Monday, August 24, 2015

Getting the Select Board's Town Manager Evaluation Wrong

Reviewing books or reporting the news must be among the most unenviable tasks: no matter how hard one works to get things right, one will inevitably be accused from all quarters of having gotten things totally wrong (often as not, with base motives imputed).

That said, journalists often do, objectively speaking, get things wrong. There are causes apart from mere carelessness: the pressure of deadlines and the stringent limits on space no doubt cause many an error or oversimplification. I understand all this and take it in stride, so I normally don't bother to comment publicly on journalists' mistakes regarding my individual or collective civic role. (There has been the occasional exception.) However, it struck me that the coverage of the Select Board's annual review of Town Manager John Musante might give rise to some false impressions, so I would like to correct them.

The Town Manager Review Process: a long timeline, a lot to digest

The Select Board is the Town's collective chief executive. Under the Town Government Act and Massachusetts General Law, we five members of the Select Board, as the "chief elected officials," hire and review the performance of the Town Manager, who is the "chief administrative and fiscal officer."

Former Select Board Chair Stephanie O'Keeffe led the way in developing a notably robust and rigorous review process. Each year, the Select Board and Town Manager agree on a set of performance goals for the coming year. The Town Manager reports periodically on his progress toward attaining those goals, and then a detailed timeline takes us through the actual process, running to almost four months, from June through September. The initial result is a set of our five individual assessments of 15 rubrics: based on our day-to-day experience of working with the Town Manager, his self-evaluation, and the officially solicited input of Town employees and the general public. Then, in late August, in public session, we spend an hour or more reading one another's evaluations for the first time (yes, it makes for thrilling television, but this is one of the consequences of the State's Open Meeting Law) and, finally, discuss them and respond to a summary compiled by the Chair (the only person to have seen all five in advance of the meeting).

Admittedly, it is a lot to digest in short order--nearly 100 pages of material: 74 pages of individual assessments by Select Board members (Alisa Brewer: 29; Connie Kruger, 8; Doug Slaughter, 7; Andy Steinberg, 10; Jim Wald, 20), plus a 6-page composite grid of ratings compiled from the preceding, along with the 11-page draft evaluation memo by Chair Alisa Brewer. One does not envy the reporter faced with the challenge of getting out a coherent, well-integrated story within 24 (not to mention, 2 or 3) hours. That said, that draft evaluation memo plus the oral discussion provide the bedrock for any story, and then the reporter (in my experience) goes through the individual evaluations, pulling out (one hopes) representative quotes from each Select Board member in order to lend the whole an air of comprehensiveness, real or feigned.

Accurate facts, fragments, impressions

The task of the journalist, like that of the historian, is not simply to share a set of facts, but also to select them systematically and place them in an appropriate analytical or interpretive framework. It is admittedly a subjective task, and yet there are ways to judge its success or failure. Often, it is a matter of emphasis or completeness rather than factual truth or error, as such.

Blogger Larry Kelley (who often beats the mainstream media to the punch and got this piece out in a hurry) fastened on the negative aspects of the evaluation:
interesting criticism from the two most experienced members of our executive branch -- Chair Alisa Brewer and Jim Wald.

Ms. Brewer gave Mr. Musante "unsatisfactory" a total of nine times (out of possible 44) while Mr. Wald checked it off five times.

Brewer and Wald were in unanimous agreement in response to goal #5, "Relationship With the Select Board"  by giving him "unsatisfactory" to the same five of eight statements. Ouch!
It was in many ways understandable: criticism by nature calls more attention to itself than does expected praise for a job well done and thus might seem more "newsworthy." Of course this is not the whole story: the post dwelled only on the negative and merely cited the categories rather than the actual substance of the evaluation; a reader would have to click through to the actual document. In part, Kelley's emphasis on the ratings grid was intended to create a contrast to a similar, recently completed process for School Superintendent Maria Geryk, who received only one "unsatisfactory" ranking from 13 evaluators. Still, the title "Troubles at the top?" overdramatized the situation.

