Challenging the Impossible

When you are attempting the impossible, it sometimes helps not to believe what you are told.

Anybody with a few years' experience at the New York state capitol in Albany could have told George C. Sinnott that reforming the state's civil service system was an impossible job — the bureaucratic equivalent of cleaning out the Augean stables. But Sinnott wasn't an old Albany hand. All he knew was that he'd fixed up some major personnel messes in his home county on Long Island, and that the tactics that worked there might be worth a try at the state level. And so, four years after his arrival, the New York Department of Civil Service for the first time in modern history has begun to resemble a modern personnel operation, with up-to-date job lists, efficient testing and a sophisticated recruitment program.

Richard J. Pennington might have realized that taking over the New Orleans police department was like walking into an ambush: Not only were the crime figures horrendous but the police themselves were committing some of the worst crimes. But Pennington wasn't steeped in New Orleans cynicism; he had learned his most valuable lessons from New York City, where technology and careful performance measurement had worked law enforcement wonders. It didn't take long for Pennington to make his presence felt, both in double-digit crime reduction and in the morale level all over the force.

Nancy M. Graham would have been prudently advised, on becoming mayor of West Palm Beach, Florida, in 1992, not to try to make her town something it wasn't. An aging, grimy, down-at-the-heels industrial city, West Palm Beach lacked a vibrant center and seemed to have no realistic way of acquiring one. But Graham didn't worry about that. The result of her efforts, six years later, is a community whose revival is becoming an example for struggling blue-collar towns all over the country.

So it has gone with most of Governing's Public Officials of the Year for 1998. They attempted things that the most knowledgeable cynics were certain could not succeed. Fortunately, they didn't listen.

Unlike Sinnott and Pennington, most of them weren't coming into brand-new situations. John D. LaFaver had served in tax agencies all over the country, but he didn't buy the conventional wisdom that such agencies had to be hated by the taxpayers. So he transformed the Kansas Department of Revenue from one of America's most taxpayer-hostile to a model now being emulated everywhere. Paul Muegge had been in the Oklahoma Senate for 16 years when the volatile issue of hog farm pollution came up there this spring. He was keenly aware of the odds against getting a tough bill enacted in a legislature where pork producers are a major power. He ignored the odds, stuck to his principles, and won.

Then, of course, there was Mike Moore's even more preposterous idea: that the attorney general of Mississippi could sue the nation's biggest tobacco companies, win huge settlements for his state, and lift the entire smoking issue to the top of the national public policy agenda. Mike Moore may be this year's prime exhibit in the power of creative naivete.

Not all of the Public Officials of the Year can be said to have attempted the impossible, or anything close. Governor Zell Miller of Georgia took a lifetime of practical political experience and used it to create programs filling needs at both ends of the education system: pre-kindergarten for 4-year-olds and a scholarship program that has paid tuition bills for hundreds of thousands of college students. Milwaukee Mayor John O. Norquist found a way to blend the idealism of a 1960s activist with the bottom-line management focus of a 1990s CEO.

Janice M. Mittermeier knew from decades in California local government that the financial crisis in Orange County wasn't a mark of permanent community weakness, just a result of foolish short-term management. Installed as the chief executive officer and given the authority to make some sound common-sense decisions, she turned the county's multimillion-dollar deficit around in a matter of months.

Diana Gale didn't face a situation remotely like Mittermeier's: As Seattle's solid waste director, she had the benefit of a community already sensitive to environmental conservation issues. But she still had to overcome the difficult task of demonstrating that a large-scale recycling program was economically practical. Before long, Seattle not only had by far the nation's highest recycling rate but began reducing the amount of waste sent to its landfills every single year.

Finally, there are public officials whose achievement lies not in solving an "impossible" problem or even in taking control of a tough one, but simply in making people aware that the problem exists.

Five years ago, Nebraska's Steven L. Henderson began warning anyone who would listen about the potential effects of a little-known computer bug called the "Year 2000" problem. The bug has not been exterminated, but thanks in part to Henderson's efforts, public officials all over the country learned about it much sooner than they otherwise would have. And there is one state that seems almost certain to be effectively Y2K-proof when the crucial moment comes at the end of next year. That state is Nebraska.

Here are profiles of Governing's 1998 Public Officials of the Year:

Diana Gale, Director, Seattle Public Utilities

Nancy M. Graham, Mayor, City of West Palm Beach, Florida

Steven L. Henderson, Deputy Administrator, Nebraska Information Management Services Division

John D. LaFaver, Secretary of Revenue, State of Kansas

Zell Miller, Governor, State of Georgia

Janice M. Mittermeier, Chief Executive Officer, Orange County, California

Mike Moore, Attorney General, State of Mississippi

Paul Muegge, State Senator, State of Oklahoma

John O. Norquist, Mayor, City of Milwaukee

Richard J. Pennington, Chief of Police, City of New Orleans

George C. Sinnott, Commissioner, New York State Department of Civil Service