Energy Shortage

My wife and I volunteered to take care of two of our grandchildren last weekend and discovered that there are good reasons to have children when you are young.  Jack and Anthony are 3½ and 1½ respectively and, although they are much better behaved than any of our children ever were, they require a fair amount of attention.

I did not remember, for example, the mechanical aptitude, effort, and energy required to simply get a child into a car.  I decided to take the boys out to visit their cousins and then go see some newborn lambs at a farm near Scio while my wife was attending a meeting Saturday morning.  By the time I changed a diaper, found clothes, dressed the kids, and strapped them into their car seats, I was more exhausted than I am after my usual six-mile morning run.  I spent a good part of the afternoon taking a recovery nap on the couch.

Evelyn apparently knew she would be attending a number of weekend meetings when she made arrangements to look after the children.  I found out Sunday morning that I would be responsible for getting the little ones ready for church and transporting them to the building while my wife attended another meeting.  We repeated Saturday’s process with the addition of taking more care with clothing, hair, and general cleanliness.  I guess church members are more concerned about appearances than baby lambs.

Our grandbabies routinely surprise us with their talents, insights, and generally good behavior, despite the occasional lapse.  Anthony is getting new teeth and seems determined to try them out on anything close at hand.  Unfortunately for Jack, he’s usually closer than anything else that Anthony can sink his teeth into.  I fear Anthony could grow up to be a Beaver because we now have teeth marks on several pieces of furniture, in addition to the impressions still visible on Jack’s arm. 

I have a better understanding now why the birth rate is declining in many countries around the world.  Car seats alone must surely account for some of the reduction; and when you add in bathing, dressing, supervising, disciplining, educating, feeding, health care, and activities, it’s no wonder people are choosing not to have babies.  Even if you can afford them, there is still the issue of changing dirty diapers.  I like to think I have a strong stomach, but my limits have been tested on the rare occasion when I’m the only one available to change a smelly diaper.  It seems small consolation to me that you can wash the stuff off because it frequently seems to find its way onto your hands or clothing. 

Grandchildren really are a great blessing in our lives and, as anyone who has spent much time around me can attest, I enjoy telling stories about them.  It has been fun to share experiences with Tom and Denise Valentino and hear about their first grandchild who recently arrived.  I have also enjoyed meeting a number of grandbabies who have dropped in to visit their grandparents at City Hall.  As my children remind me from time to time, it won’t be long before the shoe is on the other foot and I may be depending on children and grandchildren to take care of me.

Discovering the Truth

Nearly every day, I hear or see allegations that are presented as fact but are really opinions.  I think many people have trouble distinguishing the difference between the two, and I know that I sometimes believe things without really being able to prove they are true.  Lawyers are very good at exploiting this uncertainty when building cases for or against a particular point of view.

Experienced police officers know that people rarely remember events the same way, and witnesses can be completely mistaken about important facts in a case.  We are all familiar with examples of people wrongly convicted by eyewitness testimony, and I have personally seen people testify to something under oath that was demonstrably untrue.  The fact that all of us have unreliable memories does not mean we all have bad intentions or are liars.  Sometimes we just perceive things differently.

Sorting out what really happened and taking appropriate action when an allegation is made is often a difficult task.  If five people leave a meeting feeling it was positive and productive and one walks away completely dissatisfied, was the meeting good or bad?  Usually, we give credibility to a majority opinion or to facts that can be independently corroborated, but there are clearly times when one person sees something no one else considered.

We rely on an elaborate system of laws and courts to resolve many of these differences, recognizing that this process is far from foolproof.  I was reading a newspaper article this morning about what appeared to be two murders where those who seemed to be guilty of the crimes were never prosecuted due to lack of evidence. 

City investigations cover a wide range of subjects that include everything from looking into accusations against employees to checking out whether grass and weeds constitute a fire hazard.  Allegations involving employees are treated carefully and seriously.  Most city employees have rights guaranteed in labor agreements and state statutes that specify how any investigation into their conduct must be handled.  Usually, investigations begin at the department level and, depending on their nature, are directed to Human Resources (HR). Our HR Department also consults with attorneys provided by our insurance carrier on any significant personnel issue, and the nature of the allegation may dictate that an outside agency or firm be called in to fully investigate the issue.

