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

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