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Lessons Learned from Failing to be Aggressive That Would Have Avoided Tuesday's Commission Disaster

One commissioner would have benefited from listening to hockey legend Wayne Gretzky who once said that you miss 100% of the shots that you don’t take.


A player might fall short of achieving their full potential, which in turn could cost the team some success and through a ripple effect have a detrimental impact on the hundreds of thousands, potentially millions, of fans of the team. So too did this one commissioner’s never-taken shot now leave a lasting effect on the direction of the county for all its residents.

Sometimes being a little selfish isn’t always about you. That contradiction isn’t as eloquent as Gretzky’s analogy but it is easily explained in philosophy.


Tuesday’s podcast talked a bit about the grand theory of utilitarianism, which to dilute to a few words feels criminally simplistic, but essentially states that any action is justified as long as the greater good benefits. The ends always justify the means. The desired ends in this case would have been avoiding Tuesday’s disaster of a commission meeting. The means would have been to skip Chairman Ron Kitchen from the rotation.


Many other sources who I’ve been critical of lately including Mike Wright and the Chronicle both did an outstanding job of summarizing exactly what happened. In a simple sentence, Chairman Kitchen was able to contort the truth and leverage the chairman’s ability to dictate the flow of discussion toward allowing candidates for commission, only one of whom will actually win the seat, to participate in voting on choosing the short list for the next administrator on equal footing as the elected commissioners.


The only person in the room with whom this would make any sense to include, Commissioner-elect Rebecca Bays, was rightfully incredulous at the absurdity of the proposal and abstained. She was subsequently berated by the chairman for doing so.


There are few black marks on the board’s public record. The New York Times disaster is one. The previous commission tried to paint their decision as being about fiscal responsibility rather than political retribution except for the fact that the less financially prudent option was ultimately chosen.


Tuesday is by far the darkest of the black marks against the commission so far however. Since much has been written about what happened, let’s instead focus on how this is a product of what didn’t happen - a shot not taken.


A little less than a year ago, Commissioner Jeff Kinnard had a choice to make. The final decision would be his but the original proposition was not. Commissioner Holly Davis had boldly put forth the idea to rearrange the order of succession to the chairmanship to exclude Commissioner Kitchen and instead put forth Dr. Kinnard.


This wasn’t a novel approach, even from the time that Commissioner Kinnard had been on the board. The commission purposefully left fellow Commissioner Jimmie T. Smith out of the rotation after he was perceived as supporting now-Commissioner Ruthie Schlabach against Kitchen in the 2018 run. Ms. Schlabach won the seat in 2020.


In his own words, Commissioner Kinnard said at the time, “I think there’s a lot of friction that’s been created there.” A follow up piece written days later showed a little more insight into his thought process.


“You can see the back and forth correcting each other [Kitchen and Smith]. If it got personal I would intervene,” Even before he assumed the chairmanship, Commissioner Kitchen often made discussions personal.


The worst kicker was Dr. Kinnard’s final quote, “They’re both elected commissioners. As long as they handle their discussion respectively [sic] towards each other, I’m going to let them have their discussion.”


Assuming that respectively was meant to be “respectfully” and was either a slip up in word choice or a Chronicle error, it is clear from the constant passive-aggressive comments, the interruptions and the condescension that respect had left the board before Commissioner Kitchen ascended back to the chairmanship.


All of these quotes are perfectly reasonable explanations for taking the drastic action of leadership exclusion. The question is why they weren’t applied consistently.

The purpose of this piece isn’t to blame Dr. Kinnard. If he had voted against Commissioner Kitchen, he would have held his decision against the impossible standard of what-if rather than this clear distinction with the benefit of hindsight.


But this is a learning experience. Aggressive action can feel selfish but the shot is still worth taking. The good news is that some on the board do understand that. My only hope is that they don’t get discouraged when the shots miss from continuing to take them. Superstars have a short memory. Gretzky did and we now call him the Great One.


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