Oct 28, 2015

VSOUP story says: Rockland City leaders list 'vocal minority,' and change-resistant city employees as weaknesses/threats in goal-setting meeting

Rockland Courier Gazette 10/25/15 story by Dan Dunkle  detailing a three hour Rockland city "goal-setting" meeting  of city councilors, the city manager and a facilitator. held in a small room of the  Rockland Public Library. Headline slightly modified for clarity - RH

City leaders list 'vocal minority,'  media, change-resistant city employees as weaknesses/threats in goal-setting meeting.  by Dan Dunkle

ROCKLAND — Members of the City Council and city management created a list of what they see as the city's strengths, weaknesses, threats and opportunities in a meeting Oct. 22 at the Rockland Public Library as part of a goal-setting project.
City officials listed an entrenched and negative vocal minority of residents and resistance to change among city employees as weaknesses and threats during the meeting.
Laurie Bouchard of Bouchard & Associates LLC was hired to facilitate the meeting.
The goal of the three-hour meeting, Bouchard said, was to create a vision statement for the city, setting a vision of what success would look like by June 30, 2018. She said this should be inspiring, achievable but not easy, something that would be a stretch to reach.
Prior to the meeting, city management team members and councilors had created an initial list of the city's strengths, weaknesses, threats and opportunities. In many cases the same or a similar item was listed more than once as the city leaders went through these lists.
Change-resistant city employees
It was stated as a weakness that among the city employees are entrenched staff who are resistant to any type of change to the way things have always been done, including being managed. In addition, Bouchard said, the list included a lack of professionalism among the staff.
"This takes on different forms: staff shouting, being insubordinate, refusing to accept City Council policy decisions, going behind management's back to the council."
When she was talking about the threats on the lists, this was mentioned again as an internal threat.
"There is some up-front cost associated with providing the staff with appropriate direction, tools, training to do their jobs better," the list stated. "If this is not communicated to the public as a long-term investment, they will see it as a waste of money. There are also staff who will be incredibly resistant to change and will need to go through a grieving process associated with doing things differently from how they have always done them."
In addition, it was stated at the meeting that:
"Internal staff have become accustomed to operating in a very casual manner in their interactions with councilors and members of the public. It is likely they will view increased levels of professionalism as restrictive."
City councilors at the meeting felt the employee issues were to be handled at the city manager's level, not by the council. Valli Geiger said she has had nothing but positive experiences working with city employees.
City Manager James Chaousis said city administrators would need support from the council to push for change.
Chaousis did not respond to an email request for documents from the meeting or the amount of money the city paid to Bouchard.
The vocal minority
City officials listed as a threat to the city "a small cadre of people with relentless negativity," and "a vocal, entrenched minority."
It was stated that this small group of local citizens is continually trying to disrupt progress with "fear-mongering that everything is a coverup."
They also expressed concern about members of the public who have very strong opinions and emotions regarding planning and development issues, and who do not care about the underlying policy that is the basis for decision-making.
City officials said it would be "very important to communicate why and how decisions are made," and how they conform to policy.
The press
The lists of weaknesses and threats also included several references to local press, complaining that the city has no outlet to counter bad press, that too many editorials are written by one person, and that the press and the city are not "true partners in bringing forward the concerns of citizens while addressing the positives happening every day."
"There's a national 'gotcha' media, which has filtered into the state and I think is also represented locally," Chaousis said.
Geiger said she has struggled with this. She said she went to a Belfast meeting that was not covered by the press.
"It came before council, they passed it, and a year later they said, 'Nobody even knows we've done this,'" she said. "That would never happen here. Whatever you're doing here is lots of discussion, rabble-rousing."
At the meeting it was suggested that the city would have new communication policies going forward.
"Increasing trust is gradual, and there are likely to be steps backwards for every few steps forward," one of the items on the lists stated. "Will require patience, consistency and constantly overstating the same things."
Rising mil rate
Chaousis argued that the mil rate itself is not the problem. That is just a calculation, he said. The real issue, the council decided, was high property taxes.
"There are 489 municipalities in this state," he said. "The average of the mil rates is about $14.50, but the average town in the state has less than 2,000 population, doesn't have a police department, and is not a city. We have an average mil rate among the 24 cities in the state of Maine."
Councilor Will Clayton pointed out that much of the rising property tax rate is caused by increases in school costs, which the council does not control.
City Hall sale and engineering issues
City Councilor Larry Pritchett's responses to the questions took on the issue of the City Hall building, which the city may sell to be redeveloped as a location for a natural gas power plant.
Pritchett identified the building's weaknesses, saying it is on the edge of town, not easy to walk to, has a high energy intensity index and outdated lighting and building systems. He said the city must decide whether to stay or move, or building challenges may force stranded investments.
Pritchett also argued that the city does not have strong engineering for its projects, pointing to a "lack of solid technical specs," and "not using firms with strong portfolios."
Chaousis agreed, saying the city was working without an engineering budget and had made engineering a low priority.
City leaders also listed and discussed the following:
- Quality of place
- Vibrant city including arts, culture, manufacturing, being on the coast
- Unique retail; not too many franchises
- City staff members who have found more ways to do more with less
- Businesses are looking to locate here
- A unique situation where blue- and white-collar, industrial and entrepreneurs as well as retirees live side-by-side year-round.
- Ad hoc decision-making around development and planning; discussion and decision-making that focuses more on emotions and opinions, as opposed to relating planning and development proposals back to the broader policy framework
- A lack of trust on every measurable axis
- Trouble recruiting personnel
- Declining population
- Entrenched poverty
- Old housing stock with deferred maintenance
- Poor school outcomes
- Old lateral sewer lines
- More than 25 percent of the property is tax-exempt
- "Redistributing resources is often very emotional, and not something you can expect unanimity around; there is going to have to be a very direct and clear explanation of why certain resources need to be redirected for the good of the community, as opposed to the good of a few stakeholders or even a few areas of the city's operation."
- Increasing mil rate due to status quo of county and RSU.
- A continuing increase in overall poverty level
- A regression of the quality job the police department has done in reducing crime rate and drug influence.
- Civil unrest
- Aging infrastructure
- Families leaving Rockland
- Not enough rental housing
- Improved public communications strategies
- When hard-working staff are given appropriate direction -- tools and training to work more efficiently -- they will provide more service for less money and more taxpayer bang for their buck
- Improving professionalism among staff will improve trust among the public, creating a more customer-service culture

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