Chief times 3
Looking back over the last three plus decades, it’s interesting how my life has had a theme.
That theme has revolved around being a Chief.
Growing up, I always looked up to my Dad for many things.
But one of his best achievements was being the fire Chief in the small town where he grew up. Dad would eventually end up selling fire apparatus for Mack Trucks but he maintained his leadership roles in fire departments up until the day he had a heart attack in 1976.
There are many kinds of Chiefs in the world we live in. Webster’s defines Chief as a person who has been accorded the highest rank or office. The reality is that there is probably someone who ranks higher than any particular Chief, but the Chief is typically the one who leads most of the others.
I wasn’t terribly ambitious the first four years of my navy service. I fell into a typical junior enlisted mentality that only lifers and brown nosers would ever try and go up the chain. Like others, I had my share of both good and bad Chiefs. But if you had told young Mac that he would someday become a Chief, you would have heard a lot of scoffing and perhaps a few rough sailor words.
My lucky break came when I had to start over. After a break in active service, I came back into the navy as a very humbled Petty Officer Third Class. I was significantly older than my fellow petty officers but I had discovered the secret to success. Stop being a victim and put in the best work you were capable of. Stop waiting for the navy to change to fit your needs and desires and ignore the scoffers and people who might hold you back.
Armed with that new attitude and a lot of hunger, I worked very hard to become a Navy Chief. Those efforts were rewarded and on one fine day, I gained a permanent appointment as a Machinist Mate Chief Petty Officer.
Chief times 1
The work was harder than before. You find that you are always being depended on to train those above and those below. Not always an easy task. I am eternally grateful that I never had to deal with a sailor that was as stubborn as I was in my earlier days. I actually was blessed with some great young men. The submarine service attracts some of the best and brightest. But that does place more of a challenge on the ones that lead them. I learned some great lessons. But I saw an opportunity to do something else that would give me even more responsibility. And I pursued it.
Chief times 2
Commissioned Chief Warrant Officer. This track was only open to Chiefs in my generation. But it led to the chance to lead larger and more diverse groups of people. The Chief Warrant Officer is a highly trained and experienced technician in their selected field. The competition is fierce and only a few are chosen. The year I was selected, there were only 13 in my class of specialists. The Competition field started with over 1300 applicants.
Now I was given some outstanding growth opportunities. Division Officer, Department Head, Damage Control Officer, Repair Officer, Docking Officer, and a few others. It was a great time but it was also pretty challenging. I was sad to see the journey end but after more than twenty years, the navy was already shrinking because of the end of the Cold War.
My second career and volunteer world had been pretty busy. Lots of companies and lots of moves. Many chances to serve organizations in a variety of roles. But the one thread throughout was the ability to use the knowledge and skills I learned in my time in the navy. The strongest part was the “Chief” skills. I had an amazing career until it was time to retire. Well, semi-retire since I continued to teach and coach.
Chief times 3.
When I retired, I discovered that people think retirees have a lot of extra time on their hands. So Debbie and I have done a lot of volunteer work and helping others as much as possible. Then in May of 2022, an old friend called me up and asked me if I could join his team. Doug is a County Commissioner in the County I live in and his Chief of Staff had decided to move to a new role outside of the county’s government.
After a lot of praying, I said yes. The previous Chief had already departed so figuring out all of my new responsibilities was a bit of a challenge. I had not spent much time observing County government before so this was all completely new to me.
But this is what I have learned.
First and foremost, I had to leaern the role of County Government. Until you are on the inside, it is very difficult to understand the complexity of the Commissioner’s role. In the eight months that I have been in the position, I have seen and learned so much. Every week has a new challenge and that gets added to the many challenges that already exist. Being in the position I am in, I get to participate in some of the most critical local decisions that affect people of our county.
The Commissioners are very much like the Chief Executives of the County. They control a sizable budget that funds services in a broad array of areas. They are also responsible for overall management of the people who make those services work.
From the youngest to the oldest.