The reports in the traditional papers by veteran beat reporters Scott Merzbach of the Hampshire Gazette and Diane Lederman of The Republican/ were likewise about what we have come to expect.

Both Merzbach's and Lederman's pieces on the whole aptly summarized our work under the respective titles, "Amherst board praises Musante’s fiscal management, criticizes communication" and "Amherst Town Manager John Musante receives favorable review, concerns cited."

Both, rather than just citing the handful of negative rankings, also identified some reasons.

But both Wald and Brewer criticized Musante in the area of maintaining “a professional and effective relationship” with the elected board.

They both cited Musante’s comments on election night, during an interview broadcast on Amherst Media, that the proposed solar project on the former landfill was dead, which caught board members by surprise.

They also didn’t like that details about a settlement with former high school math teacher Carolyn Gardner, who filed a Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination lawsuit, were revealed in the Gazette before any executive session was held.

“The potential settlement figure in the Gardner MCAD complaint was never discussed with the Select Board. The Select Board was shocked to find out a settlement had been reached by reading about it in the newspaper,” Brewer wrote.
By contrast, some other topics and quotations seemed almost chosen at random or at least taken out of context. Just one example: Andy Steinberg's affirmation of the value of diversity of opinion on Town boards was unexceptionable but by itself unintelligible to someone not reading the entire evaluation.

Lederman simply devoted the bulk of her piece to raw quotations from the evaluation, connected by brief explanatory passages. However, the quotations at least provided the rationale for the negative assessments of the aforementioned cases:
"It seems clear that you have no intention of withholding information from the Select Board, but rather that it simply does not occur to you to share it," according to the memo.
 "We can't provide input on either straightforward or complex policy and practice initiatives and changes before they are implemented if we don't know they exist.
"Finding out about them in the newspaper or other media is simply unacceptable. Most egregiously, we did not hear about the end of the old landfill lawsuit, the end of the solar farm project, nor the resolution of the town-schools MCAD complaint, from you.
"While this "saved" us having to hold Executive Sessions, it significantly damaged our credibility in the community.
"We also cannot effectively represent our community's values when we are presented with and expected to act on issues immediately without having had any opportunity for thoughtful deliberation in an open meeting or other potential for public [input]."
No single piece thus quite captured the full nature of the evaluation with the precision and thoroughness that one might have hoped for. Still, each offered something and, taken together, the three would enable a reader to grasp the nature of our criticism.

The editorial in the Amherst Bulletin was another matter.

Editorial license

Under the title, "Two Amherst leaders get a bit of homework," the editors commented on the evaluations of both Superintendent Geryk and Town Manager Musante (School year's about to begin: grades, homework. Get it?) The gist was that both leaders received generally high marks but also a few low or failing ones--and that, in our political system, this criticism was properly public and on the record, rather than private and behind-the-scenes. Right on the mark. So far, so good.

However, when it came to our actual criticisms, the piece missed the point by a mile:
Alisa Brewer, chairwoman of the Select Board, told Musante in an evaluation summary that she and others “look forward to your continued success in so many critical areas.” But they also want action on aspects of his job “that truly need more of your attention.” Chief among them: communication with other town leaders, particularly members of the Select Board. In this area, he earned ratings of “unsatisfactory” and “needs improvement.” Brewer and board member James Wald faulted Musante for not maintaining “a professional and effective relationship” with their panel. That’s at odds with other aspects of Musante’s review. Select Board member Connie Kruger called him “professional, considerate, fair and very good at managing multiple agendas. He remains calm during a crisis and instills confidence.” The dissonance may stem from ongoing policy disagreements in Amherst, including friction over the impact of development projects downtown.

If Musante was a mayor, he’d have to answer to voters about such matters. But as a town manager, his constituency is the Select Board.

Communications issues are far less tangible than the areas the board praised — particularly fiscal management. But if the Select Board feels it is not getting enough advance information from Musante on major policy matters, that’s a problem he must address.

