Tuesday, September 14, 2010

E-mails show tension between county and library

UPDATED 4:55 p.m.: See Observer Editorial Page Editor Taylor Batten's response to commenters at the bottom of this post.

This series of e-mails obtained by the Observer shows tension between Mecklenburg County government leaders and the libraries, which had millions slashed from its budget by county commissioners this year. The cuts forced the closings of three library branches, the reduction of hours at other branches and the layoffs of 187 staff.

Harry Jones is Mecklenburg's County Manager. John McGillicuddy is Jones' aide and Mecklenburg's General Manager. And Robert "Bob" Sink is a Charlotte lawyer and vice chair of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library.

From: Jones, Harry L. [mailto:Harry.Jones@mecklenburgcountync.gov]
Sent: Tuesday, August 24, 2010 12:33 PM
To: Sink, Robert
Cc: McGillicuddy, John
Subject: Future of the Library Design Team

I am writing to convey my concern about the manner in which the Design Team has begun its work. Based on feedback from the County staff who attended the initial meeting of the Design Team, it appears that this effort is proceeding in a manner that is inconsistent with what has been agreed upon by Mecklenburg County. Here are the key concerns:
Jim Woodward intends to participate as a regular attendee at the Design Team meetings. You will recall that we specifically discussed that Jim should not participate in the Design Team meetings because his views can bias the process design.
I am concerned that this bias has already occurred because the feedback provided to me includes Jim’s stated intent that the Task Force will provide the decision makers (i.e., Board of Trustees and Board of County Commissioners) with options rather than recommendations. This is inconsistent with the stated charge of the Task Team. In addition, Jim apparently stated that he will select Task Force members who are strategic thinkers with organizational design experience. It is reported that he stated this qualification will override any other representation on the Task Force, which again biases the Design Team’s ability to establish criteria for selecting Task Force members. This also is inconsistent with the desire to have broad, community-based representation on the Task Force that incorporates numerous viewpoints and perspectives.
I also learned that Vandever Batten did not provide facilitation for the Design Team, as we had agreed. Instead, the representatives from Vandever Batten were largely silent at the meeting while Beth Hardin facilitated the meeting.
I also learned that someone, perhaps Jim, had already decided how the Design Team would be structured into subcommittees and that Beth Hardin began making assignments into these subcommittees. This prescriptive arrangement is inconsistent with having the Design Team pursue its own approach as we had agreed.
I also learned that the Design Team was presented with an application form that would be used to recruit Task Force applicants. It was mentioned that this form needed to be finalized before the Design Team was able to establish the selection criteria. Again, this is forcing a decision on the Design Team (as well as predetermining an aspect of process design) rather than letting this group of people take ownership of their work without interference. I find all these aspects of interference highly offensive in general and a personal affront to me, given the many conversations we have had about the need to avoid prescribing a process.
Today, we were contacted by the Library staff informing us that the Design Team has directed them to announce the application process for Task Force member recruitment. It is inconceivable that this step would be taken without the Design Team completing its work on the recruitment criteria and other key recruitment steps.
Based on this information, I can only conclude that we are experiencing what amounts to a bait and switch effort. Having obtained my support for the process as written, you have switched to the process that Jim originally desired that I would not support.
On this point, I find it interesting that although you, Jim, and Charles Brown attended the Design Team meeting, neither I nor John McGillicuddy were informed about your intentions to attend this inaugural meeting. I believe none of us should be attending these meeting so we can ensure the Design Team members are allowed to come together as a team and use their own abilities (with professional facilitation) to develop a productive design for the Task Team.
By the way, two of the Mecklenburg County staff members who I appointed to the Design Team have done this very work before (e.g., serving on design teams for the School Building Solutions Committee, and the Justice and Public Safety Task Force). These and all the members appointed to the Task Team are highly competent people. We need to leave all these talented people alone and let them do the job for which they are charged and so they can follow the process we have agreed upon. Unfortunately, it is clear to my staff that key elements of the design have been predetermined. Understandably, they are questioning whether their continued participation will be of value. As a result, I am strongly considering removing them from the Design Team and withdrawing my support of this process.
Any further participation in the Design Team process by you, Jim or Charles to manage, influence or manipulate the Design Team or its recommendations will be considered a breach of our agreement regarding this process. Bob, at some point you just have to “let go” and trust the process to work. I believe we are beyond that point.
Harry L. Jones, Sr.
County Manager
Mecklenburg County

