What happened to public servants?

"Where you invest your love, you invest your life."
— "Awake My Soul,"
Mumford and Sons song

That poetic turn of phrase gives rise in my mind to something rarely addressed in the tension between broke governments and the employees they hire to render service to the public.

It is this: How in the hell did we lose the passion for serving the people?

Depending upon your point of view, the arguments heard around the country center on one of three things:

— Cutting budgets.

— Addressing compensation for public employees.

— Preserving unions and helping them prosper.

A saner place to start: What basic services do the people need, and what is it going to take for government to most effectively deliver those services?

For example, how can we best teach children each and every school day?

In Wisconsin, unions say it is to make sure teachers are unionized. To drive home the point, teachers took to the streets in Madison to protest a bill to revoke most of their collective bargaining privileges. More than 1,000 of the 2,600 Madison School District teachers called in sick, forcing Superintendent Dan Nerad to close all schools. He feared the district would be unable to "maintain safe and secure school environments."

The loss of a school day or two is an acceptable casualty for the preservation of the teachers union?

Teachers union President Mike Langyel called his sick-out a "political action" tactic to "protect our schools."

Protect schools by forcing them to shut down? That ought to disqualify him from a seat at the table for any discussion about improving education for schoolchildren. His actions clearly make the point that a union’s interest is only the union. If better educating children is an interest at all, it’s a tactic, not a goal.

Case in point: Unions in Wisconsin fought for, and got passed, a 2009 law requiring teachers to teach children not about reading, math or science … but the merits and history of collective bargaining.

You can’t make this stuff up. Among the things recommended for teachers to indoctrinate students:

— How unions are responsible for civil rights laws and other citizen protections.

— How President Reagan made it hard on unions by firing air traffic controllers in 1981.

— How unions have developed highly successful political efforts.

— How AFL-CIO President John Sweeney increased organizing efforts and political action.

As an exercise, Wisconsin teachers are encouraged to have students "imagine that they’re a local firefighter in a union to try to understand why they should have union representation."

Aside from being an extraordinarily poor use of school time, what if students honestly imagined the life of a unionized firefighter?

In Southern Nevada, Clark County firefighters are battling a political blaze they started by abusing sick leave.

One union member took 48 days of paid sick leave in 2009 and earned $232,187 that year. No stretch of sick leave exceeded three days, which would by rule have triggered a demand for a doctor’s note.

As county managers audited the abuse, they found Fire Department management shamefully involved in the scam. One administrator sent an e-mail to others urging that duty rosters not be posted with "scheduled" sick leave on it, because it produces a paper trail of deceit.

How would Wisconsin teachers turn that into a unions-are-good lesson in the classroom? Claim the union had no idea? Too late for that, as one of Clark County’s chief abusers is father of the president of the firefighters union.

Look, the simple point is that taxpayers deserve a lot better than they are getting. If firefighters can make more than $200,000 a year while racking up 48 days of scheduled "sick" leave, taxpayers now have a right to ask just exactly how much they are overpaying for an overstaffed fire protection service.

Who knows? But you can bet this kind of featherbedding takes place among public employee unions at the expense of taxpayers all the time and in every state.

It all comes back to the lost idea that "where you invest your love, you invest your life."

Has the term "public servant" become so old-fashioned we can no longer expect a love for the job from public employees? If not a love, how about a passion for excellence? If not passion, how about loyalty? If not loyalty, how about a sense of duty? And if we can’t get any of those, could we at least get a little honesty?

I’m one who still thinks we can. But we’ll need to excuse unions from the table. Their interest is not fundamentally the people’s.

Then we start with a brutally honest assessment of how government can deliver effective and efficient service to the public. Nothing less — and nothing more.

Sherman Frederick (sfrederick@reviewjournal.com), the former publisher of the Las Vegas Review-Journal and a member of the Nevada Newspaper Hall of Fame, writes a column for Stephens Media. Read his blog at www.lvrj.com/blogs/sherm.

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