Monday, April 15, 2019

The Contrarian Administrator's Tips for European Travel

I have done a fair bit of traveling, but only recently reached Europe.  The extent of my preparation consisted of watching some Rick Steves’ videos and packing clothes I thought would work for climates from Panama to winter in Germany (and accidentally, Iceland).  Here are some thoughts in no particular order.

1.  Pack light.  I think Rick Steves is right about packing light.  I fit everything for a six weeks (and wildly different climates) into a carry-on bag, the kind with wheels.  I am of an age (and size) where a backpack looks silly.  Yes, Europe has cobblestone streets and walkways, but the wheels of my Eagle Creek Tarmac held up well.

2.  Dressy over casual.  Yes, I packed walking shorts.  Panama is too close to the equator—even in dry season—to wear long pants.  In retrospect, however, I should have packed a travel blazer, a pair of pants not “cargo” in design, and a couple of dressier shirts.  No matter what I wear, I’ll inevitably look like a tourist but more upscale clothes in muted colors would blend a bit better.

3.  Expect laundry.  Living out of a small carry-on means doing laundry.  This is inconvenient, but I prefer it to hauling a large bag.  The European laundromats we used were slightly larger than a walk-in closet.  Slightly.  And some run on a central computer (rather than the ubiquitous American coin-operated models).  Sure, some hotels have laundry service... if you want to pay as much to have the garment washed as it did to buy.  Personally, I think laundromats are interesting places, a small window on a culture.

4.  Expect small.  We expected things to be more compact on the Continent.  I wasn’t prepared for how much smaller.  Narrower streets.  Tiny cars.  Compact elevators (or slender stairs).  Small hotel rooms with smaller bathrooms.  I could write an essay on the mysteries of European plumbing, but I digress.  Prepare for less elbow room, personal space, and space in general.

5.  Speak some of the native tongue.  Travel is much easier if you have some proficiency in the native language(s).  It’s not just interacting with locals.  It’s reading maps, bus signs, train schedules, hotel information, etc.  Travel is simply easier if one can communicate, particularly since some of the people you meet won't speak English.

6.  Travel by train (with caveats).  We bought Eurail passes because we wanted an open, flexible itinerary.  Our particular passes (30-day continuous) were not cheap but we’ve used them extensively.  Largely by chance, we found a deal “Get first class for the price of second class.”  With all due respect to Rick Steves’, first class is worth it.  Totally.  There’s more space, more amenities, and it is quieter.

Now for the caveats.  Do more research than we did (almost none).  Know that many trains require reservations.  And the process for getting reservations can be tricky.  Every national rail operator seems to have its own system (and app).  With Portugal, Spain, France, Switzerland, Austria, and Germany under our belt, I give the nod to Germany’s app.  The Eurail app has a handy trip planner but sometimes it calculates the long way around rather than using metro connections.  Travel within a country is easier.  Crossing borders can take more planning.

7.  Don’t count on connectivity.  Hotel Wi-Fi can be hit or miss, even in high-end properties.  We probably should have bought a “burner phone” set up for Europe, but we decided to try our TMobile iPhones with the promise of unlimited talk and text in over 200 countries.  Fine print, TMobile gives you 2G coverage.  Since the tech world is abuzz about 5G, you can imagine how modern web pages load with 2G bandwidth.  We have managed (and thank goodness for the Wi-Fi provided by the high speed trains), but forewarned is forearmed.

8.  Bring a long charging cord.  Presumably, you already know about adaptors.  And that the Swiss outlet is just different enough from the balance of Europe to require its own adaptor.  Thankfully, many of the trains have outlets for charging enroute.  The location of outlets in hotel rooms, however, can be interesting.  Get a long cord.  You won't notice the slight addition in weight, but you will appreciate the convenience.

9.  Download movies or TV shows in the U.S.  I'm not cosmopolitan enough to understand why downloading a U.S. movie with a U.S. Netflix or Amazon Prime account isn't possible in the EU.  Had I known, I would have downloaded enough entertainment to sustain me through the occasional evening or train ride.