On Aug 24, 2010, at 9:33 PM, "Sink, Robert" wrote:
Even though I had not received your email when I came to your office earlier today, I believe our conversation touched on many of your specific concerns and, certainly, on the general thrust of them. I hope you found my responses authentic and my distress genuine. The work of the Design Team (in preparation for the work of the Task Force) is too important to fail for any reason, founded or ill-founded. Thank you for listening to my observations and for your expressed willingness to address anything that might have been construed as a false start or, worse, a “bait and switch.”
At the risk of some repetition, I wanted to give you my thoughts on some of the specific items mentioned in your email.
Jim Woodward was invited to the first meeting of the Design Team, and assigned a 10-minute slot on the agenda, to introduce himself to the team and provide some context for the work of the Design Team and the Task Force. His participation was intended to reflect the interdependency of their work, not as an effort to interfere with the independence of the Design Team. Indeed, before the Design Team’s first meeting, I sent the following email to Dennis Rash:
“Dennis, because of the early concerns expressed by Harry and John about Jim not serving on the Design Team, does he need to be gently reminded that he has been invited to today’s meeting to give his thoughts on the Task Force, but that he is not attending as a member of the Design Team. (He should probably not sit at the table, except when speaking to the team.)”
Unfortunately, someone else set the table and everyone was given an assigned seat. As an observer, I picked up my own place marker and moved to a chair not at the table.
Jim used as his script our agreed plan dated July 21, 2010 (the Plan). Even though he “participated in” the meeting with his general remarks and with a few observations during the meeting, I do not think he intended to impose any bias or perspective that he may have about the process. I hope no one will consider any of his comments to be restrictions on the deliberative work to be done by the Design Team in accordance with the Plan.
Jim clearly believes that the work of the Task Force will require strategic analysis. That perspective is consistent with the Plan, which provides that “the Task Force include members who have experience in the strategic analysis and planning of organizations.” It would be unfortunate if Jim’s statements to that effect were construed as inconsistent with other expectations concerning the variety of skill sets and diversity of perspectives needed on the Task Force. I thought the discussion among members of the Design Team, particularly with respect to the content of the nomination form, reflected a clear understanding of those several, compatible concepts.
As part of his remarks, Jim said that he expected the Task Force to “develop strategic alternatives” for the ultimate decision makers. I do not think that is inconsistent with the Plan, which provides as part of the charge that the Task Force will “report resulting suggestions, options, considerations and/or recommendations for a sustainable public library system.” I don’t believe Jim intended to suggest that “strategic alternatives” would be a laundry list of random, unranked suggestions. I did hear him say that, in his view, the report of the Task Force, including the public input to be garnered by the Task Force, would inform the political process - where the ultimate choice among strategic alternatives must be made.
Vandever Batten did considerable work in preparation for the meeting and contributed during the meeting, in an manner appropriate to the agenda. Beth Hardin, as chair of the Design Team, has exemplary leadership skills and will continue to encourage contributions from every member of the Design Team. Harry, please keep in mind that this these nine people were meeting together for the first time.
Because the Design Team has but five weeks to complete its work, some considerable effort was made (by several people, but not Jim) to assemble materials, suggest a possible subcommittee structure, and provide sample nomination forms. All were clearly offered for further discussion and expansion. No subcommittees were formed, except one to refine the group’s discussion about the time-critical nomination form and publication process.
In advance of the team meeting, I sent Leslie a form that had been used by United Way in its nomination process and invited her to share with the team any forms used by the County. Ultimately, the team had several sample forms for consideration at the meeting. Designing and distributing the form should certainly not preclude future discussion about criteria for selection.
Because the team was eager to begin informing the public about the nominating process, which it hoped to begin within days and complete by mid-September, the Library’s communication director was asked to begin drafting, in consultation with the County’s public information office, proposed press releases describing the nomination process. The involvement of the County’s information office was pointedly mentioned more than once during the meeting.
Harry, this is a much longer message than I intended to write, but not nearly long enough to express my wish to address fully your concerns. I do not want this message to be the final communication on the subjects you raise; and I emphatically don’t want your final action to be the withdrawal of your support for this process.
I have seen no evidence of any effort by Jim or Charles to “manage, influence or manipulate” the Design Team. As for me, I have no interest whatsoever in doing any of those things and I tried to make clear during the introductions at the meeting that, as a trustee, I was simply eager to have the guidance of the Design Team and Task Force and felt considerable relief in the prospect of having that guidance. On that personal note, forgive me for adding one more. As a member of this community for 45 years, I do not suffer lightly the suggestion that any of my actions might be characterized as “bait and switch.”
Robert C. Sink

