CATEGORY: COL Columns (Journal)

AUTHOR: MARTY

WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO STOP A BUCK THESE DAYS?

BY MARTY RUSSELL

DAILY JOURNAL

Remember those little desk plaques that said, "The buck stops here," presumably modeled after Truman's philosophy of taking the ultimate responsibility and not because the desk was a favorite hangout for male deer?

Remember how you used to see those everywhere? Whatever happened to those?

Nowadays, you can't get a buck to stop with a deer rifle.

In reinventing the ways we do business and the ways we govern ourselves over the last couple of decades, by delegating authority to tiers of middle men, basing decisions on focus groups or task forces, and creating procedures more rigid than Al Gore on a cold day, we have succeeded in creating a blameless society with no real leadership.

There's always someone else to pass the buck to these days.

Case in point: Here in the newsroom, with our Dilbert-like, cubicled existence, it's difficult not to overhear each other's phone conversations, particularly when you're perched over the cubicle wall listening in.

So I couldn't help but notice last week that fellow reporter Philip Moulden was having a bit of trouble finding anyone in the postal service who could tell him how much the new post office in Saltillo was going to cost. It was almost as if it were a state secret.

Lower level bureaucrats said they either didn't know or couldn't comment and passed him along to middle level bureaucrats who said they either didn't know, couldn't comment or faced immediate reassignment to the prison post office where the Unabomber is being held for divulging the information.

The postal officials were friendly enough, just not very helpful. So I handed Philip my secret weapon. An 1,143-page Washington Information Directory that contains the name, title, phone number and duty of everyone in the federal government's upper echelon.

Philip tried a few of the numbers but said he kept getting the voice mail shuffle to machines with no names, just extensions. So he started making up extension numbers and punching them in in hopes of catching some postal person off guard and, in their confusion, getting them to cough up the price of the Saltillo, Miss., post office.

I'm not sure but I think in his random voice mail dialing he actually called himself, which was no use since he didn't know the price either.

Eventually he did get someone who told him he would have to talk to the postal services' Facilities Service Office which, after going through all the above steps again only with a different agency, he was told he would have to make a written request before that information could be released.

Even an appeal to Congress failed to immediately produce the cost.

By this time we were convinced that the new Saltillo post office was either a secret CIA installation or would be hinged to fold back and reveal a nuclear missile silo in the event of an attack by a foreign power like Alabama.

Finally, Philip got the details from the builder and a congressional office. Seven hundred fifty thousand dollars to build the thing which would be leased to the postal service for 20 years at $74,554 a year. Big deal. But from the runaround he got, you'd think he was asking for the nuclear launch code.

It's a problem that's rampant. Even on the local and state level we see officials handing off responsibility and decision making to citizens groups and task forces, presumably to include the constituency in the process but also covering their you-know-whats in case it all goes south.

Isn't it time for leadership willing to step up and take the blame along with the credit for their decisions? Can anyone stop a buck anymore?

Marty Russell, a senior reporter for the Daily Journal, is filling in for another columnist today. His regular column will also appear Wednesday.

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