Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Column 60 - Theres an Empty Chair

There’s an Empty Chair

In Julius Caesar, Shakespeare writes “The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones.” For some people that may be appropriate, but for others it would be tragic if that were the case.

I was a member of the Rotary Club of Incline Village for a few years until my work schedule made my participation impossible. During the time I was a member, I noticed that there were a few different kinds of people in Rotary, and I suspect this is true of any service club. There were some who were there for the fellowship, some there for business reasons, and some who seemed to thrive on the opportunities Rotary provided for them to participate in and serve the ideal of making our community a better place to live. Jack Cooke stood out as one of the most active of this last group.

I can’t say I knew Jack very well – we were casual acquaintances – when we ran into each other at parties or around town we’d chat, and Jack was invariably cheerful, ebullient, and positive about whatever his current project or enthusiasm was. In this he was just the opposite of so many people who seem to thrive on complaining and to pride themselves on their diagnosis of what is wrong. Not Jack – for Jack life was a series of opportunities to serve, to contribute, and to make something better.

In a time and place where so many people have to let you know how important or connected they are, Jack was a guy who would take on any job no matter how small, just because it needed to be done. In Rotary one year he encouraged me to be Membership Chair. Jack was a Past President of the club and a past chair of the Membership Committee. He was clearly an elder statesman of the club and if he had done nothing but attend meetings no one would have faulted him – he had done his service. Still, when I asked him to be on the committee and to do induction meetings with new members, he dove in as enthusiastically and energetically as if he was doing it for the first time. Jack was involved with the High School Boosters Club, the Hospital Foundation, the Tahoe Arts Foundation, the Parasol Community Collaboration's Arts and Culture Committee and was a perennial star in the Star Follies. He was a founder of the K-16 Council and was always there to help anyone in the Village who needed help.

When Jack was named the Club’s Rotarian of the Decade this year, a bench was dedicated at Burnt Cedar Beach in his honor. But the real memorial to Jack is all over the community in the people and organizations he touched and helped and in the spirit of community service he embodied. Perhaps the poet Stephen Spender said it best:

Near the snow, near the sun, in the highest fields,
See how these names are feted by the waving grass
And by the streamers of white cloud
And whispers of wind in the listening sky,
The names of those who in their lives fought for life,
Who wore at their hearts the fire's centre.
Born of the sun, they traveled a short while toward the sun
And left the vivid air signed with their honour.
Stephen Spender, I Think Continually

There’s an empty chair in Incline today, Jack, and you are missed.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Column 59 (National) - Where Are the Progressive Leaders?

Where Are the Progressive Leaders?

For this month’s National column, Jim and I decided to each do a critique of our own parties. Although I take the Progressive Democratic position in this column, I am not what’s called a “Yellow Dog Democrat,” (one who would vote for a yellow dog before he would vote for a Republican). I was dismayed at how my Party and its candidate presented itself in the last couple of elections, and have continued to be very concerned about the future of the two-party system if those on my side of the aisle continue as they have been.

I would begin the critique at the core – for the past six years or so, the Democratic Party has been the Party of “no.” We have defined ourselves by what we are against, not by what we are for, and have ceded to the GOP the ground of being “for” rather than against. In my work with organizations, I teach that there are three positions you can take – for, against, and about (the last is critiquing from the sidelines), that “for” is by far the fastest, most efficient route to creating value, and that organizational leaders who define themselves and their organization by what they are for have more successful organizations than those who are defined by what they oppose. President Clinton, whatever his faults (someday will we be able to mention him without that caveat?), led the country from a positive stance; since the Clinton Administration, the Democrats have stood against Bush, against the deficit, against revoking Roe v. Wade, against ultra-conservative judicial appointments, and lately against the war in Iraq. The Republicans, and I don’t blame them, have seized on this to define us as against the President, against tax cuts, against the “right to life,” against the President’s right to appoint judges, and against the military. The facts, e.g., on judicial approvals don’t’ support these attributions, but they stick in the absence of a vigorous positive Democratic message.

A second, and related criticism is of the lack of real leadership in the party. After losing to Bush in 2000, Al Gore went into retreat. In 2004, John Kerry effectively did the same thing as far as party leadership is concerned – he may already be campaigning for the 2008 election, but he is not doing so by leading the party, certainly not the way I would expect a candidate who lost by the slimmest margin of any election  to lead. Hilary Clinton, John Edwards, Joe Lieberman, Howard Dean? When was the last time you heard from them other than in terms of what they were against or in transparent attempts to position themselves for 2008? Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi are as close to leaders as we have.

