Editorials ~ Sonoma Valley Sun

Sonoma Valley Sun


Local administrative leadership…finally?

Posted on May 17, 2023 by Sonoma Valley Sun

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.  

3 thoughts on “Local administrative leadership…finally?

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  2. SVUSD and City dysfunction: This editorial blames City churn on Harvey, Hundley, and Harrington for resigning and casts shade on school board members for churn at SVUSD without naming names. I’d add in the blame category, a subtext of dysfunctional Sonoma Valley zero-sum game culture by the public and the common pursuit of vendettas and grudges against board members, city staff, and other public figures. There are underlying human-nature Valley power struggles going on here that appeals to decorum will never fix. Why? The Mexican phrase “pueblo chiquito, infierno grande” says it all: Small town, big fire. Discord here is par for the course.

    “Working productively” really gets down to who has three votes to direct staff. Three votes = power = top staff security. Given that most electeds have a policy flavor from which they rarely diverge, and that they shuffle in and out every few years, it’s no wonder that city managers and school superintendents only have an average tenure of a couple-a-three years.

    Getting these top staff is like a basketball team trading for new player or making a draft pick, the applicant maybe works out or not no matter how well-advertised or well-chosen they are; a big factor being fit with team culture and other players. All styles don’t necessarily mix well; winning-team chemistry is a bigger issue than mere “decorum.”

    Decorum can also be used as a tool to maintain mainstream, white middle-class sensibilities and disenfranchise any heat and discomfort caused by the systemically excluded.

    Team culture in Sonoma is set by the most invested and persistent members of the public, who always end up electing a few of their own, but since Sonoma Valley interests and personalities are different, putative team culture and values keep shifting and shuffling. Thus, churn is guaranteed. When people don’t like things, they recall, appeal, sue, get sour, and split and form new interest groups and over time, since interests are different, animosities are built up which adds to public dysfunction then reflected in boards, committees, and councils.

    As with contested scientific theories, sometimes the protagonists have to die before that churn can settle down and a consensus new paradigm take hold. As Sonoma Valley demographics are clearly shifting, maybe the current churn signals a change of the guard and change of overall team culture here? Hopefully so!

  3. I do not have the time at the moment to respond to Fred’s points other than to say I largely agree. Politics must never rule the day, no matter what lectures are handed down to the people regarding “this is how it works”. There can be no politics as usual, no status quo, no condescension, no “we know better than thou.” The sooner people realize that, the better off we’ll all be.

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