It's time for a changePosted Wednesday, October 24, 2007, at 8:42 AM
To paraphrase Shakespeare's Mark Anthony, I have come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
And it's the hardest thing I've had to do in a very long time, because, you see, I genuinely like Joe McNeal.
It's hard not to like Joe. He's warm, friendly, outgoing and gregarious. He'd give you the silk shirt off his back if you needed it. He's just, overall, a good human being with a huge heart.
But liking Joe doesn't necessarily mean I want to vote for him.
Because he hasn't been the best mayor I've ever seen, and I believe it's time to give someone else a chance.
Let me give Joe his due, first.
Joe had dreamed of being mayor for a long, long time. He overcame obstacles that would have daunted most people to achieve that goal, and in doing so, cemented his place in the Idaho history books. It was a tremendous accomplishment, one that few men could have achieved.
The mayor's job falls into two parts - "show the flag" public relations as the city's figurehead, and administering the day-to-day operations of the city within the laws, ordinances and policies created by the state and city council.
His PR skills are undeniable. In that aspect of the job he's been great. And it's why he may very well be re-elected. He's a tremendous campaigner with an instinctive knack for getting his name and face in front of the public, and he genuinely likes kissing babies. And in politics, that often counts for far more than an individual's actual skills in being able to do the job.
When Joe first got elected, there was one member of the city council who had a hard time accepting his election, and who sniped at him from the very beginning. That didn't help. But all politicians must have thick skins and be aware that your enemy today could be the ally you need tomorrow, so taking those shots is simply part of the job, even if they're annoying.
But almost from day one Joe seemed to forget that he'd only been elected mayor, not king. He started acting like he was in complete charge. In fact, the mayor administrates policy set by the city council. He doesn't make it, and Joe never understood that.
It quickly started to get under the skin of the city council that he'd made some decisions they felt were properly theirs to make, and he hadn't bothered to even tell them until they heard it from other sources.
Communications broke down almost from the very beginning. In fact, at one point, Joe actually told me it wasn't his responsibility to tell the council what he was doing, it was their responsibility to come to him and ask. This "imperial" attitude never really went away and communications between the mayor's office and council to this day remain poor and strained.
Joe's micro-management of some projects has often been criticized privately by those who've had to deal with it. The most common complaint is that he jumps into the middle of a project, without knowing all the groundwork that's gone before, orders some changes that screw up the planning or process, and then leaves without finishing the job, leaving others to clean up his mess. This is a common complaint I've heard from many (but certainly not all) department heads.
Take the golf course ("please," to quote Henny Youngman).
Early in his term of office Joe decided the golf course should be run by parks and recreation, rather than as a separate department. In itself, that would make sense, although it left the golf board wondering what its role was and Joe certainly wasn't listening to any of its recommendations.
Joe took full responsibility for the disaster that followed. And he should have, as he had directed or approved most of the changes that angered so many of the users of the course.
And it wasn't just moving the clubhouse pro shop into a tiny shed. He wanted the grill in the clubhouse to become a full-fledged restaurant. Now restaurants usually operate on pretty thin profit margins to begin with. It quickly went in the red, adding to the city's revenue problems at the course at a time when more problems there simply weren't needed. And Joe's micro-management didn't help.
Furthermore, it angered all the private restaurant owners in the city who had legitimate complaints about taxpayers subsidizing their competition.
It wasn't until the council took control of the golf course back into its own hands and restored it to the status quo antebellum that things settled down, but a lot of damage had been done and a lot of tax dollars wasted before the battle was over.
Joe has a tendency to make up his mind way too early and not listen to competing points of view (listening involves actually giving consideration to a person's position, not just having sound waves bounce off your eardrums). Once he's made up his mind about something he can make a mule look positively wishy washy.
A good example was his blue ribbon committee to create a junior college in the area. He put together a great team of people, but when he didn't like their recommendation, he dismissed them.
After considerable work, the committee had felt that Joe's original idea was economically infeasible and had suggested entertaining a proposal made by the College of Southern Idaho to set up a satellite branch in Mountain Home. But Joe turned that proposal down flat (with many of the committee members shocked at how brusque he was to the CSI presenter). It wasn't his idea of a stand-alone brick-and-mortar independent college in Mountain Home, so rather than accept what was possible, Joe continues to this day to dream of the impossible. It was the best we were going to get, and if approved, that service would be up and running for our kids today. But Joe was too stubborn.
