The Frankfort Plant Board, like Mick Jagger, can’t get no satisfaction. Nor can the utility’s parent municipality. The city’s on its 12th “permanent” city manager since adopting managerial government in 1958. City managers have held tenures ranging from seven weeks to 14 years and many if not most have left involuntarily. They’ve been fired for political reasons, mental instability, personality conflicts and, most recently, ethical indiscretion. Utility managers likewise are on a losing streak.
Wednesday, the Plant Board dismissed Jim Smith, the general manager it hired in June of 2010, and Assistant General Manager Ron Thomas, whose position was created at Smith’s request. The municipal utility axed them in a manner that struck us as unorthodox, if not downright shabby. The board cast the unanimous votes at 10 p.m. Wednesday after a closed-door meeting without informing the two administrators. They didn’t learn of the decision until Thursday morning.
Sheila Burton, board chairwoman, wouldn’t even say whether Smith was ousted for cause. That’s critical because if there was no cause for dismissal, his contract stipulates payment of half his $133,000 annual salary over the next six months. If it was for cause, the reason should be stated publicly so the utility’s customers might gain a better understanding of why the board did what it did. Thomas, appointed to supervise cable, telecom and administrative offices, had no such protection.
Smith came to Frankfort highly recommended after serving 30 years in other utilities, most recently in Atlanta. He said one of his top priorities would be improving customer service, which certainly should rank high on the Plant Board’s wish list.
It’s unclear just when the honeymoon ended although a mediocre job evaluation last year dropped some hints. The board gave Smith credit for initiative, savvy about utility trends and fostering relations with community leaders. But it urged him to “take more shared ownership of the work produced by staff and to more actively provide positive, constructive reinforcement where needed.”
The manager’s dismissal comes just over two years after his predecessor was nudged out the door. Warner Caines had worked for the utility 37 years, leaving temporarily before he returned as general manager in 1985. Although he officially retired, he confirmed later that the board had asked him to leave. Before him, John Wagner was terminated.
The Plant Board ought to ask itself why there’s been so much turmoil surrounding its managers, so far as we know respected professionals who for whatever reason were unable to please the local directors. The lack of continuity is not helpful.
Managing a municipal utility is, to be sure, a high-pressure job. Customers in this intensely political community are probably more demanding than those in most other towns of Frankfort’s size. The endless progression of rate increases for electricity, water, cable, telephone and Internet services guarantees there’s abundant (but not universal) dissatisfaction among the public much of the time.
Plant Board ratepayers expect their utility services to be a bargain, and with reason. Because a municipal utility pays no taxes, its rates should be lower than those charged by investor-owned competition. That’s been a given since the system was founded almost 60 years ago.
Before hiring another manager, the Plant Board should take extra pains to ensure applicants know exactly what’s at stake for the community and what’s required of them. There should be no surprises on either side.