Life Just Keeps Getting Better

The title of this commentary is probably misleading.  Life is clearly not getting better for many people, although I think a large majority of folks in the United States continue to enjoy a high standard of living and an extraordinary quality of life.  I think it’s even fair to point out that globally more people are living more prosperous and productive lives than at any previous point in human history.  It’s easy to forget these facts, particularly during an election year.  I have consequently decided to develop one of my periodic lists of blessings I need to count.

Greg Byrne and I became conscious of a relatively new blessing while discussing dogs earlier this week.  The conversation began with the apparently incurable problem of barking dogs but moved to a subject where vast improvement has quietly taken place in recent years.  Neither of us could remember the last time we ran over dog droppings while mowing our lawns.  When we were youngsters–many, many years ago–it was nearly impossible to mow a lawn without the fragrance of “eau de merde chien,” usually emanating from your shoe, accompanying your efforts.  I think we should all be grateful for the developing ethos surrounding dog droppings and the increasing availability of the requisite plastic bags.  The City of Albany is doing its part by providing bags at no charge in our parks.

My son reminded me of a great new feature of modern life a few nights ago when he told me the story of how one of his old girlfriends attempted to contact him through his wife’s Facebook page.  It is so easy to find old friends these days that you never know who you are going to hear from next.  Admittedly, this may not always be a blessing, but it can be a source of amusement to a father still looking for revenge from his son’s teenage years.

The Oregon Ducks are, for now at least, the fourth best college football team in the nation.  A few years ago, they finished the season at number two.  When I was growing up, I’m not sure the Ducks were the fourth best college team in Oregon.  Even the Beavers have risen to a level of respectability that would have been hard to imagine a few years ago.  I think OS still holds the NCAA record for most consecutive losing seasons, although I would certainly be the last person to publicize that fact.  The recent success of Oregon’s universities is also reflected in the appearance of their campuses and their new facilities.

My personal list of blessings is really too long to include in a blog posting; so I will only provide a brief sample.  I have 11 healthy grandchildren, great children and children-in-law, a wife who is better in every way than her husband but lacking the discernment to realize it, great health, many wonderful friends, extraordinary colleagues at work, a challenging and rewarding job, a nice home that will be paid for when I’m 86, plus enough mysteries to unravel to keep life interesting.  Earlier in my life I had many fewer blessings than I do now.  I’m glad I didn’t give up when things seemed really bad.

Maintaining Civility

I was asked several months ago to organize a panel focusing on civility for the League of Oregon Cities Annual Conference this week in Eugene.  I was fortunate to find my predecessor, Steve Bryant, and former boss, La Grande Mayor Colleen Johnson, willing to help with the presentation.  All of us have seen our share of bad moments at City Council meetings over the past 25 years or so, but I don’t think any of us had witnessed anything as dramatic as the events that unfolded at a meeting of the Vancouver, Washington, City Council last week.

Steve sent me a copy of the now-viral YouTube video clip [see link at end of this paragraph] that shows some citizens trying to make a presentation to their elected City Council.  I am sure there are many reasons why one member of the Council took exception to the presentation and why the mayor decided to spend at least ten minutes trying to explain why the citizens should not be heard.  Unfortunately, the video record only shows some polite-appearing citizens being treated very badly by at least two elected officials.  The show also includes an abusive exchange between two council members that will not help either of their reelection campaigns.  (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C_8HgrM4LcE)

Our plan is to use the video to help city staff and elected officials from around the state to avoid similar scenes in their own council chambers.  It is hard to understand how difficult it can be to maintain a civil discourse in a public meeting until you have actually been in the middle of a contentious debate.  There are techniques, skills, and practices that can help; but I think it’s also important to remember that anyone can be drawn into an ugly argument under the right circumstances.

Late night meetings that follow an exhausting work day are fertile ground for cultivating grumpiness.  Public bodies try to accommodate citizens by holding meetings when they believe most people can attend.  While this practice is widespread and appropriate, it should be accompanied by an agreement to limit the length of the meeting.  Bad things happen when meetings run too long, and I don’t recall a good decision made after 11 p.m. at a council meeting.

