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Woog's World / Marpe's first lesson: Private-sector style vs. public-sector reality

Published 7:15 am, Sunday, December 8, 2013
  • The way things are done in town hall are not the same as in the halls of private industry. Photo: File Photo / Westport News
    The way things are done in town hall are not the same as in the halls of private industry. Photo: File Photo

 

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Two weeks ago, First Selectman Jim Marpe appointed Bob Zappi, his former campaign manager -- and the former chairman of the Republican Town Committee -- as his operations manager.

Zappi quickly withdrew his name, and Marpe has already moved on.

But one aspect of the episode is worth an intriguing look back.

Zappi has spent 30 years in business, helping Fortune 500 companies enhance their organizations and operations. He's got a proven track record, for sure.

Yet the private sector is vastly different from its public counterpart.

Some of those differences came to light in the aftermath of Zappi's appointment. Critics noted that the position had not been discussed during the campaign, nor was it posted publicly.

In business, a CEO can do that. If he needs an assistant, he snaps his fingers and hires one.

If the job candidate wants a job description, the CEO writes one up. If the boss must find funds to pay the new guy (or gal), he shifts it from one budget column to another.

That's not the way it works in Westport -- or any other democratic entity.

Civic government is a far different animal than a manufacturing company, a high-tech firm, or even a regulated industry like banking or pharmaceuticals.

Running anything -- a Fortune 500 company, a restaurant, a family-owned business -- has its share of frustrations.

So does running a country, a state or a city. Some of those frustrations are similar. Many are different.

If you ran a company, and your company owned some land, you might decide to build on it. Or reconfigure it.

Perhaps you'd want to create a park there, or a playground.

You'd have to satisfy plenty of requirements -- zoning, environmental permits, that sort of thing -- but once you did, you could do what you'd planned.

But if you are the chief executive of a town -- say, Westport -- and you decide you want to do something with the land you are charged with overseeing, things get a bit more difficult.

If you think, for example, that Compo Beach could use a little upgrading (for the first time in several decades), you cannot start reconfiguring parking lots and adding bike paths on your own.

In addition to the oversight bodies that private industry must deal with -- like zoning and the environment -- you must work with other groups you share power with. There is a Recreation Commission, and a Representative Town Meeting. They will add their input, and they must be heeded.

There is another stakeholder: the people. While private industry has customers, who may vote with their feet or their wallets if they don't like certain decisions, public government has citizens.

These are men and women whose daily lives are impacted directly by municipal decisions.

These citizens can be vocal. They can react quickly. And -- because they pay your salary, and pay for the upkeep of the beach you may be trying to upgrade -- they have rights.

They have the right to voice their opinions. They have the right to be heard. They have the right to vote you out of office if they disapprove of your decisions.

They even have the right to ask for special votes, concerning your decision and (in extreme cases) your right to hold your job right now.

Or let's say you think it's a great idea to construct mixed-income senior rental housing on another piece of land you oversee.

You have looked at the topography of the site, and its location. You have studied demographics, current and future marketplaces, and a host of other factors.

If you were the head of a private company, you could proceed with the permitting process.

But if you are the head of a town: not so fast. In addition to that same alphabet soup of permitting agencies, there are all kinds of bodies to consult with and win approval from.

You must navigate a constantly shifting, complex terrain of political interests and power bases. You must answers not just the standard business questions of expected costs and projected returns, but satisfy a tangle of legal financial requirements as well.

And then you have those thousands of citizens to listen to, too. They are your neighbors and friends. They are young and old. Each one has an opinion. And they all vote.

This is not to say that Bob Zappi would not have done a fine job making the switch from private industry to public government.

He spent years leading the Republican Town Committee; he knows our town's boards, commissions and agencies very well.

But being the guy in charge of a town -- or the "operations manager" for him -- is not the same as being a captain of industry. Finger-snapping won't do.

In municipal government, it's all about the elbow-rubbing.

Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his "Woog's World" appears each Friday. He can be reached at dwoog@optonline.net. His personal blog is www.danwoog06880.