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Engaging the Public

Local governments have spent large sums of money in recent years attempting to find ways to engage the public in planning, analyzing, and delivering services.  Opinion surveys, interactive websites, “town hall” meetings, informal gatherings, newsletters, and charrettes are just a few of the tools cities have tried to interest people in the future of their communities.

I have generally supported these efforts because I have seen a number of difficult issues resolved by effectively engaging citizens before opinions hardened and people started choosing sides.  I have also seen expensive failures where large amounts of money and time were spent on processes that attracted few participants and produced little or no positive results.

The most effective method I have seen to get people interested and involved is to invite individuals to attend a meeting where the issue is one that is likely to affect them and it is clear they will have an opportunity to influence the outcome.  Mass mailings announcing a zoning change or newspaper articles and ads about a council meeting rarely attract participants.

I think people are less likely to attend meetings today than they were in the past because there are so many more things competing for their attention.  Public meetings were a form of entertainment before radio, television, and computers.  Most people (me included) would rather spend a quiet evening at home than argue public policy issues at a local government meeting.

The City of Albany has invested significant resources in recent years to make information available to the public through our website.  Council meetings can be viewed as they happen through streaming video, and comprehensive financial information is updated daily on the City’s website.  We are the only city in Oregon to have achieved an A+ grade from the Sunshine Review, an organization that rates the transparency of state and local governments in the U.S.  We make a great deal of information available, but I do not believe many of our citizens take much time to look at it.

We are hopeful more people will visit our website as City Bridges is converted to an electronic newsletter this year.  It is difficult to justify the cost of a printed newsletter when nearly all our citizens can access the information electronically, either at home or at the library.

I have heard citizens complain that the reason few people attend city meetings is that they know no one will listen to them.  My experience over many years directly contradicts this belief.  City councils occasionally give disproportionate weight to the testimony of a few individuals willing to attend and speak at a meeting, sometimes to the detriment of the population as a whole.

Most governments in the U.S. are designed to operate as representative, as opposed to direct, democracies.  We elect people we believe will best represent our interests, and we elect new ones if they don’t.  Our country has grown to be the most prosperous and powerful nation in the world with this system of government; and, while it is far from perfect, it remains in our hands as long as we make the commitment to understand and control it.

Budget Update

I have learned over many years of directing, participating in, and observing Oregon public sector budget processes that there are a number of legitimate ways to get the job done.  Some organizations start with the idea of how much money is needed to complete a work program, while others begin with the concept of what can they afford to do with the resources they have.  Other approaches include focusing on cutting expenses or looking for ways to increase revenue.  The primary goal of whatever method or combination of methods that are used should be to align expenses with revenues, or more simply, to balance the budget.

Albany’s Budget Committee will be working to achieve this goal over the next few months after they receive a proposed budget from staff.  The guiding principles provided by the City Council will be to:  1) cut expenses; 2) use other reserve funds to offset service level cuts where possible; 3) maintain public safety services at their current reduced levels; and 4) do not use settlement resources reserved for economic development and facility needs.

I believe we can develop a responsible budget that observes these principles and generally maintains existing service levels across city departments.  I do not anticipate the need to close facilities; and, if there is a need for layoffs, the number will be small.  I cannot promise that there will be no need for staff reductions beyond our voluntary separation program, but I am hopeful we can avoid layoffs.

Albany has wisely accumulated a substantial amount of money over a period of many years to be reserved for specific purposes, such as equipment replacement and risk management.  We also received a large financial settlement from PepsiCo after the company chose to walk away from their contract to build a major industrial project here.  The Council understands that treating reserve funds as a revenue source is an unsustainable financial management practice and has emphasized that use of reserves must be a short-term strategy that includes a plan to replace what is used.  The Council also realizes that there is little need to cut services if there are sufficient resources to fund them in the short term and a reasonable plan to sustain them over time.

We will be taking more time to develop and review the budget this year, as many of the choices are likely to be more difficult and carry more consequences than in previous years.  I have been accused of being overly optimistic in the past regarding the budget, and I may be guilty of that charge again.  I prefer acting with a sense of purpose and hope rather than assuming a disagreeable future.

Solving a Problem

A couple of years ago, I noticed an item in our annual performance measurement report from the International City-County Management Association (ICMA) that showed the City of Albany’s use of sick leave to be higher than other reporting cities. I realized there might be a number of reasons why this could be true; so I asked a team of employees to look into the issue and report back with the results.

Producing reliable data takes time, and the team was thorough. They first removed all Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) absences from the information and then used data from our payroll records to get a better picture of our short-term sick leave usage. The report shows that while some departments have done a good job coding FMLA absences, others have not, and that some employees are abusing our sick leave policies.

FMLA eligible leave are those days that are taken because of a diagnosed problem with either the employee or an eligible member of the employee’s family. I reviewed my own use of sick leave over the past five years and was surprised to find that one year I used about 60 hours. I knew I hadn’t been sick very often during that time, but I remembered my wife had some health problems a few years ago that caused me to use substantially more leave than I normally do. My leave should have been reported as FMLA eligible, but wasn’t. It is to the employee’s advantage to accurately report FMLA eligible sick leave, despite a common misperception to the contrary. Please contact Danette DeSaulnier for a complete explanation of why this is true.

While part of the reason why our sick leave usage is relatively high can be attributed to improper coding, the fact remains that some people are clearly violating our policies to the detriment of the majority who observe the rules. Over the past five years, we have lost roughly ten employees every working day to sick leave; and I believe this is a number that can and should be reduced.

Our citywide average annual sick leave usage has ranged from 50 to 60 hours during the past five years, but this average would be significantly lower if employees who are using as much as four times the mean would change their habits. We found one case, for example, where an employee no longer with the City accumulated the maximum number of sick leave hours and then took just the right number of hours to maintain the maximum every year. In other cases, we have employees routinely using sick leave before and after weekends or holidays.

Each department will be reviewing sick leave usage in the weeks ahead and implementing new procedures to reduce usage. I have no desire to restrict legitimate use of sick leave, but I have a real problem with people who knowingly abuse this benefit threatening the job security of everyone else. Please review the bargaining agreement or city policies that apply to your position and feel free to ask questions of supervisors about appropriate use of sick leave.