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Features and essays

Professionalism

East Sacramento Preservation Pat Lynch Essay

I worked for a while in a place that was the most wretched of its kind in California. It was a failing high school that served, along with non-English speakers and poor kids, a thundering population of gang-bangers. It was the loudest place I’ve ever been, including the rock concerts of youth. Male students spat incessantly and horribly on the covered pavement walkways, the front entrance was peppered with bullet holes, the fire alarm was set off several times a month, and when gangstahs (not gangsters) stole wallets and cell phones they threw them on the roof to retrieve after the plump and fatigued security guy had given up the search. Fights broke out daily. Fighters bashed opponents’ heads with bike locks.

Our new principal did not address these matters. He orated frequently about professionalism and enjoined us to comport ourselves in a professional manner. We were to dress well. We were to be positive and polite, not critical and negative. We were all to conspire in the genteel presumption that everyone was doing his or her best. A cadre of about six teachers promptly formed around the principal and began dressing up in suits and carrying coordinated purses or briefcases. Charles Dickens himself could not have invented a more servile and unctuous bunch. They too began to discuss “professionalism.” It wouldn’t be “professional,” they told a team of worried teachers, to complain to the School District about school management. (This reminds me of criticisms leveled at neighborhood activists who oppose certain projects; the word, unprofessional, is sometimes hijacked and used against them. The subtext here is that a deferential, even sheepish approach to power is more effective. This of course plays perfectly into the hands of the powerful).

Back to school. Things got worse. We spent way too much time managing behavior problems. It took our attention from the majority of kids who needed us. I felt I was on a lifeboat with starving student passengers, meager amounts of water and food, and one gigantic sociopath delinquent I had constantly to battle lest he gobble the resources and capsize us. That was the labored metaphor with which I tried to identify the crisis. There wasn’t enough security. We were losing control. We weren’t police: we needed police. And we needed cameras in the classrooms. When a committee of alarmed teachers finally wrote a collective report about campus violence and attributed it specifically to administrative neglect, one of the principal’s covey was dispatched to meet with the team. The report was “unprofessional,” he said. “Casting blame” was “unprofessional.” Sharp, decisive language? Unprofessional. Then came a mass email from the principal himself. “We’re all professionals here,” he began grandly. “We need to act like it.”

Professionalism commonly means conforming to loosely accepted standards of dress and etiquette. People who talk a lot about being “professional” usually aren’t.  And anxiety about being perceived as professional can make some employees so morally timid they become mute and paralyzed. But professionalism doesn’t mean not criticizing, not agitating for reform; nor does it mean substituting innocuous blandishments for clear, vivid language. Do you imagine decision-makers in the Supreme Court talk about being “professional?” Hardly. I suspect lower level bureaucrats are the people most concerned with these appearances.

Back again to the crisis. Since the administration would do nothing, somebody on that campus (not I) called the media. One ordinary morning during an ordinary semi-riot, TV trucks drove up and reporters and camera operators entered the mayhem. A reporter approached me. “This is crazy,” he said. “How did you let it get this bad?”

“We had to be professionals and not criticize our betters,” I said. He laughed and wrote it down but it didn’t show up in the paper. However film, pictures and stories about the campus did appear, and days later School District representatives strolled the grounds. More security guards were hired. The principal announced that he would retire. I saw him in the faculty lounge. “I hear you’re leaving,” I said with professional politeness.

He placed his hand on his chest, as if to indicate heart problems. “Health,” he said with a wan smile. I nodded as though I believed him. Because that’s what professionals are supposed to do.

The next fall we got a new principal. She was breezy and smart. She walked around without an entourage. She facilitated the speedy transfer of some of the most violent trouble-makers, reminding us the while that they were profoundly disadvantaged kids. She hired more security and aides. Our imperfect work world began to hum along. One kid, Bo, said he could now go to GLBT meeting without getting beat up. The principal said her office was open to drop-ins from faculty, staff and students, and she remained accessible to everybody. Memos and mass emails about professionalism stopped. Instead, we were invited to submit suggestions for improvement.

