Monday, January 30, 2006

Column 69 - Place-Based Planning

With regard to the Place Based Planning effort by TRPA, in my view there are three critical issues.

First, should IVGID participate at all, and why. Along with this comes the issue that the Bonanza called “pay to play” – should IVGID contribute financially to the effort as TRPA has requested? IVGID’s participation really shouldn’t be at issue in my opinion. Incline Village/Crystal Bay does not exist in a vacuum – we live in the Basin and what happens anywhere around the lake affects us. At the same time, we are as different from the other communities around the lake as we are from Reno or Carson City. These two facts make it critical that we participate in TRPA’s efforts to plan a coherent future for the Basin – if we did not participate we will be no less affected by the decisions and regulations that come from the planning process and we will not have been heard in the formation of those decisions and regulations.

As for financial participation, that’s a tougher question. TRPA has budgeted about $650,000 for Pathways 2007, and the $25,000 they are requesting from IVGID is just 4% of the total budget – not an amount that will make or break the project. It’s about .093% of IVGID’s operating budget of about $27 million, so not an amount that will make or break IVGID, either. At the same time, the IVGID Board of Trustees takes very seriously their charge to hold in trust the Village’s assets, including our financial assets, and aren’t inclined to just hand over $25,000, especially when we can expect to be tapped for further funds in the next couple of years.

As a consultant myself, I understand why what could be considered a token amount is being asked for. It is axiomatic in my business that the success of an engagement depends on how much skin the client or clients have in the game. Personally, I don’t think this is an issue – IVGID has so much at stake in the planning process that this amount of money won’t add much to that, and if the Board decides to go with in-kind contribution or no contribution I don’t think it will matter. TRPA can no more afford to move forward without Incline than Incline can afford not to participate – either would cripple the process.

The second issue is leadership. Once again, at last week’s Board meeting, the point that IVGID is charged only with water, sewers, and recreation was brought up. It’s time we retired this canard, which is only trotted out when the Board considers doing something that someone doesn’t like. The fact is that the Board of Trustees has for years taken the lead on issue that affect the quality of life in the Village, both now and in the future – Incline Vision is a prime example – and should continue to do so. As Trustee Gene Brockman pointed out at last week’s meeting, IVGID is as close as we have to a local government, and I endorse their taking on that responsibility. Even if it is beyond the letter of NRS 318, it is certainly within its spirit.

The last issue is more complex. Incline Vision has done a great deal of work already, particularly since the Town Meeting in November, and one might reasonably ask what will happen to this community-based effort when “outsiders” become involved. The other day, while at lunch at a local eatery, I overheard a conversation that amounted to “we don’t need outsiders coming in here and telling us what to do.” I think both of these concerns are legitimate, and both reflect some degree of misunderstanding. In point of fact, the Incline Vision Organizing Committee intended the Town Meeting to provide the impetus that would set the process in motion, and that once the subcommittees were in place and operating, there would be a need to integrate their work into Pathways 2007. Secondly, a consultant who knows his or her business does not “tell people what to do.” Rather, they objectively gather relevant facts and issues and map these onto the commitments and concerns of the client(s) – from this base, they help the clients to determine possible courses of action and to analyze what the outcomes of these courses are likely to be and how well they fit the clients’ intentions. No consultant worth paying would ignore the work Incline Vision has done, but would build on it, and would ensure that Incline’s purposes and concerns were served. Finally, this is not about “winning” or getting our way – it’s about creating a truly collaborative community in the Basin.

The P2007 Place Based Planning initiative deserves our participation and support.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Column 68 - Media Bias

The debate over media bias probably began the day the first newspaper was published, and has escalated ever since. The modern version of this debate could be said to have begun just after Pearl Harbor when President Roosevelt declared that the press of that day was “200% Republican,” but I think it’s safe to say that the issue is more alive today than ever before. A Google search under “media bias” returned 1.9 million hits today, and I suspect that number will be greater tomorrow.

