Partisanship

I frequently talk about my great-great-uncle, Martin Payne, who came to Albany in 1851 and served as a Linn County Commissioner in the 1870s.  He was also one of the wealthiest farmers in the Valley until he moved into town in his old age.  Martin died in a house on the corner of Fourth and Ferry Street (a block from City Hall) in 1900 at age 83.

Martin’s brother, Morgan, was my great-great-grandfather; and, unlike his youngest brother, he spent much of his life as a soldier.  The Paynes apparently had a warlike gene that manifested itself in Morgan and two other brothers named John and William.  Morgan served in the Mexican War, the Blackhawk War, and the Civil War before finally giving up soldiering after being wounded at age 60.  William served as a sheriff in Indiana and was among the first to arrive on the scene when his brother John was shot on the Vermilion County Courthouse steps in 1863 in a fight over allegations that he was a Southern sympathizer.

Passion has always been a part of politics, and the Civil War should serve as a grim reminder of what can happen when reason gives way to hatred.  According to published accounts of my great-great-uncle John’s death, he was shot because he was wearing a “butternut pin” on his lapel that signified he supported the Confederacy.  There is some question whether he really was a Southern sympathizer because two of his sons were Union soldiers and my grandfather Morgan was a captain in the Union army.

The events in this story may seem like ancient history, but my grandmother, who died when I was in my early 20s, knew her uncles and probably heard about what happened from people who were actually there.  That connection through someone I knew and loved makes the tragedy and the possibility that something like it could happen again seem less distant.

I have strong feelings about current political events, and I think we should all have the courage of our convictions.  I also feel strongly that labels like Republican or Democrat should never be the cause for judgments that lead to violence.  I would like to believe we have become more civil since the days of the Civil War, but I fear that the distance between peaceful and violent societies may be shorter than we realize.

My Uncle John’s tombstone is inscribed with the following quotation from English poet John Dryden:

“The brave man seeks not popular applause, nor over powered with arms deserts his cause.  Undaunted, though foiled, he does the best he can.  Force is of brutes, but honor is of man.”

Praise in Public

I have always been uncomfortable receiving public praise for something I’ve done, even though I really like to hear it.  I think my ambivalence has been one of my weaknesses as a city manager because it may make me more reticent about praising people than I need to be.   I have learned, however, that there are many people who share my discomfort over public recognition.

A few years ago, I attended a national conference with an Albany employee, and I think I actually made him mad by saying nice things about him at a dinner.  He came up to me afterwards and let me know that while he appreciated the thought, he would have appreciated it more if I had kept it to myself.  The incident made me realize that we all have different sensitivities that cause us to respond to rewards and penalties in different ways.

Early in my career, someone taught me the principle of “praise in public, criticize in private,” and I still believe the general idea is a good one.  I have never met anyone who has told me they like being publicly humiliated, although I know people who seem to invite public criticism. 

I have used this column over the years to occasionally recognize people for outstanding work or setting a great example for the rest of us, and I think most have expressed appreciation when I’ve done so.  Writing to a deadline sometimes makes it difficult to check with the subject of my praise before it gets published, so all of this is prelude to a strong impulse to recognize some people (without their permission) who have done great work recently.

Ron Irish has been such a consistently positive influence over the years I’ve worked here that it’s hard to point to a single event, but his recent contribution to resolving a difficult situation with another agency is just the latest example of how his patient and thoughtful approach to problem solving has earned widespread respect.

During my first few years with the City, I was a little afraid to try and remember the names of the people in Utility Billing.  We had so much turnover in these difficult jobs that it seemed like every time I got to know someone they would leave.  Our current employees (Patty, Nancy, Shelley, Danya, Lori, Ami, Julie, Duane, and Holly) have changed the pattern with their good work and strong customer relations skills.  Shutting off someone’s water is almost guaranteed to make them mad, but I routinely hear about the courtesy and extra effort of our people who do this work.

I hope I haven’t offended anyone by writing a few words of praise for good work I have observed.  There are many more city employees deserving of recognition, and I plan to write about them in the future.  If you prefer to stay off the list, let me know.

What Do We Think?

We recently conducted a survey of employees to see what people are thinking and feeling about various internal services.  The results are available on the City’s Intranet, and they show that about 182 people have answered some or all of the questions.  The majority of those responding, excluding those who responded “Don’t Know,” view the quality of services such as Information Technology, Human Resources, Building Maintenance, etc., as “Good” or “Excellent”; but there are some areas where employees have concerns.

Our custodial service is clearly an area where there is room for improvement, although some of the dissatisfaction may come from a management decision earlier this year to reduce services to save money.  About once a week (although sometimes several weeks pass), I now have to empty my office trash can into a larger container located about 25 steps from my office.  We received one complaint that, “If the administration has the time to empty their trash cans prior to going home that’s one thing; however, the personnel actually out doing the job have very little if any unassigned time to do this.”  I am generally sympathetic to this argument, but it takes me less than one minute to complete this task, including putting in a new plastic bag.  I am now spending less than 45 minutes a year on trash detail; and if anyone is spending more time than this, they may want to look at changing what goes into their office trash.  We will save $175,000 over the five-year life of the contract (potentially someone’s job) by doing this at the cost of some inconvenience to the rest of us.

Human Resources (HR) also drew some negative comments in the survey; and, again, some of the problem can likely be attributed to staff reduction.  Many employees may not realize that our HR Department is 20 percent smaller than it was two years ago.  Both HR’s and the Finance Department’s ratings declined from our previous survey, and both departments have seen significant staff reductions.  The management team made a conscious decision to cut support services at least in proportion to cuts in line departments.  Just as staff reductions in the Parks & Recreation Department or the Fire Department affect the quality and extent of service, cuts in support services have a significant impact on our organization.  The good news is that services in both departments were viewed positively by a significant majority of those responding.

We are planning to do a general survey later in the year to get a sense of opinions about conditions throughout the organization.  I believe the next survey will produce results similar to what we received in this one, but I’m sure it will also provide useful new information.  The directors and I review this information and look for ways to address concerns and problems, recognizing the validity of many of the observations.  We also understand that some criticisms are not reflective of actual conditions and may be the result of misinformation, misunderstanding, or a score to settle. 

I hope more employees will participate in the next survey to either validate or correct my view of the organization and its performance.  At least one comment expressed the belief that I don’t know what’s going on in a given department, and there is some truth to that concern.  I rely on information from citizens, council members, organizations, managers, unions, employees, and what I can see from my own observations.  I hear and see a lot, but it’s difficult to know what nearly 400 employees are thinking at all times, let alone the thoughts and feelings of our 50,000+ residents.  I get a better picture when people take the time to either tell me their concerns or participate in the periodic surveys we conduct to get a better view.