Thursday, May 12, 2011

What Don Doesn't Want To Hear

The story of the City Hall shuffle this week -- Communications Director to Chamber of Commerce liaison, Assistant Law Director to Communications spot, Chamber of Commerce liaison to Economic Development -- is very inside politics. It does raise a few questions, however, on just who had the ear of the person who made all this happen.

Those following the inside soap opera of inside politics, and not just the Plusquellic Administration but any political organization, quickly get used to seeing faces come and go. The bureaucracy of government is where you'll find those with long service records; political operatives, however, come and go. It's true for the White House. It's true for the Statehouse. It's true for City Hall.

The key question in any reshuffling, however, is whether it makes the operation of the office and mission of the organization stronger. To that end, any shuffling in the Communications end carries with it some gambling. Those who serve as go-between for politicians and the media usually find themselves in no-win positions. Advocate blindly for the boss and reporters will quickly grade your credibility accordingly. Advocate for the reporters and the boss will question your loyalty.

The reporter side aims to reveal, question and confront; the political side aims to set direction, accomplish the mission and protect the boss. There is always tension between both, and it's that tension that distinguishes the American style of governing from most other countries. It isn't always pretty, but it establishes up front how the people's business is still up to the people.

Mayor Plusquellic faced a conundrum: insiders tell me he didn't have faith his message was getting out. He didn't have confidence his agenda was the agenda. Someone had to pay that price, and it wasn't going to be him. Frankly, that requires a level of introspection even the hardiest of politicians don't attempt. Leaders need a straw man to knock about, a punching dummy to exorcise frustration on. In most political offices, that winds up being the communications person. In this political office, that was what Mark Williamson did.

But unlike political offices in far-away Washington or Columbus, where the communication liaisons change frequently, Williamson is different. He's not the faceless spokesman, or the contact-du-jour you find at the offices of the Representative or Senator. His was a face the community was familiar with, for decades on television and nearly as long from City Hall. Williamson himself, as with Plusquellic, has become a local institution of a sort. Despite the Mayor's misgivings, giving such an institution the outright boot holds far more political headache than finding a place for him elsewhere.

Out of sight, out of mind. J. Edgar Hoover used to do this in the F.B.I. with agents who disappointed, famously sending them to Billings. Josef Stalin sent his to Siberia. Not to belittle the public servants who toil for us in far-off regions, but it's reasonable to note military officers who fail but can't be canned ought not be surprised when they are reassigned to a radar installation overlooking the Bering Straits. In private industry, it may be some department close to the restrooms where an offending executive is banished to do little harm. This is the price when the boss loses faith.

It is entirely within the purview of the boss to make sure the team in place serves the needs of the boss, especially if that boss faces one of the more challenging re-election bids just four months away. This the reason civil service doesn't extend to political at-will positions such as Deputy Mayor, or Chief of Staff, or even Communications Director. This Mayor -- and ones to follow, regardless of the outcome in September -- deserve the right to choose his own leadership circle. Moving those pieces like those on a chessboard not only comes with the territory, it helps keep the rest of the team on their toes and often brings in renewed focus and energy.

But in this case, there's one aspect the Mayor should be thinking about which may escape the ego of office: do you still have someone close to you, someone you trust, someone who can close the door and speak frankly about your decisions and actions? Is there a member of your circle with the fortitude to call you out, and your leave to do so, in the same kind of language and approach you employ with others? Who is your sounding board, someone who has credibility and wisdom to not only affirm when you are on the right path but also point out the wrong direction?

Legend has it that triumphant Roman leaders, hailed as conquerors, would have a slave with them in the chariot as the thousands heaped adulation. The slave would whisper "Look behind you, remember you are only a man" or "Remember that you are mortal." Every leader needs that critical element of someone who doesn't buy the hype, someone who knows the value of no often eclipses the ease of yes, someone who understands metal for the sword is stronger after the hammering and out of the forge.

Bill Clinton had his James Carville. George Bush had his Karl Rove. Barack Obama has his David Axelrod. Who plays that role with Don Plusquellic? His confidants in years past have moved on to other positions in the community, and while they may still be close enough to be considered "inner circle" are they close enough for the daily whispering required? Joel Bailey, Joe Kidder, Ray Kapper, even Tom Sawyer provide wisdom and alternate viewpoints, but they are advisers and not everyday actors. In the heat of the moment when decisions are made, are those other voices in the second floor Mayor's suite of offices strong enough to assume that role, taking with it the abuse that comes from being the bearer of bad tidings?

Those who know Don Plusquellic's hard-driving personality know this is neither an easy nor pleasant job.

With a plain-spoken Williamson out of sight, Plusquellic must make sure he still has someone by his side, not only willing but with the credibility and freedom to be able to cut through his sometimes acerbic personality and go beyond the toxic antics of politics.

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