Sunday, November 13, 2011

Municipal Miasma -
The Pain is in the Process

I've been a citizen of Pennsylvania (again) for just 8 months; it's taken me some time to re-acclimate to the way things are done across the myriad layers of government at work here.

Something that is hastening this process is my getting back into the business of public safety communications. I've been in training for the last month. One thing I've been learning is the nuances of dealing with 130 separate municipalities, some who dispatch themselves and others who are a mix of being dispatched by the county 9-1-1 center and other municipalities or public safety agencies.

One quick example; there are five municipalities in Allegheny County where depending on the type of resources you need (Police, Fire, or EMS), three separate dispatch centers will be involved. Four of these five communities are in the Quaker Valley School District. In case you were wondering, Edgeworth is one of them.

More about that later. Today I'm interested in the recent election results, and their potential impact on my own community, Leetsdale. If you need to see a timeline of what has been reported about the recent history of borough government, check out this overview from June by crisis communications expert Dan Hicks. He's got some interesting things to say about the whole Penn State situation as well.

Voters this past Tuesday followed the entreaties of four candidates who banded together under the name Concerned Citizens of Leetsdale, and elected three of them to four-year seats and one to a two-year seat.

This action gives these four citizens (Melanie Dunn, Joe McGurk, Linda Michael, and Jeff Weatherby) a majority on Council come January. According to statements made by the candidates to Sewickley Patch and other local media, they intend to waste little time in undoing some of the current Council's actions over the last couple of years.
This will largely center around the following:
  • Eliminating the positions of Borough Manager and Junior Clerk.
  • Re-creating the position of Borough Secretary/Treasurer.
  • Promoting the current Senior Clerk to the re-created Secretary/Treasurer position. This employee, Elizabeth Petalino, served in this capacity previously until Council eliminated her position in 2010 and created the position of Borough Manager.
One question I had for these candidates at one of their get-togethers before the election had to do with Ms. Petalino, whose demotion, along with what could best be described as a unique recruitment process for Borough Manager, seemed to be the primary focus of the Concerned Citizens campaign.

My question related to succession planning; who, if anyone, would be prepared to take over in Ms. Petalino's stead if there were no Junior Clerk or Borough Manager? Mr. McGurk stated that a part-time person would likely be hired to learn the duties of Secretary/Treasurer, with the intent of eventually replacing Ms. Petalino upon her retirement.

I should mention here that the current Junior Clerk is Sandra Bajsec, wife of councilman Mike Bajsec, whose term will be ending in January. Ms. Bajsec's seemingly imminent departure appears driven more by a need to assure that all vestiges of her husband's influence are eradicated from borough operations, than any effort to streamline those operations and/or reduce costs. It sounds as if the councilmembers-elect know they need someone like a Junior Clerk - they just don't want her.

At this point I'm struggling to look at this from the perspective of positions and processes, which is what I'm accustomed to. The bulk of my government work experience, at least in the Human Resources arena, involved a formal recruitment and assessment process, conducted in a way that assured all qualified applicants a fair shot at being hired.

Pre-employment testing, an interview with several stakeholders, and a thorough background investigation (including a home visit) were the norm for positions in public safety. This process was exhaustive and needed to be, considering the significant access and responsibilities being entrusted to the successful candidate.

One could assume the same things would apply to recruiting and hiring someone to be in charge of the day-to-day operations of a municipal government. Then again, I am trying to compare what I knew from Colorado with what exists in Pennsylvania.
I promised I would not dive into those comparisons, so I must turn to what is here and now, and try to understand what may be the short tenure of Leetsdale Borough Manager Paul Scimio.

I've spoken with Mr. Scimio only a few times. In those interactions I found him engaging, articulate, and somewhat excited about his work. How he actually ran the borough's daily operations is something I can't speak to. He did, however, at the October 13 meeting of Leetsdale Council, when he endeavored to highlight some of his accomplishments during his one-year tenure. These include:
  • Reviewing and consolidating borough insurance policies, saving money.
  • Changing borough phone service from Verizon to Comcast, saving money.
  • Spearheading the refinancing of the borough's bond indebtedness, resulting in a savings of $108,000 this past year.
  • Helping to coordinate the resolution of an addressing conflict on a borough street, shared with Leet Township, that was affecting public safety response.
  • Securing an insurance settlement for a damaged police vehicle.
  • Putting forth an insurance claim for the loss of trees in Henle Park.
  • Securing a private donor to help pay water bills at the Henle Park Splash Pad.
It has also been stated by some in the business community that they appreciate the ability to be able to access someone in borough government who can act as a point person for their concerns, direct them in the way of navigating the necessary processes, and basically be the face of government operations on a daily basis.

However, additional questions about the borough's actual needs begin to raise issues that transcend the personalities and politics that seem to have dominated the controversy up to this point, and impacted the processes in ways that citizens last week appeared to have collectively deemed unacceptable.

According to a publication from the Governor's Center for Local Government Services, "More than 80 percent of Pennsylvania’s municipalities have populations
under 5,000, a size generally accepted as the point where full-time municipal management becomes feasible".
Leetsdale has a residential population of about 1,100.

A Post-Gazette story after the May primary elections took this a step further:
Issues beyond population have to be weighed, as well. For example, Leetsdale has about triple the number of people working within its boundaries as residents, due to a pair of industrial parks, a copper mill, Quaker Valley High School and a shopping center.
As I've written previously, Leetsdale is perhaps the most dynamic of the 11 boroughs and townships that make up the Quaker Valley School District. The influx of workers, students, and material goods in and out of the borough, and the various layers of government that provide essential services to them, is of sufficient complexity that it requires someone of authority to be readily accessible, research and respond appropriately, and report comprehensively to the citizens and their elected officials.

How the new council addresses those needs will say a lot about exactly how much Leetsdale is poised to make changes in its operating philosophy.

In a Sewickley Herald article from August 2010, Councilman Bajsec was quoted during a council meeting as saying that the process of advertising for the Borough Manager position for one day in the Beaver County/Allegheny Times was due to a desire "
to allow people 'familiar' with the borough to apply". Perhaps the true intent was to exclude anyone not possessing that 'familiarity', which appears to be centered on having grown up in Leetsdale, or lived there for a lengthy period of time.

Regardless of Mr. Scimio's experience, competence, or performance over the last year, the circumstances surrounding the creation of his position and his ascendancy into it has tainted those accomplishments, and created sufficient cause for concern among citizens as to precipitate the results of last week's election.

Nonetheless I believe that Leetsdale, like its nearby counterparts, needs a competent and experienced Borough Manager. This needs to be someone with sufficient educational and professional credentials, who can look at the borough's operations from a fresh perspective, not necessarily one steeped in the strong tea of the status quo.

Positions and processes need to be more important than personalities and politics.

That being said, all we as citizens can do is hope for the best from our newly elected officials. For me that includes thinking outside the traditional boxes, among those being the man-made lines that serve not only as municipal boundaries, but also at times barriers to more effective and responsive governance for all of us.

Best wishes to our new soon-to-be council members, and for those already on council that will also be charged to effectively represent the citizens of Leetsdale.

Have a great week ahead.

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