After three-decades in local government, when asked, the most relevant experience I pass along to newly elected or appointed officials is that all people really want is to be heard.
To know that someone in a position to something is listening to their concerns.
A sense that their role in our democratic system is not merely to pay the bills and suffer in silence.
For a brief period in my career, I was tapped to serve as interim City Manager – keeping a hand on the tiller until a permanent replacement could be found – and beginning the extensive process of cleaning up the mess left by the previous executive.
I hated every minute of it. . .
For me, the best part of the job came each morning when I welcomed citizens into the office and listened to their concerns over coffee.
Most days began speaking with residents, learning about their lives, discussing concerns, sorting out utility bills, explaining public policy and ordinances, and running down answers to questions about service delivery issues.
On occasion I was forced to don my asbestos boxer shorts and fade the withering criticism offered by angry constituents. It is during those difficult interactions when you grow some hard bark – learn to admit mistakes – and use even unwarranted critiques as an opportunity for individual and organizational growth.
Because the other option is to erect a firewall and begin ostracizing the very people the government exists to serve.
This personal interaction with citizens provided a fascinating window into how those we served perceived the issues and our response – how deeply the decisions of local policymakers affect the lives and livelihoods of a diverse constituency – and how quickly a bureaucracy can dissolve into a circle-the-wagons mindset when it feels threatened.
I never forgot that.
Despite what some in local government have come to believe, I don’t write these blogposts to make six-figure senior bureaucrat’s cry. In fact, from personal experience, I understand better than most the extreme internal and external pressures that come with public service and the divisive “Us vs. Them” mentality that can result.
Last week, during the regular Volusia County Council meeting, a long-time senior executive retired with glowing accolades from council members and administrators who acknowledged his service and contributions.
During comments, Councilman Ben Johnson – who has spent most of his life in public service – decried the “unwarranted, unnecessary, out-of-line criticism,” that government officials are often (rightly or wrongly) subjected to.
Frankly, my heart sank.
In my view, our democratic processes work best when vigorous political discussion produces a variety of views and opinions – which is why the United States Constitution places such emphasis on protecting our inalienable right to free speech – allowing the competition of ideas to elevate the best solutions, resulting in informed and inclusive public policy.
For far too long Volusia County taxpayers have been told by their elected representatives that their thoughts on the issues are wrong – or that we lack the capacity to understand the intricacies of things like impact fees, government spending, and the inevitability of tax increases.
Over time, the gilded Tower of Power in DeLand has become an echo chamber – an impervious dome where no one dares question the status quo or break from the lockstep conformity that ensures the “go-along/get-along” homogeneity that crushes independent thought, innovation, and ingenuity.
Any seasoned bureaucrat will tell you that is safety in groupthink – the avoidance of individual responsibility – even when the resultant stagnation dissolves into the utter dysfunction and internecine conflict that continues to hamstring substantive progress.
As Teddy Roosevelt reminded us, it is not the critic who counts – those who, “…point out how the strongman stumbled, or the doer of deeds could have done them better…” (although I take a perverse pleasure in doing just that) – but smart elected and appointed officials understand that harsh criticism can be an effective barometer of how their constituency views current politics and policies.
Unfortunately, silence can reinforce that sense of bureaucratic invincibility that pervades the halls of power. . .
The goal of my disjointed screeds is to stimulate a larger discussion of the issues by voicing an independent (if contrarian) view – and exposing the absurdity of policymakers and senior executives who succumb to that overweening sense of infallibility – the aloof arrogance of power that builds an impenetrable barrier between them and those they were elected or appointed to serve.
The fact is, we live in a time when elected officials sit stone-faced on their gilded perch – gazing down on their subjects, placing stringent limitations on the public’s right to participate in their government – hiding behind “civility and decorum ordinances” while obstinately refusing to communicate, answer questions, explain decisions, or listen to the fervent pleas of those they serve.
Then, whenever a frustrated constituent reaches out to their elected representative to seek answers or assistance – they are often met with a terse response that their concerns will be “forwarded to staff” – who invariably follow-up with a canned reply explaining how (enter service delivery issue here) is the taxpayer’s own damn fault for seeking fiscal responsibility and spending cuts during the budget cycle.
It seems the only time these monotonous marionettes break character is when they are groveling for our vote (or a campaign contribution) during the election cycle – or whenever one of their uber-wealthy political benefactors enter the chamber – their mere presence signaling the outcome as their obsequious hirelings preen and posture to the delight of their well-heeled masters.
This outsized influence has been an entrenched part of Volusia County politics for decades, and I am always amused by the faux shock and pearl-clutching that ensues whenever ‘big money interests’ are exposed seeking a political return on their sizeable investment.
As a result, John & Jane Q. Public no longer seem willing to take time off from work and attend daytime Volusia County Council meetings, voice their opinions, or participate in their government – especially in an atmosphere where those stodgy members of the Old Guard have made it clear that even constructive criticism is unwarranted, unnecessary, and out-of-line.
Please consider the issue of accessibility and transparency in government during next year’s election cycle.
In my view, it is time for a culture change at the Thomas C. Kelly Administration Center – and We, The Little People, deserve a voice.
Please join Barker’s View on GovStuff Live! with Big John this afternoon beginning at 4:00pm!
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Thanks for furthering the discussion!