Over the past decade, Governing has honored dozens of public officials who took a risk, fought for a cause they believed in and triumphed against the odds, proving conventional wisdom wrong.
Bob Riley doesn't exactly fit that pattern. Warned that tax reform in his state was a losing proposition, Alabama’s Republican governor pushed for it anyway, placing before the voters a wholesale restructuring that would have replaced one of the nation’s most illogical and archaic tax systems with one considerably more equitable and stable.
In Alabama, the conventional wisdom turned out to be right. Riley went down to resounding defeat in the statewide referendum on September 10.
But in fighting for tax reform, Riley proved to be a model of conviction, candor and integrity. His selection as a Public Official of the Year for 2003 serves as a reminder that in government, unlike in professional football, winning isn’t the only thing. Character matters as well.
Refusing to Give Up
Several of this year’s 10 other honorees showed a similar willingness to struggle against the odds. Nebraska education commissioner Doug Christensen believed the testing requirements of the federal “No Child Left Behind” education act were rigid and insensitive, unfair to states like his that had already instituted their own systematic locally based testing. To the surprise of virtually the entire education establishment, Christensen persuaded the Education Department to approve a waiver allowing much of the Nebraska system to remain intact, despite its differences with the federal law.
During three terms as mayor of Louisville, Jerry Abramson grew certain that the future prospects of the city and surrounding Jefferson County were being crippled by overlapping governments and squabbling local bureaucracies. Efforts to consolidate these governments had been defeated twice by wide margins.
Unwilling to settle for those results, Abramson brought the issue to the voters a third time, appealing to civic pride and hopes for the future rather than focusing on financial or managerial technicalities. The referendum passed, and Abramson is now mayor of a merged Louisville-Jefferson County, presiding over economic development efforts that would not have been possible if the structure had not changed.
Wisconsin tax administrator Diane Hardt has spent the past several years crusading for a uniform, streamlined sales tax system — one that would eliminate much of the confusion of the current 50-state hodge-podge. In advancing the concept as far as she has — more than 20 states have now signed on — she has demonstrated rare patience and negotiating skill.
Joe Riley, the mayor of Charleston, South Carolina, came into office nearly three decades ago with a vision of the historic jewel his city could be. Slowly and carefully, through meticulous preservation and redevelopment efforts, he has converted his vision into reality.
Audacity and Tough Audits
But if governmental achievement is often a function of persistence, it’s worth remembering that on occasion it is the product of sheer audacity. Fran Pavley joined the California Assembly as a freshman in 2001 and decided to introduce a bill restricting greenhouse-gas emissions from cars and trucks. Told that she was wasting her time, that automakers and oil companies would spend millions to prevent any such law from being enacted, Pavley persisted, out of what she now admits was mostly naivete.
The skeptics who warned Pavley were right, in a way: The industries did mount a $5 million campaign of TV and radio ads to stop her. But they failed. Pavley’s air pollution bill will take effect in 2005, and by 2009 all vehicles in the state will be required to comply.
Mark Funkhouser, the auditor of Kansas City, Missouri, had the idea that an auditor could be much more than a low-profile civic accountant. He saw an opportunity to bring the most sophisticated standards of performance measurement to virtually every facet of local administration. And in 15 years on the job, he has done just that.
City Manager Regina Williams came to Norfolk, Virginia, in 1999 and saw disparate elements of the community reluctant to work together: the university, the churches, the neighborhoods, the downtown business establishment. Williams decided she could be the facilitator, and that is exactly what she has done.
Carolyn Purcell in Texas and the team of Wanda Gibson and David Molchany in Fairfax County, Virginia, are role models for what information officers can do at a time when governments are making dramatic technological breakthroughs but also confront costly fragmentation. Purcell, Molchany and Gibson have all but written the book on how to break through the fragmentation and set the creative process free, and their lessons stand to benefit everyone who struggles with similar problems.
Presented here are profiles of Governing’s Public Officials of the Year, selected from nominations by readers, interviews with state and local government specialists and reporting by the Governing staff.
Jerry E. Abramson, mayor of Louisville Metro
Bob Riley, governor of Alabama
Doug Christensen, Nebraska education commissioner
Mark Funkhouser, city auditor, Kansas City, Missouri
Diane L. Hardt, Wisconsin tax administrator
Joseph P. Riley Jr., mayor of Charleston, South Carolina
Fran Pavley, member, California Assembly
Carolyn T. Purcell, former Texas chief information officer
Regina V.K. Williams, city manager of Norfolk, Virginia