From: McGillicuddy, John [mailto:John.McGillicuddy@mecklenburgcountync.gov]
Sent: Wednesday, August 25, 2010 7:57 AM
To: Sink, Robert
Cc: Jones, Harry L.
Subject: Re: Future of the Library Design Team
Bob: I appreciate your response below and your willingness to work collaboratively to ensure this part of the process is successful. I will tell you that based on the feedback I received, this was a very poor beginning to the process. From my experience, there now is a great need to essentially begin again because this poor start has resulted in lack of trust and confusion about roles and responsibilities among the design team members. This has to be addressed openly by the team members, without the participation of you, Jim, Charles, Harry or me.
At the risk of seeming immodest, this is one of my areas of expertise. The team can recover from this poor start, so this can be fixed. However, it will be very difficult at this point given the start. I will put together some key points on how this can be fixed and provide these to you later today.

John McGillicuddy

From: Sink, Robert
Sent: Wednesday, August 25, 2010 8:02 AM
To: McGillicuddy, John
Cc: Jones, Harry L.
Subject: RE: Future of the Library Design Team
Thank you, John. While I may disagree with your dire characterization of the team's first meeting, I genuinely respect the views of anyone who participated in the meeting. I hope that the members of the team will air among themselves any concerns they may have and that they will be informed by your suggestion on how to improve the process.
Robert C. Sink

