If you don't think Rodney Forte is doing a bang-up job as head of our local public-housing agency here in little ol' Little Rock, just ask him. Sure, he may have made the headlines of late, and not good ones, for having added still another couple of top-paying administrative positions, one at some $92,000 a year, to a bureaucracy that was already top-heavy. Even while laying off lower-downs who actually work with the tenants, But he can explain all that -- and much to his own satisfaction, too. Mr. Forte himself is paid some $132,000 a year, and you don't take home that kind of money without being able to come up with a full complement of excuses when the need arises. Like when an elevator in one of the buildings he's supposed to be supervising is idled for months at a time, and things in general start to fall apart on his watch. That's when an executive command of bureaucratic blather shines. At length.
When questions arose about the quality of his management, Mr. Forte dispatched a two-page letter to his superiors in local government citing his many "accomplishments." To top off the list, he mentioned that his agency had just been given a Distinguished Budget Presentation Award from the Government Finance Officers Association, which does sound prestigious. Till you start looking into it, which is just what some of the always inquiring minds on the news side of the statewide daily. (We call ourselves Arkansas' Newspaper, and try to live up to the title.) And it turns out his GFOA outfit presented a grand total of 1,424 of those awards this year alone. Out of 1,445 applications. "You Are a Winner!" as those giveaway contests always announce in their mass mailings. Why the remaining 21 applicants weren't given an award wasn't clear. Did they forget to fill in one of the blanks correctly, or maybe misspell their own name?
A spokesman for the organization felt no need to go into detail. But as our reporter noted in her news story, each contestant pays between $185 and $690 (in their agency's money, of course, that is, the public's) to enter this sweepstakes contest. It all must add up to a pretty piece of change every year for the good old GFOA. Or even a pretty big pile of dollars.
So congratulations -- no, not to the "winners," but to the organization, which seems to have found a reliable way to more than balance its own budget every year.
But who are journalists to criticize? When it comes to pretention, we will not be outdone. Once upon a time we used to go by simpler job titles like reporter, correspondent or, when tact gave way to candor, hack. Now we give and get walls of awards, preferably presented at one of those banquets that threaten to go on forever. Just applying for all those awards has become the bane of this business -- and many another, from selling cars to insurance policies. If you've ever had to attend one of those award banquets and sit through all the presentations, you'll know just what I mean, and shudder at the prospect of the next testimonial dinner you have to attend. (They never seem to stop coming.)
My own collection of trinkets includes two shiny statuettes that look a little like Oscars, only cheaper. I used to keep them on proud display. Both of them are from the Press Club of Dallas, which dubbed them Katies, and they were one of the innumerable mementos that a lady there -- well, a woman -- used to hand out with great ceremony at a posh banquet every year. But then whispers started to be heard around the banquet hall: "This is to the point of getting ridiculous. You know, you shouldn't enter that many categories. How does this look to other people? ... How does the press club allow its officers to submit their own entries?"
After a while the suspicions could no longer be suppressed. The lady turned out to be something of a fraud, to indulge in understatement. When the whole Katies business was exposed as essentially a self-serving racket, the press club had enough dignity left to end the annual charade, and start the contest all over again on a more honest basis, or so it hopes. But the damage was done, and the best thing about the whole misadventure is that it was exposed by the press itself. Some inky wretch clearly deserves an award.Every trade must have its equivalent of Awards Night, but actors may be the worst. It seems they have to attend an awards ceremony -- red-carpet entry, tuxes, full television coverage and all -- every Tuesday and Thursday
evening. It must be tiring. To quote one attendee: "It's a lot of shows. Every organization, every guild, wants to capitalize. Everyone today wants to do a show and give awards."
At least my imitation Oscars have a certain glamour, however dubious. Just imagine what it must be like to have to show up at a grand presentation sponsored by an outfit that goes by the austere name Government Finance Officers Association, which must be more fun than a barrel of actuaries. Or at least a more effective soporific than a couple of aspirin before bedtime.