Birthday Best Wishes

I have been writing a column for either a local newspaper or website for at least the last 15 years, and I am always surprised by the number of people who take the time to read what I’ve written.  This column, however, is dedicated to someone who proudly admits that he almost never reads my reflections.

Our City Attorney, Jim Delapoer, celebrated a birthday this week, which prompted me to write some well-deserved comments about his service to the City of Albany.  Jim began working for the City in 1977 as a young graduate of the University of Oregon Law School.  His mentor was Merle Long, who eventually turned over all city attorney duties to Jim in the late 1980s.  Jim has been providing valuable advice to Council and staff members ever since.

Unlike many cities, the city attorney’s office in Albany is not a gatekeeper or barrier to getting things done.  Jim generally asks what we are trying to accomplish and then works collaboratively to get it done.  He’s not shy about criticizing an idea he believes is inconsistent with either law or good practice, but he’s always willing to help find the right way to achieve an outcome that’s good for Albany residents.

I can think of many occasions where Jim’s advice and judgment have saved the City large sums of money and/or helped us avoid expensive litigation.  He doesn’t win every case, but he wins most of them by avoiding problems before they become cases.

I have been fortunate to work with several great city attorneys in my career, but I believe Jim has more local government experience than any of them.  He passes on the benefit of that experience to our organization with a great sense of humor and complete candor.  Jim’s humor sometimes masks his serious commitment to ethical behavior and important principles.  I know he would never support an action by anyone at the City if he believed it to be unethical or illegal.

 

This column is beginning to read a little like a eulogy, which I guess is appropriate for someone who will never read it.  I should add that praise is often a nice substitute for other more tangible forms of compensation.  I believe Jim has delivered far more value to the City than he has received, and I know he has sacrificed opportunities to earn more in an effort to help the City during tough economic times.

 

It has been a privilege to work with Jim over the past nine years, and I wish him well during this birthday week.  His commitment to Albany is evident in the many years he’s invested here and in his genuine concern for the people of the community that I see nearly every day.

Working Internationally

Part of the price of doing international work for the International City-County Management Association (ICMA) is the occasional requirement to give a presentation about what I’ve been doing.  This year I’ve been asked to:  talk about the skills I’ve gained while working in local government that are useful in doing international projects; give a description of the different assignments I’ve had; discuss how to manage assignments while still working as a city manager; explain the challenges I faced in providing technical assistance; and summarize the lessons I’ve learned about working internationally.  I’m supposed to do all of this in about 30 minutes.

I think the most important skill I’ve learned over more than 30 years in local government work is keeping a positive attitude.  I have seen many people become disabled by frustration or anger, while others who faced similar challenges treated them as opportunities.  Whatever success I’ve enjoyed doing, international development work is the product of maintaining a belief that I could do something to make bad situations better.  I have had that skill tested in places like Iraq and Ethiopia, where hope was a precious and fragile commodity.  I have faced some difficult challenges as a city manager, but I have never seen an Oregon community confronting the problems cities in developing nations are up against every day.

My assignments have usually involved helping to address basic service delivery and/or economic development.  I have worked with communities in Africa and Southeast Asia where less than 20 percent of the population had access to potable water or a sanitary sewer system.  Solid waste disposal is an equally vexing problem in the developing world, where you often see waste in endless variety strewn about communities.  My most satisfying project was finding the money to build a road to a small village in Iraq that was isolated by a sea of mud during the winter.

Accumulating vacation time and , in one case, taking a six-month leave of absence, have allowed me to take on assignments while retaining my job as an Oregon city manager.  I have been fortunate throughout my career to work with capable people who were willing to take on some additional responsibilities while I was gone.  The advent of electronic communication has also helped and even allowed me to respond to a citizen complaint about snowplowing in La Grande while sitting at a desk in Kerbala, Iraq.  I think the experience I’ve gained from doing international work has made me a better city manager, or at least someone who understands a broader range of problems.

Physical safety has been a concern while working in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, but I think the biggest challenge to my effectiveness is the frustration caused by things like corruption, bureaucracy, apathy, and ignorance.  The only antidote I’ve found is to find a way to be of service, even if that service is unrelated to the stated goals of the assignment.  I think I have been able to make assignments successful on more than one occasion by adapting to circumstances on the ground and finding a way to be useful.

The greatest lesson from all of this is the development of a deep conviction that people around the world, particularly children, share so much in common that there should always be hope that we can learn to resolve our differences peacefully.  Our responsibility is to nurture that hope to the point where it will grow into a worldwide reality.

