome to our world, Janet.

Gray is about to lose a competent and effective town manager to the vindictive machinations of unprincipled demagogues. They have now somehow managed to soil even this decent man's exit. Its getting harder and harder to overestimate the destructive impact these individuals have had on this town and the people who actually make it work.