Thursday, August 27, 2015

Follow-up on the Town Manager Evaluation

Citizen blogger Larry Kelley was kind enough to respond to my piece on the Town Manager evaluation (since I had referenced his).

I started a long reply, but then it occurred to me that both halves of the exchange might serve the public better as a separate post.  So here goes.

Larry Kelley said...

Well I did use a question mark with my title "Trouble at the top?"; and notice I went out of my way to find a photo where both the Town Manager and SB Chair Alisa Brewer seem to be sharing a lighthearted moment.

A fighter pilot is trained to scan the horizon and ignore everything that should be there making it easier to spot a tiny dot -- enemy fighter or incoming missile -- that should NOT be there.

When LBJ won the NH primary in 1968 by 49% to 42% over Eugene McCarthy, the headlines could have stated: "LBJ wins by decent margin" or "Is LBJ in trouble?". I of course would have used the latter.

After the tumultuous years for the Select Board during the reign of Anne Awad and Gerry Weiss the institution has become, for lack of a better word, boring (other than the 9/11 commemorative flag fiasco of course). So any hint of discord or friction is made even more newsworthy.

If UMass or Amherst College were to suddenly address grade inflation with new stricter criteria it would shock the first transitional generation of students to come under the new evaluation methods.

Perhaps now that average citizens and town employees know the Select Board takes its job of evaluating the Town Manager so seriously, and that he is not above criticism, the number of people submitting evaluations will increase next year.

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Citizen Wald replies:

No problem, Larry. As I said, I assumed you stressed the negative because it was more newsworthy (dog bites man is not much of a story).

the options should not be just either a pat on the back or a pink slip

I just wanted to clarify for the public that the Town Manager (unlike LBJ) was not in trouble, for that's the point: the options should not be just either a pat on the back or a pink slip. The possibility for strong, constructive criticism should be something that we accept as normal and healthy. In fact, it also lends more weight to the positive things we have to say. 

Amherst has been served well by the institution of Town Manager--and the evaluation process

Speaking more generally, I might add: Amherst has been served well by the institution of Town Manager ever since it was introduced in 1954. The evaluation process is intended to ensure that this continues to be the case.

Since you bring it up: I would like to stress that, in each of the six years during which I have been involved in the process, the evaluation was performed with great care and seriousness. Obviously, the views and manner of expression of each Select Board member will vary. It is, for example, quite possible that one member issues a "needs improvement" rating while another chooses "satisfactory," and yet they may be offering much the same judgment in their prose remarks.

This is why it is so important that residents consider the full evaluation process and documentation and not just the composite grid, which can give a false sense of numerical precision. Now, obviously, not everyone has the time or inclination to read the (this year) 11-page Evaluation Memo or even to watch the discussion on television, not to mention, plow through 91 pages of total material. And that is why we look to the press to provide thorough and nuanced coverage.

These newspaper reports are pretty much bare-bones stuff. As I said, I completely understand the pressure to get out a prompt summary of the evaluation text and meeting: that is the nature of the trade. But does that have to be the end of the story?

Consider these numbers: Scott Merzbach's piece on the Town Manager evaluation came out with characteristically admirable promptness and clocked in at around 950 words. By contrast, Matt Vautour's piece on the UMass basketball team's trip to Europe (and I like basketball and the Eiffel Tower as much as the next guy) ran to about 1100 words, and Cheryl Wilson's nice feature on the renovation of the landscape at Edith Wharton's home, "The Mount" (you all know I am a fan of both gardens and historic preservation) weighed in at almost 1700 words.

Given the importance of the role of the Town Manager in our political system, would it not be helpful to have a follow-up on the evaluation, which, written without the pressure of the looming deadline, could use a few more column-inches to add some depth and detail?

PS As for the Select Board being boring, I take that as a compliment: as I tell people, that's the way we like it. We should not be the news.

[correct text: accidentally had two editing panes open before]

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