Connections

I realized a long time ago that while my profession emphasizes rationality, facts, and reason, human relationships govern much of what we are able to do in local government. I don’t know what else would explain the many inexplicable things all of us see every day. Why, for example, do seemingly rational, well-meaning people see the same set of facts and draw completely opposite conclusions? We can all be frustrating to one another, but I have also learned that the greatest reward of doing this work has been the relationships I’ve had with so many different people.

Oregon remains a relatively small state, and I am regularly reminded of this when I meet people who share some common bond. Often the bond is a common friend or, in some cases, the discovery that I’m related to someone. Not long after becoming Albany’s city manager, I was bragging about my pioneer ancestry to former Benton County Commissioner Linda Modrell and found out that we shared great-great grandparents. My wife is a graduate of Madras High School, and I’m always surprised how many people have connections to that little school. Notably, Councilor Floyd Collins is a Madras alum and Councilor Dick Olsen has a Madras connection.

We often seem to find ourselves dividing up into groups that distinguish us by our economic status, race, ethnicity, or our political beliefs, while forgetting the many things that should help bring us together. Our family trees, the places we’ve lived, our friends, schools, hobbies, or our workplaces connect us to thousands of people with something in common. Social media can help establish these connections, but I think it requires more effort to really make them matter.

I really enjoy conversations with Floyd about his memories of growing up in Central Oregon, and my discussions with Linda led to picture exchanges of common ancestors that helped me learn more about my heritage. Beyond the simple pleasure of sharing things in common, I believe these connections help us negotiate the many challenges of life. Our connections build understanding that breaks down barriers to communicating and getting things done. Sometimes we hear negative comments about “old boy networks” that imply favors or other forms of corruption. I acknowledge that danger while emphasizing that the antidote is not to cut ourselves off from old relationships, but to build more diverse new ones.

The rewards of a wide and rich network of relationships include a greater chance of career success in addition to being a better way to live. Regardless of whether the other person is a Mormon or a Muslim, a Libertarian or a Socialist, or heaven forbid, a Beaver or a Duck, building a positive relationship is an important step toward building a better life.

Learning from Curious George

Grandchildren provide endless learning opportunities, including the chance to watch television shows older people might miss. My grandson Isaac, age 1½, and I were watching Curious George a few days ago when the little monkey (George) addressed one of the great questions of life.

George and a young friend were visiting a farm where all the animals except one were winners of blue ribbons at the county fair. The only nonwinner was a hog named Howie, who just couldn’t seem to muster the energy to train for the grueling competition. His previous attempts ended in failure after he started out well, but quickly faded. George and his friend decided they would train Howie to win at the upcoming fair and received a hog training manual from the farmer who owned Howie.

The first instruction was to wash the hog every day and then find a stick to prod him to exercise for at least 30 minutes daily. Howie was fine with the washing but completely opposed to being poked with a stick. George discovered that Howie liked apples and decided to experiment with an incentive program rather than the recommended stick. Not surprisingly, the apples did the trick. Howie worked hard, performed brilliantly at the fair and was rewarded with both an apple and a blue ribbon.

The episode did not delve into the darker issues of what happens to blue ribbon-winning hogs after the fair is over and, like most cartoons, ended on a happy note. The lesson viewers young and old received from Curious George is that the carrot or apple works better than the stick. I liked the show and the chance to watch it with Isaac, who is a great cuddler. The message appealed to my own beliefs and caused me to think about occasions where I might have forgotten how incentives work better than punishment.

Daily stresses often cause us to reach for the easiest solution or the one we have grown accustomed to rather than a more creative and effective approach. I remember yelling at my children at different points in their life when, with a little patience, I could have tried a better technique. I don’t do it very often, but occasionally I still fall into the yelling habit with grandchildren when they do something that scares me. My only basis for requesting understanding is that I raised children and they are now raising grandchildren who have no respect for their personal safety. I haven’t figured out what the incentive is to stop children from racing motorcycles or diving off cliffs into water and would welcome suggestions.

Curious George also reminded me that in our work lives most of us respond better to incentives than we do to punishment. We try to recognize that fact by providing competitive salaries and benefits, but most importantly, by the way we treat each other every day. I can think of few instances where yelling at someone accomplishes much. If a behavior is damaging enough to require discipline, the consequence up to and including termination can still be imposed with respect. I appreciated my recent lesson from Isaac and Curious George. 

Reading Old Columns

I try to avoid repeating myself when I write these columns; so I occasionally look back at what I’ve written in the past to prevent repetition. The other advantage of looking back is that it reminds me of how I viewed things in the past and how those views influenced current events. A column I wrote in 2008, about 7½ years ago, caught my eye today as we prepare for the 2017 budget season.

I was writing about the financial crisis that hit just before the 2008 election and expressed some confidence in the City’s future:

The City of Albany is in reasonably good condition to weather the current storm.  We have sufficient resources to continue providing high quality services and meet current obligations.  We have reserved funds to help meet unanticipated expenses or declines in revenue, and we have avoided taking on new financial obligations.  Our past prudence puts us in a position to deal with problems and take advantage of opportunities presented by current economic conditions.  Declining land values, for example, may allow us to find the property we need for new fire and police facilities at a more affordable price.  Selling bonds to construct the facilities, however, may be more of a challenge.

Thanks to some good choices by policy makers, great effort by employees past and present, and the continuing trust of the people who employ us, the City of Albany was able to maintain services during the recession without making dramatic cuts or a large number of layoffs. We were also able to attract new investment and make progress toward long-standing goals. We were able to purchase the land for new facilities at prices lower than we would pay today and were eventually able to secure the funds needed to build new police and fire stations. The lingering low interest rates created by the recession even allowed us to sell bonds at a favorable rate.

The lessons of the past may prove useful to us in the future, but 2008 is no longer relevant to conditions we face today. Albany’s economy is expanding, more people are choosing to live here, and demands for services are increasing. While it has been slow in coming, we are seeing increases in our major revenue sources that will help pay for increased expenses that are largely beyond our control. The good news is that while we face no imminent threat to services and the people who provide them, the bad news is that we still are not keeping pace with increasing demand.

I believe the problem is manageable, and I have seen it serve as inspiration for creative solutions. We have cut energy costs, collaborated with other jurisdictions, made better use of technology, and used interdepartmental project teams to help align expenses with revenue. The need for innovation will only grow larger in the years ahead.

I am still optimistic and confident about Albany’s future. We made good choices in the past to cope with the challenges of the future, and I believe the next generation of leaders will do the same. Focusing on what residents view as most important, balancing expenses to revenue, and looking for better ways to do things represent why Albany has reason to be confident in the years ahead.