AN INSIDE LOOK - Commentary and opinions on local politics and life in general in Southeastern Massachusetts! Featuring the writings of Bill Gouveia, newspaper columnist for the Sun Chronicle and local cable TV talk show host. Feel free to read, comment and enjoy!
Friday, June 30, 2017
Attleboro "BudgetGate" A Government Failure
Gouveia: A lot of blame to go around on "BudgetGate"
By BILL GOUVEIA / For The Sun Chronicle
Now a full week removed from Attleboro’s “BudgetGate” incident, reaction throughout the city is trending in a fairly predictable manner.
Some opponents in the upcoming mayoral election, as well as a fair number of citizens, are blaming the mayor and his administration. A lot of experienced observers are blaming the budget director. Virtually everyone is blaming the city councilors.
And to various degrees, they are all correct.
Let’s start with the obvious. Without exception, every single individual involved in any way with the annual budget process should have known about the 45-day deadline for acting on the mayor’s proposed spending plan. There is no valid excuse for not knowing.
It is akin to running off third base and directly into the dugout in the bottom of the 9th inning of a baseball game with your team down a run, after the batter flew out to the outfield – for the second out. Maybe no one specifically told you there are three outs in every inning, but you should know it. It is part of your job.
Was this a bonehead play to end all bonehead plays, or was it an effort to throw the game? Did someone have a bet on the outcome, and stage the whole thing for their personal advantage? Conspiracy theories are always popular.
When the owner comes in after that monstrosity, he or she may have trouble deciding who to fire first. The runner who screwed up? The third-base coach? The manager? Or maybe he/she just sells the whole team and looks for one that can actually count?
As someone with decades of municipal budget and political experience (though thankfully not in Attleboro), I have a pretty straightforward take on all this I’d like to share with you.
I absolutely believe this was a total systematic failure of city government. I do not think it was the result of any plan, conspiracy, or political scheme. Quite frankly, to believe otherwise would be giving those involved too much credit for their political acumen.
The fact absolutely no current city councilor says they knew this basic rule is disgraceful, but ultimately believable. If they wanted to take a pass on this year’s budget, there are a lot simpler ways to do it that would not make them all look ignorantly uniformed — which is exactly what they look like right now.
Council President Frank Cook did not equivocate in accepting blame, taking responsibility for not being aware of the rule. As well he should. More than anyone else in this sad scenario, Cook bears the responsibility for this huge error. It is not totally his fault, but when he accepted the position he accepted the responsibility.
As a result, Cook should immediately resign as council president. No other action can adequately reflect the lack of informed leadership that led to this situation.
Every other councilor is just one small notch down the blame marker. This is their failure, and any attempt to shift blame or responsibility in any way just makes it worse. There is no political advantage for them to gain here.
The budget director certainly should have known, and as a well-paid city employee had a responsibility to stay on top of the situation. His slice of the blame pie is plenty large.
The mayor also gets a heaping portion, although it is nowhere near as big as that belonging to the council members. Dumas should have known this rule, but his responsibility for it is slightly less than the legislative body. Remember, he fulfilled his part of the budget process by submitting it on time. But in the earlier analogy, he is the baseball manager – ultimately responsible for everything.
In the long run, this is far from the end of the world.
The budget submitted is not greatly different from the last one.
The damage to the city’s finances will be far, far less than the serious blow dealt to the credibility, competence, and commitment of city government.
This is not a conspiracy, but merely incompetence. That certainly doesn’t make it any easier for voters to accept.
But given most of those involved were elected by those same voters – who really made the bigger mistake?
Bill Gouveia is a local columnist and longtime local official. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter at @Billinsidelook.