Merry Christmas

Today, an unnamed city employee stopped by my office and pointed to some pictures of my wife while asking the question, how did someone as pretty as my wife end up with someone like me?  It’s nice to be held in such high esteem by my colleagues at City Hall.  I responded to the question by noting that I haven’t always looked like a 62-year-old city manager and my wife likes my personality.  Considering that we are about to celebrate our 43rd Christmas together, we obviously found something attractive in each other.

Our first Christmas we set a limit of three dollars on gifts for each other, which my wife completely disregarded by buying me a nice sweater.  I, of course, honored the bargain by purchasing a candle in the shape of a turtle.  It sounds pathetic even now, but I learned an important lesson from the experience.  Never attempt to be frugal when buying gifts for your wife.  I have also learned that I usually forget the gifts I receive from year to year, while never forgetting the person who was kind enough to remember me.

Evelyn and I have celebrated the holidays in many different places with many people over the years.  We have lost people we loved while gaining many new ones as our family and circle of friends have grown.  I received an early Christmas present this week when I arrived home from work to find three of my grandchildren running down the hall to give me a hug while shouting, “Papa.”  It’s been a long time since my children would give me a similar greeting, and I had almost forgotten how good it feels.

Experiences, it seems, are really the best gifts and what we both anticipate and remember most.  Right now, I’m looking forward to traveling to Gateway for Christmas and spending some time with my wife’s parents.  The Gateway Valley is a beautiful place and has been a family gathering spot throughout our marriage.  We hope to have a few grandchildren join us during the course of our stay.  I’m sure I will remember this experience far longer than anything else I might receive.

I hope everyone who takes a moment to read this column has a memorable, peaceful Christmas.  I am most grateful for the blessing of my wife and family, and I’ve even learned to appreciate the occasional barbs from friends at City Hall.

Albany Five Years from Now

I was recently asked to speak at a local service club about what Albany will be like in five years, and I opened the talk by admitting that I don’t really know.  I’m Albany’s city manager, and my focus is on trying to efficiently and effectively deliver the services our city council has determined are necessary to the health of the community.  Part of that job is trying to anticipate future conditions, so I made the following points about where I see the community going between now and 2020:

  1. Albany has grown steadily over the past 30+ years, and there is good evidence it will continue to do so over the next five years.  If the past is a reliable guide, we can expect to add people equal to the current combined populations of Tangent and Millersburg during the next five years.  Our population is likely to be more diverse and probably a little older.  Currently, Albany’s average age of residents is slightly lower than the state’s as a whole; but we are adding a substantial number of residential units for seniors and that could (not necessarily will) change the mix.
  2. We will continue to see closure of some retail stores, just as we will see many new openings.  The retail market nationally is volatile, and shopping habits are changing.  I believe we may see more locally owned specialty shops and perhaps less national chain stores.
  3. Crime will continue to decline in Albany.  We have seen some significant reductions in crime in the recent past, and I think that trend is likely to continue if we maintain our Strategic Plan commitment to keeping Albany safe.
  4. Albany’s economy will continue to improve with more, better paying jobs.  Local industries are currently expanding, and the presence of both LBCC and Oregon State put Albany in a good position to take advantage of this trend.  Obviously, what happens nationally will affect Albany for good or ill.
  5. Albany will become more a center for health care as new facilities are built and new professionals move here because of them.  Our position on Interstate 5 makes Albany a good choice for new investment, not only in health care, but in other service areas as well.
  6. Affordability and income disparity will become even bigger challenges as those with desirable skills and education will command bigger salaries while those who do not keep pace will see fewer opportunities for income growth.  Albany is making a unique effort to educate local students and residents for available work opportunities, but success is not guaranteed.

None of my observations are particularly daring.  Most are based on what has happened here over the past few decades.  I see Albany as a better place to live than it was in the past, and I hope future generations will see the same outcome.  Health care, education, amenities such as restaurants and shopping opportunities, crime rates, and, yes, even the smell have improved in recent times.  These trends will continue, however, only if we make the difficult, self-sacrificing decisions to invest in Albany that those who preceded us had the willingness to do.