A Safer Workplace

During the nine years I’ve served as Albany’s city manager, I have participated in something close to 75 new employee orientation sessions conducted by our Human Resources Department.  I use the same slides my predecessor created to explain the City’s mission, vision, and values, as well as the structure of our organization.

Usually, there are five or six new employees listening politely to what I have to say, although there was the infamous incident where someone fell asleep and began snoring loudly during my presentation.  I have always tried to make my part of the orientation interesting, but the sleeping incident inspired me to rely more on true stories that illustrate our values, rather than simply a dry description.  I guess all new employees owe a small debt to a loud snorer to the extent that my presentations have improved since that event.

I have always emphasized that one of our values at the City is that no employee should be subjected to harassment while working here.  Allegations of harassment are taken seriously, and I can recall at least one termination and several disciplinary actions for those rare occasions when harassment has been reported and documented.  Incidents over the past year, however, have shown that we need to do more.

City employees from all departments have been meeting over the past three months to identify problems and issues related to workplace harassment or discrimination and ideas to address the concerns.  The Inclusive Workplace Committee delivered a report to the City’s management team this week along with some recommendations about how to make the organization safer and more inclusive.  The report will be posted on the City Intranet, and I encourage all employees to read it.

The first step we are taking to address the concerns is to have the committee develop a proposed code of conduct.  While we are relying on a committee to develop the proposal, I believe the proposal will improve in proportion to the number of employees who contribute to it.  We will not adopt a code of conduct without ample opportunity for employees to share their thoughts about the idea.

The management team recognizes that a code of conduct is just one step and that more will be required.  New training has already been scheduled in some departments, and more will be made available in the months ahead.  We will also be looking at how to address concerns about retribution for reporting problems.

I have learned to appreciate the irony that snoring could be an incentive to make a presentation more interesting, and I have received many reminders through my career that disputes and disagreement can be used as a means to improve.  I continue to believe the City of Albany is a great place to work while acknowledging that it takes some work to keep it that way.

Saving a City

Last week, I received a copy of a small book a friend of mine wrote about his experience as the city manager of University City, Missouri, in the 1960s and 1970s.  Charlie Henry retired as Eugene’s city manager in the late 1970s after a long career in the profession.  Following retirement, Charlie didn’t stop working; he just devoted his time to helping other city managers and the community where he lived.  A few years ago, he stepped down as an ICMA Range Rider (senior adviser) at age 90 and decided to write his book.

You can buy Saving a Middle-Class Multiracial American City from Amazon; and if you have an interest in why some cities succeed while others fail, it would be worth your $14.36 to do so.  University City is a suburb of St. Louis, located not far from Ferguson, Missouri.  University City has prospered over the past few decades while Ferguson recently descended into chaos.  I think the story Charlie Henry tells explains at least a part of the difference between the two communities.

University City had an idea of what it wanted to be as a community and began patiently working toward that ideal in the early 1960s.  Rather than fight integration and other cultural changes, University City sought to become a place where people of different races and backgrounds could live together peacefully.  Charlie describes the projects, policies, laws, and people who helped make University City a good place to live, while other cities wasted resources fighting integration and resisting change.

Charlie’s story may not be an exciting tale of daring exploits, but it is an inspiring and thoughtful analysis of how dedicated people made good things happen over a long period of time.  It’s a book filled with pictures that illustrate many of its main points.  My favorite is a picture taken in 2009 of Charlie and a group of volunteers he worked with while he was manager.  There are no youngsters in this picture, but you can find more youthful shots of those in the photos scattered throughout the book.  These pictures illustrate how a lifetime of effort can make a difference for future generations.

I first met Charlie while I was in graduate school, and he took some time to explain to me the importance of professional public management.  Charlie embodies all the best of my profession, and he has served as an example to me throughout my career.  His book is a fitting tribute to his work, without being self-serving.  Like Charlie himself, it serves as a reminder that working hard to do the right things over a lifetime is its own reward and a fitting legacy.

What Really Matters

There’s nothing like a trip to the developing world to get a good lesson on what really matters in life.  The moment my plane came to a halt at the airport in Jordan, a man sitting across the aisle from me smiled and said, “Welcome to Jordan.”  His words and the spirit behind them mattered.

