Editor’s Note: This column, “LBWA” (Leadership By Wandering Around), is based on the premise that, in order to find out what’s going on in the field, a parks and rec leader has to leave his or her desk and “wander around” the area of operations, talk to people, ask questions, and kick around ideas with the individuals in the thick of delivering services to the public. So the author will bring up issues and ask the leaders among the readership to share their knowledge and experiences.
I’ve come to discover that an occupation as a municipal public administrator is the consummate definition of “life in a fishbowl.”
This realization hit me full in the face recently while my wife and I were having a hurried meal at a local restaurant prior to attending a high-school band parents meeting. We were having a nice time, talking, eating, listening to a reasonably talented man play guitar and sing “Georgia On My Mind” and other great songs.
Then an acquaintance of ours saw us and–not satisfied or discreet enough to just wave and say “hi”–came to stand over us at our table as we ate. She began asking me pithy (and I’m being polite here) questions about the city’s decisions on budget issues and other recent politically charged items. I politely answered her questions until she made a comment about our library, of which I am director, in addition to recreation. Her comment caused me to, as my wife describes it, “Go Marine on her.” My memory of it is a bit faded … could be delayed PTSD, who knows.
At any rate, when she suggested that we turn our library over to the county and save $1 million a year, I snapped. I stopped mid-bite, put my nacho-grande-ladened fork down, and gave her a stare that knocked her back a step.
“That is absolutely the narrowest opinion I’ve heard today,” I retorted. “In that one sentence, you have just disregarded the needs of thousands of your fellow citizens who rely on our library for early literacy and child development, career enhancement and workforce development, self-improvement, small-business support, cultural opportunities and much, much more.” I may have said this in a slightly elevated tone … yes, I definitely recall that my voice was elevated.
I further pointed out that if ever again she chose to interrupt my limited and valuable time with my better half, she should at least take time to research what she was saying and base it on some level of fact, not just her myopic opinion. She was slowly backing away as I spoke, and she just faded into the crowd.
The Men From The Fish
She did send an e-mail of apology to my wife and me the next day, and I took the opportunity in my response to educate her, in significant detail, on exactly what our city-funded library does for her home value and quality of life and those of her 36,000 neighbors.
But this incident made me realize, again, that as public administrators, we must continually tell citizens what their tax dollars are paying for, and why it is important. This often gets lost in the political rhetoric, especially in the “leisure services” fields, and especially now when budgets are tight and people are espousing the value of only “essential services,” a.k.a. public safety and public services. I’ve had people tell me government isn’t obligated to provide anything but “essential services,” and all other activities should be provided by the private sector or not be available at all.
This is short-sighted, in my opinion. When our society left the agrarian life at the turn of the last century and began urban dwelling, essential services were most important. In my view, “leisure services” is an essential part of modern life.
It upsets me when the first reaction to troubled times is a wholesale butchering of an entire segment of modern life. Many of us would not be who we are if we hadn’t had the benefit of recreational programs and activities, special events and library resources when we were growing up. This again leads me to the necessity of constantly educating the public, in good times and bad, on the importance of these services.
Here was a woman ready to throw the baby out with the bathwater before she even realized what she was talking about. As I pointed out in my e-mail, for less than $75 per year, she and her fellow citizens had access to millions of dollars worth of technology, information, materials and other resources … free.
In fiscal year 2008, for every dollar spent on our library services, residents received $7 worth of services/materials. In FY08, the library checked out over $6.7 million worth of materials to local residents, based on actual value of the items, or approximately $574 per household. And that’s not even counting free access to the Internet on 21 public computers. And we’ve become busier since then.
Don’t Be Shy
But I digress. I started to talk about the fishbowl in which we public administrators must accept life. It goes with the territory. When one works at the state or federal level, one doesn’t often see the impact of one’s actions. But at the local level we know our customers personally. Our kids go to school together, we go to church together, and we see each other on the street and at ball games … and at the library. There are going to be questions, and no matter what department we work in, we will be seen as representatives of the administration.
I think every opportunity must be taken to educate the people we serve, whether it’s one at a time, in small groups or across whole segments via the media. We really need to be armed with information, statistics and facts about our services that people generally wouldn’t think about, so if someone offers the opportunity, we can be ready.
I’m considering little cue cards that each of my staff can carry, just in case. Or maybe a fact card that we can just hand people when they start asking questions. Hey, we could be on to something here.I haven’t received a response yet from our friend after I returned her e-mail. In the end I suggested that she consider volunteering a few hours each week at the library so she can obtain a first-hand, ground-level view of exactly what she receives for her tax dollars. I’ll be interested to see if she takes me up on it.
Randy Gaddo, a retired Marine, is Director of Leisure Services (parks, recreation, library) in Peachtree City, Ga. Contact him at (770) 631-2542 or e-mail email@example.com