Courier-Gazette Editorial

City government needs to get a grip

By The Courier-Gazette Editorial Board | Nov 08, 2012

Citizens of Rockland are understandably concerned after watching the controversy unfold this past weekend concerning the sudden, unexplained departure of Rockland's Community Development Director Audrey Lovering.

Lovering signed a legal agreement with the city Oct. 10, resigning from her position and receiving a severance package of $21,667, which is equivalent to four months salary. As part of the agreement, she can't say anything bad about the city or its employees.

While the circumstances of this event remain unclear, what is becoming apparent is a problem with leadership in the city. Members of the City Council disagree about the procedure to move forward. Mayor Brian Harden and Councilor Elizabeth Dickerson have not yet started throwing things at each other, but through emails forwarded to the press during the weekend, it was clear they are back to the squabbling we saw earlier this year about another issue.

Meanwhile, relatively new City Manager James Smith finds himself at the center of a controversy and publicly criticized, but unable to speak to the issue because the matter is, legally speaking, confidential.

At Monday night's agenda-setting meeting, Joe Steinberger said we need some leadership from the city council, and we tend to agree.

Councilor Dickerson sent an open email to Harden this past weekend, putting pressure on him to launch an investigation into the matter.

On the one hand, she is to be commended for supporting the public's right to know what is happening with their tax dollars. We understand the issue is confidential now due to the agreement that was made, but question if that was really the right way to handle this dispute in the first place.

On the other hand, the timing of her email, just days before an election in which she's running for Legislature and Harden was running for another term on the council is interesting. Her statement effectively distanced herself from the city's big controversy while casting doubt on Harden. (At the time of this writing, the results of the election were not yet in).

From everything we've heard about this situation, the dispute that led to Lovering's departure was handled at city hall by City Manager James Smith and the city attorney. As far as we know, Harden was not any more responsible for this problem than Dickerson was. The manager is their employee because they are both on the city council.

It has also come to light that the only reason Dickerson knows less about this issue than the other city council members is that she did not attend the closed-door meeting in which the city manager explained it. As a result, the other members of the city council feel this investigation is not really needed.

While Dickerson has championed the public's right to an explanation for this payout and Harden has argued for confidentiality and established procedures, this email exchange during the weekend was also largely about late election politics.

The council should definitely investigate this issue further and thoroughly, and here we support Dickerson. However, Rockland will not gain much if this investigation is just another closed-door session used to bring Dickerson up to speed while keeping the citizens, who are footing the bill, in the dark.

In addition, the council has also started hinting at the city possibly needing a new human resources employee to deal with these matters. In this economy, having just given the citizens of Rockland a property tax increase, it does not make sense to react to a problem by creating another position in city government.

There are already plenty of employees at city hall to deal with these matters, including a full-time city attorney and a city manager. It's true many large businesses have full-time human resources employees. Most, however, do not have staff attorneys.

The council needs to set aside its squabbling and offer some clear guidance to the employees it has rather than throwing more money and employees at the problem.

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