Remember - blog posts migrate downward, so the most recent post is at the top; the oldest at the bottom.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Priorities for 2018

As promised, some discussion (a beginning, at least) of projects and directions that will be on the Board's agenda this year.

Certainly, the highest-profile issue on the agenda is the move toward professional management of County services. As I think I've noted before, Otsego County is the largest county in NY that does not have a County Manager or Executive (to be fair, Columbia County doesn't either, and it's almost exactly the same size). Over the years, more and more has been expected of counties by the state and federal bureaucracies, and nothing of note has been taken off of our plate. While it might have been possible for fourteen laymen to run Otsego County twenty years ago, it is less and less so as time goes on, and there is no evidence that this will change.

Professional management can take on any one of a number of formats. County Managers or Adminstrators are hired by the Board, usually for a specified term, and it is the Board that offers the opportunity for another term, or not. A County Executive is elected for a certain term in a county-wide election, and the voters determine whether another term is appropriate. Both forms of management have advocates in the County. I will dip into politics for just a moment to say that the leaders of the political party which represents the majority of voters supports, unsurprisingly, the County Executive model. I support the County Manager model, because I do want the Board to have clear oversight of the employee who will have day-to-day executive authority over all the workings of the County. And also because I am a member of the minority party.

Having a professional manager/executive/administrator at the top of the organizational chart will bring efficiency, an appropriate level of uniformity of function, and heightened transparency and communication to our very diverse set of functions and services. Simply said, it's crazy for a $110 million organization not to have a CEO.

Second on the list of 2018 goals, at least for me, will be a salary scale for Management and Confidential (M&C) employees, which pretty much means all non-union County employees. These are the department heads, and upper management and supervisors, for the most part, as well as a variety of professionals (Social Service attorneys, for instance). We finally got a raise for them in 2018 – the second in ten years – but it's for one year, and there is still no comprehensive, perpetual salary scale for determining reasonable increases for this important part of our County. We have serious problems with retention and promotion (promotion from a union position to an M&C position often does not include a meaningful wage hike) because of this.

I'll chair the committee (Performance Review and Goal Setting) that will address a salary study and scale, with the goal of having it in place by the time the 2019 budget is approved in December. This is an important goal for anyone who puts value on the quality of work done by County departments, rather than valuing the minimum output for the lowest cost.


Tuesday, January 16, 2018

2018

 Well, a lot has happened.

As you know, there is new leadership on the County Board for the first time in six years. Dave Bliss, from Middlefield, is now the Chair, and I am the Vice-Chair (which means only that I sit in the Chair when Dave can't be there).

If you're reading this blog, you probably know this, but humor me for a moment. In Europe (and probably in other places), countries often have many political parties on the nationial level – many more than the two which we have in the US - and so it is often the case that no political party wins a majority of the seats in the legislature. In this case, in order to govern (in other words, in order to pass legislation with a majority of votes), parties have to work together. Two or more parties end up coming to a set of agreements on policies and progress toward goals. This is known as a coalition government. Leadership in these countries has to focus on collaboration, compromise and diplomacy (which is necessary to keep the coalition together and functioning).

In most legislatures in America, there are two parties and one has the majority, and therefore governs. No compromise is necessary. But parties often have factions, which disagree about important issues, and therefore some initiatives need to be bipartisan. But for the most part, the majority rules.

This has been the case forever in Otsego County, until now. Republicans have maintained the majority on the County Board, for pretty much always. And that is true for 2018, as well – the Board is split 7-7, but the Republicans hold a slim weighted vote advantage.

However, the Board Republicans have split into two factions, for a number of reasons, and seem to be functioning as two different parties. After working closely with all the current Republicans for the last two years, it seemed that, from our standpoint, one faction was more progressive, and more aligned with our approach to County business, than the other. So the seven Democrats on the 2018 Board have allied with the faction headed by new Chair Dave Bliss, and have formed a coalition government.


As noted above, it will take compromise, collaboration and diplomacy to allow the coalition to work efficiently and maintain progress toward goals. So far, so good. Stay tuned. I'll talk more about specific projects and directions in future posts.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Time

The Otsego County Board of Representatives Rules of Order (Rule #2) says that

Regular meetings of the Board shall be held at 10:00 a.m. on the first Wednesday of each month. All regular and special meetings of the Board shall be held at the Representatives' Chambers in the Village of Cooperstown, New York, except that upon approval of the affirmative weighted vote of at least three-fourths of the total membership of the Board, the time and meeting place of the Board may be changed...

