Column: A Distinguished Public Servant and the Principles That Guided Him

  • Brian Walsh in a family photograph. Walsh, who died in July, served the town of Hanover for many years on a variety of boards and commissions.

For the Valley News
Saturday, September 08, 2018

Editor’s note: After Brian Walsh stepped down from his 15 years of service on the Hanover Selectboard, he was honored with the Distinguished Public Service Award from the Rockefeller Center at Dartmouth College. In accepting the award, he shared lessons from his more than 25 years of public service. Walsh died July 3 at age 74. His family is holding a celebration of his life on Sunday in Rye, N.H., and they wanted to share the remarks he made at the Rockefeller Center ceremony, which they have edited for brevity. “He gave this talk in April 2012,” they told the Valley News. “We think his words are all the more important today.”

There’s an old saying that “all politics is local.” That may have been true in the past; I don’t think it’s true now. Politics at the national level is played like blood sport. It’s played for personal interest. And it’s a real tragedy. At the local level, it’s much more about public service.

When people have said to me, “Oh, you’re a politician,” my response has been for years, “No, I’m not. I’m a public servant.” Public service is a team sport, it’s not an individual sport. It’s not about ego. It’s about teams of people working together.

There’s a tradition of civility in Hanover government. I inherited that, and my job was to keep it going. People will remember some very contentious issues. But we didn’t come out of them with people disliking each other or unable to speak to each other. We came out of them still as a community, where people understood each other — and that has been very important.

As I look back, these are some of the principles that have guided us.

■ Listen and learn: See if you can understand where the other person is coming from. I think most of our disagreements stem from not taking enough time to talk with each other. The governance process doesn’t have to happen quickly at the town level. It can happen slowly enough so that we can understand each other, vet ideas, find that sweet spot in the middle, and make things happen there.

■ Balance is beautiful: When you think about balance, you usually think about the left, the right and the center. But there’s also the dimension of time. It’s what we have received from those people who have made a community over, in our case, 250 years. Where we sit is the sum of a lot of good decisions. Some other decisions, but mostly good decisions. Then we need to look forward, because it’s not just about what we want today. It’s about making those decisions today that are going to hold the community in good stead 10, 50, 100 years from now.

■ Content counts and choices have consequences: Decisions need to be right; they don’t need to be political. It’s not about sound bites. It’s about standing in front of public meetings, and small and large groups, and people who are angry, and talking through “how did we get here, what is the issue, how does it affect everybody?” You have to make sure the content holds together in the long run and understand that decisions have consequences.

■ Math matters: One of the things we’ve done exceptionally well in Hanover is put in place a budgeting process that works. It respects our employees, our taxpayers and our citizens’ expectation for service. We have to have reasonable expectations and be honest with people — and we must discipline our government to operate with a realistic understanding of our revenues and the cost of services. That’s not something you do one year, or two years, or five years. You do it every year.

■ Better together: It’s the volunteers who make this town work. It’s all those people who put themselves out there to make the public, civic mechanisms of this town happen. Another part of the “together” is the ability of the town and the hospital, or the town and the college, to explore those places where we can make things work together.

Many years ago, I read a book about the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu and his observations on leadership. He said, “A leader is best when people barely know he exists. Not so good when people obey and acclaim him. Worst when they despise him. When a leader trusts no one, no one trusts him. The great leader speaks little. He never speaks carelessly. He works without self-interest and leaves no trace. When all is finished, the people say, ‘We did it ourselves.’ ”

And that is the essence of public service.

Now I’d like to put a question to you all: How in God’s name can we get some of these principles to be reflected in our public discourse and civic life at the state and national level? Because I really think we need to get there.

Brian Walsh served on the Hanover Selectboard from 1996 to 2011.