Limiting debate or presentations in advance can also be a valuable tool to keep discussions productive.  The mayor in Vancouver could have asked the citizens to limit their talk to five minutes and spent far less time dealing with the issue.  He would also potentially have avoided some of the ugly scenes that played out through the meeting.

Attacking the problem rather than the person is a great way to keep debate focused on the right subject.  I think all of us are more open to changing our mind when someone makes a persuasive argument based on facts and insight.  I have never seen anyone warm up to another’s idea after being humiliated or belittled.

Finally, self-deprecating humor relieves tension and often changes the atmosphere in a room.  Some years ago, I attended a Pendleton city council meeting where a number of angry citizens confronted their elected representatives with a variety of complaints.  Even after the mayor and council attempted to address the concerns, the room was tense and uncomfortable.  I had inadvertently picked this meeting to deliver three concrete cow pies to our neighboring city as my organization’s contribution to a Pendleton public art project that involved a herd of concrete cows.  My brief presentation of La Grande’s artwork completely changed the feeling in the chambers and accidentally helped make a very negative situation much more positive.  I did feel a little dumb about formally presenting cow pies after hearing citizens complain about a murder and some tax issues, but I guess my dignity was a small price to pay for a good outcome.

Civility is important to local government because the health of our communities depends on the ability to resolve problems and make difficult decisions.  I know at least a few elected local leaders in Vancouver who now carry a heavier burden and face greater challenges in serving the best interests of their city.

Life Beyond the City

Retirement has always seemed like a distant, unreachable part of my life; evoking thoughts of how I felt when the movie 2001:  A Space Odyssey premiered in 1968.  I was 15 at the time, and I remember calculating how old I would be in 2001.  I couldn’t imagine being 48.  Now that I’m 57, I still can’t imagine being 48; but that’s a story for another day.  Retirement is starting to seem more real, although I have no immediate plans to do it.

My wife and I just returned from a brief vacation to attend a wedding in Ohio and visit with Albany’s retired Community Development Director Helen Burns Sharp at her home in Tennessee.  Helen retired about three years ago and moved back to Chattanooga, where she grew up.  The visit was, for me, a glimpse into what a good retirement might be.

Helen purchased a condominium overlooking the Tennessee River, in the heart of Chattanooga’s arts and entertainment district.  The art museum, aquarium, river walk, theaters, and a host of restaurants are located within in easy walk of Helen’s home.  Chattanooga is an attractive, historic city that’s large enough to have many cultural amenities but small enough to avoid the worst of traffic congestion and other forms of urban blight.  The city is also conveniently close to Helen’s alma mater, the University of Tennessee, which allowed us to take in the September 11 football game between the “Vols” and the Oregon Ducks.  Tennessee had the upper hand until a thunderstorm interrupted the game for more than an hour, allowing Oregon to regroup and win by a comfortable margin.

Helen seems to be enjoying her retirement in a place close to family, friends, and a wide variety of cultural attractions.  Her example offers some great pointers to those of us who will be considering retirement before long.  Staying close to family and friends seems like the most important part of a good retirement.  Sooner or later all of us will need the support of people who care about us.  Amenities such as good restaurants, theaters, universities, and museums may not be important to everyone; but they do offer entertainment opportunities that don’t require the physical agility of a teenager.  Finally, Helen has been selective about involving herself in activities so that she maintains control over her time.  I think one of the attractions of retirement will be fewer obligations.

I should add that despite some common misperceptions, most public employees do not retire to a luxurious lifestyle.  Chattanooga is a relatively inexpensive place to live, and Helen has obviously been frugal.  She’s still driving her 10-year-old PT Cruiser, although it looks like it’s brand new.  It was great to see Helen and to know how well she is doing in her new home.  I hope I will be as wise as she has been in making choices about retirement.  Good choices offer the promise of productive and enjoyable years following a long career in city government.