Last week, a city manager in California attracted national attention when a story in the Los Angeles Times revealed he was making nearly $800,000 a year while working for a small city in the L.A. area. Lest anyone think the manager was greedy and selfish, the Times also reported that the deputy manager was making around $375,000, the police chief $475,000, and at least some of the councilors about $100,000 apiece for part-time work. The high-priced employees have all resigned, and the councilors are being threatened with a recall election if they don’t step down voluntarily. Many people who have seen this story will keep it in mind when they hear the term “public servant” used to describe a government official.
I have never considered working for government to be charity, but I do view it as a form of service that requires ethical behavior and basic competence at a minimum. The role models I have tried to follow were and are people who made the choice to work for government for a variety of complex reasons that usually involved a sense of obligation to their family, community, and their country.
My father began his career as a public servant soon after the outbreak of World War II, when he joined the Navy and began a 22-year career that included service as an officer during two wars. He never talked much about his wartime experiences; but he was separated from his family for more than a year during Korea, and he participated in one of the largest sea battles of WWII as the skipper of an LST (landing ship tank). Following his retirement from the Navy, my father returned to his native Oregon and spent the remainder of his working life as a state parole and probation officer. He was, according those he worked for and with and from everything I saw, a highly ethical and competent public servant.
I met Clay Shepard as a freshman at Central Oregon Community College in Bend, where he served as a speech professor and the coach of the debate team. Some years after I transferred to the University of Oregon, Clay was elected to the Bend City Council and, subsequently, the Deschutes County Commission. Like my father, he never earned a large salary during a career in public service; but he supported his family and made a positive difference in his community.
Ruth Burleigh was the mother of a close friend of mine in high school, and she also served as the mayor of Bend. She is a thoughtful, intelligent, and kind woman whose leadership qualities were recognized when she served as the president of the League of Oregon Cities. Ruth is far from wealthy, and her public service cost her more financially than she ever made.
Locally, people like former mayors Chuck McLaran and Doug Killin plus our current Mayor and Council are great examples of public servants whose principal reward for their service is the gratification of doing something for the benefit of others. City Councilors make about $150 a month for the privilege of serving on the Council.
My personal list of true public servants is much too long to offer in this forum. I have worked with countless great people while in the Navy and throughout my career as a city manager. I believe the proportion of good, honest people is probably about the same in government as it is in the private sector. Sadly, we are too often judged by the behavior of the worst few instead of the good example of the large majority.