The latest flap illustrating the dysfunctional mess that is Derry’s town government comes over the most seemingly innocent of causes: an attempt by town leaders to honor municipal employees for their service.
Who would deny workers, municipal or otherwise, the opportunity to receive a slap on the back and a hearty “well-done” from their supervisors? Surely, no one would. But Derry does not disappoint. The town has found a way to recognize its workers and irritate residents at the same time.
On Friday, Dec. 6, the town closed the Municipal Center and Veterans Hall for three hours, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., to hold its Employee Recognition Luncheon at the First Parish Church. The event has been held annually since 1999. More than 35 employees were honored for their years of service to the town.
While this was going on, former councilor Janet Fairbanks stationed herself at the Municipal Center and noted the number of people coming to transact business with the town, only to find that they could not. A sign on the door announced that the town offices were closed.
“In the 15 minutes which I was standing outside the Municipal Building during the time of closing, at least 15 people got out of their vehicles, walked to the door, tried to open the door and could not because of the door being locked, read the sign, shook their heads and then returned to their vehicle,” Fairbanks wrote in a letter to the Derry News last week. “Two of the individuals who stopped to speak to me said that they were on their lunch hour and were there to pay their tax bill and register their vehicles.
“What a blatant display of total disregard for the citizens of Derry who are forced to foot the bill for this latest excess in an economy that is still struggling,” she wrote.
That’s not good. Town government essentially is a service business. Townspeople, the government’s customers, expect to find town offices open for business during normal hours. When they are not, people have good reason to be upset.
Town Councilor Phyllis Katsakiores responded with a letter of her own this week (see this page). In it, Katsakiores notes that the recognition luncheon is the only opportunity for town employees to come together. They did so partly on their own lunch hours and partly on town time.
Katsakiores notes that the luncheon has been held for 15 years and for six of those years, Fairbanks was a town councilor. Surely, there was nothing here of which Fairbanks was unaware.
Katsakiores said that advance notice of the Municipal Center closing was posted on Derry Community Television, on the town’s website, on the Municipal Center’s door, in local newspapers and announced at Town Council meetings. She apologized to those citizens who were unaware and inconvenienced.
“Ms. Fairbanks’ letter is a blatant display of total disregard for town employees,” Katsakiores wrote. “She places so little value on our people that she would prohibit town management from buying lunch and meeting with its employees once per year. That is grossly unreasonable.”
Katsakiores is right when she criticizes Fairbanks for now attacking a practice she did nothing effective to end while she was a town councilor. But Fairbanks is correct on the broader issue.
This isn’t about whether Derry should recognize its employees for long service and a job well done. Of course the town should do so. The question is when such a tribute should be held.
Imagine Wal-Mart, CVS pharmacy, a restaurant or any other private business honoring its employees by closing its doors in the middle of the day and locking its customers out. It would never happen. Nor should it happen in town government.
The proper time for such honors is after regular business hours, after customers have been served and their needs met. This should not be paid time, nor should attendance be mandatory. If town employees truly cared about the recognition of their peers, they would attend.
This really isn’t that hard of a concept to grasp if town leaders see themselves as servants of the townspeople, and not the other way around.