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Apr 2001 / church and state :: email this story to a friend

I2: The Oxygen of High
Public Places

By Eddie Roth

Eddie Roth

So much about community progress in St. Louis depends on the willingness of committed, everyday citizens to engage in public service, including assuming public office. Public institutions, and the constituencies they serve, benefit immeasurably from the fresh perspective of the previously uninitiated: smart, energetic citizens willing to take on the risks and responsibilities of public leadership, with high purpose and humility.

Himalayan trekking is an extravagant metaphor for citizen governance of public institutions, but it is apt in at least one respect: accomplishment and sometimes survival in each depend on regular and adequate infusions of oxygen.

In true high summitry, being unprepared for "thin air" has metabolic consequences; a failure to "oxygenate" during an ascent causes a form of intoxication with predictable symptoms, ranging, in extremes, from false invincibility (leading to dangerous missteps) to unwarranted paralysis (leading to dangerous inaction). It is clouded judgment that fails to predict the coming storm or to discern the open pass, impeding upward progress or worse.

These things are known well in every base camp. But they are too often dismissed out of careless and perilous impatience to take in the vistas or plant the flag.

The terra firma of local public office may be more forgiving than the vertical terrain of the world's rooftops. But orienting the people's business even on seemingly more level landscape still requires defying the gravity of governmental inertia. And, unlike processions led in the more solitary, less essential environment of its mountaineering counterpart, the work of public bodies carries with it a longer chain with more links: The mountain must be tackled, not simply "because it is there," but because doing so is important to the welfare of the larger community the public body serves.

The Oxygen of public office is Information: "I2" on the Periodic Table of Elements, one part reliable, one part useful. Developing and organizing I2 before embarking is a base camp necessity — absorbing it regularly and sharing it widely along the journey is the lifeline.

At first, carrying abundant supplies of I2 in the extra pack may seem to slow progress, the heady atmosphere bringing with it the temptation to forge ahead. But soon one realizes that it is I2 that keeps the head clear and provides the direction and balance necessary for all to place one foot in front of the other — on solid ground.

Eddie Roth tries to watch his step as President of the Board of Police Commissioners for the City of St. St. Louis

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