Our mayor received a message through the City’s email system a week or two ago complaining about City employees discussing politics, apparently during the workday. Earlier this week, I fielded a similar complaint about a Facebook post I made from my phone on my own time that I didn’t realize would be accessible to the social media world (silly me). The complaints are a reminder that political feelings are running high and that public employees are under particular scrutiny for any hint of partisanship in the way we administer local government business.
I have no idea what the political leanings of most City employees are like. I would guess we are a little more likely to have a positive view of government than the general public, but I also believe we generally hold views very similar to those of the people we serve. Some of us are very conservative; some of us are very liberal, and most of us are somewhere in between. Each of us has particular concerns unique to our own values and experiences. None of us gave away our rights to express our views when we accepted a job with local government. We can and should fully participate in the political process by voting and supporting candidates or issues as we choose.
We are prohibited from using public resources to promote our private political beliefs, and that generally includes advocating for or against candidates and ballot measures on public time. Anyone interested in finding out how the State of Oregon defines this issue should go to the Secretary of State’s website and check out the rules (http://sos.oregon.gov/elections/Pages/manuals-tutorials.aspx). Everyone should also understand, however, that expressing an opinion about a political figure is a protected right. Among the many benefits of living in this country is the assurance that we can question and criticize those in leadership positions without fear of government retribution.
Answering the question of what we can do is easier than addressing what we should do. As a City Manager, I am prohibited by my professional code of ethics from publicly supporting candidates at any level of government. I can and sometimes do criticize decisions and leaders in private conversation; although I try not to identify with partisan politics in any public setting. I have worked for mayors and council members from both ends of the political spectrum and learned that their political views have little to do with their character or effectiveness.
The principle I will try to follow during the short time I have remaining as a public employee is to be respectful of others’ opinions, limit my own comments while on the job, and reserve the right to exercise my conscience through speech and action when cherished values are threatened.
Recently, an Albany Democrat-Herald guest columnist objected to the Albany City Council’s decision to assist a local business by providing a $50,000 forgivable loan that will allow the new owner to expand and add new employees. In return, the business is contractually obligated to stay in its Albany location for the next ten years.
The columnist accused the Council of “playing favorites” by awarding money to one business when all businesses would probably like similar assistance. Government at all levels has routinely provided assistance to businesses since the beginning of the American Republic, just as business has been and is a critical part of the foundation of government in our country. Our national rail network, for example, was constructed largely by private industry in exchange for huge land grants by the federal government. Businesses large and small routinely take advantage of tax abatements, low-interest loans, and other forms of subsidy provided by federal, state, and local jurisdictions. Most of Albany’s biggest employers have received some form of assistance from government during their time in the city. The local business that recently contracted with the City of Albany was offered larger subsidies to move to another location, not unlike the grants used by the State of Indiana in November 2016 to keep Carrier Corporation jobs from moving to Mexico.
Albany’s economy has been steadily improving over the past few years as new employers have moved to town and existing industries have expanded. Several high-tech companies have recently purchased buildings and are now employing people in good paying jobs. It’s ironic that as the guest column painted a grim picture of Albany’s economy, the same issue of the newspaper reported that Linn County’s jobless rate is at the lowest level ever recorded. I pass industrial facilities in Albany every day on my short drive to work that are advertising for new employees, and the number one complaint I hear from businesses around town is the lack of workers to fill jobs. The need has become so acute that the Council agreed to provide assistance to Linn-Benton Community College to provide up to $2.9 million for equipment to train people to fill vacancies in Albany industries. There shouldn’t be any need to point out the new retail and commercial businesses either constructing new buildings or filling vacant ones all over town.
Apparently, I live in a different city than the one described by the guest columnist. The Albany I know is growing, both in population and in prosperity. This is not opinion or an alternative fact but is something that we can and do measure. Most businesses in town are taking advantage of that shared opportunity rather than complaining about imaginary problems in the newspaper.
Today’s presidential inauguration is a reminder to me that most of us want the same things for our country. Prosperity, peace, opportunity, individual freedom, education, safety, rewarding work, good health, and a clean environment are just a few of the general goals I think all of us support. I believe, however, that we spend too little time considering the goals that unite us and too much time bickering over how to achieve them.
When my wife and I got married, we had long discussions about what we wanted to happen in our married life. We both wanted children, to finish our education, to have a decent home, to live in Oregon, and to be close to our extended family. The decisions we made focused on what we wanted to achieve, rather than on things where we had less agreement. I joined the Navy shortly after our marriage as a means to our agreed-upon ends and because I had a lifelong attachment to that branch of the service. My wife wasn’t as sure about the military option, but she saw the wisdom of accepting the risk of some protracted separations to accomplish our larger goals. I’m probably giving myself too much credit, but our choice to agree on certain goals and focus on accomplishing them helped us avoid a lot of arguments and achieve what was most important to us. I would add that we should never discount the importance of dumb luck and a convenient memory.
Those of us living in the U.S. today are looking at circumstances not all that different than what my wife and I faced 45 years ago. We have a strong base that includes general prosperity, educational opportunity, a relatively secure country, and a variety of paths to a successful future. There are at least as many problems and ways to fail as there are strengths; but we are, by most measures, if not the strongest, at least among the strongest countries in the world. Unlike many of the places I’ve visited over the past two decades, our starting point is not bad.
You would think that if we have a fairly strong consensus about where we want to go (paragraph 1) and where we are now (paragraph 3), figuring out how to get there wouldn’t be all that difficult. My hope for our community and our country is that while we vigorously debate the means to our many agreed-upon ends, we will not lose sight of what’s most important. We can choose to focus on all that divides us or we can agree to disagree on many of the “hows” and remember the primacy of the “whats.”