Not long after I became a city manager, I used my new computer to print out the word “Persist” in large block letters and then taped the message to the wall in front of my desk. The paper yellowed over the seven years I worked in that job, but it remained on my wall as a reminder to keep trying even when everything seemed to be going wrong. I needed that reinforcement in Oakridge, where conditions were hard when all the mills closed and families struggled to make a living.
The local electric cooperative offered to pay my registration costs for an economic development conference in Eugene shortly after the mill closure, and I eagerly accepted the offer. I had learned by this time that people in Oakridge expected their administrator to do something about the economy and I didn’t have many good ideas. I’m sure I learned a number of things at that conference, but the lesson I remember the best occurred when a leading Oregon economist told his audience that the state should adopt a triage approach to economic development and abandon all assistance to hopeless communities like Oakridge. I was struck by the fact that my employer and our utility were paying me to attend a conference where I was being told that my community had no future; so I decided to leave in the middle of the economist’s speech. I was sitting in or near the front row and the speaker noticed my sudden departure. He stopped his speech, asked if I was from Oakridge, and then offered to speak with me later in the conference. I left anyway but did speak with him later. The economist explained that he meant no harm to Oakridge and simply wanted to point out that the state should not be investing limited resources during difficult times in places where there was small likelihood of a return on the investment. I acknowledged his explanation and argued that Oakridge had been one of the most productive communities in Oregon for two generations and probably deserved better than to be abandoned by the state when it needed some help.
Over the next few years, Oakridge did receive some help from federal, state, and county sources which helped create jobs and develop some other resources. The town never fully recovered; but its population today is larger than when I started working there, and it is recognized as a mountain-biking center and a nice place to live. A year or two after the conference, the economist sent me a letter saying that he used to cite Oakridge as an example of a doomed timber community in his speeches, but now referred to it as an example of what a town could do to overcome obstacles.
My sign is gone, but I still have the letter as a testament to the value of persistence. Coupled with hard work, it’s hard to beat stubbornness when it comes to getting things done.
Last week, I wrote about attending a conference in Dublin, Ireland, a few years ago, where I learned about performance auditing of city governments in the United Kingdom (UK). The manager who made the presentation complained about all the work that went into the audit and how unreasonable the auditors could be; but when I asked whether he believed the audits made his jurisdiction perform better, he replied, “Yes.”
I had the chance to meet with another group of European managers two weeks ago in Cardiff, Wales, where we talked about challenges facing local governments. I was surprised to learn that as a part of the austerity program in the UK the national government has proposed to end the audits of local governments. I would guess that this measure will save a substantial amount of money in the short-term, but I am reasonably sure it will ultimately cost British taxpayers more than it saves. I base my belief on what I have seen happen in Oregon when budget audits have not been properly conducted or completed.
The education service district in a community where I used to work developed a great reputation for entrepreneurial service and accomplishment. Unfortunately, a few administrators in the district forgot they were public servants and began taking lavish trips and charging expensive personal items to the district’s credit cards. Auditors were not given the opportunity to report to the governing board, and it was only after the problem developed into a scandal that the full story surfaced. Similarly, a city to the north of us failed to have audits performed for several years, resulting in the failure to discover embezzlement by a city employee that exceeded a million dollars. I can think of literally hundreds of examples of nonprofit organizations such as youth soccer leagues, PTA’s, and similar groups that have been victimized by embezzlement because of ineffective or nonexistent auditing. We would all like to believe that everyone is honest and/or requires no supervision to perform well, but we also know how easy it is to give into temptation or take the path of least resistance.
The title of this posting is a question allegedly raised by Plato and immortalized by the Roman poet Juvenal (Who will guard the guardians?), referring to the possibility of tyrannical government. While there is no simple answer, transparent practices, standards, and processes that help insure security and accountability are the right starting point.
The City’s IT Department has recently been compelled to increase security, not because of some new threat from hackers, but as the result of a miscreant known only as “The Daylight Crapper.” It seems that someone has been using the area around the back door at IT as a toilet for several weeks. Our always resourceful IT folks decided enough was enough and installed a camera to determine the identity of the offender. We are now in proud possession of video evidence of an individual caught in the act of defecating in broad daylight outside IT and then wiping himself on a nearby wall. The evidence has been turned over to the police. I can only assume this misguided soul would have found a more appropriate toilet had he known he would soon be starring in his own video.