Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Reflections from Retirement…Chapter 2

By Cliff Aichinger, Former RWMWD Administrator

Cliff and his wife, Anne, on vacation in Colorado.

As promised, I am writing again about my retirement experiences and my reflections on my career and my experience at the RWMWD. This month I am reflecting on things that I’ve learned over my years in government and at the District.
In the process of this reflection, I was forced to think about past successes and failures and the reasons for what happened. The reasons are not always clear, but some factors seemed to have repeated themselves over the years. This was an interesting exercise and one that I have not had time for in the past. Some of my conclusions may not be comfortable for some to acknowledge and some of you may totally disagree. 

Again these are my opinions only and are not necessarily those of the District staff or the Board of Managers.

Lessons Learned

Nothing stays the same. Change is inevitable… Change is hard…even though it is inevitable there is a faction of every community that will resist it to the end no matter what information is presented to document the merits of the change. To move forward we need effective “change agents” (people who are willing to promote progressive approaches). 
The Enhanced Sand Filter in Maplewood is a prime example
of how taking risks on new technology can pay off
tremendously. For this project, the payoff came in terms
of removing dissolved phosphorus from runoff.

The resistance to change is pervasive in our society. It is felt in all facets of our life…our education system, health care, public infrastructure, lawn care practices, recycling, and water management. To make needed changes we are often proposing innovative solutions and new funding approaches. These are unfamiliar and can be scary to many. We need to be willing to fully explain why we are proposing this new approach, strategy or funding method.

The critical importance of local government…Even though I believe strongly that some programs and laws need to apply equally across our great country, I have also found that the implementation of new ideas and significant change happens primarily at the local level of government. 

Federal and State government has made
many great strides, but they fall short in
finding ways to accomplish the goal.
I also believe that the Federal and State government should be playing a stronger role in supporting local governments and less of a role in dictating how local governments should do their jobs. In reality the Federal and State government are good at creating rules and regulations, but not very good at figuring out how to accomplish the goal. The innovation often happens at the local level out of necessity. What is frustrating to many at the local level, including Watershed Districts, is that many in Federal and State government do not recognize the achievements of local government and often mistrust local government staff and officials. This attitude is changing, but slowly.

Governance is critical to success…I was privileged early in my career to be exposed to environmental and land use law and learn the roles of various levels of government. I worked for or with every level of government in some capacity. We can’t assume something will happen just because it’s the right thing to do. There has to be a process and support system for the implementation of a program or project to solve a problem.

This was recognized in the early 1970s when environmental problems were well
Silent Spring by Rachel
Carson was a
monumental book in
exposing environmental
issues to the public.

documented by courageous writers of that time (Rachel Carlson and others). They alerted the general public to the issues of DDT, extinction of wildlife species, the pollution of major water resources, and more. The Federal and State governments responded with the passage of major environmental legislation that changed how we produced power, treated our waste, and produced our food products. Federal legislation (Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act and the Environmental Rights Act, Environmental Policy Act) and Minnesota legislation (Environmental Rights Act, Shoreland Management Act, Floodplain Management Act, Critical Areas, and others) provided a structure for responding to these issues.

Yes, they increased some costs of doing business and they definitely increased the size and cost of government, but without the laws and the agency programs, federal funding, and new technology, there would not have been the ability to make the significant environmental improvements we have seen.

This applies to Watershed Management as well. I have conducted research on watershed governance in the US and found that Minnesota is one of only a handful of states that have a local governance structure to address watershed management. We have a law that allows for the establishment of a local agency that can develop programs and projects to improve its water resources.

Money is critical to success…I’ve had national level researchers, government staff, and academics tell me that sustainable funding isn’t important to the implementation of effective water management. I disagree. The reason Minnesota has had more success in water management than almost any other state, is the fact that we have a system of special purpose units of local government that are dedicated to water management and have taxing authority. Non-profit organizations are essential to our community and greatly assist in implementation of volunteer activities, improving public awareness of issues and lobbying local, state and federal government for change, but they can’t implement regulatory programs and structural projects that provide measurable improvement in our resources.

I’ve contributed to two books on water management and was the chief author of the chapters addressing water management governance and funding. In both cases the conclusion was that a sustainable funding source was one of the major contributors to success. Watershed Districts in the Twin Cities Metropolitan Area are privileged to have the ability to levy property taxes sufficient to fund the programs and projects in an approved Watershed Management Plan.

The 2008 Clean Water Fund three-eighths of one-cent sales tax approved by Minnesota residents was a landmark event for Minnesota’s water resources. However, it is not a total solution to funding water management issues. A recent Board of Water and Soil Resources survey of water management agencies shows that there are approved plans and identified capital improvement projects that exceed available grant funds by over ten fold. This disparity will only increase as more Impaired Waters Plans are completed and more watershed planning is completed in greater Minnesota.

Elected officials need to be leaders…Elected and appointed officials have a responsibility to look to the future for their constituents. Most are committed to this principle. However, many can’t recognize or effectively respond to the vocal minority that oppose change and stifle progress. Even though a few people can overwhelm meetings and dominate the phone lines, an effort needs to be made to find out what other residents want and believe. Elected officials need to determine the best course of action based on as much information and input as possible, but it should not be based solely on emotion and resistance to change.

