Appreciating the Rule of Law

I was privileged over the Christmas holidays to see the movie Lincoln with my wife and in-laws.  The movie was well-crafted and dealt with issues that are important to me.  I was similarly privileged recently to participate in Linn-Benton Community College’s Martin Luther King Day Celebration, where members of the community did a public reading of Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” at our Albany campus.  I was surprised at my emotional reaction to portions of both the movie and the letter.

President Lincoln and Dr. King were rationalists, or people who believe that reason and experience are the fundamental criteria for solving problems.  Lincoln was also a lawyer, and Dr. King was a scholar who fully understood the concept of the rule of law.  It was not the purpose of either the movie or the letter to explore the rule of law, but I believe both offered some great insight into an important question.

The term “rule of law” was apparently coined in England during the early 19th century, and scholars continue to debate its meaning today.  I think most agree in rough terms it represents the idea that we govern ourselves by laws and the processes that create them rather than by individual whim, force, divine right, or some other supernatural power.  We practice this belief in the United States through democratic mechanisms such as elected representation and, in some cases, direct democracy.

Lincoln felt so strongly enough about the rule of law as expressed by the U.S. Constitution that he was willing to send troops to enforce it.  As he later wrote in the Gettysburg Address, he was not prepared to see “government of the people, by the people, for the people … perish from the earth,” even recognizing the toll in human suffering that decision entailed.

Dr. King demonstrated a similar commitment in a different way.  He respected the rule of law, despite rejecting, and, in fact, preaching disobedience to, laws that denied full citizenship to people of color in many parts of the country.  King wrote in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail:”

“In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy.  One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty.  I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.”

I would be surprised if anyone could truthfully say they agree with and have obeyed every law they have ever been subjected to through the course of their lives.  I’ve broken my share and will almost certainly do so again, although probably not on purpose.  I will, however, continue to advocate for the rule of law because I have seen first-hand what happens when it no longer exists.  Freedom from the law is not really freedom at all, but rather anarchy that penalizes the humane and civilized while rewarding the brutal and immoral.

“Forgetting the Bad Stuff and Just Feeling Good” – Iris DeMent

Every day, the news that crosses the city manager’s desk (if I had one) is a mixture of good stuff like compliments to City staff, a new grant, or perhaps an achievement award, plus the inevitable bad news of disciplinary actions, citizen complaints, or financial challenges.  It is very easy to spend too much time worrying about the bad things and not enough time celebrating the good news.

I receive Praise Coupons about City employees nearly every day, and the stories range from a simple thanks for a small service like directing someone to a resource at the library to deep gratitude for helping to save a life.  I try to write my own thank-you to every employee who receives these compliments to let them know I really appreciate the attitude and effort that goes into earning them.  I also know we have many employees who never receive a public commendation because of the nature of their jobs.  I hope all of us occasionally take the time to recognize great performance that the public may never see or appreciate.

We have received some recognition for becoming what I believe is the first city in the world to essentially open our General Ledger to the public through our Dashboard, but I do not think many people realize how important this accomplishment really was.  I had a meeting yesterday with someone who just retired after a 30+ year career as an auditor for the state of Washington.  Our meeting had nothing to do with city finances, but this person had done her homework and looked at our Dashboard before coming to City Hall.  She expressed her appreciation for our transparency and the technical accomplishment of posting this information for anyone to see and use.  It is particularly gratifying to hear praise from someone who knows what they are talking about, and it’s a nice antidote to the occasional criticism we get from people who do not take the time to get accurate information before forming an opinion.

Yesterday, I also received a copy of an e-mail sent to Kate Porsche from a local business owner giving his report on how some support he received from the City’s urban renewal agency a few years ago had helped his company.  He wrote: 

“At the time of application [for urban renewal assistance] I’m pretty sure we employed 35 full time.  Most of these jobs were family wage jobs.  As of today we are at 78 full time with an average wage and benefit package of $51,500 annually.  Since completion we have added over $4,000,000 (yes, $4 million) in equipment.  Well beyond the $400,000 (10x more) we had estimated back then.”

The business owner went on to state that he is in the process of acquiring new property to accommodate planned expansions.

Stories like these and the knowledge that I work with many outstanding people in a great organization gives me a positive attitude toward 2013 and beyond.  I won’t really forget the bad stuff, but the positive news gives me many opportunities to feel good.

Albany’s Strategic Plan

Next week, I will be presenting a draft of the City’s Strategic Plan to the City Council for their consideration.  The Plan represents the values, services, and projects we hope to sustain or complete in the years ahead.  I asked directors to carefully evaluate each department’s section of the Plan to insure that it doesn’t become a wish list that proposes results we are not likely to achieve.  Albany city government continues to face financial challenges similar to those facing most local governments in the U.S., and we need to align our aspirations with fiscal reality.

I continue to support the four themes of our Plan and believe they represent what most communities need to thrive now and in the future.  We stress the need for a safe community, great neighborhoods, a healthy economy, and an effective government, recognizing we won’t achieve perfection in any of these areas during the coming five-year planning period.  We can and should, however, continue to invest and act in ways that serve these themes.

The goals and objectives we communicate in the Plan are encouraging to me because I believe we have greatly improved the specificity and measurability of what we propose to do to make Albany a better place.  We also challenge ourselves to make the most of our resources in a time where we will not have enough money to provide services in the same way we have in the past.  We propose to move to electronic development plan submission, for example, as a means of improving service to customers and reducing the administrative burden on building and planning staff.

Many city councils do not use a strategic plan to guide their actions and prefer instead to publish a list of annual goals.  The advantage of this approach is the ability to communicate clear goals that can be easily understood by the public.  If a council wants to build a new building or solve a pressing problem, setting a goal and ordering staff to complete it is a straightforward approach.  The limitation of this model, in my opinion, is that it says nothing about what is expected for the broad range of services the city provides and that it does not force consideration of priorities.

I know of one community that set a goal of building a new library, but while it was under construction had to lay off more than a third of the city’s workforce.  The library is now complete and other city services have been severely compromised.  I believe strategic planning that is also a part of the budget process helps policy makers take a longer view and weigh the value of competing priorities. 

Albany’s Strategic Plan acknowledges that it will always be a work in progress and was never intended to serve as a blueprint.  It is, rather, a tool we use to communicate intentions, allocate resources, and demonstrate results to the citizens we serve.