Regardless of the outcome of an investigation, it is common for someone to disagree with its conclusions.  Some will feel the response was too lenient, while others may believe it was too harsh or unfair.  I can’t guarantee that city investigations into the truth surrounding a particular issue will yield a result that makes everyone happy.  I can guarantee that allegations will be treated with the respect they deserve and a good faith effort will be made to discern the truth.

Defending our Values

Nuclear annihilation has been considered a grave threat through most of my life, probably with good cause.  I have reached an age, however, where I doubt that I have much to fear from a nuclear explosion.  Car wrecks, disease, or even falling off a ladder seem more likely threats than an atomic blast.  I think the same principle is often true of threats to our values.

Most of us are not inclined to steal, cheat, lie or otherwise violate the values we have been taught throughout our lives.  We know how to avoid the “nuclear” threats, but we may be vulnerable to the more mundane erosion of what’s really important to us.  I occasionally receive reminders of this problem in daily life.

There have been times when I have seen someone doing something or heard something that I found inappropriate or offensive and made the easy decision to walk away without confronting the problem.  It may have been a bad joke, a disrespectful comment, or just a bad judgment call about how to deal with an issue, but for a number of reasons I decided the costs of confrontation exceeded the benefits of avoiding a bad reaction to my intervention.  Knowing when we can or should really make a difference is not always easily discerned.

I have almost always found it useful to discuss these moral dilemmas with people I trust.  A few weeks ago I was driving home for lunch when I saw a young girl I knew from our church hitchhiking on Highway 99.  I didn’t really stop to think before pulling over to give her a ride home and some gentle counsel about the dangers of hitchhiking.  Later, I talked with my wife and some friends at church about whether I had made the right decision.  We all agreed that stopping was the right thing to do, while acknowledging the risks associated with my decision.  I have learned that all decisions involve risks, and the more meaningful choices usually involve the greatest chance of something going wrong.

Despite the downside, my general preference is to take on the uncomfortable challenge rather than avoid the potential conflict.  If we do not stand up to wrongdoing or are fearful about what might happen to us if we venture too far from safe places, we run the greater risk of compromising our most important values and not really living at all.

Confronting bad behavior in the workplace is not a matter that generally requires force, coercion, or even much risk.  Usually it’s just a simple reminder.  I hope all of us will have the courage and the discretion to know when personal or organizational values are being threatened and act accordingly.

Albany’s Future

Albany, by most measures of community health, is doing well.  More businesses and individuals are investing more money in new enterprises than at any time in the past five years, and nearly all the trends appear to be positive.  Some of the signs are easy to see, while others are more subtle.

New apartment complexes, new homes, and new subdivisions are all a part of Albany’s landscape; and it shouldn’t be surprising that new retail businesses are moving in to serve the new residents.  Less obvious are expansions by local industries, creating new family wage jobs that attract new families.  Albany is starting to experience some of the growing pains that affected the community in the earlier years of the past decade.

New investment and population growth is not always a cause of celebration, but it is a sign that Albany is an attractive and secure place for people to live and do business.  It’s not hard to understand why many people consider Albany a nice place to live.  Our community has a large inventory of comparatively affordable homes, educational opportunities, shopping, entertainment, jobs, and outdoor recreation and is centrally located to major transportation routes.  While Albany does not enjoy some of the amenities of a large urban area, it is comparatively free from the congestion and crime found in bigger places.

Albany has modern infrastructure that provides reliable water, wastewater treatment, transportation, and telecommunications services.  Businesses also enjoy the security of a development code and enforcement efforts that provide protection against incompatible uses.   Emergency services are well-established and have strong reputations for exceeding expectations to assist those in need.  Well-maintained parks, strong recreational programs, and excellent libraries provide additional reasons for people to choose Albany as their home.

Albany would not be Albany, however, without the dedication of countless volunteers who donate their time and money to sustain everything from summer concerts and libraries to homeless shelters and food pantries.  Museums, programs that support small businesses, Neighborhood Watch groups, Court Appointed Special Advocates, United Way, and Safe Haven Humane Society, to name a few, all testify to the importance of volunteers in making Albany a desirable place to be.

