An open letter to the Mayor of Petersburg, on the efficiency study

Following on last night’s meeting (and here) held by City Council re: the efficiency study, Greg Werkheiser (Executive Director, The Phoenix Project) writes Mayor Annie Mickens “to clarify some of the process questions that arose at last night’s meeting and suggest a path for Council’s response to the Study.” Dear Mayor Mickens, Thank you for your willingness […]

Following on last night’s meeting (and here) held by City Council re: the efficiency study, Greg Werkheiser (Executive Director, The Phoenix Project) writes Mayor Annie Mickens “to clarify some of the process questions that arose at last night’s meeting and suggest a path for Council’s response to the Study.”

Dear Mayor Mickens,

Thank you for your willingness to adjust the format of last night’s public meeting on the Berkshire Advisors’ Organizational Efficiency and Effectiveness Study to reflect the expectations of the public for a more direct exchange of feedback.  I am sure you were as impressed as I was at the size of the meeting’s audience and their deep hunger for timely action on the recommendations of the Study.

As you know, I serve as Executive Director of the Phoenix Project, a nonprofit organization that serves as a facilitator and matchmaker in Petersburg, helping the community identify its priorities for revitalization and helping bring to bear resources on those priorities.  Over the past three years, we have built a strong partnership between the Petersburg community and nine colleges and universities, each of which regularly makes available students, faculty and administrators to work on economic and community development projects for the City.  To date, more than 350 students, faculty and administrators have completed more than 150 capacity building projects for fifty-five nonprofit and municipal organizations serving the residents of Petersburg.  Our work together in Petersburg is now serving as a model for efforts in other parts of Virginia and is receiving national attention.  We are grateful for your support of our efforts and your continued welcome of our work in Petersburg.

As we have come to know Petersburg, its residents, nonprofit organization leaders, faith leaders, business community, and public servants, we have been impressed with their resilience and determination in the face of many challenges.  As our university partners have brought resources to bear on these challenges in the short-term, we have also engaged our partners in Petersburg in a discussion about the longer-term revitalization of the City.  It has become clear to us through these conversations that the lack of accountability and capacity in City government are chief impediments to sustainable revitalization of the City, and that our work here provides short term infusions that cannot lead to longer term positive results without significant changes in the City’s management.

We believe that you and your fellow members of Council were therefore acting responsibly and with great respect for your constituents when you voted to engage a third party consultant to evaluate the effectiveness and efficiency of City government in an effort to ensure that Petersburg’s citizens are well served.  Our Associate Director, Marion Werkheiser, served on the committee that selected Berkshire Advisors to conduct the Study, and the Phoenix Project helped organize community gatherings to provide input to the consultants as they gathered information for their report.  We also remained in close contact with the consultants as their report was repeatedly delayed by an inability or unwillingness of city staff to provide basic information about city operations; their contract called for delivery by the end of 2007, yet the report was not delivered to Council until August of this year.  I write to clarify some of the process questions that arose at last night’s meeting and suggest a path for Council’s response to the Study.

In keeping with the Phoenix Project’s role encouraging community engagement to develop community-wide priorities, I was particularly dismayed by the excuses offered by five City Council members at last night’s meeting for their repeated and intentional failure to turn in completed surveys to the consultants performing a study for which taxpayers paid tens of thousands of dollars.  These excuses included a lack of time to respond (even though they were given more than seven months to respond); inability to articulate their consituents’ preferences (articulating constituents’ preferences is the definition of serving in representative government, even when one is newly appointed to the position); not having the report on which to base the survey (but the survey was required to inform the report); and Berkshire’s failure to receive the survey upon first transmission, and the Councilmember’s refusal to re-send.  If City Council members do not have the time or commitment to complete and deliver a survey critical to the fair assessment of the operation of City government, they will not have the much greater amount of time and commitment required to oversee the fixing of the very broken city government.  These members should be invited publicly to affirm their willingess and ability to assume the time-consuming responsibility of oversight of transformation change, or they should be thanked for their service and invited to resign from their office to make room for leaders who do have the time.

I was further dismayed last night by Council’s refusal to admit the true circumstances surrounding the absence of representatives from Berkshire Advisors at this meeting.  As you know, Berkshire Advisors was contractually obligated to present its findings in person to City Council and to the Board of the Cameron Foundation.  Berkshire staff repeatedly, and for many weeks, requested permission from the City Manager for the opportunity to present their findings and recommendations at a City Council meeting, but they were consistently ignored.  We are grateful that Council finally voted last night to invite Berkshire to present its findings to the public.  Yet this situation reveals the detriment of Council entrusting further action on the recommendations of this Study to the very City personnel who sought to deny the opportunity for the public to hear directly from the consultants.  How can you now expect the public to agree with you that such persons are earnestly committed to or capable of fundamental change?

