Birthday Best Wishes

I have been writing a column for either a local newspaper or website for at least the last 15 years, and I am always surprised by the number of people who take the time to read what I’ve written.  This column, however, is dedicated to someone who proudly admits that he almost never reads my reflections.

Our City Attorney, Jim Delapoer, celebrated a birthday this week, which prompted me to write some well-deserved comments about his service to the City of Albany.  Jim began working for the City in 1977 as a young graduate of the University of Oregon Law School.  His mentor was Merle Long, who eventually turned over all city attorney duties to Jim in the late 1980s.  Jim has been providing valuable advice to Council and staff members ever since.

Unlike many cities, the city attorney’s office in Albany is not a gatekeeper or barrier to getting things done.  Jim generally asks what we are trying to accomplish and then works collaboratively to get it done.  He’s not shy about criticizing an idea he believes is inconsistent with either law or good practice, but he’s always willing to help find the right way to achieve an outcome that’s good for Albany residents.

I can think of many occasions where Jim’s advice and judgment have saved the City large sums of money and/or helped us avoid expensive litigation.  He doesn’t win every case, but he wins most of them by avoiding problems before they become cases.

I have been fortunate to work with several great city attorneys in my career, but I believe Jim has more local government experience than any of them.  He passes on the benefit of that experience to our organization with a great sense of humor and complete candor.  Jim’s humor sometimes masks his serious commitment to ethical behavior and important principles.  I know he would never support an action by anyone at the City if he believed it to be unethical or illegal.

 

This column is beginning to read a little like a eulogy, which I guess is appropriate for someone who will never read it.  I should add that praise is often a nice substitute for other more tangible forms of compensation.  I believe Jim has delivered far more value to the City than he has received, and I know he has sacrificed opportunities to earn more in an effort to help the City during tough economic times.

 

It has been a privilege to work with Jim over the past nine years, and I wish him well during this birthday week.  His commitment to Albany is evident in the many years he’s invested here and in his genuine concern for the people of the community that I see nearly every day.

Working Internationally

Part of the price of doing international work for the International City-County Management Association (ICMA) is the occasional requirement to give a presentation about what I’ve been doing.  This year I’ve been asked to:  talk about the skills I’ve gained while working in local government that are useful in doing international projects; give a description of the different assignments I’ve had; discuss how to manage assignments while still working as a city manager; explain the challenges I faced in providing technical assistance; and summarize the lessons I’ve learned about working internationally.  I’m supposed to do all of this in about 30 minutes.

I think the most important skill I’ve learned over more than 30 years in local government work is keeping a positive attitude.  I have seen many people become disabled by frustration or anger, while others who faced similar challenges treated them as opportunities.  Whatever success I’ve enjoyed doing, international development work is the product of maintaining a belief that I could do something to make bad situations better.  I have had that skill tested in places like Iraq and Ethiopia, where hope was a precious and fragile commodity.  I have faced some difficult challenges as a city manager, but I have never seen an Oregon community confronting the problems cities in developing nations are up against every day.

My assignments have usually involved helping to address basic service delivery and/or economic development.  I have worked with communities in Africa and Southeast Asia where less than 20 percent of the population had access to potable water or a sanitary sewer system.  Solid waste disposal is an equally vexing problem in the developing world, where you often see waste in endless variety strewn about communities.  My most satisfying project was finding the money to build a road to a small village in Iraq that was isolated by a sea of mud during the winter.

Accumulating vacation time and , in one case, taking a six-month leave of absence, have allowed me to take on assignments while retaining my job as an Oregon city manager.  I have been fortunate throughout my career to work with capable people who were willing to take on some additional responsibilities while I was gone.  The advent of electronic communication has also helped and even allowed me to respond to a citizen complaint about snowplowing in La Grande while sitting at a desk in Kerbala, Iraq.  I think the experience I’ve gained from doing international work has made me a better city manager, or at least someone who understands a broader range of problems.

Physical safety has been a concern while working in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, but I think the biggest challenge to my effectiveness is the frustration caused by things like corruption, bureaucracy, apathy, and ignorance.  The only antidote I’ve found is to find a way to be of service, even if that service is unrelated to the stated goals of the assignment.  I think I have been able to make assignments successful on more than one occasion by adapting to circumstances on the ground and finding a way to be useful.

The greatest lesson from all of this is the development of a deep conviction that people around the world, particularly children, share so much in common that there should always be hope that we can learn to resolve our differences peacefully.  Our responsibility is to nurture that hope to the point where it will grow into a worldwide reality.

A Safer Workplace

During the nine years I’ve served as Albany’s city manager, I have participated in something close to 75 new employee orientation sessions conducted by our Human Resources Department.  I use the same slides my predecessor created to explain the City’s mission, vision, and values, as well as the structure of our organization.

Usually, there are five or six new employees listening politely to what I have to say, although there was the infamous incident where someone fell asleep and began snoring loudly during my presentation.  I have always tried to make my part of the orientation interesting, but the sleeping incident inspired me to rely more on true stories that illustrate our values, rather than simply a dry description.  I guess all new employees owe a small debt to a loud snorer to the extent that my presentations have improved since that event.

I have always emphasized that one of our values at the City is that no employee should be subjected to harassment while working here.  Allegations of harassment are taken seriously, and I can recall at least one termination and several disciplinary actions for those rare occasions when harassment has been reported and documented.  Incidents over the past year, however, have shown that we need to do more.

City employees from all departments have been meeting over the past three months to identify problems and issues related to workplace harassment or discrimination and ideas to address the concerns.  The Inclusive Workplace Committee delivered a report to the City’s management team this week along with some recommendations about how to make the organization safer and more inclusive.  The report will be posted on the City Intranet, and I encourage all employees to read it.

The first step we are taking to address the concerns is to have the committee develop a proposed code of conduct.  While we are relying on a committee to develop the proposal, I believe the proposal will improve in proportion to the number of employees who contribute to it.  We will not adopt a code of conduct without ample opportunity for employees to share their thoughts about the idea.

The management team recognizes that a code of conduct is just one step and that more will be required.  New training has already been scheduled in some departments, and more will be made available in the months ahead.  We will also be looking at how to address concerns about retribution for reporting problems.

I have learned to appreciate the irony that snoring could be an incentive to make a presentation more interesting, and I have received many reminders through my career that disputes and disagreement can be used as a means to improve.  I continue to believe the City of Albany is a great place to work while acknowledging that it takes some work to keep it that way.