Happy New Year

I have been writing columns either for a newspaper or the City’s web page for close to 20 years, and I reached the age a few years ago where I don’t remember all the subjects I’ve covered. I know I have attempted to make a few predictions around the first of most years, but I don’t recall whether any of them came to pass. Given that I can’t remember and no one has held me accountable, I feel emboldened to continue the practice. The following is my list for what will happen in 2016:

Albany will gain new residents. The city continues to defy its critics by attracting new residents.

  1. New houses and apartments will be constructed.
  2. New businesses will open.
  3. Some businesses will close.
  4. There will be a little less crime.
  5. Ambulance calls will increase.
  6. Water rates will stay the same.
  7. Sewer rates will increase.
  8. Property taxes will increase slightly.
  9. Many issues and offices will be decided in the November election.

Albany has a bright future in store as long as people care enough to keep investing in it. I think that’s probably true for the country as a whole. We can complain, criticize, and otherwise be negative about the future; but if we continue sinking our resources into education, infrastructure, environmental health, social capital, health care, the arts, scientific inquiry, and security, we should pass along a positive legacy.

I place great faith in the electoral process even when I don’t like the results of a particular election. The rhetoric of election time has more often than not been discouraging; and yet it somehow has produced great leaders and a powerful, prosperous nation. Apparently, all the good things that have happened in our country over the past two hundred plus years happened despite politicians and bureaucrats. I believe, however, that our votes matter.

We will have several opportunities to exercise our franchise in the 2016 special, primary, and general elections that will decide everything from school board positions to the presidency. Millions of us will vote, and the outcomes will be the product of our decisions. I know I have made mistakes in the past, and I’m sure most others have, too; but I greatly prefer having the chance to contribute for good or ill. We are fortunate to participate in shaping our future, even if we don’t get to decide it as individuals.

I think our hopes have greater value than our predictions for the year ahead; so I will close with the hope of a peaceful and prosperous New Year, particularly in places where the need is greatest.

How Much is Enough?

Albany recently earned one of the top awards in the nation for the quality and quantity of information we make available to our citizens electronically. The award from the Center for Digital Government made the following statement in releasing its review:

“Albany promotes transparency via numerous platforms including dashboards (http://data.cityofalbany.net) for its budget and expenditures and strategic plan scorecards that provide an easy way to track measurements of yearly objectives like running an effective government.  In addition, a Crime Analysis Reports and Mapping tool allows residents to see what’s occurring in their neighborhoods and search current crime statistics.  Citizen engagement is encouraged through different methods including social media, an e-newsletter, and apps like Goodsnitch (now Expresit).  A recently implemented electronic plan review program is streamlining processes internally and for contractors and others who must get building plans approved by the city.”

This is not the first award we have received for our attempts to provide more and better information to our citizens. The International City-County Management Association has awarded Albany its Certificate of Excellence for the past five years and made the following observations in its most recent review:

The certificate program recognizes the principles of performance management,” said Randall H. Reid, ICMA Director of Performance Initiatives.  “Jurisdictions meeting the qualifications have demonstrated leadership in continuous improvement and community engagement, and they serve as examples for other governments to follow.” 

Criteria for the Certificate of Excellence include: reporting of performance data to the public through budgets, newsletters, and/or information provided to elected officials; data verification efforts to ensure data reliability; staff training; use of performance data in strategic planning and operational decision-making; sharing of performance measurement knowledge with other local governments through presentations, site visits, and other networking; commitment to tracking and reporting to the public key outcomes; surveying both residents and local government employees; and effective and timely reporting.

We hold roughly 240 public meetings every year, dealing with subjects ranging from library services to public safety, and provide both online and cable access to City Council meetings every month. Minutes from all meetings are also available online. Our meetings are generally held in comfortable, accessible places where significant effort is made to provide both written and graphic information. My goal is to provide access to all City documents online in order to eliminate the need for public records requests. Until we can find a way to safeguard private information, however, we will continue to follow a liberal policy which provides most documents at low or no cost.

Regardless of how much we do or how well we do it, there will be complaints from people who believe taxpayers should cover the costs of their demands for whatever they want, whenever they want it. We receive requests, for example, for City staff to compile information or research historical data that someone wants to see. Most of this information is already available but may not be accessible in the format the person requesting it wants. Taxpayers need some protection against requests that may promote a private agenda without providing a public benefit.

My hope is that we will continue to build on the transparency that technology has made possible in recent years. We should not, however, subsidize the whims of anyone with a desire to punish government by making expensive demands. We will all pay for it if we do.

Permanent Appointments

Not long ago, Mark Shepard left Albany to become the Corvallis City Manager. I think most of us were sorry to see Mark leave, but his decision created opportunities for others in the organization. I appointed Jeff Blaine, then our Assistant Public Works Director/City Engineer, to become the Interim Public Works Engineering and Community Development Director and Chris Bailey, then our Assistant Public Works Director/Operations Manager, to be the Interim Public Works Operations Director. Last month, I made the promotions permanent for both Jeff and Chris, recognizing that both are doing excellent work and have earned the chance to serve in their new positions. Jorge Salinas was named as the Assistant City Manager/Chief Information Officer in May.

These are likely to be the last appointments I make as Albany’s City Manager because I am retiring effective June 30, 2016. I plan to continue working as a contractor through June 30, 2017, but I do not plan to make any permanent director appointments during the next year and a half. I will continue working after my retirement from the City, when I will have more time to do international development assignments and look after grandchildren.

We will be losing a number of senior city employees over the next few years, including some who are leaving this fiscal year. Albany has a strong tradition of smooth transitions following retirements; so despite missing those who are leaving, I’m not concerned about our ability to maintain and improve performance. We have many younger employees ready to step up to new responsibilities throughout the organization; and, where there may be gaps, we have the chance to benefit from new perspectives from outside the city. My preference has always been to promote from within where possible, but to take advantage of the chance to pick up new ideas from outside when needed.

All cities face challenges all the time, and ours is no exception. We are fortunate that most of our problems are manageable and do not include immediate threats to the safety and well-being of our citizens. I read a newspaper account today about Flint, Michigan, a city that changed its water source looking for lower rates and unintentionally poisoned its residents. Cheaper is usually not better, as anyone who ever owned a Yugo can attest. I am grateful for the competence and professionalism of the great majority of City employees who routinely make decisions that protect or improve the community.

I am particularly grateful to our new Assistant City Manager/Chief Information Officer Jorge Salinas, who has taken on a number of responsibilities without much additional help. Jorge is a quiet leader who produces great results. We are fortunate to have people like Jeff, Chris, and Jorge, who I hope will stay for long careers with the City of Albany.