The phrase "don't give up the ship" was uttered by Admiral Perry during the war of 1812. My hometown area of Erie, Pennsylvania, enthusiastically honors this saying and the history of William Hazard Perry still today. The community has a strong commitment to keeping the rough waters of politics as safe as possible. As of lately, I have noticed a trend across the Commonwealth by officials' intent on abandoning the ship, in a sense.
Now that November 2, 2021, is behind us, I wanted to comment on just what the municipal election results can mean for the Township/Borough teams that run things on a daily basis. But first, let us paint the picture to get a more unmistakable look at the situation in total. I don't think that the current scenario is anything unique to the 2021 election, but internal political turmoil can be difficult at any time.
A typical governmental board is comprised of 3, 5, 7, or even 9 elected members depending on the municipal charter and the type of government they have chosen to be. In our office, we had a saying, "it takes three," as our board was made up of 5 members, and a majority vote was three. If two didn't show up for a meeting for whatever reason, it still took three, as some thought that a majority vote of two to one was sufficient. Take note that is not correct; ask your solicitor. Any one of the members could have an idea or a direction they would like to see implemented, but unless they had two others that supported the motion, it wasn’t going anywhere and certainly doomed for failure. On the other hand, suppose you have had a consistent board membership over a period of time. In that case, you will notice that they will realize this, and typically a majority vote would emerge, and each respected the other's opinion.
A Long-standing member of the board would assist the newcomers in learning the ropes and coaching them on how to get things done. A solid municipal manager is vital in this situation. I was interviewed by the PSATS publication "Township News." In that article, I described how I viewed the role of a township manager. I equated it to a shipping line. The board was the owner of the boat, and the manager was the captain. The owners would tell the captain where they wanted the ship to go, and it was up to him to figure out how to get it there the fastest and least expensive way possible. If you look at the history of sailing the seven seas of local government, you know that having more than one captain is a recipe for disaster. If you have dissent and turmoil amongst the owners, you have an even more challenging situation.
If a major league sports team is having consistent problems, who is the very first one on the chopping block? That’s right, the “manager.” Even though the problem may be the front office, the ire of leaders is easily channeled down the line. Another lesson is that in my 30-plus years of municipal service, I found it infrequent that citizens ran for office for the greater good of the community. A significant percentage have an axe to grind or have a serious disagreement with other elected officials. Now let us be clear, the civic-minded still find time to devote to the betterment of the community. Still, those newly elected board members who come in with guns blazing can cause the greatest amount of turmoil and discontent within the municipality's operations.
Therefore, let's continue painting a scenario from the last election season. Let’s say two current members decide not to run again for whatever reason. Another member resigns or perhaps is defeated in the election and will not be returning. You have years of experience with the remaining members, and one should typically lead the new officials. But if head-butting is going to happen, an incumbent experienced mayor will lose his role to a newcomer with no experience. The controlling majority of the board has now swung to the other side, and guess who is standing at the helm of the wheel trying to steer clear of significant icebergs? That’s right, the manager.
More than one capable manager has gone down with the ship due to the board's decisions. Word travels fast, and even a small community can be met with difficulty filling the position due to the infighting among board members. Finding a dedicated, unbiased manager can now be next to impossible to find without tossing large amounts of money and benefits at them to downplay the disarray.
Fortunately, there is an alternative that can help in this sticky situation. Keystone Municipal Solutions has seasoned professionals who have sailed through these choppy waters before and are well-prepared to guide you to calmer seas. An experienced interim manager can take some of the political infighting out of the equation. Knowing that their term is limited and that time is on the side of finding just the right fit for a permanent manager can make this an attractive option. Rather than micromanaging, the board members can work on ironing out their individual differences, knowing that the boat is still on course. There is absolutely no reason to go down with the ship. Your residents deserve more than that. So fire this thing up and "don't give up the ship."
About the Author
David L. Anthony is a member of the Keystone Municipal Solutions team of experts. He is a veteran of municipal government, having served more than 32 years in various positions of public service. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more about David and the Keystone Municipal Solutions team, click here.