Finally, I have to fault the Democrats for allowing the national debate to be framed by the Republicans. Understand, I don’t fault the GOP – if I had a clear field to set the terms of the political arena, I’d take it also, but why give it to them? We have allowed the Republicans to stage the debate on the right to privacy with them as “pro-life” and us as “pro-choice,” a thinly disguised version of “anti-life,” in the same way that the NRA has hijacked the gun control issue and made it one of leaving people defenseless in their own homes. Similarly, beginning with the Swift-boating of John Kerry, we have allowed questioning the wisdom of a war we entered under questionable circumstances to be painted as anti-American, unsupportive of the troops, and duped by, if not downright in favor of terrorism. In my darkest hours I have had the thought that any party dumb enough to allow these McCarthyist tactics doesn’t deserve to be in power.

I see some hopeful signs lately – Harry Reid’s calling the Senate into closed session to deal with the leak investigation, John Murtha’s standing up against the war and for the troops, and John Kerry’s standing for Murtha all suggest that maybe we have some leadership emerging. I hope so – right now John McCain is looking pretty good to me.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Column 58 - Fire District

Probably you’ve received emails over the past couple of weeks “Citizens for Cost-Effective Fire and Medical Safety.” The last of these emails linked you to a website that is colorful and professional-looking, though still “under construction.” The emails and the website came from a nltfpd (as in North Lake Tahoe Fire Protection District) dot org, and you might reasonably think they were somehow connected to the NLTFPD (

In my view, some clarification is in order. As far as I have been able to ascertain, CCEFMS consists of two individuals, probably students of Ovid, who said “we two form a multitude,” but in this context I think calling themselves a group is misleading, as is the appropriation of the NLTFPD domain name.

These two individuals, seem to think that the Fire District receives and spends too much of our tax money. One of them wrote a report to that effect two years ago – the problem is that the methodology he employed in his comparison of the District to other districts was arguable at best, and a number of the facts cited in the report were in error. I’m sure we will see a rehash of this and I will leave a point-by-point rebuttal to Chief Linardos and the Board.

The “group” posts some fourteen “solutions” on their site. These include such things as getting rid of the District’s ladder truck, reducing ambulance transport, and reducing the number of firefighters,. A recurrent theme in the solutions is “the average for a district of our size.” As in so many things, however, size is not the whole story. Many “districts of our size” are surrounded by other districts that can lend aid – we are not. Many “districts of our size” do not deal with houses that are at street level on one side and fifty feet off the ground on the other. Many “districts of our size” do not have houses surrounded by pine needles and highly flammable ground cover, and many “districts of our size” do not provide water rescue, ambulance service, fuels management, etc.

One of these individuals has said that the fact that we have not had a major fire in the Village is due to luck. I don’t think so. We are fortunate to have a Fire District that, from the Chief to the newest firefighter, is composed of top-notch personnel – most of them experienced and long-term servants of the community. We have four ambulances, and we have a ladder truck that allows firefighters to reach houses that would otherwise be unreachable. I guess if I was dumped in the lake or suffering chest pains I could wait for help to come from Reno, but frankly the idea doesn’t appeal to me.

Not long ago, a part-time resident lost her family’s condo to a fire. It took two years to rebuild. For her, those two years were two Christmases with her family that were irretrievably lost. The taxpayers of the District have spoken repeatedly – we want fire and safety service that will protect lives, protect the value of our property, and be quick and effective. NLTFPD is highly rated by the insurance industry – that means you and I pay lower fire insurance rates – reduce the services of the Fire District, and those rates will go up – do you think taxes will go down enough to make that worth it? I don’t.

CCEFMS says on their site that “The condition exists because the board has perceived – correctly so - that the public was unaware of and thus had no interest in their excessive spending.”  That sort of contempt for the public’s intelligence is typical of self-appointed crusaders who think they know better than everyone else what is good for the community. Well, CCEFMS, the public is neither as unaware nor uninterested as you think, and if you don’t believe that, wait and see the support that is rallied for the NLTFPD in the face of your manipulative and dishonest attempt to pull the wool over the public’s eyes.