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Every official could use Question Man

In these difficult economic times, it may seem like folly to create a new position.

But every indication around here points to a need for Question Man (or, to be fair, What Are You Thinking Woman).

Question Man must have a strong spine, be a visionary, understand public perception and never back down from a conflict.

For example, if Hillsborough County Administrator Pat Bean believes it's good policy to give her deputies raises of 7 to 17 percent in the middle of a budget crisis while laying off rank-and-file workers, Question Man must take a stand.

I know this may look good on paper (not really), but if the media come and ask why we're doing this, are we going to catch hell?

If Bean had Question Man on her staff, she might not be choosing between a resignation package and outright dismissal.

My friend calls it The Aunt Martha Rule. If you can explain a big decision to Aunt Martha with a straight face that prompts her to pat you on the back and say, "That's nice," then proceed.

But if you think Aunt Martha is going to say, "You can't do that," you need to pull back.

Question Man can frame difficult decisions in such a context, and do so with a smile. Such challenges must be issued with a deft touch and diplomacy.

But Question Man must ask the tough question.

Hey, I love the Cheesecake Factory and if we go, I'm definitely getting a giant slice of that caramel pecan turtle cheesecake. But are you sure we should spend tax dollars on a staff dinner there?

Look, I'm not making fun of the demise of Tampa Bay Workforce Alliance executive director Renee Benton. I'm saying it might never have happened if she had had someone on her staff with a fishing pole big enough to reel her back in.

It can happen to the best of executives. I'm not sure why, but power seems to become some kind of hypnotic that impairs judgment. We've seen a number of public officials lose grip on their moral compasses and, consequently, resign from their jobs.

The list includes everyone from former Lowry Park Zoo director Lex Salisbury to ex-Tampa International Airport director Louis Miller and former USF football coach Jim Leavitt, who was actually fired.

Some of the deposed still may insist they did nothing wrong, but the bottom line is that they left jobs that they had held for a long time and wanted to keep.

All over Tampa Bay, we've seen miscalculations not only cost officials, but derail political campaigns.

Where would former St. Petersburg City Council member Jamie Bennett be today if a Question Man had made him think twice about handing out city-issued baseball tickets during his mayoral campaign last year?

In some of these failures, the powerful may have had a Question Man, but failed to yield to cautionary advice. Either way, those who remain in charge need to learn from these mistakes.

Question Man or What Are You Thinking Woman must accept a behind-the-scenes role.

They don't have to be your best friend, but they have to be valued enough to be in the room for the big decisions and trusted enough to be honest about ideas, good and bad.

And it helps if they carry a needle big enough to burst an inflated ego. That's all I'm saying.

Every official could use Question Man 05/22/10 [Last modified: Saturday, May 22, 2010 12:15am]

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