On February 19, 2013, for the first time in my life, I was fired from my job.
Actually, I was asked to resign and refused. It doesn’t seem to matter, though, since my former employer is telling everyone that I resigned. I refused to resign because I had poured too much heart and soul into my job, and I refused to be labeled a quitter. I was not quitting. I was refusing to go out quietly, as they wished. If they wanted me gone, they’d have to fire me. So they did.
In truth, that morning in my boss’ office was the culmination of months of increasing and evolving dissatisfaction and disillusionment on my part, and discomfort on theirs. I was a politically-appointed municipal employee for a very small town, and the mayor and council that had hired me was very different from the one under which I was serving my second term. Indeed, when I was first appointed, I felt excited and energized to be part of something special — a newly-elected administration determined to end the corruption for which the town had long been known and institute progressive measures to reinvigorate the town’s economy, attract stronger locally-owned businesses, and improve the quality of life for all residents. But, as tends to happen in politics, the do-gooders on the council were quickly burned out, roundly criticized for trying to change the status quo, and, for the most part, quite literally run out of town. As the mayor’s two-year term drew to a close, only three members of the seven-member council still lived in the town. The others, including the mayor, had quietly moved away.
With the benefit of hindsight, I should have left then — in September 2011 — but I chose to stay on, dedicated to the goals of that earlier council and dedicated to my colleagues, for whom I had immeasurable respect and appreciation and many of whom looked to me for leadership that was lacking elsewhere. I chose to believe that the incoming mayor, one of the original council that hired me, would stay true to the course set by the previous council and the values it embodied. I was wrong.
Over the next 18 months, I watched the tone of government in the town change. I saw things that were all-too-familiar to me after so many years in politics — backroom deals, offline conversations, hidden conflicts of interest. I listened as various council members lectured me on how to do my job, and flagrantly disregarded the ethics training I’d provided them.
I guess I knew that it was over for all real purposes the day the mayor admonished me to “set [my] integrity aside for just a moment” and then consider an issue without it. Such a request was anathema to my ideas of public service and professionalism, and I told him so bluntly. That was likely the first nail in my employment coffin. But there were others — many others. Times when I told various councilmembers their actions were in violation of the town’s ethical code or even, occasionally, state law. They ignored me. I was isolated as a “square” who really wasn’t in sync with the laid-back nature of the town. I was fine with that characterization, since by “laid back” they seemed to mean seedy and underhanded.
Finally, on February 18th, the Monday of a long weekend, I learned (via social media, no less) that the mayor had once again overstepped his bounds, and this time in such a way that was likely to land me, and possibly the town, on the wrong side of a lawsuit. I saw very clearly that I would be made the scapegoat in such a situation. I texted my boss to ask if she was aware of the developments, and she acknowledged that she was. I paused only a moment, long enough to tell James what I intended to do, and then I fired off an email to the entire council, again stating that the mayor was overstepping the limits of his authority. I received a reply shortly from my boss, berating me for the email and demanding that I present myself in her office first thing in the morning.
I knew how the morning would go, although James was skeptical that they would react so impulsively. When I called him a few hours later to deliver the news, however, his first response was “Hallelujah! That place is toxic, they don’t appreciate you, and I’ve wanted you out of there for ages!” This, despite the fact that only hours earlier we’d placed a house under contract. A house for which we would likely no longer qualify for a mortgage….
My mom was visiting with us that week, and her reaction was the same as James’ — enormous relief mixed with righteous indignation that they would actually fire me for demanding high standards of public service from our elected officials. My daughters cheered for me, and my friends offered overwhelming assistance in locating another job. Clandestine emails poured in from colleagues and former colleagues in that town, filled with disgust and anger that I’d been fired, and sadness that we’d no longer be working together.
What should have been one of the worst days of my life never even broke the Top 10.
I slept well that first night, better, in fact, than I had in many months. Within days, I had been approved for unemployment insurance, secured new healthcare coverage, and begun filling my calendar with informational interviews and job application deadlines. Friends who had offered help followed through; I learned of some opportunities before they were even posted, and managed a 90-minute lunch with the local District Attorney, thanks to the only remaining councilmember I trusted. The comfort, support, and generosity of friends and near strangers was almost overwhelming. I quite literally had no time to feel sorry for myself.
But what of the house? Well, Fate stepped in as she often does in my life and worked a miracle. Our loan was saved and the closing date set. We would not lose the house just because of my employment situation. I could barely believe our good fortune. In fact, I’m still kind of holding my breath.
And there’s more: A week or so before I lost my job, a former councilmember from the council that had first appointed me contacted me, wondering if I was still doing interior design work. She and her husband had just purchased a big, beautiful home in a different city, and it needed a lot of personalizing. I let her know that I was only taking small projects on the weekend, and we commiserated over the disappointment that we couldn’t work together on her house. So, after I was fired, I let her know, and voila! Instant design job! We spent three hours together late last week, laying out the project and the long list of items with which she needs help. Simply finishing her house could well take most of my current spare time. And the fact that I get to spend that time with a woman I truly like and admire is even better.
And still more: the writer’s block that had settled like a permanent fog over my brain as soon as the book editor said the words “Book Proposal” and my name in the same sentence back in January has finally lifted and I am filled with ideas to write about again. I think I could finish the book in a couple of weeks if I only had the time to do nothing but write.
At this point, it’s anyone’s guess in which direction my career will next careen. I have not the slightest idea from whence my next regular paycheck will come, but — amazingly — I’m honestly not worried about it. Something deep inside me keeps telling me to have faith and it will all be okay. And, somehow, that is enough right now.
I can already fathom that at some point in the not-so-distant future, I will reflect upon that cold day in February as an enormous blessing. A turning point. A fresh start. Perhaps I will even cease to call it my firing… and instead begin referring to it as my release. Because I’m beginning to think that’s actually what it was…
Blogger’s Note: As some of you know, I currently live in Boulder, CO. To be clear, I was not employed by the City or County of Boulder, but by a neighboring municipality.