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Guest Commentary: Take control for better town government

October 19, 2010

By JOHN ZAMBARANO

Soon we will be asked to decide on a couple of very important issues with regard to changes to the Town Carter in North Smithfield. The first, and most important, point I would like to make is in regards to the change from an elected Town Administrator to an “employed” Town Manager.
First, ask yourself the following question: Whenever you discuss the town’s financial and/or administrative issues with others, does the thought of “politics” enter into your concept of why things happen a certain way in town? Your answer to this question is crucial and should impact your decision on the Charter changes. We have the opportunity to lessen the impact of the effect of politics on our lives by taking control and sending a message. If we do not make a statement about how we would like to be represented and led then we have no one to blame but ourselves for the outcome of the next vote. Town government was established to work for us to better our lives and our community. Moreover, our town government must properly discharge its responsibilities to care for the resources we provide by operating in a manner that is accountable and responsive. The current age we live in and the current economy provide almost no room for error. Letting politics alone guide the administration of town government allows for the real possibility that sound business practices can be put aside in favor of personal preference, favoritism, payback or any other potential misuse of management authority. A contracted professional provides for insight acquired through the use of specific employment terms and conditions and allows for a level of judgment beyond that of just fundamental political responsibilities and alliance.
There is a significant difference between the concept of an “elected official” and an “employed manager.” Basically, any person, regardless of education or experience, may serve as an elected official as long as he/she obtains the greatest total votes in an election. This notion may serve our needs well in many areas of government where the official provides a sounding board for our collective interests, a communicator, a facilitator and has the ability to engage third party resources to address our issues of concern. However, many cities and towns in our state have realized already that professional, highly experienced, motivated, fully informed and fully committed long-term leadership is what is going to bring financial and administrative success going forward. In fact, almost 65 percent of the cities and towns reporting to the Division of Municipal Affairs at the state level are led by a contracted manager.
Our elected Town Council would still be the body responsible for hiring and monitoring performance by any Town Manager. However, performance measurement here is the key in the success of a Town Manager and not political cronyism. The Town Manager would be held accountable for negligent actions under the terms of his/her contract and can be removed for a failure to perform at any time. Think about a professional, unfettered by political grandstanding every two years, working as an employee governed by a contractual arrangement with the town, fulfilling responsibilities detailed in the Charter and accountable by contract. Responsibility for performance suddenly becomes the yardstick by which our leadership is measured. Some may also argue that the cost of professional management may be greater, in terms of salary and benefits. I submit to you that much like everything else in life our expectations of our leadership grow significantly higher at that point as well. In making this change to a Town Manager, savings through effective leadership are fully expected to accrue to the town and its citizens to the point where they far offset the additional cost of a contracted position.
Along with the above, the second point I would like to make is that another change in the Charter would require town departments to submit their budget requests for the new fiscal year one month earlier than they have been in the past. As Chairman of the Budget Committee I understand, first hand, the difficulty in putting together a sufficiently large budget, allow for discussion with departments and citizens, and make solid recommendations to the Town Council.
Currently, the Budget Committee is required to begin the process by mid-January each year. However, department budgets are frequently not received before mid-February and the School Department does not usually provide its budget until March. This allows the committee only six to eight weeks to review a $33 million budget that includes 40 separate departments. The change to the Charter requiring all departments to put together budget packages by mid-December each year will provide significantly more time for the committee to begin working on department proposals. All departments should be very capable of providing initial budget proposals in December, even if they receive subsequent information that may impact their budgets, such as school mandate changes. Having a specific requirement for department budget submissions at mid-December allows the Budget Committee up to 17 weeks to develop a spending plan to submit to the Town Council by the second Monday in April. This is adequate time to consider preliminary proposals, any developing information such as mandate changes, conducting work sessions and public meetings and ultimately developing a recommendation summary for the Council that is considered reasonably fair in its assessment of our financial condition.
Please take the time to reflect on the importance of these issues as you consider your vote. The events of the past two years have had a profound impact on most families in North Smithfield. We must think long and hard at choices we can make now that would accrue significant dividends for our community going forward. Solid, intuitive business leadership coupled with comprehensive planning would allow us to develop pathways to success and lead us out of the deepening financial quagmire in which we now find ourselves.
John Zambarano is Chairman of the North Smithfield Budget Committee.

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