“People Like You”

I made a decision in 2003 to volunteer for an assignment in Kerbala, Iraq, that I knew would involve some danger and an extended separation from my family.  My wife and I discussed the decision at length before agreeing that it seemed like the right thing to do.  Recognizing the potential threats, I contacted my insurance company to see about increasing my life insurance coverage.

My insurance company only serves people with military connections, so I assumed they would have no problem with requests like mine from people deploying to war zones.  My assumption was wrong.  The very nice person on the phone told me that no company would provide individual coverage at a rate I could afford.  She stopped just short of laughing at me, although I detected some amusement in her response.

Fortunately, I returned from Iraq in good health and with some smug satisfaction that my insurance company received no additional premium revenue from me.  I think I prefer that satisfaction to the kind that would have involved a large payout from the company.  Nonetheless, I decided that my coverage was still inadequate; and now that I was safely home in La Grande, Oregon, I could easily increase it.  I was wrong again.  The equally nice person on the phone responded to my inquiry by saying something like, “You just returned from Iraq, didn’t you?”  The miracle of computers apparently allows companies to keep track of previous requests even when they turn you down.  I replied that I had returned from Iraq and that I was again living in the incredibly safe community of La Grande.  The company representative informed me that my current residence no longer mattered because I was now a high-risk individual.  I argued that I spent the first 50 years of my life staying out of war zones and had no intention of straying into one again.  I was politely told, “People like you always go again.”

It turns out my insurance company knew more about me than I did.  I really had no intention of traveling to exotic or dangerous places, but I kept getting calls to do short-term work in parts of the world that some people consider unsafe.  Most of the assignments in places like Croatia, Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, and Indonesia turned out to be very safe, although I had some uncomfortable moments in Pakistan, Lebanon, and Afghanistan.  I was recently asked to do some work in Jordan, and I’m confident it will involve less risk than driving my car to the airport.

I have learned more than I can describe from the opportunities I’ve been given to work in the developing world, and I guess limitations on my life insurance is a price worth paying.  I think my wife agrees.  She is planning to go with me to Amman so that we can both fulfill a long held wish to see Petra.  People like me may lack the judgment necessary to secure good life insurance, but at least we have the chance to visit some interesting countries and perhaps make a small contribution to making them better places to live.

Celebrating Investment

I attended a conference of city and county managers last week where I suggested that some people in our communities are willing to donate significant amounts of money to city projects if we take the time to ask.  One of my colleagues dismissed the idea and argued that we shouldn’t be letting wealthy people dictate what the city does.  My colleague’s concern has not been a problem in the places I’ve lived; and in La Grande and Albany, we have new libraries that might not have been possible without significant private donations.

While attending the conference, I read an editorial in the Democrat-Herald opining that the City might have regrets about receiving a very large amount of money that allowed a major corporation to terminate its contract with the city.  I can’t speak for the Council or others who work here, but I think that idea is as much of a problem as rejecting money from donors who want to do something positive for their community.  In both cases, these resources have been used to make a variety of important improvements while saving the taxpayers significant amounts of money.  There will always be disagreement about the best use of resources, but to suggest that we should decline money because it might generate controversy is to suggest that we never do anything.

I have heard similar arguments in the past that the City should not accept grants because they are a waste of taxpayer money.  I have not always agreed with the goals and objectives of various grant programs; however, I know of a large number of community improvements that would never have been possible without grants from other levels of government or foundations.  Oregon has been a donor state throughout my lifetime, in that we pay more as taxpayers than we receive back in federal benefits.  Rejecting grants out of what I see as a misguided principle would only add to that long-standing disparity.

Anytime the city charges fees, imposes taxes, or incurs debt, someone generally disagrees with the Council’s decision.  Making difficult choices, living with the consequences, and accepting criticism is an inevitable part of serving on a city council.  I believe it would be a great disservice to local citizens for a council to reject resources that can be used to provide services, build needed facilities, and lower the tax burden on individuals and businesses.

