One of my favorite sitcoms of all time is M*A*S*H. This long-running comedic masterpiece, which depicted the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Unit (hence the moniker) during the Korean War, had several loveable characters that made the tragedy of wartime a human and even entertaining experience. The characters, too, were memorable, because they were all-too human, even reminding us of people in our own lives. Who didn't know a know-it-all stuffed shirt like Charles Emerson Winchester, or a jokester like Hawkeye, or a kind and self-effacing cleric like Fr. Mulcahy?
Two of the most memorable, though, were Col. Henry Blake, the loveable if befuddled commander of the 4077th, and his trusted sidekick and organizer, Cpl. Radar O'Reilly. The scenes of Radar coming into Col. Blake's office, placing various and sundry documents before him, and telling him to sign them with little or no review, was an oft-repeated but always funny exchange. Part of the humor in this relationship was that we could imagine a bemused and bewildered Col. Blake, simply signing important documents on a whim, in a behemoth unwieldy organization like the U.S. Military, or even in some concrete tower belonging to Uncle Sam. That kind of comedic dynamic could never really exist, though. Right?
Welcome to life imitates art, Falmouth style.
The revelation this week that the often discussed and debated issue of raises for our Police Captains was settled, not as expected in next week's Town Meeting warrant, but in an agreement negotiated and signed by the Captains, outgoing Town Manager Bob Whritenour, and Selectman Chairman Putnam alone, would be a silly and entertaining skit if it were a depiction of Radar asking Col. Blake to sign a raise for BJ Honeycutt. It was not, however, an attempt to entertain us. It was a very expensive and very unfortunate real-life breakdown in communications and accountability.
Selectman Chairman Putnam, doing his best Col. Blake imitation, has offered that he didn't really know what he was signing as his best excuse, admitting that his signature on the agreement "is essentially worthless." Well, he got that right.
Last time I checked, Selectmen have no authority as individuals and are empowered to act only as a Board, unless that authority has been specifically delegated by a vote of the Board. Even if that is the case here, and the Selectmen okayed Mr. Putnam's review and signature on the document (a sort-of group Col. Blake exercise, I suppose), the colossal and costly mistake of signing a document authorizing more than $30,000 in public employee payouts without so much as a cursory review is still a huge problem. If this were Col. Blake's Army, Putnam would be reassigned to a weather station in Alaska to count snowflakes.
The Captains get a pass here. Although the timing of providing the payments, when we are asking other employees to take furlough days and/or face layoffs, is ill-advised, our leaders on the Police Department were fighting for what they believed in. Employees get a right to do that. The problem lies with the thought process in the corner office in approving such a bonanza for three employees when the rest of the town is suffering and looking at cutbacks.
How do we look other employees in the eye and ask them to make concessions after this one-act comedy? Can we really as a community ask our cops, firefighters, and teachers to take a couple of days off without pay on the heels of this episode? And what of the intent to evade the Town Meeting process by even having this agreement in the first place? The very existence of this contract suggests that a decision was made at a high level to wrap up the process deliberately by avoiding a public discussion at our local legislature next week. That kind of skirting the chain of command would have landed even Col. Blake in the brig for a few days.
Let's just hope that if Putnam decides to read someone the "riot act" over this, he actually reads it first.
This column is reprinted from the Falmouth Enterprise.