Life In A Fishbowl

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.

Going Marine

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.

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