We Can Do Better

Earlier this week, I learned about a blog on the Democrat-Herald website that prints in its entirety an inappropriate and offensive memorandum written to coworkers by a City of Albany employee more than two years ago.  I believe the blog will be followed by a news story about the memo and allegations of similar types of misconduct in the Fire Department.  The memorandum speaks for itself as an inexcusable example of poor judgment and bad taste.  The employee responsible issued an apology for writing it soon after it was distributed, and my understanding is that Chief Bradner issued his own apology after learning about it.  I would like to add my apologies to that list to anyone who saw the memo.  I would also add that we have taken steps and will take more to help guard against anything similar in the future.

Sadly, the memo is not the only example I have seen in my career of people forgetting some basic principles of respect and professional behavior.  I have written before about employees whose careers ended after engaging in work-related affairs, harassment, and other forms of inappropriate behavior.  Until recently, I thought the worst of those examples were the product of another time when different attitudes and mores prevailed in the workplace.  My perspective has changed after seeing examples of “sexting” on city time, an employee essentially propositioning another, a city manager in an Oregon city being dismissed after having an affair with an employee, and a number of other equally troubling events.

It should come as no secret to anyone that the days of crude jokes, pornography, sexual advances or innuendo, and gender bias in the workplace are over.  Employees who violate city policies relating to this issue are subject to disciplinary action up to and including termination, and those in leadership positions are held to a higher standard than those they supervise. 

I enjoy working at the City of Albany, mostly because I like the people I work with and have great respect for their abilities.  I frequently write about acts of service and kindness I see nearly every day, and it is my preference to focus on what is best in people rather than on our failings.  The hardest part of my job is confronting the mistakes of good people and making judgments about the appropriate response.  I believe, however, I have a responsibility to all of us to act decisively when I become aware of behavior that threatens our ability to effectively do our jobs, free from the threat of demeaning remarks or other forms of misconduct from our colleagues.

Any employee who feels they have been subjected to inappropriate treatment or material should report the incident to their supervisor or to our Human Resources Department as soon as possible.  Employees are also welcome to report problems to me, as a number of you have over the years.  I would much rather know about a problem or concern and deal with it quickly than have it mushroom into something bigger over time.

Simple Concepts, Complex Practices

Designing a basic bridge is a pretty simple concept.  You don’t need to be an engineer to put down a plank over a small stream or to use the frame of an old boxcar to span a larger watercourse.  I think most of us, however, would prefer our highway bridges to be designed by competent engineers who have the training and experience to do the job right. 

The basic principles of public finance are fairly simple, too.  You don’t need to be a trained accountant to know that consistently spending more money than you make is a potentially dangerous practice that can lead to bankruptcy or that failing to reconcile your checkbook to your bank statement causes overdrafts and other serious problems.  Local government finance, however, is an increasingly complex subject that requires training, experience, and skill to master.

The February edition of Governing Magazine offers a short summary of what can go wrong when local government leaders do not understand the complexity of the job at hand.  Municipal bankruptcies, crashing bond ratings, and Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) allegations of securities fraud against a city are just a few of the problems cited in the article, which highlighted the point that “…even at the most basic levels, government finance is anything but intuitive.”

The City of Albany spends a large sum of money every year to accurately account for our resources and manage them appropriately.  We engage bond counsel and financial advisers; but most importantly, we employ highly trained people who know the rules and how they should be applied.  We also observe strict standards in preparing financial documents and engage qualified accountants to audit our books every year. 

Albany, as I’ve noted on many occasions, has even gone many steps further by putting an unprece-dented amount of financial information on-line.  Our success at transparency makes it very easy for people to see our financial information and equally easy to misinterpret it.  I believe the importance of making public information accessible outweighs the costs of having to correct inaccurate interpretations and conclusions.

We all know experts make mistakes, and many of us take smug satisfaction when some particularly arrogant pundit makes a grand pronouncement that turns out to be completely wrong.  I think the greater wrong, though, would be to dismiss the knowledge and expertise of people who know what they are doing as unimportant. 

I don’t know about anyone else, but I really don’t want to fly on a commercial jet piloted by someone with no training or experience.  I reserve the right to question the judgment of experts and leaders, while being careful to withhold my own opinion until I fully understand the issue.  I prefer to avoid the appraisal of Benjamin Franklin, who once wrote, “Any fool can criticize, condemn and complain – and most fools do.”

Valentine’s Day

Thank you to all City employees for the great work done during our recent snow and ice storm.  I particularly appreciate those who were out in the snow helping stranded motorists, sanding streets, driving buses, shoveling walkways, transporting patients, or otherwise doing their best to make a bad situation better.  We have received a number of compliments about City employees going above and beyond to be of service, and it’s good to know that most of the people who live here are equally appreciative.  I also want to thank those who braved the storm to show up at work so that when someone came to City Hall they were generally able to get service.  City employees were not, of course, the only people who kept things going during the storm.  I am thankful for both the Linn and Benton County road crews, ODOT personnel, and all the business owners and workers who did what needed to be done.

Now that the storm has passed, “normal” activities have resumed; and I find myself about to participate in an “Oldlyweds” game at the Senior Center, where my wife and I will be competing against other couples who have been married even longer than we have.  I am having a hard time imagining how anything good will come of this, but I’m willing to do my part to further tarnish whatever image of respectability I may have left. 

I also hope to attend the Friends of the Library fund-raiser tomorrow night at the Carnegie Library.  This event was rescheduled due to the snow; and, while I won’t be doing any wine tasting, I know it will be a good opportunity to talk with people who feel the same way I do about books.  I hope others will take the time to visit our historic library.  It is a beautiful facility and a tribute to the City’s long-standing commitment to preserving important parts of our history.

We had a great celebration of the newest addition to the community’s collection of historic objects just before the City Council meeting Wednesday night.  I arrived at City Hall to find people dressed in Civil War uniforms eating cake and admiring our new cannon.  I know I feel safer now that we have artillery in the Great Hall.

I would like to extend my best wishes to all on Valentine’s Day, and I hope that people are able to share it with others they care about most.  My wife and I are babysitting a three-year-old and a one-year-old, so I’m confident we will have a restful and romantic celebration.