Early in my career as a city manager, I formed the opinion that an important part of my job was to help attract investment to the community I served.  As I’ve written before, investment takes many forms, including donations, grants, and private capital.  We do not all have extra money to invest, but most of us have time and talents that can serve our town.  Whatever form the investment takes, I believe it’s something we should celebrate and honor.

The Best Reason to Celebrate the 4th of July

Fireworks are a good choice for celebrating the 4th of July, because that day in 1776 set off a series of explosions that changed human history and continue to this day. Despite many changes in our country, however, there are some things that are much the same. We still cannot seem to reach consensus on how much government is enough.

The signers of the Declaration of Independence agreed it was necessary to “dissolve the political bands” that connected them to Britain, but they did not agree on what the government of the new nation should look like following the successful revolution. The differences in opinion in the late 1700’s persist today and look remarkably similar to arguments among the founding fathers. I would add one important difference is that the founding mothers did not have a public voice in the nation’s early days, while today women are often leaders in national policy debates.

Generally, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe argued against big government, while George Washington, John Adams and Alexander Hamilton favored a stronger national government. Many of these men and their allies made comments about the evils of political parties before forming themselves into the Federalist and Democratic Republican parties to promote their views on the size and strength of the federal government. It is an interesting quirk of politics that, once in office, proponents of one general point of view often feel compelled to become the champions of a position they originally opposed.

Jefferson wrote at length about the evils of government, taxes and debt, yet while serving as president he found it necessary to purchase 828,000 square miles of territory, incurring a debt of about $15 million without any real authority to do so. I am a great admirer of Jefferson’s intellect, eloquence and accomplishments, but he was a man of many contradictions. Jefferson was consistent, however, in his belief in the need for tolerance of opposing views. The following statement from his first inaugural address is as meaningful today as it was when he wrote it more than 200 years ago:

“All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression. Let us, then, fellow-citizens, unite with one heart and one mind.Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things. And let us reflect that, having banished from our land that religious intolerance under which mankind so long bled and suffered, we have yet gained little if we countenance a political intolerance as despotic, as wicked, and capable of as bitter and bloody persecutions.” 

I will be celebrating our diverse opinions this 4th of July and, to paraphrase Jefferson, the fact that we are all Republicans, all Democrats and “brethren of the same principle.” We believe we have the capacity to govern ourselves with tolerance and civility. We have not always achieved that ideal, but we should celebrate it every day.

 

Who Cares about Data?

We just received notice that the City has received its third Certificate of Excellence awarded by the International City-County Management Association (ICMA) Center for Performance Analytics.  I suppose only a city manager’s heart could be warmed by this announcement.  Most of our citizens won’t care that this is our fifth award, which includes two certificates of distinction, for making a commitment to and implementing systematic use of reliable data to improve performance.

Equally important to me is our publishing of this information on the City’s website so that anyone can see it.  I find it satisfying that some of our worst critics rely on the selective use of this information to make their case against one policy or another.  I use it to help determine how we allocate resources and drive improvement in our organization.

We know that if we are spending more on a service or function than other comparable jurisdictions that we should be looking at our practices to see why we are different.  In some cases, the differences can be explained by unique circumstances while in others we may learn that we need to change what we’re doing.  We have a great current example of improving energy efficiency at many our facilities by using some new analytic tools.  Jorge Salinas, our Information Technology Director, has taken responsibility for overseeing this project; but he is quick to point out that most of the work is being done by our facilities maintenance employees.  We are already seeing some significant financial savings with some relatively simple changes, while at the same time reducing our carbon footprint.

ICMA has taken a leadership role in promoting standards for the collection and use of data by local governments, and Albany was among the first cities in the nation to be recognized for our work in this area.  The list of cities receiving the award has grown from less than 10 when we first received it to more than 40 last year.  Evidence-based management is not a new idea, but development of national standards for local data collection and use is comparatively new and will require many years to be fully realized.

