Local Government Innovation & Redesign

To support local government redesign efforts and recognize the innovative work already underway, the Public and Nonprofit Leadership Center has partnered with state associations to create the Local Government Innovation & Redesign Guide and host a yearly Local Government Innovations Awards ceremony.

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My Aunt Joan is in a Book Club

My Aunt Joan is in a book club. Recently, we found we'd both read the same book--Dewey The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World.

It's written by Vicki Myron (with Bret Witter), a small-town public librarian who rescued and adopted an abandoned kitten. The kitten is named Dewey (as in decimal system) Readmore Books and takes on the role of official "library cat," eventually attracting the attention of readers, townsfolk and international media. Dewey's mischievous and calming presence made a profound impact on a town struggling through the 1980s farm crisis, and on Myron's personal struggles facing cancer, raising a child on her own, and dealing with the challenges of everyday life as a nonprofit manager.

Aunt Joan said, "I enjoyed Dewey. It was a nice light read."

How could I explain to Aunt Joan that reading parts of Myron's book made me upset?

Myron writes of typical challenges faced by nonprofit/government leaders. She juggles the "good 'ol boy" method of doing business with the government style of crossing every T and dotting every I. She deals with a mind-boggling myriad of stakeholders, cajoling and appeasing each differently and with different results.

In order to keep the cat in the library, she consults the mayor ("He wasn't a reader; I'm not even sure he knew we had a library,") and the city attorney ("who didn't know of any statutes barring animals from the library and didn't feel compelled to spend time looking for one.") Of course, she consults the library board. ("They didn't object to the idea of a library cat, but I can't say they were enthusiastic. Their response was more 'Let's give it a try' than 'Heck, yeah, we're behind you a hundred percent.'")

The library board features prominently in a chapter called "The Meeting," near the end of the book. It was this chapter that upset me. In it, Myron describes the board's response to aging Dewey's poor health and appearance. Myron writes of being "blindsided" in a board meeting by a host of questions about the cat.

"'We've had complaints, Vicki, don't you understand? Our job is to speak for the citizens of this town.' The board seemed ready to say the town didn't want Dewey anymore. I knew that was ridiculous because I saw the community's love for Dewey every day. I had no doubt the board had received a few complaints, but there had always been complaints.

If this had been the board twenty years ago, I realized, we would never have been able to adopt Dewey. 'Thank God,' I thought to myself. 'Thank you, God, for past boards.'

A board meeting can be a freight train, and this one pushed me off to the side like a cow on the tracks. Someone suggested a committee to make decisions about Dewey's future. I knew the people on that committee would mean well. I knew they would take their duty seriously and do what they thought best...The board was discussing how many people should be on this Dewey Death Watch Committee when one member, Sue Hitchcock, spoke up. 'This is ridiculous,' she said. 'I can't believe we're even discussing this. Vicki has been at the library for twenty-five years. She's been with Dewey for nineteen years. She knows what she's doing. We should all trust Vicki's judgment.'

Thank God for Sue Hitchcock. As soon as she spoke, the train jumped the tracks and the board backed off. 'Yes, yes,' they muttered, 'you're right...' I was devastated. It stung me to the heart that these people had even suggested taking Dewey away from me. And they could have done it. They had the power. But they didn't."

When you're an ED, working "at the pleasure" of a board of 8, 10, 16 or more directors, you deal with many opinions and many power structures. If you stay in the job as long as Myron did, you regularly deal with new board presidents and members, and their changing values and ideas. It's exhausting and confusing. In a moment of fatigue or stress, it's easy for board members to propose a committee and take charge of an issue that you can (and often should) handle on your own.

And it can be very very difficult to know when to pick your battles with the board, when to stick up for yourself, when to risk being assertive.

So thank God for Sue Hitchcock and for those board meetings where cooler heads prevail, where EDs and board members risk to trust each other's judgment.

To err is human, to purr is feline. ~Robert Byrne

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