From: McGillicuddy, John
Sent: Wednesday, August 25, 2010 9:20 AM
To: 'Sink, Robert'
Cc: Jones, Harry L.
Subject: RE: Future of the Library Design Team
Bob: I cannot stress enough that this process is in deep trouble right now. We cannot underestimate how quickly an effort like this can disintegrate due to eroded trust. It typically does not manifest itself in the meetings because people are too polite to make a fuss, especially at the first meeting. But the level of independent feedback we received about this is strong evidence that major concerns exist and need to be addressed. Again, I can only tell you that I have ample experience in such matters and am speaking from this direct experience.
Bob: As referenced in my previous email, here are the key steps needed to revive the design process.
1. There should be no further involvement with the Design Team by anyone outside the Design Team or the facilitators unless requested by the Design Team (i.e., the consensus of the team, not simply one member). They need to meet alone to do their work on their own. We can provide library and/or county staff support as needed, but the Design Team needs to chart their own course using their own expertise.
2. Halt Any Actions Decided; Acknowledge the Poor Start: As chair, Beth Hardin needs to begin the next meeting by acknowledging that there was some confusion and concerns about the first meeting. She should say that the group is essentially going to start over and that any actions or decisions that were made based on the last meeting can and will be revisited (particularly the announcement of the Task Force appointment process). Beth should turn over the meeting to the facilitator. The facilitator should plan (in advance of the meeting) and at the meeting lead a discussion among the members to put on the table any confusion, issues, and/or concerns they have. This will take some doing, since there is some level of reduced trust already. If and when this step is completed to the satisfaction of the members, the facilitator should engage the members in a discussion to establish ground rules for how the group will operate in and out of the meetings, including (and especially) how decisions will be made within the group (ideally, this will be by consensus). This discussion should also include revisiting any questions, confusion, etc. about the charge of the Design Team and its deliverables. The bottom line here is that this meeting should be devoted to building trust and begin building confidence among the members that this is their group and intended as a collaborative process.
3. Shared Planning and Leadership: Beth Hardin should volunteer to share leadership with two other members of the group one from the library staff appointed, and one from the county staff appointed. The idea would be that this three-member group would work with the facilitator outside of the meetings to plan the subsequent meeting agenda, and address any follow up questions or issues that arise from the previous meeting, etc. The Design Team should have the option of accepting this suggestion or developing a different model that suits their objectives. This is not a reflection on Beth’s abilities. However, it is vital that Beth exhibit a willingness to share in the planning and leadership to illustrate that there is a desire to be collaborative rather than prescriptive. This action on her part will go a long way to building trust and collaboration.
Reiterating the first point, I want to respectfully urge you to remove yourself from this process completely. You have done a remarkable job getting things to this point. But, as Harry said, the time has come to let go and trust the process. I know you have concerns about meeting the timetable and doing what you can to move things forward. However, your continued involvement behind the scenes will contribute to the impression that there are decisions being made outside the design team process, which greatly compromises the credibility of the process and the trust that is needed among the Design Team members.
This is one of those instances when the more you try to hold onto something to ensure its success, the more likely it will be that success will elude your grasp. On this point, if you concur that these steps above have merit, I would urge you to delegate the implementation of these steps to someone else. As you indicated in your last email, I would be willing to share these recommended steps with Beth, the facilitators and/or the Design Team members, as appropriate. I also would be willing to meet with Beth and the facilitators to discuss this matter in more detail. I have no desire to participate with the Design Team or to serve in any shadow capacity behind the scenes. However, I do have a lot of experience in this area and am willing to offer advice and counsel to Beth and the facilitators on how to revive this process per above. Other than this, I would remove myself just as I have urged you to do so.
In terms of concerns about meeting the timeline, the more important consideration is getting this done right. Getting it done right AND on time would be the best scenario. However, it is much more important to the long-term credibility of this process (and the future of the library) that this process and the deliverables from the Design Team (and ultimately the Task Force) are done well. Sometimes (usually) the time needed exceeds our initial expectations. But rushing through steps only exacerbates the problem because it leads to poor design and ultimately a failed effort.
John McGillicuddy
General Manager
Mecklenburg County

From: Sink, Robert
Sent: Wednesday, August 25, 2010 11:31 AM
To: McGillicuddy, John
Cc: Jones, Harry L.
Subject: RE: Future of the Library Design Team
I will respect your conclusions about the state of the process and will not debate their accuracy, except to say that I would consider them a significant overreaction, based on what I saw and heard during the first meeting of the team. I certainly respect and will not debate your experience and expertise in forming, designing and conducting task forces. I confess my having little such experience.
On the numbered points in your message:
1. I have absolute confidence in the ability of the Design Team to chart it own course and do its work, with such help as they may request from the Library, the County, the Vandever Batten team, or whomever else they wish to consult. Because I consider to be a core function of both the Design Team and the Task Force the collection of information and ideas about existing practices, best practices and evolving practices, I hope and believe that the two teams will aggressively pursue Library, County and third-party input aggressively.
2. Again, John, based on my observations and recollections, I do not recall any decisions having been made at the first meeting, other than a commitment to complete the form and commence the process for seeking Task Force nominations as promptly as possible.
3. As to your suggestions for next steps and shared leadership, I encourage you to call Beth Hardin and engage in direct discussion with her about them. As you have anticipated in your comments about her, I think you will find Beth an incredible professional and accomplished leader. I would offer only the additional reminder that she was asked to serve as Chair of the Design Team and has generously agreed to do so now having already devoted significant time and energy to learning about the current circumstances and the tasks that lie ahead. Having already acknowledged my own lack of experience in task force matters, I nevertheless continue to wonder whether there is but one way for a “design team” to be led and whether that one way is a three-person, shared leadership model with a process conducted by a facilitator which I believe to be more appropriate for the citizen engagement pieces of the process.
Consider me “removed” from participating in the process and no longer “holding on.” I appreciate your counsel about the risks of my doing otherwise. However, at the risk of being trite or sounding self-important, I must add that so long as I serve as a trustee of the Library, I intend to remain fully engaged in learning from others (including the Design Team, the Task Force and the public) and figuring out what might be or should be the future of our libraries.
Robert C. Sink