So the time and day and place of the regular monthly meetings are baked into the Rules of Order, which are the Board's bylaws. And it takes three fourths of the board – three fourths! - to make a change.

Our monthly meetings are in the middle of the day, on a weekday (see below). The fact that it takes three fourths of the Board to change this – and nothing else we do is held to such a high standard – suggests something fishy, at least to me. When this rule was established, long ago, it was in someone's interest to make it very, very hard to change the meetings to the evenings, when many more of us can attend and participate. Having the meetings midday, midweek, means that it is much harder for nine-to-fivers to run and serve in the Board, and easier for small business owners, farmers and retired folks to run and serve. Guess which group the perpetual majority party is more likely to be made up of?

Time to move into the 21st century and embrace diversity and citizen participation. In the January meeting, Andrew Stammel will propose this change to the Rules of Order: that the time, day or place of the regular monthly Board meeting will be established by majority vote.

Majority vote is the way we make the vast majority of our decisions, profound or trivial. If the majority of the Board – this or any future Board – wants a change, they should be able to do it, and not be held hostage by the partisan machinations of long-forgotten members.   

Monday, December 11, 2017

Raises are Back!

Looking back over previous posts, I see we left the "raises for M&C employees" story in a perilous position.  Things are looking up.

I am on the Budget Committee this year, as well as Admin, and between the two, we managed to establish an M&C salary raise for 2018.  This was a very good budget year, compared with the last ten years or so, with a lot of financial issues falling the right way for us (including a robust sales tax report).  This led some other Board members to be a bit more accepting of the idea of giving our management their second raise in nine years.

Everyone (except elected officials) gets a raise; those who have been in their current positions longer get larger raises.  This coming year, the PRGS Committee will spend whatever amount of time it takes to develop a perpetual salary scale for M&C employees, so we won't have to do this again, and so our management staff get the raises they deserve on an onging basis.  We'll either find a consulting firm who can help us develop the scale, or develop it ourselves (the more likely, and less expensive, option), with the help of our outstanding Personnel Director, Penney Gentile.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Time

Below is a list of current issues that the Otsego County Board of Representatives will be addressing, in the short or long term, in the new year. PLEASE let me know if you have any questions, concerns, ideas or suggestions regarding any of them. These are the things we'll be spending time and energy on, and we'd like to get them right.

One issue that may come as a surprise is the time of day that the Board meeting is held. In Otsego County, the Board meets as a whole on the first Wednesday of each month, at 10:00 in the morning. This means that, in general, people who have regular nine-to-five or other types of weekday jobs probably can't attend our meetings, either to speak their minds, as they have a right to do, or just to watch, observe, listen and learn.

In addition, of course, this restriction applies to anyone thinking of running for the Board, as well. With daytime meetings, you'd really have to own your own business (including a farm), be retired, or have a job with very flexible hours. Not surprisingly, those are the kinds of folks the Board is populated with. Nothing wrong with that, except that the daytime meeting time is keeping a lot of people with other kinds of jobs from running. I was actually looking into running in 2005, before I retired, and my boss – OCSD Superintendent Mike Shea, a great lover of history and government – had to ask me not to, as he felt the daytime meetings would have too great an impact on my work.


About half of all upstate rural NY Counties have their full Board meetings in late afternoon or the evening, so it can be done. It's time we opened the democratic process in Otsego County to everyone.

County Issues as of Now

CURRENT ISSUES – Late 2017

To be addressed before Jan 2018 Board meeting:
  • Leadership – determining how everyone in the coaliton communicates and collaborates to develop an agenda and process for going forward.
  • Committees – Assignment of committee chairs; assignment of Board members to committees. Committee structure – Maintain current committees as is, or make changes? Ag Committee, or centralize Ag work in one committee – SWEC?
  • Meeting times – Daytime meetings close many people out of participation, either from attending meetings or running for Board seats. Change Board meetings to 6PM? How about Committee meetings?
Issues requiring longer-term planning, starting soon:
  • County Manager – how to begin talking/acting on this? Task Force? Assign to Committee? Lots of data has already been gathered.
  • Salary Study – Either contract with a consultant to create a perpetual salary scale, or make one up ourselves. PRGS Committee?
  • Strategic Plan – How to go forward with this. Continue with current process (separate Committee)? How to establish clear guidelines for implementation?
  • Communication with Department Heads – How to encourage regular, significant communication, empowering them and using their expertise to address current issues and to see what's coming and how to plan for it. Planning in general – How can we elicit and organize large amounts of information to facilitate medium and long-term planning in all areas of County function? How can we enroll Dept Heads and management staff in this process?
  • Jail: Upgrade, expand, replace?