10.  Beware foreign ATM fees.  Ouch.  I used my local bank--that shall remain nameless to make cash withdrawals.  The fees were ridiculous.  I should have used my Charles Schwab debit card which doesn't charge insanely high fees.    

Our time in Europe was enlightening, educational, and occasionally exhausting.  Perhaps the most valuable is that traveling is a skill that gets better with practice.

Monday, March 4, 2019

Everything wrong with Internet journalism

From time to time, odd stories pop into my newsfeed, like a recent op-ed by Laura McGann.  McGann references a minor Internet squabble between an sportswriter of sorts, Samer Kalaf, and a NYT columnist of sorts, Bret Stephens.

If one is curious, it is easy enough to find the exchange of emails, but here is a summary.  Kalaf zips off a few impolite and mildly profane emails to Stephens.  Stephens (mistakenly, in my opinion) responds by asking who Kalaf is.  There’s tart response from Kalaf followed by a lengthy, apparently well-intended if mildly patronizing email from Stephens.  From this, McGann divines that Stephens has shown why women fail to report sexual harassment/abuse, i.e., “because retaliation.”

Welcome to the world of Internet journalism/clickbaiting where everyone is talking but no one is listening.

If Stephens want to take some of his day to engage with an Internet provoca-troll, OK.  But a newspaper writer smart enough to win the Pulitzer should be smart enough to now that the author of an email with the subject line, “You are remarkably dumb” is probably not looking for mentoring or career advice.

No matter how gifted one is as a writer, it’s tough to tell someone 20 or 30 years younger that they are acting like an ass without sounding condescending.  And it’s definitely not a good idea to reference their degree or current job... as if they had a more prestigious degree or better job or a Pulitzer Price their opinion would carry more weight.

There are Powerball odds that Stephens will ever read this, but here’s a thought.  For men over 40, giving advice is like wearing jeans.  Only a small fraction of the men who think they can pull it off really can.  And when it doesn’t work, it can be ugly.  What is sad about this is not that it’s the one trillionth example of why one should not “feed the trolls.”  It’s that the exchange was twisted into a foregone conclusion by McGann.

I am deeply sympathetic to the plight of a persons seemingly trapped in a bad situation.  I understand and empathize with people who don’t feel they can complain or stand up for themselves without losing a job, a home, or even children.  The point Stephens was making is that acting like a jerk can come back and bite one squarely in the backside.  He even made the point (and I take him at his word) is that if he were assigned to judge Kalaf’s work, he would recuse himself.

Stephens is right.  Acting badly can have consequences, occasionally surprising and unforeseen.  Frankly tthose infrequent moments of karma give me faith in the universe.  And they are infrequent.  Some absolute jerks seem to make it through life with nary a scratch.  But we invoke the utilitarian approach, i.e., the day may come where the person you kicked has a chance to kick you... mostly with kids who haven’t figured out how infrequent karma can be.

Back to McGann, the only way you can get from Stephens to #metoo retaliation is to approach the subject entirely immersed in a perspective.  I’m surprised she didn’t find a way to use the recent clickbait video of the large spider dragging a baby opossum into the narrative.

Stephens advice wasn’t the Pentagon Papers of retaliation.  It was an observation about natural consequences.  The problem of the powerful retaliating against the powerless, and the complex issue of sexual harassment, deserve better thought, and better writing.  Great journalism can consider complex issues with objectivity, sensitivity, and nuance.  Pulitzer Prize winning or not, we could use more of that.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

My sabbatical: An update

I had hoped to do more professional writing during our sabbatical.  Instead, I have done far more personal writing, catching up with old friends, etc.  From time to time I have read things that warrant a blog post but the constant distractions (and logistics) of travel have not been conducive to writing.  I  also wanted our six months (more or less) to create the time and space to think about my profession and work within a larger context.  In the middle of Europe (living out of a rather small suitcase), my thoughts are turning to the more pressing question... what now?

