By: Ana Cortez, Special Advisor at Management Partners and former City Manager St. Helena, Montana.
On March 13, the House of Representatives passed sweeping legislation creating a nationwide relief package to assist those affected by the outbreak. On March 14, 2020, the New York Times reported that COVID 19 has affected 49 states, affecting more than 2,700 people and reported 58 related deaths, and that the economy has subsequently taken a hit not seen since 9/11. On March 15, the Federal Reserve Bank cuts its interest rate to near zero. Coronavirus is truly testing not only the Federal and State governments’ ability to contain this pandemic, but just as important, local government’s ability to demonstrate value.
In her article “The Coronavirus Called America’s Bluff,” Anne Applebaum of The Atlantic discusses how the COVID 19 crisis is challenging our trust in government, health care systems, and the political system itself. She writes: “Epidemics have a way of revealing underlying truths about the societies they impact… What (COVID 19) reveals about the United States- not just this administration, but also our health-care system, our bureaucracy, our political system itself- should make Americans as fearful as the Japanese who heard the ‘distant thunder’ of Perry’s guns” – A reference to Commodore Matthew Perry of the U.S. Navy who sailed into Tokyo in 1853, thus destroying the Japanese’s perception of its national security and might. As a 30-year local government professional, I take notice of situations that may showcase local government’s ability to add value. With great challenges, come great opportunities.
So, what time is it? It is the time for local government to shine and to demonstrate value. During a pandemic, local governments have the opportunity and the obligation to demonstrate value. This is not the time for municipal employees to look at their first respondent colleagues as the only ones who are on the clock. We are all on the clock. It is the time for city hall, county, special district, joint power authorities, and school district employees to engage in coordinated actions to check on the welfare of fragile residents. It is time for office employees to join food banks, food distribution centers, shelters, family resource centers and after school programs. It is time to volunteer at the local hospitals and help with paperwork and logistics, working in the back office where they can relieve overwhelmed medical administrative staff.
What time is it? It is time for public servants to own up to that honorable title and demonstrate that we are not sheltering under our job descriptions, union bargaining agreements, or 8- to- 5 schedules. Fundamentally, municipal employees can provide evidence that Ms. Applebaum is right or to demonstrate our value and prove her wrong.