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Containing the Cantankerous: Managing Your Relationship With Your Governing Board


Marshall Mathers, C.P.M.
Marshall Mathers, C.P.M., City/County Purchasing Director, City of Winston-Salem/Forsyth County, Winston-Salem, NC 27102, 336/727-2983,

86th Annual International Conference Proceedings - 2001 

Abstract. The conventional wisdom that policy is set by directors and implemented by staff fails to recognize significant overlapping of responsibilities wherein staff may drive policy change and board members may not resist taking a hand in procedural matters. While relationships between public sector board members may ebb and flow with political tides, some level of tension between board and staff can be expected at all times. Some elected officials may view staff as a bureaucratic, self-serving enemy and treat staff members as such, even in a public forum.

Public humiliation of staff is not limited to such obvious targets as City or County Managers, nor to cases of proven corruption, nor to suspected incompetence during public emergencies. The Purchasing Manager is often singled out for harsh treatment, even in routine matters, despite the most capable and well-intentioned job performance.

Can instances of public embarrassment be prevented, or at least diminished? This program presents recommendations specifically tailored to the public sector purchasing manager to protect both the official and his board, and to lessen the likelihood of public criticism when board action is required.

Your Strategy. Well planned board presentations have several elements in common: simplicity, consistency, legality, and accuracy. We have a responsibility to protect our boards, and to the extent possible, board agenda items should present obvious, non-controversial choices. For example, consider the following board action item:

Bids were received February 3, 2001 for a stage lighting system for the Civic Center. Today's entertainers require multi-level, multi-color, multi directional lighting effects to enhance their productions, and will not book an engagement at any arena that will not accommodate their requirements. Below is a summary of the bids:

base price
ACE LIGHTS, INC. $159,000.00 $559.00 $2,500.00 $3,500.00
  • shock-proof grips
  • $4,500.00      
  • gaffer assists
  • $2,300.00      
    ACME PRODUCTIONS $168,500.00
    $2,000.00 $999.00
    alternates:  none        

    Staff recommends award of contract to Ace Lights, Inc. in the amount of $165,559.00.

    However simple and straightforward on the surface, this recommendation is almost guaranteed to raise questions and set up the purchasing manager for a confrontation should a board member be so inclined. What wrong? Consider:

    Where did the figure $165,559.00 come from? Board members will be adding columns of figures and poking their pocket calculators all while trying to follow the discussion.

    Is Ace Lights, Inc. really the low bidder? The low bidder is not readily apparent unless we know what went into calculating the recommended amount.

    Were the alternates offered by Ace Lights, Inc. required? Were they written into the specifications? Should Acme Productions be thrown out for not offering them?

    Let's simplify. Consider the same item presented as follows:

    The following bids were received February 3, 2001 for a stage lighting system for the Civic Center, including delivery, setup, and warranty:

    ACE LIGHTS, INC. $165,559.00
    ACME PRODUCTIONS $171,499.00

    Ace Lights, Inc. also quoted two safety enhancements, shock-proof grips and gaffer assists, which were not specified and are not required for the safe operation of this equipment.

    Modern, high-tech lighting is increasingly necessary to attract popular performers, and sufficient funds were appropriated in the FY2000 budget to cover this purchase. Staff recommends award of this contract to the low bidder, Ace Lights, Inc., in the amount of $165,559.00.

    This version of the same item gives board members a more obvious choice by removing most data irrelevant to their choice and by presenting an obvious low bidder.

    Is this as good as it gets? Probably not, and one hook remains for any board member spoiling for a fight: why mention the performers who will ultimately use the lighting? Both versions of this item imply that performers will not come to town unless the unit invests in this expensive equipment. This is a platform ideal for elected officials to rail against rock music or other acts of controversial content. Therefore, let's revise our presentation one more time:

    The following bids were received February 3, 2001 for a stage lighting system for the Civic Center, including delivery, setup, and warranty:

    ACE LIGHTS, INC. $165,559.00
    ACME PRODUCTIONS $171,499.00

    Sufficient funds were appropriated in the FY 2000 budget to cover this purchase. Staff has reviewed the bids and recommends award of contract to Ace Lights, Inc., the low bidder meeting specifications, in the amount of $165,559.00.

    This version not only presents a clear low bidder and deletes any mention of vagabond entertainers, it also tells the board that they have seen the item before when the budget was established, and that staff has reviewed the bids for fidelity to specifications.

    Keep it simple and be consistent in your presentations. Board members should know what to expect, and we should protect our boards from surprises. To the extent possible, agenda material should use the same format, even the same wording, from meeting to meeting.

    Handling Hot Buttons. It's likely that nothing in our profession has generated the controversy of minority purchasing. Throughout the country, lobbies for ethnic and racial minorities, women, and other special interest groups have for decades organized and effectively presented grievances to political boards. As contradictory decisions rained down, the legislative and judicial response has consistently put one guy in a no-win situation, and you know who that guy is.

