Monday, June 30, 2008

Unethical or just dumb?

This column first appeared in the Sun Chronicle on Saturday, June 28, 2008.

This morning I would ask every registered voter in the Town of Mansfield to do something.

Please walk into your bathroom, look carefully in the mirror, and tell me – do you look as stupid as your town officials apparently think you are?

In an outrageous situation, Mansfield officials this week stopped a building project that had apparently begun despite one small detail: The money had yet to be approved by the voters.

Officials blamed the situation on poor communication that extended through several months, through multiple public meetings, and discussions between the town’s highest elected and appointed officials.

To review briefly, the school department wants to build modular classrooms to house an increase in students at a cost of $775,000. Voters face a Proposition 2-1/2 override next month for this and other projects.

School Superintendent Brenda Hodges, Finance Director Ed Vozzella and School Committee member Jean Miller say they were told by Town Manager John D’Agostino the money would be appropriated at the May Town Meeting and was not in doubt.

D’Agostino, Finance Committee Chairman Andy Gazzolo and Selectman Chairman Sandra Levine say the school officials misunderstood the funding timeline. They also claim they thought school officials were talking about the $50,000 design phase, not the actual construction.

In April, a contract was signed with the builder to proceed. Actual construction apparently began, all without the approval of the voters.

Selectman Levine says the mix-up was simply a use of words that did not jibe. “It was just a misunderstanding” the chairman stated.

Showing up to a wedding at the wrong time is a misunderstanding. Misreading your spouse’s supposed romantic signals is a misunderstanding. Coming back from the supermarket with French bread instead of dinner rolls is a misunderstanding.

Beginning work on a $775,000 public building project without approval is not a misunderstanding – it is a screw-up. A major screw-up. An inexcusable major screw-up that cannot be tolerated or simply explained away as a “misunderstanding”.

Mansfield town officials are now in a very difficult position. This preposterous situation can only be explained in one of two ways.

Perhaps officials were trying to get the townspeople invested in the project early so they would feel obligated to approve funding through an override or other means. If the project was already started and a debt incurred, it would be harder to say no. This would, of course, make the town officials sneaky and unethical.

Or it is possible these experienced, educated officials truly misunderstood the need for funding to be actually approved and available before a nearly one-million dollar public building project could be undertaken. That would mean they weren’t being sneaky or unethical – just dumb.

So which is it, Mansfield officials? Is this a case of politically unethical behavior, or just good old-fashioned stupidity?

Either way, it certainly doesn’t give Mansfield residents much reason to have confidence in their elected and appointed officials.

This is not someone misreading the fine print in a contract, or a complicated state reimbursement formula, or the misapplication of a complex law or regulation. This is an entire collection of Mansfield’s top financial officials doing a Keystone Cop impersonation over what should be the simplest of matters.

You go out to bid. You get a price. The voters approve the expenditure. You build the project. That is the way things work, the way they have worked since horses and buggies rode the streets of Mansfield. It is not rocket science.

Now this same group of town officials is asking Mansfield voters to approve a $3.2 million override, the spending of which they will oversee.

Does anyone else think there might be a small credibility problem here? A better explanation is needed, and quickly.

It may very well be this proposed override is necessary and a good thing for Mansfield citizens. Voters should not automatically decide to vote No on the override based upon this recent financial fiasco.

But boy, it has to make them think twice. If their town officials can’t handle the simple stuff, why should they trust them with even more money?

Of course, voters could say No – and then later tell officials it was all just a “misunderstanding”.

Bill Gouveia is a local columnist who is always frightened when looking in the mirror. He can be reached at

Monday, June 23, 2008

Father's Day

This column originally appeared in the Sun Chronicle on June 14, 2008.

Tomorrow is Father’s Day, and across the area Dads are preparing for the onslaught of bad cologne, ugly ties, homemade cards and useful power tools that usually accompany this auspicious occasion.

Last Father’s Day was my first without my own Dad, and as a result it was a bit subdued. Tomorrow is also a ground-breaking Father’s Day for me, but for a much happier reason.

This year my oldest son joins the much-maligned Fraternal Order of Fatherhood club (FOF for short). With the birth of my first grandchild two months ago (did I mention his name is William?) my son Aaron is officially entitled to all the rights and privileges that come with recognition on Father’s Day.

His wonderful wife is planning a great celebration, complete with a trip to Fenway Park for a tour with son Will. I am sure his first Father’s Day will be both memorable and meaningful.

For me, this has put a bit of the spark back into Father’s Day. While I have no complaint with either of my sons or my wife when it comes to how I am treated on Dad’s Day, I must admit as my kids have gotten older the day has become something less than it was.

I miss the years when my young kids would trash the kitchen in a desperate attempt to make me breakfast in bed. It was some of the worst food – and best times – I have ever had.

As I type this column, to my left sits a pencil holder made by my oldest son in the first grade for Father’s Day. It is an aluminum can wrapped in paper and badly colored with crayon – but I have saved it for over 20 years now. It sits next to the decorated rock paperweight my youngest son Nate made for me when he was in kindergarten.

You just don’t throw that stuff away.

My lovely wife has gotten me some wonderful Father’s Day presents over the years, some useful and some unusual. My favorite is the year she gave me a toilet seat. I unwrapped it and stared at it like it was from another planet, not quite comprehending the significance of such an emotional and thoughtful gift.

When I questioned the appropriateness of her lovely gesture, she reminded me money was tight and we needed a toilet seat. I nodded solemnly, making a mental note to buy her a bathroom scale next Mother’s Day.

But this year I am excited for my son. He loves being a father, and seeing him get to experience the joy of being a parent has lifted my heart and lightened my spirit.

We are all influenced by our parents, in ways both good and bad. My son inherited my love of writing and my skill for placing my foot squarely in my mouth. But I’d like to think he also learned from me about being a father – both from what I did well and what I could have done better.

Nothing pleases and dismays us more than seeing ourselves come back through our children. We proudly note the similarities that make us smile, and gloss over the irritating traits we know full well they got from us.

But watching my son as a Dad is a great joy, one I had not really considered before. Welcoming him into FOF is sort of like taking him to his first ballgame. It is a right of passage for both of us.

My relationship with my Dad taught me to never hold back my feelings for my boys. I have told them countless times they will never be too old to kiss their father, and I tell them I love them as often as I can. I have always tried to be a positive influence in their lives, and with a few exceptions I think I have succeeded.

Now to see that all coming back in my son being a father to my grandchild – well, that’s one of the best Father’s Day presents I could ever receive.

Of course, it’s no toilet seat…

Bill Gouveia is a father, grandfather, and local columnist who wishes all the other Dads out there a great day tomorrow. Bill can be reached at