And sometimes Joe sees things a little too black and white, failing to grasp the greys of a situation. A good example was the readdressing issue.
Joe had run, in part, on a platform of opposing a proposal before the city four years ago to readdress and rename all the streets in town, a plan advocated by all the EMS services who had to contend with often confusing addresses phoned in by panicky people (I don't have any problems with the city addressing system, since I understand it, but it's amazing how many people can't give you their own correct address). Joe probably was on the side of many of the city residents on that issue - then and today.
But later in his term, there was a recommendation to change the addresses of six houses in different parts of town, because they were either duplicated or out of order using the present system. This wasn't city-wide readdressing, but just some minor technical corrections. Joe turned the whole thing into a circus. In fact, he issued the only veto ever made in the history of the city over this matter, and made sure the newspaper showed up to watch him put the red stamp on the ordinance passed by council. They overrode it, and he knew that was going to happen, but he chose to make a it major issue and a massive confrontation between him and the council when it was really a two-bit housekeeping matter that had nothing to do with city-wide readdressing. It turned into a war when it shouldn't have even been a skirmish.
Joe also constantly fought with the city council over the agenda. The mayor prepares the agenda for the council. But if Joe didn't want the council to even know about or discuss an issue, because he knew they weren't going to go in the direction he wanted to go, or because he wanted to deal with it rather than let them get involved, he wouldn't put it on the agenda. More than one city advisory board discovered that some of their recommendations hadn't been even considered by council because Joe didn't pass them along. At one point, the council felt like it had to call in the state attorney general's office over the issue, before a partial compromise was reached.
Joe was a councilman under Don Etter, one of the finest mayors the state of Idaho ever produced, and a man Joe has always described as a mentor. But one of Don's greatest strengths was keeping lines of communication open and working behind the scenes to achieve a consensus so council wasn't constantly embroiled in infighting within itself or between the mayor's office and the council. But Don never hid anything from the council, and if it was obvious he was going to lose his preferred position on an issue then he accepted that and carried out the policy council adopted.
But with Joe, confrontation has been the rule. Some of it, a lot of it, was his fault, and some of it wasn't. But the city council had reached a point where they didn't trust him at all.
All the council members will tell you stories about cases where he told them one thing, and told someone else something else. They contend he lied to them, often, but I think that's a little too evil an analysis. I think it's more likely Joe just didn't remember what he'd said to one person when he talked to another one.
Because Joe likes being liked, so there are times he'll tell his audience what they want to hear, whether or not he can actually do it, or whether or not it's the same thing the last audience he spoke to wanted to hear.
And finally, his ego has gotten the better of him. He's been almost shameless in seeking the limelight. And he's taken credit for things others have done, or which he was only part of a team that was involved. Claiming he brought Marathon Cheese to the city, as he did in his candidacy announcement, was a slap in the face to the man who did all the real work, Ron Swearingen, and the city council members and state leaders, including the governor, who worked with him on the final negotiations. Of course those negotiations blue up in the city's face over the Optimist Park issue, but that's a case where blame can be spread around among everyone.
He also claimed credit for the library expansion, which really was accomplished by a magnificent group of very hard working private citizens who served on the bond publicity committee. I'm not aware that he ever attended even one of their meetings. I know he didn't take part in any of the presentations that helped sell the bond to the community.
In both of those cases, those claims annoyed people who knew better.
The funny thing is, despite all these criticisms for his style and skills as an administrator, he's still a good man deserving of admiration.
But he made the mark in history he was seeking, and it's time for him to move on, and let someone else have a chance at the job. Frankly, I think Joe's skills would be better served in the legislature, where he could make history again, and where his personality skills would make him highly effective.
But mayor requires a different skill set.
Whether you blame Joe or you blame the council for the almost unprecedented turmoil that has distinguished the four years of his administration (the same council that didn't have any problem with the two previous administrations), he's in the position of being the coach of a losing team. You can either fire the team, or you can fire the coach. You almost always fire the coach in the hopes that the next one will be able to fix the team.
And that's what we've come to today.
Joe doesn't have the support and trust of the current city council, and doesn't have the support of any of the candidates running for council. If he's re-elected, they'll try and work with him, but they all have concerns going into it.
It would be better if the slate were cleaned. Joe should honorably take his place in history, and a new leader should be given a chance to end the constant confrontation that has occurred, and which does the city no good at all.
It's time for a change.
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