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Board identifies communication as top priority for Crane’s evaluation

Date: 12/23/2014

LONGMEADOW – Several members of the Select Board identified communication between the board and Town Manager Stephen Crane as its top priority as it moves forward with an ongoing dialogue for Crane’s improvement evaluation. 

Selectman Paul Santaniello said at the board’s Dec. 15 meeting that he would like to see much more communication between members of the board and Crane before meetings in order for Selectmen to be more prepared for meetings.

Selectman Alex Grant used an example of his concern with Crane’s performance skills recent complaints by residents were raised due to a typo, which showed an increase on water bills. This error could potentially lead to the town giving rebates to residents on their bills.

 “The thing that concerned me was not that the mistake was made; it was the process, the reaction to it,” Grant added. “I raised it with Stephen in an email, and I think I said, ‘There’s something that’s unresolved here,’ and then he didn’t respond back. And then, he wrote to me later to say, ‘I thought we had resolved that.’”

 Crane said in response to Grant’s comments, “It’s fine to criticize me for water bills going out with typos on them. The proverbial buck stops with me even though I had nothing to do with the process while it was happening. It still was on my watch.”

Finding is a consensus for a definition of communication as opposed to direct supervision regarding town operations has been a sticking point between the board and Crane. That issue was illustrated during his first-year performance evaluation in June, which resulted in the board agreeing to complete 30-, 60- and 90-day evaluations of Crane’s improvement.

Town Counsel David Martel identified the respective duties of the board and Crane in a Dec. 1 letter to both parties due to the ongoing issue regarding how the town’s charter delegates the powers of the legislative and executive branches of town government.

“In short, the town manager should be left to ‘manage’ while keeping the Select Board informed and expecting that the Select Board will assess whether its policies have been appropriately implemented by the town manager,” Martel said.

Martel stated in the letter that he spoke to Thomas Groux, the consultant retained by the town to guide the Charter Commission through the charter drafting process, who said the intent of the Charter Commission was to have a charter with a “strong town manager.”

Martel also spoke to Roger Wojcik, chair of the Charter Commission, who “emphasized the policy making role of the Select Board, a role which involved setting goals and providing broad guidance to the town manager. In Mr. Wojcik’s view, the Select Board should inform the town manager of the board’s expectations but those expectations should not include day-to-day supervision.”

Select Board Chair Richard Foster also voiced uncertainty in the board’s ability to execute the improvement plan agreed upon in June. 

“In reality, although this sounds good, it is hard to determine how to implement such a process, let alone gauge its success,” he continued.

Foster said in his estimation that up to 85 percent of what Crane does on a daily basis, day-to-day activities, is not readily available for the board to view.

“In reality, we tend to gauge his performance based on program failures instead of success,” he added. “This is highlighted in that we only talk about failures and items that still need correction. In our system, one perceived failure tends to erase 10 attaboys.”

Crane also said he doesn’t receive enough positive feedback from the board.

“I do need to take some direction and feedback from the board but I do believe that the day-to-day activities are largely guided by board discussions, even if they don’t come in the form of a specific set of goals that were approved by the board,” he added.

“If there’s a sense of the board or specific board members comments, we are constantly redirecting in very small ways, apparently imperceptible ways, to reflect the feedback I get here at these meetings,” Crane continued. “But because nothing is ever affirmed as a good step, it’s hard to tell that.”

Santaniello took issue with Foster’s statements, saying the board had not been made aware of these concerns before.

“The only thing I’ll say, Rich, is that during this time from the time the voted directive; where you said, ‘I’ll work on a document. We’ll get it going.’ You did not inform the board at all other than what you just did here, and what I see is the whole process of using the review that we did, was that it is quantitative,” Santaniello said.

“It would take away emotions and things like that so there wouldn’t be, hopefully, bias,” he continued. “And that’s what I assumed we were getting all this time.”

Foster suggested the need for more input from board members if they are dissatisfied with his handling of the situation.

“If I’ve not been successful then somebody is going to have to give me the guidance [on] which direction you would like me to go,” Foster said. “If you’re that unsuccessful, remove me from the chair and start over and go forward. I might not be the right person to lead this venture. I’ve tried and if people think I’ve failed, then do like you would do anything else; elections have results.”

Selectman Mark Gold said there must be room in the evaluation process for the Select Board to “steer the ship,” or set goals for the year and not just set the policy by which the “ship is steered.”

Foster said, in his opinion, Crane has shown improvement in regards to communicating with the board.

Since the June evaluation, Foster stated he has met with Crane for two hours or more on a weekly basis to discuss issues within the town.

Grant pointed out that at the board’s June 4 meeting Foster rated Crane as not meeting expectations, giving him a grade of one on a scale of one to five across several categories.

“I have no understanding about or no knowledge about what’s been going on that’s changed your assessment from June to December [of the town manager’s performance],” Grant said to Foster. “You talk about, ‘Nudging forward on items;’ what are the items? What are the concerns that you’ve raised? How have you responded to them? I’m completely in the dark about that.”