Thanksgiving Thoughts

Our house will soon be engulfed in chaos as about 30 people we love arrive to celebrate Thanksgiving.  My wife selected this holiday years ago as the one where we would try to gather the entire family to express appreciation for one another, count our blessings, and, of course, watch football.  Truthfully, I think my sons much prefer the annual Turkey Bowl where we play football to intermittently watching it on television.

Evelyn patiently endures the football in exchange for exercises or games that require everyone to participate.  We have explored family history, watched old home movies, and engaged in a number of contests that include nice prizes.  This year, each person was asked to write a letter that included such thoughts as the five most influential people in our lives, our seven defining moments, and the most interesting things we have ever done.  Even the youngest children are involved, although those that can’t read or write required parental assistance.  Knowing my wife, we will listen to all 30 essays before we can even turn on the TV.

I thought I was being very cooperative by sitting down a week or so ago and writing my letter until Evelyn informed me it wasn’t good enough.  She said it was a nice letter, but it didn’t answer all her questions.  The penalty for not doing it right is that I will not receive a prize for being one of the first to respond.

Following the essay readings, the feast, and the football, the crowd slowly disperses; some go to in-laws while others go home to recover.  Our house stays full until Sunday, and I just learned that my Saturday will be spent in Sweet Home watching two of my grandsons wrestle.  I remember with some affection my youngest son’s last wrestling match and the happy realization that I would not have to travel to distant gyms in icy weather to sit on hard bleachers and watch kids try to humiliate and/or harm my kid.  Now I get to enjoy this experience with my grandsons.  I’m excited.

I will arrive home in time to watch the annual Civil War, although there is usually nothing civil about it.  I do not believe we have any adult Beaver haters in the family, but we are all confirmed Ducks.  Roland, my 12-year-old grandson, has matured from the days when he would write “Go Ducks” on all his school papers and get into occasional fights with Beaver classmates.  He has grown into a really considerate young man who excels in schoolwork and sports.  I am particularly thankful that our partisanship did not scar him for life.

My seven-year-old grandson, Owen, may not be so lucky.  My daughter, Owen’s mother, could not find her cell phone last Monday and began calling the number in an effort to locate it.  Eventually the principal’s office at his school answered and informed my daughter that Owen had brought her cell phone to school.  She went to retrieve the phone; and when she asked Owen why he had taken it, he responded that she threatened to call Grandpa (me) and tell him not to take Owen to last Saturday’s Duck game if his behavior didn’t improve; so he did the only thing he could do.

I wish all who read this column a happy Thanksgiving!  Owen and I had a great time at the Duck game, and I hope we enjoy the Civil War just as much.

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Owen sans cell phone at Autzen Stadium – Go Ducks!

Owen

Fighting Hatred

I was saddened to learn of an incident during our Veterans’ Day Parade that involved unknown people putting racially offensive flyers on cars in the downtown area.  Anyone with much knowledge of U.S. history knows that veterans of all races have made the ultimate sacrifice for this country and our greatest ideals.  There is never an appropriate time for bigotry, but I find it hard to imagine a more inappropriate moment to express this form of hatred than during an event to honor those who have sacrificed on behalf of all of us.  The cowardice of posting anonymous hate messages stands in stark contrast to the willingness to openly defend our country and its values.

It doesn’t require much effort to condemn hatred, and I think it’s appropriate that we do so whenever it surfaces in our community.  I think it’s more important, however, to act against it every day through respect, compassion, and exercise of the Golden Rule.  We may never know the person or people who littered our community with hate, but we can defeat their message with kindness and flyers of our own.  An example of that kindness arrived in the form of an e-mail from the library while I was writing this column:

I want you to know your influence from Monday’s story time with my 4.5 year old… He is in the kitchen right now singing, “If you’re happy and you know it shout OLE!” When my husband shouted “hooray!”, Jacoby said, “No, Daddy! OLE!” :)  He just soaked in the entire story time and loved it!  I just had Parent/Teacher Conference with my first grader’s teachers tonight and they didn’t realize there was a bilingual story time and asked me to send them the flyer.