We now take state and national standards for financial reporting for granted; recognizing that budgets, balance sheets, and other financial statements are essential to honestly and effectively manage resources.  I believe local governments have a similar obligation to collect performance information and report it policy makers and the public.  We are still in the early days of doing this systematically, although I have seen great improvement in recent years.  Unfortunately, some cities that were once leaders in this area, including Eugene and Corvallis, reduced their commitment during the last recession.  I understand this temptation, but I believe the value of good decision-making information generally outweighs the cost of getting it.

Chief Mario Lattanzio and members of the Albany Police Department are proving this point every day.  The Chief has implemented the data-driven CompStat management program, which was created in New York in the 1990s and has been credited with dramatically reducing crime.  I believe we are already starting to see results in Albany.  Reliable data may not give anyone an adrenaline rush, but I think there are many good reasons to care about it.

How Divided Are We?

Iraq’s recent descent into chaos is just another example of people unwilling to accept any compromise in their belief that they are right while others are wrong. The situation is not unique to Iraq or even to a certain part of the world. Fundamental disagreement exists within every society to one degree or another, and what keeps chaos at bay may be a much more delicate balance than we realize.

As important as our military, police, and courts are, what really keeps the peace are the decisions each of us make every day to treat others with respect, avoid violence, obey laws, and generally trust the people around us. No government has a strong enough military or large enough police force to prevent chaos if a big enough group of people decides to create it. Some of us believe that our best defense is to arm ourselves and store food for the coming apocalypse. I believe we are better served by investing in economic opportunity, education, and other programs that promote hope for people of all ages

We often hear that the violence in Iraq is the product of religious divisions that date back to the succession of the prophet Mohammed. I know there is some truth to this observation, but I think the problem is much more complex than an historic theological dispute. The gap between rich and poor is too wide and visible in Iraq, and there are far too many unemployed young men with little hope for a better future. Education, while recovering, was neglected for too long; and the zealots find fertile ground to spread their violent ideology among the ignorant. Add in the widespread availability of weapons plus corrupt political institutions and the formula looks very similar to those that produced similar outcomes in Somalia, Afghanistan, and, to some extent, Syria.

I am probably repeating myself by pointing out that there is great personal freedom in societies governed by anarchy. The downside, of course, is that there is very little security for people or their property. These are particularly bad places for a child, which predicts a particularly bad future for everyone.

I have been trying to decide for a number of years how the divisions within our own society compare to those in some of the more violent places where I’ve lived and worked. We have so much, yet we sometimes seem to lose track of why we do. We have always had political parties, religious differences, racial conflicts, and violent disagreements. Our last civil war was only two lifetimes ago. I believe the answer continues to be investment in making our communities safe, decent places to live, and personal commitment to respecting the rights of others.

Last week I wrote about my granddaughter appearing in the play To Kill a Mockingbird. I have read the book, seen the movie, and been to the play three times, yet only recently realized that its message goes well beyond a powerful statement against racial injustice. The story is also a plea for community, civility, tolerance, and common decency. It may be more timely today than when it was published in 1960, and I wish more people everywhere could see and understand it.

(Grand) Fathers’ Day Wishes

I apologize in advance for using this column to shamelessly promote an event in Salem.  My granddaughter Molly is appearing in the stage version of Harper Lee’s famous novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, produced by Salem’s Pentacle Theater through June 21.  Molly is only 10 years old, but she is an accomplished actress playing the lead role of Scout in this really great production of a very moving play.

My wife and I joined my sister and her husband in attending the play a couple of weeks ago, and I was surprised by how the play affected me and less surprised at my pride in Molly’s performance.  Molly described the production in a recent radio interview as “super powerful,” and I don’t think I could come up with a more apt summary.  It is, of course, doubly powerful to me because my granddaughter is getting a great opportunity to excel at something she loves.

Molly’s interest in theater has inspired me to attend all of her performances, ranging from backyard productions to highly professional stage shows.  I have enjoyed them all and been reminded once again that these mostly volunteer enterprises enrich our communities and our lives.  Art gives us the chance to understand things we might otherwise miss, and community theater is one way of making art accessible to all of us.

