By Arthur H. Gunther III
The world has always had potholes — that’s why it is not Heaven. And it has always had people who fix potholes as well as the many more who fail to do the assigned job.
These days in the United States, potholes — the literal type that forms on roads in freeze/thaw or the ruts in government — take forever to repair, some without any fix ever. Regulations, political priorities, a “not my job” attitude, red tape — all get in the way. Once, things were better. Not that there weren’t potholes, not that government worked, for often it has not, but once more individual pride and moxie got the job done.
An example: In Orangetown, N.Y., back in the 1950s, the highway chief was one Sterling Theis. A former mechanic and road repair guy himself who worked his way up the ladder in an old-fashioned way, he would get up at 4 every morning, have coffee and then head out in his truck. Each day he would take a different route in his town, which covers a number of hamlets and, back then, quite a few rural roads. Theis would note of every pothole or developing one that he saw, or a clogged storm drain or a missing curb section. He would jot down the location of each one.
When he got to the DPW office, his foreman would take the expected list and, following Theis’ standing order, get the jobs done or either started that very day. No excuses, no matter the weather, the sick list, the budget.
Sterling Theis retired long ago and is now gone. His method of pro-active repair did not continue. Today, a pothole fix probably has to go out to bid.
You can extend this metaphor to any part of government’s “service to the people.” Things just do not get done these days, at least not as many, not as quickly. Perhaps there is some good reason, such as making sure the repair will last, observing environmental rules, providing jobs, etc. But mostly the slowdown is because government — ever bigger, ever more complex, ever more a “system” — falls all over itself, and along the very expensive path on which the turtle moves, bricks of gold are taken up by the favored few who work the system.
Another example: In our Washington, D.C., which is our land, our seat of government, the George Washington Monument formally opens today, May 12, 2014, after being shut for three years following a 5.8-magnitude quake in August 2011. Three years, when our involvement in the great landscape of World War II was three years, nine months. How many tanks, ships, Jeeps, training camps, rifles, bridges, etc., were built in that period?
At the Monument, more than 150 cracks have been repaired, rainwater leaks have been sealed, and the 130-year-old structure is OK to go so that we, the people, can once again visit our tribute to the Father of our Country. But why three years?
Yes, the memorial was properly closed so that engineers could conduct an extensive analysis and restoration of the 555-foot stone obelisk that once was the tallest structure in the world. But should that have taken three years? And why $15 million for the repairs, or about $10,000 per crack? That’s a big hit for taxpayers, even with half of the tab paid by philanthropist David Rubenstein.
Once, initiative got you to the top, and that kept service to the people at a higher level, too, whether in government action or manufacturing product quality. For whatever reason, with some great exception, general no-nonsense, get-it-done, non-bureaucratic service that’s so overdue everywhere is as illusive as was the Washington Monument when it, this people’s statue, was closed to the people.
The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org This essay may be reproduced.