Opinion: 'Good' precedents pay lasting dividends

Steve Rogers
Staff Writer

Last week's discussion among West Point Selectmen about what to pay new Emergency Management Director Torrey Williams sparked curious discussion among some in the community.

A few thought the $41,500 on which the board agreed for a starting salary wasn't enough. Many wondered how Selectmen could go that high for a person who isn't certified. While Mr. Williams has been working in the Oktibbeha EMA program and has emergency responder experience, he doesn't have extensive experience in the job he's taking on.

The discussion marked the second time in six months the Selectmen have missed an opportunity to demonstrate leadership rather than one-upmanship, which too often is the overriding goal of local politicians, not just in West Point and Clay County but in many communities.

The Board of Selectmen's Finance Committee made a reasonable recommendation of $38,000 as a starting salary for Williams. That was based on his experience, job responsibilities and what surrounding counties may their EMA directors.

On the surface, that sounds good. But Selectwoman Leta Turner, one of those who wants to make sure she gets in a jab when it's an opportunity to turn the tables on the other side, quickly noted the same process wasn't used when the city decided to pay Eddie Longstreet $40,000 when as interim city clerk.

'He's just the city clerk and the EMA director is all of Clay County," Turner snapped at one point during the discussion about Williams' salary.

An argument can be made in both cases for higher or lower salaries.

Selectman Ken Poole got things further out of whack when he suggested starting Williams at $45,000, almost as much as retiring EMA Director Kerrie Gentry-Blissard makes and she's been certified for 15 years and has 29 years EMA experience.

The suggestion bordered on ludicrous. Poole's only saving grace is he asked one of the most salient questions of the discussion when he twice wondered out loud how the city is going to decide future increases for Williams.

That's the place where city leaders missed the boat, both will Longstreet and with Williams. Rightfully or wrongfully, in both instances, the public perception is that salary decisions in both cases were based on political whims and not reasonable or rational leadership and management.

For instance, in Longstreet's case, selectmen held few public discussions about his pay, long-term goals or anything else. He was simply appointed in a political deal and the rest of the chips have fallen where they may, prompting in part, the tone of the discussion about Williams and EMA.

When it comes to Longstreet, we haven't heard any discussion about raises or anything else being tied to probationary period, completion of clerk certifications or training or any of the other standards that could have been used to set measurable milestones for selectmen and the public to gauge progress.

As a simple for instance, many cities and counties -- Lowndes County does it for road department workers even -- promise raises after new hires have completed a 90- or 180-day probationary period and demonstrated a basic aptitude.

The same goes for Williams. Rather than trying to show they had the votes to do better than the Longstreet coalition, selectmen would have been better off promising Williams some raise after six months or maybe after he's run his first drill or emergency exercise. Another benchmark could have been certification.

If we actually have severe weather or the threat of it early in his tenure, we could have provided bonuses or merit pay for his handling of those situations.

Again, it's setting measurable standards and goals and not relying simply on the political winds of the moment.

The term "precedent" often has a negative connotation, as in "bad precedent" or "dangerous precedent." But good leadership and effective management can set "good precedents" and those usually are precedents that only get better with time.

For instance, if the city were to establish clear job goals and targets for Longstreet and Williams and attach rewards to them, even if it's just a pat on the back, city leaders would be setting up a lasting system that works regardless of who holds the position or who is in elected office.

City leaders do that largely for police and fire chiefs, public works directors, and other major positions, nothing should change now.

Selectmen must remember, they won't always be there. The city workers they put in place may not be either. As much as we hate to think about it, something could happen next week or next month and leadership could change.

That's why proven management systems, not political interests, should be our priority. Selectmen will find operating that way will improve public perception and develop a happier workforce which knows performance, not favoritism, is the standard by which they are measured.

Steve Rogers is the news reporter for the Daily Times Leader. The views expressed in this column are his and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the newspaper or its staff.