We had planned to write last week about the sudden and much maligned firing of Smithfield town manager Paul Sabiston; we even penned a piece for last Sunday’s paper. But that editorial is now gathering digital dust because on second read, the piece fell flat, mostly because it added little to the debate.
So let’s try this again:
It’s not our place to say whether the council was right to fire Mr. Sabiston. Unlike many government employees, town managers serve at the whims of their bosses, so the Smithfield council was free to fire Mr. Sabiston with or without cause. And truth be told, we don’t enough about the former town manager or his job performance to weigh in on whether the council made the right call.
But it seems to us that the council, in firing Mr. Sabiston, made a mistake that helps explain why a hundred people attended the next council meeting to support the ousted manager. And that mistake was terminating the manager without a unanimous vote.
Citing state personnel laws, town councils never talk specifics about a firing, but because of that, a unanimous vote is important because it says that everyone on a council wanted the manager gone, no matter the reason. With a unanimous vote, even supporters of an ousted manager are saying to themselves, “Well, the council obviously had its reasons.” With a unanimous vote, we suspect the next council meeting after a firing doesn’t draw much of a crowd.
A split vote, especially a narrow split, sends the wrong message. By definition, it says a council was divided in its decision, and that both angers and emboldens critics of the firing. Not surprisingly, those critics turn out en masse to show their disdain for the decision and their support for the fired manager.
The Smithfield council majority that fired Paul Sabiston was unlikely ever to convince the minority to join them in ousting the manager. But the majority could have approached Mr. Sabiston, told him they had lost confidence in him and then given him six months or a year to find work elsewhere. That would have been the more decent thing to do, and it would have avoided the controversy that the council now finds itself enmeshed in.
One critic of the decision was especially harsh, saying the split vote to fire Mr. Sabiston showed that the council was rudderless, floundering and amateurish, with no vision or stability.
We think that criticism is a little harsh, and in our experience, the fallout from a controversial firing lasts no more than one election cycle, meaning that after this November, the matter will be forgotten. But if the majority had handled the firing differently, their political careers and all of Smithfield would be better for it.