While a few may be spreading messages of hate, many more are reaching out and positively affecting the lives of those around them.  I routinely hear these stories and see examples of selfless service from people in Albany every day.  Perhaps the most important thing we can do is teach our children kindness, both through lessons and example.  I know the world we live in today is far from perfect, but I also know there is much greater opportunity for people of all races, less tolerance of hate and more inclusion than there was in the world when I was “4.5” years old.

As we condemn the malicious acts of the few, I hope we will also commit ourselves to action.  Our words are important, but what we do every day will really give us cause to shout hooray and ole.

Albany’s Veterans’ Day Parade

Albany justifiably prides itself in our annual tribute to veterans for their service to our country.  Our parade is amazing and, perhaps even more remarkable is the response from citizens who line our streets to pay homage to military veterans.  I have been in the parade on a number of occasions, and I’m always impressed that so many people are willing to take a little time to express their gratitude to their fellow citizens.  We should probably find more reasons and ways to do that.

I have always felt a little guilty about my military service because most of my enlistment was spent behind a desk in Norfolk, Virginia, at the headquarters of the Supreme Allied Commander Atlantic.  I did spend some time at sea on a Canadian destroyer, but I’ve done many more dangerous assignments as a civilian than I ever did as a Navy journalist.  I really didn’t sacrifice much to serve in the military in comparison to my father who served in combat in two wars or his Canadian cousin who was killed in Holland during World War II.

My mother spent the war years in the U.S. Army at the Jefferson Barracks in Missouri, which I suspect was something of an adventure for a young woman from coal country in Kentucky.  Like me, I don’t believe my mom was ever in any physical danger during the War, and I never heard her even hint that her service represented a sacrifice.  Perhaps we deserve some credit for accepting the obligation to go where we were sent, but I’ve never felt comfortable accepting praise for a four-year commitment that provided substantial benefits with little or no risk.

I have no similar hesitation when it comes to recognizing the many men and women who have made tremendous sacrifices on behalf of the rest of us.  I met many of them in Iraq who risked their lives every day trying to carry out difficult missions in a dangerous and frustrating environment.  Most of those I met accepted their separation from families and basic amenities with a good attitude and a commitment to make a difference.  I have met more young friends since moving to Albany who served two or three deployments in Afghanistan or Iraq and have now settled into productive community roles.  The lucky ones, like my father, emerged from their experience as strong, capable people who find it easy to keep daily challenges in perspective.  Less fortunate veterans struggle with the many negative effects of war.  The programs and services we offer to veterans are probably not enough to compensate for their experience.

Our parade is part of the civic infrastructure that makes Albany a strong community.  I am grateful to all those who make it possible and grateful to all who have sacrificed in many different ways to make their community and country a better place.

The Importance of Local Elections

My involvement in local government covers more than 40 years as a volunteer, elected school board member, and city manager.  Contrary to what many seem to believe about politicians, the overwhelming majority of local officials I have worked with have been honorable, caring people wanting to do their best for the community.

Local governments in Oregon are generally nonpartisan, and I really don’t know the political affiliation of many of the councilors and mayors I have worked with over the years.  Much of my career has been spent in rural communities, which leads me to believe that a majority of mayors and councilors I’ve served were registered Republicans.  I believe some were registered as Democrats and Independents.  I have frequently seen the Democrats take very conservative positions and the Republicans take a more liberal stance; not because they were intent on defying a political party, but because they put their desire to do what was right for the community above ideology.  I learned early in my career to never assume how someone would vote based on my perception of their political leanings.

