District – Unresolved Issues

skull-527550_960_720I saw this story about the Key Largo Wastewater Treatment District.  Looks like Tobin and Gibbs are still at it.

The fundamental debate is about how much control the board should have over staffing decisions – hiring, firing, salary, etc.  On a more basic level, it’s about transparency. A run-down of media coverage is provided here.

Comm. Gibbs has staked out a very extreme position.  He’s said the general manager is the “captain of the ship” and the “captain’s word is god”.  Hmmm…what if the board of the Rural Health Network had taken that position?  How long would the alleged thievery have gone on?

Fortunately, there’s nothing to suggest that the District is facing similar issues, but the board needs to be vigilant.  It’s not just about detecting wrong-doing (which is not the issue here).  It’s also about making sure the District is doing the best it can for the ratepayers.

In this most recent article, Tobin said…

I like when commissioners interfere. That means they’re interested. Most people think politicians are evil and corrupt. … But in a small town people can’t get away with that stuff.”

Well, I think politicians certainly can get away with corruption in a small town – for a while at least.  Perhaps even more so than a politician in a big city.  After all, people are very reluctant to admit that someone they “know” could be involved in wrong-doing, and they often look the other way.  Besides, it’s not just the politicians we have to worry about.  Any public official can be involved in corruption.  The iPhone scandal is a great example.  The head of the county’s technology department was ultimately sentenced to 18 months in prison, and the grand jury recommended that the county administrator be terminated for his role in the debacle.

I want to talk about that word “interfering”.  I don’t think Tobin means “interfering” per se.  At least I hope not.  I think he means just doing his job as a board member, which has been treated as “interference” for quite a while now.  Requesting information is not interference.  Taking steps to verify the information given is not interference.

Here are a few examples of what I would consider interference.

  • Insisting that the general manager hire, fire or promote a specific employee.
  • Dictating the compensation of employees that report to the general manager.
  • Preventing the general manager from disciplining or terminating a troublesome or under-performing employee.
  • Giving direction to an employee that reports to the general manager, or otherwise disrupting the chain of command.
  • Attempting to circumvent general board direction by unilaterally giving direction to the general manager or other District employee.  The board is supposed to act in the sunshine as a body.

Here are a few examples of what I would not consider interference.  In fact, I would consider these part of the board’s job.

  • Insisting that the general manager hire and/or promote qualified employees in accordance with the needs of the District.  No hiring of bubbas just because they’re bubbas.
  • Ensuring that compensation is within pre-approved limits;  and is based on qualifications and job content.  No inflating of job titles or over-paying of bubbas.
  • Requiring the general manager to adhere to District policy (and state and federal law) when disciplining or terminating troublesome or under-performing employees.
  • Giving direction to an employee or consultant that reports to the board.
  • Working with the board as a unit to set policy and give direction to the general manager.  Requesting information from the general manager, consultants or other senior staff in order to facilitate decision-making.

The general manager reports to the board, and the board reports to the ratepayers.  If there is a “god” at the sewer district, it is certainly not the general manager.  He or she is a few rungs down.  When it comes to the general manager, the board hires, fires, supervises, evaluates and sets compensation.  In order to do that they need to…

  • Form and express a valid opinion on the general manager’s hiring practices.
  • Form and express a valid opinion on the general manager’s compensation decisions.
  • Form and express a valid opinion on the general manager’s overall performance.
  • Request the information needed to form and express valid opinions on the matters listed above.

One of the board’s functions is to act as a watchdog.  How do you act as a watchdog without information?  What if you lack confidence in the information you’re given?  There is a Russian proverb that says…

Trust but verify.

The conflict between Tobin and Gibbs boils down to this…

Tobin wants to verify what he’s being told about staffing decisions and other matters.  Gibbs wants to simply accept what he’s told at face value, and he is harshly critical of board members who refuse to do the same.

I hope Tobin presses on, and I hope, if Gibbs is re-elected, that he takes his duty to the ratepayers more seriously.  Fortunately, Gibbs has got some competition.  I talked about the candidates here and here.  Here’s a quick rundown now that the qualifying period is over.

  • Sue Heim – She seems very determined to pursue infrastructure sales tax money and provide needed financial relief to Key Largo.  She regularly attends meetings and has for years.  She has made a solid effort to educate herself about District issues.  I was initially concerned about her ties to county commissioner, Sylvia Murphy, but that does not appear to be an issue at this point.
  • Gary Bauman – He was part of that first wave of commissioners who made the District a success.  It would be great to see him back.  Very smart, capable person.
  • Steve Gibbs – He’s served capably for a few years, but lately has been making some troubling statements, and has been openly hostile to the fact-finding efforts of other commissioners.  Not sure what’s going on there but the ratepayers need transparency, capable governance, and financial relief.
  • Dennis Caltagirone – He’s a mystery.  He’s made some generic statements to the press and on his candidate page at the Supervisor of Elections.  No specifics yet.  Would like to hear more from him.
  • Eddie Martinez – Did not qualify.

I know wastewater is the last thing your typical voter wants to think about.  But it is a big deal financially and environmentally.  I hope folks will read up, get involved, ask questions, maybe even attend a meeting or two.



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