A Great New Library

Old city managers are probably not supposed to feel giddy about anything.  I think we are expected to project an image of stoic responsibility, along with a touch of omniscience and detachment.  Anyone who has ever read these blogs already knows that I shattered that illusion a long time ago.  I am proudly giddy about our new library, and I know it’s a great addition to the community.  I am truly excited about its opening on Monday, and I think everyone associated with that opening should feel some justifiable pride in a job well done. 


The community owes a great debt of gratitude to the donor who provided most of the money to purchase the Unitrin building and remodel it into the attractive and functional library it has become.   Money can be put to many good uses, but I share our donor’s belief that feeding minds is among the best.  Occasionally, someone who hasn’t visited a library in recent years makes the claim that libraries are irrelevant in the Information Age.  As someone who has used libraries throughout my life and monitored their utility as a city manager for more than 20 years, I have never seen a time when library services were in greater demand than they are today.  People of all ages who would otherwise be excluded from Internet access use library computers for everything from job searches to finding recipes.  Books (traditional and audio), DVDs, CDs, puppets, newspapers, magazines, reference material, and helpful people, to name a few, are all part of the library experience.  I have carried Albany Public Library books over a good part of the world and will confess that I still find enjoyment in traveling Economy Class as long as I have enough reading material with me.


Our new public library is one of the best deals I have seen in my professional life.  We were able to move from a 17,000-sq.-ft. facility to a building with more than 42,000 sq. ft. without raising anyone’s taxes.  As the new building comes off the tax rolls, our old library replaces it as a new medical clinic.  No green fields were defiled, and no buildings were demolished as a part of this project.  Both the old and new library buildings will be more energy efficient than they were in the past.  No new infrastructure was required to serve the building, and it is in a great location close to residential and commercial areas where people congregate.


No matter how good a public project is, it always seems controversy will somehow find it.  I don’t know that some spirited debate is a bad thing.  Some people still don’t like the color of the building, but I have spoken with many who do.  I was not excited when I first saw the color scheme; but now that it’s completed, I think the library is a handsome building.  I also know that the controversy probably helped more people become aware of the new library than almost any other form of publicity we could have created.   Some adjustment to the green accent color is still a work progress that awaits better weather.


Finally, I would like to recognize the work of the entire library staff for the good work they do every day and the special effort that goes into a move.  The best way to reward that effort, and the one I think the staff will appreciate most, is to use the new library and take advantage of all it has to offer.  We should all be giddy about that opportunity.


My professional career began as a Navy journalist with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in the early 1970s.  The job probably sounds more impressive than it really was.  I had a number of responsibilities that included writing press releases, speaking to high school audiences about NATO, and supporting a briefing team that made presentations throughout the U.S. and Europe.  Most of my time was dedicated to the briefing team.


I did everything from writing speeches for admirals to keeping slides of Soviet destroyers up to date.  I learned a lot while performing my duties, and the one concept I’ve never forgotten from those briefings is the notion of interdependence.  Our talks began with a discussion of how NATO was formed in response to the threat of Soviet aggression in Europe.  The U.S. and Western European nations essentially declared that an attack against any of the NATO member nations would be regarded as an attack against them all.  The allies then agreed to link their military forces so that they could work together in the event of an attack.  NATO was formed with the idea that all the member nations were interdependent for security.


I think interdependence describes much more than security against military attack.  I was shocked to learn a few months ago that the human body contains more parasites than it does cells.  In other words, there are more of other organisms in our bodies than there is of us.  We are packing along millions of little critters every day who rely on us for survival, just as we rely upon them.


Single-cell parasites have a lot to teach us about interdependence with the rest of the world.  I’ve heard it said that when the U.S. economy coughs, developing nations get pneumonia.  We all know that our economy has more than a cough right now, and people around the world are suffering as a result.  Some of that suffering is occurring in Albany as people lose jobs, homes, and financial security.  The City is not immune to these problems.


Our citizens depend on us for critical services, and we are dependent on them for the resources to get the job done.  Recognizing this interdependence, the City’s management team is actively looking at ways to control costs while minimizing the effects on services.  I have appreciated the offer from several employees to forego salary increases in the year ahead to help with this effort.  The Department Directors and I have already decided to give up any cost-of-living adjustment for ourselves in Fiscal Year 2010.


We are fortunate not to be in the position of state government agencies or Portland, where significant budget cuts are required this year and even more significant reductions will be necessary next year.  Our relatively good fortune is fragile, however; and we face great uncertainty in the coming year.  I do not know exactly how serious the situation will be next year, but I believe there is a strong possibility we will be required to make even more significant budget cuts.  Anything we do today to reduce expenses will help us in a future where resources are contracting.


I’m feeling pretty good today about the likelihood of a Soviet attack against the United States and Western Europe.  NATO’s recognition of its members’ interdependence and the actions that followed from that conclusion apparently worked.  Our own acknowledgement that we live in an interdependent world and our willingness to act accordingly may help provide the solutions we need to the challenges now at hand.

Compared to What?

I received an e-mail message from a colleague on the East Coast earlier this week that concluded with the words, “People are scared.”  I believe she was referring to the current economic situation and the uncertainty we all face regarding jobs and financial security.  Few of us are immune from concerns about the economy, and even fewer can escape the media’s new fascination with grim financial statistics.  I know the concerns are legitimate, but I’m also convinced we can’t let fear dictate our response to the situation.


The conditions we face today, and are likely to confront in the months ahead, may seem hard in comparison to better times in the past.  By almost any other measure, the circumstances of our daily lives should be cause for celebration.  I have seen what can happen when people focus on what they lack instead of making use of what they have.


I was a member of a team sent to Indonesia in 2001 to work with newly formed local government associations on building their organizations.  Indonesia had no history of local government because it had essentially been ruled by a dictatorship for generations.  My most vivid memory of the assignment was when an official told us that the biggest problem his country faced was a lack of “people resources.” Indonesia is the fourth most populous country in the world; and a brief tour of its capital, Jakarta, is an object lesson in the consequences of cramming too many people into too little space.  I think the real problem in Indonesia was a long history of government trying to control and suppress “people resources,” rather than creating conditions where people could work together to solve problems. 


Much of Sri Lanka is a tropical paradise where advanced civilizations once flourished centuries before Christ.  When I visited the country in 2006, the downtown area of the capital city, Colombo, resembled an armed camp.  Resources that might have gone to improve living conditions for a high percentage of the population living in what we would consider extreme poverty were instead dedicated to fighting a vicious, decades long civil war.  During the course of my work, I learned that the annual budget of a community of about 15,000 people in the northern part of the country was approximately $55,000.  The jurisdiction employed 15 people and was responsible for solid waste disposal, a preschool, planning, a library and a variety of administrative tasks. 


The fact that people are suffering around the world probably comes as no surprise, and I’m sure offers small consolation to someone who has just lost a job.  What should give us hope is the recognition of the many advantages we have and the lessons we can learn from other places.  We are endowed with a legacy of prosperity, education, and freedom.  If we respond to challenges to this heritage with fear manifested as intolerance, anger, and despair, we risk what is most important to us.  Compared to most, life is good here.  We can keep it that way by sharing our blessings rather than our fears.