Sunday, November 29, 2009

Leadership and Management

There seems to be some confusion about what the Town Board of Commissioners actually does. The Board is, under NC General Statutes, the "governing body." That doesn't mean that the commissioners as a body or any one of the commissioners as an individual has any administrative role in the day to day operation of Town Hall.

The Board of Commissioners is a legislative body. It makes the rules - passes ordinances, approves the budget, makes policy; but has no operational function. The Board has hiring and firing authority over the Town Manager, but no direct authority. Its only authority is that of oversight.

That sometimes leaves the Town Manager in an awkward position. Does he have five bosses? What if one commissioner says one thing and another commissioner says the opposite?

The Mayor also lacks administrative authority, at least by statute. He has only the authority to chair meetings of the Board of Commissioners. So how does the Town Manager know what to do if a problem arises between Board meetings?

Experienced managers often navigate this maze by establishing informal arrangements. Sometimes that works. Another possibility is to establish a formal arrangement. The Board of Commissioners, for example, has the authority to designate the Mayor as the person the Manager should consult for guidance on day to day matters. The Board would always retain the authority to override the Mayor, but such an arrangement might alleviate some confusion.

What the Board doesn't do is enforce ordinances. That is the responsibility of the Town Manager, through his heads of department.

Every leader or manager has his or her own style of leadership. In more than fifty years managing various size organization, both military and civilian, I have come to some conclusions as to what works best:

1. Positive reinforcement works better than negative reinforcement;
2. Leaders get better results when they seek cooperation and ideas rather than demanding compliance by ordering it, except in extreme cases;
3. Leaders can delegate authority but never responsibility - when a ship runs aground, the Captain is responsible even if he is asleep in his cabin;
4. Effective leaders delegate as many tasks as possible, exercising oversight by intervening only to keep things from going wrong - that's known as "control by negation";
5. Subordinates also need to understand that they are not and cannot be responsible to the degree that the "boss" is.


Oriental Town Government is in a state of transition. Tomorrow evening the outgoing and ingoing commissioners will gather to establish the agenda for Tuesday's meeting of the Town Board. At that meeting the outgoing board opens and approves minutes (including opening formerly closed minutes). Following that, the retiring commissioners withdraw and the newly elected board will be sworn in.

As of that event, I will no longer be a commissioner, so my blog has to have a new name. The new blog is named for our boat: I plan to post my first blog entry that evening. Once I figure out the system, I'll try to link the two blogs so those who wish to do so can continue to post comments on either site.

I may have lost an election, but I haven't lost interest.

Friday, November 27, 2009


Last year the town's audit report was submitted to the state several months late. The North Carolina Local Government Commission was not amused.

Our new town manager made sure this year's report was completed on time. A major factor in on-time performance was the selection of a new auditing firm, Pittard, Perry & Crone, Inc. That firm has provided the commissioners with its preliminary report.

In the report, our auditor identified twelve significant control deficiencies - that is, deficiencies in internal controls that adversely affect the town's ability to make sure our accounts are accurate. The audit also finds eleven material weaknesses - that is, significant deficiencies that might allow undetected material misstatements of the town's financial position.

How long have these problems existed? In most cases, for years. Why didn't our previous auditor find them? They didn't look. They even told us they didn't look. The audit, Seiler Zachman and Associates explained, was "... not for the purpose of expressing an opinion on the effectiveness of the Town's internal control over financial reporting.... and would not necessarily identify all deficiencies in internal control that might be significant deficiencies or material weaknesses." Why we accepted such an audit is beyond me. My only excuse for the 2007 audit is that it arrived so late it was no help anyhow in dealing with the next budget cycle. In the course of working on the current budget, this commission uncovered a number of the problems noted by our new auditor.

Randy Cahoon is already busy correcting most of these longstanding deficiencies.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


Now there's a mouthful. We're going to hear more about it at the federal level: "Right and Left Join to Take On U.S. Over Criminal Justice," today's New York Times headline announces. The article goes on to claim that a rare coalition of conservatives, libertarians and liberals are going to take the issue to the U.S. Supreme Court.

