I have worked in the office next to Marilyn Smith’s, our Public Information Officer, for nearly five years. Marilyn is smart, competent, and a good colleague. Last week, she came to my office to report an interesting message she had just received in her voice mail. The female caller left the simple accusation, “You ba*tards,” and hung up. I’ve censored the message in the interests of any children who might be reading my blogs and because I generally try to avoid the use of profanity. I confess an occasional reversion to my days as a sailor, despite my best efforts to reform.
I assume the caller did not mean to imply that all of us here at City Hall are illegitimate children, but she could have been referring to Webster’s second definition: “something that is spurious, irregular, inferior, or of questionable origin.” Most likely, our critic just wanted to let someone at City Hall know she is unhappy with us. The caller may have been surprised by Marilyn’s polite return call (the magic of caller ID) asking how we can be of help.
The frequency and intensity of criticism of public officials and employees seems to be increasing, probably in response to changing economic conditions and the national political climate following the last election. I’ve seen at least two letters to the editor in recent weeks suggesting I be fired or resign, and that’s two more than I’ve seen in my 22 years as a city manager.
I understand the anger and resentment people feel when their income is threatened or reduced while a visible public employee (me) still has a good-paying job. My salary appears on the front page of the newspaper, while the salaries of the other 90 percent of people who are employed are generally unknown. Columnist David Brooks recently reported the following information in a piece entitled, “Relax, We’ll Be Fine:”
“As Stephen J. Rose points out in his book “Rebound: Why America Will Emerge Stronger From the Financial Crisis,” when income is adjusted for family size, the percentage of prime-age American adults earning between $35,000 and $70,000 declined by 12 points between 1979 and 2007. But that’s largely because the percentage earning more than $105,000 increased by 14 points. Over the last 10 years, 60 percent of Americans made more than $100,000 in at least one of those years, and 40 percent had incomes that high for at least three.”
Effective city employees deliver critical services and receive compensation commensurate with their education, experience, and what others in similar positions make. The City of Albany competes against every other employer for honest, capable people to perform important work; and I believe the City has a good record of finding dedicated workers. We are often asked to do disagreeable tasks (arresting people; responding to horrible accidents; fixing a sewer leak; shutting off water service for nonpayment; collecting fines, to name a few). In general, I do not believe we are ba*tards. We care about the people we serve, and we want to do what’s best for the community. I think most of us even want to do our best for those who choose to express their anger through pointless epithets directed against us.