The county has agencies that deal with Children and Youth, the Aging population, Behavioral and Mental Health issues, Veterans, Housing, Community Development, Industrial development, court services, prothonotary, Sheriffs, Park Police, Conservation District and on and on. Every one of these agencies receives guidance and direction to one degree or another. From budgeting to policy to salary issues, each needs the leadership that our three commissioners provide.
The County also partners with many outside agencies to supplement our offerings to the constituents. This is a complex relationship since it requires the agencies to meet the mountains of regulations that come from state and federal agencies. Our role is to work with them and help them use the resources that are provided in the most effective manner. That alone requires a complete set of skills that only come with time, learning and practice.
We financially support the Westmoreland Community College and help with many workforce development initiatives.
Our county has a prison and operates housing facilities in many communities. Add a nursing facility to the mix and you can begin to understand how much complexity there is in managing an organization that is so incredibly diverse. Our public safety organization runs the 911 and emergency services that support every community in the county. Our county is bigger than the State of Rhode Island in land mass and has many geological challenges from the Highlands in the east to the river basins in the west. You never know what kind of emergency will occur next or where.
The Great Pandemic
Our Commissioners are elected every four years. In the most recent cycle, Sean Kertes and Doug Chew emerged as the victorious candidates in the Republican side and Gina Cerreli (now Thrasher) was the winning Democrat. Sean and Gina were both experienced in their roles since Gina had already been in the position and Sean was a Chief of Staff for the previous commissioner. Doug was very experienced in previous field in Health Care and administration but was going to learn quickly that County Government is another kind of animal altogether.
As they were settling into their roles, the Great Pandemic was slowly unfolding. Like every other government, business, church, organization and community, the world was suddenly turned on its head. Since so little was known about the pandemic, many of the old rules and all of the old norms were suspended. Chaos could have ensued.
But the three Commissioners put aside any potential partisan politics and got to work. Adjustments were made, emerging priorities were analyzed and dealt with and to the credit of the entire team, all of the county services continued. There was never a lost moment in emergency services, the prison functioned, the housing issues were dealt with, child and behavioral services continued and the county kept open as much as physically possible.
That was leadership.
I was brought on board as the pandemic was coming to a close. But the work from that period has continued. Large amounts of federal dollars were granted to all counties to help recover from the effects of the pandemic. The Commissioners were tasked with deciding where the money should go. This is where I am especially proud of their leadership.
They could have used the money the way typical politicians use large pots of money. Divide it up amongst your friends and influential supporters and the public be damned.
That did not happen here.
The Commissioners and their staff carefully studied the guidelines and conditions of the grant money. They deliberated and often debated what was the most impactful of the many needs and have carefully used the money for things that will help the greatest amount of citizens. They studied the problems and felt that the best approach was incremental.
Large impact areas included continued food insecurity, building and sustaining a workforce that would be needed to attract new businesses as well as supporting existing ones. Strengthening the emergency service communications that were about to have a huge problem because of aging infrastructure. Working with the local municipalities on sewage and water projects that are critical to the people they serve. Enhancing the broadband accessibility to areas that were unserved and underserved. Mental Health and enhanced traditional health care service across the entire range of ages and needs.
These decisions required leadership and vision. More work remains. But I will tell you this: Despite the traditional us versus them mentality that you would expect in a normal political environment, this team stepped up and worked together for the good of the citizens.
Pretty soon, it will be time for another primary. Already, people who have their own agendas are rising up to say they could have done better. Or they would have done everything differently. Well, talk is cheap. I personally think the voters got it right four years ago. Knowing what I know now as both an outsider and now an insider, I can’t think of a better team moving forward to keep the county on the right track. I have a pretty high standard when it comes to leadership. I am proud to go to work every day and work with others who have the same mindset.
When I think of all the things this team has learned in the past four years, I am even more convinced that it makes no sense whatsoever to bring new and inexperienced people in when there is no compelling reason to do so.
Special note to any of my detractors that might stumble on this.
I was retired for about five years before I went back to help the team. If for any reason I am no longer needed, I will be happy to return to my retirement. We don’t really need the money and Oscar and Moses (the cats) have assured me I can be Chief Food Bringer and litter cleaner full time. I’m also quite sure Debbie will be glad to have me around a bit longer.