Even so, this is a fuzzy area. Select Board members didn’t like that they heard first through the media about some things, including the fate of a solar project and a legal settlement with a teacher. But in both instances, Musante was sharing information with town residents — and that counts as communication. The board should not be asking him to curtail comments to the media.
This is all so wrong that one can only shake one's head in dismay.

 • To imply that Ms. Brewer's and my sharp criticism of the Town Manager under "Relationship with the Select Board" is in any way "at odds with other aspects of Musante’s review" is nonsense. First, it stands to reason that the two most senior members of the body (8 and 5 years' service, respectively), encountering a recurrent problem under one particular rubric, would be more pointed and insistent in their criticism than those who joined in only the past 1 to 2 years. Second: elsewhere in the document, as in last year's evaluation, we individually and collectively praise the Town Manger for his consummate professionalism and the professional expertise of his overall performance, particularly in the financial domain. The official evaluation is about the overall picture: greater than the sum of individual ratings. This is why, as Chair Brewer says, we do not issue a numerical score. Or, as I sometimes put it: it's not the SAT.

• The only thing loopier than the editors' making the preceding charge is concocting an explanation out of thin air: "The dissonance may stem from ongoing policy disagreements in Amherst, including friction over the impact of development projects downtown."

Huh? They couldn't have asked us? There is zero evidence for such a hypothesis. Ms. Brewer noted a desire for better communication regarding upcoming zoning articles, but this was about process, not development, as such. In fact, some of the criticism that Mr. Musante received from the citizenry was for publicly taking a stand and voting the same way as the Select Board on zoning articles. All five members of the Select Board moreover gave Mr. Musante a "satisfactory" rating for pursuit of economic development opportunities.

• But most dismaying of all is the final section: On the one hand, the editors say, if Mr. Musante has not been giving advance notice of decisions to the Select Board, "that's a problem he must address." Indeed. But immediately afterwards, they go on to say the equivalent of "oh, never mind":
Musante was sharing information with town residents — and that counts as communication. The board should not be asking him to curtail comments to the media.
Um, no it doesn't, and no we weren't. The issue being evaluated here was specifically and exclusively "Relationship with the Select Board." (Under the separate rubric of "actively engage the community and the media," the Town Manager received four "satisfactory" ratings and one "needs improvement.")

The editors here completely miss the point of the sharpest and most consistent criticism that we gave the Town Manager. The presumed choice between his informing the Select Board and informing the public is a false one, and no action or announcement flagged here was so urgent that it could not have allowed time for consultation.

This goes to the heart of our system of government. Town Meeting is the legislative branch. The Select Board is the collective chief executive. The Town Manager is the chief administrator, not the mayor: he reports to us. We have the power to hire, fire, and evaluate him. We set his salary. How can we work in partnership with him and explain Town policies and his actions to the public if he does not inform us about them?

Clear, one would think.

Conclusion: a strong relationship

To summarize: there is no crisis, but neither should one casually dismiss our criticism. Fortunately, that criticism focused on some delimited problems that are in principle easily rectifiable. The members of the Select Board, individually and collectively, hold Mr. Musante in high esteem: we greatly respect his professionalism and skills, we enjoy working with him.

There are thus no "troubles at the top." What there is is honesty and due diligence--and work to be done. A truly healthy and respectful relationship allows for strong criticism, offered in a constructive and collegial spirit. The Town Manager took it as such, and it is a shame that the Gazette chose to trivialize it, in the process distorting the larger picture of how we work.

Would the editors and public have been happier if we had simply checked all the ratings as "commendable" (the highest option) and confined our comments to generic praise and trivial critiques? It certainly would have saved us a lot of time. But it would not have been responsible, and it would not have been good governance.


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.

Jim Wald said...

Thanks, Larry.

I had actually started a long response, but because it ended up being a long response, I think I will make it into a separate post--taking the liberty of incorporating your comments, as well.