Decisions over Time

All of us face decisions every day that have long-term consequences we may not appreciate when we make them. The choice to drink that soda or eat the extra slice of pizza feels good when you’re doing it, but becomes a source of regret when you step on the scales at your next physical. Balancing the desire to enjoy life in the moment versus the need to prepare for a good life in the future is one of our greatest challenges.

We usually don’t have all the information we need when we make important decisions, and that explains why many of our choices go bad. I was watching a television show recently that told the true story of a surgeon murdered by his second wife. He married on the rebound only to find out shortly before his death that his new wife was not a graduate of UCLA, had been married to four previous men, and had a lengthy criminal record. The doctor filed for divorce after learning the truth, which prompted his new wife to kill him. I guess one of the advantages of marrying early in life and staying married is that your spouse had fewer opportunities to have a shady past.

Recognizing that we can be easily misled about important decisions like marriage should make us more cautious about the little decisions we make all the time. It’s not hard to get information before we vote in elections or draw conclusions about issues facing our community. We don’t even need to rely on others on local issues because we can often learn the truth by simply looking for it ourselves. Local government meetings are easily accessible in person or online, and Albany elected or appointed officials are easy to find.

The following link tells a story that illustrates how good information accompanied by thoughtful responses can make a very big difference over time: http://registerguard.com/rg/news/local/32885561-75/retired-eugene-city-manager-reflects-on-efforts-at-racial-integration-near-ferguson-mo.-50-years-ago.csp. I have written about my friend Charlie Henry before; but the Register-Guard article about his work in University City, Missouri 50 years ago shows how good decisions can make a profound, positive difference for generations.

Much of what our volunteer elected officials, advisory commission members, and paid staff at the City of Albany do is directed toward providing services today while building a solid foundation for the future. We enjoy the legacy of infrastructure passed on to us by previous generations, and I think most of us recognize our responsibility to pass it on in as good or better condition than we found it.

Albany, like all communities, is facing many important challenges and choices. We have access to more and better information than any generation of residents in our history. Perhaps our biggest challenge will be how we use this information to make wise decisions that will stand the test of time.

How Do I Offend Thee?

Let me count the ways. Those of us at City Hall find so many ways to offend different people and interest groups that it’s really hard to actually count the ways. Every time a fee or tax is raised somebody gets mad, yet every time a service is not up to snuff somebody else is incensed. In my more cynical moments, I think the people who don’t want to pay more for anything are the same people who complain about the inadequacy of the services. As the old saying goes, everybody wants to go to heaven; nobody wants to die.

This week I’ve heard about our failure to adequately post street names at intersections, the inequity of granting assistance through our urban renewal agency, the foolishness of wasting dollars on lighting the Dave Clark Path, the inflexibility of our zoning code, the insanity of a 20-year-old plan to assess certain properties for street improvements, the needless expense of changing addresses as a result of a new subdivision, and the absurdity of a city ordinance that won’t let a property owner cut down his own tree. The preceding complaints came from residents and do not include a number of internal complaints on various things the City is or is not doing.

I treat most complaints seriously and will usually look for ways to address a concern. I know I make mistakes, and it’s safe to assume other city employees do on occasion as well. Even when we haven’t made a mistake, a complaint will often cause us to see a situation differently and come up with a better approach to a problem. As much as I appreciate people pointing out our shortcomings, I do have some complaints about how it is often done.

My experience suggests that most people don’t like to be called offensive names, and I have no idea why someone would think profanity would help make their point. If someone is angry when they come to talk with me, I generally offer them a cup of coffee or tea and invite them to explain the problem. Most people seem to appreciate that someone is willing to listen, and many times the issue is a simple misunderstanding. I made the decision to become a city manager because I thought it would be a job where I could really help other people. I have had many opportunities to confirm that belief, despite the occasional frustration with complaints that are presented badly or are simply untrue.

I have also learned that some people are looking to be offended while others are very patient and tolerant. I think the latter realize human error is a part of life and we have a much better chance of correcting them if we take the time to understand before demanding that we be understood.

Our Language Defines Us?

I wandered into Safeway a few nights ago to buy sherbet and fell in line behind two young women purchasing some flowers. I wasn’t trying to listen to their conversation, but it was hard not to hear the four-letter expletives that seemed to be such a natural part of their discourse. I am not so old or naïve as to believe profanity-laced language is a new phenomenon. I served in the Navy more than 35 years ago, and the folks I worked with cursed like, well – sailors. The influence of that experience remains with me today.

My Navy training has been at war with the discretion my parents instilled in me from an early age and the influence of my wife’s zero tolerance policy. Associating profanity with painful operant conditioning has generally helped refine my vocabulary. I fear my experience is no longer the norm.

Young kids today seem to routinely spew out the profanity that used to make my sailor friends feel special. These words are so routinely validated on the various media children see every day we probably shouldn’t be surprised or offended. What I can’t suspend, however, is my judgment. Seeing a young adult post an epithet knowing most of the world will see it automatically triggers a negative response that can probably be traced back to my parents’ training.

For good or ill, I was raised to care about what other people thought about me; and I don’t think that attribute is going to change during whatever time I have left. Maybe young people have fewer reasons to feel shame, and maybe that’s not an altogether bad thing. Unfortunately, the decline of inhibitions seems to be correlated to an increase in incivility.

Oregon lost a great leader this week when Dave Frohnmayer, the former President of the University of Oregon and State Attorney General, passed away. He often spoke eloquently about what he called the “new tribalism” that is making it so hard to accomplish important societal goals in Oregon and the United States. I think tribalism has always been a part of our culture, but we do better when its influence is at low ebb. The notion that anyone can say anything about someone else at anytime without any sense of responsibility or shame moves us away from successful collaboration and toward failure.

I don’t know if our language or misuse of it really defines us. Actions supposedly speak louder than words. I do know our choice of words affects others in ways we may not realize or appreciate. Choosing to casually use profanity is likely to deny us opportunities and limit our ability to make a positive difference in both our personal and professional lives.