Albany’s future will continue to look good as long as people are willing to invest their time, talents, and money to make good things happen here.  It is easy to lose sight of all that is best in a place by focusing only on its problems.  Albany, like all communities, faces its share of challenges; but the town is fortunate to have many assets and resources that generally take the form of dedicated people committed to building a better future.

Looking to the Future

Recent articles, editorials, and blogs in the Albany Democrat-Herald have publicized complaints and problems at the City of Albany, with a particular focus on the Fire Department.  I want all city employees and Albany citizens to know there is a commitment from the City’s management team to take immediate action to help prevent similar situations in the future.

The first priority of the Albany Fire Department is to insure the best possible response to emergencies, and I do not believe there is much disagreement that AFD has an outstanding record of accomplishment in achieving its mission.  In a recent poll of Albany residents, the Fire Department was the highest rated city service as it has been in many previous surveys.  We all recognize that failing to resolve recent concerns could threaten the quality of our service and are, therefore, committed to doing better.  The challenge ahead is to insure that, in responding to concerns, we do not create an environment where people feel constantly threatened and fearful.  Appropriate discipline is an important part of deterring unacceptable behavior, but it is only one tool among many we rely on to help maintain a safe and productive workplace.  The great majority of people who work for the City are routinely professional and require few reminders about appropriate conduct; however, we have in the past and will in the future impose discipline when it is warranted.

Our next commitment is to actively seek opinions from people who work for the City and to provide some new alternatives for communicating concerns.  After talking with women leaders in the organization, we know that some employees may not feel comfortable talking to someone of a different gender or race about harassment or discrimination.  While we have had human resource specialists of both genders in our Human Resource Department for many years, we are told that some people are intimidated by the formal processes we use to investigate concerns.  We have recently made arrangements to bring in a longtime Albany resident and human resource specialist with the belief she can help us develop better ways to address that concern.  We will also conduct an anonymous survey of city employees to hear their ideas about how to improve.

Specific to the Fire Department, Chief Bradner has made contact with a problem-solving team composed of representatives of the International Association of Fire Chiefs that we have successfully used in the past to help the department resolve problems.  My understanding is that the team will include a fire chief who is a woman with great experience in addressing gender issues in the fire service.

My focus is on the future and making sure we continue to provide high quality service from all city departments.  Mistakes are an inevitable part of daily life, and we have a choice about whether we let them tear us down or help us build something better.  I believe most of us at the City are committed to learning from the past to make the future brighter.

Reaching Out

Several years before I became a city administrator, I read a book entitled Without Fear or Favor, written by a retired manager named Leroy Harlow.  Mr. Harlow retired from the profession after a relatively short city management career and became a university professor, where he apparently had time to write about his experiences in the field.  The book inspired me, despite the many examples it contained about the challenges of doing the job well.

Perhaps the greatest challenge city managers face is trying to accurately inform city employees and the public they serve about complex issues.  Most of us rely on newspapers, web pages, newsletters, public meetings, presentations to groups, and individual conversations to share what we know.  During my career, e-mail and other electronic communication have helped in some ways, but they have also created completely new problems.

When I started my career in an organization of 30 people and a town of 3,500, my job was easier because I knew everyone in our organization and many of the people in town.  We attended events together, coached each other’s children, met in the town’s only grocery store, and even ran into each other at swimming holes on the river.  If someone had a problem, they were quick to tell me, and I always tried to be quick to respond.  I have since moved on to larger communities, but I have never lost my belief that a city manager has an obligation to be personally responsive both to employees and the public.

No one screens my phone calls, I am generally available without an appointment, and I welcome suggestions about things we could do differently or better.  I have written many times that the part of this job I enjoy most is the opportunity to meet and work with so many outstanding people.  I have also learned that while e-mail is a great convenience, it is also the source of considerable miscommunication.  True understanding, in my opinion, requires the ability to interact face-to-face; and even phone calls or Skype conversations are a poor substitute for meeting with someone.

I appreciate the many employees who have taken the time to visit my office or catch me in the hall to talk about an idea or a concern.  I may not always be able to do what someone wants me to do, but I am always willing to listen and make a good faith effort to understand. 