I think there are a couple of significant problems with the notion of media bias. The first is the idea of “the media,” as if there were some organized, more or less coherent body in the way we can talk about “the government” or “the Catholic Church.” In point of fact, there is no “media” in that sense. In using this term we take all the various forms of public discourse – newspapers, television, radio, movies, the Internet, and more, and lump them together. This forms what Kurt Vonnegut called a granfalloon – a group that is thrown together artificially but has no internal connection or cohesion. To lump together such diverse characters and expressions as The Wall Street Journal, The Village Voice, Fox News, and makes as much sense as it does to talk about “Catholics,” or “Hispanics,” or “Republicans” as if all the members of that group thought alike.

The second problem is with the notion of bias. Bias, like beauty, is always in the view of the beholder. I once met David Duke, then Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, and he assured me that he was not prejudiced against anyone – it was only those who misunderstood him who called him biased! In point of fact, each of us comprises intellectually and emotionally a point of view from which we see the world. This point of view is unique and not duplicable, and has us see the world in a certain way that, from another’s view will look biased to the extent that it differs from their view.

Finally, we have the notion that the media should be “objective.” No matter how much we may try to correct it, human communication always takes place in a context, and bias is a word that identifies the collective influences that comprise this context. Modern journalists, to the extent that they subscribe to the ethic of objectivity, attempt to correct for bias by (a) distinguishing facts from opinions and (b) attempting to present all points of view fairly. Journalists who fail to do this can be described as biased, and to the extent that they deny this bias or attempt to pass it off as objective reporting as untruthful. This applies, of course, to news reporting. Columnists, editorialists, and op-ed writers have no such obligation and publish their views as such.

So why the debate? Studies of “the media” have shown that, by and large, bias in news reporting, where it exists, is about equally divided between the left and the right, and that for the most part even the most editorially positional publications such as The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times are pretty unbiased in their news pages. Yet both the Right and the Left continue to decry media prejudice against their side, and the Right in particular has done a good job of selling the idea that “the media” are controlled by the Left, despite the fact that the vast majority of talk shows, etc. are Rightist in their views.

I think that making an issue of media bias, no matter who is doing it, shows a nasty cynicism about the audience for the accusation. The communication is something like “I’m smart enough to see this bias and you’re not, so I’m going to point it out to you.” It is this disrespect for the voting public that has me not listen to talk shows on either side of the political spectrum. The media will report as they do, and the public is smart enough to sort out the nonsense from the gunsmoke. “Media bias” is a non-issue unless we assume that the voting public is too stupid to be able to tell, and we need the likes of O’Reilly and Franken to enlighten us. Those who decry media bias (conveniently ignoring the fact that they themselves are part of the media) are, in my view, arrogant elitists who deserve to be ignored.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Column 67 - Open Reviews

As Mark Twain famously said, when the Nevada Legislature sits, no one is safe.

In the last session, our legislators passed a new law stating that performance reviews conducted by public bodies must be done in open meetings. Locally this means that when the IVGID Board of Trustees conducts Executive Director Bill Horn’s performance reviews, they must do so in an open meeting before the public. At last week’s IVGID Board meeting they did this for Bill’s half-year interim review, and in June they will do it again for his annual review.

Now I’m all for open meetings, and overall I think the Open Meeting Law serves an important public function. There is some awkwardness to it, like when three or more Trustees happen to be in attendance at a function, they have to avoid talking about District matters, but that’s not too bad and the benefits of the law have, heretofore, outweighed such minor inconveniences.

But this new provision is just foolishness. The purpose of a review is to give candid feedback to an employee about their performance so that areas of strength can be built on and areas of weakness improved. Candor requires privacy so that both the reviewer and reviewee can be fully open and honest – a review is a dialogue, not a broadcast, and dialogue about sensitive matters is difficult if not impossible in front of an audience.

