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.

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.