My daughter Jenna is tanned. She spent a week with my parents in Florida. The Sox are playing again, and I actually saw a purple crocus peeking through some weathered pine bark mulch on my weekend walk. Although these signs of warmer and brighter days ahead are harbingers of many things, the advent of our annual democracy bee, Falmouth’s Annual Town Meeting, is among the most prominent here. Tuesday’s paper was sprinkled with several articles of our local leaders, elected and appointed, paid and volunteer, jockeying for position in the race toward a vote on the night of the ultimate contest in April. Some of that jockeying comes in the form of reasoned and thoughtful debate, some of it emerges as gentle nudging, and still more of the deliberations morph into a less attractive and certainly less productive conflict.
While some consider style over substance to be a necessary component of local government and politics, I prefer the thoughtful, reasoned approach exhibited by many. Our preparations for our local legislative event are no exception. The attentive and accommodating approach taken by our Assistant Town Manager and the Chair of our Finance Committee in approaching the daunting and complex issues of municipal health insurance related to our annual budget is a great example of how to do it right – and of what’s right with our local government. When our communities Assistant CEO Heather Harper presented the multifaceted and multifarious components of the town’s $11 million health insurance budget, some members of the FinCom, including its stellar and savvy Chair Gary Anderson had trouble wrapping their arms and minds around the details, Heather did not hesitate to go back to work, drill back down into the details, and returned with a more thorough explanation of an expenditure that is a full ten percent of the operations of our community. As a result, Chairman Gary – and the rest of the Committee – had faith and confidence in the figures – and in our managers – and the budget proceeded onto the local legislature. That is good government at work.
Let’s contrast that collaborative and meticulous approach with another budget on which the FinCom had some questions. The headline tells the tale: “Finance Committee In The Dark On Overtime For Facilities Management.” Unlike the success story of capable and hard-working volunteers being brought to the table and treated with openness and respect relative to the health insurance budget, the opposite approach appears to have been taken with questions from the very same committee on the Facilities Management budget, which funds a department at nearly a million dollars a year to maintain our town buildings, no insignificant expenditure or responsibility. The frustration expressed would have been easily mollified by the facilities folks adopting the same open and cooperative approach demonstrated by our Assistant Town Manager. It’s clear to this observer that it was not. Committee members, who showed a willingness to roll up their sleeves and analyze the complexities of millions of dollars of insurance premiums, were stymied in their attempt to simply be briefed on details on cleaning hallways and bathrooms. Their frustration centered on the lack of response to simple questions, and apparently culminated with a straightforward and clear expression of exasperation from committee member Paul Sellers. “We are trying to get some simple questions answered,” he noted.
What’s wrong with this picture? In one instance, we have a complex issue, with intricate details and multiple moving parts, discussed openly and with trust and respect. On the other hand, a far less complex and expensive issue results in a rebuke of a department out of an unwillingness to share information and cooperate.
Town Manager Julian Suso extended his hand and guaranteed answers and cooperation. Kudos to him for taking that appropriate step, and to the Finance Committee for caring enough to highlight the problem. The next step is to bring the culture of cooperation displayed by Heather Harper to our Facilities Management Department. It’s all the peoples’ money. It’s all the peoples’ business.