There is no column for Friday, September, 19, 2008.
Community fights, like family fights, can be destructive affairs, creating so much bad will that very little gets done for long periods of time. People start to oppose whatever the other party in a dispute proposes because of the initial disagreement rather than on the merits of the issue. A badly polarized community suffers when there is not enough agreement to address the important issues of the day.
Albany has had its share of fights in the past, and there is still some lingering resentment over things like annexation, water rates, and utility service. Most of these disagreements have been resolved to some extent, and the town is still able to accomplish important goals. I think the reason that’s true has something to do with good examples.
The most recent one that comes to mind is a developing project to turn what has been a proposed subdivision into a natural conservation area and park. I don’t know if the project will ultimately be successful, but I do know that the people who have been working on it are setting a great example in how to deal with community conflict.
It’s easy to complain or fight about an idea you don’t like or that you think will harm your neighborhood. It requires more effort to think of alternatives that address the concerns of both parties to a dispute. Mark Azevedo and a broad group of supporters have been working for several months to develop a plan that would replace a proposed subdivision with a natural reserve while providing the property owner with fair compensation for his land. Regardless of how anyone might feel about the plan, it’s hard to fault the honest effort and sincere desire to do something good for Albany that has gone into this work. No one is paying Mark or other volunteers to spend long hours corresponding by e-mail, attending meetings, and developing grant proposals. The individual benefits of the proposed natural area almost certainly do not correspond to the individual effort that is working to make it happen.
I am very hopeful that the plan for East Thornton Lake will succeed for a variety of reasons. Healthy communities need natural, unspoiled places. The plan offers benefits to both the owner of the property and neighbors who live nearby. I would also like to think that so much good effort will be rewarded. The world around us offers too many examples of disagreements that spiral into hatred and violent conflict. Albany is a much better place when people are willing to invest themselves in finding creative and productive solutions to difficult problems.
Thank you, Mark, and all who have contributed to setting a great example for the rest of us.
Much of my work week was spent in mediation sessions where millions of dollars and a major city project were at stake. I routinely work on issues that I know could have a significant impact on Albany; so this week wasn’t necessarily different than any other in that respect. The difference I noticed this week had to do with contrast.
Several weeks ago, I wrote about my failed attempt to help dog owners by setting up a permit system to allow people to keep more than two dogs in their homes. I’ve already explained why this turned out to be a really bad idea, but I received further reinforcement a couple of days ago just before I was scheduled to leave for the very important mediation session. I decided in the few minutes I had before the mediation to return a call from a citizen who was upset that his application to have an additional dog had been denied. The call took longer than expected as I listened to some emotional arguments about my lack of compassion and the unfairness of my decision. Much of what the concerned citizen had to say was true, but I could not change the decision without angering the several neighbors who had complained about the dogs.
The mediation session went well, and I believe we may be able to resolve a costly disagreement in a way that will be of great benefit to the community. It’s really satisfying to make progress on a big issue that has caused a fair amount of anxiety and cost more than I would have liked. My bubble of satisfaction was quickly popped, however, shortly after the mediation when I learned that we are probably going to have to replace the new carpet we just installed at City Hall. Apparently, we track in more oils and dirt than anyone imagined when the carpet was selected; and the cost of keeping the carpet looking good is higher than replacing it. The good news is that the carpet supplier is willing to provide new carpet at essentially no cost to the City. The bad news is that there is an additional installation expense of about $4,000. No decision has been made about the carpet yet, and I am hoping that a less expensive and less embarrassing alternative will surface.
The lesson from mediation, dog permits, and carpets is that city employees deal with a wide range of issues that are all important. Potentially saving hundreds of thousands of dollars doesn’t relieve us of the obligation to save a few hundred when we have the opportunity. I was also reminded by the week’s events that even though we can’t lose sight of our responsibility to look out for the good of the whole community, we should never forget the importance of the rights and feelings of individual citizens.