Aspen Untucked: To protect and serve | AspenTimes.com

Aspen Untucked: To protect and serve

by Barbara Platts

In today's divisive political climate — with a 24-hour news cycle, limited communications via tweets, the overpowering influence of corporations and the influx of sexual misconduct allegations — it's easy to lose faith in both our political system and those who run it.

This is not a red or blue issue, necessarily; it's prevalent no matter which party you affiliate with. As Americans, our trust in Congress is less than ever before, according to a Gallup poll conducted from 1972 to 2014. I notice this lack of trust in conversations with acquaintances, friends and family who are so frustrated with the current divisive atmosphere that they often prefer disengaging with news entirely and even, on occasion, opting not to vote.

This issue came to mind last week when my boyfriend and I took a trip to our nation's capital.

As self-proclaimed political junkies, we spent hours walking through museums and along the National Mall, taking photos next to monuments and iconic buildings. The main reason we made the trip to D.C. was to celebrate a friend receiving an award. The friend is Kansas state Rep. Jim Ward, the state House Minority Leader and a candidate for governor. He was honored as a Public Official of the Year by Governing magazine, along with eight other public servants. His award was for his bipartisan work to change his state's tax plan at the beginning of 2017. Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning of Kansas was also honored.

For those who don't know, Governing magazine is a publication that closely follows politics around the country on all levels of government. The editorial team provides nonpartisan news and analysis on issues ranging from transportation to health, environmental issues to public finance. Each year, the magazine honors public officials from across the country who are making a positive, pronounced impact on the people they serve. These honorees are meant to show that, when done correctly and in good conscience, government works. It's an optimistic thought in this day and age, but maybe it can be more than that. Maybe, in some cases, it can be a reality.

At the Governing magazine event, where we celebrated Ward, we also learned about several other public officials and the work they're doing in their communities. All of them are doing incredible things, but two who really stood out to me, besides my friend, were Tom Dart, the sheriff of Cook County, Illinois, and Leana Wen, Baltimore's health commissioner.

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Dart, who's been sheriff of Cook County since 2007, received this award for several initiatives he's put into place over the years. I found the most notable to be the changes he's made at Cook County Jail. Known to be the largest penal facility at a single site in the country, the penitentiary houses about 9,000 inmates daily.

Since Dart became sheriff, he's worked to get these inmates the mental health care they need. According to Governing, he's made it a requirement for all new jail employees to get 60 hours of training on mental illness treatment. He made an unprecedented move in 2015 when he hired a psychiatrist to be the jail's new warden — a decision said to be the first of its kind in the country. Dart has also put on-site and off-site therapy groups in place for inmates and instituted a 24-hour telephone hotline for former Cook County Jail residents who are struggling to adapt outside of incarceration.

Many of these moves seem like they would be common or even required in jails across the country, but they aren't. Dart is leading the way in this arena, insisting that inmates get treated like people, not animals. And it's no coincidence that the Cook County Jail population is at its lowest in more than a decade, according to Governing.

Another government official making change in her community is Leana Wen. She's the health commissioner in Baltimore. Shortly after coming to her post — at the young age of 31 — riots broke out across the city when Freddie Gray, an unarmed black man, died in police custody.

With the unrest erupting in Baltimore, Wen saw it as an opportunity to discuss problems surrounding the riots — such as police brutality, other forms of violence and poverty — as public health issues. In her tenure, she's instated programs to help keep the streets safe in high-crime neighborhoods, give children glasses who can't afford them and, at the start of the opioid epidemic, make naloxone (a drug that assists in reversing an opioid overdose) available to Baltimore residents at all local pharmacies.

Others who were honored included Terry McAuliffe, the governor of Virginia; Phoenix's mayor Greg Stanton; Broward County Administrator Bertha Henry; Oakland County's Chief of Information Officer Phil Bertolini; and California's Secretary of Government Operations Marybel Batjer. To find out more about these public servants — and I strongly suggest you do — go to Governing magazine's website governing.com.

At the end of the award ceremony in D.C., after each honoree had given their acceptance speech, I was pleasantly surprised to see how my own perspective on politics had shifted. A couple short hours of hearing about these public officials' successful initiatives reminded me that politics and government serve an important role in our country. There are people out there that genuinely wish to help others and to serve the communities they love. When we give them a chance to do so, then maybe "government can, in fact, get it done," as Governing states.

However, even with quality public officials at the helm, we must always remember that the most important role in society is that of an informed and engaged citizen.

Barbara Platts loved spending time in D.C. but is happy to be back to the mountains. Reach her at bplatts.000@gmail.com or on Twitter @BarbaraPlatts.