From Observer Editorial Page Editor Taylor Batten:

Thanks for your concern about any potential conflict of interest surrounding my wife’s firm’s involvement with the library or other clients and my role as editorial page editor. It’s a concern of mine as well. That’s why Publisher Ann Caulkins and I have always had a policy, since I took this job two years ago, that I would studiously avoid any potential conflicts by recusing myself from any editorial board discussions involving clients of Vandever Batten. Integrity and fairness are at the heart of our work, and I have never commented, in an unsigned editorial or in a signed column, about a Vandever Batten client.

In this most recent case, the library has hired Vandever Batten to facilitate the library’s design team process. The editorial board has not written anything about the library's committee meetings and their interaction with the county. If or when it does, I will recuse myself entirely from those discussions, and we will tell readers that I have done so.

Also, the news side and the opinion pages are entirely separate and independent of each other, so I had no involvement with the news story that ran today. That’s the responsibility of Editor Rick Thames. We understand the questions around all this, and want you to know that we’re always working to earn your trust.


Anonymous said...

And the gutless finks on the County Commission continue to allow this bully, this scum, this only in it for what benefits me slob, to serve as County Manager. Conservative Darling Bill James even supports this hack. Just what kind of a drop does this bum Jones have on these people anyway?

Anonymous said...

Design Teams, Task Force members, Committees, County Commissioners, and enough lawyering to choke a giraffe...and all this to close 3 libraries and reduce hours at others?? should have shut 'em all down.

Anonymous said...

Is Lauren Batten, of Vandever Batten (the firm that is apparently facilitating this process, Taylor Batten's wife? Could "Rich" who posted this column (or better yet Taylor Batten) please answer this question.

Anonymous said...

Anon 3 - Yes it is.
Anon 2 - This is to determine the future, not examine the present. Either you support libraries or you don't. Sounds as if you don't so just say that.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 4--Thanks for the information about Lauren Batten. Somehow this doesn't seem right to me--is there some sort of conflict of interest here with her "close" tie to the editor of the editorial pages? Shouldn't this connection be made public?

Anonymous said...

A further look at Lauren Batten's firm reveals that they work with the Housing Authority and the Arts and Science Council, along with many other organizations. The editorial page and Taylor Batten himself have frequently editorialized about these two organizations. What particularly comes to mind is the editorial pages' strong support for public housing in the suburbs with the requisite suburban bashing. Isn't this a huge conflict of interest?

Anonymous said...

But do the Battens attend Harry Jones' church? That's the key.

Anonymous said...

No, but I believe they attend Parks Helms church.

Anonymous said...

anon 4 - Closing 3 libraries and reducing hours did not determine the future. It created a short-term fix to whats becoming a long-term problem of less tax revenues caused by high unemployment. I didnt even have to bring in a Design Team, Task Force, or committee to know that, either.

Anonymous said...

If Taylor Batton has recused himself from any discussions of issues involving his wife's clients how was he able to write (more than once) about the public housing project proposed for Ballantyne. Her firm's webpage clearly states that the City's Housing Trust and the Housing Authority have been her firm's clients. Perhaps they were not clients when his editorials were written but they apparently have been in the past and may be again in the future.

Adrian DeVore said...

These emails represent a group of people who cannot either accept responsibility or have failed to remove themselves due to conflicts of interest to salvage a public library system.

Anonymous said...

I don't see anything inappropriate in these emails.

Mr. Sink's defensiveness is perhaps the only thing noteworthy here.

Jones and McGillicuddy both appear to be trying to ensure that a process doesn't get off course and lose credibility.

That's just the sort of leadership they're being paid for.

www.cadiz-3d.com said...

This can't truly have success, I suppose so.