There are, according to the article, more than 4,400 criminal offenses in the federal code, many of them lacking a requirement that prosecutors prove traditional kinds of criminal intent. How did we get that way?

At least since the Nixon administration, Republicans have claimed to be "tough on crime" and Democrats have been afraid to promote being sensible on crime. Now we find we bought into an expensive and ineffective approach. At long last, maybe we can do something about it.

Here in Oriental, we also have a problem with overcriminalization. Our ordinances are full of misdemeanors (criminal acts that must be prosecuted), with fines of up to $500 per occurrence. I am happy to report that, during my time on the Town Board, we removed one misdemeanor: violation of the noise ordinance section regulating outdoor amplified music. I did that.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Knock Knock

No, this isn't a joke. Earlier this evening, I heard an insistent and unfamiliar knock. When I opened the door, I was met by a Sheriff's deputy who handed me a yellow document. It was a summons in the case of Tony Tharp and versus the Town of Oriental, William R. Sage, et al. I am one of the et al, along with the town manager and the other members of the outgoing Town Board.

I can't say I was surprised. I have been reading about the suit on Mr. Tharp's new website, PamlicoToday. According to that site, "Tharp is representing himself in the lawsuit against the town. Oriental attorney Scott Davis is likely to get the job of defending the town. Without the suit even being filed, Davis already has billed the town about $300 for telephone consults on PamlicoToday.Com's pending lawsuit."

I wonder how he came to that conclusion.

Being sued, even in an official capacity, is no fun. I would readily decline the honor, if the opportunity arose.

I welcome the reappearance of Mr. Tharp as an active journalist focusing on Pamlico County events. He has in the past covered matters that needed covering, when no one else would. I leave it to the judge to rule on the merits of the case put forth by Mr. Tharp and his client (Mr. Tharp).

The Sheriff

There was great relief in Oriental when we learned that the County Sheriff's Department had arrested the alleged perpetrators of a number of recent break-ins and thefts in and around Oriental. That's good news.

Less good is the thought that it was the Sheriff's Office, headquartered in Bayboro, that broke the case instead of our own one-man police department. There are a number of possible conclusions that could be drawn:
1. Our police chief is ineffective;
2. A one-man police department isn't adequate to the task;
3. Oriental should expand its police department;
4. Oriental should close its police department and rely on the County Sheriff for law enforcement.

I have thought about our options and conclude that ours is the worst of all possible arrangements. We would be better off if we hired additional police officers, acquired additional police vehicles (bicycle? motorcycle?), and provided a suitable office from which the force could work. The downside is that it would be more expensive.

Alternatively, we would arguably be better off if we closed our one-man police department and turned enforcement over to the Sheriff. That approach also has a downside: the limited number of deputies available to the Sheriff to cover a large and sparsely populated county. Furthermore, in the absence of a specific inter local agreement, the Sheriff is unlikely to enforce Oriental's municipal ordinances.

In either event, The Town of Oriental should consider inter local agreements to establish procedures for exchanging information between town and county officials, including police reports. I believe we should also establish clear procedures wherein our citizens would summon help by calling 911, whatever the emergency. It would be up to our own police force to keep the dispatcher informed at all times of our officers' whereabouts, duty status, and how they can be reached. Citizens shouldn't have to hunt down the person on duty.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Philosophical Reflections

My favorite contemporary American philosopher is Yogi Berra, who famously observed: "It's difficult to make predictions, especially about the future." He also advised: "when you come to a fork in the road, take it." Good advice.

I believe Yogi also adheres to another American thinker, Popeye, who makes no apologies. "I yam what I yam," he says.

Benjamin Disraeli (not an American) once advised, "never complain, never explain." The same quote is often attributed to Henry Ford. In "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon," John Wayne advises a junior officer, "never apologize. It's a sign of weakness."