New systems to routinely monitor and assess, and report regularly to full Board
  • Onondaga County – Otsego Co. Purchasing Dept. - Need a Rep, or a staff person, or a Committee to be dedicated liaison
  • Enterprise Fleet Management – Public Works? Need to support a seamless transition and keep our eye on costs.
  • Towers – Finish the job, sell the Rose Hill land. Assurance that both the function of the towers and their maintenance are working as planned. How can we monetize the towers?
  • Economic development – Obviously, a big issue and a lot of work. Otsego Now must be reformed and empowered. Existing jobs that are not being taken by local people: Springbrook/ARCOtsego; agriculture; hospitality.
  • Budget – Planning for 2019 – new Treasurer, new process? Does it make sense to find ways to keep track of the budget process all year long? Do we need a Finance Committee that also does the Budget?
  • County Forester (Soil & Water) – SWEC tracks progress toward explicit goals
  • Ethics Board
  • Various litigation issues

Going Forward

It's been a long time, again, and a lot has been done.

Since August, I have been working with the Democratic candidates for County Rep; other than Andrew Marietta and Andrew Stammel, they were all new to the work of the County Representative. I provided a lot of background regarding Board structure and function, as well as very extensive communications and conversations about particular issues that the Board has been working on. This work intensified during the run-up to the debates, which were held in a variety of places throughout the County.

Four of the new candidates, as well as Andrew and Andrew and I, were elected, and we had what turned out to be a pretty joyful election night celebration. As of January 1 there will be seven Democrats on the Board, although the Republicans represent a slight majority in weighted votes. But the Republicans may not be unified regarding Board leadership as we go forward, and there is a distinct possibility that we Democrats will be participating in what can only be called a coalition government when the gavel comes down on January 3.

I try to avoid partisan politics in these messages, but at this point I think it's important to lay out how things stand. There are some Republicans who have expressed dissatisfaction with current leadership. However, they cannot prevail without Democratic votes. So we will all be talking about how we can go forward, supporting each others' vision for the County and the major issues we are facing.


I think we will be able to work out a plan which will satisfy everyone. There's a lot of work to do, and I think that with a commitment to transparency, communication and bipartisan cooperation, we'll get that work done. Stay tuned.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

XNG CNG Truck Crash

Here's the report of our 911 coordinator regarding the crash of the XNG CNG truck that overturned just out of Hartwick (please forgive the formatting errors which are apparently inherent in the cut/paste process):

Good Morning,
At the request of Mr. Frazier I am forwarding to the full Board a summary of Tuesday's incident in the Town of Otsego that was provided to the Public Safety & Legal Affairs Committee on Tuesday evening. 
I want to take an opportunity to update all of you on the accident this morning.  At approximately 8:20 this morning I monitored the Fly Creek Fire Company dispatched to a one car Motor Vehicle Accident on St. Hwy, 205 near the intersection with Bristol Road with information that it was a gas truck on it's roof.  At the same time I was notified of the same and was only approximately 5 minutes from the scene.  Upon my arrival, I discovered an XNG tractor trailer on it's roof in the ditch on the right hand side of the road.  The driver had somehow climbed out of the truck and was seated in another vehicle being treated by a paramedic that was travelling through.  The driver confirmed that he was "empty" and traveling to PA.  I contacted the 911 Center who advised they had made contact with the Gas Company's 24 hour response line and they would have personnel there within 90 minutes.  Two other XNG drivers also stopped and provided information about the truck and stayed at the scene until the Company representatives arrived on the scene.  There were no residences within a 1/2 mile radius.

