Employing the Employed

The New York Times ran a front-page story and a series of editorials this week about how employers favor those already employed over those not working when making hiring decisions.  The story noted that a number of employers are under fire for advertising that only employed workers were eligible to apply for their vacancies and that New Jersey recently passed legislation to prohibit the practice.  The moral of the story would seem to be to get a job so that you can get a job and that lesson may not be as absurd as it sounds.

The last time I was unemployed was nearly 30 years ago when I lost my job as the executive director of a nonprofit organization.  My employer ran out of money due to the loss of state funding during a serious recession, and I had a growing family to support.  I collected unemployment insurance while looking for work and took care of my young children plus my nephew and my former secretary’s son for several months.  It was a great learning experience, but a difficult time.  I was eventually offered a low-paying job by a friend that actually reduced our net household income by several hundred dollars a month, and I accepted it.  The work turned out to be interesting, and I ended up staying there for five years while I went back to school for a graduate degree. 

The combination of my wife’s job as a school secretary and my work as a concrete inspector and building lab tech plus the G.I. Bill allowed me to finish school and provided me with the foundation to build a career.  My education, combined with a good work record, helped me obtain my first job as a city manager.  I doubt that I would have been hired for that job if I had been unemployed when I applied.

I hope and believe the City of Albany gives fair consideration to all who apply to work here, regardless of their current employment status.  We have a need for a more diverse workforce that could be difficult to meet if we were to limit ourselves to candidates who are employed in another organization.

My thoughts on searching for a job were inspired by my own recent decision to compete for the position of Chief Operating Officer at Metro in Portland.  I am not actively looking to leave Albany, but this opportunity is a good fit for my family for a number of reasons.  I have been selected to be one of four finalists for the job and will interview with the organization within the next two weeks.  Regardless of the outcome, I continue to believe the City of Albany is a great place to work and my life has been blessed by the opportunity to work here.

What Should Businesses Expect from City Government?

I have heard throughout my career that government should be friendlier to businesses and more helpful in assisting with job creation.  I have respect for this view because I understand how difficult it is to sustain a business, particularly during an economic slump, and how important a healthy economy is to a healthy community.  Being “open for business,” however, is not as simple as it sounds for local governments.

Government is often condemned for “politics” or, put another way, balancing one interest against another.  What may be good for one business or group of businesses may be harmful to the business down the street.  Some cities have chosen to exclude “big box” stores, for example, in the belief that they are protecting local businesses from national or international invaders.  Albany chose to make a well-considered, large investment in a new water treatment plant some years ago, recognizing that existing businesses and residents would have to pay for the excess capacity needed to serve future needs.  The City routinely wrestles with similar dilemmas.

City government is also required to serve as a business regulator to enforce everything from building codes to environmental laws.  I have dealt with a number of situations over the years where one business turned in another for a violation that might have gone unnoticed without the competitor’s vigilance.  Regulating is not my favorite role, and I understand why businesses and individuals resent what they view as government intrusion.  I also know regulation is necessary to insure safety, protect the environment, and make communities decent places to live. 

Despite the inherent tension between the roles of government and business, I believe the three primary returns businesses should expect from their investment in government are:  1) integrity; 2) competence, and 3) collaborative problem solving.  Corruption is endemic in many governments throughout the world, and its cost is borne most heavily by those who can least afford it.  Corrupt governments allow those with resources to consolidate and advance their interests at the expense of those who can’t pay the price.  Corruption helps explain why, in many parts of the world, a very small, wealthy minority live in secure enclaves while the poor pick through garbage dumps to survive.  Honest government has long been one of the main attractions to the United States as a place to do business, and the cost of attempting to operate in a corrupt environment is far higher than the taxes we pay to maintain our standards.

City governments need to be able to plan for the future while meeting the needs of the present, two critical roles that require the competence that comes from experience, education, and good judgment.  The City of Albany provides a broad range of services and routinely tackles large projects affecting the future of residents and businesses.  During the past few years, new water and wastewater treatment plants, road improvements, collection and distribution system upgrades, and a new library have been constructed at a cost of well over $120 million.  Completing these projects within budget and operating the facilities efficiently requires a high level of skill.

Finally, businesses and residents alike deserve a collaborative attempt to resolve problems that inevitably arise between the interests of the individual and the interests of the whole.  I think most of us who work in government realize who we work for and enjoy finding ways to address concerns or problems.  The conflict usually arises when someone is unwilling to accept laws or rules that City staff have no authority to change or ignore.  Fair and consistent law enforcement is an important part of the integrity businesses require to prosper. 

I fully appreciate the difficulties many businesses now face and the challenge of supporting collective obligations.  I believe the task of the City of Albany is to maintain the high standards of integrity, competence, and collaboration that will help businesses overcome these challenges and build a more prosperous community.

Public Safety

A few weeks ago, I was able to catch part of a 1950s vintage B movie with a title like Days of Fury, starring Dale Robertson.  The star played the part of a gunslinger angrily confronting a new ethic of law and order that was finding its way to a western frontier town.

This theme found its way into a lot of movies and remains popular in western novels today.  It’s also a concept we see in our local newspaper with some frequency.  The world seemed better when things were simpler and notions of right and wrong were clearer.  The truth, however, is that it was never as straightforward as the movies made it appear.

The dilemma of individual rights and responsibility versus collective needs and obligations is as old as civilization.  I’m sure it didn’t take some early humans very long to figure out that they could get their way by dominating weaker members of the species, just as those being dominated quickly realized they could protect their interests by banding together.  We have moved slowly through the centuries from families to bands, to tribes, to kingdoms, to empires, and to nations.  I think we often forget that the modern nation state is a relatively recent development that is less than 500 years old.

I don’t know what the next step in the evolution of civilization will be, although I sincerely hope it is not a step backward.  We live longer, better lives today; or at least we have the opportunity to do so, because in many parts of the world we have moved beyond a daily battle for survival and the imperative to kill or be killed. 

The price of our security and the associated benefits of civilization may be characterized as restraint.  We agree to not physically dominate those we might, pay taxes, stop at red lights, and obey a host of other written and unwritten laws.  Most of us chafe at this restraint at one time or another; and, in some cases, we rebel.  The “tea party” movement seems to be a recent example of this phenomenon.

I have worked for city governments for a long time, and my view of the world is no doubt colored by that experience.  I have gained a greater appreciation for those rules and institutions that allow us to resolve our differences peacefully and make our communities safer.  I also appreciate a continued emphasis on individual rights, both as an incentive for institutions to improve and in recognition of the human need to not only live, but to live well.

Thankfully, I have not had to deal with many gunslingers in my career.  I much prefer public safety to be a collective responsibility, and I have great respect for our employees who work to maintain it.  I didn’t catch the end of Days of Fury; so I don’t know what happened to Dale Robertson, but my best guess is that he died a heroic death as a reluctant defender of law and order.  You never know what you might learn from an old western.