I realized a long time ago that while my profession emphasizes rationality, facts, and reason, human relationships govern much of what we are able to do in local government. I don’t know what else would explain the many inexplicable things all of us see every day. Why, for example, do seemingly rational, well-meaning people see the same set of facts and draw completely opposite conclusions? We can all be frustrating to one another, but I have also learned that the greatest reward of doing this work has been the relationships I’ve had with so many different people.
Oregon remains a relatively small state, and I am regularly reminded of this when I meet people who share some common bond. Often the bond is a common friend or, in some cases, the discovery that I’m related to someone. Not long after becoming Albany’s city manager, I was bragging about my pioneer ancestry to former Benton County Commissioner Linda Modrell and found out that we shared great-great grandparents. My wife is a graduate of Madras High School, and I’m always surprised how many people have connections to that little school. Notably, Councilor Floyd Collins is a Madras alum and Councilor Dick Olsen has a Madras connection.
We often seem to find ourselves dividing up into groups that distinguish us by our economic status, race, ethnicity, or our political beliefs, while forgetting the many things that should help bring us together. Our family trees, the places we’ve lived, our friends, schools, hobbies, or our workplaces connect us to thousands of people with something in common. Social media can help establish these connections, but I think it requires more effort to really make them matter.
I really enjoy conversations with Floyd about his memories of growing up in Central Oregon, and my discussions with Linda led to picture exchanges of common ancestors that helped me learn more about my heritage. Beyond the simple pleasure of sharing things in common, I believe these connections help us negotiate the many challenges of life. Our connections build understanding that breaks down barriers to communicating and getting things done. Sometimes we hear negative comments about “old boy networks” that imply favors or other forms of corruption. I acknowledge that danger while emphasizing that the antidote is not to cut ourselves off from old relationships, but to build more diverse new ones.
The rewards of a wide and rich network of relationships include a greater chance of career success in addition to being a better way to live. Regardless of whether the other person is a Mormon or a Muslim, a Libertarian or a Socialist, or heaven forbid, a Beaver or a Duck, building a positive relationship is an important step toward building a better life.