A few times a year, a tall bearded man in his late thirties is seen in front of the main building in downtown Washington of the Department of Housing and Urban Development offering a newsletter called IMPACT to emerging employees.
He is Al Louis Ripskis, a veteran HUD employee himself, and the editor-producer of the most durable “underground” publication in the massive federal establishment..
IMPACT reduces to the written word many of the happenings at HUD which usually are reserved for corridor talk or the whispers of worried bureaucrats.
The large public relations efforts and official publications of departments such as HUD do not focus on the waste, frivolities, boondoggles and policy failures. This gives a publication like IMPACT its purpose.
Ripskis publishes his eight-page, fact-filled package each month for distribution to HUD civil servants and appointed executives throughout the country along with assorted firms, bankers, legislators and others who pay the modest SS annual subscription.
There is still a deficit, however, which amounts to about a year, Ripskis says. This comes out of his own pocket. He is assisted by HUD regional “correspondents” in large cities such as Chicago and Philadelphia and some of his associates in the Washington, D.C., HUD headquarters.
IMPACT is not your typical irreverent in-house bulletin-board sheet. It deals with serious policy failings, such as HUD’s laggardness in effectively doing something about the lead paint poisoning of little children living in crumbling city tenements. Or the stubborn refusal of HUD officials to learn from past mistakes in public housing and start new directions that will put billions of dollars to work rather than to waste.
ARTICLES with titles like “Rattling Skeletons in HUD’s Closet,” “Redlining — HUD Style,” “FHA Hits Rock Bottom,” “Secretary Hills’ First 100 Days” and “Ripping Off Uncle Sugar . . . with the Greatest of Ease” introduce a good deal of factual research and digging.
There are light touches, still expensive for the taxpayers, though, such as the twin, 80-foot aluminum flagpoles that a competitive
HUD put up to replace poles shorter than the 75-footers across the street at the Department of Transportation. Cost: a mere 526,581.
Not surprisingly, this probing and publishing makes Ripskis’ days on the job less daily. He is not exactly ostracized; in fact, he has become somewhat of an accepted maverick in. the department. People come to him with grievances and information because they view him as a kind of unofficial ombudsman.
But he is also closely watched by top HUD officials. He takes “annual leave” whenever he uses a fraction of an hour off to interview or obtain material for IMPACT. That is the way he uses up most of his annual vacation time.
I ASKED HIM why he is doing all this. He replied that back in 1972, he was helping a fellow HUD employee put out a milder newsletter named “QUEST” when his friend found himself transferred to Alaska.
“Having lived under both the Nazis and the Communists in Lithuania before coming to America at age 12, I remember relatives being shipped to Siberia and I wasn’t going to look the other way in the U.S.A.,” he said.
Beyond those feelings, Ripskis is a student of bureaucracy and what it can do to still the conscience and innovation of decent people caught, up in its phlegmatic processes. He has seen dedicated people slowly worn down to the point of losing their courage, their convictions and their initiative, ending up just putting their time in or simply leaving.
Ripskis doesn’t quit. He hangs in there and fights, keeping the flame of public service going through a combination of patience and impatience and, as he puts it, “a willingness to risk my job.”
Other government agencies and departments need their Al Ripskises. So do citizen and community groups trying to make their governments more responsive. Political candidates are having a field day stereotyping all bureaucracies instead of finding the working models and environments of good works with which to challenge the rest of the dreary landscape.
READERS who want to know more about IMPACT can write to Ripskis at P.O. Box 23126, Washington, D.C. 20024. He’ll reply, on his own time.