Opinion: Keeping coalitions often harder than building them

Steve Rogers
Staff Writer

Coalition building is the key to successful governing. But sometimes it's easier to build coalitions than it is to maintain them. But for long-term success, the maintenance is the most critical.

So far, West Point Mayor Robbie Robinson has navigated those waters pretty successfully.

But this week, either by accident or intentionally, he ran afoul to the Board of Selectmen's "angry woman" and thus demonstrated the nuances of coalition building.

Tuesday night, after the Board was virtually complete with its brief agenda and about to head into a personnel matter in executive session, Robinson mentioned that building inspector and codes enforcer Jeremy Klutts was in a class at EMCC but he wanted to hire Margaret Shelton as a part-time assistant to work a couple days a week.

He got a motion and addressed a couple of brief questions before Leta Turner, who seldom minces her words when perturbed, waded in, questioning why the matter hadn't come up in Monday night's study session.

Robinson, begging forgiveness, took the blame, saying it was an oversight on his part.

Turner wasn't convinced.

"This is what we do, we omit items we prefer not to discuss, things we don't want to talk about. This was intentionally held from the board,"Turner said pointedly.

"If we had questions, we could have addressed them at the study session...when did y'all conversate on this and walk in here on the same page?" she continued, looking at Robinson and fellow selectmen Jasper Pittman, William Binders and Keith McBrayer.

Pittman said the board had done it before, allowing department heads to hire people part time.

"I trust the department heads and don't want to get into a long, drawn out Turner continued, noting conversations about the need for the position and the person to be hired obviously had been going on for sometime, a point Robinson acknowledged when he said Klutts had interviewed Shelton, who previously worked at Bryan Foods and Comcast, on "two or three occasions.

Turner and fellow Selectman Ken Poole need to be careful about getting too deep into the hiring process because that's an area that borders on political patronage and is not good for taxpayers. In fact, that admonition applies to the entire board.

But Poole, who took a calmer approach than Turner's attack mode, made a good point.

"The problem is when we want to get rid of these part-time people, it ends up in our lap. If you are going to ask us to clean up the mess, then we need to know about it and keep an eye on it. It's our job to be responsible. If someone comes and asks us for something and there's no money because we've hired a bunch of part-time people, we need to know, that's our responsibility," said Poole, who worked for the city as a police officer.

In the end, Robinson dismissively cut off discussion, saying, "Let's move on, we've got bigger fish to fry."

.Several weeks ago, I wrote about how McBrayer, Binder, and Pittman have come together in a coalition that started with the renaming of Randy Jones as CAO and Eddie Longstreet as city clerk.

That group is valuable to governing, and it's not lost on Turner and Poole.

"Obviously the three-man coalition doesn't need my vote," Turner said as she and Poole abstained.

Wednesday, Turner told me she was just being her usual "candid" self in raising what she thinks is a significant issue: "the board being kept out of the loop in its entirety."

"It has nothing to do with the position or the person, it was the way it was done and handled," she said.

In contrast, Robinson, noting the position is in Klutts' budget, assured me it wasn't done on purpose. 

In hindsight, I suspect he wishes he'd said something previously, even if it was just a mention. It would have saved headache and heartache.

We make those kinds of missteps in our daily lives all the time, simple things that we think are relatively unimportant that we don't mention to friends, co-workers, spouses, relatives or neighbors. We think nothing about it, but to them, it's an affront.

It's a reminder that perception is reality. It's a tough reminder in life. In building political coalitions, it's magnified several times over because unlike family and friends, coalitions can change in a moment's notice.

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 of the newspaper or its staff.