Experts say council faces challenges moving ahead

Sep. 25, 2013 @ 07:09 PM

How does High Point’s governing body move on from the ongoing turmoil surrounding the financial affairs of the mayor a council member?
An expert who works with organizations on how to deal with the fallout from scandals says it won’t be easy.
The most important attributes of leadership are “credibility, trust and predictability,” according to David Noer, who operates a Greensboro consulting firm that advises organizations on how to work more effectively as a team.
The financial problems of Mayor Bernita Sims have likely hampered her ability to lead the council, Noer said.
“Clearly, my experience with organizations, public and private, is that the personal problems of the leader always bleed over into their functioning within the organization,” said Noer, a retired Elon University business professor.
Sims is the subject of a state criminal investigation into her handling of a family member’s estate.
She has also faced scrutiny over unpaid state income taxes and a city utility-bill delinquency that went unpaid for several months.
Councilman Foster Douglas owes the city more than $32,000 stemming from the 2003 dismissal of a federal lawsuit he brought against High Point. He also owes more than $17,000 in unpaid federal and state income taxes.
Council members have called on both to resign, arguing that their issues have undermined public confidence in the city’s leadership and have called into question the credibility of the council as a whole.
Sims has said her issues are personal and have nothing to do with her work as mayor. She has vowed to stay on.
Noer said Sims’ problems at this point can’t be contained to her private life.
“It’s almost impossible to have that degree of personal issues not interfere with their credibility, their reputation and, more importantly, I think for a publicly elected official, it destroys teamwork,” he said. “Given the system you have where the mayor is one vote and it requires consensus and input, it destroys credibility and teamwork, so it’s very toxic.”
The public has proven to be forgiving of politicians under many circumstances, depending on how forthcoming an elected official is about their troubles, Noer said.
Neither Sims nor Douglas has offered much in the way of an explanation or apology for their issues, but what options might they have going forward when it comes to public relations?
Phil Watson, instructor of communication at High Point University, said the options for public figures who find themselves facing trouble range from denial to the approach employed by Paula Deen, which he described as “mortification, where you fall on the mercy of people and say, ‘It’s my fault.’”
Watson added, “There’s a communications theory called image repair that gives you five general categories of options when you can’t say ‘No comment’ once you decide which general direction to go in.”
No matter what happens, experts said as long as the controversy hangs over the council, it poses threats on a variety of fronts.
“If I were her coach, I would work really hard on getting her to get out of the public light for awhile until she solves her personal problems, if she’s not going to resign,” Noer said. “For those other council members who are opposing her, they may not be as committed to getting problems resolved, because every time you have a meeting or a session, you’ve got to deal with someone you don’t think should be there.”