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.

Serving our Mission Statement

I frequently tell stories about city employees who do much more than expected while delivering service to the people of Albany.  I had a chance to see some of that service during a recent ride-along with Albany Police Officer Ben Hatley.  We responded to a number of calls that ranged from a drunken guy harassing people to a fellow trying to shoplift and then sell back the stolen merchandise at a local store.

Ben and the other officers I observed during the ride conducted themselves with great professionalism and courtesy, showing more respect than I would have to some of the miscreants they encountered.  I think being a police officer is among the hardest jobs to do well in a world that includes many tough jobs.

My recent experience at a local business contrasted sharply with what I usually see at the City.  I took my car in for an oil change where they advertise a number of routine checks as included in the service price.  A sensor light had recently appeared on my dashboard indicating a low tire, so I expected the service person to take care of this very minor problem.  I even asked to make sure it had been taken care of before getting into my vehicle.  I was assured that all my tires were at the correct pressure as I drove away, so I was puzzled when I noticed the sensor light was still on shortly after leaving.  I pulled into a gas station and checked the tires myself, only to find that a rear tire was about 15 PSI low.  I filled up the tire, and it has maintained the correct pressure ever since.  All the evidence indicates the service person was not telling the truth about checking all the tires.

The failure to check my tires could be regarded as a minor oversight, and it’s not something that caused me any great harm or inconvenience.  The greatest casualty was my trust in a place where I have done business for several years.  If an employee was willing to lie about a minor issue for no reason, how can I be confident about anything they do?

Trust, not money, is the real currency that determines success or failure for businesses and government alike.  It has been my privilege to work with someone for the past nine years who has consistently demonstrated the kind of integrity and competence that earns trust.

Mike Murzynsky has embarked on a new adventure as the Finance Director for the City of Newport and, although he will be missed here, I’m glad for his opportunity to serve a great community with the same skill and dedication he has given to Albany.  Mike represents the best of servant leadership and has exemplified the City’s mission statement throughout his time here.

Providing quality public services for a better Albany community

What is Economic Development?

My definition of economic development is heavily influenced by my experience as a young city administrator in Oakridge, Oregon, 25 years ago.  Soon after I arrived, the town lost its largest employer and many smaller ones in a short period of time, leaving the community with a high unemployment rate, falling property values, and a shortage of hope.  I was new enough to my profession to be surprised when people started asking me about what we were going to do.

I had enough education and experience to know the basics of personnel and financial management, but I had no training in what to do when the bottom drops out of the local economy.  I did realize that we didn’t have enough jobs or investment, and we needed more of both.  We also needed to work together effectively to make anything positive happen.

The state provided our local planning group with a name, technical assistance, and access to a small grant fund.  Our Community Response Team did its part by volunteering long hours to do community improvement projects and work on a strategic plan.  The whole process helped the town’s leaders not only accomplish some visible projects, but also develop their capacity to work together as a team.  The focus of the original plan was to secure industrial lands, promote tourism, and develop local amenities.  Significant progress or completion was achieved on all of these priorities within four years of adoption of the strategic plan.

Oakridge’s economy did not suddenly prosper because of the initial response, and it really hasn’t come close to returning to its best times in the 1960s and 1970s.  The community has, however, become a national center for mountain biking, and it looks better now than when I moved there in 1988.  There has been some population growth, and a number of small businesses have started in the past few years.

Economic development is a continuing effort to better a place by attracting new investment and creating jobs while maintaining or enhancing all the good qualities that make a community a nice place to live.  Sometimes it may involve relaxing rules that inhibit growth, while in other cases it may require increased protection of a unique resource.  Economic development is not possible, in my opinion, in a place where people are unwilling to put in the effort and take the necessary risks to make their community an attractive place to live and do business.

 

Our Economic Development Director, Kate Porsche, and I attended a forum sponsored by Business Oregon (formerly the Oregon Economic Development Department) last week; and I heard many of the same issues expressed by business and government leaders that we discussed 25 years ago.  I suspect people will be talking about them 25 years from now.

