Al Braithwaite spent 37 years in public service in Pinellas County, most recently at the Town of Oldsmar, where he served as City Manager and Director of Special Projects.
His book Roller coasters, revolving doors and ebb is funny, folksy – and functional – like a mashup between a memoir and an advice diary.
Business, bureaucracy and bulls all played a role 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 led him to a sometimes thankless job in the local administration? Want to make the world a better place?
No. “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 find was a disdain for sales. Because I hated rejection.
Holder of a bachelor’s degree in management/finance, he first taught algebra at the Thom Howard Academy.
“So I didn’t really choose the civil service as such,” he explains. “I stumbled over this, because after six years of teaching, I knew I probably didn’t want to do this for the rest of my life. What started as a summer job in Madeira Beach, in hobbies, instantly became a pathway to more opportunities.
Madeira’s city manager was retiring; his replacement asked Braithwaite to come on board full time and work in the accounting office.
The same year (1985) he started as director of administrative services, he began working on a master’s degree in public administration and management (“it took me six years of driving from Madeira Beach to USF Tampa twice per week in the evening for lessons”).
He’s not particularly altruistic or altruistic, although, says Braithwaite, “I wanted to help people. I didn’t choose the civil service, it chose me.
A section of Braithwaite’s book is devoted to what he calls “the codes of life”. A former college basketball player, he was always a team leader, and even while working for the municipal government of Madeira Beach, Clearwater, and finally Oldsmar, he used his free time to coach basketball at the high school.
Thus, the “codes” can apply to public service, or to team sports, or – since they are logical examples of common (and uncommon) common sense – to any walk or pursuit of life or career.
Among them (quoted verbatim from the book):
1 – DO WHAT YOU SAY YOU WILL 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 had any problems for speaking the absolute truth in any situation. There really is no need for “spin”…leave that to the politicians. In fact, if politicians respected this principle, we wouldn’t need what social media has become. On the other hand, practically speaking, knowing what society has become, politicians telling the literal truth would probably eliminate the debate on whether we should have an end
limits. Is this a good or a bad thing? You decide…
3 – If you find a professional colleague who is a source of useful information, in any discipline, befriend them immediately and never lose their number. One of the nicest things about government employees is that we all suffer from the same horrible assumptions about our worth (or lack thereof) in the court of public opinion, so in general, we’re very interested in helping each other. . I have found this to be true in all areas of government I have worked in throughout my career, but especially in public finance.
In all, there are 28 “codes” (the last one is “don’t lie to yourself”). The practical applications are numerous.
“It was really interesting to see how much of an exercise it was when you were writing them all down,” Braithwaite says. “I spent a lot of 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 didn’t think I did very well, and I wanted to do better for my players.
“And it turned 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 expand on them, or use them for reference, or understand the change in, what are you ready to stand up for?’ In government in particular, I think what most people, not elected officials but staff, lack is that you really position yourself when you have to stand up for something based on your personal values.
“If I have to give advice to MBA graduates, public policy students or anyone, I think it will be of great help to you.”
Between 1977 and 1999, Braithwaite was an accountant in Largo and Clearwater, before moving to Oldsmar, where he served at City Hall in various capacities for 22 years.
Braithwaite’s prose is never dry and it is imbued with humor. While he may be depreciating, the points he makes — about life, government, business — always seem to land.
Ironically, he states that he wrote Russian mountains because he had promised his mother, an educator in Commack, NY, that he would one day find a book. “No idea what it would be,” he explains.
In the end, he decided he should talk about what he knows best.
“I’ve been sick of hearing how government employees take advantage of the public trough and never lose their jobs, they’re all taken, this and that,” Braithwaite said. “Like my mum, I’m a perfectionist and broke my ass for 37 years trying to fight this reputation that seemed to go hand in hand with government employment.
“The sad thing is that there are parts of it that are true, and what hurts the rest of us is breaking our necks trying to do our best. “
Roller coasters, revolving doors and ebb is published by St. Petersburg Press. It is available from Tombolo Books, through Amazon and directly from the publisher.