Triumph over Tragedy

Rarely a day passes without some kind of tragedy grabbing our attention through television news, Facebook, the newspaper, or Twitter. Today we learned of snipers killing five police officers in Dallas, Texas, following a peaceful protest over the deaths of unarmed African-Americans in Minnesota and Louisiana. As horrible as these events are, the greater tragedy could be the threat they represent to peaceful life and improved opportunities for all Americans.

My first reaction to the events of recent days was sadness at the thought of increasing violence in a country where violence has actually declined over the past few decades. I had to remind myself that during my lifetime great American leaders, including a president, have been assassinated. Wars have claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. Riots have destroyed inner cities, and crime waves threatened the safety of people across the country. My parents and grandparents lived in even more violent times when world wars killed millions.

It’s hard to find comfort by rationalizing tragedies today with the thought that times were much worse in the past. We live in the present, and we should be affected by the bad things going on around us today. We can’t, however, let these incidents rob us of our most important asset, which is our belief in the prospect of a better future. The fight to make things better requires a tenacity that’s hard to sustain without hope. I believe that for every tragedy that makes the news and grabs our attention, there are countless acts of kindness and self-sacrifice that work to make the world a better place.

Yesterday, I was privileged to run alongside about 20 law enforcement professionals carrying the torch as a fund-raiser for Oregon Special Olympics. This event has been conducted for the past 30 years as a way to bring both money and attention to a cause that should inspire hope in all of us. Special Olympians who confront daily challenges most of us cannot imagine demonstrate optimism, perseverance, and accomplishment that truly triumphs over tragedy. Police officers and countless others throughout the world have recognized the importance of this contribution and given of their time and resources to support it. There is too much pressure in the world today to choose sides and attack those who don’t see the world as we do. As a society, we need to keep working on the issues that divide us; and there are many ways for individuals to contribute.

If we can’t all participate in the many good causes going on in our communities every day, we can and should remember there is no barrier to kindness and good works. Each of us has the ability to do something nice for someone else with the sure knowledge we will be rewarded in ways we might not expect. Violence will be a part of our lives in spite of everything we might do to work against it, but it need not control or destroy our lives. We have the power to overcome it if we have the will to use it.

Politics Matter

I have explained before that I am the product of a mixed marriage between a Republican mother and a Democrat father. City managers are required to be politically neutral, so my early training has served me well throughout my career. Neutrality, however, does not require a manager to suspend either our intellect or our judgment. The ICMA Code of Ethics simply states that members “Refrain from all political activities which undermine public confidence in professional administrators. Refrain from participation in the election of the members of the employing legislative body.”

The Code Guidelines also explain that members cannot contribute to any political campaign other than ballot measures that do not involve candidates. The theory behind this political neutrality is that managers should be guided by principles rather than politics. While I strongly support Tenet 7 of the Code of Ethics, I do not believe managers should abandon core beliefs that govern political choices.

Political parties represent points of view that allow people to join together to work toward common goals. My experience is that there is value and validity in most perspectives, and sometimes the difference between competing views is very narrow. I hope all political parties agree on the common goal of making our country a safe and prosperous place to live, even though they disagree on what policies might best achieve that goal. It’s hard to argue that because one person or party favors spending more money on public infrastructure, while another places greater emphasis on public austerity, that either is objectively wrong. In the end, most of these disagreements are value judgments based on opinion rather than hard facts.

City managers tend to be pragmatists who are attracted to policies supported by experience and data as opposed to emotion and ideology. Consequently, you would not expect most managers to be revolutionaries. We are hired to implement policies decided by a democratically elected majority, and we were never intended to have independent authority to make policy decisions. I have even argued against colleagues advocating for greater participation by managers in the state legislative process because I do not believe that is our role. We may have great knowledge of local government; but as appointed officials, we lack the democratic endowment of mayors and councilors.

Managers are in a good position to see what works and what doesn’t in local government by virtue of training and experience. I have worked for very effective conservative and liberal local leaders whose common characteristic was the ability to build agreement to get things done without completely alienating opponents. Often, agreement was the product of compromise, although sometimes resolution was achieved by simply agreeing to disagree. The worst councilors I have seen were those who were so blinded by a political label that they could not see another’s point of view. We should never forget our good fortune in the U.S. that we have many more common interests than we have issues that divide us.