 

Albany has a great opportunity to work together as a community to do real economic development by supporting local residents and businesses by offering unique workforce training in cooperation with Linn-Benton Community College.  The Council is considering a proposal from the community’s largest employers that at the very least is bringing people together in the same way that earlier generations worked to produce much of the prosperity we enjoy today.

Election Season

I am still awaiting word from the Secretary of State’s office about whether or not my fine for allegedly violating election laws late last year will be upheld.  My alleged offense was a failure to include in a news release the cost to the taxpayer of a proposed bond to build new public safety facilities.

The news release did contain the cost of the measure ($20.3 million), but it did not express it as a rate per thousand dollars of assessed value.  I might add that the rate is at best an estimate and would not even apply to some taxpayers.

I am not terribly concerned about the $75 fine if the citation is eventually upheld.  I think the Secretary of State’s office was acknowledging that this was a pretty trivial offense, if it was an offense at all, by imposing a fine that is about three percent of the maximum specified by the statute.  While I am not concerned about the fine, I am very troubled by a law that makes it difficult to determine whether or not a violation has occurred.  The consequence of this uncertainty is that those who may be in the best position to explain an issue and who the public will likely ask for information will be unwilling to risk sanctions by saying anything.

The City of Albany was very conscious of the Secretary of State’s administrative rules that implement state electioneering laws, and we even sent a team that included our mayor, city attorney, public information officer, and economic development director to meet with the Secretary of State last year in an attempt to better understand how the rules would be applied.  Despite this conversation and multiple readings of the 23-page manual that implements ORS 260.432, we still managed to run afoul of those who administer the law.  It appears that the only “safe harbor” is to submit any statement regarding anything that is scheduled to appear on a ballot to the Secretary of State’s office for prior review.  The news release that triggered the fine described a council decision to create a citizens’ advisory group and only incidentally mentioned the ballot measure.

The advice I will be following as the election season approaches is to essentially say nothing about anything that will be on the ballot.  We know, for example, that a measure to legalize the recreational use of marijuana has apparently qualified to be on the November ballot.  Any thoughts I might have about how such a measure will affect the City, I will need to keep to myself.  Unlike most public employees, city managers are deemed to be on the job most of the time.  I do not believe the law or the way it is being interpreted is constitutional, but I will do my best to observe it until it is changed.  My advice for all public employees is to do the same and limit any statements or opinions regarding ballot measures to times when there is no doubt that the employee is off duty.  Additionally, no public resources such as computers, e-mail accounts, etc., should be used when making any comment about a ballot measure.  Even responding to citizen inquiries should be treated with caution.

There are people who are eager to make public employees look bad by catching them violating the law.  I have had three complaints filed with the Secretary of State’s office in this spirit by some local citizens, so the threat is not abstract.  I am hopeful that my case will provide some clarification that will allow for a more informed discussion of important public issues.

“People Like You”

I made a decision in 2003 to volunteer for an assignment in Kerbala, Iraq, that I knew would involve some danger and an extended separation from my family.  My wife and I discussed the decision at length before agreeing that it seemed like the right thing to do.  Recognizing the potential threats, I contacted my insurance company to see about increasing my life insurance coverage.

My insurance company only serves people with military connections, so I assumed they would have no problem with requests like mine from people deploying to war zones.  My assumption was wrong.  The very nice person on the phone told me that no company would provide individual coverage at a rate I could afford.  She stopped just short of laughing at me, although I detected some amusement in her response.

