An Enemy of the People

Henrik Ibsen’s play, An Enemy of the People, tells the story of a doctor who finds out that his community’s principal tourism attraction, natural mineral baths, are contaminated and need to be closed to public use.  The doctor informs the town of his findings and is branded as a traitor to the community.  I saw this play for the first time as a community college student more than 35 years ago, and I have seen its central theme replayed by local governments many times in my career as a city manager.  The following excerpt from Wikipedia describes the play’s plot:

“Dr. Thomas Stockmann is a popular citizen of a small coastal town in Norway.  The town has recently invested a large amount of public and private money towards the development of baths, a project led by Dr. Stockmann and his brother, Peter Stockmann, the Mayor.  The town is expecting a surge in tourism and prosperity from the new baths, said to be of great medicinal value, and as such, the baths are a source of great local pride.  However, just as the baths are proving successful, Dr. Stockmann discovers that waste products from the town’s tannery are contaminating the waters, causing serious illness amongst the tourists.  He expects this important discovery to be his greatest achievement, and promptly sends a detailed report to the Mayor, which includes a proposed solution which would come at a considerable cost to the town.

To his surprise, Dr. Stockmann finds it difficult to get through to the authorities.  They seem unable to appreciate the seriousness of the issue and unwilling to publicly acknowledge and address the problem because it could mean financial ruin for the town.  As the conflict develops, the Mayor warns his brother that he should “acquiesce in subordinating himself to the community.”  Dr. Stockmann refuses to accept this, and holds a town meeting at Captain Horster’s house in order to persuade people that the baths must be closed.

The townspeople – eagerly anticipating the prosperity that the baths will bring – refuse to accept Dr. Stockmann’s claims, and his friends and allies, who had explicitly given support for his campaign, turn against him en masse.  He is taunted and denounced as a lunatic, an “Enemy of the People.”

Public officials are often put in the position of needing to take unpopular actions to protect important interests that may not be widely supported or understood.  Rate increases, property use restrictions, and our dangerous dog ordinance are three current examples where Albany’s City Council has been put in the position of supporting actions many local residents vocally oppose.  The path of least resistance would be to respond to the loudest voices and do what seems most popular at a given moment.  I have come to appreciate the courage of people, who are essentially volunteers, to do what they believe is right based on the best evidence available to them.  I think we should all be grateful for citizens willing to take on this often difficult role.

Service on a City Council includes an obligation to study materials and facts that most people in a community never see.  Wading through a 500-page budget or understanding the implications of a transportation system plan requires a level of effort most people are not willing to invest.  If councilors do not have the strength of character to make decisions based on understanding acquired from hard work, the community will ultimately suffer.  The mayor in the play described above was willing to sacrifice human health for some short-term financial gain and popular support.  Albany’s Council has been willing to take the heat for following the law and doing what’s best for the town.  It’s an honor to work for people like that.