By JOHN T. WARD
The Management Enhancement Report, commissioned last October and posted on the borough website Friday, includes insider comments highly critical of the way things work, or don’t work, at borough hall.
The report was prepared under contract by employees of Government Strategy Group, a consultancy whose chief executive officer, Ken DeRoberts, also oversaw the town government operations in the interim between the December retirement of borough administrator Stanley Sickels and the hiring of Ziad Shehady, who became the retitled business administrator in May.
The document opens with a series of unattributed, sharply critical quotes about the way the borough government is run, such as “Meetings have no purpose here or takeaways or game plans. There’s no goal setting in staff meetings;” “You have to be a pest here to get anything done;” “Our facilities are a disaster.”
Though the speakers are not identified, the report says GSG conducted “in-depth interviews and meetings involving forty-five different officials, professionals, staff, and business people from the Borough, including all the elected officials, department heads and senior managers, and attorneys and other professionals serving the Borough.” The 45 are named in an appendix.
“It is not the intent of this report to point fingers or cast blame, but rather to be positive and to do our best to help Red Bank’s elected officials, its citizens, its taxpayers, and its stakeholders chart a course for enhancing the management of the community going forward,” the report states.
Things that need fixing include the borough’s form of government, the report says. The current structure, adopted with the borough’s charter more than a century ago. has “drifted” over the years into one that “gives individual elected officials larger roles in the actual day-to-day business of the various departments,” resulting in “management by silo,” with insufficient coordination between departments, GSG says.
Other areas that need attention:
• Government operations: GSG recommends giving the business administrator more authority along the lines of a private-sector chief executive officer, including the power to hire and fire without requiring council approval.
The report recommends that “the Mayor and Council not be involved in personnel matters except to provide advice and consent on department head appointments and, of course, on the hiring and oversight of the Administrator.”
The report cites a “breakdown of clear lines of communication, direction, responsibility, and accountability” among borough employees:
“Staff may be given direction by a superior, yet another different direction from an elected official, and then a third direction from another elected official. What should they do? On their side, elected officials are often at a loss as to who is responsible for what and how staff can be held accountable.
“Simply put, people cannot have eight different ‘bosses’ to report to, nor can they be taking different direction from the positions of Mayor and Business Administrator. That is a recipe for failure.
GSG found at least a dozen jobs at borough hall that could be eliminated, largely as a result of consolidating departments.
• Downtown redevelopment: “We believe that one of the reasons that Red Bank seems to have become paralyzed in addressing its redevelopment issues is that the community has no person, office, or entity to provide leadership, focus, and drive to get things done,” GSG says in the document.
The report recommends the borough either appoint a redevelopment director or establish either a redevelopment authority or parking authority.
“Other municipalities have used all of these methods with great success. Development administration under the last two alternatives above can also be done in such a way as to not require any tax dollars and instead be funded via developer fees. The main point is that someone needs to take the lead on these issues.”
• Parking: GSG says the borough should “retain the best parking expert available to assist in developing an RFP for a parking study.”
At its last meeting, on May 30, the council awarded a $52,350 contract to Walker Consultants, a New York City-based parking consultancy, to study downtown parking needs.
The 48-page report also includes discussions of finance department operations; “dire conditions” in the public works facilities on Chestnut Street; and inadequate security for municipal court workers.
The report also calls for the development of a five-year strategic plan.
Among the most scathing sections of the report is one on construction permits:
Symbolic of dysfunctionality that set in over the years in Red Bank is the fact that open permits – construction code permits that were taken out by contractors and property owners but never received a final inspection – were allowed to grow to 9,000. This in a municipality with 4,400 properties. Who is responsible for this? Who is accountable for this? Who was paying attention to this? Although most open permits are likely for minor jobs, such as a water heater or roof replacement, this situation does have a real measurable effect on taxes for any of these that involved added assessments that should have gone on the tax rolls.
DeRoberts declined to comment on the report when contacted by redbankgreen Monday, referring questions to Shehady.
Mayor Pasquale Menna told redbankgreen that he agreed with the report’s findings and recommendations, including the need to modernize the form of government.
“Our model was one created in the early 1960s,” he said. Over the years, he said “administrative fault lines” have developed and widened, leading to dysfunction.
“We’re no longer the small borough,” he said. “We are a microcosm of a small city, with the issues of a small city, but our administrative structure hasn’t moved forward.”
Implementing the report’s suggestions, Menna said, “is going to be painful for a lot of individuals to change the way they do things.”
Menna, who has been mayor for 12 years and was on the council for 18 years before that, said he was unaware of open-permit backlog, and said other elected officials were as well.
“It’s inexcusable,” he said. “Both as mayor and council, we rely on well-paid professionals to move things along. This was something never brought to our attention.”
The council’s two Republicans, Mark Taylor and Mike Whelan, have been critical of the form of government, and have launched a petition drive to change both the form and the way in which elections are conducted. They are not seeking re-election in November.
Taylor told redbankgreen via text Monday that he would be commenting on the report, but was not immediately available to do so. He and his wife, Ashley, had their first child, a boy, last week.
GSG concludes that borough government could use a mindset overhaul, “to a culture of customer service and assistance where every department is striving for compliments rather than complaints. Morale is very poor and, not surprisingly, there are ongoing complaints about customer service.”
Among the report’s recommendations is one that the borough host a “summit” for local officials to talk about shared services. Councilman Michael Ballard announced at the May 30 council meeting that DeRoberts and GSG managing director Joe Hartnett will host the event “on their dime,” at the Red Bank Middle School on September 15.