Civil Servants are the best

I estimate that 98% of my work life was spent either in government or with a nonprofit so I think I know a thing or two about both kinds of organizations.  I have been thinking since the election in November that government workers, bureaucrats, civil servants and nonprofit organizations will be the ones to save our democracy.  The two actions that have gotten the most attention thus far are the State Department’s dissent memo with over 1000 signatures and the Alt National Parks websites.  And employees in other agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency and NASA are also acting by just doing their jobs and setting up alternate media sites through which they can release information.  So I was interested to come across this story expressing a similar point of view.

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One of our National Park Rangers.

I had just come home from Boston where I had picked up a print copy of the Globe and I started reading the Magazine and began laughing.  In his Perspective essay, Dear civil servants:  Keep it up.  No, really., Scott Helman begs the nation’s civil servants to keep doing their jobs.

Good day, Mr./Mrs./Ms. Servant.

I ask humbly: May I approach your coffee-splattered desk? I promise this won’t take long. It’s only the survival of the republic that we need to talk about. I’ll speak quietly. I can even sing my plea lite-rock style, so it blends in with the tunes from your clock radio. Better not to arouse your supervisor’s curiosity.

Let’s clear the air first. Listen, it’s true. For years you’ve been a punch line. Admit that sometimes you made it easy, with your interminable cigarette breaks, your surly manner, and your dawdling pace — unless there was only one glazed cruller left in the box.

Wait, wait, wait — come back! You’re right. Sorry. Really sorry. Old habits, you know?

Seriously, though: You, my friend, are the most important person in America right now. A nation turns its jittery eyes to you.

Helman continues

As the political churn reaches your cubicle, I ask of you this: Smile, nod — hell, bake a Bundt cake if you need to. And then: Continue on your merry way. Keep doing your thing.

Please continue producing non-biased, fact-based reports and stats on global warming, federal deficits, health care coverage, and whatever else comes across your desk. Go where the science or the numbers lead you, not where someone above you wants them to go.

Please speak up if you’re asked to do something unethical, and blow the whistle if you see something wrong.

Look, I know you can’t buck every political decision. Elections have consequences. I get that. Maybe you even welcome the change, unlike those cheeky chums from the national parks who started shadow Twitter accounts.

But this is bigger than politics or party. We need you to protect that bedrock as if our lives depend on it. Because they might. You are but a cog in a massive machine, yes. But the machine cannot run without you. Exercise your judgment and talent and authority wisely.

I know it can’t be easy.  When I was working in Virginia state government, the Governor appointed a new agency head who was not all that competent.  (I learned years later from him that much of what he did was at the direction of the Governor’s Office.)  At one point an employee moral survey was conducted, but the results were not released.  A couple of us got hold of the results and leaked them to the Washington Post.  To this day, I’m not sure any one except us leakers knew who the source was.  We knew we were taking a risk, but in the end, some changes were made, changes that impacted all State employees.  So I know that civil servants can act against the powers that be.  Helman ends with

One more thing. Don’t let anybody tell you that pushing back against a sinister agenda is somehow un-American. To the contrary. It’s the most American thing you can do.

 

Photograph:  Nick Adams / Reuters

Democracy at the local level

Last year I attended the reunion of the Class of 1970 at St. John’s College in Annapolis, MD.  (That was the class I actually graduated with even though I am technically 1969.)  Our seminar reading was Democracy in America by de Tocqueville.  A lively discussion ensued one topic being whether the de Tocqueville vision of what we in the 1960s called participatory democracy still survives.  I argued that I thought it did survive at least in New England and particularly in Vermont.  For example, Brattleboro where I live, has citizen committees for everything from planning to finance to trees.  And, yes, while there are sometimes problems in finding sufficient people to serve, I believe committees eventually find volunteers.  Some committees are appointed by the elected Selectboard, while others are appointed at Town Meeting.

Every town in Vermont has town meeting on the first Tuesday of March.  Most towns have an open meeting with all town residents.  Budgets are approved and important issues are discussed and voted on.  These are de Tocqueville’s farmers conducting business.  Here is the link to a nice explanation done for middle school students.  Brattleboro is a little different.  On the first Tuesday, which is a holiday, we vote for people who will represent us at town meeting as well as for other local offices like Select Board, School Board, Lister, and Constable.  All the elected representatives meet several weeks later at Brattleboro’s Town meeting.

I decided to run for Town Meeting Representative, got 14 people (you need 10) to sign my nominating petition and got elected with a respectable number of votes.  Town Meeting this year was divided into two meetings.  The first was on a single question of authorizing the Selectboard to take money allocated for renovations at the current police station and, instead, purchase a building in a new location and move the police station.  I voted “no” because I was opposed to moving an essential government service out of downtown, and we lost big.  There is some move to do a town wide referendum on the question, but I don’t know if that will succeed.  My feeling is that my side lost and we just need to get on with it for the sake of the police officers.

The second meeting was yesterday and was a more traditional town meeting.  We arrived at 8:30 and adjourned about 4:30 with an hour for lunch.  (Unlike smaller towns, we have no pot luck, but a high school club sold us stuff for breakfast and lunch to raise money for a trip to Costa Rico.)  There were 30 articles on the agenda beginning with appointment of the Town Clerk (no controversy there) and accepting the audit reports for the Town and for the Town Schools.  We elected people to the Capital Grant Review, Library, and Finance Committees (I got on that one.)  And then a motion was made to raise the compensation of the Selectboard members. They currently get $3,000 a year with the Chair getting $5,000.  Interesting questions were asked during the discussion including whether increasing the compensation would attract people to run who could not afford to volunteer and whether paying the Selectboard more would change the character of the government from volunteer to professional.  The motion that finally passed was to have the Finance Committee study the matter.  I can see what I will be doing this year!  Interestingly we did decide to raise the Town School Board member pay from $2,000 to $3,000 and the chair from $3,000 to $5,000 to make them the same as the Selectboard.

We voted for modest sums to support a variety of local human service non profits and for tax relief for others.  I don’t think any of those votes were unanimous.  And we approved after much discussion, the town budget and school budgets for the next year.  I am more familiar with general government budgets than with school ones, but the town budget is very lean.

Finally we passed two non-binding resolutions:  First, to eliminate fees for activities at the Senior Center and second, to designate the second Monday in October, Indigenous People’s Day.

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All in all a very interesting day.  I heard a lot of concern about poverty in Brattleboro.  I think the number of children who qualify for free lunch – 62% – shocked a lot of people.  (According to the 2010 Census, the median income for a household in the town was $31,997, and the median income for a family was $44,267.)  I can see this becoming more of a topic for discussion at future town meetings.

We heard a plea for civility at the start and other than some mutterings and calls for points of order when one representative in particular spoke, that request was answered.  I think that if he attended any of the town meetings I’ve read about in the local paper for have friends who attended, de Tocqueville would have no trouble recognizing his democracy in America.

Photograph:  Chris Mayes, Brattleboro Reformer.