The Big Pickup

Albany’s annual spring cleaning event provided me with a great opportunity to do something out of the ordinary with my grandson this weekend while performing a small act of service for the community.  Porter (almost 2) and I showed up at Simpson Park Saturday morning prepared to pick up litter or do whatever we were told.  Porter has been introduced to the world of work by way of a backpack he occupies while his parents or grandparents are mowing the lawn, tending flowers, or, at least on one occasion, cutting wood.  He has great supervisory experience.

We chose to help out with cutting back blackberry bushes along the trail next to Cox Creek and Talking Water Gardens after receiving good instructions from a local school science teacher.  Porter quickly decided I could do better work if I let him get down to play on the Garden side of the trail.  I was a little surprised at how good he was for the two hours I spent cutting and piling blackberry brush.  Porter found his own snacks in the backpack and entertained himself by eating, watching grandpa work, and occasionally wandering down into the wetlands (dry at the moment).

The Big Pickup is, to me, another example of the healing power of service.  It is so easy to become absorbed or distracted by the demands of everyday life or the countless entertainment options most of us enjoy that it’s easy to forget about the greater community and the satisfaction we can earn by simply lending a hand.  I find that whenever I’m feeling down or fatigued the chance to be of service to someone always seems to make me feel better.  My problem is that the good feelings are too easily overwhelmed by the dread associated with taking on another obligation.  This weekend was a good reminder that the obligations are often what make life worthwhile.  Porter will soon forget his morning outing, but I never will.

I appreciate all the hard work that went into organizing the Pickup and the many hours of labor contributed by people throughout the community.  I met some nice people from Betaseed and got a chance to chat with Mayor Konopa, who was registering participants.  Heather Slocum, Marilyn Smith, Lynn Hinrichs, Rick Barnett, Kim Kagelaris, Ron Humphries, Tom Ten Pas, Mary Gaeta, and Bret Johnson were all major contributors to organizing this year’s event and making it successful.  The purpose of the Big Pickup is to do some cleaning and focus on the importance of keeping Albany an attractive place.  I was glad to be a small part of that and even happier for a few hours in the sun with Porter.

Transparency at any Cost

Albany has a great record on the issue of transparency, having won awards or recognition from a number of organizations dedicated to open government.  I believe we provide more current financial information on our website than any other local government in the world.  Albany’s commitment to this principle is not new and has been included in the orientation session for new employees for many years.

Government transparency is both a matter of law and good sense.  We who work in government benefit far more from open access to our records and meetings than we ever could from attempting to conceal them.  Most of the people we serve understand that mistakes will be made and are willing to tolerate them if they are openly acknowledged.  I am, therefore, generally supportive of efforts to make government as open possible.

Oregon’s attorney general John Kroger has made transparency a primary goal of his administration and has recently sponsored legislation to improve access to government records.  The proposed laws would limit government charges for retrieving documents and mandate shorter deadlines for producing requested material.  While I am sympathetic with the goals of the legislation, I fear it may impose a cost burden on taxpayers without producing a commensurate benefit.  The proposed law seems to be inspired by a small number of governments in a limited number of cases responding slowly or badly to requests for information.  It ignores the fact that the overwhelming majority of Oregon governments routinely make good faith efforts to quickly and inexpensively provide requested information to those who seek it.  Local governments have made tremendous progress in recent years in making information available through their websites; and new technology, such as memory sticks, has made data transfer even easier.

The key problem with records laws that do not allow governments to have some control over access is that there are people and organizations that delight in paralyzing government with massive requests for information.  I have personally seen many pointless requests for a huge number of documents that were only deterred by legitimate policies requiring the requesting party to pay the costs of retrieving and copying the information.  Several years ago, I recall a law firm in an eastern state requesting copies of every document in the city’s possession related to telecommunications.  The cost of compiling, copying, and mailing those documents was substantial; and it is almost certain that the firm would never have spent the time to actually read them, given that they made the same request to all Oregon cities.  I look forward to the day when our electronic storage and retrieval technology is so good that anyone can see anything we produce through our website.  Albany has probably done more than almost any other government to move toward that day.  In the meantime, I think it’s important that we make our records as affordably accessible as possible while safeguarding a legitimate public interest in controlling costs.

An Enemy of the People

Henrik Ibsen’s play, An Enemy of the People, tells the story of a doctor who finds out that his community’s principal tourism attraction, natural mineral baths, are contaminated and need to be closed to public use.  The doctor informs the town of his findings and is branded as a traitor to the community.  I saw this play for the first time as a community college student more than 35 years ago, and I have seen its central theme replayed by local governments many times in my career as a city manager.  The following excerpt from Wikipedia describes the play’s plot:

“Dr. Thomas Stockmann is a popular citizen of a small coastal town in Norway.  The town has recently invested a large amount of public and private money towards the development of baths, a project led by Dr. Stockmann and his brother, Peter Stockmann, the Mayor.  The town is expecting a surge in tourism and prosperity from the new baths, said to be of great medicinal value, and as such, the baths are a source of great local pride.  However, just as the baths are proving successful, Dr. Stockmann discovers that waste products from the town’s tannery are contaminating the waters, causing serious illness amongst the tourists.  He expects this important discovery to be his greatest achievement, and promptly sends a detailed report to the Mayor, which includes a proposed solution which would come at a considerable cost to the town.

To his surprise, Dr. Stockmann finds it difficult to get through to the authorities.  They seem unable to appreciate the seriousness of the issue and unwilling to publicly acknowledge and address the problem because it could mean financial ruin for the town.  As the conflict develops, the Mayor warns his brother that he should “acquiesce in subordinating himself to the community.”  Dr. Stockmann refuses to accept this, and holds a town meeting at Captain Horster’s house in order to persuade people that the baths must be closed.

The townspeople – eagerly anticipating the prosperity that the baths will bring – refuse to accept Dr. Stockmann’s claims, and his friends and allies, who had explicitly given support for his campaign, turn against him en masse.  He is taunted and denounced as a lunatic, an “Enemy of the People.”

Public officials are often put in the position of needing to take unpopular actions to protect important interests that may not be widely supported or understood.  Rate increases, property use restrictions, and our dangerous dog ordinance are three current examples where Albany’s City Council has been put in the position of supporting actions many local residents vocally oppose.  The path of least resistance would be to respond to the loudest voices and do what seems most popular at a given moment.  I have come to appreciate the courage of people, who are essentially volunteers, to do what they believe is right based on the best evidence available to them.  I think we should all be grateful for citizens willing to take on this often difficult role.

Service on a City Council includes an obligation to study materials and facts that most people in a community never see.  Wading through a 500-page budget or understanding the implications of a transportation system plan requires a level of effort most people are not willing to invest.  If councilors do not have the strength of character to make decisions based on understanding acquired from hard work, the community will ultimately suffer.  The mayor in the play described above was willing to sacrifice human health for some short-term financial gain and popular support.  Albany’s Council has been willing to take the heat for following the law and doing what’s best for the town.  It’s an honor to work for people like that.