I like to believe that I have always approached this job “without fear or favor,” and that will continue to be my approach in the future.  I welcome visits and look forward to the opportunity to share ideas and concerns with anyone interested in taking the time to do so.

The Good Old Days

I think I have commented on a number of occasions that I believe I am fortunate to be living in the very best of times.  The world has many problems, but our part of it has so many wonderful blessings that I would have to be dragged kicking and screaming back to an earlier time in history.  Despite my generally sunny view of present day things, there are elements of the past I find appealing.

Marilyn Smith, our Public Information Officer, passed along news today from a website that described efforts by the city attorney in Grand Rapids, Michigan, to repeal some outdated laws.  I understand the need to get rid of a law that prohibits horseback riding on sidewalks, but I can’t imagine why they want to do away with the ordinance that states, “no person shall willfully annoy another person.”  Aside from a few small constitutional issues, this could be among the most useful revenue generators in the history of local government.  I am reasonably confident our police could cite large numbers of people every day for annoying the heck out of neighbors, fellow drivers, shoppers, and diners, to name a few.  Bogging down municipal court would be a small price to pay for dramatically reducing irritation in the community. 

I was also saddened to learn of Grand Rapids’ plan to eliminate jail sentences for failure to return library books.  In my case, I’m not sure a jail sentence for abusing my library privileges would be much of a threat as long as I could take my overdue books into the cell with me.  I might finally get the time to read as much as I’d like.  I thought the idea was so good that I passed it along to Ed Gallagher, our Library Director, who responded by sending me a copy of an old Albany ordinance prescribing a jail sentence of up to six months for failing to return books.  I wonder if anyone really ever had to serve time for that offense.

Many of those who decry regulation today don’t realize that our forefathers and mothers were once willing to pass laws on just about any subject.  Spitting, cohabitating, and even chewing gum have all been the subjects of municipal ordinances in times past, not to mention whole sections of codes regulating horses.

My bias is that we probably try to solve too many problems by passing laws, but I don’t think that is a recent phenomenon.  I have looked at enough old city records to know that city leaders today are probably less likely to pass regulations than those who preceded them.  We often forget that the good old days are only appealing in our imaginations.

We Can Do Better

Earlier this week, I learned about a blog on the Democrat-Herald website that prints in its entirety an inappropriate and offensive memorandum written to coworkers by a City of Albany employee more than two years ago.  I believe the blog will be followed by a news story about the memo and allegations of similar types of misconduct in the Fire Department.  The memorandum speaks for itself as an inexcusable example of poor judgment and bad taste.  The employee responsible issued an apology for writing it soon after it was distributed, and my understanding is that Chief Bradner issued his own apology after learning about it.  I would like to add my apologies to that list to anyone who saw the memo.  I would also add that we have taken steps and will take more to help guard against anything similar in the future.

Sadly, the memo is not the only example I have seen in my career of people forgetting some basic principles of respect and professional behavior.  I have written before about employees whose careers ended after engaging in work-related affairs, harassment, and other forms of inappropriate behavior.  Until recently, I thought the worst of those examples were the product of another time when different attitudes and mores prevailed in the workplace.  My perspective has changed after seeing examples of “sexting” on city time, an employee essentially propositioning another, a city manager in an Oregon city being dismissed after having an affair with an employee, and a number of other equally troubling events.

It should come as no secret to anyone that the days of crude jokes, pornography, sexual advances or innuendo, and gender bias in the workplace are over.  Employees who violate city policies relating to this issue are subject to disciplinary action up to and including termination, and those in leadership positions are held to a higher standard than those they supervise. 

I enjoy working at the City of Albany, mostly because I like the people I work with and have great respect for their abilities.  I frequently write about acts of service and kindness I see nearly every day, and it is my preference to focus on what is best in people rather than on our failings.  The hardest part of my job is confronting the mistakes of good people and making judgments about the appropriate response.  I believe, however, I have a responsibility to all of us to act decisively when I become aware of behavior that threatens our ability to effectively do our jobs, free from the threat of demeaning remarks or other forms of misconduct from our colleagues.

