Friday, September 19, 2008
Chapter 9: Public Safety
It Was not a Good Day
Things had been going very well in Vilka, at least as far as the town's Prince was concerned. On this day, when a staff member greeted his arrival with the words, "Good morning, Prince," he cheerfully replied, "It is good morning, and it will be a good day!"
Later the Prince reflected that any cynic within earshot of his early-morning optimism would have been satisfied with the unhappy state of things at morning's end.
"How may I serve you, Prince?" asked his page, with more than his usual deference. The swift decline of the Prince's morning was no secret to the page. He had not overheard the Prince's long conversations with a series of very sober visitors, but he had observed the Prince's steady descent from early cheer to present dismay.
"Page, would you please convey my regards to the Vicar of Vilka and invite him to join me for lunch, at the time of his choosing, in a private room at our favorite tavern? If he cannot do so, tell him I will in any case see him at our usual lunch tomorrow."
"Immediately, Prince," said the page with a slight bow.
"Thank you," the Prince murmured, after the page had disappeared through the door.
The Vicar made himself available within the hour. He patiently bridled his curiosity until after their meal had been served and both he had the mayor had launched their initial attacks on a particularly succulent brisket.
"My friend," he said to the Prince, "you do not seem to be enjoying this fine meal as you ought. Are you unwell?"
"No, I am well enough, I suppose," said the Prince, softly and after some hesitation.
"Then, pray, what troubles you?"
"I have labored this past year or two under the impression that things are going fairly smoothly in Vilka, at least so far as my government is concerned. Moreover -- though I do not generally dwell on this question -- I have thought that I, as a leader, am at least adequate to my role and time." The Prince paused for a moment, but the Vicar knew his friend well enough to know that the pause was not an invitation to interrupt with praise for the Prince.
"This morning," the Prince continued, "both of these ideas were called repeatedly into question, and not without convincing evidence."
"Tell me more of this assault," said the Vicar.
"There was wave after wave, my friend -- several waves, each wave being a single member of the Council of Several." The Prince managed a wan smile. "We have a law, as you know, that any meeting of three or more of Vilka's elected officials must be public, with some few exceptions, and must be announced publicly at least one day in advance. When we wish to meet privately, we must do so two at a time. Thus, rather than being visited this morning by the entire Council of Several at once, I was this morning occupied by one after another, one at a time, but each with essentially the same message and concern."
"I trust you are about to tell me the problem," offered the Vicar. "It cannot be a palace coup, inasmuch as we do not have a palace."
"No, no, there is no attempt to unseat me, just, perhaps, to override my decisions in certain matters. But not even that is my principal concern. One wins and loses in politics; that is the game.
Public Safety at Risk
"Each Councilor came this morning to announce that he or she has been investigating a particular department, ultimately at the request of some who serve in that department, and has found urgent and serious problems. These problems are urgent, if for no other reason, because this department is in the Ministry of Public Safety and potentially affects the well-being of the entire town.
"It seems that the head of the --"
"Stop, my friend. Do not tell me which department," the Vicar interrupted. "Tell me whatever you wish about what is happening there, but do not identify the department."
The Prince shrugged. "As you wish. The department head and his assistants are derelict in their duties, I am told. They spend many hours away from their duties, engaged in their own pursuits when they are being paid to look after Vilka's welfare. Their department is so unorganized that it is doubtful they could muster a full response if a situation in the town required it. This could potentially endanger many lives."
"You knew nothing of this until this morning?"
"You suspected nothing?"
"And this is what makes you a bad prince, as you suppose?"
"Not entirely, though it does some damage to my credibility with myself, at least. Leaders are supposed to know these things."
"Is this what the distinguished Councilors told you? That you are a poor prince for not knowing before they told you?"
"No, no, they were kind enough to blame me only indirectly."
"That was decent of them."
"Perhaps," the Prince replied. "But why do you insist that I not tell you which department? You have always kept my confidences, and you always will. Do you think we may be overheard?"
"No, my friend. It was to emphasize that this trouble, besides threatening the safety of Vilka generally, is potentially devastating to the credibility of Vilka's elected leaders. Presumably, the people of Vilka trust you to make sure they are protected. If they learn that they are not, by any source other than your own mouth, your effectiveness as prince will be at an end, as will your ability to address the current situation properly and rationally.
"You place the Council of Several in a difficult position, too. If they know of this trouble, and you do not respond immediately and appropriately, they are culpable, too, in the public mind and likely their own, if they remain silent. If word of this trouble spreads from any source but you, the only official who might reasonably contemplate a political future in Vilka will be the one who announces it."
"You believe that some Councilor --"
"-- or group of Councilors --" the Vicar offered.
"-- or group of Councilors will announce this problem to the public for political reasons? I would like to think more highly of the Councilors than that."
More than Politics
"This matter is not just political, my Prince. If it really is a question of public safety, politics aside, that might be ample motive for either a Councilor or someone in the unnamed department to make the problem a matter of public record. Because it is a matter of safety, you cannot assume that only a villain or an enemy would do it. It could be someone acting out of genuine, and may I say defensible, concern."
The Prince hesitated, then spoke. "I must confess my own temptation to announce the news immediately for safety's sake and, regrettably, for politics' sake as well. But at least one senior official of Vilka would be forced to resign in disgrace."
"And that prospect troubles you?" the Vicar inquired.
"He probably deserves it, but, yes, it troubles me. I don't wish to do that to anyone, even if it is just."
"We all hope to receive better than what justice would grant." Both were silent for a moment, then the Vicar asked, "What do you intend to do about the situation? Dismiss the offender? Give him another chance? Knowing you, I trust you will not sweep it under the rug or be paralyzed into inaction."
"There are certain statutory requirements for his and his department's performance."
"Are they meeting any of those standards?"
The Prince shook his head. "According to the Council of Several, they fail most of them rather badly."
"Does the Council insist that he be terminated immediately?"
"Some would prefer it, but they seem inclined to give me some latitude in handling the situation, as long as I handle it."
"Perhaps they are offering you enough rope to hang yourself?"
"Perhaps they are. In any event, I will personally investigate the situation, beginning this afternoon. If it is as they say, I believe I shall be inclined to give the department head three months, during which he and his department must make steady progress, and at the end of which they must meet the standards. Failing that, he will have to seek employment elsewhere."
"In that event, will you invite him to offer his resignation, or will you terminate his employment?"
"I am only thinking aloud at this point, but he will have his opportunity to resign at any point during his three-month probation. After that, if his performance is not acceptable, I will not accept his resignation, but will insist on terminating his service."
"My friend, I believe you have found a sensible course. If you proceed in the manner you have described, you cannot be accused -- that is, you cannot reasonably be accused -- of closing your eyes to the problem or of unreasonable harshness. If you are willing to do as you described, one way or another this will lead to the problem's resolution."
". . . As long as we don't have a deadly emergency of a particular sort in the next few weeks."
"Then, I suppose, as the saying goes," the Vicar pontificated, "all bets would be off. You would wish me to pray for our protection from deadly emergencies of a particular sort?"
For the first time since early morning, the Prince laughed. "Perhaps you would pray for our protection from deadly emergencies of all sorts?"
"As always, my friend, as always. I thank you for lunch, but I must now take my leave." And he did.
Copyright 2008 by David Rodeback.