Planners and scientists need to be given more credence…In my 43 years of professional life as a planner and manager, I have seen numerous examples where the “planners” prepared plans and anticipated needs a decade or two before action was taken. Planners and scientists are trained to be forward looking – analyzing the past to anticipate future needs and avoid problems. Their advice should not be passed off as dreaming or over reacting, but should be given the significant consideration it deserves.

"The land use development practices of the 50s, 60s, and 70s
have led to sprawl, water management issues, and expensive
infrastructure maintenance and replacement issues."
Planners have recognized for years that the land use development practices of the 50s, 60s, and 70s have led to sprawl, water management issues, and expensive infrastructure
maintenance and replacement issues. We need to look for redevelopment approaches that address these issues collectively and efficiently. This new approach may be dramatically different than what we currently see in our neighborhoods, but we need to recognize that infrastructure replacement (streets, sewers, sidewalks) happens only once every 40-50 years. If we continue to replace them with what we currently have, there will be no improvement in vehicle and pedestrian safety, water management or neighborhood aesthetics.

"Infrastructure replacement happens only once every 40-50 years.  If we continue to replace them with what we currently have, there will be no improvement..."  Left: Residential road and infrastructure construction in White Bear Lake.  Right: Construction in a residential area of St. Paul.

Taxes are not all bad…This belief is why I couldn’t succeed in politics. Taxes are levied by all units of government to provide the services requested by our residents or required by the State or Federal government. The problem is that many residents don’t recognize the services they are being given and don’t understand the role of government. The other side of this coin is that elected officials need to require residents to be specific about their concerns. What services are a priority? If costs need to be reduced, what are they willing to give up? Are they willing to give up clean drinking water, safe beaches, good fishing, safe streets, good education, police and fire protection? These decisions should not be made randomly and without reasonable debate and discussion. Developing the right forum for this discussion and getting adequate public participation is the hard part of this process.

"A strict 'anti-tax' or 'anti-new-tax'
approach is not helpful."
These are difficult decisions, but a strict “anti-tax” or “anti-new tax” approach is not helpful. Ultimately, voters are electing individuals to represent them and make these tough decisions. Again, a vocal minority should not be making public policy. It should be based on sound science, research and economics. This takes qualified staff, consultants and study.

This issue is closely tied to the resistance to change. Everything changes and government programs should be changing to reflect new needs. The problem with most government institutions is  their typical inability to eliminate old programs that no longer serve their intended purpose and the inability to prioritize activities and focus on critical needs. However, no matter how much either of these approaches is practiced, government programs and spending will generally increase with the increased population that it serves.

The customer is not always right…If I were to continue in public service or as an elected official, this may get me in trouble. We need public input and we have to listen, but we have to try to understand what their core message is and engage in difficult conversations to pull out the kernel of wisdom that we need to use. I have always had trouble in public meetings where I hear comments that are clearly untrue and where some individuals are allowed to dominate discussion and antagonize or intimidate others. I believe that staff should provide evidence and science to clarify misunderstandings. These meetings are often great teachable moments where we can collect comments, but also clarify misconceptions about a subject matter that is not well understood by the public. However, we need to be respectful of every person’s right to their own opinion and their right to express it.

Staff need time to effectively do their jobs, be creative and improve their skills…In this time of tight budgets and staff resources, it is hard to expect government personnel to be on the cutting edge of science or research if they don’t have time to be involved in their professional community and reflect on how to apply new technology and practices in their own jobs.
A creative group of people on the cutting edge of science
makes for a happy staff.
In the past 10-15 years I have seen significant pressure by the public and the state legislature to reduce costs and spending. This has led to staff layoffs, reduced annual pay adjustments, less staff to do the work required, longer hours and increased job stress. This can all lead to reduced productivity, delays in processing paperwork, and reduced employee morale.

Most people don’t know this, but many of our state agencies have fewer staff resources and greater work loads now than they did in the mid-90s.

Adaptive management is an important practice and needs to be applied rigorously…we can’t always be 100% confident of success when we implement programs or projects. We often have to move forward with our best professional judgment to identify methods to protect our resources. However, sometimes (not often) we don’t get it right the first time or we learn that it wasn’t as effective as we had hoped. We have to be willing to assess, adjust and correct it if we can.

We can’t always be cost-effective if we are going to be creative and innovative…Cost-effectiveness should be a goal, but much of the District’s past progress and successes would have gone undone if we waited or implemented only those activities that met some arbitrary cost-effectiveness criteria.

Looking Forward

I plan to write two additional articles in the coming months. Preliminary ideas include:
  • My greatest accomplishments.
  • Future challenges for the District.


I may also contribute a random article or two about my travels or other retirement highlights or challenges. We’ll see what strikes me and is still of interest to the District staff.

On a personal note, I have had an eventful past month. My son David (Maplewood Mall and office mural artist) was part of the carving team that won the St. Paul Winter Carnival Snow Sculpture contest (see photo). 

I was also privileged to spend a long weekend watching my two grand daughters in New York City while my daughter and son-in-law went on a business trip. It was nice to have close one-on-one time with them and do fun things. Too bad it was cold and snowy. While there we visited the 911 memorial and museum. It was very moving, extremely well done, and very respectful to those involved in the terrible event, those that lost their lives and the families of the victims.

Adventures in Retirement. Left: Cliff's son's ice carving team won accolades at the St. Paul Winter Carnival.  Middle: Cliff and Anne recently spent time with family in New York.  Right: While in New York, Cliff and Anne had the opportunity to visit the 911 Memorial and Museum. 

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