July 13, 2005, 11:34 pm
From the Clerk-Register: More letters to my staff, one of which
I missed posting in the last batch:
Monday, June 6:
A storm passed through the area last night, leaving many residents
without electric power. Our neighborhood, on the west side of Ann
Arbor, still has no power. In this heat, the food in our
refrigerator is spoiling, and we are not looking forward to the task
of throwing it all away. Sarah's elementary school, like many
others, is without electricity and closed today; my wife and I have
to scramble to find child care.
A power outage is a very selective kind of catastrophe. On our
block, there are no lights, no hot water, no television, no fans or
air conditioning, no refrigeration. The nearby traffic light is
dead, and temporary four-way stop signs have been posted by police.
But a few blocks away everything is completely normal.
Just last month, I wrote about how dependent we are on the people who
maintain the intricate systems that sustain our daily activities,
from the water supply to the telephone network to the Internet.
These systems have become so reliable that we take them for granted,
and rarely think about the complicated and hard work required to keep
them going. That is, until something goes wrong.
Today, the electric utilities in southeast Michigan are faced with
the urgent and colossal task of restoring service to more than a
hundred thousand households. Under the scrutiny of unhappy
customers, impatient reporters, and probably panic-stricken
executives, they are calmly and methodically trying to set things
back to rights.
It's easy to be angry about the disruption. But we should have some
empathy for these hard working folks who maintain our electric
Let's have a great week!
Monday, June 27:
Now that election consolidation, the February and May elections, the
county directory, and some other urgent issues are over with, and the
budget is on hold for the time being, I'd like to get started on something
I promised to do when I was a candidate: to sit down and have regular
individual meetings with each of the 57 people (besides myself) who work
in this office.
I'm looking to hear your honest assessment of how we're doing as an
organization, and how you think it could be improved. I'd like to hear
about your own job and how we can help you do it better. If there are
problems, hazards, or opportunities affecting your workplace, I want to
know about them.
I know that many of the staff were very apprehensive about what would
happen in January. I hope the chief deputies and I have been able to calm
those fears and gain your confidence. My sense is that things are going
pretty well right now, but we may have to weather some storms together in
the future. It's critical that we establish open communication now.
Additionally, we're putting together a wall display with pictures of
everyone in the Clerk-Register's office. When you come in for your
meeting, or perhaps another time as arranged, Stephanie from the Deeds
office will take a quick photograph.
I'm starting with the nonsupervisory staff. Some time this week, I'd like
to meet with [list of names redacted]. Please arrange a half-hour
with your supervisor and my schedule (perhaps via Outlook).
A management analyst once wrote that "The hallmark of a great organization
is how quickly bad news travels upward." To help make the
Clerk-Register's office a great organization, I hope you will be willing
to share your complaints and criticisms with me.
Enjoy the hot weather, and have a great week!
Tuesday, July 5:
I hope everyone had a pleasant holiday weekend. I walked in the Ann
Arbor and Ypsilanti parades yesterday.
Tomorrow, I leave for Kentucky, to attend (and speak at) a memorial
service for a friend of mine in Lexington. I will visit some
relatives and do some research along the way, and will return on
Copies of the new county directory will be available soon, perhaps
this week. The cover photograph shows the old Washtenaw County
Courthouse, which used to stand on the middle of the block occupied
by the current courthouse. In the 1950s, they built the new
courthouse around three sides of the old one, and then demolished the
old one to make room for a parking lot.
Probably most county seats in America have a courthouse in a
courthouse square in the middle of town; the courthouse is typically
an older classically styled building with tall columns and a tower.
Our old courthouse fit that pattern.
The tradition of a courthouse square is thought to symbolize American
democracy, and the aspiration for local self-government. But the
concept is not as obvious as it seems at first glance. For example,
there is no comparable tradition of a city hall or a township hall
being placed on a block by itself, though some city halls are sited
The tradition is thought to have started with Lancaster County,
Pennsylvania, which was planned in the 1700s with a central square
for the courthouse. Even now, a courthouse square is sometimes
called a "Lancaster Square".
So how did Lancaster come up with this? Some of the settlers there
had come from Ireland, and remembered a similar arrangement. Indeed,
many Irish cities and towns have a government building in the middle
of the town square. Why? Well, when the English conquered Ireland
hundreds of years ago, they needed places to put their military
garrisons, and town squares were obvious sites. Those garrisons
eventually became government offices.
It's ironic that something built for a military occupation in Europe
became a symbol of democracy in America.
Here in Washtenaw County, we don't have the courthouse square any
longer, but we still carry on the tradition of service to the people
in our county. We maintain the records, we manage the systems, and
we strive to treat every customer with courtesy and respect.
Individual meetings with staff members continue. Since I'm going to
be away tomorrow through Friday, these are the people I'd like to
meet with during the next two weeks: [list of names redacted].
Let's have a great week!
Monday, July 11:
I just received word that Bob Harris died yesterday.
Bob was a law professor and lawyer; he was once one of [County
Administrator] Bob Guenzel's
law partners. He was best known for being mayor of Ann Arbor in
1969-73, but he didn't like being introduced as a "former mayor".
He'd rather describe himself as a guy who made model airplanes.
Bob was originally from Boston. His family was Lithuanian Jewish,
but he had the easygoing charm of a Boston Irish politician - a charm
that probably served him well in Ann Arbor's contentious politics
thirty years ago. When he spoke to you, it was impossible not to
He was articulate and strongly opinionated - you've probably seen
some of his many letters to the editor - but he was also a practical
fellow who believed in compromise and democracy and getting things
done. Even in the heat of argument, he would be gentle and
I know he was happier in recent years, helping care for his
grandchildren and working for Food Gatherers, than he had been at any
time in his earlier career. Being happy in retirement came as a
surprise to him. He was an inspiration to those who might have seen
it as a dismal stage of life.
And he was a great friend and mentor and supporter of mine. When I
last spoke with him a few weeks ago, he was eager to hear all about
how my now job was going, and solicited my ideas for new projects he
could work on.
The funeral will be on Wednesday, July 13, at 4:00 pm at Temple Beth
Emeth, 2309 Packard Road, in Ann Arbor.
May his memory be for a blessing.
Back here in the Clerk-Register's office, individual meetings with
staff members continue. This week, I'd like to meet with [list of
....Posted by Lawrence Kestenbaum.
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