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

ICMA Annual Credentialing Report

The primary professional association for city and county managers is ICMA, the International City/County Managers' Association.  ICMA offers a credentialing program for established public managers.  In 2018, there were 1,348 ICMA credentialed managers in the U.S.  By comparison, there are about 1,696 professional football players in the NFL suiting up to play every regular season Sunday.

To become a credentialed manager requires a combination of education, experience, and a commitment to ongoing professional education.  One of the requirements is an annual report where the manager describes his or her continuing education.

I've been a ICMA credentialed manager since 2006. This year, I am taking the unusual step of posting my annual report on this blog.  Public administrators (and advocates of good government) emphasize the importance of transparency.  Normally, this applies to the work of government rather than its workers but I think there's some benefit in sharing professional development goals and insights.

At the beginning of the year, I listed three professional development growth areas:

* Advocacy and Interpersonal Communication
* Policy Facilitation
* Critical evaluation of the role of public administration

The first two are common areas included on ICMA's list of suggestions;  the third is my own (not terribly surprising--I suspect--given the name of this blog).  To explain why these goals evolved during the year requires a bit of background on the city/county manager profession.

The chief administrator of a local government is normally appointed by the governing body, be it a city council, board of county commissioners, or other similar entity.  Most "serve at the pleasure" of the body; some CAOs have employment contracts offering additional assurances and provisions.  ICMA has a model employment agreement.  The most current version is available only to ICMA members but for the curious, the basic document can be found here.

For most of my professional career, I have had an employment agreement.  I entered 2018 as the final year of a four-year contract.  In football parlance, it was a "contract year."  And much like in professional football, there normally are contract negotiations.  Some deals are struck with little fanfare; other negotiations drag on for months.  Sometimes, a mutually agreeable deal can be reached, and sometimes not.

As with any business, both parties are well served by keeping contract negotiations confidential.  If a deal cannot be reached, the best path forward is for both sides to thank the other and wish them well.  That's exactly what I will do here.  My contract ended in September.  I left with nothing but positive feelings about my experience in Caroline and deeply grateful for the privilege of having spent seven years leading an evolving organization and accomplishing many goals, a few some thought were impossible for Maryland's second poorest county.

Much of my time between March and September was spent engaged in transition planning (in addition to managing the day-to-day operations of a local government with a nearly $50 million annual budget.  Myt lame duck status complicated my professional development plans.  For example, I didn't feel it was appropriate to attend the summer Maryland Association of Counties (MACo) conference at the jurisdiction's expense with only a few weeks of employment remaining.  I also missed the  Maryland administrator's conference in October and the winter MACo conference.

On the positive side, I was able to attend my first national ICMA conference in many years.  The annual conference was held in September.  Because I am a "manager-in-transition," the fee was waived.  While it had been several years since we lived on Maryland's western shore, it was easy enough to find accommodations and reacquaint myself with Baltimore's public transit system.  My conference attendance and my participation in sessions I wasn't able to attend (via the virtual conference videos) allowed me to put a major dent in the required hours of professional development.  The balance, I achieved through reading and webinars.

Not surprisingly, my professional development goals evolved with my circumstances.  The first goal of "advocacy and interpersonal communication" remained the same but the focus shifted towards communication with the governing body.  I also broadened the scope to include recruiting and retention communication.  Regarding the former, I explored how how one can better convey unwelcome but necessary information on complex administrative and policy matters without that communication becoming adversarial.  Regarding the latter, filling vacant positions had become a critical challenge for the organization during the two years prior to my departure.  Given my status as looking for a new position, I also had a personal interest in better understanding recruiting.

One book I selected to read was "Talk like TED" by Carmine Gallo.  My wife and I are fans of TED talks.  After buying the Apple TV "puck" we discovered the TED channel.  As part of reading the book, I revisited some of my favorite TED talks (like Sean Achor's TED talk on happiness).

