Al Braithwaite reflects on 37 years in public service
Al Braithwaite spent 37 years in Pinellas County public service, most recently with the City of Oldsmar, where he served as City Manager and Special Projects Manager.
His book Roller Coasters, Revolving Doors and Reflux is funny, folksy – and functional – as a mashup between a memoir and an advice journal.
Business, bureaucracy and bulls–t all played a hand at the public service poker table, he reports. Even so, because he knew he was ultimately helping to make a difference in people’s lives, recently-retired Al Braithwaite wouldn’t change a thing.
Was it altruism that drove him into a sometimes thankless job in local government? A desire to make the world a better place?
Nah. “That’s what most people would tell you,” says Braithwaite. “I don’t think I was that bright. My senior year at Eckerd College, we spent an entire month on career planning. And the only thing I could come up with was a disdain for sales. Because I hated rejection.”
With a B.A. in Management/Finance, he first taught algebra at Thom Howard Academy.
“So I didn’t really pick public service, per se,” he explains. “I stumbled over it, because after six years of teaching I knew I probably didn’t want to do that for the rest of my life. What started as a summer job in Madeira Beach, in recreation, instantly became a path of more opportunity.”
Madeira’s city manager was retiring; his replacement asked Braithwaite to come aboard fulltime and work in the accounting office.
The same year (1985) he started as Director of Administrative Services, he began working on a Master’s in Public Administration and Management (“it took me six years of driving from Madeira Beach to USF Tampa twice a week at night for classes”).
He’s not particularly altruistic or selfless, although, Braithwaite says, “I did want to help people. I didn’t pick public service, it picked me.”
A section of Braithwaite’s book is devoted to what he calls “Codes to Live By.” A former college basketball player, he’d always been a team leader, and even as he was working for city government in Madeira Beach, Clearwater and finally Oldsmar, he used his free time to coach high school basketball.
So the “codes” can apply to public service, or to team sports, or – since they’re logical examples of common (and uncommon sense) – any walk or life or career pursuit.
Among them (quoted verbatim from the book):
1 – DO WHAT YOU SAY YOU ARE GOING TO DO….BE RELIABLE…. nothing more important in your career, and in your life. Going out of style, unfortunately.
2 – Tell the literal TRUTH……in over thirty-seven years of public service, I have never gotten in trouble for telling the absolute truth in any situation. There is really no need for “spin” …leave that to the politicians. In fact, if the politicians honored this principle, we wouldn’t have the need for what social media has turned into. On the flip side, practically speaking, knowing what society has become, politicians telling the literal truth would likely eliminate the debate over whether we should have term
limits. Is that a good or bad thing? You decide…
3 – If you find a fellow professional who is a fountain of useful information, in any discipline, immediately befriend them, and never lose their number. One of the most beautiful things about government employees is that we all suffer from the same horrible assumptions made about our worth (or lack thereof) in the court of public opinion, so in general, we are very interested in helping one another. I found that to be true in every area of government that I worked in throughout my career, but especially in government finance.
In all, there are 28 “codes” (the last one is “don’t lie to yourself”). The practical applications are many.
“It was really interesting what an exercise it became when you wrote them all down,” Braithwaite says. “I spent a lot of my time as a basketball coach trying to help my players identify what they might really want to do at the next level. It was something I don’t think I did terribly well, and I wanted to do it better for my players.
“And that morphed into ‘You know, I think it’s a good idea to write down the things that are important to you, just so you can maybe develop, or use them as reference, or understand the change in, what are you willing to stand up for?’ In government especially, I think the thing that most people miss, not the elected officials but staff, is that you really get in position when you have to stand up for something based on your personal values.
“If I’m going to give advice to MBA grads, or public policy students or whoever, I think this will be a great help to you.”
Between 1977 and 1999, Braithwaite was an accountant in Largo, and Clearwater, before relocating to Oldsmar, where he served at City Hall, in various capacities, for 22 years.
Braithwaite’s prose is never dry, and it’s infused with humor. Although he can be self-deprecating, the points he makes – about life, government, business – always seem to land.
With tongue in cheek, he declares that he wrote Roller Coasters because he’d promised his mother, an educator back in Commack, N.Y., that he would come up with a book, someday. “No idea what it was going to be about,” he explains.
In the end, he decided that he should talk about that which he knows best.
“I got tired of hearing how government workers take advantage of the public trough, and never lose their jobs, they’re all on the take, this and that,” Braithwaite says. “Like my mom, I’m a perfectionist and I busted my ass for 37 years, trying to fight that reputation that seemed to go along with government employment.
“The sad part is there are parts of that that are true, and that what hurts the rest of us that breaking our necks to try and do the best we can.”
Roller Coasters, Revolving Doors and Reflux is published by St. Petersburg Press. It’s available at Tombolo Books, through Amazon and directly from the publisher.