Magistrate’s adversarial negotiating doesn’t benefit anyone

Published 4:13 pm Tuesday, February 19, 2019


The Advocate-Messenger

Magistrate Phil Sammons should consider some new strategies for negotiating and think about the words he uses when representing the citizens of Boyle County.

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Here’s one approach to negotiating favored by experts: Build a rapport with your counterparts first, so they’ll be open to what you have to say later.

Here’s another: Actively listen to the needs and wants of the other side.

Two more: Don’t make assumptions; and search for common ground.

Those are all basic strategies taught in almost any negotiating class. But when Boyle County’s magistrate from District 3 is at the table, they often get thrown out the window faster than you can say “mutually agreeable.”

Last week, Sammons and fellow Magistrate Tom Ellis were on-board with the idea of a deal that would transfer Boyle County’s half interest in Millennium Park to the City of Danville, in exchange for other property and a possible annual contribution from the county for park maintenance.

But this week, the working group that discussed the idea met again to review a document drafted by Danville City Attorney Stephen Dexter, who attempted to distill last week’s conversation into a recommendation the working group could take back to the city and county.

Sammons and Ellis were suddenly no longer fans of the idea; they behaved as if Danville was attempting to put one over on them. Sammons was especially upset.

“Surely to god you didn’t think we were going to say yes and agree to this?” Sammons asked Dexter, shortly before bringing Danville City Commissioner Kevin Caudill into the fray with him.

“You know what this would be called? It’d be called raping the county,” Sammons said of Dexter’s document.

“As opposed to raping the city, which is what Phil wants to do,” Caudill replied.

There was no good reason for Monday’s meeting to go the way it went and never a good reason to use harsh words that have such harmful connotations.

If Sammons felt Dexter’s draft didn’t represent what was previously discussed, he could have said so firmly but pleasantly and proposed modifications to make it right.

Instead, the whole thing was blown up and the working group went from being a hopeful sign of cooperation to just another failed attempt — in record time.

Sammons comments came across as sadly familiar.

In February of last year, Sammons was part of negotiations over how much Boyle and Mercer counties would pay for their jointly run jail. Mercer wanted to pay a smaller percentage of costs because its percentage of inmates at the jail had dropped.

Sammons response? Mercer ought to pay more. But he didn’t just state that position, he pepped it up with a generous helping of contempt.

“We really don’t need them, and we’d be better off without them. So, don’t start complaining and bitching about it being higher and so on,” Sammons said at the time. “They should be glad and keep their mouths shut.”

Someone could argue — but we certainly wouldn’t — that any negotiation tactic is acceptable if it works. Such a position ignores how valuable a friendly, positive working relationship with neighbors and allies can be in the long run. But it’s also a moot point in this case, because Sammons’ tactics didn’t work at all.

Boyle and Mercer counties eventually agreed to a new deal where Mercer gets to pay less of the jail costs than it did before.

Sammons’ insults only made the process longer and less friendly. He eventually walked them back, somewhat, when in May 2018, he said he really did want to be good neighbors with Mercer County.

“They’ve been with us 20 years; we want to continue the relationship, because evidently it’s good for both parties,” Sammons said at the time. “And if you have something that’s only good for one party, it’s not much of an agreement.”

That’s good advice for any negotiation; we hope Sammons — and all our elected leaders — take it.