Two major institutions – the Sonoma Valley School District and the City of Sonoma – have finally hired new administrative leadership; in the case of the District, a Superintendent, and in the case of the City, a permanent City Manager. It’s about time.
For far too long, both the City and the District have suffered from an administrative leadership vacuum, and it’s been a harmful absence. Hired in the footsteps of multiple interim hires, the City of Sonoma’s new City Manager David Guhin has many major staff positions to fill, including that of Development Director and Finance Director, as well as finding permanent employees to fill several line staff positions now filled by temps. In the School District, Dr. Jeanette Rodriguez-Chien finds herself hired on the heels of successive Superintendents, each of whom left under less than ideal circumstances.
To be sure, the pressures of administrative leadership were mighty during the past three years. The Covid-19 epidemic, now gratefully in the rear-view mirror, wreaked havoc with the established norms of working. Setting aside the problems caused by direct illness itself, the pandemic’s effects on productivity, efficiency, predictability, and economy were legion. Entire social sectors were disrupted, and are still recovering to this day. The work habits of employees changed, meeting protocols were challenged, public access was curbed; in short, the standard work week became anything but.
The leadership vacuum, however, might be primarily due to something else: dysfunction and discord of the elected bodies that hire administrative leadership. When the boards and councils that govern perform poorly, it’s much harder to find talented administrative leadership; they fail to agree, and struggle to find someone who wants to work for a dysfunctional organization.
The City of Sonoma suffered the unexpected resignation of three council members in the course of one year, an unprecedented event. While capable and hard-working appointees filled the empty chairs, it’s no coincidence that the circumstance coincided with the termination of a City Manager six months after hiring, and the need to fill that position with two interim managers, all this while Covid-19 disrupted everything.
The School District board hired two Superintendents each of whom left before completing their contract. No precise explanation was given. Some attribute the departures to discord and disarray on the Board of Trustees, but there is also the fact that perhaps neither candidate was sufficiently vetted regarding departure from their previous position.
We hope that these failures were corrected with the current hire, and that the unanimous vote for Dr. Rodriguez-Chien reflects an unflawed candidate whom the trustees will support.
Elected government is a strange animal. An unrelated group of people are selected and assembled and expected to “work it out” with each other and create a cohesive team to move the institution successfully into the future. Human nature being what it is, this is not always an easy task. Parliamentary procedures or operational “norms” are leaned upon to provide interactional and behavioral guidance and theoretically ensure decorum so that the public’s needs are served. When decorum fails, however, and discord increases, things fall apart. A capable administrator or manager can only be effective when given clear direction from a board or council.
Our hope is that things are turning around. Both Guhin and Rodriguez-Chien bring considerable experience and talents to the table. Now it’s up to the elected leaders to demonstrate that they are up to the job of working well with each other. If they do, the new administrators can serve productively.