Cut newly elected officials slack while they are learning job

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Guest Columnist

On the heels of the mid-term elections, I’m reminded of a story I once heard.

A missionary in England was teaching his teenage daughter how to drive. As is the case in that country, those who are learning to drive must display the letter L in the back window of the car. In a hurry one day, the missionary took off in the family car. Forgetting he was across the pond and still being in teacher mode, he was traveling on the wrong side of the road. He was the subject of honking horns and scornful glances before he was forced off the road by the oncoming traffic.

He exited the vehicle to what he thought would be an angry mob, but the fellow drivers showed him nothing but patience when they saw the L for learner displayed in the window. Just as the other drivers showed patience toward the missionary because they thought he was learning to drive, we need to give our newly elected officials some grace after they take their oath of office and start their lives as public servants. For many of these newly elected officials, no matter what level of government, this is their first venture into public service.

In August, I spent time at the University of Tennessee County Technical Assistance Service’s County Officials Orientation Program with close to 1,000 newly elected county officials.

During the recent orientation program, I heard more than one of the CTAS attorneys informing new officials what changes they can or cannot make once they take office. The program gathering provides county officials with important information to help prepare them to assume office. Topics include county offices and authority, oaths and bonds, personnel issues, ethics, conflicts of interest, open meetings and records.

The week after the orientation, CTAS and the Tennessee Sheriff’s Association team up to hold a school for new sheriffs. Even after the training sessions, CTAS employees are available to assist officials with everything from budgets and finance to environmental issues to fire management.

County officials aren’t the only ones who receive orientation upon being elected. Our Naifeh Center for Effective Leadership, which provides leadership training to employees at all levels, partners with the Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy at UT-Knoxville every other year to host a workshop for newly elected Tennessee legislators. In fact, invitations to all of the newly elected General Assembly members will go out soon. While some of these new legislators may already have served at the local level, this workshop familiarizes them with state government. They hear from nationally recognized speakers on such topics as transitioning from campaigning to governing to state budgeting, and they receive an overview on Tennessee’s revenue structure and the state’s budget.

Our Law Enforcement Innovation Center and Municipal Technical Advisory Service also get into teaching mode with basic training for new school resource officers and the elected officials academy, respectively. Through this training, our agencies realize that these public servants need orienting to their new roles. Even though they don’t have an L in their windows, I hope that you, too, will have patience with them as they adjust to their new professions in public service.

Herb Byrd III is vice president of the UT Institute for Public Service, which is the UT System’s source of public service outreach in Tennessee.