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A Failure to Communicate

The signature line from the 1967 film, Cool Hand Luke, is when the prison warden (Strother Martin) looks at prisoner Luke Jackson (Paul Newman) and intones, "What we have here is a failure to communicate."

That line went through my head several dozen times as I sat through the Milford Board of Selectmen's January 25 meeting, at which a public performance review of Town Administrator Richard Villani was conducted.

Anyone who's studied basic communication theory – or basic electronics, for that matter, will tell you that communication only occurs when a sender transmits a message and the receiver indicates that he or she has received it. Clarifying messages should follow to make sure that the receiver understood the sender's intent.

If you've ever listened to public safety departments on a scanner, you'll note that every communication is repeated by each party. That's to make sure everyone is on the same page in what could be a life-or-death situation.

People receiving messages can filter them though their own experiences. It may sound weird, but if a person who looks like your Aunt Millie says something at a public meeting – and you detest your Aunt Millie – your subconscious brain can make you discount whatever that person says.

Now, take basic communication theory up a notch. You now have three senders (the Board of Selectmen) and one receiver (the Town Administrator). I'm not a math expert, but that combination means there are many, many chances for a message to be misunderstood.

Let's throw in an additional complication. For years, the senders were used to communicating with another person (the former town administrator Louis Celozzi) and he with them. The expectations of how that communication process worked could get carried over to the new person, who may not know what they are.

And, of course, we have one last factor. While the three senders have each communicated privately with the receiver, they have never sat together with him as one group to determine whether their back-and-forth communications are achieving the desired result.

That's how the January 25 meeting came about. In the absence of a mutually agreed upon set of goals and expectations among the four people involved, there was bound to be missed expectations and mis-communication.

Anyone working in a salaried job in the private sector probably wondered what the heck was going on. "You don't review people?" But, in municipal government, most employees – especially those with contracts – get a raise every year, no matter how good or bad they perform.

With two of three selectmen working under the annual review process, it's no wonder that a clash of cultures occurred. To quote from Cool Hand Luke again, there was "a failure to communicate" in ways that were mutually understood.

On a different topic, it's hard for someone who grew up in an area with public transportation to comprehend people's reluctance to embrace it. It's pretty normal everywhere that has busses or trolleys to walk a half mile or a mile to a bus stop and use public transportation.

The proposed $250,000 cost to the town for a public bus system would be just 0.0025 percent of the town's oft-cited $100 million budget.


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