We have just returned from a week of back country skiing in Canada. Our group consisted of 16 skiers from two countries and 3 guides. Every day we would skin up into the alpine zone of the Valhalla range and take a few runs. What made the trip unique was the high avalanche hazard that has persisted in the Canadian Rockies this season. The low snow totals, long periods of clear cold weather and the early occurrence of upper elevation rain made for a weak avalanche prone snow pack.
I was an avalanche forecaster and back country guide for a large part of my snow career. Yet I hire a guide when I travel in an area unknown to me that has a snow pack in which I am not experienced. While I reflected on the day of skiing each evening, similarities between my job as an active member of our ski group and as mayor became clear.
I will admit it took some time after my election as Mayor to comprehend the job. The chief focus of Salida’s elected officials is creating policy to determine the long range direction of the City. When I arrived in Canada my goal for the trip was to find some good skiing while minimizing the hazard. Considering the fact that while we were in the mountains four people where killed in avalanches and 31 injured an hour or so north of us, it would have been easy to stay in the lodge and not move into the alpine terrain. Lacking the expertise necessary to guide myself and others, our group relied upon the hired guides. This is similar to what elected officials have to do to get policy implemented. It is easy to dither when difficult decisions are needed. I do believe it is easier to do nothing and blame circumstance than to actually try to move the city in a forward direction. This is similar to staying in the lodge.
The staff of the City of Salida are the experts. If they do not have the knowledge or experience to plan and move a project forward the City hires people who have the necessary credentials to do what staff cannot. The policy makers direct staff towards a goal and staff moves the City towards that goal. Like a mountain guide it takes the cooperation of the clients and guides to safely move all of us to a desired end. In the mountains the relationship is easy. The guide assesses the skill of the group and by considering hazard and terrain they move the group through what could otherwise be dangerous terrain. In government it is a more complicated. After the Council agrees upon policy it takes the effort of staff, city legal advisors and outside consultants, such as engineers, to craft a solution that gets the job done at a high quality and at the best price. The Council simply does not have the knowledge to direct large and technical projects. The aforementioned team not only has the necessary skills to create major projects, but also spends hours finding funding mechanisms such as low interest loans and outright grants to make these projects happen.
The real disconnect in my comparison between mountain guides and city staff and consultants is a mountain guide can see and interact with his constituents at any time. It is a small group of interested people that want to act in a way that benefits the entire group. Acting cooperatively the group can maximize the satisfaction while minimizing the hazard. Individually we had decided to ski and hike during high avalanche danger. The solution was to hire Certified, experienced guides. The cost of acting as a group, rather than taking off alone, created the benefit of increased travel with reduced hazard. Out of many we acted as one.
As an elected official I rarely hear from the public. This is especially true in the early formative stages of policy creation. I have learned to accept this lack of citizen involvement. I hope as things evolve in Salida and our Country we can all become more active in the development of policy that is for the greater good. Believe me, it is the only way to stay alive and healthy in the mountains. I know it would work well for all of us. E Pluribus Unum, was the vision of our Founding Fathers. I believe that by acting for the greater good we all will benefit.