March 30, 2006

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Nashua Publisher's Note: Where’s the leadership?
By Jeff Rapsis

What to do when a thousand people picket City Hall during the midst of a budget battle? Why, go on a month-long vacation, of course!

That’s Mayor Bernie Streeter’s approach, anyway—in the midst of a contentious city budget process, Nashua’s chief executive departed last week for his customary annual sojourn in Aruba.

Yes, it’s perfectly within his right to do so. The mayor works hard, and no one begrudges hizzoner some time off. And Streeter claims he’s in touch with all his deputies and can manage things from afar.

But escaping to the Caribbean during a crucial time in the budget process shows a basic lack of leadership savvy. Doesn’t he understand the symbolism of such behavior? Doesn’t he get how this riles people up?

Contrast Streeter’s absence to the actions of Gov. John Lynch last fall. When flooding hit the western part of the state, Lynch cut short a trade mission in Germany, flew home immediately, and personally oversaw rescue and recovery efforts. That’s leadership.

Nashua is not being flooded with anything right now, except maybe red ink. But the basic situation is similar: it’s a time of anxiety for anyone affected by the city budget, which includes just about everyone in Nashua. On-the-ground leadership could help get the community through this process with a minimum of acrimony.

Streeter’s decision to depart the scene instead is not the kind of leadership that this city deserves. Yes, his proposed budget is his best attempt to balance the needs of many competing groups. Yes, in making his budget recommendations, he’s doing his job.

But people respond to people, not budget plans. As such, the mayor needs to be more active in reassuring residents that the city is making good decisions. This is politics, after all. Appearances count.

But Streeter just doesn’t want to play that game. It may be his tin ear for such nuances, or maybe he’s just worn out by all the mean-spirited bickering that comes with local government. Lately, a “they’ll blame me no matter what I do” tone has crept into his demeanor.

That’s too bad, but it’s no excuse. He’s still mayor, and a tough budget process ought to see the city’s chief executive officer at the helm until the storm subsides. At its best, his absence shows a lack of regard for the people affected by his decisions; at its worst, it fuels a “Let Them Eat Cake” impression that’s poison to local politics.

But wait! Maybe Streeter’s absence contains a solution to the city’s budget crisis. If it’s true that he can manage the city effectively from Aruba, then why not outsource as many city government functions as possible to developing nations and save on labor costs? Why not, say, have the public works director report from Bangalore? Or the city clerk work from Calcutta?

This fails the common sense test, and so does the mayor’s month-long absence in the middle of a budget process. He should be here until the budget is approved. If nothing else, he’d probably enjoy his time off more that way, too.


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