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Saturday, January 8, 2011

The nature of authentic civil service

Working in government allows one to see Original Sin in dreadfully evident ways. As we read too often in the papers, careers in “civil service” can easily become a means to selfish ends. As a government official myself, I can attest firsthand that many who make civil service a vocation on any level could learn a thing or two from the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I know I can.

But then there are the often under-reported stories of someone doing something right.

My agency, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, recently saw its director, Dr. W. Michael Sullivan—who was appointed by Governor Carcieri some five years ago—step down for Governor Chafee’s choice for the position. Changes in leadership can be exciting for staff staying on, but for the person saying goodbye, such transitions might be distressing, a time of turning inward or walking away in a huff. This possibility makes the story of a last official act by Dr. Sullivan one worth telling.

On a recent cold winter’s night, he roused himself from a warm fire in his home in Richmond and drove to the West Warwick Town Hall for a sparsely attended Sewer Commission Hearing. There he sang the praises of a group not generally known for their glamour or prestige: wastewater operators.

During his tenure at DEM, Dr. Sullivan was an unwavering supporter of this rarely supported group: the men and women who run the state’s nineteen major wastewater treatment systems. These professionals are responsible for the operations and maintenance of thousands of miles of sewer pipes, as well as for treating what those pipes transport: some 100 million gallons of residential, commercial and industrial sewage produced every day in the Ocean State. Wastewater operators use ingenuity, super-high-tech equipment and all-natural biological processes to turn such dangerously polluted wastes into clear water that meets increasingly stringent state and federal discharge limits.

Last March, statewide flooding made all this a bit more complicated—especially for Rhode Island treatment facilities in Warwick and West Warwick, which went under water without warning in a matter of hours.

Because of the great efforts of the wastewater staffs during and well after the floods—indeed, even until today—the DEM, the US Environmental Protection Agency and Save the Bay have been lauding the efforts of the men and women at Warwick and West Warwick, as well as the profession statewide.

This brings us to the West Warwick Town Council chambers and that meeting a few days before Christmas—a rather glum government gathering with about four residents in attendance for one sewer issue or another. Present also were the town’s wastewater superintendent, Peter Eldridge, as well as the town’s engineering consultant and members of both crews. A representative from EPA and Save the Bay were there to present awards to these men, as was I, representing the DEM.

But then entered my soon-to-be former director, who made the trip up from Richmond to speak very kind words on behalf of the State of Rhode Island at a meeting he didn’t have to attend about people that have no way of advancing his career back at the University of Rhode Island. The wastewater crews were honored and thrilled.

I thought Dr. Sullivan deserved to be recognized for making his first priority that night a group of men and women who too often are the least among the glitterati of government. Acting thus showed a particular quality of character that Our Lord calls us to.

And for those other public officials who over the years have taken the time to support wastewater operators—Warwick’s Mayor Scott Avedisian, West Warwick’s councilman Angelo Padula and Rhode Island Secretary of State Ralph Mollis are three that come to mind—thanks for showing by example that civil service sometimes means eschewing the limelight and the earthly illusion of power and prestige and embracing the men and women who do the dirty work of keeping civilization free from filth.

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