A little more than a year ago, the state Freedom of Information Commission ruled that a private discussion in January 2016 among City Council leaders, the mayor and the city manager violated open meeting requirements. The commission recommended that the city strictly comply with open meeting rules and advised that a leadership group, which was meeting regularly before meetings of the full council “may in its own right constitute a ‘committee of’ the city council.”
In a column at the beginning of this year I applauded that decision, which was the result of a complaint filed by the Record-Journal, and supported in general open government with a list of favorite quotations.
Those included “there is nothing that gets rid of bad conduct like sunshine.” That belonged to Ed Pocock III, a Southington town councilor.
There was also this one, by Colleen Murphy, executive director of the Freedom of Information Commission, about the Meriden ruling and the practice of holding meetings before the meeting: “The ability to decide matters in a closed setting could lead to some bad results where important decisions are made outside the purview of the public.”
For all I know, Guy Scaife deserved to be fired. Or not. The problem is that there is not enough information on which to base an opinion, and that the information provided does more to cloud the situation than enlighten it.
Scaife, Meriden’s city manager, was fired on Monday. It was done in the open because he requested it. Perhaps it would have been held in the open anyway.
What we do know is that Scaife was given a 2-percent raise and a vote of confidence in October. What, one can reasonably ask, was it about his performance that went south so fast it made his termination inevitable?
The explanation so far is that it was done to relieve escalating discord, but while there’s substantial evidence of that discord, as in department heads leaving and Scaife saying that he could no longer work with the city’s corporation counsel, that Scaifewasn’t given the opportunity to improve his performance is bewildering, at least given the explanation so far.
While his contract may have allowed Scaife to be fired without cause, it’s reasonable to assume that any employee, particularly a high-level position like a city manager, could expect a warning and an opportunity to improve performance. Perhaps those had been given, but we don’t know that.
He certainly seemed surprised. “Please tell me why you are terminating me this evening,” he said at Monday’s meeting. “What reason do you have to take away my financial livelihood and do irreversible harm to my professional career? Surely I have a right to know, the citizens have a right to know why you are taking this action.”
Indeed. Citizens have a right to know, not just because as taxpayers their money is involved, but because in an open society people have the right to know what is going on, and what may be going wrong, in the operation of government that so dramatically impacts their lives.
We can suspect that politics was involved, because Scaife was fired by council Democrats in an 8-to-4 party-line vote. But what is the nature of that political divide, and why had Democrats reached the point where they could see no way of going forward with Scaife?
And how is the city now going to operate? By what calculus do we measure the upcoming needs when it comes to city management?
There are many questions that need answers. The health of the city going forward will benefit not by secrecy but by letting in the sunshine.
Reach Jeffery Kurz at 203-317-2213, or firstname.lastname@example.org.