Something has been on my mind lately, something other than the weather and, well, the weather. You know, it is becoming more difficult to find people willing to commit to public service.
I count myself among the legion of those who have never run for public office or served in an official capacity. I’m more effective working as a keyboard commando, joking and cajoling on my merry way. And yes, I will poke and prod the powers that be when necessary.
But that doesn’t mean that I don’t respect those who do our dirty work for us. Yes, you read that right — dirty work. This includes everything from attending monthly meetings for years on end to digging up pavement while fixing a sewer problem.
You will see the same faces serving on several boards, councils and committees. They may swap duties from time to time, but they always show up and are counted. The people they represent sometimes call “Foul” amid allegations of favoritism and conflicts of interest.
Let’s be fair here, gentle readers. They are often the only ones who run for office or apply for public-service positions. None of the rest of us can be bothered.
Even though I am semi-retired, I still go out to cover a public meeting here and there. While I try to stay neutral and objective, I have to stifle a cheer when a younger person steps up and throws a hat in the ring. I couldn’t care less about party affiliation because public service is the thing.
We have an aging population in our state and that is blindingly apparent in our own neck of the woods. Over here in South Side, we lost long-time council member Clair Himes not long ago. His passing left an empty seat on the council.
There was only one applicant who came forward offering to fill the vacancy, 19-year-old Cameron Travis. He is eligible to run for election in his own right this fall.
Across the creek in New Bethlehem, the borough council has been well-served of late by Gordon Barrows. There are others of the younger generation serving in townships and municipalities in the L-V coverage area, but these are the two who come to my mind immediately.
These folks may be young and relatively untried, but they showed up. I hope they stay around in public service for years and years. In the meantime, I’d like to stack the deck in their, and our, favor.
People who know me reasonably well will tell you that I can usually throw a book at most subjects of discussion. There were jokes that I read the encyclopedia cover to cover when I was a teenager. That’s not true, but I have read “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen Covey.
It’s a smallish book on the order of 300 pages, unimpressive if you buy the paperback version. But what shows up in its pages tends to change the way you look at and do things. Young Mr. Travis will be getting a copy sometime soon.
Why would I give a young council member a book on leadership? Because our young people never had the opportunity to be taught by the likes of Bob and Mary Conrad. Mary would have handed out volumes of “7 Habits” like party favors.
If Gordon hasn’t already read it, he will receive a copy, too. He’s a little farther along in his public service experience than Cameron, but that doesn’t matter. I read it at the ripe old age of 40 and it made a difference in the way I look at things.
But, let’s not stop with one book, people. Our young public servants need more tools as they face the changes coming our way.
This fall, it will be time for a new Pennsylvania Rural-Urban Leadership class to start. I was a member of RULE VII back in the late ‘90s and have found many area leaders who have completed the program. We can count a couple county commissioners, state representatives and several business leaders among our ranks locally.
In the wider world, some of my own classmates are now serving in state-agency leadership positions. There are those more like me, grassroots types who work in the shadows.
RULE required a two-year time commitment, split up into two multi-month study sessions during winter weekends. The days were long, with one weekend institute requiring us to put in a 15-hour day after being in class until 11 p.m. the night before.
The program is not for people who like to absorb information passively. Participants are required to give public presentations, learn to use audio-visual techniques and equipment and will find themselves out playing games in the woods. They travel to either Pittsburgh or Philadelphia, caravan to Harrisburg for a weekend and spend most of an entire week in D.C.
There are tons of homework to complete, travel arrangements to be made and lots of dealing with people who aren’t just like you. You probably learn more from them than you do from the classroom work.
Those of us who have gone through RULE will tell you that it is one of the top five things we have ever done in our lives.
I will write more about the program in the coming months, but I wanted to plant the seed early. RULE is one of the best tools a leader can have in his or her toolbox, and we need the kind of leaders it produces.
[Susan Kerr is a semi-retired freelance writer living in her hometown of New Bethlehem. Previously, she was the managing editor of a regional-interest magazine and a business journal in State College.]