Seeing Things Differently

A few weeks ago, I took two of my grandchildren on a short hike at the Finley Wildlife Refuge near Corvallis. Molly and Roland were excited about the prospect of hiking with Grandpa and, as we began our half-hour drive, kept asking when we would be arriving at our destination. We eventually made it to the mile-long “Woodpecker Trail” and traveled about 100 yards before Molly, aged 5, decided the weather was too hot and wanted to return to the air conditioned car. I convinced her it would be cooler when we reached the shade offered by an oak grove and, to her credit, she stayed with me.

Over the course of the hike, both Roland and Molly managed to be bored, hot, and tired in quick succession. They perked up when we found some trees they could climb and play on with only minimal risk to life and limb. Tree climbing made the whole adventure fun for awhile, but we eventually decided to continue on to the car, where Roland made it clear he desperately needed to catch a grasshopper before we could head for home. I wasn’t optimistic we could accomplish this goal and was a little surprised when Roland managed to capture one of the unwary creatures. We didn’t have a container; so Roland held the grasshopper in his hands for the first mile or so of our return until the bug managed to get free. I had to pull the car over and wait while Roland tried to catch the grasshopper again. I’m not sure what happened to it, except to say that we never saw it again.

The trip home became a series of requests from Roland to stop so that he could search some more and fights with Molly over just about anything kids can fight about. I was relieved to reach our driveway, believing that the children would probably never want to go hiking with Grandpa again.

Molly and Roland went home with their parents, and I didn’t see them again until a few days ago. Their mother told me that the hike was all they talked about over the weeks that followed, and she wanted to know when I would be taking them out again. I don’t know exactly when that will be, but I’m sure we’ll get in some more hikes before the end of summer.

We tend to think that parents and grandparents have an obligation to pass along our knowledge and wisdom to succeeding generations. I think the opposite is true. My grandchildren regularly remind me of things I’d forgotten or teach me stuff I never knew. The most recent hiking experience reminded me that even though we may complain about the discomforts of doing difficult things, what really matters is the whole experience. I also learned that my perception of how others feel about things can be completely wrong. The grandchildren seemed to quickly forget the heat, the fights, and the lost grasshopper, while remembering the tree climbing and the accomplishment of completing a hike with their grandfather.

I think I can apply these lessons to a lot of what I do at the City of Albany. At the very least, I will be slower to draw conclusions from my own perceptions and quicker to ask others what they think.

Roland & Molly climbing a tree

Lessons from the Golf Course

I hope the title of this blog entry doesn’t mislead anyone. I do not play golf and have no desire to learn the game. Occasionally, I participate in a charity golf event called a “best ball” tournament. These tournaments are not real golf because individual scores are not kept and only the team effort counts. In the previous five or six tournaments I’ve played in over the past four decades, my partners were always somewhat competent golfers; so knowledge of my ineptitude was confined to a small group. I even won prizes for sinking the longest putt and placing a second shot closest to the hole in a couple of these contests. I think it’s possible, however, that my individual scores could easily have approached 200 for a typical round of 18 holes. A really good score is usually between 70-80.

My most recent effort took place last week at the annual Albany Firefighters Community Assistance Fund (AFFCAF) tournament. My partners were Police Chief Ed Boyd, Fire Chief John Bradner, and Fire Marshal Mike Trabue. I think the citizens of Albany should take a good deal of comfort in knowing how bad our senior managers are at golf. We are obviously not spending too many hours away from our desks whacking a little ball around a course for no apparent reason. Our team was so bad that no other team came within ten strokes of us. The only glimmer of competence displayed through the course of the game took place when Chief Bradner miraculously made a “birdie” on one of the holes. I won’t try to explain a birdie to my fellow nongolfers, except to say that it is, in golf terms, a good thing.

I am happy to report that despite my miserable golfing skills, I learned a lot about the character of our senior emergency services managers through the course of the tournament. Despite many sound reasons to use profanity during the game, I don’t recall hearing a single expletive from anyone in our foursome. I’m pretty sure a couple of team members were thinking them after some particularly bad efforts, but they showed admirable restraint.

There were no quitters in our group. I’m not sure if this is evidence of good or poor judgment; I’m only certain that we endured to the end. I think we were the last people off the course because everyone else passed us as we struggled to find balls or sent pieces of turf flying into the air. I know that there were a number of shots where the turf went farther than the ball. Mike Trabue and I competed for the most number of swings and misses. We called those “practice swings,” although there was little evidence that the practice produced any beneficial results.

The most important lesson from the game is that it served a good cause. AFFCAF does great work in the community and helps build trust between the City and those we serve. If the price of that outcome is looking a little foolish once a year, it’s one I will gladly continue to pay.

Living with Local Democracy

Recalls of elected officials are on the agenda in several Oregon cities this summer as residents in Portland, Baker City, and Grants Pass are gathering signatures to remove the mayor and/or city council members. Recall campaigns are relatively common in Oregon, although this is the first time I remember two concurrent efforts generated by the firing of city managers.

While I am sympathetic to my colleagues who have run afoul of council majorities, I reconciled myself many years ago to the idea that the city council is always right about who should or should not be serving as city manager. I have known many outstanding managers who have been fired by councils that appeared to have poor motives, bad information, or too little experience with public service. Nonetheless, city managers are appointed to serve elected officials, regardless of how skilled or knowledgeable those officials may be. The voters will ultimately decide if a council is effectively serving the community, and city managers should not be a part of the debate, in my opinion.

The International City-County Management Association (ICMA) adopted a Code of Ethics in 1924 that specifically prohibits city managers from involving themselves in political activities. I think this is a bedrock principle of our profession and critical to the success of local democracy. The council-manager form of government is superior to the individuals who serve in it at a given time. I confronted a situation some years ago in another city where a majority of the council wanted me to terminate an employee for no good reason that I could discern. I informed the mayor I could not take the requested action and I was willing to resign if that was the council’s choice. Immediately after that conversation, I was updating my resume and looking at job opportunities in other places. Fortunately, the crisis passed, and all of us kept our jobs; but even though I believed the council majority to be wrong, I would not have supported or participated in a recall or any public campaign to discredit them.

Democracy is not always a polite business and the more local it is the more personal it becomes. National political figures need to develop very strong defenses against the vicious personal attacks that are often directed against them and their families, but that’s hard to do when you are a volunteer public servant in your hometown. City managers should not make that job any harder.

I am sure that some of my colleagues would disagree with my feelings on this subject, and I respect the opposing view. I do not believe, however, that we can claim to support local democracy if we are unwilling to live with the outcomes it produces.