Crisis on Top of Crisis: Now What?


We mentioned in our previous "Breaking: Key Town Employees Head for Exit" article that we'd comment on what to do next. Here it is in the form of an article submitted by Brent Meyers, with an open discussion topic on NextDoor here. It has been edited for clarity/length with his permission.

SUMMARY OF IMMEDIATE CHALLENGES

  • Moraga's declaration of fiscal emergency in June (two weeks after announcing a "balanced budget" granting raises to employees along with car allowances and a bonus plan) remains unaddressed by a specific recovery plan, thus creating financial uncertainty and concern among staff and residents.

  • In addition to the financial uncertainty, key employee resignations (the Town Manager and three Directors in the past six months) create significant organizational and leadership uncertainty.

  • Key departures (simultaneous ones, in particular) are often a vote of "no confidence" in an organization's future, leadership's vision and ability, or a combination thereof.

  • The greatest problem the Town Council faces at the moment, therefore, is a lack of credibility and faith of the public and town staff, the lack of a discernible plan for financial recovery, and the continuing uncertainty that exists because of a tendency to be reactive vs. proactive.

Given these immediate challenges, what to focus on first? Two critical items:

1. Look Inward, Objectively

With four positions representing approximately $1 million in total annual compensation, the town once again is presented with a prime opportunity to revisit the organization structure based on what we need, and not what we have. The current org chart - along with the town's operating processes - have evolved over time in somewhat a bolt-on approach, but have not been planned.

This transcends the empty boxes themselves and their associated costs: the opportunity really is because there is far less potential disruption and subjectivity when you've got a nearly blank sheet of paper, and can begin with what residents desire (and are willing to trade off), what functions and roles are required to address them, which should be "owned" versus "outsourced", and then draw the picture.

Unlike in the past, there should be less urgency to fill the empty boxes, and instead an immediate focus on determining which boxes actually should exist and where.

It would be bordering negligence to not seize upon the opportunity to legitimately look at the town's org chart and ways of doing business, with an eye toward creating fundamental organizational efficiency and returning us to the philosophy of minimal government and living within our means, which has been absent for more than a decade.

Neither the personnel nor the expertise exists to do so in-house objectively, and the council must engage a third party to do so, despite its common refrain that the town can't afford it. Alas, the town has voluntarily spent several hundred thousand dollars leading up to and since the declaration of fiscal emergency*.

*these discretionary expenditures include staff raises, car allowances, repeated surveys, $200k/year contract employees to supervise playground foundation construction, roundabout and Hacienda and Moraga Center and tax-raising consultants, and donations to other organizations.

2. Stop the Bleeding, Solve the Problem

Second, the town council must focus on “keeping the lights on” and reducing additional, voluntary flight risk by assuaging fears about catastrophe (financial and job security, chief among them) while simultaneously addressing the root causes of what got Moraga here:

  • Acknowledging that there is a problem (manifest most obviously - but not exclusively - by the declaration of fiscal emergency and the flight for the exits by senior staff) and identifying the causes is critical. Town hall cannot continue to blame its problems on externalities. This is true for the present situation and to avoid putting itself in similar situations in the future. Declarations of fiscal emergency, exodus of senior staff, and resident dissatisfaction are symptoms, not causes.

  • The town's recovery requires creating a plan, implementing solutions, and effectively managing going forward. Those are very different business and leadership skillsets. Moraga needs all three right now, and doesn't have them.

  • Thus, the near-term recovery effort requires more than one person can reasonably accomplish alone.

  • The Town Council needs to identify one person among remaining staff with the skills and personality to contain the fear, and

  • Hire another (temporary/interim professional) to objectively identify and address the underlying issues, and

  • Thoughtfully seek a third person (permanent Town Manager) to maintain and manage going forward.

After focusing on the immediate recovery, the town council and permanent Town Manager need to focus on continuous improvement, efficient and effective operations, and performance management (KPIs) more than they have in the past decade or more.

They also need to be cognizant that small-town Moraga is often a stepping stone to bigger, more complex job opportunities elsewhere, and better prepare themselves and employees for the turnover inherent therein. In particular, they need to consider succession and continuity planning so the exit of any single employee doesn't result in unnecessary and expensive crisis management.

BOTTOM LINE:

Introspection, change, and the return to good stewardship, minimal government and less grandiose, discretionary spending that served Moraga well in decades past is the right approach.