We would only have her for a year, and knew it, so we called it, “The Year of Not Living Dangerously.” In June we bade her a sad goodbye. We wondered who we’d get next fall. One of the old devotees of the former bad principal said, “I hope it’s somebody who’s a real professional,” and I can still hear the collective reaction—a huge groan followed by protracted bursts of laughter.

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Strong Mayor

An essay by Pat Lynch

Voting time again. This is generally a ho-hum election because there’s no big sexy neck-and-neck contest to rivet us. Jerry Brown will likely sail through and, unlike Scotland, the wannabe separatist counties in California haven’t managed to get their rural independence cravings on the ballot. But we do have our local propositions.

Prominent among them is Measure L, the Strong Mayor proposal. Many oppose the Strong Mayor scheme because, apparently, they have read American urban history. They recall Strong Mayor (“Boss”) Daley who ran the infamously crooked Chicago political machine. Then there’s Boss Tweed of Tammany Hall who orchestrated the high-functioning New York operation that cranked out batches of strong mayors, patronage and graft. Tweed biographer Kenneth Ackerman asserts, “the Tweed ring at its height was an engineering marvel, strong and solid, strategically deployed to control key power points: the courts, the legislature, the treasury and the ballot box. Its frauds had a grandeur of scale…money laundering, profit sharing and organization.” In sum, the Tweed era was a heyday for expansion, and insiders—developers especially– got rich and richer.

The power grab excesses of Strong Mayors are pretty much legendary, that is, if one takes the time to research. Our current mayor wants to be one of the strong ones. He spent most of his last State of the City speech orating about the King Arena. He pushed through a publicly subsidized arena even though Sacramentans twice voted down this subsidy. Bankrolled by developers, his priorities are clear. His champions are rich. What chance do mere pipsqueak citizens have against this array of power and money?

Take heart. Last year in Columbia, South Carolina, citizens opposed a Goliath Strong-Mayor coalition made up of the Governor (Nikki Haley), a former governor, the Chamber of Commerce, the mayor of Charleston, and the State newspaper editorial board. “Never doubt the power of a small group of citizens coming together and working together,” said Kit Smith, one of the Davids who slew the giant. Said another, in defense of the City Manager-Council form of government, “If it’s not broken, don’t break it.”

Portland is so charming and successful a city that a TV series presently satirizes its more far-out residents.  You know a city has arrived when Hollywood acknowledges and exploits it. Portland thrives. It retains a Mayor-City Manager-City Council form of government. Why? Because people there believe that “shared leadership is better than centralized power.” Portland also employs its City Council as a “governing board that focuses on coherent policymaking and oversight of administrative performance.” Sounds like checks and balances to me. Simply, shared power is bound to be more representative, more democratic.

I don’t think we should pass a Strong Mayor ordinance in Sacramento. We need to pass a Clean Vote ordinance that keeps big money out of our city politics so we don’t become a cesspit of slippery, greed-based deal-making, nepotism, and patronage like our State Legislature (where mandatory ethics training is now instituted–too little, too late, in my view). No, we don’t need a strong mayor. But how about a Smart Mayor ordinance?

This is not to say that our mayor isn’t smart, but when the bulk of the State of the City speech goes to sports arena accomplishments, that’s simply not smart enough. The Smart Mayor ordinance will give the mayor his council vote and the right to use his office to advance worthy policy. He can promote the Kings all he wants. He can even wear their purple suits to meetings. But he will be required to work with the council to repair the parks and preserve the tree-lined neighborhoods (he lives in one) that make us, like Portland, a destination. He will be required to use his bully pulpit to hold developers to much, much higher environmental standards. He will have to put poverty, air quality and crime on the front burner and declaim relentlessly on these issues to TV and Bee reporters. The mayor has, because of office, an automatic public forum. That is power. To use that power for good is virtue. Maybe that’s the law we need, a Virtuous Mayor Ordinance.

Smart, virtuous politicians doing the right thing, uninfluenced by big donors? Not a chance, you say. Maybe. But it will be our fault if we don’t pay attention and thwart as many bad schemes as we can. We can start with rejecting Measure L. I know, we voted Strong Mayor down before. But it’s back. Think of voting it down again the way you think about your flu shot: something healthy you keep having to do. The flu comes back every year too. But we don’t have to catch it.

 

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