Gallo's book does an excellent job dissecting what make TED talks work.  The book divides the TED approach into three broad characteristics: emotional, novel, and memorable.  The theme that resonated most with me was the emphasis on storytelling.  In the public policy arena where discussions are normally dominated by budget numbers, data, etc., it is important to weave information into compelling stories.  I also found a measure of inspiration in the 18-minute rule.

TED talks are limited to 18 minutes, no exceptions.  If only the same were true for budget presentations.  The 18-minute rule forces presenters to be disciplined and focused.  Scientifically, it helps listeners avoid cognitive backlog, the "drinking from a firehose" problem where listeners simply receive more information than they can process.

In Caroline, I developed a budget process called "the Caroline Way," a shameless theft of Baltimore's "the Oriole Way."  The overarching goal was to have the process become more collaborative and less competitive.  For example, we used techniques like having department heads do the budget pitch for another department or games like using poker chips to "vote" for capital projects, not allowing DHs to vote on their own proposals.  With allied agency heads buying in to the process, the budget process became far less adversarial.  Where we came up short was simplifying information for elected official and the public.  What I missed was creating a role that budget presentations should follow a TED template, i.e., 18 minutes, very few visual elements, more emotion, and more storytelling.

One of the real positives of Gallo's book (and binge-watching TED talks) was a reminder of how much of local government is storytelling.  This holds true for the recruiting process where the organization has an opportunity to tell its story, not simply ask candidates for theirs.

Another book I chose for advocacy and interpersonal communication waas "Recruit Rockstars," by Jeff Hyman.  As I left Caroline County, our senior management team was discussing recruiting.  The local economy was strong.  Unemployment was low.  County government does not pay particularly well and the traditional benefits (pension plan and excellent health insurance) seemed less appealing to the current generation entering the workforce.  We saw recruiting and retention as critical challenges.  My translation was, "How do we advocate for our organizations with jobseekers and communicate effectively in terms of recruiting?"

After reading "Rockstars," I had decidedly mixed feelings about the content.  Beginning with the negative, I disagree with the premise that outstanding employees are born, not made.  What Hyman writes is, "Sadly, C-Players never become B-Players and B-Players rarely become A-Players."  I believe people have the capacity to grow, change, evolve, and adapt.

When it comes to hiring, I urge department heads to think about intangibles: Integrity, interest, and intensity.  If an applicant comes through the door and demonstrates personal integrity, a keen interest in the work, and a high level of energy and passion... we can find something useful for them to do.  Using Hyman's language, we look for people we think can become "A" or "B" players over time--in a particular role, and with ample training, mentoring, and coaching.

I think Hyman's book is a good primer on understanding what an organization wants in potential employees and how to communicate that message clearly.  I also agree with his observation that having great employees is a key advantage in recruiting.  Great people want to work with other great people.  His book also is an example of why things that may work in the private sector may not work in the public.

On the goal of policy facilitation, I picked a hot-button topic upon which I thought more reading was due: public safety.  I chose a couple of books I thought would be interesting, "Rise of the Warrior Cop" by Radley Balko and "The End of Policing" by Alex Vitale.  Naturally, I did a good bit of casual reading from Black Lives Matter to Blue Lives Matter to Ta-Nahisi Coates rumination on Blue Lives Matter.

This particular subject was prompted by a discussion regarding School Resource Officers (SROs) in elementary schools.  Discussion is likely the wrong word.  The need for armed police officers in every elementary school was a foregone conclusion of some participants.  The depth of the debate was simply "What if something happens?"  Nevermind that "...the statistical likelihood of any given public school student being killed by a gun, in school, on any given day since 1999 was roughly 1 in 614,000,000. And since the 1990s, shootings at schools have been getting less common."  (Ropeik, 2018)  By comparison, the odds of winning Powerball is about 1 in 292 million.

There was an attempt to discuss options that might enhance school security and better fit in the elementary school milieu.  The idea of a professional with some security training but with far more focus on behavioral health had traction with school officials, but this met the "this is a job only a certified law enforcement officer can do."  This contention was not one of fact, but of faith.