I have also been impressed with the bond that develops among the cast and crew of a stage play.  Molly is playing opposite a Salem attorney of roughly my generation, and it’s obvious they have a high regard for one another.  According to Molly, “He rocks.”  The show’s director didn’t catch my name when we were introduced, so I told her she could just refer to me as Molly’s grandfather.  That remark prompted some high praise for Molly and a glowing assessment of her future.  I share the title of grandfather with my daughter-in-law’s dad, a former Salem city councilor and dedicated Beaver fan, whose pride in Molly clearly rivals mine.  I have been forced to learn tolerance in so many different ways.

 

My sister really enjoyed the play as well, and I think her interest was enhanced when she noticed that one of the cast members had the same name as her high school English teacher.  My sister approached the lady after the show and found that she really was her former teacher.  They shared a brief reunion and summary of their activities over the past 47 years.  Art brings us together in many different ways.

 

I liked this play so much that I’m going to see it again this week, and I would encourage anyone who is still thinking about a Fathers’ Day gift to consider tickets to one of the remaining performances.  Tickets can be purchased online at the Pentacle Theater website and a show has been added on Tuesday, June 17 to accommodate demand. To Kill a Mockingbird is a great learning experience in many different ways.

Winning the War

Humans must like conflict.  We find new things to fight about every day; and when we can’t find tangible issues such as food, water, or wealth to kill for, we try to decide irresolvable questions like, “Who really speaks for God?” by persecuting or destroying one another.  I don’t mean to offend anyone’s religious beliefs, but I don’t think God has empowered any of us to answer that question through violence.

Part of the problem seems to rest with an inability to focus on what matters.  We get caught up in the little issues and forget what we’re really trying to achieve in life or in our communities.  My hope for Albany is that we continue to build a town that is safe, prosperous, attractive, and generally a nice place to live.  Many people over a long time have done good work toward those ends, although much remains to be accomplished.  Few good things ever happen, however, without some disagreement.

While disagreement is necessary and often a good thing, destructive personal battles that misdirect limited resources away from important goals are almost uniformly bad.  People begin to focus on how to beat the opposition rather than on what is best for the community.  We too often forget that winning battles is one means to an end, but seldom an end in itself.  George Washington won very few battles during the Revolutionary War and was so discouraged at several times that he believed the revolution would fail.  Robert E. Lee, Napoleon, Hitler’s Germany, and Tojo’s Japan won many victories and conquered a large share of the world before leading their causes or countries into disastrous defeats.

Winning at the community level means more investment in improvements; however, investment doesn’t necessarily mean money, and improvements may not be new buildings.  Albany’s volunteers who teach, carve, organize, drive, gather food, or any of the other countless tasks they do every day are some of our biggest investors.  Programs that help rescue people from drugs and alcohol, civic theater, a great ambulance service, or a thriving business are improvements that make Albany better for all of us.  These investors and investments are worthy goals and, in my opinion, should be our focus.

I really don’t care too much about being on the winning or losing side of a particular battle if the outcome brings us closer to being a better community.  I’ve read enough history to know that a tactical defeat has often led to a strategic victory.  I also have a reasonably good sense of my own fallibility.  I don’t like to be wrong, but part of the price of having an opinion is the certainty that it will sometimes be mistaken.  That certainty provides an incentive to look at a question from different perspectives and to seek out facts before drawing a line in the sand.

We are winning the war in Albany every day as new people move to and invest here.  Fortunately, our battles usually don’t involve violence, but they are still dramatic and important.  They justify taking up arms in the form of time, talents, and money to build something worth enjoying and passing down to those who follow us.

The Good Life

The May 3 birth of my newest grandson, Isaac Matthew Hoyt, and my wife’s consequent absence for about a month recently gave me some time to reflect on what we might hope for in the lives of our children and grandchildren.  I have more time to be reflective when the house is empty and I’m forced to entertain myself.  Evelyn usually has some specific ideas about how I should be spending spare time.

