Auburn’s Gerrish encourages councilors to talk out their differences

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AUBURN — When interim City Manager Don Gerrish noticed the tone of City Council emails getting a little sharp earlier this month, he addressed it directly.

“A good manager should be working with the elected officials about how they do their process and how they treat each other,” Gerrish said. “That’s part of group dynamics.”

An Auburn resident had asked to be allowed to enter Great Falls School before it’s demolished and take parts of the building — such as blackboards — away. Concerns about liability, safety and fairness to other Auburn residents led Gerrish to decide against giving the woman access.

Councilors began mailing each other, asking who among them had made the decision.

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Gerrish said it was his choice alone, and that none of the elected officials weighed in. 

“But I thought this was a good opportunity to bring everyone together and talk about what we’re doing and how we are doing it,” he said.

Councilors set aside part of the Feb. 8 workshop meeting to talk about the email and rate their progress as city officials. 

“It’s important to do because many of them are new councilors,” Gerrish said. “They’ve never been involved in city politics before. So it’s important to talk about their goals, about what they want to accomplish and then to rate themselves and talk about how they’re doing.”

Councilor Tizz Crowley said she was concerned that Mayor Jonathan LaBonte had a hand in Gerrish’s Great Falls salvage decision.

“The mayor has very defined roles according to the Charter,” Crowley said. “They do not include making those kinds of department-level decisions.”

LaBonte said he was not a party to the decision, and Gerrish said he only talked to the mayor later and discussed it with him.

“But I would have done that with any of you, if you happen to be there,” Gerrish said.

Councilor Joshua Shea said he didn’t want the council involved in that kind of minute discussions.

“I don’t think we have time to deal with these issues,” Shea said. “I ran to replace people who I thought were stuck on this treadmill of garbage. That’s why I’ve been very blunt about the way I see things going.”

It’s part of the reason that councilors say they were elected last November, Shea said: They vowed to change the tone of city politics, replacing the rancor of years past with a genial effort to get things done.

“We are here to inspire Auburn residents, we can get Auburn moving,” he said. “But if we are just sitting here in neutral if an email asking a fair question gets answered — and someone disagrees. And then someone else disagrees with the disagreement.”

Gerrish said the meeting accomplished what it needed to. The City Council discussed their problems, and walked away with a better understanding of what to expect from each other.

“It doesn’t mean everyone agrees,” he said. “But it does mean they’ll work better together.”

It’s no surprise that elected officials are going to disagree, Gerrish said. That’s the nature of politics. But there are good ways to do it.

“It’s OK to talk about issues, make a decision and move on,” Gerrish said. “That’s how it gets done. Let’s not hold grudges. It’s the way we do work.”

staylor@sunjournal.com

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