Cleaning up our own back yard

NOTE: The following represents the opinions of the author and do not reflect those of his employer or any other affiliations.

By Kenneth Hunter, Guest Blogger

Even though I spend a few minutes with my young daughter every day, I am more or less a weekend father. Saturday and Sunday mornings are usually for the two of us, spent often at one of several great parks located in Rocky Mount.

Our City commits significant resources to develop recreational facilities that benefit most, if not all, of their residents.  Some are newer than others, but the magnitude of our investments compared to other cities are size is pretty substantial, and inspiring.

Unfortunately, not everything is perfect, and not every park is treated with the same care. This is especially true on the matter of litter, more a result of visitor negligence than park staff laziness.  Regardless the culprit, discovering used popsicle sticks, food wrappers, bottle caps, and other assorted pieces of debris on a playground every Saturday or Sunday is not how I want to start a visit.

It does occur to me that the trash represents a loss of pride among residents in their public grounds. I also believe that this lack of pride is the result of something far worse, the loss of trust that many citizens have of their government, whether it be the federal, state, or local level.

Some of their distrust can be tied to factors beyond our control, from rhetoric and personal difficulties during a time of economic hardship, to misunderstandings on the role and purpose of government to begin with. However, we are practically, criminally negligent, not to mention delusional, if we do not accept personal responsibility for much of the negative opinion that citizens have today of the institutions that are supposed to serve them, primarily through the respect and protection of their individual freedom and liberty.

The federal operating deficit is nowhere near elimination anytime soon, the result of decades of political gamesmanship, social engineering initiatives, and fiscal alchemy. State and local governments are reeling less from recent economic downturns and more so from a chronic willingness to say “yes” to funding every whim and desire imaginable. Many of those initiatives, mind you, came from the mouths of bureaucrats, seeking to find solutions even if no one could identify the associated problem.

The private citizenry are low on wealth, low on patience, and low on trust for anything and anyone that has told them for years that they were “looking out” for their best interest.  Right now, they are doing their best to figure out how they contributed to the problem (perhaps looking too often to government, and not enough on themselves, to deal with certain public issues).

Most of us in public administration are not different than the citizens we serve. We want to do our best for others, as do they. Among our greatest faults, together, is our lack of focus on taking personal action to first correct the problems, or crises we face before recommending a response for others. We often fail to realize that true leadership starts with ourselves.

A couple weeks ago, I started taking a plastic bag and sanitary wipe with me to pick up the litter strewn about the playground and elsewhere. The wipe proves itself necessary when dealing with certain items (most disturbingly, soiled prophylactics).   By the end of our time kicking a soccer ball around and riding the swings and slides, I can fill a small bag pretty full with trash, dropping it off in a trash can near the park entrance before getting back in the car, off to another adventure.

Do I expect for there to be no trash there when we return the next week? Of course not. I don’t perform this act of courtesy with an anticipation that it will magically encourage others to change their behavior.  However, if I am not willing to personally take action to remedy the problem that exists, no other possibility realistically rectifies the situation more effectively, or immediately.

Recent events like the August 28th “Restoring Honor” rally in Washington, discounted in our own circles as little more than symbolic, should encourage us by the fact that those in attendance are prepared to accept the consequences of the short-sighted and unwise policies and programs they promoted in the past.

They are smart enough to know that our debt and spending crises cannot be cured with quick, painless fixes. They also expect, and deserve, to see their public servants (including us bureaucrats) accept responsibility for our disastrous actions of the past, promising to focus now on simply cleaning up the mess rather than cover it over with another tax-and-debt funded initiative.

We need to kneel before the citizens we serve, confess our own transgressions, and prove through action that we are prepared to repent in meaningful ways that will help our citizens grow and prosper as free individuals in the future. We must lead by example, and that means we must clean up the messes we are responsible for.  Not with ideas or programs mind you, but with our own, humbled hands.

ASPA Member Kenneth Hunter is an MPA Graduate of The University of Georgia with more than a decade of experience in local government finance. Kenneth is the Budget & Evaluation Manager for the City of Rocky Mount, North Carolina, and serves on the Executive Committee of the Association for Budgeting & Financial Management and is a Board Member and Webmaster for the North Carolina Local Government Budget Association.

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