Vote

Everyone seems to have intense feelings about this year’s election, and I am no exception. Relief (at least for me) arrived in my mailbox over the weekend when we received our ballots from the Linn County Clerk’s Office.

The ballot is hard to miss with its red letter warning that it, “Contains Vote on Proposed Tax Increase,” and an even bolder notice of, “Ballot Enclosed.” Obviously, I can’t comment on any of the proposed measures or candidates in this forum, except to say that I strongly encourage all citizens to exercise their right and responsibility to vote. I don’t delude myself into thinking my vote is likely to provide the winning margin in a closely contested race or that my vote is of greater or lesser significance than any others. I just believe my vote is important to my country, my community, and me.

All of us who claim to love this country and the sacrifices many have made to make it what it is have an obligation to participate in the elections that provide legitimacy to the whole idea that citizens have the right to determine how they are governed. Dismissing elections as unimportant or irrelevant is essentially telling the world that any government is as good or bad as any other. As someone who has worked in many different countries and seen how their governments operate, I am grateful for what we have in the United States. Voting, paying taxes, serving in the military, and observing laws have seemed like a small price to pay for the benefits I have received.

I realize we do not all share equally in the blessings of life in this country, but voting is one tool to help us do better. I listened to a report on the news this morning about a woman from Mosul, Iraq, fleeing with her children to find a safer home. Her first concern was getting to a place where her children could safely attend school. She realized that education offers the greatest hope for her children to escape not only the dangers of a war zone, but also the misery of life in a place dominated by ignorance and poverty. Some may recall the pride Iraqis took in having their thumbs marked with purple ink during the first national elections following the end of Saddam Hussein’s rule. Residents of Mosul lost the right to vote when their city was captured by ISIS terrorists; and, now, people are dying in the effort to restore their freedoms.

No one is asking most of us to die by November 8 on behalf of our country. All we need to do is take a few minutes and fill out a ballot. I know I will strongly disagree with some of the decisions my fellow citizens will make, just as they will disagree with mine. Our disagreement will be resolved at the county clerk’s office, and we will honor the choices made by all of us. It is a much better way than what many in the world will experience during their lives. Our votes matter.

The Trappings of Power

Albany is hosting four visitors from Southeast Asia over the next few weeks who are participating in the Young Southeast Asian Leadership Initiative (YSEALI) sponsored by the U.S. State Department. The program brings young leaders from Asia to the U.S. to see firsthand how we conduct local government and sends U.S. public employees to Asia for the same purpose. Our visitors this round are from Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines.

We have hosted about a dozen State Department Fellows over the past few years, and the two most frequent comments I have heard from them regarding their U.S. experience is their surprise at how friendly Americans are and how little attention we pay to a person’s title. Nearly everyone wants to take a picture of the Mayor’s cubicle at City Hall, and most have a hard time believing the mayor is essentially a volunteer.

I have visited and worked in many developing countries and have seen how much emphasis is usually placed on the trappings of power. Mayors generally have drivers, large offices, various amenities, and the largest salary in their organization. Everyone defers to the person in charge, and little can be done without his/her approval. I know there are some female mayors in these countries, but it is extremely rare in most of them.

I was able to borrow a bus from the Parks Department during one of the visits, and the Fellows were shocked when they found the city manager was also the bus driver. I explained that it would be a waste of resources to have a driver when I knew the directions to everywhere we were going and have been driving for more than 47 years. It is one thing to hear about a practice like this, but it has much greater impact when you see it in person.

Governing, in my opinion, is not so much about power as it is about service. I take no joy in telling people what to do and much prefer to see people exercising their own powers of judgment, discernment, and goodwill to accomplish important things. Leadership is much more rewarding and effective when it requires the least amount of coercion. While I believe in compensating leaders fairly for the responsibilities they assume, it causes me no heartburn to know that I was number four on the list of highest earners in our organization last year.

I greatly appreciate how people at the City of Albany have stepped up to make our visitors feel welcome, including everything from tours to home stays. I hope all who read this will take the opportunity to meet Tajang, Alif, Jams, and Meilsi. They are fun to be around, and they represent a good opportunity to learn more about their countries and how we are regarded in other parts of the world.

Is Government Too Slow?

I frequently hear criticism that government is too slow and never gets anything done.  We should be more nimble and responsive to change, like businesses, for example.  I won’t repeat my arguments about why governments are not businesses, but I would like to analyze the myth that government is too slow.

The first question that comes to mind is, “too slow for what?”  Are we too slow when responding to the daily emergencies that happen throughout our community?  Satisfaction surveys typically tell us that the vast majority of people are highly satisfied with fire and police services.  Emergency responders take great pride in getting to the scene quickly because they know that lives may be at stake.  We measure how long it takes to respond and constantly look for ways to improve our performance.  The most important resources to ensure a quick response are people, equipment, and facilities that, coincidentally, are not cheap.  We spend about $30 million annually on police and fire services in order to make sure that we aren’t too slow.

Are our water and sewer services too slow?  People complain about their cost, but I seldom recall anyone telling me they had to wait for water from their tap or let sewage build up in their toilets.  We have rare service interruptions when a line breaks, but I have never been without water or sewer service due to a City-related problem during my adult life.  Emergency and utility services comprise an overwhelming portion of our annual budget for the simple reason that citizens would not and should not accept slow or poor quality performance.

What about the City’s finances?  When I started as a city manager about 30 years ago, we produced monthly financial reports that were available to the public in council packets if anyone wanted to stop by City Hall to see them.  Now, any citizen can go online and see daily reports on their smartphone.  What once took weeks is now done automatically every day.  Many transactions, like paying a water bill, that used to require a fair amount of time can now be done with a few keystrokes.  You can even renew library books and check out materials online.

I am occasionally frustrated by the time it sometimes takes to get a project underway or completed, but I don’t forget that the most important things we do happen every day.  The new fire and police stations now under construction took much longer than I would have liked, and they will help our responders do an even better, quicker job.  We did not, however, stop providing quality services while waiting for the new facilities any more than we interrupted water service when building the new treatment plant in 2005.  It is appropriate that we take time to plan and explain projects that require large sums of money and will serve the community for many years.  Often, the delays that frustrate are only signs that we are taking the time to do things right.