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SHIRLEY LEUNG

Memo to the RMV: If it’s life-and-death, don’t go on vacation

The Houses of Parliament as seen from the London Eye
The Houses of Parliament as seen from the London Eye(Shutterstock)

Tom Bowes, Windsor Castle should have waited.

But instead, the Registry of Motor Vehicles bureaucrat took off for a vacation in England on June 26, the same day state officials found 53 bins of unopened warning notices about dangerous drivers who should have been off the road. Bowes oversees a unit responsible for making sure those out-of-state alerts get processed. If it had done its job, the RMV would have suspended the license of a West Springfield man before he allegedly drove a truck into a group of motorcyclists in New Hampshire, killing seven of them.

The more we learn about the RMV scandal, the more it’s becoming clear that Governor Charlie Baker and Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack, should have made Bowes stay on this side of the pond instead of taking a 10-day holiday.

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And as bad as the situation looked when Bowes left, it’s now apparent that the RMV’s deadly screw-up was even worse than we thought. The agency has discovered 72 boxes of overlooked violation notices dating to 2011, and has suspended the licenses of about 1,600 drivers for serious offenses they committed in other states such as drunken driving.

For other officials and executives planning some rest and recreation time, here’s a simple rule to follow: If a life-and-death situation involving work arises, don’t go on that trip or cut it short.

“No one is going to criticize a leader for coming home early to deal with a crisis,” observed Ray Howell, a longtime Boston PR consultant who was former governor Bill Weld’s press secretary. “There is no downside in coming back.”

Here’s another piece of advice for people in positions of great responsibility: “Job number one when your organization is in crisis — you don’t want to generate any more headlines,” said Ashley McCown, president of Solomon McCown & Co. who leads the crisis practice at the Boston communications firm.

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Well, I guess the RMV overlooked that memo, too.

The latest round of negative headlines started percolating on Monday, after lawmakers scrapped a hearing on RMV oversight because Bowes and another agency official were no-shows. Pollack later explained the Baker administration was reluctant to make witnesses available to legislators until an outside audit of the Registry was completed. The governor has put Pollack in charge of reviewing why the lapses occurred.

Some of you may ask: Why pick on Bowes? He’s just a run-of-the-mill bureaucrat. To which I reply: The guy wants to be elected the next mayor of Braintree. He’s seeking votes — and power — which makes him fair game for criticism.

A look through the annals of local history shows that other leaders have chosen to return when catastrophe struck.

In 2016, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh came home early from the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia after 7-year-old Kyrz Willis drowned while attending a city-run summer camp. Even Governor Mitt Romney — who always seemed to be out of state while pursuing his presidential ambitions — knew enough to interrupt his New Hampshire vacation in 2006 when concrete ceiling slabs fell from the Ted Williams Tunnel, resulting in the death of a Jamaica Plain woman.

And in 1991, Governor Weld was in Seattle for a National Governors Association meeting when Hurricane Bob hit Massachusetts, triggering a state of emergency. A half a million residents were without power or dealing with serious property damage. Weld rushed home via Army National Guard jet provided by the governor of Washington state.

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“He knew he had to go back, for sure,” Howell recalled. “A lot of politics is about symbolism.”

Of course, technology is so good these days that people can stay in touch wherever they may be. That’s what National Grid president Marcy Reed did in August 2011 when she went to Hawaii to celebrate her 25th wedding anniversary just as Tropical Storm Irene was brewing.

The next day, union workers were ordered to cancel their vacations as part of storm preparations. Only then did Reed decide to return, but it still took her a few days to get back to Boston because the storm disrupted air travel. Irene ended up being a doozy, knocking out power to close to half a million National Grid customers. State regulators later fined the utility for “systematic and fundamental failures” related to two storms in 2011, including Irene.

Did Reed make the right call? The fact that we’re still talking about her vacation years later is a “no.” She would have been better off postponing the entire trip.

In the private sector, companies should have a game plan in place long before a crisis happens, including guidelines governing when executives need to return when something goes wrong.

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Leo Vercollone, CEO and owner of VERC Enterprises, which operates 31 gas station and convenience stores in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, has rejiggered vacations when employees have fallen seriously ill, or he’s had to attend the wakes of relatives of his employees. Once, when a winter storm knocked out power for days to a handful of stores, he shortened a Florida getaway.

“If it relates to my employees or customers, I have to be around,” said Vercollone. “You have to gauge the severity. If it’s a serious situation, you need to be there.”

In the case of the RMV, Bowes should have canceled his vacation. Without reservation.


Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.