“It’s inherently unfair to criticize the city manager when he can’t defend himself due to confidentiality laws. I’m disappointed in that,” Councilmember Geralyn Kever (Dist. 2) said during the comments portion of Tuesday night’s meeting of the McKinney City Council.
Citizens packed council chambers at city hall Tuesday, during the meeting, many hoping to hear an explanation as to the management of the Oct. 5 firing of former Chief of Police Doug Kowalski. Kowalski had been in that role for 12 years.
Kever, as well as Councilmembers David Brooks, Don Day and Roger Harris publicly declared support of City Manager Jason Gray’s decision to fire the former chief, in what sounded like a scolding lecture a parent might rail upon his errant teenager. All four read what appeared to be prepared statements, saying they feel that the Gray, in his role as City Manager has done a good job during his 18-month tenure.
Mr. Brooks, Mr. Day and Ms. Kever appeared angry and defensive - angry that the public was questioning, angry that citizens dare make comments opposing “how” the events surrounding Mr. Kowalski’s firing took place and defensive about the entire situation. Have the citizens of McKinney hit a nerve?
Certainly, the council had anticipated citizens speaking out, questioning to some extent Gray’s decision, but most definitely the methods of Gray’s managing, to fire Kowalski and appoint his former Deputy City Manager Joe Williams to fill the role.
Councilwoman Kever, I understand the challenges of confidentiality, however, to say that you are "disappointed" that the public has been critical of our city manager's behavior led me to believe that you felt the public should refrain from any critcism of his position. While many individuals are sorry to see Doug Kowalski booted out of his job, it's the manner in which the entire cycle of events occurred that is most disturbing to me and to many McKinney residents. As I have said on many occassions to my children, "It's not you I'm upset with, it's your behavior." Same deal here.
Leaders are always subject to criticism - it comes with the territory, so please don't scold me for being critical. Often, criticsm is the crux of change and improvement. Often criticism drives us to do better.
"It also means that they (leaders), as part of their job, will almost inevitably face criticism in many occasions. Great leaders are aware of this and deal with criticism constructively. They see it as a normal part of their role and they approach it with an open mind. They have a fundamental and positive impact on the change, precisely because they deal with criticism effectively." Leadershipwatch, July 2011.
Thank you for clarifying to me that you really don' t believe public officials should be exempt from any public criticism. Thank you for saying that you did not agree with the way the events were handled by the city manager.
Day (Dist. 1) said he received a statement from the McKinney Police Association, which said, “We believe in giving Chief Williams a chance to be a leader. We don’t currently agree with starting a new process. ”
“In the last 18 months, our city manager has done an excellent job,” Day said. “I never expected that we would agree with every decision he ever made. If we fire our city manager every time we disagree with him, we’ll never get anything done. While I regret what has happened, we have to move forward. We have a fine city manager. I support him.”
“Everyone sitting around this table considers public safety a top priority,” Kever said. “Mr. Gray knows how to affect change for long-term value. He’s very good at the details. He’s managed our budget over a difficult economy with no increase in our tax rate. He’s resolute and strategic in the details and also strategically capable of making good decisions.
“He’s also not perfect. I don’t believe that you’re are only as good as, nor should you be, judged by your last error, or mistake,” Kever continued.
Ms. Kever also said she wouldn’t argue with those who have said the “how” part of this could have been handled differently. She said that she had already talked to the city manager about things she would have done differently. She continued to describe Gray as a leader who looks at a situation and “says this is wrong” and is willing to make tough changes.
“A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right. This quote from Thomas Paine, is a good one,” Councilmember Kever said. “Someone that sees something that is wrong and acts on it has a lot of credibility. “
Harris (At-Large) emphasized that the city charter gives the city manger the power to make the changes, to hire and fire, and that council is not permitted to interfere in that process.
Councilman Brooks explained that “our city manger is the CEO of our city. It’s up to the CEO to surround himself with talented women and men who can lead forward and accomplish those goals (set by council). He vehemently criticized the three members of council (Mayor Brian Loughmiller, Ray Ricchi and Travis Ussery) who made public statements, saying, “Then comes along a little bit more controversial change and all of the sudden we feel free to do our own personal press releases, to express out there our outrage at what’s happened, to undermine the city manager - council form of government. Do not mistake yourselves, what you’ve seen these past 10 days is an attack on the city manager-council form of government.”
To those councilmembers who appeared defensive and scolding of the public, I would say this: I know that it’s difficult to be under public scrutiny, but remember you all signed up for this when you ran for office. I would expect that the firing of a high profile individual, particularly without preparing a public relations message, would raise eyebrows and would set our citizens to questioning. After all, isn’t that part of the democratic process?
Councilman Brooks, I’m not saying that the former chief of police should or should not have been fired. I don’t know. But if this entire situation had been handled differently, I believe there would not have been reason for the mayor and two other councilmen to fire off individual press releases. But I also think they have every right to do so, given the circumstances. Our political system, on the national level, allows Democrats who don’t agree with the Mr. Obama to say so. At times, I would hope that it’s more important for members of council to voice their own opinions.
Sitting in the audience, witnessing the statements made by these four members of council was difficult. I was reminded of the word my son Colin, who is a sous chef, uses in the kitchen - “Heard.” Colin tells me that in the kitchen where he works, the line cooks answer “heard” as the expeditor calls out the list of dishes he needs, meaning, “I heard what you said – I hear you.”
From my perspective, I believe that most citizens simply wanted members of council, and our city manager to say, “I hear you. I understand that you have questions, I understand that you have a difference of opinion – I hear you.” I wish they could admit that the “how” in all of this was mishandled. I believe most of our citizens would like to hear what they intend to do to prevent this from occurring in the future. And then, we would like to move forward.
It takes a principled, practiced leader to sit at the table and be willing to listen to the opposite viewpoint without being defensive. It’s a tough thing to do and it takes practice.
Tuesday night, at least Ms. Kever alluded to the fact that mistakes had been made in handling the “how” of the events of Oct. 5. No one else did.
Councilman Ricchi thanked citizens for attending and for their comments. He said that he stood by the statement he had released last week. Mayor Pro-Tem Ussery said the city has had its ups and down, “but we have recovered from worse.”
Mayor Loughmiller said “The reality is that we have to move forward and move forward in a positive way. I appreciate the community outpouring and appreciate hearing from you. Mr. Gray was hired to make tough decisions.”
As a community, we should move forward. But all of us -- council included -- should be reminded that the right of citizens to voice their opinions is the backbone of our country's political system. I could turn around the Thomas Paine quote that Kever used. Perhaps many McKinney citizens now feel that there is something wrong in our city and maybe that something should be changed. Citizens have the right to exact change in their own way, through elections.