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12.22.10

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When Honesty Unravels

The death of a government career

By Molly Wolf


I have, for the last month and a half, come back into my body, my spirit, my heart and my home. I have been gone for years, not realizing that the end of an era, mine, had its own trajectory, and that I would naturally emerge from the wreckage of my civil service career.

Over a decade ago, I had the chance to volunteer to be laid off from a lucrative job when my manager told me that my coworker would be terminated the next day as layoffs rippled through the company. On that evening, I felt lucky to make that offer for the man who was my friend and coworker. As the company shaved its staff, my friend had time to seek other, more secure, employment. For me, this sacrifice allowed me to exit with power and with pride. I have never regretted that move.

But the trail does not end with our hero riding off, the bad guys vanquished. Instead, I began a career of public service, beginning as an entry-level clerk for local government after a monolithic application process. I started at the bottom and worked with honesty, diligence and compassion. It took me six years before I reached a position of authority and responsibility. I was told by my supervisors, my coworkers and the public I served that my professional reputation was respected and admired for all that I was able to accomplish as a government worker.

Yet in the end, it all began to unravel, and no one seemed to care. Being a part of a union did not help me nor did I feel supported by my union. In fact, when I asked them to intervene in our office as the mucky-mucks began to restructure, they said they would stand behind me as I laid my neck on that bloody chopping block. So much for a decade of union dues.

Over the past year, I watched as the head of the office began to restructure office positions and methods as the county department heads were directed to reduce their budget by 20 percent. I watched as procedures were created to deal with staff reductions and I felt these changes were unethical and dishonest. I felt that I could no longer represent the people of Sonoma County as an honest, fair, forthright public servant. I had to make excuses for all we could no longer offer to the very people I was asked to serve. Finally, I was asked, in a staff meeting, to obscure the methods we used from the public. I was asked to lie about our new timesaving methods.

And so this is where the final showdown began as the end of the fiscal year came into view. There was no sheriff's posse to come to my aid. My union was nowhere in sight. My sense of ethics was threatened and so was my reputation. Monday morning meant I was that much closer to being asked to lie in order to support my wages.

I talked to my friends and my family for direction. I tried to talk to my coworkers, but they all seemed like cattle in the shoot without a Temple Grandin in sight. Our officer manager used the Jonestown analogy of "drinking the Kool-Aid" in a staff meeting, and I boiled with anger and regret over how such an honorable career had become so dirty.

In the end, it was really the values upon which I was raised by Depression-era parents and upon which I live my life that illuminated the exit sign. I was hired to represent the public with honesty and fairness. However, I was directed, at the end, to let the computer program purchased with tax funds to make that choice. I was asked to lie about the source of the decision. I clicked the mouse and, therefore, I was responsible for the deceit. I chose to leave before I had to lie about my work.

It was with sorrow and with a great sense of personal honor that I chose to end this career. I am getting free, and it shows on my face. You can find me volunteering at three different nonprofits, running around Spring Lake, writing, reading, hiking to Lake Ilsanjo during the week, going to the gym. I am coming back into my life.

I do not regret my decision. However, I still seek an employer who can appreciate a trailing-edge baby boomer who still believes in hard work, honesty and fairness with service to others as its mission. Wish me luck. I think I shall need it.

Molly Wolf lives in Santa Rosa.


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