This background led to the "Do Facts Matter Anymore in Public Policy?"  The short answer is, "Apparently, not."  The article by Jeff Nesbitt is good opening to the debate between "...two competing theories – 'deficit model' and 'cultural cognition.'"

Nesbitt's writes, "Journalists, by and large, believe that a well-informed, fact-based society will make sound democratic choices. That's the guts of the deficit model – that if the public only had better, factual information at their disposal, they'd make the right choices."  Coincidentally, public administrator hold the same belief.  That's why ICMA and the profession focuses so strongly on public engagement and education.

As Nesbitt's observes, there's a growing body of science supporting the notion that facts matter less than preconceived notions.  A conversational description of the phenomena can be found on NPR.  Broadly speaking, humans tend to do a decent job evaluating facts and making decisions in areas where they don't hold strong beliefs.  On the other hand, even people who confident in their objectivity show evidence of bias when asked to do an object task (like math) on a subject about which they feeling strongly (gun control).  A more wordy explanation can be found in this essay in the New Yorker.

What I enjoyed about the New Yorker essay is the notion that our species stubborn resistance to facts is based on adaptive behavior.  Put plainly:

"This lopsidedness, according to Mercier and Sperber, reflects the task that reason evolved to perform, which is to prevent us from getting screwed by the other members of our group. Living in small bands of hunter-gatherers, our ancestors were primarily concerned with their social standing, and with making sure that they weren’t the ones risking their lives on the hunt while others loafed around in the cave. There was little advantage in reasoning clearly, while much was to be gained from winning arguments."

So, do we simply give up on facts and make emotional appeals?  No.  One of the fundamental responsibilities of a city manager or county administrator is to be the honest broker of facts.  To facilitate the public policy process, however, one cannot put much faith in facts to carry the day, particularly on a question where participants have strongly held preconceived notions.

There are a few hopeful signs.  Diverse groups tend to do better than individuals (or like-minded groups) in reasoning.  The conversation about SROs might have been more nuanced had the group included parents and teachers rather than just law enforcement officers and elected officials.  Change in firmly held beliefs that fly in the face of facts can change--but generally on a person-to-person basis, incrementally, and over the course of time.  This suggests a different role for the CAO than simply a bringer-of-facts to the public policy process.  What exactly that is... I'll have a chance to figure out in my next job.

My third goal is: Critical evaluation of the role of public administration.  This evolved into a catch-all and where I'll fit in my attendance at the national ICMA conference in Baltimore.

Part of the larger question about the role of public administration requires dialogue within the profession.  This is one the great values of a professional conference, the sharing of stories, collegial disagreements, shared venting, and general dialogue about our jobs, our careers, and our profession.

My focus during the ICMA conference was not purely professional development, at least not in the narrow sense.  I attended a lunch for managers-in-transition where ICMA Executive Director, Marc Ott, graciously participated and shared his story about being in transition.  I also attended the session on the Harvard Senior Executives in State and Local Government program. 

I have had some quibbles with credentialing report reviewers in the past over what exactly constitutes "professional development."  Part of the knowledge and skills necessary to serve effectively as a public manager--particularly one who serves at the pleasure of a governing body--is navigating transitions like the the one I'm currently experiencing.  While I am a critical observer of public administration, I came away from the ICMA conference again impressed by public administrators.  Whether old friends/colleagues or new acquaintances, I found my fellow practitioners pragmatic, thoughtful, and optimistic despite this not being an easy time for those in the business of government.

When I mention the Pew Charitable Trust survey of Trust in Government, many of my colleagues are quick to observe it is the federal rather than local government people distrust.  That is true--a point noted  by the Trust researchers--but it is also true that local government is not immune from the hyper-partisan world within which we live.  One of the themes I encountered during the ICMA conference and during my "lame duck" year is that I'm not alone in sensing things have changed over the past quarter century.  To borrow Galadriel's opening from the Lord of the Rings (movie).  "The world is changed. I feel it in the water. I feel it in the earth. I smell it in the air."

