Some folks have a hard time understanding why people would devote an entire career to serving the public when private employment generally pays more. You might have to put yourself in the shoes of a career public servant to gain an understanding of what motivates them. I had that privilege when I began 8 years as Idaho Attorney General in January 1983. What caused me to reflect was a recent obituary of such a person.
Stephen Goddard passed away on August 30, doing what he loved–bird hunting in the mountains. He spent 24 years working as a Deputy Attorney General (DAG) at the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. His job was to act as legal counsel for the Department–to represent and advise its employees in official legal matters.
Just a few weeks after I took office, the U.S. Supreme Court scheduled a March argument in a case filed against Oregon and Washington by former AG Wayne Kidwell for their overfishing of our salmon and steelhead runs. I spent two weeks ahead of time in Washington with Steve, a fish biologist and about 20 banker boxes of case records to prepare. Thanks to Steve’s expertise, I was well prepared for the argument.
Steve’s enthusiasm for these magnificent fish rubbed off on me and made clear the need to do everything possible to prevent their extinction. By the time of the argument, it was obvious to me that they would never be safe so long as the four dams on the lower Snake River remained intact.
As fate would have it, Steve’s wife, Leslie, was also deeply involved in another issue that would greatly influence my future years. Leslie was a DAG working with the Idaho Human Rights Commission. The Commission Chair, Marilyn Shuler, asked for my help in getting a malicious harassment bill passed to combat the Aryan Nations hate group in Kootenai County, and human rights became embedded in my heart. I worked with the Commission and Leslie on human rights issues from that time. Leslie was dedicated to the issue during her 17 years as DAG and then ten more years as Commission chair.
A third issue that came to define my tenure as AG was pending when I walked in the door–the Snake River water rights struggle with Idaho Power Company, known as the Swan Falls water fight. It essentially boiled down to whether the State or Idaho Power would control Snake River flows. I won’t go into the details, but it was one of Idaho’s major water rights controversies since statehood. Anyone interested can check out a book entitled, A Little Dam Problem-How Idaho almost lost control of the Snake River.
The State eventually reached a favorable settlement with the power company, but it could not have happened without close cooperation between my office and that of former Democratic Governor John Evans, as well as the extraordinary legal talents of Clive Strong, who I hired to lead my side of the effort. Clive served 34 years with the office and became known across the U. S. as a water and natural resources expert.
During most of my tenure as AG, the person responsible for ensuring high quality work throughout the office was my Chief Deputy, Jack McMahon. I never asked employees their political or policy preferences. It was not relevant to the work in any respect. These were lawyers, not politicians. There were certain political functions that I needed to attend as an elected official, but my staff had no business being involved. The AG’s office is the state’s largest law firm and must act strictly as a legal office, not a political operation. I must admit that I was aware that Jack was a Democrat–it was widely known–but that was beside the point in my view. He was a darn good lawyer and administrator. That’s what counted.
When we hear that someone is “just” a state lawyer or other employee, we should remember that most of these people are in those positions because they enjoy serving the public. They believe that their work is important to the functioning of society. Most put a higher priority on satisfaction with their work than the salary level for their job. Next time you encounter one, thank them for their service.