Possibly the most important influence on the way I do things comes from my early experience as a licensed umpire. The first thing you learn at umpiring class is: whatever you do, call 'em like you see 'em. Don't let yourself be influenced by the prominence of the player or whether you like him or not. Above all, call each play on its own terms. Don't ever try to make up for a possibly bad call by changing your call on the next play. And keep a copy of the rule book in your hip pocket. No matter how well you know the rules, it never hurts to look it up.

The reason for rules is for fairness. By the time I was six years old, I had learned that without rules and someone to enforce them, the bullies rule the playground.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Armistice Day

I don't care what anyone says - today is Armistice Day. The day World War I - "the war to end wars," came to a desultory end in an Armistice among exhausted combatants. We need to remember that war and it manifold failures and consequences. We need to remember it every time our leaders embrace war as a solution to disputes.

The Last Hurrah (Almost)

Last night the Oriental Board of Commissioners that was elected in 2007 held its last regular session. We will meet at least one more time - November 30, to set the agenda for the new board's first meeting on December 1.

We addressed or at least discussed a number of items about which we have previously failed to reach agreement. The most significant of these:

A. Minutes of closed sessions. North Carolina General Statutes allow and in some cases require discussions to be held in closed session. The law also requires minutes to be kept. They must be made public when no longer necessary to be closed. Office personnel have found references to 33 closed sessions, going back to 2004. No one remembers any of the minutes ever having been opened. Of the 33 closed sessions, the minutes book does not contain three of them. Of the remaining thirty, signed copies have not been found for a dozen of the closed sessions. This is important, because the signed copy becomes the official record of the version of minutes adopted by the board. Plainly we need better controls.

I believe the majority, including all but two paragraphs of minutes concerning the Town's court cases should be opened to the public. We will debate this at the agenda meeting Nov. 30.

B. The Town Manager clarified the costs of hiring additional peace officers. The board agreed to continue pursuing the hire of two part-time officers. The delay in hiring one has resulted from delay in getting final approval from the state government agency he works for. The manager is optimistic this won't take much longer. Commissioner Kellam has developed a set of criteria for the other hire. We will advertise for that position. This was also a topic of discussion during the public comment period.

C. The board voted to clarify no-parking areas in front of the Treasure Company, without reducing the number of legal spaces.

D. The board voted to reduce handicap parking in front of the Baptist Church to one space.

E. The new computer for water billing arrives next week - expense to be charged to the water fund.

F. Of five items of old business I had proposed be addressed, the board only acted on one: reducing the speed limit on the portion of Midyette Street between North and Broad to 15 miles per hour.

These may seem like mundane matters, but they are the kind of things that require careful attention by the board.

Thoughts of a Lame Duck

The voters have spoken. That's what democracy is about.

Yesterday I listened to General Casey speaking at a service at Fort Hood in honor of the thirteen killed last Thursday on the base. He quoted from Isaiah 6:8: "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then said I, Here am I, send me."

I know no passage of scripture that more clearly and succinctly portrays the ethic of service. I have had the honor over the years of knowing many who answered the call to serve their country, their state, their community, without thought of profit or pecuniary benefit. The best of them claimed no special virtue, sought no accolades, no glory. They just did what needed to be done. I tried to follow their example.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Thoughts on Election Day

It's two o'clock in the afternoon. I set up a tent this morning outside Oriental's polling place at the fire station and have talked to many of the voters who have streamed in to the polls.

Oriental's residents care about their town, and they vote. I am proud to be one of them.

We won't know until this evening, after the polls close at 7:30, how the election came out: who among the nine candidates for town commissioner will be chosen by the voters to sit on the five-member Town Board.

However the election turns out this time, I want to thank the voters for allowing me to serve on the board. It has been a pleasure and an honor.

I also want to say I have enjoyed serving with each of the present commissioners. They are all talented, dedicated and conscientious. What a fine bunch! I am proud to have been counted in their number.

Thank you again.