Civil Discourse

Recent public outbursts by various celebrities have sparked a number of blogs and columns on civility that I believe have largely missed the point.  I don’t think there’s anything new about people being nasty to one another in a public setting.  Politicians have been dueling both figuratively and literally since the beginning of the republic, and I suspect professional athletes have been using profanity as long as there have been professional sports.

We might also remember that the most destructive wars in history took place more than 60 years ago; so, it would be hard to argue that at a time when genocide and mass destruction were taking place on a global scale that somehow people were more civil to one another.

My concern is more local.  I believe many of us never learned or have forgotten that civility begins with some basic assumptions.  I think we have to assume that other people’s motives are as legitimate as our own until we see compelling evidence they are not.  People say inaccurate things all the time, but that doesn’t mean everyone is a liar.  Disagreements are also part of daily life, and most of us realize that a disagreement with a spouse doesn’t mean that our partner has evil intentions or is mentally impaired.  At least 50 percent of marriages do not end in divorce; so, apparently, a majority of people understand this principle.

We can also assume that responding to incivility with equal or greater incivility will lead to a bad outcome.  Flashing the one-finger salute to a rude driver may provide a moment of satisfaction or it could lead to a needless confrontation with a really nasty person.  The young Oregon football player who responded to a stupid taunt from an opposing team member with a punch to his face sacrificed the remainder of his college football career and probably some NFL cash by escalating incivility.

Those of us who work in government often fail to remember these lessons.  It’s now a national sport to criticize government, and everyone’s favorite target is the federal government.  State workers can lob insults at federal agencies, secure in the knowledge that almost no one will disagree.  City workers can point to the intransigence and arrogance of the state.  The only reason, in my opinion, that local government typically scores higher in public opinion polls than the state or federal levels is that we have no layer of government below us.

My solution to incivility is not to avoid disagreements or ignore bad behavior.  Rather, we need to focus on the problem, not the person.  People respond most negatively when they are not respected and/or humiliated.  Most of us can handle the idea that someone disagrees with something we say or believe.  We get testy, however, when someone calls us dishonest, incompetent, or stupid.  Attacking an idea can be a productive way to create understanding and reveal the truth.  Attacking people usually leads to a less desirable outcome.

Budget Task Force

We are starting the budget process a little earlier this year.  In the past, our process usually was underway shortly after the beginning of the calendar year as each department began preparing its proposed budget.  I have asked Stewart Taylor, our Finance Director, to convene a Budget Task Force this year that is beginning its work this week.

The City is not facing an immediate fiscal crisis, but our projections for the General Fund beyond the coming year are not positive.  Our property tax revenues and other sources of income are not increasing as quickly as our costs.  Most of us understand that health insurance costs have been increasing at a rate approaching ten percent in recent years and that wages have been going up in excess of the rate of inflation.  The services we provide depend on people; and if our personnel costs increase more quickly than our income, we have a problem.

It’s difficult for cities to cut services because our citizens rely on them, and layoffs hurt the organization as well as the affected employees.  A recent example of a proposed service cut is the closure of the wading pool at Takena Park.  The pool is something like 50 years old and retrofitting it to meet current health standards would be expensive.  The announcement of the proposed closure has already generated some nasty comments in a letter to the editor and an editorial suggesting the pool remain open and that new ones be constructed in other parks.  If closing a 50-year-old wading pool that serves less than a 1,000 people in the summer months generates controversy, it’s not difficult to imagine that cutting services that affect more people will create substantially greater discontent.

Raising taxes is one option the City Council could consider to increase revenue and sustain services.  The Oregon State Legislature chose this route in passing a new business tax and a gas tax that are now both the subject of referendum campaigns.  There is a strong likelihood that neither tax will gain public approval at a time when unemployment is greater than ten percent.  It’s hard to believe local voters will support a tax increase when the county has one of the higher unemployment rates in the state.

I don’t think there is a painless solution to the financial problem we face.  We will need to cut costs and continue to look for ways to save resources.  I will be asking the Budget Task Force to build a foundation for next year’s budget proposal by looking at savings that will have the least impact on services.  We may need to take some uncomfortable steps in the short-term that can be revisited in more prosperous times.

We have great talent available to work on this problem, and I’m confident we can develop a responsible budget that will sustain services and minimize the need for cuts.  I look forward to hearing from the Task Force in the months ahead and taking advantage of their good work.  Any employee should feel free to submit suggestions either to a Task Force member, Stewart, or me.