All posts by weshare

The Importance of Sustainable Toilet Handles

The small levers that we use to flush our toilets may not seem very important, but when you need one their value is magnified.  I have lived in many houses during my lifetime, and I do not recall breaking a toilet handle until I moved to Albany.  During the three short years I’ve lived in my newly built home, I’ve had to replace two toilet handles.

I do not believe my wife and I are particularly aggressive toilet flushers.  Like most people, I think we apply enough force to get the job done.  The problem, therefore, must be with the quality of the handle itself.  Close examination of the broken handles revealed that both gave way at a particular joint located inside the toilet tank.  When the first handle broke, I wasn’t too surprised about its failure because the entire piece was made of plastic.  I went to my favorite store and surveyed replacement options.  Most toilet handles appear to be plastic, although I did find one metal handle with some plastic components attached.  I was surprised to find that the metal handle was cheaper than the plastic one I was trying to replace.  I had to repeat this process just before Thanksgiving, and this time I bought a spare metal replacement for the remaining toilet.

Well, so what?  Life is short, and there are many more important things to worry about than toilet handles.  The importance I attach to these little failures is that they are symptoms of a much larger problem.  Earlier generations had the ability to produce toilet handles that would last a lifetime or longer.  I would guess that one of the reasons toilet handles are now made in China is that someone figured out how to make a big market out of a little one.  Replacing quality materials with crap (scientific term) that is slightly cheaper seems to be an increasingly successful strategy for gaining market share and making money.  It seems to me that any discussion of sustainability must begin with this problem.

As a city, we are far from immune to this disease.  Managers are always under pressure to reduce costs, and one of the easiest ways to do that (at least in the short-term) is to reduce quality.  Just as my home builder may have saved some money by installing cheap toilet handles, the City could save money by always purchasing the cheapest software, vehicles, pipe, etc.  The problem is that my builder saved himself money at my expense; and, if the City always opts for the cheapest goods, our savings would be at the public’s expense.  I’m generally happy with my home, but I now routinely wonder what is going to fail next.

Sustainability, in my opinion, is not just a buzzword.  It’s a concept we need to apply to purchases and practices in an effort to reduce true costs and assure quality service.  Using this approach requires thinking beyond immediate needs and determining value based on quality as well as price.

All for a Good Cause

I sincerely hope that the periodic United Way competitions we engage in at the City are not a window into the souls of our leadership team.  I am sorry to report that I witnessed multiple acts of shameless cheating by department directors and an unidentified City Manager during this year’s festivities.  In my defense, I only cheated in response to the cheating of others.  I also rationalized that my cheating was on behalf of a good cause.

Every year, City employees generously contribute to United Way and the many community services it supports.  Our voluntary contributions are directed to concerns that almost certainly would demand tax support if not for the efforts of United Way.

I also admire the creativity and humor of City employees like Scott Rolen and Katie Nooshazar, who invest their time and energy to make giving a team-building experience.  I think people really enjoyed watching the Police Chief muscle the City Manager out of a pool filled with Styrofoam peanuts while searching for buried rubber ducks.  You had to be there to understand this reference.  The antics of directors and the serious effort of all those who organized and participated in the United Way campaign are, in my opinion, a good example of a value I discussed with new employees at our December orientation meeting.

Our Strategic Plan states that, “We are a humane organization that honors diversity and protects individual rights.”  Being humane requires more than a statement in a plan; it also demands some sacrifice and effort.  I have seen many selfless acts during the three years I’ve worked at the City; so it’s easy to illustrate my point when I talk to new employees about values.

Of course, we also emphasize personal honesty and integrity in our core values.  I hereby confess that on Wednesday, December 03, 2008, at or near 11:30 a.m., near City Hall that I did knowingly jayrun (?) in violation of established rules in order to secure an advantage for my team in a humiliating competition.  I also ignored efforts by referees to enforce the rules of this competition.

The moral of this story is that it does little good to cheat when there are 50 or more people watching you.  My team was eliminated at an early stage, and some irresponsible party hid my shoes while I was competing.  I am privileged to work with Laura Hyde, who always personifies integrity and was gracious enough to find the missing shoes and deliver them to me.  I would add to whoever hid the shoes that I do have a vindictive streak that surfaces when sufficiently provoked.

Police Chief Ed Boyd and Jeff Woodward from Public Works ultimately prevailed in our annual competition, and I would extend my congratulations to them.  Tuesday’s competition raised some extra dollars for United Way and culminated the month-long giving campaign in which City employees gave generously in support of many agencies that support the citizens of Albany.  In all, City employees gave more than $19,000 to the United Way, which in a tough financial year by any measure exceeded the giving of years past, and actually surpassed our goal of $18,000 in contributions.  I applaud our staff for their generosity and commitment to community partnership.  I also hope our support provided some entertainment for people headed to lunch, and helped observers and participants gain some insight into our values.

Happy Thanksgiving

I have a friend who writes an interesting blog about running a small business in Bend.  My friend owns a book, comic, games, and card store in downtown that has survived for more than 27 years.  The blog usually focuses on the challenges of making a small business work and the “Bend Bubble.”  My friend correctly predicted the collapse of the real estate market several years ago by comparing it to the bubble in the sports trading card market in the 1980s.  He’s a smart guy with some great insights about small business.

Interesting blogs attract loyal followers and contributors who sometimes stray beyond the bounds of good taste or good sense.  Several folks who contribute to the Bend blog seem to delight in the current financial crisis and the misery to come.  Some make bold predictions about what will happen in the years ahead, and one recently advised that people should enjoy their turkey this year because there may not be one in 2009.

I rarely make bold predictions anymore.  Yesterday, I paid $1.75 for a gallon of gas that cost more than $4 as recently as September.  I have no idea what I will be paying in January.  I can guess that we will see more business closures and job reductions over the next year, but I also see new investment and job creation both locally and nationally.  I will go out on a limb and say that 99 percent or more of Americans who can afford to purchase a turkey in 2008 will also be able to buy one in 2009.

Unemployment is not an abstract statistic to me, however.  During the early 1980s, I lost jobs and made ends meet by babysitting for a few months.  Managing a city is easy by comparison.  I have a son who recently lost his job as a project manager for a construction company and is having a hard time finding something to support his family.  Despite my concern for him, I know that unemployment can help people make positive changes in their lives.  Unemployment motivated me to go to graduate school, where I received the training to become a city manager.  The financial security I enjoy today can be traced to the decisions I made while I was unemployed.  I’m sure I would not have recognized at the time the educational value of changing dirty diapers.

I wish everyone who reads this blog a very Happy Thanksgiving.  Since my record at predicting the future is so poor, I won’t offer any assurances of good times to come.  I believe that our obligation to ourselves  and those around us is to make the best of whatever challenges we may face and turn them into opportunities.