The strength of local democracy is the quality and commitment of the men and women who volunteer to do the hard work and make the difficult decisions required of local leaders.  Sometimes city councils have to make unpopular decisions, like raising utility rates, knowing that the community could get by for awhile before anyone realized that the easy decision was ultimately far more costly.  I do not mean to imply that city councils or city managers always make the best decisions, but almost without exception in my experience, I believe they have made an honest attempt.

Election campaigns often include attacks against candidates that are either greatly exaggerated or completely unwarranted.  There are certainly examples of people of bad character with even worse motives seeking local office, but most candidates are representative of the group of people they want to serve.  I could probably write a short book about some of the difficult characters I have met as a city manager.  Fortunately, most of them did not serve on the city council.  We shouldn’t be surprised that we usually elect people who we like and respect; particularly in relatively small towns where people know one another.  I have seen a number of local elections where one candidate spent large sums of money and lost while his/her opponent spent almost nothing.

Local government is the means we have chosen to provide many services we all need and to make community decisions that affect us all.  Albany has a strong record of electing people who serve those important ends with good judgment and civility.  I have been privileged to work with four mayors and many councilors over the past nine years who represent the best of local government and the community they serve.

Staying Awake

Several years ago, a colleague and I agreed that we should just call each other at 3:00 a.m. and talk about a difficult project we were working on because we knew we would both be awake worrying about it anyway.   The project eventually ended in a generally positive way, and I went back to sleeping through the night until the next difficult issue came along.

The world appears to be very bleak at 3:00 a.m., but it miraculously seems to get better after some sleep and the daily sunrise.  Our problems don’t disappear; we just get some fresh perspective when blood flows to different parts of our body and we recognize that dealing with challenges is a necessary part of life.

The advent of social media has probably heightened the drama and fear surrounding new challenges, while occasionally offering some reassuring insight.  A friend of mine posted the following timeline that illustrates my point:

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I don’t think we should ignore concerns like those listed above anymore than I think we should ignore symptoms of illness we might be personally experiencing.  Taking reasonable precautions rather than blaming others or forecasting doom makes more sense to me.

I remember writing a similar column for a newspaper about Y2K (the supposedly fatal flaw in computers that would cause them all to crash at the beginning of the year 2000) and being criticized by some readers for not taking the problem seriously.  We did take it seriously; but we didn’t panic, spend recklessly, or otherwise waste time and energy on a problem that was mostly theoretical by the time the Year 2000 actually arrived.

It’s reassuring to know that at the other end of the timeline, sensible precautions are being taken in Oregon to deal with infectious diseases, including Ebola.  I am grateful for the many people who are risking their lives to care for those who are infected, and I appreciate the good efforts of all those who are working to keep the rest of us safe.  I am sure people involved in this work are worrying about the problem at 3:00 a.m., and I’m hopeful they will awake with wisdom and resolve to keep fighting the problem.  My part at the moment is to be aware of the nature of the threat, keep it in perspective, and act based on the best available information.  The issues that keep me awake at night are much closer to home, and I suspect that’s true for most of us.

Learning from Jordan

The most common response to my announcement that I would be doing some work in Jordan during the last two weeks in August was concern for my safety.  We have all been reading about violence in the Middle East, and the common assumption seems to be that all countries in the region are afflicted with it.  Jordan is not only peaceful, but an amazing and attractive place to visit.

A colleague and I were asked to make presentations at three local government workshops focusing on economic development as a part of the Local Enterprise Support (LENS) Project sponsored by the U.S. Agency for International Development.  The International City-County Management Association (ICMA) is a partner on this project, charged with connecting U.S. managers and subject-matter experts to counterparts in Jordan.  My colleague was Dr. Colleen Johnson, a U.S. economist and former Oregon mayor, who presented a case study on a local development project.  We were privileged to work with the former director of the Jordanian customs service and noted economist, Dr. Khalid Wazani.  There is a great pool of talented and educated people in Jordan, and it shows in the quality of services and new development.

