Almost unheard of 20 years ago, mission and vision statements have become almost de rigeur among private firms and public agencies.

First the province of huge corporations, mission statements have over the years trickled down into rural America. Here in the foothills, school districts, water boards, county agencies and local businesses have all adopted statements defining what one consultant termed "their desired future state."

But as well-intentioned and noble as such statements are, they are almost invariably forgotten particularly by rank-and-file employees soon after they are written.

That's why the Tuolumne County Sheriff's Office's recent adoption of mission, vision and values statements fell short of our front page. Although the admirable statements were the work of a committee that included representatives of all the department's divisions and were adopted by consensus, we weren't sure the tenets would have staying power.

Would the newly adopted statements be remembered by dispatchers, deputies and jailers in a year?

If past performance is any indication, the answer may well be "no."

A year after the Sonora City Council adopted a vision statement, none of a half-dozen city employees polled by The Union Democrat including the mayor remembered what it said.

More than a decade ago, with the mission statement boom just heating up, The Washington Post called receptionists at 20 major national corporations. Only half knew if their firm even had a such a statement.

In 1999, the Tuolumne County Schools Office paid a consultant $3,000, invited 50 representatives of 12 school districts to a $1,000 lunch and hammered out a statement that then-superintendent Dan White swore, "would drive all our decisions and policies."

Because it was posted on a nearby wall, a receptionist at the office this week knew her agency had a vision statement. But without going over to read it, she admitted, "I wouldn't know what it says."

Which doesn't surprise the boss, county Schools Superintendent Joe Silva. "Not all of our employees are going to know what the statement says," he conceded. "But it emphasizes customer service and our staff puts that into practice."

First-year Sheriff Jim Mele sees a far stronger connection in his office.

"With this document, we are not only accentuating our current values, but setting an altogether new course," he said in a press release accompanying the newly adopted statements. "We are putting significant emphasis on pride, emphasizing personal commitment and service excellence, and demanding the promotion of positive partnerships we serve. Each of us expects everyone of our employees and volunteers to strictly adhere to the direction this document provides."

And, yes, Mele added, he expects his staff of nearly 150 employees to know what the newly adopted statements say. But, as the mission, value and vision statements together total 213 words, rote memorization may be out of the question.

The statements do say the right things, pledging that the Sheriff's Office will "keep peace and order while protecting lives and property." Homage is also paid to courage, professionalism, leadership, pride, loyalty, integrity, accountability, communication, cooperation, respect, training, community input, personal improvement and a "successful future enhanced by technology, education and training."

But are these statements lip service that will do little more than look good in a frame? Or are they building blocks in a strategic plan for the future that will not only be remembered, but practiced by employees?

Mele deserves the benefit of the doubt, as not all mission and vision statements have been ineffectual. So in about a year we'll check back, both with line employees and administrators, and give you a progress report.

Union Democrat editorial positions are formed through regular meetings of the newspaper's editorial board Publisher Geoff White; editor Teresa Chebuhar; managing editor, news Craig Cassidy; senior reporter-columnist Chris Bateman.