My regard for Bill Horn is well-known, and for the most part I think well of this Board. It was painful to sit in the meeting and watch them go through this process. Even though the review was very positive, it was clearly uncomfortable for both the Board and for Bill. And what if it had been less positive? The Board would have been faced with a choice between giving low scores without feedback or giving feedback that could easily be taken out of context and used by people who for whatever reason wanted to gain public leverage against the Executive Director.

In my work with businesses I design, administer, and debrief feedback systems such as 360 reviews, and I have had occasion to counsel both reviewers and reviewees at high organizational levels, particularly when the reviews were likely to be difficult or ill-received. One of the sacred tenets of good human resource policy is “praise in public, criticize in private” so that people have the room to learn, defensiveness is minimized, and people’s dignity is protected. Our legislators, and as far as I know there is not an HR professional among them, have decided that this long-established and important practice does not apply to public employees. And, by the way, not all public employees, just the top rank – those whose reviews are done by public bodies. You see, everyone else in IVGID gets their reviews from their supervisor or manager. Only the Executive Director is reviewed by the Board in front of the public and the people he manages. Insane.

We ask a lot of those who choose to dedicate their lives to public service. They make far less money than they would in the private sector, their work is by its nature much more in the public eye, and far too many people think the fact that these folks are paid with tax dollars means that anyone in the public is entitled to take a shot at them for any reason. But it is beyond the pale when we also require them to undergo what should be a private and personal dialogue about their performance in public.

Some public bodies in the state have decided to forego doing performance reviews rather than subjecting their key people to this indignity – the IVGID Board of Trustees should consider this as a possible course of action until this ill-advised legislation is reversed.

As a Human Resource professional I take it personally when a group of people who don’t, as far as I can tell, know the first thing about good HR practice decide for reasons at which I can only guess to make rules that insult the dignity and privacy of good people. I will be contacting the Nevada chapter of the Society for HR Management and the legislature to do all I can to get this legislation taken off the books. I invite you to contact our legislators if you feel the same..

Monday, January 09, 2006

Column 66 - Nature 10 Incline 0

Nature 10, Incline 0

The storms, floods, snows, and power outages since New Year’s Eve were a reminder, that for all our big houses, four-wheel drive vehicles, etc., nature still has the upper hand. On New Year’s Eve we drove to Squaw Valley, and driving in total, almost eerie, darkness from Tahoe Vista to Alpine Meadows was a sobering experience. As we passed Gar Woods, Wolfdale’s, and other restaurants that were dark and empty on what would normally be one of their biggest nights of the year I was reminded of an old Jewsh saying, “God laughs when people make plans.”

Later, when I heard that Diamond Peak was shut down it brought home how interdependent we are. Power lines come up the hill from Carson City and over from Truckee, and with many of those inoperative, it quickly became a no-brainer choice between running ski lifts or having lights and heat. I wonder if we’ll remember that choice when, at the end of IVGID’s fiscal year, we see the financial impact of having made it. Nature 10, Incline 0.

Almost no individual in Incline depends on nature for their livelihood – we have no farms, no fishing or hunting, and those who do depend on it – gardeners, snow removal folks, etc., are a minority. Yet as residents (and in a GID that means part-owners) of the Village, we all have an interest in the profitability of the golf courses, the ski areas and the beaches. Mostly we are content to leave this in others’ hands to manage for us, but we shouldn’t forget that the vagaries of nature have a big impact not only on the quality, but also on the economics of our lives.

Related to that, there’s been a surprising amount of controversy about the issue of golf course use during the winter. Again, let’s remember that we, the residents, own the courses and derive considerable benefit from them whether we golf or not. The golf courses are a profitable operation, and those profits go to support other aspects of village life. They also attract considerable tourism (and income) to the village in the summertime. The Trustees we elected, with substantial public support, have over the past years upgraded the golf program both in terms of facilities and service, and this means you and I have a large financial stake in their financial success.

