What good is an Oath?

On March 16th of 2015, I finally swore the oath which released me from quasi-Commissionerhood. Because, according to Article 7: §709 of our Home Rule Charter:

Every elected official and officer and every appointee before commencing official duties shall take and subscribe the following oath: “I do solemnly swear and affirm that I will support the Constitution of the United States and of this state and the charter of this City and that I will faithfully discharge the duties of office to the best of my ability,” and shall file this oath duly certified before the officer before whom it was taken, in the office of council.

I was late to my swearing-in. Late to being a real, true Commissioner. Four months late. Yes, I’d been appointed to the Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations by Mayor Bill Peduto and confirmed by the Pittsburgh City Council in November of 2014. But, no…

Nope, you’re not a Commissioner until you take the oath,” said Beth Pittinger, the woman I’d been appointed to replace on the Commission, the woman who was still the very no-nonsense Executive Director of the Citizen’s Police Review Board. “That’s the law,” Beth said. “That’s it.”

But evidently that particular law has fallen out of fashion in the City of Pittsburgh. When I went to the City Clerk to confirm what Beth had told me, she led me back into the Clerk’s archives and pulled open one of the heavy, narrow metal drawers in the towering rank of years of drawers that armor one whole wall of that bunker of City history. She flipped through the oaths in the drawer of more recent filings.

Yes, see, here’s the filing of the oaths that City Council members took. And Beth Pittinger, yes….” the clerk pulled forward a sizeable chunk of folded papers”… she makes sure all her CPRB people are filed. “And, look, here’s the filing for Paul McKrell…from back when he served on the SEA…” She unfolded the document to show me McKrell’s signature.

I did a double-take. I hadn’t expected that former Ravenstahl staffer and Beth Pittinger to have been so demonstrably on the same pages on this letter of the law. 

The Clerk stopped flipping through the drawer. No more filings to pull forward. The drawer had plenty of room left. She explained that the oath-taking had fallen out of general custom, she thought starting about ten years ago. “But yes, every appointee should do it. It should be consistent across the board.”

Why should it be consistent?

We appointees in City Government are most often volunteers. We are not paid – so our livelihoods generally don’t depend on our job performance. We don’t receive job evaluations or have annual reviews. We generally don’t face the same public scrutiny in the media as elected officials or paid staff. We don’t face accountability in the voting booth. And yet we make so many of the nitty-gritty on-the-ground decisions that affect the everyday life of Pittsburghers. We work many levers of many public institutions funded by taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars: Planning Commission, Housing Authority, Parking Authority, Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority, Sports and Exhibition Authority. Stadium Authority, Urban Redevelopment Authority, Zoning Board of Adjustment…the list goes on and on. Lots of Authority in that list.

So, what stands between us and our unchecked will, or appetite for power, or greed for gain? What prevents us from representing our privileges of supremacy? What keeps us volunteers from employing Hellish means, right here and now, to try to achieve our good intentions, way off there, up ahead on the road to the future Heavens we so vividly believe we can achieve? What prevents us from acting as the proxy or pawn or tool of the elected official that appoints us? What keeps us from using the Commission or Authority to just pad our resumes or feather our future nests without “faithfully discharging the duties of office to the best of our abilities?”

Raising our right hand? Saying a few words? oath

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3 thoughts on “What good is an Oath?

  1. I’m inclined that an oath is only as good as the person who gives it. It adds a sense of gravitas to duties and statements. In that way, the Mennonites and Quakers have it right (no surprise): a truthful person’s oath is unnecessary. The gospel writers have it right: a guarantee of future performance in a chaotic world is merely aspirational.

    But if an oath is only as good as the person who gives it, I feel so good about Helen’s oath and I know that it is solid gold.
    full-length version: http://vannevar.blogspot.com/2015/04/oaths-and-oathers.html

    Liked by 1 person

    • Van, thanks for your wonderful response both here and at your own blog. I am in fact writing from the perspective of an oath-breaker. And then an oath-keeper. No gold here, but a learning curve, and the hard-learned experience that we ALL need good systems of mutual commitment and accountability to carry through on anything larger than our own limited selves.

      Like

  2. I’ve been thinking about this…

    The strength of an oath comes from the top.

    It’s human nature for someone to look to pad a resume and to advance their own interests.

    Appointees serve at the will of the person at the top. It’s that person who must make sure they do all due diligence to appoint people that will carry out a mission beneficial to the community.

    Look at Mr. Peduto: he has campaigned for his current office for years with the city’s best interest at heart. (Even though there have been issues since he had reached his goal) There has to be rapport and loyalty with the person at the top and to the community.

    Hopefully, an oath breaker feels a sense of shame to the community along with disappointment for not taking their own goals.

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