Working with the parties represented at the scene, it was determined that there was no damage to the tanks within the trailer and no leak was present.  Tow companies (Chuck's Towing in Richfield and Clinton Collision) were notified to begin working on recovering the truck and trailer.  NYS Department of Transportation was notified to respond and close State Highway 205 to ensure a safe work zone.  It was decided to perform a controlled release of the compressed gas that the tractor operates on prior to recovery.  During the controlled release, the road was closed and all individuals retired to a safe zone.  Gas monitoring was performed during the release to ensure safety.  The highest recorded reading of gas during the release was approximately 0.4.  To put this in perspective a reading of approximately 5.0 is the lower range of the "zone of concern".  

Agencies on the scene included the Fly Creek Fire Company, Otsego County Sheriff's, State DOT, Verizon, tow companies and XNG.  The Hartwick Fire Department was utilized in assisting with the closure of State Hwy 205 at the four corners in Hartwick.  All agencies worked well together and the situation was successfully resolved with no other issues noted.  The last units cleared the scene at approximately 4:45PM.

If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me at the office number below or via cell at 437-4247.
In addition, I have attached several hand-outs that were provided by XNG to the folks that attended the classes hosted by this office.  The safety features on the trailer performed as they were designed and there was minimal damage to the trailer itself.  While not being complacent, there was a comfort level with this situation due to the knowledge that we had received in the training offered by the company.  

I encourage any of you to speak with members of the Fire Departments in your respective districts that may have attended the training.  In addition, if there are any local governments or groups that may want additional information I would be happy to attend any meetings that may be arranged to ensure accurate information is provided concerning this incident.

Arthur R. Klingler Jr.
Emergency Services Coordinator-Otsego County
Phone (607) 547-4227
Fax (607) 547-4377



This truck crash enjoyed every bit of luck possible:  'empty' (which is a relative term), no breaches, driver not injured, no other vehicles involved, no buildings involved, no houses within half a mile.

The next one, given the laws of probability, will not enjoy every one of these benefits.  Which one(s) won't we benefit from?



Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Raises: Slip-Slidin' Away

We got some bad news recently regarding our proposed salary study, which should institute a salary scale and an orderly progression of raises for our Management and Confidential (M&C) employees.  But first, some background.

Last summer, the Performance Review and Goal Setting Committee (PRGS) developed a one-year raise plan (details here) in order to begin the work of salary justice among our M&C workers.  In September, a special meeting of PRGS was held, with all Board members invited, to hear Ronni Travers, from Public Sector HR Consultants, outline the consultant services her company could provide in this regard:  a comprehensive salary study including recommendations for an ongoing salary scale, including comparisons with other similar County scales - not just salary, but benefits, hours, working conditions, job titles and descriptions, etc.  They would also fully integrate a County Manager into the study.  To most of us, it sounded like the best approach to an ever-growing problem.

The County can't just decide to contract with a consultant - we have to send out a Request for Proposals (RFP) and invite a wide variety of consulting organizations to respond with their plans and pricing.   The RFP for the salary study finally went out early this year (after a completely unnecessary delay), and because of the way it was written - by 'our purchasing department,' which is the Onondaga County Purchasing Department - Ms. Travers' company did not respond.  The two organizations which did respond really weren't qualified, primarily because they had no experience working with Counties.  One, it seemed, had no experience at all, and the other wanted to charge us twice the rate noted in the RFP.

So after further unnecessary delay, a second RFP was "put out on the street" in July, this time written with more care and clearly encompassing what PSHRC had offered to do.  However, just last week, we received a response from PSHRC, informing us that they were not able to take our project on at this time.  

We will see if we get any other responses this time that are any better than the ones we got last time.  But the truth is, we will have spent an entire year in a fruitless attempt to solicit a professional salary study that a respected organization had offered us at the beginning of that year.  This seems incredible to me, and suggests that there are major problems in the way we do government.

What makes this even worse is the fact that the salary study was our single, focused initiative for moving forward on the County Manager.  So - unless we get a wonderful proposal out of thin air in the next few weeks, we have no plan for establishing an M&C salary scale, and no plan for moving forward with a County Manager.

This does not mean that plans will not emerge.  They will, and, given the timing, they will be substantially affected by the results of November's elections.  But for now, this does not look like the way to run a County.

To the Heart of the Matter

...and here is the rest of the letter begun below.  Andrew uses the difficulties in managing the NTS closing as an example of the real inadequacy of County government, as it is currently structured, to manage large numbers of these types of issues in a coordinated manner.  We are largely working in silos, semi-independent Committees made up of a handful of laymen, operating without clear lines of communications or procedural guidance, trying to oversee twenty-some-odd departments without providing any overall direction or coordination.  We're a $110,000,000 organization without a CEO.

