Leading in Good Times and Bad

Awards are, at least most of the time, for winners. When we choose Governing's Public Officials of the Year, we are on the lookout for success stories--leaders who have mastered an office or an organization, brought it to a level of outstanding performance, and kept it there.

And yet, some public officials demonstrate excellence not so much by winning as by the character they display in difficult circumstances--in a historically corrupt legislature, a mismanaged city, an ineffective county government. With the example they set, they give the notion of public excellence a whole new meaning.

It would be pleasant to report that Speaker H.B. "Hunt" Downer Jr. has made the Louisiana House into an ethically pristine deliberative body. He hasn't. What he has done is set a personal standard of what principled leadership looks like, and what the whole institution might aspire to some day. The legislative staff has been professionalized, and the state ethics law has been strengthened. The Louisiana House isn't what it might be, but it isn't what it was.

Nor is California's legislature. Once a model for professionalism, more recently it has become a model for petty bickering and procrastination. But amid all the chaos, one unimpeachable source of help and information has stood out: Elizabeth G. Hill, the state's nonpartisan legislative analyst. In a bad time, she has kept the place functioning as well as it possibly could.

One can say much the same about Anthony A. Williams, the chief financial officer of the District of Columbia. In recent years, the district has become famous for its sloppy budgets, bloated payrolls and agencies unable to perform the most rudimentary functions. But the city's troubles have accomplished one good thing: They have brought forth Williams, an unflinchingly honest public servant who never stops demanding competent administration and pointing to malfeasance in his own government.

It would be unfair to compare Florida's Dade County to the District of Columbia, but it's fair to compare Charles Danger to Anthony Williams. As head of building code compliance in a county with a history of lax regulations--some of which contributed to the damage incurred from Hurricane Andrew five years ago--Danger has stood for unyielding enforcement of the highest possible safety standards, and stuck to them even when local builders organized to fight him and weaken his office.

Fortunately, not all of this year's winners have had to operate in those trying circumstances. But all have encountered frustrations of one sort or another. Some have made their mark as conciliators. As president of the county commission in Jefferson County, Alabama, for example, Mary M. Buckelew has given that body its first period of sustained legislative good will in many years. As environmental protection director in Illinois, Mary A. Gade negotiated a complex agreement on ozone control involving 37 of the 50 states--a task that seemed all but unachievable until Gade and her colleagues actually achieved it. As head of New York State's Center for Technology in Government, Sharon S. Dawes has brought an unprecedented climate of cooperation and information-sharing to the far-flung and tangled-up tentacles of the Albany bureaucratic octopus.

Then there are outstanding public officials whose achievement is more straightforward. Alan V. Brunacini, the fire chief of Phoenix, can best be described in one word: innovator. He has taken his department beyond the minimum requirements of fire safety and turned it into an engine of community participation and pride.

Operating in the more tempestuous spotlight of high public office, Governor Tommy G. Thompson of Wisconsin and Mayor Richard M. Daley of Chicago have been innovators in both a political and managerial sense. Tough, stubborn and pragmatic, they have pushed for solutions to problems that others in their place would simply have declared intractable. Thompson didn't just deliver speeches urging that welfare recipients be put to work--he began experimenting with programs to find jobs for them. Daley went beyond condemning Chicago's weak public schools--he accepted personal responsibility for improving them.

Via the links below, Governing presents a closer look at all 10 of its Public Officials of the Year for 1997--and the obstacles they refused to yield to.

Mary M. Buckelew, President, County Commission, Jefferson County, Alabama

Alan V. Brunacini, Fire Chief, city of PhoenixRichard M. Daley, Mayor, City of Chicago

Charles Danger, Director, Office of Building Code Compliance, Dade County, Florida

Sharon S. Dawes, Executive Director, Center for Technology in Government, state of New York

H.B. "Hunt" Downer Jr., Speaker of the House, state of Louisiana

Mary A. Gade, Director, Environmental Protection Agency, state of Illinois

Elizabeth G. Hill, Legislative Analyst, state of California

Tommy G. Thompson, Governor, state of Wisconsin

Anthony A. Williams, Chief Financial Officer, District of Columbia