A Return to the Zoo(s)

Over the last two weekends I was able to accompany four of my grandchildren to two different West Coast zoos. I know some people believe zoos are morally unacceptable, but I remain unconvinced. Zoos are places that provide education and inspiration that I believe are in the best interests of all of us in the animal kingdom.

The last time I wrote about a trip to the zoo, I described how I essentially dragged my three oldest grandchildren through the park giving more attention to the demands of my schedule than to the children or their experience. I am proud to say I did not repeat my mistake during either of my recent visits.

All the children seemed to have a great time and I know the grandparents enjoyed themselves. My wife’s presence always goes a long way toward curbing my worst impulses and improving my general behavior. My daughter and her husband also made our trip to the San Diego Zoo special. Recent accidents that left two of my sons with fairly serious injuries have reminded me how important, precious, and tenuous our time with our families and friends can be.

I am particularly grateful this year that a small group of city employees have decided to organize our annual picnic despite receiving no financial support from the city budget. Department directors have agreed to pick up the cost of hamburgers, and the rest of the meal will be a potluck. The event is scheduled for Thursday, August 20, from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m., and there will be an assortment of games and prizes. The only compensation that people who are organizing this event are receiving for their extra effort is the satisfaction of being of service to the rest of us.

My appreciation of zoos and picnics may just be another sign among the many I’ve seen lately that I’m getting older. When I was younger, I was always involved in or looking forward to the next Hare-brained adventure in some remote location with a couple of like-minded friends. I still appreciate a good adventure, but I’ve also learned that the most rewarding times are those we spend building relationships with those around us. I have no near-death experiences planned for this summer, and I find the events I’m most eagerly anticipating are a short camping trip with the older grandchildren; my nephew’s wedding which is attracting relatives from distant places; the birth of my ninth grandchild; and the wedding of an old friend.

I’m also looking forward to the annual city picnic and would like to express my thanks to all those who are investing their time and energy on behalf of their co-workers.

Budget Approval

The City of Albany’s Budget Committee met for an average of about 3½ hours Monday through Wednesday of this week before approving the Fiscal Year 2009-2010 proposed budget with one $3,500 change. The Budget Committee is composed of the Mayor and Council plus seven appointed members. I think volunteering to serve on a budget committee is second only to planning commission service in terms of selfless sacrifice. The only reason the planning commission ranks ahead of the budget committee is that it has more meetings.

The Budget Committee reviews the City’s annual proposed budget, which this year exceeded 410 pages. Committee members consequently spent not only the 10+ hours in meetings, but also devoted a fair amount of their personal time to reviewing the proposals from City staff. This is tedious and, in my opinion, mind-numbing work. The budget contains literally thousands of line items with descriptions ranging from “Flexible spending admin fees” to “CYA Sponsorships.” I will not even speculate on the definition of the latter. Each of the line items has its own legal, political, historic, and financial story that can raise questions and demand explanation. I think it is a tribute to trust between committee members and staff that budget hearings are as abbreviated as they are.

Albany is really fortunate to have high quality appointed volunteers serving on our Budget Committee. Chair Sue Folden, Doug Moore, Steve Terjeson, Wendy Kirbey, Colleen Keller, and Ray Lusk participated this year and, at the very least, insured that the proposed budget was thoroughly reviewed in a public setting before being approved and recommended for adoption by the Council. Judging from public participation rates at budget hearings I’ve attended, most people are not very interested in the annual budget. The newspaper editor recently told me he didn’t think budgets really mattered. I understand this perspective, but I guess it’s predictable that I would disagree.

Oregon’s local government budget laws were created to help insure that public agencies adhere to established financial practices and communicate their spending plans to the public. Any citizen can approach the Committee or Council during a budget hearing and suggest that spending priorities be changed or challenge an existing practice. I have seen many changes made in response to an appeal from the public over the years, even though I have rarely seen large numbers of citizens attend the hearings. I think the general lack of interest may be an indication that people are generally satisfied with the way things are going. Our citizen surveys tend to reinforce my belief. I also know that I never attended a school board meeting until I strongly disagreed with a pending decision.