Fortunately, I returned from Iraq in good health and with some smug satisfaction that my insurance company received no additional premium revenue from me.  I think I prefer that satisfaction to the kind that would have involved a large payout from the company.  Nonetheless, I decided that my coverage was still inadequate; and now that I was safely home in La Grande, Oregon, I could easily increase it.  I was wrong again.  The equally nice person on the phone responded to my inquiry by saying something like, “You just returned from Iraq, didn’t you?”  The miracle of computers apparently allows companies to keep track of previous requests even when they turn you down.  I replied that I had returned from Iraq and that I was again living in the incredibly safe community of La Grande.  The company representative informed me that my current residence no longer mattered because I was now a high-risk individual.  I argued that I spent the first 50 years of my life staying out of war zones and had no intention of straying into one again.  I was politely told, “People like you always go again.”

It turns out my insurance company knew more about me than I did.  I really had no intention of traveling to exotic or dangerous places, but I kept getting calls to do short-term work in parts of the world that some people consider unsafe.  Most of the assignments in places like Croatia, Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, and Indonesia turned out to be very safe, although I had some uncomfortable moments in Pakistan, Lebanon, and Afghanistan.  I was recently asked to do some work in Jordan, and I’m confident it will involve less risk than driving my car to the airport.

I have learned more than I can describe from the opportunities I’ve been given to work in the developing world, and I guess limitations on my life insurance is a price worth paying.  I think my wife agrees.  She is planning to go with me to Amman so that we can both fulfill a long held wish to see Petra.  People like me may lack the judgment necessary to secure good life insurance, but at least we have the chance to visit some interesting countries and perhaps make a small contribution to making them better places to live.

Celebrating Investment

I attended a conference of city and county managers last week where I suggested that some people in our communities are willing to donate significant amounts of money to city projects if we take the time to ask.  One of my colleagues dismissed the idea and argued that we shouldn’t be letting wealthy people dictate what the city does.  My colleague’s concern has not been a problem in the places I’ve lived; and in La Grande and Albany, we have new libraries that might not have been possible without significant private donations.

While attending the conference, I read an editorial in the Democrat-Herald opining that the City might have regrets about receiving a very large amount of money that allowed a major corporation to terminate its contract with the city.  I can’t speak for the Council or others who work here, but I think that idea is as much of a problem as rejecting money from donors who want to do something positive for their community.  In both cases, these resources have been used to make a variety of important improvements while saving the taxpayers significant amounts of money.  There will always be disagreement about the best use of resources, but to suggest that we should decline money because it might generate controversy is to suggest that we never do anything.

I have heard similar arguments in the past that the City should not accept grants because they are a waste of taxpayer money.  I have not always agreed with the goals and objectives of various grant programs; however, I know of a large number of community improvements that would never have been possible without grants from other levels of government or foundations.  Oregon has been a donor state throughout my lifetime, in that we pay more as taxpayers than we receive back in federal benefits.  Rejecting grants out of what I see as a misguided principle would only add to that long-standing disparity.

Anytime the city charges fees, imposes taxes, or incurs debt, someone generally disagrees with the Council’s decision.  Making difficult choices, living with the consequences, and accepting criticism is an inevitable part of serving on a city council.  I believe it would be a great disservice to local citizens for a council to reject resources that can be used to provide services, build needed facilities, and lower the tax burden on individuals and businesses.

Early in my career as a city manager, I formed the opinion that an important part of my job was to help attract investment to the community I served.  As I’ve written before, investment takes many forms, including donations, grants, and private capital.  We do not all have extra money to invest, but most of us have time and talents that can serve our town.  Whatever form the investment takes, I believe it’s something we should celebrate and honor.

The Best Reason to Celebrate the 4th of July

Fireworks are a good choice for celebrating the 4th of July, because that day in 1776 set off a series of explosions that changed human history and continue to this day. Despite many changes in our country, however, there are some things that are much the same. We still cannot seem to reach consensus on how much government is enough.

The signers of the Declaration of Independence agreed it was necessary to “dissolve the political bands” that connected them to Britain, but they did not agree on what the government of the new nation should look like following the successful revolution. The differences in opinion in the late 1700’s persist today and look remarkably similar to arguments among the founding fathers. I would add one important difference is that the founding mothers did not have a public voice in the nation’s early days, while today women are often leaders in national policy debates.

