The Power of Stories

A number of years ago, I applied to be the city manager of a small Eastern Oregon community. My wife and I visited the town, met with community leaders, and went through the typical process of interviewing for a new job. During a break, we drove around town and turned on the local radio station to pick up a sense of what the community might be like. While we were driving, a newscast reported that a local resident in a wheelchair was killed when he was struck by a train while attempting to cross some railroad tracks. Apparently, his power chair had gotten trapped in the rails and he was unable to get free before the train arrived.

I wasn’t offered the job in that town, but I’ve never forgotten the news story I heard on the radio that day. You will probably never hear me complain about the Americans with Disabilities Act. Any time I might be tempted to gripe about the costs of making a curb cut or improving a sidewalk, I think about that tragic example.

Before I became a city manager, I served on a Eugene area school board in a district that served about 5,000 students. We were approached by the Eugene Police Department to approve a plan that would place a police officer in our high school in an attempt to prevent juvenile crime. The plan required the district to pay for half the cost of the officer while the city covered the remainder. I was the leading opponent to the idea. My oldest son had just entered high school, and I didn’t like the idea of needing law enforcement in a place where children were supposed to be receiving an education. I don’t recall the outcome of the debate or whether the plan was eventually adopted. I do know that soon after this debate I accepted the city administrator’s position in Oakridge and began my career as a city manager. During my first week on the job, I was confronted with a community controversy over whether the city should add another police officer. I agreed with my predecessor that we really couldn’t afford an additional officer and gave that advice to the city council during our first budget hearing. I was immediately attacked by a group of school teachers who complained that I knew nothing about the community and that there was a serious drug problem at the high school. Their complaint reminded me of the situation I had just left in Eugene; so I approached the Oakridge school superintendent with the idea of sharing the cost of a school resource officer with the city. We both presented our idea to the board and council, and it was eventually adopted with enthusiasm. The program worked well, and I believe there is still a school resource officer in Oakridge.

I learned many lessons from this story. I felt a little hypocritical about opposing a plan in Eugene that I then become the leading advocate for a few months later in Oakridge. Those feelings taught me to look beyond my own biases and carefully consider both sides of an issue before drawing conclusions.

Today (June 25), I’m looking forward to attending a city-sponsored webcast entitled “The Power of Stories.” As anyone who has been held captive in my office and forced to listen to one or more of my stories can tell you, I will probably enjoy what I hear.

Science in the Service of Art

I had a discussion a few weeks ago with a skeptic about the City’s efforts to improve performance through more rigorous measurement and a systematic approach to problem solving. The skeptic has lived through many of the same management waves that have washed over organizations I’ve served in the past 20 plus years and understandably felt that the latest initiative is probably just one more bright idea that will grow dim with time.

Our critic could be right. Excellent performance is dependent on so many variables that achieving it in any field is a blend of art and science. My view of the scientific approach to managing ourselves is that we are simply opening ourselves to new possibilities. Science really doesn’t provide immutable answers; it asks questions and provides a method that leads to progress. The core of what we are doing at the City of Albany is asking new questions in a manner not unlike what a detective might do when attempting to solve a case. Getting the best information possible is an important part of the process and so is applying it systematically. Detectives don’t solve cases by sitting at a desk waiting for inspiration. Similarly, we won’t improve our service to the community unless we gather evidence, analyze it, and apply it with discipline.

I consulted an on-line dictionary for the following definition of art: Human effort to imitate, supplement, alter, or counteract the work of nature.” I like this description because I think it’s exactly what most of us do every day. We don’t usually think of ourselves as engaging in artistic endeavors as we figure out payroll, check out books, patrol the streets, fill a pothole, treat sewage, or respond to a fire; but I believe our work neatly fits into the dictionary definition of art. If we did not do what we do, nature would indeed take its course. The History Channel has been advertising a show in recent months that offers explanations about what would happen to Earth if humans were no longer around. I haven’t seen the show, but its advertising featuring a world where human structures are crumbling and covered in vines illustrates my point.

When the singer/songwriter Bob Dylan was more a poet and less a celebrity, he wrote a song entitled “When I Paint My Masterpiece.” The exact words of the song never made a lot of sense, but the spirit it conveyed to me was that we all produce works of art and that we might even eventually create a masterpiece. Our best chance to do that is, in my opinion, through applied science.

I think the next time my wife asks me what I did at work, I’m going to tell her I just spent some time painting my masterpiece. Who would have ever thought that approving requisitions or responding to a dog complaint could compare to the Mona Lisa or Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Just as those masterpieces were produced by people using science as a tool to alter the work of nature, we have the opportunity to use the same tool to make life better in Albany. I can only imagine how my skeptical friend might respond to the notion of city government as a masterpiece.

Doing Something

I’ve spent a good part of this week writing a grant application for $36,000 to fund a part-time Safe Routes to School Coordinator. We have been working on this issue for the past three years but have yet to get access to federal funds that would enable us to achieve significant results. We are concurrently applying for $500,000 from the Safe Routes Infrastructure Program to build sidewalks on Gibson Hill Road. It would be nice to see our efforts to date rewarded with something tangible.

Even if we are unsuccessful, I have enjoyed my participation on the Safe Routes Committee and believe it is the right thing to do. It’s rare that I actually get to write a grant or help supervise something like a walking school bus; so I appreciate the opportunity to see immediate results from my efforts.

Most of my time is spent in meetings or behind a desk where I may receive some satisfaction from helping a project move forward or assisting a citizen with a problem, but usually I am not directly involved in building or creating things I can see. I really won’t see the Safe Routes money if we receive it, but I will be able to see what it buys and know that I was instrumental in helping to make it happen.

I’m hopeful more children and parents will find that walking to school is safer and a lot healthier than riding in a car. About one in five Albany students currently walk or bike, despite the fact that most live within easy walking distance. This is the point where it’s necessary to point out that when I was a student I walked up to two miles to get to and from school. Honesty requires me to add that when I lived in Europe a driver picked up a couple of fellow students, my sister, and me and drove us the 30 or so miles to school every day. My memory is selective, but I think I much preferred walking.

The Safe Routes Committee has also allowed me to get to know some truly great and selfless people I might otherwise have never met. Jim Lawrence and Bill Pintard have given an incredible number of hours to this program and to promoting cycling in Albany. I know they enjoy their volunteer work, but I also know that there are personal sacrifices involved in doing it. Our school district has been a great partner, and this project has given us the chance to work constructively together at different levels of our respective organizations. The superintendent, student services director, principals, teachers, and parents have all been involved and helpful.

Anyone who believes that getting children to walk to school really isn’t all that important should look at the child obesity epidemic documented by the Center for Disease Control and the cost of transporting kids to school. The district was able to eliminate two bus routes this year, at a time when savings are necessary to retain teachers and maintain the school year. I think children will find that walking and biking is fun and parents might learn that not having to drive to school twice a day is really safer and much more convenient.