In the first two minutes of last night’s meeting you berated in front of all attendees Councilmember Pritchett for speaking out publicly about the Council’s unwillingness to fulfill its oversight responsibilities by relying too heavily on the City Manager for information and to do the Council’s work.  Yet the excuse the Council offered last night for not having developed in the four months since the Study was delivered an action plan to address the significant management challenges it faces was that Council has not yet received guidance by City staff.  This failure simply affirms the reality Councilmember Pritchett acknowledged.  The Council seems unwilling or unable to offer leadership independent of the City Manager. 

This places front and center the question raised by the Study:  whether top City staff, on whose long watch the dysfunctional conditions have manifest, are the appropriate persons to lead the City through transformational change.  Of course it is the case that no single person is responsible for the maladies facing the City.  But top management has demonstrated clear and extensive failures within their direct control.  As the Efficiency Study pointed out, there are no accountability mechanisms for government in Petersburg.  Is the Council still not willing to put in place such measures of accountability at all levels of government, including top management?

The Study proposes significant changes in every City department, the implementation of which could take a number of years.  It will be important for Petersburg residents and community leaders to be involved throughout that process, as difficult decisions are weighed and made.  To that end, I respectfully suggest the following course of action for City Council:

1.  Prior to the next City Council meeting, members should frankly assess whether the transformational leadership required to fix the many troubles identified by the Study will require more time and/or energy than they are personally able to commit over the next several years.  If so, they should have the courage to tender their resignations at the next meeting.  Candidates to replace them should be asked to describe in detail their plans for supporting transformational change in the management of City government.

2.  Those members of Council who remain should prepare themselves to describe in detail to the public at the next meeting and at all meetings thereafter, their personal plan for supporting the transformational change required in City government.

3.  You stated last night that City Council will receive memoranda from City staff containing scenarios for implementation of the Efficiency Study recommendations at a meeting in January.  Please request that those memoranda be submitted to Council and made available to the public at least one full week in advance of the January meeting.  Failure to provide the memoranda in advance severely limits the ability of Council and the public to prepare for the meeting and further delays informed discussion of action that must be taken.

4.  As you indicated you would do last night, employ the public school phone tree to provide notice of the next public meeting; also, ask the Progress-Index to do an article in advance of the meeting (in addition to the legal notice), put details of the meeting on the City’s website, and circulate notice to City leaders for whom the City has email accounts encouraging them to circulate it to their contacts.

5.  Council should be prepared at the January meeting to announce a complete schedule of meetings for 2009 and 2010 dedicated just to public discussion of progress in reforming City government as indicated by the Study.  The meetings should be held at least every other month, in an open-exchange format, without the presence of City staff.  Every City Council member should come to these meetings fully prepared to discuss and answer questions about progress on specific action items.  The maladies diagnosed by the Study are far too serious and numerous to be adequately addressed to the public’s satisfaction in a handful of episodic meetings. 

6.  Appoint a private citizen-led task-force to provide guidance directly to the Council on implementation of recommendations of the Study. 

7.  Set aside thirty minutes at each regular City Council meeting for members of the task force to report exclusively on the City’s progress in tackling an aspect of the dysfunction in City government diagnosed in the Study.  The Council should suspend its practice of not responding to specific citizen questions for this portion of the meeting.

8.  When inviting Berkshire Advisors to present their findings and processes at their earliest availability, please advise them to be prepared to describe the process through which they solicited input from City Council members and City staff.  The public deserves to understand the true circumstances surrounding their representatives’ failure to participate in the survey process.

9.   Conclude, as so many of us have, with deep regret given our personal affinity for Mr. Canada, that it is no longer an open question as to whether he has the ability to lead transformational change in City management.  Hire a professional recruiting firm and task them with securing the highest quality applicants for the position.  Set above-market salary for this position to enable the recruitment of applicants with proven experience in turning around broken city governments.  Have a candidate in place by March, allowing him or her to immediately, with the further assistance of the recruiting firm, hire replacements for the many vacant positions in City staff leadership and build a team capable of delivering the change the community so deserves.

The Phoenix Project stands ready to partner with the City in this process of transformation, and we will seek out resources from all of our university partners and other contacts to assist in whatever ways we can be helpful.  We are committed to our work in Petersburg and believe that the Efficiency Study represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Council to reverse Petersburg’s decline and chart a new course for good government and prosperity for all residents.

I have been impressed by your personal character in the three years in which we have had the opportunity to work together.  I think you have the ability and the courage to set an example for other Council members at this critical time in the City’s history.  Should you lead boldly you will have my full support and deep gratitude.

Respectfully yours,
Greg Werkheiser
Executive Director
The Phoenix Project

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