Tuesday, July 31, 2012

An appreciation of an apology

Posted By on Tue, Jul 31, 2012 at 10:12 AM

Mayor John Engen ended up in the headlines for all the wrong reasons back in May.

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That's when the Missoulian reported on how city and University of Montana officials handled the initial sexual assault investigations on campus, and reported that Engen reprimanded Geoff Curtis, a Missoula police officer who sent a critical email to UM officials on his own time and from his personal email account. A day after that story appeared, Engen did something uncommon for an elected official: he apologized and said he'd overreacted.

That apology caught the attention of Mark Funkhouser, a former Kansas City mayor and the director of the Governing Institute. Funkhouser focused on Engen's mea culpa in a recent column about why politicians rarely say, "My bad."

Funkhouser admits that plenty of times while he was in office he wanted to say "It was just a screw up," but advisers insisted he not. Instead, he "went about semi-denying and semi-making up some lame explanation/excuse for what happened," as is often the case in politics.

For Missoula residents, the most interesting part of the column comes when Funkhouser talks with Engen about the aftermath of the apology:

When an elected official admits an error in judgment, he or she generally gets ripped bloody — with or without the obligatory apology — and learns not to do that again. So what happened to Mayor Engen? He says he was surprised by the reaction he got from local folks: They thanked him. I asked him whether admitting mistakes would make him seem less competent, and he responded that "I'd rather be an honest bumbling fool than a coward who's full of bull." And then he made an interesting comment. He said that "while we're transparent, sometimes we're not open" and that openness was the key to honest conversation and problem-solving.

The Governing Institute is affiliated with Governing magazine and "aims to advance better government through research, decision support and executive education to help public sector leaders govern more effectively." Funkhouser offers regular analysis for the magazine in a column titled, "Bring on the Funk."

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