Jordanian resources are currently challenged, however, by a flood of refugees from Syria and Iraq.  Several hundred thousand people have moved into a country of about nine million people that is 2¾ times smaller than the state of Oregon.  The LENS program seeks to help create economic opportunities for Jordanians and refugees alike.

Tourism, long an important part of Jordan’s economy, has suffered unfairly from the violence surrounding the nation.  We had the opportunity to drive around the country and visit incredible places such as the Dead Sea, Mount Nebo, the ruins at Jerash, Umm Qais, Bethany, Madaba, and, of course, Petra.  The people of Jordan were welcoming, hospitable, and kind as we visited some of the most incredible historic sites in the world.  I have visited Roman ruins throughout the old empire and have found none that give a better sense of its grandeur than those in Jordan.  Petra defies description and offers some amazing hikes through terrain similar to the American Southwest.  We saw no hint of violence and experienced nothing that made us feel unsafe.

Agriculture and manufacturing are also important to Jordan’s economy, and both have been affected by neighboring conflict.  Jordanian farmers are unable to export much of their produce to traditional markets and, in some cases, destroy their produce for want of buyers.  Food going to waste while children go hungry in nearby countries is just another example of the many tragic consequences of war in the Middle East.  Cities are interested in developing more food processing capacity to take advantage of fresh produce that is currently wasted, and local governments are also trying to stimulate entrepreneurs.

Jordanian cities will be participating in a new City Links partnership in the coming months, and I hope other city officials will be able to participate.   Being a part of this program offers opportunities for growth and understanding that cannot be gained in traditional training.  Jordan can use our help, but I believe we have as much to learn from the people of this remarkable country as we can offer to them.

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Critical Thinking

Albany’s 150th anniversary celebration was a great success from my perspective.  Several hundred people visited City Hall to enjoy some talks about historic Albany, listen to music, square dance, share in refreshments, and tour the city in a trolley.  The only criticism I heard came from a woman who confronted me about having to wait a half hour for the trolley.  I pointed out that the trolley was making a circuit of the historic districts that lasted about 40 minutes and that it would be arriving back at City Hall soon.  I was being lectured about how badly this event had been organized when I was able to point out that the trolley was arriving back at City Hall right on time.

Criticism can be an important incentive to improve; but when it is constant, personal, and frequently wrong, it is discouraging and destructive.  Most of us understand this principle when it applies to our relationships because we know that constantly berating a spouse or children leads to resentment and separation.  I trade barbs with my closest friends, but I have no friends who frequently criticize me in front of others.  Despite what most of us know about how harmful criticism can be, many of us seem to have few inhibitions about criticizing public figures regardless of how much or little we know about the person or situation in question.

I stopped reading anonymous blog postings a few years ago, mostly because I hoped they did not represent the thinking of any significant number of the general population.  A newspaper editor recently referred to these rants as the “sewer” of his publication, which raises the question of why they exist at all.  I strongly believe in honest debate between competing opinions and just as strongly do not believe anonymous, ill-informed attacks serve any constructive purpose.  Generations of newspapers required letter writers to provide their name and address before publication, but somehow that standard disappeared coincident with the decline of newspaper circulation.

It is rare to see irrefutable proof to support public criticism and much of what passes for factual analysis is arguable at best.  True critical thinking is not entertaining and probably wouldn’t play well on television or in the newspapers.  Perhaps that’s why we see so little of it.  Even-handed analysis requires hard work and resources that very few people are able or willing to expend.  We generally settle for using convenient facts to support our point of view rather than looking at information that contradicts our conclusions.

 

I have been as guilty as anyone about making snap judgments and drawing conclusions based on weak facts; however, I have learned through unpleasant experience, and am still learning, to be slow before criticizing and respectful of opinions I don’t like.

 

I am most grateful for all the good work that went into Albany’s 150th anniversary celebration and for the many volunteers who give of their time to make Albany a good place to live.  The occasional potshot should not obscure the fact that there are many generous people who live in this community.