3rd Quarter 2022 President’s Message

By Rob Henken

On November 16, the Forum will host its 30th annual Salute to Local Government. When the Salute’s creators – one of whom, David Meissner, we will be honoring at this year’s event – started this tradition three decades ago, I don’t think they could have foreseen how the importance of this annual get-together would grow over time.

As most of our members know, the Salute serves a dual purpose for our organization. First, it is our only annual fundraising event. The dollars we raise are a critical source of discretionary revenue that we use to support our Focus and Taxpayer reports and budget briefs, which typically do not have specific grant or contract income attached to them.

But more importantly, the Salute reflects the value we place on public sector service in general, and on innovation and excellence in government in particular.

As the only president in our organization’s history who came to the post from local government, I always have had a special appreciation for the Salute.  In my very first set of Salute remarks back in 2008, I noted that government officials go to work every day knowing that if they make a mistake it could end up on the front page of the newspaper, but if they do something right it will go largely unnoticed. Taking the time to recognize a handful of those “something rights” each year truly hits home for me.

Moreover, I have always felt the Salute helps to convey an important nuance in the Forum’s mission. We were founded 109 years ago as a local government watchdog, and today we still dedicate much of our research agenda to projects that we hope will improve local government efficiency, cooperation, and effectiveness. However, in doing so, we try to convey to public sector officials and staff that we are not looking to kick them when they’re down, but instead striving to help them to identify and address emerging challenges.

As our politics have grown more vitriolic and downright vicious in recent years, the Salute now takes on new meaning. There has always been a need to recognize individuals who accept the challenge of positions like election clerk or public health commissioner for their overall service to the citizenry and for putting in the many extra hours these positions often demand. Yet, tragically, we now need to also cite these individuals for their courage given the personal safety threats so many have encountered across the country in the wake of pandemic-related health policy disagreements and baseless accusations of election fraud.

And then there are our teachers and school administrators. The last thing I want to do in this space is enter the raging debate about curricula in our K-12 schools or speak to the increasingly partisan and political nature of school board elections and school board proceedings in general. However, no matter where one stands on the political spectrum, I would hope that we all would have some empathy for our educators in light of this new turn of events and recognize how it adds another very challenging dimension to a profession that already faces myriad difficulties.

It used to be that taking one day out of the year to honor our public servants was a nice form of public recognition for them and a nice way for the Forum to fortify our relationships with local government leaders. In 2022, I would argue that the Salute is now also one of the only opportunities we have as a community to offer an essential “thank you” to all public sector workers at a time when an historically tight labor market gives them plenty of other options and an increasingly divided public gives them plenty of incentive to ask, “Who needs this?”

We hope you’ll sign up to attend this year’s Salute – registration information can be found here!