A Great City Manager

I was a little surprised when I read last week that my colleague, Corvallis City Manager Jon Nelson, announced his intention to retire in July.  Jon is younger than I am and seems to enjoy the confidence of both the elected officials and the community that employs him.  I know, however, that Jon has been thinking about working in a different field for a number of years and that he has the skills and initiative necessary to succeed at whatever he tries.

Jon’s greatest strengths are his integrity and thoughtful insight.  Integrity is the most important asset of a city manager and also the trait most likely to make some people unhappy.  Jon has the strength of character to be honest with people even when he believes it is necessary to say something his listener may not want to hear.  I have never seen Jon lose his temper or be disrespectful, and I have never known him to compromise what he believes to be the truth.  He is humble enough to recognize that he is sometimes mistaken (he is a Beaver fan), yet confident enough to have the courage of his convictions.  I am sure that these qualities, combined with his intelligence and experience, are the traits that have allowed him to succeed for the past 19 years in Corvallis.

Inevitably, a few critics felt compelled to write anonymous posts to the newspaper celebrating Jon’s departure.  Several complained that he gave into the unions or received too much compensation.  City managers take a back seat to binding arbitration, other state-imposed restrictions, and their city councils when it comes to influencing labor contracts; and if I were a gambler, I would bet good money that Jon has saved the City of Corvallis far more than he has cost.  Fortune Magazine rated Corvallis as 48th among the 100 best places to live and start a business in 2008, and the city has received even higher ratings from other publications.  A community does not achieve this stature without an effective city government.

I have known Jon for the past 23 years, and he is among a small group of friends I call when I need advice about a tough issue.  I can always count on him for wise counsel and an unprovoked attack on the Oregon Ducks.  My revenge is that one of his children attends the University of Oregon and another is headed there in the fall.  As I wrote to him earlier this year, it’s nice to see children overcoming the handicaps imposed by their parents.

The Corvallis Gazette-Times published a nice editorial shortly after Jon’s announcement, and I’m sure he will see many other tributes as his retirement draws near.  Jon is widely respected by his colleagues in the profession, and his many contributions will be missed by all of us who knew him well.

Animal Blues

“Stinky” was the first dog my family owned when I was a child in the 1950s.  I remember him as a black and white mongrel, about the size and shape of an Australian Shepherd; but this is a very distant memory of an association cut short by what used to be thought of as bad dog behavior and would now be referred to as owner irresponsibility.  It seems that Stinky was appropriately named and could not or would not be trained to stop digging up my mother’s rose bushes.  He paid for his sins through banishment to the dog pound, where I can only assume he was an improbable candidate for adoption.  The incident obviously affected me because it’s almost the only thing I can remember from that time in my life.

We went through a long period of birds and cats after Stinky’s departure, although the interval of owning cats and birds at the same time was predictably short.  I think we were generally responsible pet owners who made sure our animals were spayed or neutered and vaccinated.  I was taught to treat other living things with respect, and I even developed a strong case of “Bambi Syndrome” growing up in urban places during my early years.

My father, the product of a farm upbringing, taught me how to shoot and hunt when we moved home to rural Oregon; but I never became an enthusiastic hunter.  I believe I am haunted by the innocent souls of the two squirrels and three porcupines I shot during my hunting days.  Religions generally teach that animals have no souls; so I guess any haunting I’ve experienced is really a guilty conscience at work.  I hate to admit that I feel twinges of regret when I depart from my primarily vegetarian diet.  Irrationally, I’ve convinced myself it’s alright to routinely eat fish, occasionally eat poultry, and almost never consume beef, pork, or more exotic meats.  Obviously, I consider consumption of rabbits to be cannibalism.

My professional association with animals and their issues has consumed an unanticipated amount of time and energy over the past 25 years.  Animal husbandry was not a part of the curriculum at the University of Oregon, where we concentrated on the more trivial subjects of public finance, organizational theory, personnel management, planning, and administrative law, to name a few.  Had I known then what I know now, I would have prepared to become a city manager by attending Oregon State and focusing on veterinary science.  During my career, I have personally handled complaints about dogs, cats, rats, mice, opossums, deer, skunks, raccoons, elk, cougars, coyotes, pigs, goats, horses, cattle, sheep, rabbits, chickens, turkeys (wild), pigeons, squirrels, snakes (we recently learned of a household in Albany with 31 venomous varieties including a king cobra), geese, ducks, bees, and nutria, which of course are cousins to their fellow rodents, beavers.  While the Beavers have been relatively harmless in recent years, their namesakes used to cause problems in Oakridge by building dams in inappropriate places.

The most important lesson I’ve learned about animals, both as a pet-owner and a city manager, is that you cannot rely on people to be reasonable, consistent, or responsible when it comes to this issue.  The city is charged by our citizens with the responsibility to protect the public from the dangers animals sometimes create and the greatest challenge surrounding this responsibility is, most often, the necessity to protect us from ourselves.

Resisting the Temptation to be Snarky

Among the several curses associated with e-mailing is the temptation to craft a snarky response to an offensive correspondent.  I can think of many times in my life when I was confronted with a situation that demanded a clever riposte and my wits failed me.  E-mail gives us the time and opportunity to be witty and irresponsible.

I think my favorite crushing remark is one attributed to Winston Churchill when he was asked to describe political opponent Clement Atlee:  “A modest man, but then, he has so much to be modest about.”  As satisfying as that remark may have been for Churchill, my guess is that it did nothing to help his relationship with the man who was once his deputy prime minister.  Cutting remarks can certainly be funny as long as the subject is someone else.

Writing on publicly owned computers carries with it the additional danger of converting a passing inappropriate thought into a public record.  Something that seems innocuous on the computer screen may seem decidedly less so on the front page of the local newspaper.  When I began my career in city government, I would occasionally write a blistering letter in response to some provocation and then store it in the bottom drawer of my desk before discarding it.  This process usually, but not always, helped keep me out of trouble.

I once received a letter from a lady who identified herself as a “spiritual advisor” complaining that our ambulance crews failed to clean out a car after a particularly grisly highway accident.  Her concern was that when she took the mother of one of the victims to see the car in an effort to help her deal with her grief, the visible evidence of the tragedy only made matters worse.  My reaction to the letter was that the advisor made a really bad choice when she decided to take her friend to visit the car, and I made my feelings clear in a hasty reply.  The lady then wrote a letter to the mayor suggesting his city administrator needed counseling or some other form of psychological help.  Sometimes the best response is no response at all.

Years of bitter experience have taught me to practice the Golden Rule of correspondence, which is, of course, to write unto others as you would have them write unto you.  Arming people who are already aggrieved by you with your own words is the worst form of revenge.