Part of this upgrade was to hire people with very impressive professional credentials to manage on our behalf. Now I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure that there is an awful lot about managing golf courses that I don’t know, and just as in the businesses I’ve owned and managed I’ve hired people to cover those areas such as finance and IT where I an not an expert, and I’ve relied on their judgment. In the golf case, we have professionals who say that, in their best judgment, some wintertime uses of the courses will be, in the long term, damaging and will cost us enough that these uses would be a losing investment. People who, as far as I know, don’t know as much as these professionals seem to think the pros are wrong. I don’t’ understand that. You don’t have to like their decisions, but those hard choices are what we pay them for.

Just one other thing. One article in this paper , rather fatuously I think, made much of the idea that there was no “scientific evidence” behind these decisions. Right. That’s where we rely on professional judgment – where science doesn’t give us clear-cut answers. Nature does what it does, and in the end we make judgment calls like closing the ski area based on what is likely to produce the greatest good for the greatest number. The golf course decisions fall into that category. Get over it and drive ten minutes to the meadows, the snow is great there.

Column 65 - The Case for Optimism

The Case for Optimism

New Years is supposed to be a time of optimism – we look back over the past year’s successes and failures, and look forward to a better year to come based on what we learned from the year just ended. Some years optimism is more of a challenge than others, but we do our best.

One thing we can learn from 05, I think, is to appreciate the individuals who step up to make the community a better place. In 2005 we lost Jack Cooke and Harold Tiller, to name two without whom Incline would have been infinitely poorer. Hopefully 2006 will see others step up to the plate of the level of selfless community service that these two embodied, and our town will be the richer for it.

In 2005 we saw what I like to think was the end of the myth of apathy in Incline. At the Incline Vision Town Meeting in November 300 people from all sectors of the community turned out on a holiday weekend to create the future of Incline Village/Crystal Bay, and then followed through on that by participating in task forces to make that vision a reality. In 2006 we can look forward to that work moving forward and to all of us having the opportunity to shape the future of our community.

2005 saw what I think is a real turnaround in how TRPA relates to its constituents around the lake. The agency still has its problems and its glitches, but Executive Director John Singlaub has made an outstanding start toward changing the culture of TRPA – culture change is gradual and takes time, but as one who held no brief for TRPA over the years I am optimistic that we will see major fruits of John’s efforts in 2006, so I’m optimistic.

This past year saw the IVGID Board and staff take on some tough issues including bringing the golf course professional staff up to the level of our new golf course, dealing with use of the courses during the off-season, taking steps to create a new cross-country ski area, and an awful lot more that the community barely notices, but without which we would not have the smooth-running infrastructure that makes living here much so great. IVGID Board Chair Gene Brockman and Executive Director Bill Horn have shown that they are more committed to learning and progressing than they are to being right about their positions, a marked contrast to some of the Board Chairs and ED’s I’ve seen since I moved here, and that makes me more than optimistic about 2006.

I had the pleasure during 2005 of interacting with the We the People program at Incline High School and seeing first hand what Milt Hyams and his team have been doing that has had them in national competition year after year, and it gave me great hope and pride in our Incline schools. As long as we have teachers like Milt and programs like We the People, I’m optimistic about 2006 and beyond.

Also this year, though it’s not something I care to do a lot of, I got to experience at close range the services of our local hospital and its nurses and doctors, another cause to be optimistic about 2006.

Our local safety services – the Washoe County Sheriff’s substation and the North Lake Tahoe Fire Protection District were tested in 2005 as they are every year, and the NLTFPD came under yet another siege by those who can’t see beyond the dollar signs, but we would be a much poorer community without the work of Greg Lubbe, Jim Linardos and their teams. With safety and protection like this, how could we not be optimistic about 2006?

And finally, since I write these columns as a volunteer, I’m free to give Mary Jurkonis, Erin Roth, and the Bonanza a pat on the back for being one of the outstanding community newspapers. Mary won a Jefferson Award in 2005, and it was well-deserved. Adlai Stevenson said “The free press is the mother of all our liberties and of our progress under liberty,” and with a paper like the Bonanza, we have reason to be both proud and optimistic.