Best Wishes

The conclusion of the fiscal year always seems to include a number of departures from the City, and this year is no exception.  I don’t know everyone who is leaving, but I know I will miss Heather Hansen, Craig Carnagey, and Kevin Hamilton.

Heather, our Community Development Director, started as a planner with the City not long after I began work here.  I first met her when she worked for the Lane Council of Governments in Eugene while I was working as the city administrator in Oakridge.  Heather’s kind and caring personality combined with a great work ethic led to promotions here that included the Planning Manager’s position and Community Development Director.  She is not leaving because anyone I know here wants her to, but because she understands there is more to life than work and she has an opportunity to explore new territory (literally and figuratively) in Florida.  I have already warned her about alligators, hurricanes, and water moccasins to no obvious effect.  Heather has made great contributions to the community, including her work on the South Albany Area Plan, Goal 5 compliance, flood plain administration, the completion of Periodic Review, and supporting the Mayor’s Business Ready Task Force to name a few.

Craig started work as the City’s arborist and eventually found himself managing facilities and the City’s park maintenance efforts.  I got to know Craig through his interest in the International City-County Management Association’s (ICMA) Emerging Leaders Development Program.  Craig committed many hours of his off-duty time to completing the ICMA program and preparing himself for greater city management responsibilities.  The program requires someone to serve as a mentor, and I was pleased to work with Craig in that role.  Craig is moving on to the City of Eugene where he will be starting a new job managing a work group with more than 80 employees.

Kevin has, by every account I’ve heard, done an outstanding job as our engineering supervisor, but has decided to go back to school and finish a program he started some years ago.  The common thread about all three of these departures is that everyone is leaving to pursue a personal goal rather than because of retirement or a problem.  I think the City of Albany has had a long-term commitment to hiring really good people, and part of the consequence of that policy is that our employees have choices about where they will work or live.  I hate to see them go, but I appreciate their many contributions to Albany and join them in celebrating their success.

Panning Panhandling

I do not think many people are unaffected by the panhandlers or other unfortunates who appear to be down on their luck who we routinely pass by in Albany.  All of us have seen a person roll down their car window and hand out currency or change to someone who is likely to spend it on alcohol or drugs. 

I justify my refusal to hand out money by reminding myself that there are good organizations in town that supply food, shelter, and other essentials to people in need and that my money is better spent by supporting these groups.  My assumption about how panhandlers might spend any money I give them is based, in part, on experience.

La Grande did not have many panhandlers when I worked there as city manager from 1995 to 2005, but Interstate 84 did bring a few people our way who claimed to be in need of assistance.  A person fitting this description walked into my office one day and claimed that his constitutional rights had been violated by our police department when they escorted him out of a university classroom after we received a complaint from a professor.  The complainant looked reasonably presentable until he took off his baseball cap and revealed a tattoo of the Zigzag Man (a logo for cigarette papers, usually associated with smoking marijuana) in the middle of his forehead.  Mostly as an effort to encourage him to leave, I asked him if $10 would help him on his way to his destination of Albuquerque and cover any damage to his constitutional rights.  He accepted my offer with thanks and left City Hall.

I received a call from a city council member who was also in charge of the Union County jail a couple of days after my donation and was asked if I knew a fellow with a tattoo on his forehead.  I knew this call represented trouble, but I answered honestly and was told that my visitor had been arrested for shoplifting at a local store.  Union County jailers had a policy of confiscating any alcohol that someone who was arrested might be carrying, and my council member told me that their newest inmate was really angry when they flushed his wine down the toilet.  It seems the city manager had “purchased” this wine and its possessor was not happy about the jail’s thoughtless disposition of my gift.

Life’s challenges are often difficult, and I have sympathy for anyone who is overcome and unable to organize themselves to maintain mental health, obtain an education, find a job, or otherwise remain productively engaged.  I do not have good answers to their problems, except to say that handing money to someone with an alcohol or drug problem is almost certainly a bad idea.  I would much rather see limited resources go to helping people get a decent meal, a safe place to sleep, a shower, and medical care than to the local purveyor of fortified wine.

Albany is a community with a heart, where many people genuinely care about the less fortunate and want to do something to help them.  I believe our support should go to those who have demonstrated the ability to address basic needs and help others get past the problems that are blighting their lives.

Dystopia

Imagine a place where the standard of living is ranked among the five best in the world by an accepted international rating; where quality of life ranks 13th; Gross Domestic Product is seventh; and mean disposable income is the best.  During the past ten years, the imagined place would be the United States.  It is certainly possible to find less favorable rankings on specific issues; but by most measures, it’s hard to argue that the U.S. fares badly against any competition.

I travel a lot and what the data confirms is supported by what I see.  Things usually look good here compared to what I see everywhere else.  Somehow, despite all the criticism and the dire predictions, the U.S. seems to stay near the top of any reliable measure of good places to live in the world.  If the numbers and my impressions are true, it’s hard to understand why so many people have a negative view of the government.  The Pew Research Center reports that only 28 percent of people in the U.S. have a positive opinion of the federal government while solid majorities, 57 percent and 63 percent respectively, view state and local government positively.  I think part of the answer might be found at the movies.

It seems like every time I watch a movie the villain is usually someone associated with the government.  My impressions are supported by a list of more than 100 mostly recent movies that depict the national government in an unfavorable way.  I think the list could be much longer, but I don’t know that anyone has taken the time to categorize all of the candidates.  By contrast, I have a hard time thinking of any recent movies where the U.S. government is shown in a positive light.  State and local governments are usually ignored, other than the generally positive police and fire movies.

Hollywood is not the only place where the feds are a convenient whipping boy, of course.  There are not many media pundits who get paid to say nice things about our national government, whether their political leanings are to the right or the left.  Even those who are paid by government seem to take more joy in pointing out its failings than they do in discussing its successes.

During the late 1970s, I took a political science course taught by a Polish professor that focused on Eastern Europe.  He proclaimed near the beginning of the course that the U.S. was in decline and was destined to be overwhelmed by the Soviet Union.  The 1980s brought the prediction that Japan would soon be the world’s greatest economic power, and the 1990s saw the rise of the European Union.  Today, we all know China will replace the U.S. as the world’s greatest superpower within a few years.  Predicting the future is never a sure bet.

My prediction is that the success of our national government is proportional to our commitment to be informed enough to know when it is working and smart enough to fix it when it’s not.  Achieving both goals takes more than a quick glance at the newspaper, watching television “news,” or settling into a good dystopian movie.  Government at all levels has never been more accessible than it is today, with televised meetings and vast quantities of data available online.  Perhaps we should celebrate by occasionally taking advantage of our access to both good and bad news.