I don't agree with everything that Andrew says here, but our disagreements are minor and often just a matter of scale.  I believe that a County Manager is part of the solution to these fundamental structural problems, but only one part - we have quite a bit more to do even after a manager is in place.  

In reflecting on these recent developments about the upcoming closure of NTS and the notification process, I
have come to realize the situation facing Otsego County government operations is a true crisis. Otsego County
government is dependent on an ineffective committee and leadership structure, and immediate action is required to
strengthen and improve the County for success to result. First, it is important to remember that the County’s operating
budget is well over $100 million and hundreds of people are employed, and yet, the County has no central authority,
manager or administrator. Thus, all operating decisions are funneled through a group of committees carrying out a
duplicative approval process where a home committee votes on actions like a new hire or purchase request first, then
this same action is voted on and approved by the Administration Committee, and finally the full Board votes on this
resolution at a Board meeting. This system of management by committee is significantly limited by committee and
Board meetings that are held once a month. The end result is that the Otsego County Board is mostly approving
operating transactions. Hiring a new employee, making a budget transfer, carrying out a purchase of supplies, or
attending training are common examples.

The County Board’s focus on transactional decisions limits the opportunity to address other policy
considerations. Committee meetings require Department Heads to provide detailed background information on actions
like a budgeted new hire, while leaving little to no time for other policy considerations and discussions. Compare this
situation to most other companies or organizations of similar size (or smaller) where a manager can move forward with
this hire based on approval by budget or from the company president or organizational executive director. Overall,
many County committee meetings are lengthy, lasting hours.
Another challenge resulting from the County’s committee structure is the micromanagement of general
operations. Over the last year and a half (and longer in some cases), committees have struggled to complete various
projects, like a workplace violence investigation, compensation study of department heads, fleet management program,
the management of tower site leases, and even the Onondaga purchasing partnership. Where committees have
specifically taken it upon themselves to carry out general operations, the structure and limitations of the committee
system have been obstructions to decision making and taking action. Ultimately, Department Heads, who are the
experts and carry out the day-to-day operations, are the key to successful implementation of policy decisions the County
Representatives approve. Thus, when the County decided to repair and renovate the Northern Transfer Station, the
implementation of this decision rests with the Director of Planning, Karen Sullivan, and the Planning Department. If the
SWEC Committee were to have taken a direct operations role in managing this process, the construction decisions would
have been clearly limited and slowed or even not completed in timely manner.
Finally, the County’s leadership structure is insufficient to support County operations. There is a County Chair,
who is elected annually by the Board, but the Chair is not a full-time position. The County Chair is not positioned as a
County manager or administrator, nor does the Chair supervise Department Heads on a daily basis. The County Chair
also does not convene any management meetings with all Department Heads. There is no coordination of the
committees or committee chairs either. Committee chairs are not convened as a group, and there is not a standard
committee operating approach. The County Chair position exists more so as a mechanism to set the committees, make
appointments, run Board meetings, approve contracts and serve as a point of contact. It is a position offering
coordination, but there is no primary focus on policy development, nor focus on management. Thus, the current
position structure creates a shortfall in both areas negatively impacting County operations.
The future success of Otsego County depends on embracing change. The current system is failing us, and we
must take immediate action. First, the County should not delay any longer in approving a County manager or
administrator position. Otsego County needs a central point of contact who will supervise and convene Department
Heads, while supporting them in their positions. A County manager will also guide the implementation of policy set by
the County Board of Representatives and bring it into action. Committee meetings can be streamlined and focus more
on policy discussions. The County Chair position will be improved and allow more focus on policy setting. The County
Chair can also better coordinate the committee chairs and provide more direction. Overall, these changes will allow the
County to be more effective and achieve greater success with its committee system and County Chair position.


I need to make it clear that none of these problems is the result of any failing on the part of our Department Heads or management staff.  In fact, it is they who have held us together as County leadership kind of stumbles forward from crisis to crisis without a way to truly lead everyone.  I give them all - what did we do to deserve such talented leaders? - enormous credit for the hard work and ingenuity they exhibit day in and day out to keep the County moving in the right direction.