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.


Thursday, March 09, 2006

Lack of choice does not an election make

When I was a teenager, I would always ask my mom for a snack after school.
One day, I complained about the apple I was eating.
She scolded me, saying "You chose that apple."
"Yes," I replied. "But all we have are apples to choose from, and I wanted an orange."
Kind of like our last election. Granted, we voted for the winners. But we had a very limited slate of candidates!
The winner of an election with such limited choices would do well to recognize that.
We voted for candidates to run the town, not to run their own agenda.
I wish the councilors would recognize that, as well.
Nathan Tsukroff

A Gentleman

If I believe what I read in The Monument, our Town Manager, Mitch Berkowitz, is an insubordinate jerk.
The problem is, I can't find any evidence of that.
You see, despite all the pressure he's been under, Mitch has never said or done anything less than what I would expect from a gentleman.
On several occasions I've asked Mitch questions intended to give him the opportunity to speak his mind. He has refused to take the bait.
In fact, Mitch has always spoken courteously of all Town Council members, and has been even-handed in his dealings with everyone. I have never seen him show favoritism to those he likes, or act rudely to do those I would assume he finds less than likeable.
A recent comment in this blog called Mitch unsubordinate. I simply don't see any evidence of that.
I hope this Town Council comes to its senses. A professional town manager of Mitch's caliber is hard to find and will be very hard to replace.
Mitch truly epitomizes the word "gentleman".
Nathan Tsukroff

Putting a value on a life

I have a five-year-old son. My wife and I think he's priceless. I'm sure all parents think the same of their own children.
I'm concerned that Town Councilor Andy Upham may think otherwise. I'd hate to think that Upham places the value of a life at no more than $45,000 - the cost of a 30,000-gallon cistern for a new subdevelopment.
You see, Upham doesn't think we should presently require builders to install life safey items like sprinklers or cisterns in new developments. Why? Because they aren't specifically noted in ordinances.
Now let's look at some facts. Sprinklers in houses can suppress a fire for the approximately 15 minutes needed for firefighters to respond and set up a flow of water. Cisterns are needed in areas where it's hard to find water. Nationally, it's recommended that, within 15 minutes of being notified of a fire, a fire department should be able to establish a flow of water at 250 gallons per minute for 2 hours. That's where the 30,000 gallons comes from.
If water is not available near a proposed subdivision, builders throughout the country have traditionally been required to install their own water source - a cistern. The size of the cistern is predicated on various factors, including any available water in local streams or rivers.
Another fact - under Maine state statute, section 4403, a Planning Board may choose to disapprove a development that does not include life safety items.THIS IS NOT ILLEGAL. It is allowed under Maine statute, despite what Upham said at the council meeting.
This is good for the community. It saves lives right up front. And it saves all the taxpayers in Gray the cost of adding fire trucks to carry water to a fire that does not have a nearby water source.
For many years, the previous town councilors were perfectly happy to let our Planning Board make decisions that were good for the community.
Do we need to have life safety items specified in our ordinances? No we do not. But if Upham wants to incorporate them into the ordinances, that is fine.
Just don't shoot everyone in the foot by prohibiting the established practice by the Planning Board of requiring life safety items.
Our Town Council would be wise to continue with the status quo while working on updating the ordinances.
This move by Upham gives the appearance he is putting dollars before lives. I hope he'll rethink this proposal.
Nathan Tsukroff

Hobson's Choice

Upham & Crane's bungled attempt to illegally remove Mitch as town manager brings up the question of motive. What was behind this display of profound administrative ignorance? These clowns are Mayberry Machiavellis (a surprisingly apt phrase stolen from John DiIulio) and given the record it would be naive to assume it wasn't part of some fevered agenda worked out beforehand. Still, the fact that Foster bailed out early, combined with Crane's post-fiasco attempt to dismiss the whole thing as insufficient forethought on his part, does suggest a certain lack of pre-planning.

So what the hell was this ridiculous and potentially catastrophic spectacle all about? Collective incompetence with an ulterior motive or simple individual stupidity? And does anybody feel as glum as I do that these are the only two possibilities?


Wednesday, March 08, 2006

The Golden Parachute

Tuesday night, Town Councilor Skip Crane nearly pulled the rip cord on a golden parachute for Mitch Berkowitz, our town manager who resigned two weeks ago.
The council accepted Berkowitz' resignation at a special meeting last week. The council agreed to allow Berkowitz to work through March 17, then use accrued vacation time through May 2 while receiving health insurance coverage through the end of May.
At Tuesday's Town Council meeting, Crane proposed a resolution to immediately relieve Berkowitz of his duties. Crane explained that he was simply speeding up the process, and would expect to fulfill the financial obligations (pay and healthcare coverage) to which the town had already agreed.
Under Berkowitz' contract, which the previous council had extended through 2007, Berkowitz would receive six months pay and healthcare if he is terminated without cause. Cause is essentially defined as malfeasance or breaking the law.
Berkowitz prodded the council to contact the town attorney before moving forward with the resolution. Councilor John Welch loudly and firmly told his fellow councilors they were making a big mistake. Andy Upham joined Crane in pushing for the resolution.
Thankfully, Chair Gary Foster was on the fence on the issue. When the resolution was called for a vote, Brad Fogg spoke up from the audience and said he handles six public contracts and saw the council potentially making a big mistake with this resolution.
The resolution failed.
After the meeting was adjourned, Crane and Berkowitz chatted for a moment, and Crane noted he had not realized the implications of his proposed resolution.
Crane got a bit of a scare, and the town was very likely saved from dishing out over $40,000.
That's why it's called a Golden Parachute!
Nathan Tsukroff

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Where does Nathan come from?

There was an interesting comment at the tail end of posts to my comment about "Freedom of Speech."
The writer asks about my background, and rightfully so. It's important to know a person's history in order to understand how and why they react to a situation.
I'm the product of a Jewish father who married a Christian, against the will of his strict Orthodox parents. My parents eloped. My mother was eventually accepted into the family.
We have no record of any remaining relatives in Ukraine, due to the Soviet pogroms of the early 1900's. My father was strongly affected by the horrors of World War II, and made it clear to my siblings and me that intolerance and hatred have no place in this world.
My parents joined a fundamentalist Christian movement in the early 1950's, excited by the concept of sharing that was presented by the movement's founder. Sadly, the founder died and his sons have turned the movement into what has all appearances of a cult.
We left the movement about the time it was changing, and have not been allowed to communicate with friends we left behind.
After settling in Connecticut, my parents marched in protest of the Vietnam War, and my father led the legal battle to allow a syngagogue to move into the town where I grew up.
While doing a photography promotion, my wife and I traveled across America for eight years before our only son was born. We've been in 46 states, and have seen how  people across America all have the same desire for family and a safe refuge.
I believe this gives me good insight into tolerance and oppression. Perhaps this will give our readers some insight into my reasons for standing up to the actions of Prata and the present town council.
Nathan Tsukroff


Monday, March 06, 2006

Selling the old Post Office

Some forward motion from the Town Council after all . . .
The council appears ready to sell the old Post Office and use the proceeds to pay for the build out of the library.
At first blush, this appears to be a sensible idea.
Is this good for the town of Gray, or would it be better to expand the town hall into the old post office building?

Nathan Tsukroff

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Mysterious cryptic blog post

It's time for The Recipe, comrades. Pass it on.