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.

Deferred Compensation

I came across a Facebook post recently that asked what two words of advice would you give to your younger self if you had the chance.  Some of the responses I saw were things like, “Dream Big,” or “School, School,” but my choice would be “Deferred Compensation.”  I don’t necessarily mean putting more money into a formal deferred compensation program at a young age, although that would be very good advice.  I was thinking more broadly about the concept of doing things today with your future self in mind.

Investing in others is usually a form of deferred compensation because you may wait a long time to be repaid in kind by the person you served, but you will almost certainly receive future benefits.  I recently visited an aging aunt and uncle in Ohio who loved children but were never able to have any of their own.  They showed great love to all their nieces and nephews, while very nearly adopting two who lived nearby.  Now that my aunt and uncle are in an assisted living facility, it is the niece they lavished with love who looks after their interests and visits them regularly.  Those of us who live farther away visit when we can and try in small ways to return the love we received throughout our lives.

When I consider what brings me the greatest satisfaction in life today, I always come back to family, friends, and the independence I have to enjoy them.  I have written many times about our holiday celebrations, the grandchildren’s plays or sports events, and the many chances I’ve had to travel with my wife.  Last week, we joined all my children and their spouses plus my wife’s parents in attending an event my oldest son organized in Salem.  This week, we will travel to Portland to have dinner with good friends.  These opportunities are, for me, the compensation for a lifetime of investing in relationships.

Lately I have fallen short of my running goals, and I haven’t been getting as much exercise as I need.  Fortunately, my long-term investment in fitness paid off when I had the chance to take extended hikes through historic sites in Jordan in August.  A good friend of mine inspired me to start running about 20 years ago as a means to stay in shape for mountain climbing.  I’m not sure I imagined then what all those miles might allow me to do as an older person.

All of this advice really boils down to a few simple concepts related to deferred compensation.  I have been lucky (so far) that most of my investments have shown a good return, but I could have done better if I had more actively heeded the following advice when I was younger:  1)  Invest in someone other than yourself whenever you get the chance; 2)  Exercise regularly and eat healthy food; and 3)  Put as much money as you can as early as you can into some form of savings that appreciates over time.  I often fail to live up to my own advice, and I know each of us has our own ideas about what is most important in life.  My suggestions to my younger self represent the ideas I should have given more respect if I had known then what I know now.

The Strange World of City Managers

I received a plaque last week from the International City-County Management Association honoring my 25 years of service to local government and was only a little surprised that it followed a plaque I received in 2011 honoring 30 years of service. Neither plaque is really accurate because, by my calculation, I hit 30 years this year. A few months ago, I was given the option of forgoing a plaque and donating its value to the Association. I chose that option and, of course, received the plaque several months later. Apparently, keeping track of 9,000 public-sector managers is not an easy job.

Complaints are a routine part of my job, but I find it strange how they seem to come and go. This week, I’ve probably heard from at least ten people about problems ranging from bedbugs to development requirements. I think I get many of these calls because there are so many options for people that it’s difficult to decide which one might actually work. I’m not sure there’s much I can do about bedbugs, although we do have a provision in our Municipal Code that allows us to deal with public nuisances. Surprisingly, bedbugs are not considered a threat to public health because they apparently do not spread disease.

Over the past week or so, I’ve been dealing with multimillion dollar development projects, health insurance proposals, election laws, an IRS audit, a workforce training proposal, property sales and purchases, transient lodging tax distribution, the Santiam-Albany Canal, police and fire station issues, a couple of lawsuits, reimbursement for a water line break, a proposal to tax marijuana sales, and concerns about outreach to minority communities, to name a few. Fortunately, we have many qualified employees who do most of the work on these issues, so my role often only involves brief discussions or a review of documents. The most demanding part of the work is the frequent need to make quick decisions, often without having all the information I would like. Advice and counsel from colleagues has saved me from myself on many occasions.

I also think it’s important to stay abreast of what is happening in the world of city management by meeting the annual 40-hour continuing education requirement to maintain my status as an ICMA credentialed manager. I recently attended training sessions at both the ICMA and League of Oregon Cities annual conferences that were thought-provoking and informative. Training may be even more necessary as my experience in the profession increases because it is very easy to become complacent about things you have been doing for many years.

City management is a great career for people who are not too concerned about security and value a great deal of ambiguity in their lives. The work is unpredictable, sometimes frustrating, and often rewarding. Anyone interested in learning more is welcome to drop by my office, where we can share thoughts on bedbugs and other issues of local concern.

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.