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Suzanne Langlois

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Governing Magazine's Public Officials of the Year

Posted: 12/14/10 08:27 PM ET

Political scandal and corruption have become so commonplace as to be scarcely newsworthy. The approval ratings of our federal legislators hover at about 40 to 45 percent with the Republicans currently holding a sliver of a lead over their slightly less popular colleagues on the other side of the aisle. It is against this backdrop that the ethical and courageous public servant soldiers on without much in the way of recognition. Governing, a monthly print magazine and daily online newsletter dealing with issues germane to public officials, endeavors to make right that oversight.

Each year since 1994 Governing magazine has honored eight outstanding elected, appointed or career public servants for their outstanding contributions to effective governance. Governing, magazine in concert with their private sector sponsors Citrix, Motorola and Oracle , recently hosted the seventeenth annual 'Public Officials of the Year' Awards Dinner in the elegant oak paneled Willard Room of Washington's historic Beaux-Arts Willard Inter-Continental Hotel. The eight honorees of the 2010 class of Public Officials of the Year, six men and two women, were described by Peter Harkness the Founder and Publisher Emeritus of Governing Magazine in his keynote speech as tough, dogged, tenacious and wise in a time of fiscal crisis,

Connecticut State Representative Diana Urban was honored for the defining effort of her career as a public servant, the successful passage into law of Results Based Accountability. Connecticut's financial system had been broken for decades. Representative Urban's twenty years experience as a professor of economics positioned her perfectly to help fix a system that would never have otherwise achieved accountable, transparent and efficient government. " Rather than across the board budget cuts, you begin to work backwards from the result you want." Urban said," Then ask, 'Are the programs that we have in place getting us where we need to be ?" RBA will require all Connecticut state agencies to submit performance metrics along with their yearly budget requests." The landmark legislation, the first of its' kind in the country, required six years of tireless effort to bring to fruition. RBA becomes effective January 1st 2011.

Honoree Mayor Mick Cornett of Oklahoma City held a press conference in front of elephants at the city zoo to emphasize that his city was beginning to appear on multiple 'fattest cities in the country' lists. The popular former sportscaster declared himself obese. Putting his considerable political capital on the line, he challenged his contstituents to go a mass diet with him. "We have an automobile-concentric culture and a drive through restaurant mentality." Cornett said. He then proposed a 777 million dollar make over of the Oklahoma City's downtown, funded by a one cent tax increase. The outcome of Mayor Cornett's bold initiative was an astonishing group weight-loss of over 600,000 pounds and the creation a new pedestrian friendly city center.

John Covington, the superintendent of schools of Kansas City was recognized for rebuilding the city's substandard school system from the ground up. He closed nearly half the city's schools and reduced the workforce by a third. He did away with traditional letter grades and grade levels grouping students by their individual achievements. School districts across the country are watching to see if John Covington's experiment pays off.

Texas State Representative Jerry Madden and State Senator John Whitmire joined forces to change their state's Department of Criminal Justice. The number of inmates incarcerated in the Lone Star state had been growing exponentially since 1993 resulting in a request by the DCJ for 523 million dollars for the construction of three new prisons. Rather than rubber-stamping the funding, Madden and Whitmire devised a plan to spend 243 million, approximately half the funding request, on treatment, mental health services and rehabulitation . Three years later their plan implemented, Texas has become the model of corrections reform.

Former small business owner and two term Governor of Georgia Sonny Perdue had never planned to be a public servant. He brought his experience as an effective CEO familiar with all aspects of management to the office of Governor. Perdue added a chief operating officer and and a chief financial officer to the state's organizational chart and created the 'Commission for a New Georgia' to make recommendations for fixing things as they encountered them rather than produce expensive fact finding reports. When he is term limited out this January Sonny Perdue's legacy will be a well managed state with it's fiscal house in order in the midst of the worst financial crisis in generations.

Ana Gelabert Sanchez was appointed Planning Director of the city of Miami in the late 1900's a time when real estate development was booming. The problem she confronted was the city's outdated one-size-fits-all building code. The city's development was, in her words " Pretty much anything goes, There were no guidelines, and there was no way to control how the development happened." Gelabert Sanchez and then Mayor Manny Diaz began working on a new form based building code called Miami 21 which would integrate existing structure, with appropriately scaled new development while maintaining walkability and giving context to the neighborhoods. It took Gelabert Sanchez four years to get approval for her audacious plan. This spring Miami became the first major city in the United States to implement a citywide form-based building code.

Steve Fletcher the Chief Information Officer for the State of Utah was called upon then Governor John Huntsman to reorganize the state's IT facilities and streamline its' workforce. The Governor had implemented a four day work week as a cost cutting measure and Fletcher was tasked to rebuild the state website in such a way as to compensate for the shorter week. Not only did Steve Fletcher simplify the citizen /website interface, he was able to consolidate the state's 1900 existing subpar servers to a 500 upgraded units. He was able to cut the workforce by twenty percent as well as offer a greater number of state services available twenty four hours a day seven days a week.

Following the excellent dinner each of the honorees spoke briefly about his or her efforts on behalf of the citizens of their state. Most remarkable about the entire evening -- there was not a single reference to any political affiliation. The labels Republican or Democratic were irrelevant and as well as absent.