It may seem that three long meetings that produced only one relatively small change would be a waste of time. I will confess that I am always happy when budget meetings are over, but I still recognize how important this process is to the health of local democracy. I would also like to express my appreciation to the Council, Committee members, and citizens who participated in these meetings without any expectation of reward, beyond the satisfaction of service to their community. City staff members also deserve recognition for going beyond job descriptions to present a thorough, transparent, and workable proposed budget to the Committee and the public.

The Nature of Risk

Last Saturday, my oldest and youngest sons were involved in separate dirt bike accidents that put one in the hospital with a broken hip and arm and left the other with serious ligament damage to his knee. My children are not really children anymore since my youngest son is 28 and the oldest is nearly 36.

The motorcycle accidents occurred the day after I returned from the National Summit on Childhood Obesity where the epidemic of obesity and its accompanying threat to our children were documented in great detail. Following my sons’ accidents and the Summit, I have had reason to think about the nature of risk and how we respond to it.

My wife and I raised four very active children, and I can honestly say that we never wasted a single moment worrying about them being overweight during the years they were growing up. The three boys were very successful lightweight wrestlers, and we were often concerned about them being underweight. My middle son weighed 88 pounds in the ninth grade and had to eat bananas and drink water before every wrestling tournament just to make the minimum weight. The kids were never overweight, but I lost count a long time ago of the number of stitches, broken bones, torn ligaments, and nasty strains and sprains they sustained during the course of their early years. If we hadn’t moved around during those years, I probably would have been a child abuse suspect. Even my comparatively sedate daughter managed to break her wrist while running to get on a parade float.

I should add that my children’s trials are primarily the fault of their 74-year-old maternal grandfather who continues to race motocross after having broken nearly everything that can be broken in the human body over the past 60+ years.

Every time one of my children is injured doing something that seems risky to me I am tempted to give them a stern lecture on using better judgment and being more careful. Of course, whenever I have started this speech in recent years, they quickly bring up mountain climbing, Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan, etc. Maybe all of this is why I don’t worry much about my grandchildren walking to school.

I think the unintended consequence of trying to protect our children and ourselves, for that matter, from every conceivable harm may have contributed to the length of our lives at the expense of living a rich life. I do not mean to suggest that we should all take up extreme sports or travel to war zones, but I do believe that insulating ourselves in our cars and homes is just a different kind of risk that may carry more negative consequences than extending ourselves beyond our comfort zones and allowing our children to do the same.

The City is working in partnership with the Albany School District to promote greater activity for students by improving sidewalks and creating safer and more convenient walking and bicycling routes to school. I believe, however, that there is a strong correlation between the construction of sidewalks and the decline in the number of children who walk to school. A presentation at the recent Obesity Summit pointed out that nearly 70 percent of children who lived within a mile of their school either walked or biked to get there in 1969, while less than 20 percent do so today. I could be wrong, but I think there are many more sidewalks now than there were in 1969.

Parental attitudes, in my opinion, have had more to do with the change than anything that’s happened in the surrounding environment. We are understandably concerned about the safety of our children, although there is a sad irony that the single greatest cause of accidental (preventable) death for children is automobile accidents. I pulled the following paragraph from an Internet site to illustrate the point:

“A report by the Child Fatality Review Team indicated that children in New York City are safer than anyplace else in the nation.  The report which was released by the Health Department illustrated that the injury death rate among children in New York City is half the national rate due to lower rates of homicide and car passenger deaths.  Yet, while children may be 7 times less likely to die as a result of a car accident in the city, auto accident still is the leading cause of accidental child deaths.”

It may be hard to believe that your child would be safer on the streets of New York than on the streets of Albany. The reason it’s true is that children in New York can walk or take public transportation to almost anywhere they need to go. Letting our children walk to school may be the best way to ensure their safety and protect their long-term health.

Both of my sons are healing well and both have indicated they plan to ride their bikes with their grandfather as soon as they are able. I wish they would change their view, but I also know that it’s not my call. Risk takes many forms, and I prefer to accept those that are the result of action rather than inactivity.