Local Government Authority

Local government officials, whether elected or appointed, have very little individual authority, despite having responsibility for large amounts of money and many important community services.  Citizens give authority to a city council to make decisions that would be difficult for a group of hundreds or thousands of people to decide.  The form of this delegation of authority is a city charter that spells out the rules for officials in a document that can only be changed by a majority of voters in an election.

Local officials are also constrained by federal and state laws that either direct them to do certain things or limit what they can do.  The idea is that the higher levels of government see the bigger picture while local people know the most about individual communities.  Dumping untreated waste in a river, for example, might not have an immediate effect on the place doing the dumping, but the impact downstream will be very different. 

Most local governments fully understand that their authority comes from the people they serve and that it has many limitations.  Very few Oregon cities have full-time paid elected officials, so there is really no incentive for councils like Albany’s to test the limits of what they can do or keep things from citizens.  This system of local government has evolved over the past 50 years or so and has served Oregonians well.  Citizens have many tools, including regular elections, initiatives, and referenda, to insure that local governments are responsive to their needs.

While there are many restrictions on the powers of local government, there is a need for someone or some group to be responsible for the property, equipment, operations, and services of a city.  Most of that burden is assigned to full-time employees whose primary job is to carry out policies and projects in accordance with the decisions of elected officials.  Most mayors and councilors don’t respond to robberies, drive fire trucks, or otherwise directly involve themselves in city operations.  Similarly, there are restrictions on the use of city property and equipment to make sure they are used appropriately.  No single person in the city, whether elected, appointed, or private citizens, has the authority to determine who can use every piece of equipment or facility.  Usually these determinations are made by the council or through policies governed by federal or state law.

I think too many people believe that “The City” is an independent business or organization that acts in its own interest, rather than the people who are elected and hired by the public to do things collectively that cannot or should not be done by individuals.  The easy way to find out would be to attend one or more of the 275+ public meetings conducted by the City every year or talk with some very accessible city council members or drop by City Hall to visit with the Mayor or City Manager.

The Hiking Trip

Several people have made the mistake of asking about how my hiking trip on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) went over an extended Labor Day weekend.  A lady at church watched the August 28 council meeting on TV (some people really do) and heard me mention the trip, which prompted another inquiry about the hike.  I’m happy to report that it was a great trip, made greater by the luxury of sitting in a chair and writing about it.

My youngest son and I covered about 80 miles in a little less than four days, walking from Highway 58 near Odell Lake to the Rim Village at Crater Lake.  The terrain between the two lakes rises and falls many times from a low elevation of about 5,000 feet to something over 8,000 feet at Crater Lake.  The scenery along the way is beautiful, with many high points where you can see what looks like an endless forest dotted with mountains and lakes.  We didn’t realize, however, that there are relatively few places to get water near the trail between Summit Lake and Crater Lake.  We had to pack our own water for the last 25 miles from Thielsen Creek to Rim Village, and we were down to our last swallow by the time we arrived.

The hardest part of the hike was probably the Rim Trail at Crater Lake, where the path goes up and down around the rim so many times I lost count.  It also seemed a little unfair that this tough going came at the end of three very long days of hiking.  I probably shouldn’t complain about our hike given that we encountered many trekkers who had started their journey in Mexico in March.  Most of these people looked remarkably the same, with dark beards (usually just the men), a range of ages between 20 and 30, and absolutely no body fat.  The PCT is more than 2,600 miles long, and I would guess the people we met had covered about 1,800 miles of it.  We spoke with a few of the long distance hikers, including a guy from Scotland who was using the trail name “Shadowfax.”  I remembered the name from The Lord of the Rings as belonging to a magical horse ridden by Gandalf the wizard, and I guess the connection had something to do with epic journeys.

Our journey was not epic, but it was a good time despite the aches, pains, blisters, and just hard work of carrying your home and supplies on your back for so many miles.  I think my son is tougher than I am because he developed blisters early in the hike, yet carried on to the end.  My concluding advice to anyone who hasn’t done it yet is to get to Crater Lake as quickly as you can.  It is one of the most beautiful places in the world, and I find it disturbing that so many Oregonians I’ve spoken to have never been there.

New PictureNew Picture (1) New Picture (2)

Strategic Planning (again)

Strategic planning sounds like something military people do when they are preparing to launch an invasion or defend their country from attack.  Strategy is supposed to be the big picture view of what needs to be accomplished while tactics describe how the strategy is to be implemented and achieved.

Albany has had a formal strategic plan for about ten years that should not be confused with the City’s Comprehensive Plan or its Capital Improvement Program.  The Albany Strategic Plan attempts to spell out the City’s mission, vision, values, and a series of goals and objectives the City is trying to achieve.

I usually write about the Plan at least once a year, both to remind people that it exists and to explain that it is an important tool in determining what happens with city resources.  This week, the City Council discussed the Plan in preparation for the annual budget process to make sure that the resources we allocate are being used for the things that are most important to people in the community.

The message I have consistently heard from city councils since my arrival in Albany is that public safety is the highest community priority and both the Strategic Plan and our annual budget reflect that commitment.  By a very large margin, most of the money the City receives comes from taxpayers and ratepayers to pay for police, fire, ambulance, court, clean drinking water, and safe disposal of sewage.  City streets could also be added to the list as an essential part of maintaining a safe city. 

Albany’s elected leaders have understood for a long time that the community needs to be safe if it is to prosper in the future.  Our vision for the past decade has been:  “A vital and diverse community that promotes a high quality of life, great neighborhoods, balanced economic growth, and quality public services.”  I translate this rather long phrase into the easier to remember, “Making Albany a nice place to live and work.”  Our job as city employees is to serve this vision by “providing quality public services for a better Albany community” (our mission statement).  Again, this translates into providing great service to our citizens.

Albany, if we follow our Strategic Plan, is not likely to become a large city in the decades ahead.  We are striving for enough growth to maintain prosperity and service levels, along with the amenities that make life more enjoyable.  Programs like River Rhythms or facilities like our swimming pools and parks can only exist if there is enough business and financial support from residents to make them possible.  I worked in smaller towns before coming to Albany; and, while they were great places to live, they had many fewer opportunities for residents.

Our Strategic Plan is not a blueprint for an invasion or a strict rulebook for the future.  It is, rather, a guide to where we expect to be in the years ahead.  Perhaps as Albany grows and changes, a new generation of leaders will want to set different goals and expectations; but past and present community members have done a good job in making the town the enjoyable place it is today.  The Strategic Plan is a good tool to help keep it that way.