Officials, beware ‘arrogance of power’ |

Officials, beware ‘arrogance of power’

I join with thousands of Nevada County citizens in commending Supervisor Sue Horne and Treasurer Christina Dabis for their recent actions as good stewards of the taxpayers’ assets. In questioning the county administrative officer’s allocation of funds for a retreat, Horne and Dabis exercised not only their right as elected officials but also their responsibility as shepherds of the public interest. Retreats can yield positive results or they can be wastes of time and money, depending on their purpose and content. That issue has been pretty well exhausted. Much more important than the question of the retreat itself is the deeper, more fundamental dynamic at play, one involving power and accountability

Horne looks through the pat answers (contract cost overruns are “normal”) and vacuous comments (training “in the spirit of the Super Bowl”) that seem to characterize too much of the dialogue at the county offices, and she searches for the facts and merits of a subject or issue. I have no doubt that the CAO is doing the best he can to perform his duties within the limits of his abilities, but evidently he has not been accustomed to having his actions or judgments subjected to scrutiny by those chartered to do so. The fact that the CAO was irritated as a result of Horne’s inquiry does nothing to counter the perception that it may be helpful for him to take stock of his appropriate role in county government and the implications for his public image embedded therein. No one is right all the time, and the residents of Nevada County don’t expect their county officials to be perfect. They do expect a little humility and an honest admission when mistakes and misjudgments occur, or when there may be a better alternative to a particular preference. Humility and intellectual honesty have a salubrious effect on trust and credibility, especially when exercised in less than flattering circumstances.

Far too often, public officials seem to forget that there is an element of accountability involved with the distribution of the public’s tax dollars, whether the amounts are large or small. It is an all-too-common pitfall to succumb to the concept that it’s the “government’s money,” when, in fact, “the government” doesn’t have any money. There appears to be a dearth of officials at all levels of government who recognize their rudimentary responsibility to provide good stewardship our tax dollars. I was disappointed (but not surprised by the source) to see that Sue Horne was criticized in this space for having the good sense to ask for an accounting of an intended expenditure of public funds. The criticism of Horne was pure politics and based on no logic or principle of good management practices. Its only remarkable characteristic was the writer’s display of profoundly bad judgment in criticizing a public official for seeing after the people’s business in a responsible manner.

Approximately 35 years ago, in the days when politics was populated more by statesmen than politicians and when leadership was more common than pretense, Sen. J. William Fulbright cautioned against what he termed the “arrogance of power.” Fulbright warned that Americans should not confuse power with virtue or mistake self-interest with universal truth. He was talking in a different time and about much more crucial and far-reaching events than a small, rural county’s expenditure of a small amount of funds, but Fulbright’s warning is timeless and boundless, regardless of the level of government involved. The principle, as applied by Sue Horne, is the same.

Nathan Beason lives in Nevada City.

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