All posts by staff

Regulating is Disagreeable Work

Nearly every day, I find myself involved in a regulatory issue.  This week, a citizen in North Albany is upset about signs that violate the Municipal Code, while last week another North Albany resident complained about the condition of his neighbor’s property.  Yesterday, I had a discussion with Chief Bradner about weed abatement and, shortly after, wrote to the Council about collecting assessments from property owners who haven’t paid for abatements done last summer.  On March 23, the Council will return to a discussion of regulating dogs.


I take some consolation from the knowledge that the City of Salem is currently engaged in an earnest debate over whether to allow chickens in residential neighborhoods.  We had a similar controversy over bees awhile back, and I clearly recall the potbellied pig epidemic that broke out around the nation about 20 years ago.  Some people might regard these issues as trivial; but my experience is that more often than not, a great deal of passion is associated with almost any attempt to regulate.


Every police officer, building inspector, fire marshal, or code enforcement officer has stories to tell about the enraged citizen who chooses to blame the messenger for the bad news that he or she is in violation of a city regulation.  I have no data to support the belief that more obscenities have crept into these conversations, although I’m fairly confident they have.  I find it a distressing indicator of the decline of western civilization that our attempts to verbalize rage are so lacking in creativity and civility.


Patience and tolerance are also often victims during the regulatory process.  I think it’s a good idea to try some gentle persuasion with someone who is violating a code before resorting to the death penalty.  Sadly, aggrieved neighbors are often less tolerant.  A pile of debris or an old, unlicensed vehicle on a nearby property can lead to violence between neighbors.  I truly cannot count the number of times I’ve been told by a citizen that their neighbor’s junk, weeds, cars, kids, animals, lights, or peeling paint prevented the sale of their home.  The most extreme case I’ve seen involved a lady picketing City Hall in Oakridge because of a perceived lack of action against the junk in her neighbor’s yard. 


The brutal truth about regulating human behavior is that it is a disagreeable job that requires good judgment, patience, and a thick skin.  Few people recognize that the passion they feel for or against a regulation has been meted out in equal measure to someone with an opposing view.  Those of us who confront this passion receive, in addition to our paychecks, the opportunity to resolve problems before they escalate into something truly ugly and the satisfaction of making the community a little safer or more attractive.


I greatly appreciate the good work of all City employees involved in enforcement and recognize the difficulty of the work.  Feel free to stop by if you have a story to share or a frustration to vent.

A Great New Library

Old city managers are probably not supposed to feel giddy about anything.  I think we are expected to project an image of stoic responsibility, along with a touch of omniscience and detachment.  Anyone who has ever read these blogs already knows that I shattered that illusion a long time ago.  I am proudly giddy about our new library, and I know it’s a great addition to the community.  I am truly excited about its opening on Monday, and I think everyone associated with that opening should feel some justifiable pride in a job well done. 


The community owes a great debt of gratitude to the donor who provided most of the money to purchase the Unitrin building and remodel it into the attractive and functional library it has become.   Money can be put to many good uses, but I share our donor’s belief that feeding minds is among the best.  Occasionally, someone who hasn’t visited a library in recent years makes the claim that libraries are irrelevant in the Information Age.  As someone who has used libraries throughout my life and monitored their utility as a city manager for more than 20 years, I have never seen a time when library services were in greater demand than they are today.  People of all ages who would otherwise be excluded from Internet access use library computers for everything from job searches to finding recipes.  Books (traditional and audio), DVDs, CDs, puppets, newspapers, magazines, reference material, and helpful people, to name a few, are all part of the library experience.  I have carried Albany Public Library books over a good part of the world and will confess that I still find enjoyment in traveling Economy Class as long as I have enough reading material with me.


Our new public library is one of the best deals I have seen in my professional life.  We were able to move from a 17,000-sq.-ft. facility to a building with more than 42,000 sq. ft. without raising anyone’s taxes.  As the new building comes off the tax rolls, our old library replaces it as a new medical clinic.  No green fields were defiled, and no buildings were demolished as a part of this project.  Both the old and new library buildings will be more energy efficient than they were in the past.  No new infrastructure was required to serve the building, and it is in a great location close to residential and commercial areas where people congregate.


No matter how good a public project is, it always seems controversy will somehow find it.  I don’t know that some spirited debate is a bad thing.  Some people still don’t like the color of the building, but I have spoken with many who do.  I was not excited when I first saw the color scheme; but now that it’s completed, I think the library is a handsome building.  I also know that the controversy probably helped more people become aware of the new library than almost any other form of publicity we could have created.   Some adjustment to the green accent color is still a work progress that awaits better weather.


Finally, I would like to recognize the work of the entire library staff for the good work they do every day and the special effort that goes into a move.  The best way to reward that effort, and the one I think the staff will appreciate most, is to use the new library and take advantage of all it has to offer.  We should all be giddy about that opportunity.


My professional career began as a Navy journalist with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in the early 1970s.  The job probably sounds more impressive than it really was.  I had a number of responsibilities that included writing press releases, speaking to high school audiences about NATO, and supporting a briefing team that made presentations throughout the U.S. and Europe.  Most of my time was dedicated to the briefing team.


I did everything from writing speeches for admirals to keeping slides of Soviet destroyers up to date.  I learned a lot while performing my duties, and the one concept I’ve never forgotten from those briefings is the notion of interdependence.  Our talks began with a discussion of how NATO was formed in response to the threat of Soviet aggression in Europe.  The U.S. and Western European nations essentially declared that an attack against any of the NATO member nations would be regarded as an attack against them all.  The allies then agreed to link their military forces so that they could work together in the event of an attack.  NATO was formed with the idea that all the member nations were interdependent for security.


I think interdependence describes much more than security against military attack.  I was shocked to learn a few months ago that the human body contains more parasites than it does cells.  In other words, there are more of other organisms in our bodies than there is of us.  We are packing along millions of little critters every day who rely on us for survival, just as we rely upon them.


Single-cell parasites have a lot to teach us about interdependence with the rest of the world.  I’ve heard it said that when the U.S. economy coughs, developing nations get pneumonia.  We all know that our economy has more than a cough right now, and people around the world are suffering as a result.  Some of that suffering is occurring in Albany as people lose jobs, homes, and financial security.  The City is not immune to these problems.


Our citizens depend on us for critical services, and we are dependent on them for the resources to get the job done.  Recognizing this interdependence, the City’s management team is actively looking at ways to control costs while minimizing the effects on services.  I have appreciated the offer from several employees to forego salary increases in the year ahead to help with this effort.  The Department Directors and I have already decided to give up any cost-of-living adjustment for ourselves in Fiscal Year 2010.


We are fortunate not to be in the position of state government agencies or Portland, where significant budget cuts are required this year and even more significant reductions will be necessary next year.  Our relatively good fortune is fragile, however; and we face great uncertainty in the coming year.  I do not know exactly how serious the situation will be next year, but I believe there is a strong possibility we will be required to make even more significant budget cuts.  Anything we do today to reduce expenses will help us in a future where resources are contracting.


I’m feeling pretty good today about the likelihood of a Soviet attack against the United States and Western Europe.  NATO’s recognition of its members’ interdependence and the actions that followed from that conclusion apparently worked.  Our own acknowledgement that we live in an interdependent world and our willingness to act accordingly may help provide the solutions we need to the challenges now at hand.