Our View: Here we go again…
October 1, 2013
Last week, the Nevada County Economic Resource Council announced it would be changing leadership with its executive director position.
When The Union asked why such a change was deemed necessary, ERC Board Chairman Robert Bergman said, "I'm not going to elaborate beyond the press release."
Problem was, however, that press release didn't provide much information on which to elaborate.
"The executive committee of the Nevada County Economic Resources Council has announced that Robert Trent will not continue as executive director when his contract ends on Sept. 30," Bergman's release stated.
"Robert Trent assisted the ERC in important ways. The tasks Robert took on and the challenges he met along the way were not easy ones to address, and we all appreciate the energy and focus he put into his work."
That's all folks. The show's over. Nothing to see here. Please move along.
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Of course, missing from that press release was the fact that Trent's stint at the helm stretched all of seven months after being hired in February. Trent, the founder of Nevada City-based business incubation organization Sierra Commons, appeared to be the best fit among the pool of candidates in a reportedly substantial recruiting effort by the ERC.
"After an exhaustive search, we offered the position to Robert Trent," Lisa Swarthout, a Grass Valley councilwoman who sits on the ERC's executive committee, said in February.
"We feel Robert is very qualified to take over the role of executive director, and we look forward to working with him and having him continue the great work started under (former director) Jon Blinder."
So what changed within a seven-month time frame?
"I believe I have (met the requirements) in flying colors, and I am proud of my accomplishments at the ERC," Trent said, adding that he was hired on a four-and-a-half-month contract and received a three-month extension subsequent to being hired.
Another glaring omission from the press release was the revolving door the ERC has seen from the executive director's office.
From 1996 to 2005, the ERC had one executive director in Larry Burkhardt. Since Burkhardt resigned in a move to Colorado after his nine years with the ERC, the organization has been led by five executive directors in an eight-year span, with Chuck Neeley (2005-07), Gil Mathew (2007-2010), Ron Moser (Jan. 2011-Jan. 2012), Jon Blinder (Jan. 2012-Sept. 2012) and Trent (Feb. 2013-Sept. 2013) serving as the organization's leaders.
Bergman, also a Nevada City councilman, downplayed the impact of the frequent turnover when asked by The Union, suggesting the ERC is stronger because of it.
"I think that it has strengthened it," Bergman said. "It started at the time that (former executive director Jon Blinder) elected to go … It required more of us. The whole team has to step up for us to do as well or better."
Bergman did allow, however, that with turnover, "There is a transitional cost," he said. "You have people learning on the job."
But more costly is the perception of instability within an organization seeking "to enhance the economic vitality of Nevada County by supporting the retention, creation and attraction of primary jobs, while retaining our unique environment" as its mission.
Should such frequent change at the top instill confidence in the ERC's capacity in achieving that mission? Should the organization articulate why such change is necessary, when it happens? Or should the tax-paying public that helps support it simply trust that the ERC is clicking on all cylinders?
After all, the organization is now tasked with even more responsibility than just a few years ago, as the county has contracted with the ERC — a $250,000 agreement awarded in July that spans two years — to manage the county Tourism Marketing plan, adding to its already hefty mission of recruiting and retaining businesses capable of growing the local economy.
Instead of explaining to the community it serves why it changed leadership, however, the ERC became the latest in a growing list of local governing bodies that are mum to the public on such a major decision. In other words, these officials, who are either elected or appointed to their seats, are essentially treating their constituents as children, saying "You don't need to know why."
Citing such change as confidential "personnel" matters certainly might be meant to shield the outgoing leadership from scrutiny, but it also keeps the community from capably being able to evaluate the job performance of its representatives. How are we to determine whether we've received responsible representation when our representatives won't speak to the rationale for decisions they make?
Ultimately, as Thomas Jefferson said, "the government you elect is the government you deserve."
Rather than electing or appointing those who talk about transparency, we need leaders committed to it, those who will open the door to the community rather than close it when key decisions — such as changing our local leadership — are to be made.
The Our View represents the opinions of The Union editorial board, which is comprised of members of The Union staff, as well as informed members of the community.