BEGINNING MY EDUCATION

Ending my career in city management signals the beginning of my education as an old human. I suppose it’s not really the beginning, but rather the start of the substance of the remaining curriculum –something like a graduate degree in human relations. My primary teachers will be my grandchildren, who now number 17 and will soon increase to 18 in August. I know my wife has also been working on her lesson plans for whatever time I have left.

I have two step-grandchildren who I don’t know very well, and they may not have much interest in their newly acquired relative. They seem like nice young people, though; and I hope they can give me some guidance about relating to my younger, teenage grandchildren. I have blotted out memories of my own children’s teenage years, and I would like my new experiences to involve less pain. As much as I love my grandchildren, I am occasionally reminded that they are little humans with the same failings we all share. Still, I’m looking forward to some good backpacking trips and other adventures during the summer months.

More time to hang out with young people also means more time to hang out with old people. I made a decision not long ago that I wouldn’t make any commitments for the first six months of retirement, in an effort to just relax and enjoy the reduction in responsibilities. Not long after that decision, I received a call from a Canadian cousin asking me to attend her birthday celebration on – you guessed it – the first official day of my retirement. Canada seems like such an attractive place these days that I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to scope it out and reestablish connections. Within a few days of the Canadian call, my wife informed me we would be taking my mother-in-law on a cruise in the Mediterranean in October. My last cruise was courtesy of the U.S. Navy in 1974, and I have never had much of a desire to repeat the experience. Cruise ships do not appeal to me, but going on the trip will give me a chance to complain about it for years to come. This trip also involves a reading list that I’ve been told I have to complete over the next few months.

All of this sounds like I will be living a life of leisure in retirement. After paying for the two planned trips, I might be found at the local Walmart greeting customers. Proposed cuts to U.S. foreign assistance programs and the deconstruction of the State Department may end my career in international development. Most of what I have done in developing countries has been as a volunteer, and I’m sure I will continue to do that as the opportunity arises.

I will try to avoid writing any more about my retirement in my remaining eight columns and focus on important things like the new city budget, the transition to a new manager, city challenges, and new opportunities. Many good things are happening in the City right now, and there is no shortage of inspiring events and people to highlight.

ACRYLONITRILE (or What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You)

Daily, we see stories about the problems regulators cause business and development across the country or we hear about how regulators failed in places like Flint, Michigan. The new administration has proposed cutting the budget of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by 25 percent in an effort to reduce the regulatory burden created by at least one agency. I am sure other regulatory agencies will be affected as well.

I confess to muttering bad words under my breath about more than one federal or state agency myself on occasion, but I recently recalled an issue that occurred here in Albany, Oregon, a few years ago that gives me cause to be concerned about our current course.

Most of us have never heard of Acrylonitrile, “…a colorless volatile liquid that is an important monomer for the manufacture of useful plastics such as polyacrylontrile. It is reactive and toxic at low doses.” I certainly wasn’t aware that a local manufacturer was using this substance a few years ago, and I doubt that many others who lived near the plant were either. We rely on businesses to handle any dangerous chemicals responsibly, and they usually do. But what happens when a business with a large store of extremely dangerous material that requires careful management goes bankrupt? In Albany’s case, our Fire Department wrote a check to replenish the nitrogen blanket needed to control the material and then called the EPA to see if they could help. The agency immediately recognized the threat to public health and dispatched a team to Albany to conduct the needed cleanup. The federal officials worked collaboratively with our Fire Department, and the great majority of local residents never realized that a potential disaster was averted.

Every day, we rely on people we disparage as bureaucrats and regulators to ensure our health and safety. We regularly see and complain about their failings when something goes wrong, but I wonder if we appreciate the benefits of living in a place where things usually are done right. It takes little imagination to realize that if manufacturing plants in Albany, Oregon, occasionally have problems handling materials that can produce a catastrophe, then there must be many other places across the country where the same potential exists.

Maybe there won’t be any more incidents in the future like the one that occurred here in the past, and maybe adding a little more risk to our lives is worth whatever savings we might see on our tax bills. Perhaps businesses that use life-threatening compounds will never go bankrupt again or railroads transporting toxic substances will never have wrecks. I know I am grateful for the people who cleaned up the last mess we inherited in Albany and who work every day to help prevent similar threats in the future. I hope they will still be around when we need them in the years ahead.

Safety First

We had an incident at City Hall this morning that is a symptom of a much bigger problem affecting most cities across the country. A homeless, drug-addicted man who is incapable of caring for himself accosted several female employees as they reported to work. The most important message I want to pass along to all employees outside of public safety responders who are trained to handle these situations is that no one should feel obligated to walk into a threatening situation. Any employee should feel free to walk back to their car or any other safe area if there is a problem at the entrance to a City facility. No supervisor will find fault with an employee for reporting late to work if there is a perceived threat to safety. Employees should also know that they can walk away from any threatening person whether inside or outside the building. City Hall has two keycard lock entrances – one on the north (Third Avenue) side of the building and the other on the east (Ellsworth Street) side.

Last week, we had someone come into City Hall with a digital camera to record employees at work. There is no law against recording in a public space, but City employees should again feel free to walk away from someone whose motives or actions could be seen as threatening. The guiding principle is to avoid threats to personal safety and seek appropriate help.

I’m sure most of us are frustrated by our inability to either help or remove people who pose a threat to themselves or others. The individual who was at City Hall’s door this morning was recently saved from serious burns when Fire Chief Bradner stopped his car on his way to lunch when he saw the man’s clothing on fire and put it out. This homeless man is clearly unable to care for himself, yet there appears to be no resources available to provide supervised care. He apparently spent a year at a state facility before being discharged as someone who no longer needed supervised treatment. The cost of dealing with his problems has been transferred from the state to the Albany community; and, more importantly, it seems highly likely he will come to harm in the near future.

Living in a country that places a high value on individual freedom means that it is sometimes difficult for government to help people who are unable or unwilling to help themselves. There are facilities in Albany that help homeless people every day, and we spend large sums of money to provide services to people with mental health problems or drug addictions. Unfortunately, we have a relatively small number who can probably only be helped in a full-time care facility.

We will not be solving the homeless problem anytime soon; so in the meantime, please be protective of personal safety and take advantage of emergency services when help is needed.