I concede some measure of bias.  For me, my employment world has changed.  While I learned some valuable things at the conference (and watching sessions I was not able to attend due to the laws of physics, i.e., not able to be in two places at once), my mind was occupied by larger thoughts.  I have spent nearly 20 years leading local governments. The time has been profoundly rewarding and, with all due modesty, I think I have done good work.

At the conference in September, I was looking forward to a few months of a sabbatical, a time to rest, reflect, and ruminate about my professional life.  After three months (and over 16,000 miles driving around the U.S.), I have concluded I miss the work and the people.  In Caroline, I left behind some extraordinary professionals... and friends.  I look forward to the opportunity to lead another local government, or--absent a compelling opportunity--to use what I have learned as a leader to the benefit of some organization that shares my core values.

This may be my final report as an ICMA-credentialed manager.  This is my final thought to whomever get stuck reading this report verifying that I have indeed logged the minimum of 40 hours of formal professional development:  The 40-hour rule is silly.  Like every other city/county manager I have spent countless mornings coming in early or evening staying late absorbing new information to cope with the challenge of a job that is constantly evolving, deepening and broadening my grasp on a dizzying array of subjects.

In February, my organization had a data breach.  W-2 information was sent in response to a clever phishing email.  This resulted in mass identity theft including my own.  Within 72 hours, I moved from knowing very little about identity theft to knowing (painfully) a great deal.  And the situation was a tremendous learning experience in crisis management.  Naturally, that doesn't count towards the 40 hours because--in the words of one reviewer--that was me simply doing my job.  My response: the job is the ultimate in professional development, an experience when one is constantly forced to learn, adapt, master, and repeat.

And it's been the best jobs I've ever had.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

AirBnB and Uber

AirBnB (and similar services) are a hot topic for local governments.  Like other components of the sharing economy, AirBnB is disruptive to existing business models.  Local governments have developed regulations and tax schemes like hotel taxes and taxi medallions which benefit them and incumbent providers (like hotel chains and cab companies) but penalize consumers.  As often occurs, companies have lobbied local governments to protect their monopolistic positions.  Of course, this lobbying is generally couched in the terms of public safety and welfare rather than protection of monopoly profits.

As a traveler, my experience with the sharing economy has been decidedly mixed.  We have used Uber successfully to get from "Point A" to "Point B."  I think Uber works because a lift (no pun  intended) is rather uniform service.  A great cab ride or a bad cab ride aren't terribly different, as long as you end up at your destination.  Chances are that a person will forget about his or her Uber within moments of settling in at his or her destination.  Overnight accommodations, however, are quite different.  A bad experience years ago at a place called "Berg Tal" has become familial shorthand for a lousy accommodations.

Thus far, our experience with AirBnB has been unimpressive.  In fact, I'm writing this essay from a hotel room after canceling our booking at a local AirBnB in Alaska.

The essential problem of our our AirBnB experiences has been the gap between what is portrayed on the website and what exists in reality.  I'll walk through some of the issues we've encountered.  Earlier this year, we booked a small home in southern Maryland.  As anyone who has spent time in Maryland during the summer recognizes, air conditioning is a necessity.  The small house was reasonably nice but it had one small air conditioning unit in the living room.  To keep the bedroom at a decent temperature (below 80), the living room had to be kept like a meat locker.  Otherwise, the small home wasn't bad and we managed to have a decent stay.

We rented another AirBnB cottage in Pennsylvania on what was accurately portrayed as a beautiful farm.  What wasn't well described was the oddly configured floor plan that including a very steep and narrow staircase between the floors and the fact that amenities like the pool were shared with other rentals.

Our most recent experience in Alaska was a cabin near Fairbanks.  What looked charming on the website was considerably smaller and more rustic in reality.  The deal breaker for us was that the cabin had no seating save a couple of bar stools.  The hotel room we're currently in has three chairs.  The room we had earlier in our stay offered an actual sofa (in addition to a couple of chairs).  I don't want to seem demanding, but if I'm spending three days in a room, I need something more than a barstool.

