Public service is the highest calling of civic life. It means different things to a cop in squad car on a Saturday night, a kid picking up trash from a roadside, and a politician, but all understand that doing something to help their community matters. I know this because I was an elected official for many years and until one year ago today.
First elected in 1992, I had the opportunity to work with other progressives to do some wonderful things to get ready for the Olympics, and help modernize our County government. I also had the responsibility to understand and vote on annual budgets for both the entire County, and the Unincorporated Area, Chatham’s second largest jurisdiction after Savannah, usually over $600,000,000 per year. As a consequence I had to vote to raise taxes on 240,000 people several times–not a great way to make friends! I also lowered them a few times, but no one much noticed.
As an architect, I knew a bit about capital improvements, and so became an expert on building infrastructure with public funds. Things like a new convention center, a new jail ( twice), our first soccer complex, many libraries, a pier and pavilion, and dozens of community parks and recreational facilities. Seeing all those things through the eyes of an owner/developer was a great education for me, and gives me a lot of insight into how these things can work. I also voluntarily excluded myself and my firm from competing for over $1,000,000,000 worth of potential work, to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest, even though the County’s ordinances did not preclude it. I did help all of my local competitors build their professional portfolios with amazingly good projects!
The biggest thing I learned about public service was the ability to see our community through the eyes of other citizens, by listening to their stories, and attending their neighborhood meetings. This is a very different-looking world for people that can’t afford a car, or live on a farm or in a gated community. I remember sitting on an elderly woman’s porch one hot summer night and talking with her about the crime in her neighborhood until it became dark. Then she said to me “Mr. Shay, you should go on home now, because it’s not safe for you to be here after dark.” I thanked her and before I got back to my car I realized that she was staying and I was leaving. Public service teaches you things.
Public service also makes you a slow moving target for the hatred many people have for their government, too. I have had people curse me for proposing to add sidewalks to their neighborhood streets! It also lets you see the best–and worst–of our political system. It still amazes me that the poisonous rhetoric and mean spirit of national political parties finds its way into the meetings of our local governments. For all of that noise, there are still moments of triumph. I was able to get many “green” public policies and ordinances established, to make our County the greenest in Georgia!
Since leaving public service, I have continued to support causes that can make a difference to our community. I am currently working as Chairman of Parent University to help disenfranchised and disadvantaged young parents (and grandparents) learn how to raise their babies to be ready for first grade. I am sure that this is the best way for us to slow the growth of generational poverty, and stop filling our jail up every time we add on to it. You won’t read about that anywhere, but you may read our local newspaper as it slams me for winning public design commissions after retiring from elected office. It might just be that all of that public service helped me to learn how to better serve local governments.
Regardless of your views on my service, it is really important for you to get (or stay) engaged in your local government. Whether it is advocating for streetcars, or raising concerns about pollution, or even opposing sidewalks, your public service is crucial to all of our futures. If nothing else, please vote!