Members of the village board should not be in the business of criticizing village employees. Period. To put a finer point on it, I should never pick up Wednesday Journal and read quotes and perspectives of the type attributed to Trustee Robert Milstein in your paper last week?#34;stating that the village manager “lied,” that the village attorney and village Human Resources director should “follow Swenson’s lead in finding employment elsewhere,” and that the entire legal department should “take early retirement.”
As most of you who follow village affairs know, I prefer that the board attend to village business in straight-forward conversations at the board table, and I have little interest in engaging in battles of competing press releases or letters to the editor. In this case, however, given the outrageous nature of these comments, I am compelled to respond.
Let’s set aside the question of whether these comments contribute to the creation of a hostile work environment, the issue of whether any of the comments cross the line regarding legal definitions of slander or defamation, and the simple, selfish, and profound lack of judgement in making such remarks in the first place when the village is in the midst of a search process to hire a new manager (with such comments clearly working against our interest in attracting a strong field of potential candidates).
A simple review of the facts: We have, here in Oak Park, a council-manager form of government. The board is elected to set policy direction. The board hires a village manager to serve as the chief administrative officer, to oversee operations, and to hire and manage village staff to execute all operational activities in advancement of the board’s and the community’s goals. Part of this operational responsibility includes oversight and execution of personnel matters in line with the village’s HR policies and practices, and with the terms of the collective bargaining agreements that we have in place with the unionized employees who serve the village and the public. There are appeal processes that are spelled out within these policies and agreements, and they contain the ability to go to arbitration or to enter the federal court system.
The village board is not part of the chain in this appeal process, nor should it be. Politics and politically elected individuals cannot be permitted to intervene in or influence the objective and evenhanded application of the village’s personnel policies if we are to maintain the village’s basic, fundamental commitment to good, responsible governance, free of political influence. In turn, if a board member has information that they believe is relevant to a personnel-related issue, it is incumbent on them to provide that information to the village manager who, again, has operational responsibility for such matters.
That did not happen in this case. Trustee Milstein received some information, accepted it at face value (apparently without giving much credence to the notion that there might be other relevant and countervailing facts of which he was not aware), refused to pass any information that he did have along to the village manager, and summarily criticized and condemned staff members for simply doing their jobs. This is profoundly troubling. And it is made all the more so for me because, though Bob and I do not always see eye to eye on issues, we have managed during most of my time on this board to interact effectively in an environment of respect.
Nonetheless, at some point, everyone needs to accept that we have a professional management system here, in which we hire people to perform certain functions. We need to let them do their jobs, in accordance with reasonable and established policies, and without outside interference from members of the board.
Does there need to be accountability? Absolutely. I have been preaching this since I was elected trustee three years ago, and we took the first significant steps to implement meaningful performance measurement. Do we have more to do in this area? Yes. But we have made substantial progress. Having trustees decide that it is their province to involve themselves in individual personnel matters, and to make pronouncements in any way and at any time about village staff, is egregiously irresponsible and undermines much of the progress that we have begun to make.
An objective assessment of the village’s current labor-management and general employee relations situation shows that we have a significantly lower grievance rate than do comparable communities, and that virtually all of those grievances are addressed without proceeding to the step of arbitration?#34;highlighting that the village and its employees (often supported by union representatives) have been able to amicably resolve those issues that have arisen. These are the basic facts that should be at the heart of any responsible and evenhanded consideration of these issues in public discussion and press reports.
Unfortunately, that appropriate and balanced perspective was missing from last week’s article, which was profoundly unfair to a number of staff. Carl Swenson, Ray Heise, and Frank Spataro have, in my opinion, bent over backwards to meet the needs and respond to the direction of this village board, sometimes in very difficult circumstances. They have done so responsibly and professionally and do not in any way deserve the bilious comments directed at them this past week. More broadly, the other members of the legal department work long and hard to safeguard and protect the village’s interests, and in my three years of direct experience, I have been tremendously impressed with their efforts on our community’s behalf. We owe them our appreciation, not ignorant derision.
As I said at our employee recognition event this past Friday, it is our job as a board to ensure that we provide the manager and Village staff with the support that they need to be successful and to achieve the goals that we have established, and that we all work together in an environment of comity and mutual respect. In turn, I will not stand for, and none of us should permit, employees to be attacked, publicly or privately, for simply doing their jobs.
David Pope is president of the Village of Oak Park.