Press Talk: What really happened to McCauley?

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Lou Brancaccio is The Columbian's editor emeritus. His column of personal opinion appears the first Saturday of every month. Reach him at lounews1@gmail.com.

Someplace — likely on the front porch of a feed store in Yacolt — the M&M Boys are sharing a cold one, celebrating the demise of their archenemy, Mark McCauley.

Former County Councilors David Madore and Tom Mielke — the Abbott and Costello of local politics — expended all of their energy, called in every favor and tried every dirty trick in Nixon’s playbook to rid themselves of County Manager McCauley.

Nothing worked.

Not only did he survive the gauntlet, but the myopic focus of the M&M Boys on McCauley unwittingly created their own demise. Both are now out of office. But who knew, a few short months after the political air was purified with the bad boys’ departure, that McCauley would soon follow.

Oh, you’ve already read the news in The Columbian. There were several excellent stories by reporter Jake Thomas and an excellent editorial by our editorial board. But — for me at least — there’s still something missing.

What prompted the boot?

The politically correct answer is what bosses around the world call a new direction. As in “We felt the change was necessary because we believe the county needed to move in a new direction.” But left unsaid is what exactly was wrong with the county’s old direction? And equally important, what direction should we be heading?

• • •

There’s a nearby street in Florida where I spent a few months this winter called — no kidding — Easy Street. You know, where the living is beautiful and there’s no pressure at work. But the county leaders, I would argue, want off Easy Street. They don’t want a Nightmare on Elm Street either, but it might be time to play a little more hardball. And McCauley is not the guy to do it.

To be sure, McCauley was indeed the right guy to keep the county workforce up and running as everyone was trying to survive the M&M reign. But to do so, he likely had to be more friend than hard-driving manager. In other words McCauley faced the challenge all managers face: Walking the tightrope between being Mr. Nice Guy and pushing the troops to excel. Be too easy and the work suffers. Be too hard and you’re constantly in the HR office. McCauley, in my opinion, leaned toward Easy Street.

This, by the way, is the approach often taken, especially in government, where unions are strong compared with the private sector. But that’s a column for another day.

And because the government is playing with taxpayer money, it has no interest in fighting with the union. This results in a lot of things, including huge job security. This also results in managers just going along.

But the county councilors are all conservatives. They understand taxpayers need to have some representation, a voice if you will. That doesn’t mean county workers will suddenly lose their great retirement packages, or generous health benefits, or even regular raises and job security. But it does mean someone will be paying closer attention.

Look, in my view there are no bad guys in this dynamic. Most county workers are high quality, hard workers. The county councilors are mostly good people who are trying to balance good relations with the county staff and the taxpayers. And McCauley pulled the county through likely its darkest time ever: the M&M mayhem.

I know most of the players here, including McCauley. I’ve found him to be hard-working and dedicated. He always answered my questions. But when I asked him if being too hard or too soft on the staff was a reason for his departure, there was no answer forthcoming. When I asked what he considered his weakness as a manager, he said this:

“Let me ponder that. One obvious weakness was not seeing this coming. I need to be careful in what I say.”

I get that. When I contacted McCauley he was still looking for a new job. I knew he’d land one and he has.

What’s next?

Typically what happens in situations like this is a temporary manager is brought in who will have instructions to tighten up the ship. He likely will have little interest in the job long-term. This will give him additional freedom. The quality workers — and again, there are plenty of them at the county — will feel virtually nothing. The others will be in for a challenge.

• • •

Look, turnover at McCauley’s level is not unusual. Frankly if a top government manager has been in his job for longer than five to seven years, he’s probably not doing a very good job. In my very first reporter job in Punta Gorda, Fla. the city manager was about to get canned. When I asked him about it, he seemed calm and collected.

“No big deal,” he counseled me. “It’s not even a bad thing on my resume because it’s expected at this level.”

Fair enough. It’s time to move along. As for the M&M Boys? Don’t gloat too much. He outlasted you.


Lou Brancaccio is The Columbian’s editor emeritus. His column of personal opinion appears the first Saturday of every month. Reach him at lounews1@gmail.com.