Generally, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe argued against big government, while George Washington, John Adams and Alexander Hamilton favored a stronger national government. Many of these men and their allies made comments about the evils of political parties before forming themselves into the Federalist and Democratic Republican parties to promote their views on the size and strength of the federal government. It is an interesting quirk of politics that, once in office, proponents of one general point of view often feel compelled to become the champions of a position they originally opposed.

Jefferson wrote at length about the evils of government, taxes and debt, yet while serving as president he found it necessary to purchase 828,000 square miles of territory, incurring a debt of about $15 million without any real authority to do so. I am a great admirer of Jefferson’s intellect, eloquence and accomplishments, but he was a man of many contradictions. Jefferson was consistent, however, in his belief in the need for tolerance of opposing views. The following statement from his first inaugural address is as meaningful today as it was when he wrote it more than 200 years ago:

“All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression. Let us, then, fellow-citizens, unite with one heart and one mind.Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things. And let us reflect that, having banished from our land that religious intolerance under which mankind so long bled and suffered, we have yet gained little if we countenance a political intolerance as despotic, as wicked, and capable of as bitter and bloody persecutions.” 

I will be celebrating our diverse opinions this 4th of July and, to paraphrase Jefferson, the fact that we are all Republicans, all Democrats and “brethren of the same principle.” We believe we have the capacity to govern ourselves with tolerance and civility. We have not always achieved that ideal, but we should celebrate it every day.

 

Who Cares about Data?

We just received notice that the City has received its third Certificate of Excellence awarded by the International City-County Management Association (ICMA) Center for Performance Analytics.  I suppose only a city manager’s heart could be warmed by this announcement.  Most of our citizens won’t care that this is our fifth award, which includes two certificates of distinction, for making a commitment to and implementing systematic use of reliable data to improve performance.

Equally important to me is our publishing of this information on the City’s website so that anyone can see it.  I find it satisfying that some of our worst critics rely on the selective use of this information to make their case against one policy or another.  I use it to help determine how we allocate resources and drive improvement in our organization.

We know that if we are spending more on a service or function than other comparable jurisdictions that we should be looking at our practices to see why we are different.  In some cases, the differences can be explained by unique circumstances while in others we may learn that we need to change what we’re doing.  We have a great current example of improving energy efficiency at many our facilities by using some new analytic tools.  Jorge Salinas, our Information Technology Director, has taken responsibility for overseeing this project; but he is quick to point out that most of the work is being done by our facilities maintenance employees.  We are already seeing some significant financial savings with some relatively simple changes, while at the same time reducing our carbon footprint.

ICMA has taken a leadership role in promoting standards for the collection and use of data by local governments, and Albany was among the first cities in the nation to be recognized for our work in this area.  The list of cities receiving the award has grown from less than 10 when we first received it to more than 40 last year.  Evidence-based management is not a new idea, but development of national standards for local data collection and use is comparatively new and will require many years to be fully realized.

We now take state and national standards for financial reporting for granted; recognizing that budgets, balance sheets, and other financial statements are essential to honestly and effectively manage resources.  I believe local governments have a similar obligation to collect performance information and report it policy makers and the public.  We are still in the early days of doing this systematically, although I have seen great improvement in recent years.  Unfortunately, some cities that were once leaders in this area, including Eugene and Corvallis, reduced their commitment during the last recession.  I understand this temptation, but I believe the value of good decision-making information generally outweighs the cost of getting it.

Chief Mario Lattanzio and members of the Albany Police Department are proving this point every day.  The Chief has implemented the data-driven CompStat management program, which was created in New York in the 1990s and has been credited with dramatically reducing crime.  I believe we are already starting to see results in Albany.  Reliable data may not give anyone an adrenaline rush, but I think there are many good reasons to care about it.