When I worked at Otis ANG Base in the early 90's in the Public Affairs office for the 102nd Fighter Wing, I learned a lot about community relations. I learned that a public problem - any public problem - is best solved by informing and involving the public. The public's right to know is based in the very foundations of our society - our founding document begins with "We the People" for a reason. I remember an old public relations pro that used to visit Otis from the Pentagon who used to say, "Go ugly early," meaning share difficult information with the public as soon as you receive it, lest it fester and grow into something even more unbecoming through rumors, innuendo and leaks. Even though that was a humorous, catchy phrase that Lt. Col Everett Foster used to lighten what were sometimes contentious moments in the early days of the MMR cleanup, the words still ring true. Implicit in the "go ugly early" philosophy is a recognition that the act of going to the public, that is, sharing information with them, is required of public officials. Some don't get the message.
It is a strange and unfortunate but widely held opinion of many public figures (this author excluded for sure) that the public is not well equipped to receive bad news and that government officials have somehow been blessed with the appropriate filtering and analytical equipment in their heads to decide and decipher what information is appropriate to share with the people who paid for the very information with their taxes. In nearly two decades of public life, I have seen the folly of that philosophy time and again. When MMR officials, myself included, realized that the cleanup of billions of gallons of contaminated groundwater would progress more smoothly with the input of a caring public, one of the great conflicts of the last thirty years on Cape Cod turned into one of the great public policy triumphs. The great cranberry wars finally inched toward détente when the two sides stopped sniping and started listening and realizing that the other camp had something worthwhile to say.
It is this lesson, learned through personal experience and observations, learned through both missteps and milestones, that I offer up to those in the corner conference room of Town Hall, as our next great local conflict simmers. The relationship between the majority of the Board of Selectmen and our Town Manager has clearly deteriorated. Whether that deterioration is beyond the point of repair is yet to be seen, but the partial reports, rumors, and coffee shop talk point to a group of elected and appointed leaders who are paralyzed by their discontent with one another.
One thing is certain: to simply pretend publicly that no problem exists and to shrug off any inquiries from the press or the public is only serving to make this maelstrom into a full-blown public tsunami. It's not early anymore in this process, as this relationship has been heading downhill for some time, but there is certainly still time to go ugly. It's time for the Selectmen to trust the public enough to discuss their problems and address them with the Town Manager or end the speculation, stop dropping hints and bits and get back to work. There is much work to be done and time is being wasted.
While our local government grinds to a halt in anticipation of the next move in this very public chess game, the business of building a budget, fostering a local economic recovery, and rebuilding the confidence of an exasperated electorate sits unattended. Falmouth is a community of people who understand the public process and a community of people who care deeply, as evidenced by the hundreds of locals who serve actively on local boards and committees. We care. We get it. We can handle ugly. We can even handle overdue ugly. What we cannot accept is watching the public trust erode in the face of inaction. It's time, Selectmen. Go ugly or go back to work.
This column is reprinted from the Falmouth Enterprise.