Akram diligently waited for more than an hour and a half without knowing whether we were in the airport after our plane arrived while we attempted to locate some lost luggage.  He cheerfully greeted us and said, “Welcome to Jordan,” before driving us to our hotel.

The nighttime journey from the airport to the hotel included whizzing by the new Ikea Store in Amman as well as some quick glimpses of Bedouin tents and goat herds located in the spaces between high rises and roadways.  We also passed the new Taj Mall that looked something like a modern version of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

Within a day of our arrival, we were directed to Sufra, an outstanding restaurant featuring local cuisine.  We were rewarded with a great traditional mensaf (lamb and rice) and another “welcome to Jordan” from a group of young men we passed after leaving the restaurant.  I have worked in many countries around the world, but I have never been made to feel more welcome than I was in Jordan.  It is an understatement to say that I enjoy working in the Middle East, and the principal reason that’s true is the many friends I’ve made during my assignments.

The region is also home to some of the world’s most spectacular historic sites, and we saw several during our trip.  I’m not sure I had ever heard of the Roman ruins in Jerash before our trip, but they rival any I have seen in Italy or other parts of the old empire.  We were also able to visit the Dead Sea, the River Jordan, the mosaics in Madoba, the ruins at Um Qaas, the Citadel in Amman, and, of course, the incredible tombs in Petra.  Throughout our travels, I was struck by the contrasts between wealth and deprivation, although we see can see those same contrasts in different ways in our own country.

I commented to my wife during our tour of the ruins in Jerash that the Romans lacked a good capital improvement program, and I suppose the same could be said for Detroit.  The real lesson I took from walking through the remains of great civilizations is recognizing the challenges of sustaining the things that matter most in our lives.

What really matters to me is the opportunity to experience the best of what life offers without being overwhelmed by the worst.  I have been incredibly fortunate that my interaction with family, friends, coworkers, community, and people around the world has allowed me to maintain a positive view of life.  I can’t stop the wars in the Middle East or erase the national debt; but like the many people in Jordan who treated me with kindness, I can pass it along and hope for the best.

Serving our Mission Statement

I frequently tell stories about city employees who do much more than expected while delivering service to the people of Albany.  I had a chance to see some of that service during a recent ride-along with Albany Police Officer Ben Hatley.  We responded to a number of calls that ranged from a drunken guy harassing people to a fellow trying to shoplift and then sell back the stolen merchandise at a local store.

Ben and the other officers I observed during the ride conducted themselves with great professionalism and courtesy, showing more respect than I would have to some of the miscreants they encountered.  I think being a police officer is among the hardest jobs to do well in a world that includes many tough jobs.

My recent experience at a local business contrasted sharply with what I usually see at the City.  I took my car in for an oil change where they advertise a number of routine checks as included in the service price.  A sensor light had recently appeared on my dashboard indicating a low tire, so I expected the service person to take care of this very minor problem.  I even asked to make sure it had been taken care of before getting into my vehicle.  I was assured that all my tires were at the correct pressure as I drove away, so I was puzzled when I noticed the sensor light was still on shortly after leaving.  I pulled into a gas station and checked the tires myself, only to find that a rear tire was about 15 PSI low.  I filled up the tire, and it has maintained the correct pressure ever since.  All the evidence indicates the service person was not telling the truth about checking all the tires.

The failure to check my tires could be regarded as a minor oversight, and it’s not something that caused me any great harm or inconvenience.  The greatest casualty was my trust in a place where I have done business for several years.  If an employee was willing to lie about a minor issue for no reason, how can I be confident about anything they do?

Trust, not money, is the real currency that determines success or failure for businesses and government alike.  It has been my privilege to work with someone for the past nine years who has consistently demonstrated the kind of integrity and competence that earns trust.

Mike Murzynsky has embarked on a new adventure as the Finance Director for the City of Newport and, although he will be missed here, I’m glad for his opportunity to serve a great community with the same skill and dedication he has given to Albany.  Mike represents the best of servant leadership and has exemplified the City’s mission statement throughout his time here.

Providing quality public services for a better Albany community

What is Economic Development?

My definition of economic development is heavily influenced by my experience as a young city administrator in Oakridge, Oregon, 25 years ago.  Soon after I arrived, the town lost its largest employer and many smaller ones in a short period of time, leaving the community with a high unemployment rate, falling property values, and a shortage of hope.  I was new enough to my profession to be surprised when people started asking me about what we were going to do.

