How Can We Help You?

The City’s mission statement reads as follows:  “Providing quality public services for a better Albany community.”  While I was writing this sentence, I received a call from a man who wanted to know about housing programs in Albany.  I found the number for the Linn-Benton Housing Authority and directed the caller to someone who might be able to help him.  I take our mission statement seriously and believe I should do my best to be of service to people, even when the service they request may not be my direct responsibility.  I know most other city employees feel the same way because I see examples of the service ethic at work here every day.

The City provides many services, and I don’t get to see everything that goes on in a given day.  I’m sure in the course of the thousands of interactions and transactions that make up a day in the City there are people who will leave dissatisfied with their experience.  Most people are not happy when they receive a traffic citation, pay a water bill, hear about an expensive development requirement, or learn about a rule that prevents them from doing something they have planned.

City employees are often put in the position of enforcing a rule that benefits the majority at the expense of an individual. 

I recently met with two groups of business leaders who are concerned about how people feel after interacting with city employees.  The most common complaint is that there are too many rules and too many times when people are denied the opportunity to do something that might be good for both the individual and the community.  There was also some frustration at the way some people are treated when they submit an application or make an inquiry.

I am sure we can improve our service, just as I’m sure we will never be able to please everyone.  We are looking at ways to reduce the number of regulations imposed by the City, and the Council approved major revisions in the Municipal Code at its meeting this past Wednesday that will substantially cut the length of two chapters.  The Mayor will also ask the Council this week to approve the appointment of members to a new “Business-Ready Task Force.”  This group will be looking at regulatory barriers businesses face and how to overcome them.

More than 30 years ago, I received my only speeding ticket, and the state patrolman who issued the citation was so nice that I found myself thanking him as he handed me the ticket I could ill-afford to pay.  I certainly wasn’t happy about the incident, but I wasn’t angry about the experience either.  The lesson from the traffic stop is that our attitude and technique as we enforce rules or deliver bad news has a lot to do with how people will view the interaction.

I pledged to the local business groups that city employees would do everything possible to live up to our mission statement and continue to provide the best possible service to our citizens.  There will be times when that service comes in the form of a citation or something unpleasant, but we will attempt to deliver the bad news, as well as the good, with courtesy and respect.

Who’s Right?

I was looking at Facebook last night and noticed a link one of my friends had posted to a video about a young woman having trouble with the concept of miles per hour.  The video begins with a young man asking his wife how long it would take to travel 80 miles if a car is moving at 80 miles per hour.  The wife starts thinking out loud about how long it takes her to run a mile when she’s in good shape and about how many revolutions a car’s wheels make in an hour.  She ruminates a bit more and decides that it would take about 56 minutes to travel 80 miles in a car moving at 80 miles per hour.

The husband acknowledges that his wife’s answer is pretty close and then tries to explain why the real answer is one hour.  The young woman refuses to accept her husband’s explanation, and viewers are presumably left with the impression that she isn’t very smart.  The viewer comments on YouTube range from mildly funny to horribly offensive.

My first reaction to the video was to wonder how stupid the young husband could be.  Since he obviously recorded the conversation and presumably posted it for the world to see, he apparently doesn’t understand one of the most fundamental rules of human relationships.  People really do not like to be publicly humiliated, and they are unlikely to ever forget or forgive the person who knowingly makes them look bad.  I have unintentionally insulted my wife on a few occasions over that past 40 years, and I’m quite sure she could recount those incidents in great detail.  I know I vividly remember a time when she did it to me more than 35 years ago.

If the point of this video was to make people laugh, it probably succeeded at some level.  I found it painful.  ****Breaking News****  I had to attend a meeting after writing the previous lines and returned to find that The Oregonian website is now featuring the video.  The question is no longer whether the marriage will survive, but whether the husband will live to see tomorrow.

I remember having a conversation with a nationally syndicated newspaper columnist many years ago where he taught me a great lesson about life by pointing out that it’s easy to make someone look bad by using their own words against them.  This lesson is doubly true for video.  I know I have said many stupid things in my life, and I am equally certain everyone else has, too.  The husband in this new, viral video may have been right about the concept of miles per hour, but his sense of humor and his lack of respect for his wife are hopelessly wrong.

We all have our bad moments, and I sincerely hope the people I love and trust most will never feel inclined to broadcast mine to a world hungry to see the worst in all of us. 

Postscript:  I regret that writing about this video may inspire someone to look at it.  My best advice is to avoid it.

Still in the Human Sector

A few months ago, I wrote about some problems I was having with my bank and the delivery of my newspaper.  Word of the newspaper issue found its way back to the Democrat-Herald, and the problem was fixed within a few days.  My previous two phone calls and an e-mail message had no effect.  Unfortunately, time has eroded the fix; and now my paper is back in the driveway most mornings.  I have reconciled myself to the morning paper hunt, but I’m really frustrated with my former bank.

I have made at least (no exaggeration) four personal visits to my former bank to cancel all my accounts.  Each month following my latest visit, the bank sends me a statement charging me for a savings account I canceled at least four months ago.  My visits with the bankers have always been cordial, and I have always left with the assurance that the problem was now corrected.  I guess my bank just doesn’t want to see me go after making money off me for the past 40 years.

My point in writing about these very current and sad-but-true stories is not to brag that the public sector is superior to the private sector in delivering services.  I receive great service from some companies, just as I receive great service from many levels of government.  Like everyone else, I’ve had some bad days with government agencies; and I’ve even seen us make mistakes at the City of Albany.  My complaint is with people who have made up their minds that government is bad, regardless of substantial evidence to the contrary.

My payments to the City of Albany in 2011 amounted to something less than $3,000 (property taxes + water-sewer bill).  Included in that amount was 365 days where I had clean water delivered to the multiple taps in my house without a single interruption.  I drank gallons of the stuff; bathed in it; watered my lawn; washed my car; sprayed it on my grandkids during the summer; and generally used it liberally.  I’m also happy that my sewage made it to the treatment plant every day without fail.  My wife and I probably visited the library about 40 to 50 times and checked out at least that many books over the course of the year.  We attended concerts at Monteith Riverpark, and I know we took my grandchildren to Doug Killin Friendship Park a dozen or so times.  My son paid a little extra for my granddaughter’s dancing and tumbling classes and for his and his wife’s participation in our softball program.  I’m cheap; so I just ran on the free trail that surrounds our subdivision through most of the summer and fall months.

Most of my taxes went to the police and fire departments, and I don’t think I called either one this year.  We did enjoy the visits of the fire engine and the police on National Night Out, and I give both agencies some of the credit for having no crime or fires at my house this year.  I was able to ride my bike to work through much of the summer on streets that generally have decent bike lanes, and I drove my car on most other days.

The people who read this column probably know that the services we receive from the City are generally a good bargain in the same way that most of the services we purchase from businesses offer good value.  I pay $40 a month for high-speed Internet and greatly enjoy all that I’m able to do with the service.  I think I pay less than $15 for the newspaper, and I think it’s a good deal whether I have to hunt for it or not.

I will complain to my bank and the newspaper about my problems, and I encourage people who have problems with the City to complain as well.  I will not condemn all businesses because I’ve had a couple of problems in recent months.