New Year’s Thanks

My e-mail inbox contained four new Christmas messages this morning from friends in Bangladesh, Iraq, Poland, and La Grande.  The first two are Muslim, the third Catholic, and the fourth Episcopalian.  Friendship and the simple good will of decent people is the common thread that runs through these messages.  I may never see any of these friends again, and I’m almost certain that we won’t be helping one another or exchanging costly gifts in the foreseeable future.  I am just grateful that they took a few moments to pass along a greeting and a kind thought.


I have been struggling with a little cynicism this year about what or whether to resolve to change in 2009.  I think a knee injury that’s prevented me from running for the past couple of months has affected my outlook on the world and made me more negative and pessimistic.  My friends’ messages provided me some needed inspiration. 


I need to say thanks to the people who have made this year interesting, productive, easier, and, in some cases, bearable.  The last few months have not been easy for our street crews who have taken on leaves, snow, and ice in addition to their regular responsibilities.  We haven’t provided the best equipment for some of these jobs, but they have been largely completed with some hard work and good attitudes.  I am very grateful for the extra effort, and I think most of the thoughtful people in Albany are too. 


Library employees deserve some special attention as we start the New Year.  Moving to a new facility is not an easy or simple task, especially when complicated by controversy over the appearance of the new building.  More than 1,000 people a day usually pass through our library doors, and our staff does an extraordinary job of serving them.  The color complaints will pass (There may be some small color changes.) and perhaps people will focus on what’s really important; the quality of our service and the people who provide it.


I’m looking forward to a “ride along” with a police officer today and to the chance to say thanks to at least one person for the good work of the department.  Albany is generally a safe city, but it wouldn’t be without police, fire fighters, paramedics, building inspectors, fire marshals, code enforcement, planners, and public works employees.  The folks in parks & recreation and transit provide services that make the community livable as well as safe.  We can thank all those who work in IT, finance, human resources, municipal court, and the city manager’s office for the support necessary to make all city services possible.


All of us who are paid to do this work owe some special thanks to the many volunteers who serve us and the rest of the community throughout the year.  We could start the list with our City Council, whose members contribute many hours for very little tangible compensation.  We have more volunteer boards and commissions than I can keep track of and countless individuals who volunteer at the library, senior center, and transit to name a few.


I’m sure I’ve missed someone in my list of people associated with the City who deserve thanks.  I hope I will be able to make up for any slights in the year ahead.  I know that the quality of this community depends on the good work of people who show up at the City every day.  I also know that it’s difficult for me to personally express my appreciation to everyone who deserves it.  I hope this message will serve as a reminder to me and others to show a little gratitude for the service of those around us in this and every New Year.

Season’s Greetings

We had some friends over for dinner last night, and it didn’t take long for our conversation to turn to the woeful state of the economy.  We commiserated over the loss in value of our retirement plans and the general uncertainty surrounding recent events.  Mature adults have a hard time coming to terms with the possible bankruptcy of General Motors.  The turning point in the conversation occurred when one of our friends observed that we were pretty fortunate to be sharing our fears in such luxurious surroundings.  We had just finished a meal that would be considered a feast in most parts of the world.  Our home is brightly decorated for the holidays, and a good part of our bedroom is stacked with presents for children and grandchildren.


I remember my father describing Christmas during the Great Depression.  Gifts, if there were any, were very simple things that were either handmade or cost no money.  My dad’s most memorable gift as a young boy was a used jackknife.  Hard times depend on where you begin.


Gifts do play an important role during the holidays, and I can remember a number of special ones over the years.  One of my favorite memories is my father and an elderly friend playing with my electric slot car set while I impatiently waited to get my turn.  The reason that memory means a lot has little to do with the gift, but everything to do with the people who gave it to me.  I also recall the first time I had some real money to buy gifts for my family.  I took on a paper route for the Ashland Daily Tidings in the mid-1960s, and I was making around $30 a month.  My earnings seemed like a small fortune; so I went to a jewelry store to buy presents for my father, mother, and sister.  I have forgotten many of the gifts I’ve given in the past few years, but I can describe in great detail the presents I bought for my family in 1966.  It says something about my wife that she’s still married to me after receiving a turtle-shaped candle as a Christmas gift a month after our wedding.  I think my budget was about $3.


I can’t say that money isn’t important during this season.  I think we all strive for and value some measure of economic security even if we do not aspire to great wealth.  My friend’s quiet observation last night was a good reminder that while we should be concerned about finances, we should be more concerned about the people who are most important to us and the many blessings they bring.


Please accept my best wishes for a peaceful and prosperous holiday season.

The Importance of Sustainable Toilet Handles

The small levers that we use to flush our toilets may not seem very important, but when you need one their value is magnified.  I have lived in many houses during my lifetime, and I do not recall breaking a toilet handle until I moved to Albany.  During the three short years I’ve lived in my newly built home, I’ve had to replace two toilet handles.

I do not believe my wife and I are particularly aggressive toilet flushers.  Like most people, I think we apply enough force to get the job done.  The problem, therefore, must be with the quality of the handle itself.  Close examination of the broken handles revealed that both gave way at a particular joint located inside the toilet tank.  When the first handle broke, I wasn’t too surprised about its failure because the entire piece was made of plastic.  I went to my favorite store and surveyed replacement options.  Most toilet handles appear to be plastic, although I did find one metal handle with some plastic components attached.  I was surprised to find that the metal handle was cheaper than the plastic one I was trying to replace.  I had to repeat this process just before Thanksgiving, and this time I bought a spare metal replacement for the remaining toilet.

Well, so what?  Life is short, and there are many more important things to worry about than toilet handles.  The importance I attach to these little failures is that they are symptoms of a much larger problem.  Earlier generations had the ability to produce toilet handles that would last a lifetime or longer.  I would guess that one of the reasons toilet handles are now made in China is that someone figured out how to make a big market out of a little one.  Replacing quality materials with crap (scientific term) that is slightly cheaper seems to be an increasingly successful strategy for gaining market share and making money.  It seems to me that any discussion of sustainability must begin with this problem.

As a city, we are far from immune to this disease.  Managers are always under pressure to reduce costs, and one of the easiest ways to do that (at least in the short-term) is to reduce quality.  Just as my home builder may have saved some money by installing cheap toilet handles, the City could save money by always purchasing the cheapest software, vehicles, pipe, etc.  The problem is that my builder saved himself money at my expense; and, if the City always opts for the cheapest goods, our savings would be at the public’s expense.  I’m generally happy with my home, but I now routinely wonder what is going to fail next.

Sustainability, in my opinion, is not just a buzzword.  It’s a concept we need to apply to purchases and practices in an effort to reduce true costs and assure quality service.  Using this approach requires thinking beyond immediate needs and determining value based on quality as well as price.