It's one of those cliches that got to be one because it's undeniably true: The most important asset of any organization is its people.
The problem with people is their human nature.
The county relies on the counsel of more than 40 boards and commissions comprising citizens who advise local officials on how government should deal with aspects of local life with which it intersects, including aging, transit, health, parks and plumbing.
Usually, the people who populate these panels have some degree of expertise and years of experience in an appropriate field. They serve as volunteers, doing the good-citizen thing, often devoting sizeable chunks of their time to these duties.
These groups attract scant attention from local residents and media, and with the occasional exception of the Planning Board or Zoning Board, member appointments and re-appointments by the county executive have traditionally been a matter of routine. When I was the county government beat reporter for this newspaper at the tail end of the 1980s, the County Council's consideration of the executive's appointments to these posts were the pro forma items on the agenda that you sat through before they got to the juicy stuff.
So when I attended the council's public hearing (for the first time in a number of years that I don't care to count) a couple weeks ago, it didn't concern me to see 15 such appointments on the agenda. I assumed the council would sail through them and get to the matter that interested me (the public campaign-funding referendum proposal; see my column of Feb. 18) in short order.
What I hadn't counted on was politics.
I'm not referring just to partisan friction, although that too played a role in the mini-logjam that occurred at the top of the agenda that evening. I'm also talking about the intricacies of personal interaction, of diplomacy.
The council heard testimony from four current members of three different advisory boards with objections to new appointments. While some of the reservations expressed had to do with the nominees' qualifications and preparation, the overarching concern seemed to be that these appointments had come out of the blue, that neither County Executive Allan Kittleman nor his staff had consulted the current board members or even warned them that a new member would be coming down the pike.
Opel Jones, a member of the Human Rights Commission, noted that he'd sat before the council about a year ago to express the same sentiment with regard to the appointment of a new commission administrator.
"Since then, I believe we've come to a better place. We've been trying to work together," Jones said. Yet now the members again found themselves caught unaware, this time by two new appointments to the commission. "So I'm wondering where the relationship has gone between the office of the county executive and the Human Rights Commission.
"Now, I'll be the first to say that I did look at the code, and there is nothing [in it that says] that the county executive has to consult with any commission or any board to appoint anyone," Jones added. "However, I thought that we were having a wonderful, civil relationship with the office, and it seems that it's gone a bit backwards."
Council member Greg Fox rose to the defense of Kittleman, a fellow Republican, in suggesting to Jones that communication is a two-way street.
"Have you reached out to the county executive or the administration yet?" Fox said. "You're concerned about the communication, but you're voicing it here as opposed to reaching out to the administration."
It does appear a bit unseemly (and time-consuming) to have these little dramas play out in a public forum. If Jones and the others had gripes about being blindsided, taking them to the executive first was the thing to do.
On the other hand, the administration erred in not, at least, giving commission members the heads-up that they'd be getting new teammates. It would have been more preferable still for an administration representative to have a sit-down with the commission's leadership ahead of time to spell out Kittleman's hopes for the commission's work going forward, and how he sees the new members' roles in achieving his aims.
It's one thing for an elected executive to clean house by replacing officials hired by the previous administration. It's quite another to spring cold on a bunch of volunteers what could be a fundamental shift in their group dynamic and the way they work.
After all, we're not talking about a Supreme Court nominee.
Doug Miller is a freelance writer and voiceover artist.