Editorial: Overeager on Augustus

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We like City Manager Edward M. Augustus Jr. very much. But we’re not quite in the “Augustus or bust” camp, and wish more city councilors felt the same.

Praise for a job well done is part of professionalism. But it can go overboard.

In any well-run system, there is always room for skepticism and constructive criticism.

Edward M. Augustus Jr.

Courtesy NAMI Mass

Edward M. Augustus Jr.

So we are less than enthusiastic about rushing to renew the contract of any key employee — in this case, that of Augustus.

But the push is on. The matter is the sole item on the agenda for a meeting of the City Council’s Municipal Operations Committee this Tuesday, Sept. 27.

It’s still a year before Augustus’ three-year contract, which paid him $226,084 last year, expires Oct. 3, 2017.

According to the current contract, the Operations Committee is supposed to let Augustus know in writing by Jan. 1, 2017, whether it intends to seek his continuation beyond Oct. 3, 2017. Once that written notice is given, Section 2 of the contracts states: “If the parties agree to negotiate a subsequent agreement, commencement of such negotiations shall take place within thirty (30) days said written notice.”

In taking up the contract matter Tuesday, the committee is a few weeks — at least — ahead of schedule.

We would consider that simply responsible foresight, except that there is a pattern of overeagerness with respect to Augustus that dates to the beginning, when — with no previous municipal management experience — he filled the shoes of departing City Manager Michael V. O’Brien beginning in January 2014. Augustus’ transition from the “interim” city manager label he insisted on then, to agreeing nine months later to a permanent appointment, was awkward, to say the least.

Make no mistake: We are glad the City Council roped him in. He has been fair-minded, hard-working and innovative in a city that for a couple of decades now has been making key improvements. Further, Augustus — a former state senator and most recently an administrator at the College of the Holy Cross — has the steadiness, eloquence, knowledge and determination that befits the role of Worcester city manager.

We agree with at least the majority of the City Council that the city would be well-served to keep Augustus at the helm from October 2017 to October 2020. (Nine members of the 11-member body gave Augustus “exceeds expectations” ratings at his last job review. Councilors at-large Konstantina B. Lukes and Michael T. Gaffney were decidedly more critical than their colleagues.)

City Hall

Worcester Sun

City Hall

But this city would survive, and likely thrive, without him — just as it did when the very capable O’Brien stepped down. Worcester has generally benefited from a long line of admirable city managers whose tenures featured pluses and minuses. And the more successes Worcester enjoys and outside notice the city receives, the more probable that highly qualified candidates will seek the job whenever it next becomes open.

It’s important to make the most of the time we have with excellent leaders, and spend less time worrying about them inevitably moving on some day.

As Augustus’ direct supervisors, city councilors should be supportive and appreciative, but they are also obligated to offer pushback, suggestions, and opinions and perspective that are at variance with his when appropriate. That dynamic makes better leaders of all involved, and toward a better Worcester for the people who live, work, study or visit here.

Councilors should follow Augustus’ example and focus mostly on the work beyond City Hall.

There’s certainly plenty of that work.

Beyond the usual full slate of services, planning and fiscal stresses, Augustus needs to make sure last winter’s plowing failures don’t recur. His city has ongoing problems with drugs, violence and crime to be managed. He needs to step up efforts to tie the livability loose ends on the city’s development strides, by seeing to details such as litter, lighting and parking.

While the city adds to its fleet of heavy-duty trucks, many may be on their last legs.

Patrick Sargent / For Worcester Sun

While the city adds to its fleet of heavy-duty trucks, many may be on their last legs.

Homelessness and its heartbreak has risen again for discussion with the onset of fall. As Augustus addresses such immediate matters, he should also push for new and followup community initiatives such as the race-relations dialogues during the summer of 2015.

Meanwhile, we are glad that at least the Operations Committee didn’t begin discussions on Augustus’ next contract months ago, as then-City Councilor Philip Palmieri urged last December.

Augustus is, and probably deserves to be, a shoo-in to continue as city manager from October 2017 through October 2020.

When the time arrives in December, the City Council should say as much on paper — without the shoo-in part. Over the ensuing 30 days it should get the negotiations completed in a manner that is thorough, careful and professional. Efficient would be OK, too.

That process gets underway this Tuesday. Ultimately, the decision will be Augustus’. Meanwhile, we urge the Operations Committee, and later the full City Council, to spare us excess praise and solicitude.

Optimism and energy are better spent on the routine and big-picture issues needing attention every day.

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