Any employee who feels they have been subjected to inappropriate treatment or material should report the incident to their supervisor or to our Human Resources Department as soon as possible.  Employees are also welcome to report problems to me, as a number of you have over the years.  I would much rather know about a problem or concern and deal with it quickly than have it mushroom into something bigger over time.

Simple Concepts, Complex Practices

Designing a basic bridge is a pretty simple concept.  You don’t need to be an engineer to put down a plank over a small stream or to use the frame of an old boxcar to span a larger watercourse.  I think most of us, however, would prefer our highway bridges to be designed by competent engineers who have the training and experience to do the job right. 

The basic principles of public finance are fairly simple, too.  You don’t need to be a trained accountant to know that consistently spending more money than you make is a potentially dangerous practice that can lead to bankruptcy or that failing to reconcile your checkbook to your bank statement causes overdrafts and other serious problems.  Local government finance, however, is an increasingly complex subject that requires training, experience, and skill to master.

The February edition of Governing Magazine offers a short summary of what can go wrong when local government leaders do not understand the complexity of the job at hand.  Municipal bankruptcies, crashing bond ratings, and Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) allegations of securities fraud against a city are just a few of the problems cited in the article, which highlighted the point that “…even at the most basic levels, government finance is anything but intuitive.”

The City of Albany spends a large sum of money every year to accurately account for our resources and manage them appropriately.  We engage bond counsel and financial advisers; but most importantly, we employ highly trained people who know the rules and how they should be applied.  We also observe strict standards in preparing financial documents and engage qualified accountants to audit our books every year. 

Albany, as I’ve noted on many occasions, has even gone many steps further by putting an unprece-dented amount of financial information on-line.  Our success at transparency makes it very easy for people to see our financial information and equally easy to misinterpret it.  I believe the importance of making public information accessible outweighs the costs of having to correct inaccurate interpretations and conclusions.

We all know experts make mistakes, and many of us take smug satisfaction when some particularly arrogant pundit makes a grand pronouncement that turns out to be completely wrong.  I think the greater wrong, though, would be to dismiss the knowledge and expertise of people who know what they are doing as unimportant. 

I don’t know about anyone else, but I really don’t want to fly on a commercial jet piloted by someone with no training or experience.  I reserve the right to question the judgment of experts and leaders, while being careful to withhold my own opinion until I fully understand the issue.  I prefer to avoid the appraisal of Benjamin Franklin, who once wrote, “Any fool can criticize, condemn and complain – and most fools do.”

Valentine’s Day

Thank you to all City employees for the great work done during our recent snow and ice storm.  I particularly appreciate those who were out in the snow helping stranded motorists, sanding streets, driving buses, shoveling walkways, transporting patients, or otherwise doing their best to make a bad situation better.  We have received a number of compliments about City employees going above and beyond to be of service, and it’s good to know that most of the people who live here are equally appreciative.  I also want to thank those who braved the storm to show up at work so that when someone came to City Hall they were generally able to get service.  City employees were not, of course, the only people who kept things going during the storm.  I am thankful for both the Linn and Benton County road crews, ODOT personnel, and all the business owners and workers who did what needed to be done.

Now that the storm has passed, “normal” activities have resumed; and I find myself about to participate in an “Oldlyweds” game at the Senior Center, where my wife and I will be competing against other couples who have been married even longer than we have.  I am having a hard time imagining how anything good will come of this, but I’m willing to do my part to further tarnish whatever image of respectability I may have left. 

I also hope to attend the Friends of the Library fund-raiser tomorrow night at the Carnegie Library.  This event was rescheduled due to the snow; and, while I won’t be doing any wine tasting, I know it will be a good opportunity to talk with people who feel the same way I do about books.  I hope others will take the time to visit our historic library.  It is a beautiful facility and a tribute to the City’s long-standing commitment to preserving important parts of our history.

We had a great celebration of the newest addition to the community’s collection of historic objects just before the City Council meeting Wednesday night.  I arrived at City Hall to find people dressed in Civil War uniforms eating cake and admiring our new cannon.  I know I feel safer now that we have artillery in the Great Hall.

I would like to extend my best wishes to all on Valentine’s Day, and I hope that people are able to share it with others they care about most.  My wife and I are babysitting a three-year-old and a one-year-old, so I’m confident we will have a restful and romantic celebration.