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We’ve Always Done It That Way (Part 10)

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February 8, 2012 by wcobserver

West Fork news item: Mayor Hime informed the Council that by moving a full- time employee from the Water Department the Street Department without prior approval of the Water Commission or City Council, Michael “Butch” Bartholomew has broken the law and the budgets will need to be corrected.

Wearing a lot of hats may draw praise from some people, it but can sometimes lead to what social psychologists call “role conflict.” We’ve all experienced it to some ex- tent when we find ourselves trying to occupy two incompatible roles at the same time. It often takes the form of a conflict between the expectations of performing one’s family role and the expectations of a career role; demands of work vs. demands of the job, for example.

Role conflict may lead to situations of social awkwardness and frustration causing heightened anxiety. Or it can take on a more ominous character and drift into situations that can lead to ethical and even legal problems.

Job-related role conflict is not uncommon. Many people have experienced conflicting demands of their job resulting from hazy job descriptions, blurred lines of authority or “too many bosses.”

Welcome to West Fork. The city’s organizational structure resembles a Chinese Fire Drill and serves as an incubator for public ad- ministration chaos. It wasn’t entirely planned that way. It’s taken over three decades to produce an organizational structure that defies logical explanation. The text book definition would probably be “informal.”

It looks something like this: Mr. Bartholomew along with former city clerk/treasurer Paula Caudle handled the day-to-day operations of the city for many years. The elected leadership, which wasn’t known for activism, relinquished much of their control and decision making to Mr. Bartholomew, who is actually employed by the Water Commission, a separate legal entity from the city — sort of.

The Water Department operates from funds it generates from buying and selling

water. The city operates using tax revenue. The law forbids mixing them. He is paid by and responsible to the water commission, not the mayor or council. The water commission has in the past gone years without holding a meeting or taking a close look at the management of the department which is now nearly insolvent. They aren’t known for scrupulous oversight.

Mr. Bartholomew also performs other tasks that are not part of water and wastewater supervision. Until the new mayor relieved him of the title “Business Manager,” he con- trolled virtually every city service except fire, police and to some extent bookkeeping. He supervised streets, building permits, licenses, animal control, lot splits, planning, all personnel matters, contracts, and everything in between. In this capacity, he receives no pay and reports to no single person. So, West Fork has a highly paid, unelected, unsupervised water superintendent and unpaid volunteer business manager (town boss) running the city. They’re the same person. Hello, role conflict.

As has happened, if the water department runs out of money, the water superintendent feels comfortable dipping into the city’s till to cover shortfalls.

Moving a full-time employee out of the water department budget over into the street department budget is no different than trans- ferring the city’s tax generated funds into the water department enterprise account according to the city attorney.

Mr. B’s Explanation: This was news to him. Mr. B reasoned that because he also held the title Utilities Superintendent, the transfer was an interdepartmental one. After all, water and streets are both utilities. After all, no auditor had mentioned it. After all, no previous city attorney mentioned it. After all, the council shouldn’t be “micro-managing” his department.

When a town builds a structure without clear lines of accountability and the leadership abdicates responsibility and hands over many of the cities essential functions to an unsupervised volunteer, should anyone be surprised to see shenanigans?

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