At a time when government is experiencing one failure after another — from FEMA’s response to Hurricane Katrina to the recent crisis surrounding the Medicare prescription drug benefit — mere competence is a welcome virtue.
Here in Arkansas, like everywhere else, governments at every level face enormous challenges. They are expected to provide more services with fewer resources, because it is a winning political formula to make extravagant promises and demand no sacrifices in return. We see the results not only in mounting federal deficits and a fraying social safety net, but also in strained city and county budgets that lead to jail closings and less money for schools.
That is why it is at least encouraging to see evidence of competent management among some young executive office-holders. Our politics are usually dominated by a lot of pandering to various interests that leaves government less responsive to ordinary citizens. It is less common, but more admirable, to see people get elected to positions and simply do their jobs well.
Take Pat O’Brien, for example. The 36-year-old Pulaski County Clerk inherited an elections system so dysfunctional that in 2003 a grand jury recommended his long-serving predecessor be removed from her post.
Since he took office a year ago, O’Brien formed a Voter Database Task Force to address all of the previous problems, initiated a massive effort to clean up the voter rolls, updated technology to improve voter verification and make court records more accessible, increased the diversity of the office employees, and reduced the employee turnover rate (which had been 80 percent annually). As a result, the office managed eight elections in 2005 without any significant difficulties.
This is not glamorous work, of course. But it is crucial to ensuring the legitimacy of our election process and it requires diligence and skill.
Similarly, Robert Herzfeld, 32, has been aggressive in executing the duties of prosecuting attorney in Saline County and pushing some innovative programs that go beyond what is minimally required of his job. He is often accused of staging publicity stunts for himself, but there is no disputing what he has accomplished during his three years in office.
Herzfeld created an adult drug court to rehabilitate non-violent drug offenders who otherwise would go to jail, and he has mounted several initiatives to combat methamphetamine abuse, including a public awareness campaign and nuisance abatement task force that has resulted in 33 percent fewer meth labs in Saline County. He led a successful campaign for a temporary sales tax to build a new jail and streamlined hot check enforcement with a website. He has an impressive record of convicting violent and white-collar criminals and created the first-ever Child Support Task Force that is already yielding results against deadbeat parents. All this while cutting his office’s budget by 15 percent during his term.
Over in North Little Rock, City Attorney Paul Suskie has earned accolades for his work pioneering a comprehensive criminal nuisance abatement program that he has since helped other Arkansas cities implement. Although only 34 years old, he also drafted legislation establishing the first set of regulations for transitional housing for people released from jail, and he has worked with numerous community organizations to launch programs to assist at-risk youth.
This praise is not meant to bolster any of these men’s political careers. (In fact, Herzfeld and Suskie are running against each other in the three-man Democratic primary for attorney general.) It is simply an acknowledgement that they exhibited competence in their work.
And these days a job well done needs to be celebrated and encouraged, because a common argument against government programs is that government can’t do anything right. If our faith in public institutions is to be restored, it must begin with getting their basic functions on track.
We could use a few more young people with energy and determination — and without long-standing obligations and loyalties — to clean up our government and bring merit to it by responsibly discharging their duties.
State Rep. Will Bond could have done that if he was elected House Speaker. Fortunately there are similarly qualified young candidates all over the ballot this year, not unlike 30 years ago, when Bill Clinton, Jim Guy Tucker and other talented members of their generation offered themselves for public service.
Then, like now, they were responding to a crisis of confidence in government. Now, like then, it is crucial to elect them and inject a fresh, can-do spirit into our public life.