I had enough education and experience to know the basics of personnel and financial management, but I had no training in what to do when the bottom drops out of the local economy.  I did realize that we didn’t have enough jobs or investment, and we needed more of both.  We also needed to work together effectively to make anything positive happen.

The state provided our local planning group with a name, technical assistance, and access to a small grant fund.  Our Community Response Team did its part by volunteering long hours to do community improvement projects and work on a strategic plan.  The whole process helped the town’s leaders not only accomplish some visible projects, but also develop their capacity to work together as a team.  The focus of the original plan was to secure industrial lands, promote tourism, and develop local amenities.  Significant progress or completion was achieved on all of these priorities within four years of adoption of the strategic plan.

Oakridge’s economy did not suddenly prosper because of the initial response, and it really hasn’t come close to returning to its best times in the 1960s and 1970s.  The community has, however, become a national center for mountain biking, and it looks better now than when I moved there in 1988.  There has been some population growth, and a number of small businesses have started in the past few years.

Economic development is a continuing effort to better a place by attracting new investment and creating jobs while maintaining or enhancing all the good qualities that make a community a nice place to live.  Sometimes it may involve relaxing rules that inhibit growth, while in other cases it may require increased protection of a unique resource.  Economic development is not possible, in my opinion, in a place where people are unwilling to put in the effort and take the necessary risks to make their community an attractive place to live and do business.

 

Our Economic Development Director, Kate Porsche, and I attended a forum sponsored by Business Oregon (formerly the Oregon Economic Development Department) last week; and I heard many of the same issues expressed by business and government leaders that we discussed 25 years ago.  I suspect people will be talking about them 25 years from now.

 

Albany has a great opportunity to work together as a community to do real economic development by supporting local residents and businesses by offering unique workforce training in cooperation with Linn-Benton Community College.  The Council is considering a proposal from the community’s largest employers that at the very least is bringing people together in the same way that earlier generations worked to produce much of the prosperity we enjoy today.

Election Season

I am still awaiting word from the Secretary of State’s office about whether or not my fine for allegedly violating election laws late last year will be upheld.  My alleged offense was a failure to include in a news release the cost to the taxpayer of a proposed bond to build new public safety facilities.

The news release did contain the cost of the measure ($20.3 million), but it did not express it as a rate per thousand dollars of assessed value.  I might add that the rate is at best an estimate and would not even apply to some taxpayers.

I am not terribly concerned about the $75 fine if the citation is eventually upheld.  I think the Secretary of State’s office was acknowledging that this was a pretty trivial offense, if it was an offense at all, by imposing a fine that is about three percent of the maximum specified by the statute.  While I am not concerned about the fine, I am very troubled by a law that makes it difficult to determine whether or not a violation has occurred.  The consequence of this uncertainty is that those who may be in the best position to explain an issue and who the public will likely ask for information will be unwilling to risk sanctions by saying anything.

The City of Albany was very conscious of the Secretary of State’s administrative rules that implement state electioneering laws, and we even sent a team that included our mayor, city attorney, public information officer, and economic development director to meet with the Secretary of State last year in an attempt to better understand how the rules would be applied.  Despite this conversation and multiple readings of the 23-page manual that implements ORS 260.432, we still managed to run afoul of those who administer the law.  It appears that the only “safe harbor” is to submit any statement regarding anything that is scheduled to appear on a ballot to the Secretary of State’s office for prior review.  The news release that triggered the fine described a council decision to create a citizens’ advisory group and only incidentally mentioned the ballot measure.

The advice I will be following as the election season approaches is to essentially say nothing about anything that will be on the ballot.  We know, for example, that a measure to legalize the recreational use of marijuana has apparently qualified to be on the November ballot.  Any thoughts I might have about how such a measure will affect the City, I will need to keep to myself.  Unlike most public employees, city managers are deemed to be on the job most of the time.  I do not believe the law or the way it is being interpreted is constitutional, but I will do my best to observe it until it is changed.  My advice for all public employees is to do the same and limit any statements or opinions regarding ballot measures to times when there is no doubt that the employee is off duty.  Additionally, no public resources such as computers, e-mail accounts, etc., should be used when making any comment about a ballot measure.  Even responding to citizen inquiries should be treated with caution.

There are people who are eager to make public employees look bad by catching them violating the law.  I have had three complaints filed with the Secretary of State’s office in this spirit by some local citizens, so the threat is not abstract.  I am hopeful that my case will provide some clarification that will allow for a more informed discussion of important public issues.

“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.