The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

October 7, 2013

When punishment is the reward

By Gary Grossman
The Daily Item

— Three times last week, I wound up in the company of people trying to deliver better public service in these troubled times, talking to each other about turning things around, one way or another, but not always the best way possible.

On Monday, I was summoned to a panel of human service organizations at the Country Cupboard in Lewisburg, where nonprofit and government leaders wrestled in common cause and mutual support toward better approaches for youth development in our region.

In stark contrast, I attended the raucous, salary-slashing palooza in Northumberland County’s government building Tuesday night, where speakers spent an hour belching acid-tinged harangues through a microphone in three-minute bursts, eliminating all hope that persuasion, reason and compromise could alter foregone conclusions.

By Thursday, I found myself in the company of school administrators at Shikellamy’s central office as they puzzled their way through yet another measure of progress in our public schools. As I understood it (which was not even barely), the education system is focusing a lot on improving opportunity in schools with greater numbers of disadvantaged students – poor kids, kids with disabilities or kids for whom English is a second language.

The newspaper business presents, reflects and interprets these efforts all the time. Although the challenges and approaches were quite different in these situations, the people involved were doing their level best to make things work.

Compared to how others operate, Northumberland County’s rough and tumble session was not a good show. The human services people and the school administrators were motivated to make things measurably better for people they serve. The county tussle seemed to be much more about settling old scores by creating new ones.

Commissioners Vinny Clausi and Stephen Bridy wanted to cut pay rates and job benefits for an assortment of elected county office holders like the treasurer, sheriff, clerk of courts, recorder of deeds, coroner and, of course, themselves, the commissioners.

This was not a light trim. They whacked everybody down by 40-48 percent and raised personal health care contributions by as much as $10,000 a year. People who have an income in the low to mid $50,000 range were suddenly holding a job that will pay $20,000 less.

Because voters routinely return incumbents to county offices, this decision was a life changer for mid- and mature careerists in government service. The action did not seem fair or wise or entirely necessary.

Nor was it justifiable by all the reasons stated in separate op-ed columns by Commissioners Bridy and Clausi that appeared on the opinion pages of this newspaper. Implications of incompetence and inattention were unproven, while the cost savings were overblown in the context of the entire county budget.  

Nonetheless, Clausi and Bridy were true to their words. Their decision and action were consistent with where they stood in their election campaigns and what they promised their voters. They absorbed and withstood heaping loads of abuse to fulfill those promises.

Several disappointed office holders and their supporters said the ultimate test of these unprecedented payroll cutbacks will take place at the polls in 2015. No doubt. In light of today’s public mood about government at all levels, however, a swing back to previous pay levels is no sure thing.

Until then, it is difficult to see how the expressions of contempt, lingering ill will and probable destabilization from this dramatic public confrontation will advance the public good.

Northumberland County government occasionally exhibits flaws associated with political patronage systems in which employees win and keep their jobs through fear and favor. This is evident in the continuing saga of the prison, the considerable kinship within the workforce and the mounting costs of litigation and escalating price of liability insurance from missteps in personnel performance and management.  

Commissioners Vinny Clausi and Stephen Bridy make much of their intentions to replace fear and favor with accountability, responsibility, cost efficiency and other hard-nosed, business-like practices.

Respect and appreciation may be further down the priority list of business-like practices in the knuckle-under world of politics, but a lot of private sector managers who start with respect and appreciation seem to achieve success. Just saying.