The Price of Ignorance

Frustration with government is a common feeling around the world, particularly over the past few years as unemployment remains high and economic crises seem to be in the headlines every week.  Government is an easy target because it has no particular face, and there will always be people who will gain by weakening it.

I left the private sector nearly more than 25 years ago to start a career in local government.  I believed then and I believe now that working for government is an honorable and important vocation, not superior to the work I did in private industry, but equally worthy in terms of its value to the community.

I fear that that too many people have allowed their frustration with government in general to rob them of their ability to take an objective view of the facts.  The United States, the state of Oregon, and the City of Albany remain among the strongest, most prosperous, and desirable places in the world to live.  We are living in the least violent period and in one of the least violent places in the recorded history of humanity.  During my career, I have never seen an example of corruption among the many essentially unpaid elected officials I’ve known.  Our form of government makes bribery or misappropriation of funds very difficult, and there is a high degree of certainty that violators will be caught.  Our City annually receives awards for the quality of our financial reporting and transparency.  Every official act of our City Council can be viewed in every household with a computer connected to the Internet or a cable television subscription.  Even when technology fails, citizens have the option of attending council meetings in a comfortable and accessible city hall.

Criticism of government at any level is necessary and appropriate, but weakening government based on incorrect information and assumptions carries a price.  Albany is paying that price today as our local government officials attempt to fulfill the will of voters who recently passed a badly crafted and poorly informed debt limitation.  The only likely correction to the new addition to the City’s Charter will be to ask the voters to consider a new measure that addresses the concerns that caused the first one to pass while fixing its mistakes that will unnecessarily cost taxpayers money.

Requiring voters to approve new debt is not a threatening or novel idea.  Albany voters in the past approved general obligation bonds to fund a variety of projects, most recently fixing city streets.  Requiring voter approval of any obligation that someone might consider to be debt is a costly and bad idea.  Anyone interested in understanding why should look at the information presented by Albany’s bond counsel to the City Council last Wednesday.

I’m currently working in a place where I can’t leave the place I’m staying without an armed escort.  I ride to work in an armored vehicle and, as I write this column, my body armor and helmet are placed next to the door to my room.  I am grateful my home and family are in Albany or places like it, and I understand that nothing we have in our country or our community is guaranteed.  The things that matter most require effort, sacrifice, and a commitment to learning the facts before taking actions that weaken the institutions that have helped us achieve what we have.

Best Wishes, Scott

Scott Keeney will be leaving the City of Albany Library next month after more than 30 years of service to this community and its children.  I am probably not the most appropriate person to write this tribute because I don’t work at the Library and I’ve only known Scott for the last seven-plus years.  I know others will honor him in different ways, but I wanted to express my personal thanks for an extraordinary career.

I know next to nothing about Scott’s personal life, and most of what I know about his work is through secondhand information.  I have, however, seen Scott work with children on a number of occasions, and it’s easy to see the joy he takes in his profession.  Some people may think working in a library is a stress-free job that requires no hard work or particular skill.  I know better.  Making reading and learning fun for children is demanding work that requires an investment of self most of us are incapable of achieving.  Patience, intelligence, judgment, experience, and, perhaps most importantly, emotional maturity are all requisite skills for someone to succeed as Scott has during his career at the library.  The way to judge that success is not by the number of days Scott clocked in on time or the hours he spent in the building.  Scott’s legacy, and I suspect the largest source of his compensation, is the generations of children who will carry fond memories of him and a piece of his dedication to literacy throughout their lives.

I will be gone when the Library hosts its recognition of Scott’s service, and I’m sure many people will have much to say about his impact on Albany’s children over the years.  Most of those people have worked at the Library and have benefited from Scott’s example as I have.  I would simply add my thanks to the chorus along with my best wishes for a retirement as meaningful and fulfilling as Scott’s career at the Library has been.

Why Do It?

Shortly after I returned from Morocco in February, I received a request from the International City-County Management Association (ICMA) to work on a 30-day assignment in Afghanistan.  I enjoy doing international development work, and ICMA has given me many opportunities over the past decade.  I asked the City Council if I could use vacation time to accept the assignment, and they unanimously approved the request.

I will be leaving next week and plan to return April 19.  I will be working with an Afghan government ministry, and I hope I will be able to be of some assistance to the project.  Many people have asked why I take my vacations in places most people consider unattractive.  The best answer I can provide is that these assignments cause me to challenge myself in ways I find enjoyable.  Sometimes, as is the case in Afghanistan, I am paid well to do these jobs; but in most cases I donate my time.  The payment is the experience and the education I receive from working in a different environment, plus the knowledge that I may have been of service in a place that needs it.

City management remains challenging to me because I’m never certain what will happen when I come into the office.  Sometimes I’m dealing with a great new opportunity for the community, while other days I deal with a succession of frustrating problems.  I think the same things that attracted me to city management also attract me to the work I do in developing nations. 

I know my vacations impose burdens on my family and on some people in the City, which is why I am always careful to seek the permission of those who are most affected.  My wife and children understand that this work is important to me and they also know that doing anything worthwhile usually involves some risk.  My longest previous absence from the City of Albany was for a little over three weeks when I went to Ethiopia in 2009.  I was able to stay in touch via e-mail throughout the trip and heard no complaints from those who picked up the slack while I was away. 

I am assured that I will have good access to the Internet while I’m gone, and I will try to stay in touch as much as possible.  I will probably not be able to write my weekly message because my contract requires me to clear everything I write for public consumption through my employer.  While I’m sure ICMA has no objection to my writing, I know they have to be very careful to insure that no one associated with the project will take offense at something I might write.  I may also have very limited time to do much writing.  The City will be in good hands in my absence, and I look forward to sharing some interesting new stories when I return.