AirBnB reviews seem less accurate than hotel reviews on Trip Advisor.  Maybe it's a matter of consumer expectations.  Perhaps it's a function of the personal nature of AirBnB and a greater reluctance to post critical comments, or the two-way nature of the reviews.  Whatever the reason, our less-than-stellar experiences have been at AirBnB properties with stellar user reviews.

While I haven't become an AirBnB fan personally, I do think its existence is an economic positive.  Greater competition benefits consumers.  In ensuring a free and open marketplace, the role of local government isn't to pick winners and losers (hotel chains or entrepreneurial homeowners) but to ensure a level playing field.  Hotels have a valid argument in jurisdictions where they pay taxes that AirBnB owners do not.  Local governments also may have legitimate public health and safety concerns like parking problems created by short-term rentals.

The bottom line is that the shared economy can benefit everyone.  The role of the public administrator is to ensure that the public policy conservation is honest, beginning with the motivations of the stakeholders.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Personal: Sabbatical Weeks 3 & 4 (almost)

What seems like months ago, we finished our road trip to Maine.  We stopped by Emmaus to visit the grandchildren.  Our original plan was to roll down to DC, but logistics made it easier to find a hotel in Baltimore to attend the International City/County Managers' Association (ICMA) conference.

The conference gave Becky and I a chance to explore some familiar places between Baltimore and Hunt Valley.  We also discovered a few new places like Johnny Dee's Lounge in Parvkille.

Johnny Dee's is old school Baltimore, a neighborhood joint.  It's the kind of place you come in looking for dinner and you leave with new friends.  The food was great.  The beer was cold.  The company was even better.

After wrapping up the ICMA conference, Becky and I turned north for a final visit to Emmaus.  After enjoying a great time with the kids and grandkids, we turned west to pick up our loaded utility trailer.  The long and winding road has taken us through Laramie, Wyoming, the incredible parks of Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons, to Libby, Montana, my ancestral home.  Time to catch our breath and enjoy a few days of rest before the next leg of our trip.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

It is stealing. Period.

At the annual ICMA conference, I attended a round table discussion of city/county manager contracts.  When the subject of vehicle allowances came up, my colleagues were surprised that I had deliberately omitted this provision from my recent agreements.  I also declined to use a county vehicle.  I chose to use my personal vehicle (what we called a "POV" in my military days).  During my seven-year tenure, I also did not submit a single reimbursement request for mileage.

 I doubtlessly logged thousand of miles on County business.  So why decline a vehicle allowance or reimbursement?  I have two basic reasons: One philosophical and one practical.

As a believer in "lead by example," I want to err on the side of not taking advantage of my position.  Refusing any allowance or reimbursement kept me firmly on the moral high ground.  This set a good example for not only the senior management team, but for all employees.

On a practical matter, I avoided the paperwork associated with mileage.  My time is better spent on more "value-added" tasks.  It's also one less avenue of citizen criticism.  Driving a city or county vehicle is just putting a target on a manager's back.  Better to have a vehicle available for fleet use than one for the personal convenience of the CAO.

My philosophy stand in stark contrast to the recent travel-related escapades of some federal officials.  For example, FEMA Administrator Brock Long apparently racked up $150,000 worth of personal travel on the public dime (according to the Office of the Inspector General).  This extravagant spending occurred over a period of months, not years.  I won't bother repeating the details in the report (as reported by the Washington Post), but it's a laundry list of wholesale abuse of government-funded travel.

On a positive note, Long has been ordered to repay the $150,000 to the federal government.  On a not-so-positive note, he hasn't been fired.

Abuse of government-funded travel is theft.  It's abusing the taxpayer and--like all ethically suspect behaviors--it has a corrosive effect on an organization. 

The Contrarian Administrator's Tips for European Travel

I have done a fair bit of traveling, but only recently reached Europe.  The extent of my preparation consisted of watching some Rick Steves’...