Mining the News

Keeping up with the news was not a high priority for me when I began my career as a city manager in the 1980s.  We did not have television in our home, and our only publication subscriptions were to the Eugene Register-Guard and Oakridge’s Dead Mountain Echo.  My focus, at least in my memory, was on the crisis of the moment at City Hall.

I spend much more time today in front of computer screens scanning information from within our organization, the community, the state, the country, and the world.  I still take the time to travel around town to survey city services and talk with people, but many days I feel like a miner working a rock face.  Fortunately for me, my tools are a keyboard and mouse rather than a sledge hammer or drill.

“Knowledge is power,” according to the great English philosopher, Sir Francis Bacon; and I confess to never knowing the origin of that quotation until looking it up on the Internet a moment ago.  It came, for the record, from Religious Meditations, Of Heresies, written in 1597.  The power I’m looking for on the flat screen is the ability to anticipate opportunities and threats before it’s too late to take advantage or avoid them respectively.

This morning I’ve received information about possible manipulation of the municipal bond market by some major Wall Street firms, which could have lowered interest payments to cities.  The same message was sent to our Finance Director, who will follow up with our bond counselor to determine what, if anything, we should be doing in response to this information.  This story is unlikely to be reported by local media; yet it could have financial implications for Albany.

Yesterday, I learned from the Democrat-Herald of a shooting incident involving some boys at one of our parks and was also able to view a number of comments from local residents about the story.  There was some healthy debate about parental responsibility versus the need for more education and some good insight into how the people we serve feel about events taking place in Albany.  I particularly liked one question about the headline on the story, “Kids Shoot Gun at Albany Park,” where a reader asked “What did they shoot the gun with?”

Many things have changed since I started work at the City of Oakridge as a relatively young man.  The city I now work for has about 45,000 more residents than the one where I started, and I believe that number roughly correlates to my hair loss during the intervening years.  The most important change, however, has been the increased access to information made possible by electronic communication.  Our challenge is to put that information to use in a way that makes our community a better place to live.

The Power of Local Democracy

I think it’s time to reassert a fundamental Shakespearean truth.  “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.”  I’m not a fan of Cassius’ solution (assassination), but I agree with his diagnosis.  If we dislike the condition of our community, its politics, or our lives, for that matter, we should consider what we have done or are doing to use the power we possess to make things better.

I believe the current increase in anger, name calling, misinformation, and thoughtless criticism of those who do not share our view of the world is something like a tantrum that generates heat without shedding light.  It requires no discipline, study, or thoughtful analysis to blame others for our problems; and it is much easier to complain than it is to go to work and do something positive.

Reconciling the different views of a large group of people and translating them into beneficial public policies is hard work.  The easy way out is to attack or, like Cassius and Brutus, kill those who do not subscribe to our beliefs.  I’ve lived and worked in places where too many people choose the easy way.  Anyone who imagines life in our community would be better without the rule of law and a peaceful process for resolving disagreement has never experienced the alternative.

Taking charge of our future begins with a commitment to seeking the best information available.  Relying on popular media where the primary goal may be to attract attention rather than inform makes us underlings to those who would manipulate public opinion for personal gain.  We have amazing tools at our disposal that, perversely, give us access to a great range of data, while at the same time making it very difficult to choose or focus on what we need.  The great advantage of local government is that we don’t need to rely on others to find out what is going on.  Council meetings are open to the public; and many jurisdictions, including Albany, broadcast their sessions on the Internet and on cable television systems.  I believe those who regularly attend or watch Council meetings come to understand that the work of local elected officials is not easy and that controversial decisions are rarely as simple as they might appear to be in a short newspaper article.

Much of the anger and resentment directed against government comes from the belief that it is beyond our power to control it.  If that charge is true, the great American experiment has failed; and Lincoln’s resolve expressed in the Gettysburg address “…that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth,” no longer exists.  I am unwilling to accept this conclusion.  Throughout my career, I have seen countless local elected political leaders make many personal sacrifices to serve their communities.  We would be far better served if those who are angry about government would redirect their name-calling, personal attack energy, first to making an effort to understand the issues and, second, to involving themselves in constructive change.

There is great power in local democracy that often goes untapped by those who complain most loudly.  Cassius was right only insofar as we accept the role of underling and do nothing to change our status.

Good News

A few days ago, the City settled a lawsuit with PepsiCo, one of the world’s largest corporations by revenue, for $20 million immediately and another $5 million upon the sale of property in Albany owned by the company.  The settlement brings to a close more than four years of work that began with an effort to bring family-wage jobs to Albany.

I have to keep reminding myself that receiving a large sum of money is usually considered good news.  My reservations begin with the 200 to 400 jobs that were anticipated but never created.  The economic benefit of the jobs went far beyond anything local government might receive and would have helped everyone from the newly employed workers to all the businesses where they would spend their money.  Manufacturing jobs paying family wages are very difficult to recruit and retain.

The settlement is, of course, a welcome consolation and should be greatly appreciated by the community.  I believe PepsiCo was genuinely concerned about their inability to build the Gatorade plant in Albany and wanted to compensate us for not being able to complete the contract.  There was disagreement over the amount of compensation called for in the development agreement, but the dispute was settled by mutual agreement rather than by an expensive trial and appeals process.

Albany’s city attorney, City Council, and a number of staff members and partners deserve great credit for protecting the community’s interests over the past four years.  Jim Delapoer led the City’s negotiating team and helped craft the agreement which made the settlement possible.  His compensation was never connected to the settlement amount and the relatively small sum he has received for his work is vastly disproportionate to the benefit Jim and the great legal team from Markowitz, Herbold, Glade and Mehlhaf created for Albany.  The City Council had the good judgment and resolve to approve this project at the outset and insist that the contract be honored by all parties.  Staff members, including the late Dick Ebbert who brought the opportunity to community leaders, were professional and effective throughout this project.  Diane Taniguchi-Dennis, Mark Shepard, Marilyn Smith, and Stewart Taylor made significant contributions.  Linn County Commissioner Roger Nyquist, Albany-Millersburg Economic Development Corporation Director John Pascone, and Bob Warren with Business Oregon were valuable partners from beginning to end.

Assuming the City Council chooses to reimburse the various City funds that made infrastructure or resource contributions to the PepsiCo project, Albany will soon have about $15 million to allocate to community needs.  The Council has already voted unanimously to defer any spending decisions for 90 days while they consider how to obtain the best value for the community from this resource.  Clearly, a one-time payment is not a new revenue source; and it almost certainly will not be used to fund ongoing programs.  Despite the difficulty of making allocation decisions, I hope everyone will remember how valuable the settlement will be for Albany and that the City Councilors making the spending choices will receive no personal benefit from doing so.

Finally, I would like to publicly thank representatives from PepsiCo for their courtesy and professionalism through the past four years.  There have been strong feelings on both sides about various issues surrounding this project, but the outcome was a cordial agreement acceptable to PepsiCo and unquestionably good for Albany.