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January 13, 2014

Nipping the Memes in the Butt

by at 2:12 pm.

(Yeah, I know the phrase ends with “bud.” I like mine better!)

I love social media. Especially Facebook. It has the power of instant communication, which brings out largely unfiltered thoughts, and is a great place for floating trial balloons. You can bounce ideas and concepts off of other people, in private, in a group, or in open forum, and it’s a wonderful place for gathering together the general zeitgeist of a present situation.

While I do a lot of personal posting on Facebook, so much so that I limit my friends list to only those people that I’m comfortable with seeing my photos of my dogs and nieces, amigurumi projects (my present obsession) and other things of a personal nature, interaction on friends’ statuses and in groups that include people outside my friends circle gives me a glimpse I might not otherwise get into the minds of people who don’t much agree with me on a particular issue.

So it’s no surprise that I’m seeing some memes come together around the resignation of the City Manager. They center around trying to undermine the term “professional” as applied to outgoing City Manager Bernie Lynch.

Now in some ways, this whole thing is moot. Bernie, gawd love ya, but you’re history. Old news. Yesterday’s diapers. Er, you get the drift. Rehashing age-old debates about your tenure, which is soon to end, is about as useful as closing the barn door when the horse already hightailed it. But two things I find fascinating about this: one, you can see very clearly how these memes develop and get a life of their own, right in plain pixelated view (as opposed to festering in the Lowell Rumor Mill™). Two, this conversation does have a relevance to the future, in that the effort to undermine the concept of professional city government is an ongoing one that will affect the outcome of our hiring practices (or keeping Plan E at all). A la previous blog post, etc.

On the first point, meme development, it goes something like this. Start with your end goal/assumptions/conclusions. In this case, “Bernie is not a professional.” This is an assumption that that set of city workers and their friends and families have had since he was hired in 2006. This is your aim, so you need to make your meme back this up. It’s taking a conclusion and then finding arguments to justify it. (Never mind if the arguments are spurious, at best.)

So take this one - and I’m paraphrasing: “The fact that Bernie is leaving and we’re losing all these other top staffers reminds me an awful lot of what happens to an administration when a strong Mayor leaves.”

This one is pretty fun, because it’s attacking Plan E (see? we just have Plan A here, why not switch and make it official!?) and the concept that Plan E is a more professional form of government in general. It is, of course; people who study these things and measure them have figured this out. More stability, longer term thinking, and better finances on average than cities with a strong mayor system. Of course, this is when Plan E is done right. Done wrong, we get Cox, a negative free cash account, and audited by the Dept of Revenue. Certainly, seven and a half years of Bernie Lynch at the helm is a great example of what you can do for a city with Plan E. Also, Plan A or a strong mayor can go much terribly wrong-er…by way of example, Lawrence and former Mayor William Lantigua.

But the facts are squishier. For instance, I happen to know personally that some of the leave-takings predate even the preliminary election in September. Take Tom Moses for instance - gone a month ago, but that means the process for that had to have been long before (those top spots take time to process). Tom was a finalist for Hudson as reported by Dick Howe and Gerry Nutter on Oct 8 - the application could have been a month or more prior. And the Auditor is retiring - you can’t make the assumption she wouldn’t have retired had the election gone different or if Bernie was staying.

So, if your conclusion that Plan E/professional manager looks like Plan A with the fleeing of the underlings, that means that the loss of the top guy has to be before the loss of his key people. Or else, you’re not emulating strong mayor, you’re just seeing a big coincidental convergence. Well, I can say with confidence, it’s convergence. The dominoes fell up, not down. This is not a strong mayor-like situation. Meme slayed.

The second one, and more directly aimed at Lynch himself, is this implication: “Well, a real professional would have stayed til the end of his contract or at least through the budget process. He’s not, so I don’t think he’s being professional. A professional stays until the end, the people voted and he should stay through his contact, and deal with the result. He says he doesn’t even have a job lined up. A professional doesn’t act that way.”

I love when people make arguments that take me so little effort to smack down. The phrase fish in a barrel comes to mind…

People seem to forget real life situations when they are trying to develop memes to support a conclusion they like. But let’s remember, people are employed. Yeah, I know, not all of us, it’s a still-struggling economy, but bear with me.

If I get hired at company A, I sign a contract. The contract usually states what my obligations are and what the company’s are as well. I also sign on to adhere to whatever Employee’s Handbook they have. Now, employment contracts for the average private sector employee don’t often have end dates and the need to renegotiate terms, though that’s not unheard-of, but they do usually have a clause about giving your employer notice if you leave the company. Note that the contract never says: you can’t leave the company unless you’ve got another job lined up…it just says something like, “You must give Company A at least two weeks’ notice of your resignation.”

Well, Lynch’s contract was no exception. It stated he must give 60 days notice before resigning his position. Note that previous city managers with no contract were under no obligation to give notice at all. They could have left with no notice, like an employee at will, and the city would be without that crucial two months’ notice to replace the CM. (The contract also didn’t prohibit firing Lynch either; there were just consequences for it like severance pay. And when politics is your boss, a little insurance that a petty firing will not be worth doing goes a long way.)

The contract gives a guideline as to how long those contract terms will be in effect, and at what point (the end of contract) it will need to be renegotiated or not renewed. The city gives the top job in the school system (Superintendent) a contract, again to protect that person from petty revenge firing, and to protect the city from sudden departures that would adversely affect the running of our schools.

What’s more, a professional certainly does “act this way.” In the private sector, or other public sector jobs, people move around. They leave one job, sometimes with nothing else lined up. And given the unprofessional nature of the current City Council, any professional, who wanted to preserve his/her status as a professional, might want to get out while the getting’s good. More bad press from an unfriendly newspaper and more time for this Council to beat up on the CM is probably bad for his career. Though the rest of the world I think will know to give allowances.

Anyway, there’s two memes I’ve seen out there. If I’m seeing them being posted on Facebook, they’re being bandied about out in the Bubble. Thanks for taking this trip down Meme-ory Lane with me!

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