Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Selectman's Facebook Posts Not a Problem

This column originally appeared int he Sun Chronicle on November 13, 2012.

By Bill Gouveia

Last week in Mansfield, Selectman Olivier Kozlowski came under fire from the school committee and others for comments made on his Facebook page.  The discussion that ensued was an interesting commentary on the use of social media in local government, as well as a textbook example of how to solidify political advantage.

Kozlowski was on the defensive for posts he made regarding the budget sub-committee of which he is a member.  That committee was created to facilitate discussion and hopefully improve communication between the “town side” and “school side” with regard to funding and the splitting of revenues.  This is in the wake of a huge budget disagreement last year, which was settled at the last minute and presented to Town Meeting with little to no public scrutiny.

School committee members were upset not so much at the content of Kozlowski’s comments as they were their context.  The selectman apparently referred to things allegedly told him by other committee members, and openly questioned and discussed what direction should be taken in budget strategy.

School officials said Kozlowski’s Facebook comments were a major problem to their negotiating process with school unions.  They were concerned his continued posting on such matters would inhibit open and honest discussion on the budget, and result in a return to the animosity and budgetary protectionism of the past. 

This is a two-sided coin.  There is no doubt bargaining strategy within a negotiating team should be kept private at least until the negotiations are complete.  That is not “hiding” anything from the public, but merely doing your job properly and professionally.  After all, Bill Belichick doesn’t send his game plan to the other team prior to each Sunday’s contest. 

At the same time, the budget subcommittee is not a negotiating team.  It is a public body formed for the purpose of providing give-and-take on the budget.  You would hope it was also formed with an eye towards changing the way things are done and the philosophy that has dominated negotiations and contributed to budget shortfalls.  Perhaps it might even be a way to gain public input towards shaping the town’s economic plan.

School committee members claimed Kozlowski’s remarks were causing “serious damage” to their negotiations.  Frankly, there is little to nothing in the way of hard facts to prove that opinion is accurate.  While school officials may well believe any public discussion of how they can and should proceed with regard to regulating salaries and benefits for employees is improper, they may also be exaggerating that impact while seeking to protect their education budget.

When the budget fiasco hit Mansfield last year, the real losers were not either the board of selectmen or the school committee.  Those who lost the most were the citizens who wanted good advance information upon which to make solid financial decisions at Town Meeting.  They were forced to basically rubber-stamp something that was a done deal before they even voted.  They were irrelevant in terms of having an actual say.

That is much more of a threat to Mansfield than any alleged undermining of negotiations.  That is an undermining of the entire democratic process.  It happens all the time, and not just in Mansfield.

A cursory review of Kozlowski’s posts do not seem to reveal any secrets or comments that would cause “severe damage” to any negotiations.  Could they anger some of the union leadership and members?  Sure.  Could that then wind up in some type of increased adversarial confrontation at some point in the negotiating process?  Quite possibly.

But it is just as possible the school committee is upset because the remarks somewhat negate the inherent political advantage almost all school committees have.  They come with something of a built-in constituency with regard to parents.  They have a tough and important job, and they work hard to provide the best educational system they can.  Anything that makes that more difficult is no doubt upsetting.

Asking town officials not to personally post anything that can possibly upset negotiations is a wide-ranging request.  Virtually anything can be claimed to affect negotiations.  And frankly, sometimes the whole point is to try and influence negotiations.  It’s called “leadership”.

Selectmen are not students, and the school committee really shouldn’t treat them as such.

Bill Gouveia is a local columnist and can be emailed at aninsidelook@aol.com and followed on Twitter at @Billinsidelook.

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