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Inside the goldfish bowl

Employment in municipal government can sometimes be characterized as working in a goldfish bowl in that your every action or every decision can be subject to public examination. Because you are providing services to the public and being compensated with their money, town employees understand that such scrutiny comes with the territory.

No one knows this better than those working in the Wallingford Public Works Department. In the past two years, they have dealt with Hurricane Irene, a freak October snowstorm, Superstorm Sandy, and a once-in-a-century blizzard. As far as I’m concerned, they confronted the difficult challenges brought by each of these events creatively and professionally. While I’m at it, I’d like to make note of the excellent help they provided during Celebrate Wallingford. They provided a great deal of assistance to the WCI volunteers and staff before, during and after the event.

So perhaps now is a good time to be reminded of the work they’ve done, because it is election season. One particular Wallingford Town Councilor wanted to have yet another inquisition of Public Works Director Henry McCully placed on the Town Council agenda. The mistake of storing five hundred tons of street sweeping detritus in violation of DEEP regulations, a situation that has since been rectified to DEEP’s satisfaction, is being hyped as “a serious mismanagement of our town’s assets.”

The councilor was rebuffed, as Town Council leadership decided that, lacking any new information that would be relevant to further examination of the issue, this was a waste of valuable meeting time. Let’s discuss two questions raised by this decision: the purpose of Town Council meetings and appropriate treatment of town employees.

First of all, Town Council meetings are held so that the nine councilors can discuss subjects relevant to their responsibilities. And yes, investigation of how town employees are spending town funds is relevant. But once the answers have been found to the questions raised, that is when the discussion should end. Town Council Chambers are not a court of law, and nine part-time local legislators do not comprise a Board of Inquiry. And while the public is invited to attend meetings and make comment, the purpose of these meetings is to conduct Town Council business, not to provide an endless open forum for other purposes.

In this particular case, nothing at all is to be gained by rehashing every detail that has previously been discussed. There is no new information. There have already been hours and hours of discussion. The regulatory authority is satisfied that the material has been properly disposed of, and that the transgression was inadvertent and will not be repeated. Enough already.

Secondly, bringing town employees before the Town Council in a publicly televised meeting should have a legitimate purpose. I have been in such meetings where I am embarrassed by the tone of some of the questions being asked. There have been too many instances where councilors are so eager to prove their point or to show the public what astute guardians of the public trust they are that the discussion becomes aggressive and, in my opinion, abusive. It seems forgotten that town employees are hired to perform a job, and their job description does not include being a punching bag in a Town Council meeting.

There is one more Town Council meeting before the election. Perhaps it would be instructive to watch it, just as it was instructive to have watched last Tuesday’s theatrics. Serving as a Town Councilor is an honor, and it carries with it the responsibility to conduct the town’s business with a clear focus on what is best for the Town of Wallingford, leaving other considerations outside that room.

Stephen Knight is a former Wallingford Town Councilor.



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