The Rule of Law

Last night, I was proofreading a paper my son is writing about the Williamite War.  I’m not sure I ever knew about this somewhat obscure conflict in the mid-17th Century before reading my son’s work.  The facts of the war aren’t particularly important today, but there are lessons to be learned from it.

I’ve spent the past week sitting in a courtroom where a judge will ultimately settle a dispute between the City and a former employee that has dragged on for more than four years.  Allegations have gone back and forth, and there are passionate feelings on both sides of many of the issues presented in the case.  I think it’s fair to say that the stakes are high for the parties to this dispute.

As difficult as this experience has been, I am grateful for the process that allows it to be settled without violence.  I do not like the expense or the possibility that what I believe to be right may not prevail, but I have some experience with how disagreements are settled in places where the rule of law does not exist.  I wrote the following column about a young lawyer when I was working in Iraq:

I will be leaving Iraq next week after nearly seven months of living and working in Karbala.  It has been a great experience, but I am more than ready to come home to my wife, family, friends, and life as a small town city manager.  I will also be glad to return to a place where a measure of certainty is not a casualty of despotism and war.

It will come as no surprise to hear that life in Iraq is very uncertain at the moment.  Violence is frequent and unpredictable.  Essential services may be fine one day and nonexistent the next.  Wild rumors circulate through the city, and regional news media run stories that are complete fiction.  The truth here is often a victim of illiteracy, ignorance, and willful deceit.

Newly discovered freedom of expression is beginning to make a difference as people discuss issues like democracy, elections, religion, and women’s rights.  This freedom can also be dangerous.  Fern Holland, a young attorney from Oklahoma who worked closely with our office, was recently assassinated with two colleagues near Karbala.  It appears she was killed by religious extremists unprepared to accept her work promoting the rights of women.  Fern was the driving force in opening the Karbala Women’s Center, completed only a few weeks ago.  She is pictured below with women celebrating that event.

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President Franklin Roosevelt once observed that, “The truth is found when men are free to pursue it.”  Fern’s life dictates that the truth is found when men and women are free to pursue it.

As saddened as I am by the tragedies taking place in Iraq nearly every day, I remain stubbornly optimistic about the future of this country.  My optimism comes from seeing children walking to and from school and students assembling at the local university.  Women are working and training together at the new women’s center despite the threat to their safety.   Tomorrow, I will hand out certificates to government workers who have completed a basic computer training course.  The event will be endowed with great importance by local officials and will involve a formal presentation of gifts to the teachers.  A good friend and colleague is in Cairo today where he and 19 employees of the Karbala water and wastewater departments are receiving advanced training in financial management.  Education will change things here, and I think most Iraqis realize that.  What many do not realize at the moment is that the essential contribution of education to this society will be what Roosevelt called “the art of human cooperation.”  Iraq has made me appreciate how fragile this art can be and how difficult it can be to repair.

This final column from Iraq gives me an opportunity to recognize the importance of interdependence in my life and in my experiences here.  My life has been in the hands of others since I arrived, and my spirit would never have survived without the support of family and friends at home.  My Iraqi colleagues demonstrate the truth of human cooperation to me every day.  It is battered at the moment, but I am confident it will survive to produce a country that I will safely visit with my wife and grandchildren before long.  We will be indebted to those who have given their lives to make it possible.

The Willliamite War, the Iraq War, and my week or so in a courtroom may not seem to have much in common.  The thread that binds them together is the lesson that, for all its imperfections, we should be thankful for the rule of law and the people who make it work.  I would like to dedicate this posting to Fern Holland, with the hope that her legacy of courage and sacrifice will not be forgotten.

A Painful Subject

I have been involuntarily laid off from jobs twice in my life.  Both layoffs came at times when I had a young family to support and when new jobs were hard to find.  I haven’t forgotten how difficult those days were or my feelings during that time.

Yesterday, I ran into a former City of Albany employee who was laid off about a year and a half ago.  She seems to be doing well, and we had a pleasant conversation; but I left the encounter with some of the same feelings I had from my own experience in the early 1980s.  Work is such an important part of our lives that anything suggesting we are no longer of value at the places where we are employed can be devastating.

A friend and I were recently talking about a former colleague who, after retiring as a city manager, started spending most of his time in his garage drinking hard liquor straight.  Everything we knew about our colleague prior to retirement was positive.  He was highly regarded in his community, had a long record of achievement in two careers, and seemed to enjoy a good family life.  He died a few weeks ago, and my friend observed that his work was so much a part of his life that he no longer felt of value after he retired.

I understand that feeling, although I learned some valuable lessons from my own experiences.  My worth as a person has much more to do with the present and future than it does with the past.  As long as I am able to be of service to others, regardless of how much money I make or the title I have, I can be of value.  My grandchildren remind me of this nearly every day, just as my children did soon after I was laid off in 1982.  I spent nine months as a babysitter that year, and I regard that period as one of the most challenging and rewarding times in my life.

My chance meeting with our former employee was a good reminder that many, if not most, of us overcome the challenges of a job loss or retirement.  Our worth is not dependent on what we get paid to do and what should be most important to us isn’t either.

More than 50 City employees are currently eligible to retire, and many more will become eligible in the next few years.  We have had a limited number of layoffs, and I am hopeful that we will not need to make additional cuts in the coming budget process.  Regardless, whether retirement or an involuntary job loss, the quality of our future will not be determined by someone else’s choices.  The examples of our former employee and my city manager colleague are an inspiration and a warning.