    Unfortunately for us, purchasing from minorities and other disadvantaged parties is not our only hot button. Locally owned businesses have always howled when state and local government contracts go out of town or out of state, irrespective of pricing. Increasingly, environmentalists want their governments to purchase goods made of recycled materials, which may be more expensive.

    Earlier we mentioned the need to protect our boards from controversy in order to protect ourselves from conflict, but protection gets trickier when controversy is generated from outside our units, from citizens who have every right to organize and seek redress. Our defense may come from still more citizen involvement.

    Citizen volunteers are in good supply and are called upon by government units to oversee all kinds of policy, from beautification to budget to school safety, and volunteer committees of concerned citizens should be there when staff attempts to implement controversial spending plans.

    While the purchasing manager seldom has authority to form such committees, and your unit's chief executive will have to get the ball rolling on this, it is an idea often popular with elected officials. Citizens' committees offer opportunity for those seeking a voice and may bring aboard many who lack inclination to seek elective office or full time staff work.

    You, the staff official, should not stand alone before the board when controversial policy is implemented. To recommend that your board reject a low bidder and award to a higher bidder for reasons of race or gender places you and your board in a no-win situation. It is the voice of the citizen, having no vested interest, whose only desire is to do the right thing, who lends credibility to the policy and the recommendation.

    A well-conceived plan for purchasing in such public policy minefields may require that your unit form a volunteer citizens committee to review policy and insure it remains current and effective. Purchasing recommendations made in part due to such policy ought then to have the committee's approval before going forward to your governing board.

    Limiting Your Rights as a Citizen. Ever had your neighbors ask you to get involved with the politics of your unit?

    For example, let's say Kent Clark, Purchasing Agent for Smallville, USA, is approached by his neighbors to get involved in a neighborhood zoning issue because they know he works for the City. Kent agrees, organizes a petition drive, and speaks for his neighborhood when they oppose a zoning change at the City Council meeting. Is this a good idea? How likely is it that Kent may be remembered by those who voted for the change in zoning?

    (Could Kent get involved behind the scenes and get away with it? Probably so, using his connections at City Hall to guide his neighbors through the process without jeopardizing his position with the board.)

    The view here is that it's best to leave our politics in the voting booth. It's an obvious recommendation, but one that frequently falls on deaf ears. We have our constitutional rights to speak up, but exercising them with our board may, and probably will, come back to haunt us. (And don't ask them to forget you're the purchasing manager, or to see you as just another citizen; they know you too well.)

    Random Thoughts. Work for a good board. This may be akin to opting for long life by choosing healthy parents, but a job change may be your only solution if your board consistently refuses to treat you like a grownup.

    Working for a good board is a good start. Work for a good CEO as well, one who works at his own board relationship, knows the law, and backs up his department heads. Your CEO's relationship with the board is most important in establishing your board's healthy attitude toward the staff.

    Can you reduce the number of contract awards taken to the board? If state or local law requires you to carry your bids to the board for award, those same laws may also allow the board to delegate that authority to your CEO or even to the purchasing manager. Delegation may be favorably considered by a majority of the board, particularly if it's agenda tends to be long, it's meetings boisterous. You might begin by asking the board to delegate all contracts to a certain amount, say $50,000 or $100,000; when board members see how well staff handles that responsibility, they might be receptive to a request to award all contracts regardless of amount. The fewer items you are required to present, the lower your odds of controversy.

    Is this fight really necessary? Henry Wheeler Shaw once wrote, "Silence is one of the hardest arguments to refute." If your board consists of one big mouth and seven team players, you are going to win most votes 7-1. Don't respond, no matter the provocation, unless something specific is asked of you. When the room falls silent, the onus is on the chairman to move the meeting forward.

    Work at your own board relationships. Board members are the people ultimately responsible for your unit's actions. Be respectful, in public or private. Hold your temper, especially in a public meeting. Allow board members to win whenever possible. Always allow board members to appear strong and to save face.

    Whatever your situation, know the laws and policies your state and local boards have adopted. Know them well enough to quote them by chapter and verse number. There is no substitute for this knowledge; if you don't know the law and the policy, why should they respect you?

    Be meticulous. Simply put, there is no excuse for misspelled words or incorrectly added numbers. If your board materials are not professionally, accurately prepared, the most mild mannered board member may scold like a school marm.

    Most of all, keep it simple. Be consistent in your practices and your interpretation of laws and policies.

    Book References:

    • Scribner, Susan M., Boards from Hell. Long Beach: Scribner and Associates, 1991.
    • Kazman, Jane G., Working Together: A Guide for Elected and Appointed Officials. Washington, D. C.: International City Management Association and the National League of Cities, 1999.

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