Public Servants

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.

Ignorance is Bliss

I recently read a series of articles in The New York Times entitled “The Anosognosic’s Dilemma.”  The condition is so obscure even spell-check cannot handle anosognosia.  The word describes an affliction characterized by the sufferer’s inability to recognize his or her own disability.  An anosognosic who no longer had the use of an arm, for example, showed no awareness that the arm didn’t work and in some cases failed to acknowledge that the useless arm even belonged to him or her.

My fascination with these articles has something to do with a phenomenon I routinely observe in the course of my life and particularly in my work at City Hall.  What I frequently see and hear are opinions based not only on a lack of information, but on a failure to acknowledge that more accurate information could exist.  In other words, sometimes we are too incompetent to realize we’re incompetent and we aggravate the problems our ignorance creates by our refusal to accept our limitations.

We can’t, of course, spend our lives lamenting our lack of knowledge.  The author of the Times series points out the dangers of too much introspection in the following passage:

“I have to admit my fondness for the Dunning-Kruger Effect (non-clinical anosognosia).  But is it a metaphor for existence?  For the human condition?  That we’re all dumb and delusional?  So dumb and delusional that we can never grasp that fact?  It’s so profoundly depressing and disturbing.  Even sad.”

It would be appropriate to end my comments now, before confirming my delusions by arguing against them.  My reality, however, suggests we have to live with and make the best of our limitations or we would never get anything done.  We may be “dumb and delusional,” but the operative question is, “So what?”  We still have to eat, sleep, move about, and (I hope) be of some value to those around us.  Our challenge is not to arrive at some perfect state of understanding where we know everything.  I believe our obligation is to seek the best information we can and recognize that our conclusions have inherent weaknesses.  Humility, in other words, should probably accompany all our actions, but should not serve as an excuse for having no opinion or doing nothing of significance.

A few days ago, I was hurrying to a meeting and pulled out in front of another vehicle because I thought I saw its turn signal indicate the driver was going to turn in front of me.  The signal may have been on, but the car didn’t turn and I narrowly avoided a nasty accident.  I wouldn’t be surprised if the driver of the other car had some choice words for me that I probably deserved.  More than 40 years of driving has convinced me that all drivers make mistakes on occasion, and I have resolved to never say bad things or use expressive hand gestures to communicate my displeasure to someone who I think may have made a driving error.  What’s the difference between his/her honest mistake and my own in some other setting?

Asserting our own superiority over someone else may bring some momentary satisfaction until you realize it is the ultimate delusion.  We may have better information on a given subject at a given time, or we may even be right when someone else is wrong.  It’s only a matter of time and circumstance until our roles will be reversed.  I hope the next time I feel inclined to use an unflattering name to describe someone else, I can remember that the next moron I see could be in the mirror.