While much of the country’s attention is on our national democracy's health, ICMA members are privy to a world of hidden protectors of that same democracy. This is not a reference to rogue conspiracies theorists but to the civil servants who do their jobs with integrity, kindness, and professionalism regardless of drama in politics.
There are monuments to General Robert E. Lee’s horse Traveller, Captain James Kirk’s future birthplace in Iowa, and the first circus elephants brought to the states. However, if you’re looking for a monument to Lee Perkins—whose career with Norfolk’s environmental office restored Norfolk’s dune system—you won’t find it. It doesn’t exist.
Some people collect stamps or coins. Perkins collected different types of sand from around the world. Property owners nearly wiped-out Norfolk’s dunes to have easy access to Chesapeake Bay beaches. Perkins and the environmental office started restoring dunes three decades ago before the general public became concerned about rising sea levels.
Perkins is an example of public employees who protect the public with little acknowledgment.
He typifies administrators’ inability to quantify what doesn’t happen. City management can’t count how many lives weren’t taken or how much property wasn’t damaged during storms because of the protection provided by the dunes. The dunes are so common now; few give them much thought.
The same is true of countless other public professions. Media attention mimics our human predisposition toward the sensational. Scandals, riots, and corruption capture the headlines. Few pay attention to cities where riots don’t happen because community-oriented police are embedded in communities. They carry dog treats for neighborhood dogs they know by name and play chess at the local community center. Public business usually moves slower than the private sector, but that slowness is usually (not always, but usually) a means of ensuring a democratic process and that the less powerful or less connected have a voice in their community.
National unity is somewhat a myth for sentimental banners, songs, and campaign speeches. Washington, Adams, and Jefferson got along swell when they were dreaming about government. They parted ways once they had to run it. In a May 1886 Atlantic Monthly, John Fiske wrote an article about the chaos following the Revolutionary War: “The Weakness of the United States Under the Articles of Confederation.” The Continental Army was ready to mutiny against Congress over lack of pay. The states, swamped in debt themselves, refused to contribute much to Congress. Americans argued over what to do with British sympathizers and property seized during the war. Slaveholders whined about compensation for slaves who escaped. The period following independence from Britain was not the celebratory hugfest that we conjure in our imagination.
American history is mostly one mess after another. It is unlikely tension over political power will ever be abated.
In 2003, I worked in the nonprofit sector and lived in Pittsburgh when it was on the verge of financial collapse and embroiled in political infighting, within the same party. Despite drama at the top, meager resources, and the ongoing threat of reductions-in-force, city employees in my neighborhood did their job with professionalism, kindness, and neighborliness. I remember Greg, the local public works supervisor. He came to our neighborhood meetings and volunteered at events. He gave me a ride in the rain once on my way to volunteer at a 5K. The then fire chief stopped to help a senior from my church change her flat tire. A prothonotary’s office employee helped me find incorporation documents from 1868 that had nothing to do with his job. He was only acting out of compassion after my failed attempts elsewhere. Their acts of service gave me hope during Pittsburgh’s dark hour, and the actions I continue to see among public servants give me hope today.
There is reason for concern at our national disunity, but our democracy is not just composed of extreme actors, but everyday people. When I joined local government in Norfolk, I wanted to be like the city employees in Pittsburgh. I was pleased to join a corps of public servants like Lee Perkins. Sadly, Perkins passed shortly after retirement. He and thousands of other civil servants protect our democracy in hidden but no less important ways.