Three of the four towns on the Outer Cape are adopting new or updated codes of conduct in reaction to concern about the ways members of boards and committees interact.
Wellfleet Select Board Chair Ryan Curley and member Helen Miranda Wilson cited several reasons when they presented a draft code of conduct on July 27. High staff turnover, poor morale, unproductive staff, and allegations of a hostile work environment were among them. Also on their list: “Yelling, screaming, swearing.”
The problem isn’t limited to board members. Curley, who says a decorum policy is “overdue,” has been muting citizens during public Zoom meetings when he deems them disrespectful, off-topic, or repetitive.
Rising “anti-government sentiment” around the country is part of the problem, suggested Truro Town Manager Darrin Tangeman.
While the Wellfleet and Truro select boards are reviewing drafts of new or existing conduct codes, the Provincetown Select Board adopted one on Aug. 9.
That was about one month after Louise Venden, a select board member, walked out of a meeting and skipped the next one because of remarks made by fellow member John Golden that she took as a veiled personal attack. Golden did not name her in his speech, but the person he described as either drunk, high on drugs, or mentally ill was her, Venden said. He also described the person as racist.
“For you to call me a racist — I’m leaving,” said Venden, and she left.
Golden later defended himself by saying he hadn’t actually named Venden in his remarks.
Venden was so upset she skipped the next meeting. Upon her return, she renewed her push for the board to adopt a year-old draft conduct policy.
The code states that board members should “treat all members of the board/commission/committee with respect despite differences of opinion; keeping in mind that professional respect does not preclude honest differences of opinion but requires respect within those differences.”
Golden said the code wouldn’t do much. “I am fine with having a code of conduct,” he said. “But all those people who are screaming about a code of conduct need one.”
How to Disagree
Jacqueline Beebe, Eastham’s town administrator, has thought a lot about what makes government work. She described the importance of a process for disagreements and discourse that leaves everyone on the select board feeling heard and included.
“If individuals are feeling left out or marginalized, this is a clear indication that the process is not working,” she said. Beebe believes there’s a role for professional consultants in helping boards get their work done. “This investment is critical and worth both time and money.”
Having a cohesive board makes a difference in how well the entire town functions, in Beebe’s experience. That’s why, she said, she spends time with each of the five select board members individually. It’s time-consuming, she said, but solid relationships are critical to building consensus.
Consensus is vital because, Beebe said, having a lot of 3-2 votes by the select board ends up confusing staff members. “It makes staff freeze in their tracks when you have five bosses and three agree but two do not,” she said. “Do you go full steam ahead? No. You slow down.”
Besides administrators’ leadership skills, there’s the question of the community’s expectations, said Jeffrey Nutting, who retired as Franklin’s town administrator and does mediation for municipalities.
Nutting worked with Provincetown’s select board in 2019. His thesis is that conduct develops out of cultural expectations that build up over time.
To correct a culture of divisiveness, he said, the public should ask that boards have written policies, Nutting said. He added, “If someone goes off the deep end, then the community should step up.” Asked what that might mean, Nutting explained that the community can insist that boards change. “That is where an outside consultant or an in-depth discussion on process should help.”
It’s important to keep in mind, he said, that, unlike in private workplaces where people may be selected to work companionably together, in public service, “five people get together and they don’t know how to work together when they genuinely disagree.” To do that, Nutting said, “takes training.”
Capacity Is Key
Beebe thinks that a functional select board is difficult to maintain without adequate staff. Good leaders, she said, must “surround themselves with smart, capable, creative people,” which doesn’t happen instantaneously. It’s something that “must be intentionally built over time.”
Beebe recalled when Sheila Vanderhoef, the former Eastham Town Administrator, hired her as an assistant in 2014 over Paul Lagg. Vanderhoef then complained that Lagg’s skills were missing at town hall.
Rather than feeling threatened, Beebe said, she got creative with the budget and persuaded Vanderhoef to hire Lagg as town planner. Beebe described Lagg as a “human Swiss Army knife,” with planning, technical abilities, customer service talent, and writing skills.
Vanderhoef and Beebe ended up hiring 10 people for unfilled old positions and some new ones. This capacity building provided a key element in improving the work environment. The result, Beebe said, is that Eastham has low staff turnover and a relatively drama-free select board.
“Look at towns without major staff turnover and with steady managerial leadership despite changes in board members,” Beebe said. “Consider Nantucket, Sandwich, Chatham, Eastham. Where is the focus? Are they fighting in public? Having long discussions on who said what to whom, or who disrespected whom, or speaking negatively about their colleagues in the press?”
Wellfleet is trying to hire a DPW director, a building inspector, and a media operations manager. Ryan Curley said he knows it will help for the town to add more key staff.
Tangeman, who became Truro Town Manager in 2020, said he is adding to his team in Truro. A few months ago, there were 11 unfilled staff positions. That number is now down to six.
He is also working on a revision of Truro’s code of conduct so that it can become part of the orientation for the newest select board member, John Dundas. The Mass. Municipal Association held a seminar on best practices recently that emphasized conduct, Tangeman added.
“We are talking publicly about these policies and setting clear guidelines,” he said.