Our memories of events in our lives are often very different from the recollections of the people we shared them with, but the things we consider to be important tend to be largely the same.  We talk about what the children are doing at every family gathering, and there is usually an effort made to take lots of pictures.  The older people find it hard to believe the younger ones have grown so much, while the little people focus on some form of physical activity.  School and work always generate conversation, which probably shouldn’t be surprising because they make up so much of our lives.  We have had a rash of award ceremonies, graduations, and, now, theatrical events in recent times.

Food occupies an important part of our lives and is central to any family event.  Memorial Day weekend we celebrated three birthdays with chicken and assorted side dishes, plus the obligatory cakes.  Eating is often concurrent with cleaning up, which also provides multiple opportunities to have side conversations.  These discussions range from worries about each other to the always popular gossip about family members who are not present.

Family events in my household always seem to require at least one minor tragedy that will be discussed for years to come.  Recent injuries include a broken collarbone and facial stitches when the rubber end-cap of a baseball bat came off while the children were bashing a piñata and hit my son just under his lip.  I don’t know if every family feels obligated to race motorcycles, jump on trampolines, play football, or bash piñatas; but I’m sure many of us can relate to doing unsafe things when the family gets together.

Finally, I don’t think you should live in Oregon if you don’t take the opportunity to immerse yourself in the natural beauty of this place.  I am proud to announce that all of my children and my 14 grandchildren now live in Oregon, where we will camp, hike, fish, and otherwise enjoy this incredible place.

The moral of this column is that the good life is all around us if we choose to live it.  It is not a life free of pain, anger, sorrow, or other negative events; but a life filled with people we care about in a place we can call home.

Cute!

SlideBaby!

 

Nothing Really Matters?

A journalist friend of mine posted the following link on Facebook (http://www.theguardian.com/news/oliver-burkeman-s-blog/2014/may/21/everyone-is-totally-just-winging-it) which describes the human tendency to make mistakes and concludes that none of us really know what we are doing.  I disagree with the author because I believe if we assume that all of us are “winging it,” we will reach the damaging conclusion that knowledge, experience, and competence don’t matter.

My view is that all of us make mistakes, have wrong assumptions, and sometimes act irrationally.  Despite these weaknesses, many of our ancestors had skills and abilities that helped move humanity from short lives devoted almost entirely to subsistence to more rewarding ways of living.  I would go a step further and claim that there are more capable people in the world today than there has ever been.  We are too frequently reminded of the things we don’t know or can’t do, while infrequently taking stock of the many things we can.

I do not see myself as much more accomplished than anyone else, but I can come up with a long list of skills and tasks that constitute more than winging it.  I know a lot about city government, for example; but I certainly don’t know everything, and there are many variables I can’t control.  Part of successfully negotiating life or a career is the ability to respond to changing or unforeseen circumstances.  If that is winging it, then I am guilty as charged and happily so.

My point was reinforced during the process of writing this column when I had to meet an electrician at my house to fix an outlet that no longer worked.  I purchased a new outlet when the old one failed and attempted to install it myself.  I was very careful with the wiring, even going so far as to mark each of the six wires with colored electrical tape to make sure I was connecting them to the right receptors on the new outlet.  Despite my best efforts, the new outlet didn’t work.  The young electrician who came to my house had it fixed within ten minutes and consoled me with the observation that he had gone to school for a long time to learn his trade.  In short, I was winging it and he wasn’t.

Human beings have remarkable capabilities, and we see evidence of it nearly every conscious moment.  The writer who opined that everyone is winging it all the time delivered his message to a worldwide audience through an electronic medium that most of us never even imagined 30 years ago.  If we believed his hypothesis and acted accordingly, we would never have had the means to receive his message.  I think we need to believe in things, and I particularly believe that we need to believe in each other.  No one among us is always right or always in control, but most of us do many important things well every single day.