It’s well known there are divisions within St. Helena: East side versus West side; tourists versus residents; growth versus non-growth; those who criticize city government versus those who do not — the list could go on and on. In St. Helena, we thrive on the drama of these divisions and they have become part of the culture of our town.
It’s time to question whether these divisions serve our purposes, because I believe they don’t. They stop us from talking to each other, from having a rational discussion of the issues, and from pitching in to solve problems — whatever they are. For some people, it is easier to bitch and moan rather than be thankful for what we have. It’s easier to complain than to do the hard work of solving a problem.
Our town recently went through an upheaval, with City Manager Jennifer Phillips firing Library Director Jennifer Baker. Many of us went through the five stages of grief following “The Tale of Two Jennifers,” including denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance. If you’re still angry over Baker’s firing, if you’re still hurting, suffering from depression, pointing fingers of blame and adding fuel to the community’s fire, you probably have a way to go before you can accept what happened. Until you accept that fact, you can’t be a part of the solution.
These were some of the thoughts that City Councilmember Paul Dohring and I discussed recently and I thought I’d share some of that discussion with you.
Dohring was elected to serve on the City Council last November. He said the most surprising aspect of St. Helena’s city government is the organizational and physical condition of City Hall. Before he left the city’s employ, Greg Desmond opened up City Hall to the public to show us the inadequate physical facilities at 1480 Main St.
Beyond that, though, Dohring was talking about a lack of record-keeping and proper organizational structure, which goes back a generation, not just a few years. Because city officials couldn’t prove to the Federal Emergency Management Agency that all payments for flood control work properly fell within the scope of FEMA claims guidelines, the city (under City Manager Gary Broad) reimbursed FEMA for $1.9 million. That’s just one example of the shoddy record-keeping that’s been the standard in city government.
If you don’t have the proper records and know where to find them, if you don’t have records of who the contractors were and what they did, then it’s difficult to answer those questions.
Add to that the loss of institutional memory, which is what happens when you have the high staff turnover that we’ve seen in the last decade, and you’re looking at a potential disaster.
Dohring, though, said Jennifer Phillips has done an excellent job of putting together her team of department heads and has emphasized the need to get the record-keeping systems in place. He said, “The good news is we are making rapid changes, rapid strides to get our ducks in a row to make sure we have the systems in place that we need.”
That’s reassuring. And it sheds light on one of the reasons why the popular Baker, with her fuzzy understanding of the Tweed Trust documents and how the money should be spent for library needs, was fired.
Are there enough staff at City Hall? Probably not, but with the city’s fiscal issues — not enough money — there’s no way more staff, especially support staff, can be hired. But, to Dohring, it’s simplistic to say “there’s not enough staff.” Of course, you have to have people to answer the phones and help those at the counter, so at some point, it is a quantity issue. But beyond that, it’s a quality issue: Getting the right people in the right jobs for a long period of time, making sure they understand their roles, helping them learn what the city’s vision is and understand and carry out the goals of the City Council.
If you’re still angry at the city, at Phillips, at the situation, then you may want to practice forgiveness. Not that you have to condone what happened, nor do you have to forget it. But if you don’t forgive, many experts believe you will continue to be a victim. At some point, you need to move on.
Dohring asks, “Does that mean you need to be friends and pretend that didn’t happen? No. But as a community we need to come together and be more compassionate toward each other.”
Put yourselves in Phillips’ shoes and imagine how difficult it was to come to the city of St. Helena and find the disarray, the disorganization that existed in City Hall. And then she struggled to find good people to join her team – and hiring Rebekah Barr was another huge, embarrassing disaster.
As a community, what is our responsibility? We can hammer away, cast blame and seek vengeance or, as Dohring asks, “Do we understand the situation in a more compassionate manner? This is a much more complex situation than any of us realize and we have to be a little bit humble about it.”
His thoughts, clearly, are that as a community we need to be more supportive of our staff and City Council and take a longer, more compassionate view.
Part of that compassion is being thankful for what we have, rather than bitching and moaning about what we don’t have. It takes more effort to be thankful and to be grateful, but it’s worth the effort.
Note: Editor David Stoneberg is writing on his own behalf, not as a member of the Star’s editorial board.