Another Tragedy

Today is a bad day; and on bad days, it sometimes seems like life is just an endless repetition of things that have happened before.  I suspect we all feel the same frustration I feel that one deranged man with a gun can walk into a school, a workplace, a mall, or a church and kill indiscriminately over and over again.  Sadly, our frustration does not appear to be moving us closer to a solution.  Angry men are using public places to violently gain notoriety, usually at the cost of their lives.  Even though most of us will not be directly threatened by these events, all of our lives are burdened by the sadness, fear, and anger they engender.

My greatest fear has little to do with me and everything to do with my family.  I have 14 grandchildren and will soon have another who deserve better freedom and safety than I enjoyed while growing up.  We have imposed much greater safety standards on cars over the past 50 years, and the result has been a huge decrease in automobile-related deaths.  A few weeks ago, I wrote about the sinking of the Lusitania and the more than 1,000 people who died when the ship sank.  Requiring more life boats, life boat drills, better and more life preservers, and other safety innovations followed maritime disasters and made traveling by ship much safer.  If we can figure out ways to make cars, ships, and jets safer, surely we can come up with some ways to stop psychopaths from killing our children and other innocent people.

I suspect the solution does not involve a single policy change or a little tinkering.  Automobile safety is a process that changes all the time and has added to the cost of vehicles and roads.  We have all come to accept that part of the price of boarding a passenger jet is greater inconvenience and greater intrusion into our personal freedom.  Greater security comes at a cost that, at least today, seems worth considering.  Regardless of whatever policy changes we might make, there are also individual choices that I believe will help.

I just attended a national conference where the keynote speaker spoke about the importance of happiness.  The following link to his TED Talk is worth investigating:   Mr. Achor’s observations apply to all of us and there is some satisfaction (and happiness) in knowing we can make a difference for good just by the way we conduct ourselves every day.

Thoughts on Marijuana

I suppose someone could get the wrong idea by reading the title of this column. These are not my thoughts while on marijuana, but rather my opinions about some of the issues we now face in Oregon regarding marijuana. Regardless of our personal opinions, marijuana is now a legal product in Oregon that is currently available through medical marijuana dispensaries or by growing your own plants. Marijuana use or possession remains a crime under federal law, and there is no workplace protection for anyone using marijuana on or off the job. Smoking marijuana outside of a private residence remains an infraction in Oregon, and there are likely to be further regulations in the next legislative session that will try to deal with legal smoke migrating from one residence to another, among other things.

Further complicating the picture is the whole issue of trying to determine when someone is impaired by marijuana. The stuff apparently stays in our systems well beyond the point where it actually affects our cognitive functions, so I’m guessing there will be a fair amount of court activity around the issue of whether someone was stoned or not when they drove their car into a ditch (or anything else). In the same way the City would investigate whether alcohol is a factor in any work-related accident, we will look to see whether marijuana is involved. During the past year, I am aware of two cases where alcohol use led to problems for employees and two cases where marijuana was the culprit. As much as I would like to believe everyone knows this, recent experience tells me we need to remind ourselves that coming to work under the influence is a bad idea that threatens the safety of coworkers, the public, and ourselves.

Writing this column after listening to about three hours of testimony and discussion about regulating marijuana businesses may also be a bad idea. I’ve heard more about the subject than I really wanted to know, although I acknowledge there are valid points on both sides of the debate. I do not believe marijuana is the root of all evil, nor do I believe it is a miracle plant that cures everything from cancer to kidney stones. As I wrote last week, my opinion on a law is essentially irrelevant unless I find it so objectionable that I feel the need to resign in protest. I believe our Council has honestly wrestled with the issue and represents the deep divisions within the community. The Council chose to allow medical marijuana dispensaries when most Oregon city councils prohibited them, and now the Council has voted to ban the sale of recreational marijuana at medical dispensaries. Only the voters of Albany can enact a permanent ban, and they may have the opportunity to decide that issue in the November 2016 election. In the meantime, those of us charged with enforcing and administering an array of confusing and sometimes conflicting laws will continue to do so without fear or favor.

Sinking the Lusitania

I learned early this week that an old friend and colleague was fired from his job as a city manager after serving his community for more than 18 years. I was saddened to hear the news and was struck by some similarities to a situation I am currently reading about in the book, Dead Wake, which recounts the sinking of the passenger ship Lusitania in World War I.

The captain of the Lusitania, William Turner, was a highly experienced officer with a long and distinguished record in his profession. Like my colleague, he demonstrated not only skillful management, but also successful leadership that included some bold initiatives. Unfortunately for Captain Turner, he was placed in a dangerous situation by circumstances largely beyond his control and then singled out for blame by people who arguably were far more culpable than he was for the loss of his ship. Captain Turner was ultimately cleared of any wrongdoing after a thorough and grueling investigation. The judge who decided the case observed that Captain Turner was a, “brave but unlucky man.” I’m not sure I completely agree with that analysis because the Captain stayed on the bridge of his ship until it went underwater and then was lucky enough to bob to the surface as it went down. He then survived an extended dunking in 55° water before being pulled aboard a lifeboat. Some people never forgave the captain for surviving the attack on his ship when more than 1,000 other innocent victims did not.

Accepting a leadership position means assuming both explicit and implicit responsibilities. Explicitly, people expect leaders to achieve goals and competently perform their duties while observing generally accepted rules of conduct. Implicitly, leaders are often expected to take the blame for failures real or imagined regardless of their role in the matter. Highly paid CEO’s in the private sector often use this rationale to explain salaries that, in some cases, may be several hundred times higher than those of the average workers in their company. Captain Turner and my friend accepted this implicit responsibility as part of the price of doing and enjoying important work.

The city my colleague managed did not sink after his 18 years as manager, but rather seems to be doing better today than it has at any time in its long history. The city council provided no explanation to the public about their decision, so it’s hard to know why they felt the need for change. Captain Turner went on to command other ships, and I’m confident my friend will find plenty of opportunities to serve as a city manager. Character and ability overcomes difficulties in life, including unfair and self-serving attempts to blame others for random misfortune or contrived failure.