Thursday, April 05, 2007

Column 97 - Incline Vision Town Meeting 2

There is an apocryphal story about a school boy who, upon entering second grade was told that one of the requirements of this school year was that he read a book of his choice, to which he replied “why do I have to read a book? I already read a book!”

I hear a similar plaint from locals about the upcoming Incline Vision Town Meeting and it makes about as much sense to me. “We did planning in 1996 – do we need to do this every ten years?”

Well, I guess the answer is yes. The 1996 planning addressed land use and a lot of good things came out of it over the subsequent years. I moved here in 1995 and a lot has changed for the better in the town since then – we have sidewalks we didn’t have, we have facilities we didn’t have, and in general the physical aspect of the village has improved in many ways. Much of the improvement has come from direct citizen involvement – the sidewalks were, in part, a result of accidents that occurred when people were walking where there were no sidewalks. The pedestrian-operated traffic light at the south end of where the Northwood/ Southwood loop intersects Highway 28 came because a group of citizens were unwilling to wait until someone being injured or killed prompted a safety measure. The skateboard park was a direct citizen effort, and on and on. I guess the connection between the Town Meeting and citizen involvement and these and other improvements is just too indirect for some people to see, but I think it’s real – when people get involved in their community beyond sitting around or writing letters to the paper about what’s wrong and “somebody ought to fix it,” good things happen.

Here’s the thing folks – in an unincorporated area outside the mainstream of county services if the residents don’t get involved, improvement is a hit or miss proposition. In November of 2005, Bea Epstein and a small group of others (full disclosure - I was one of them) took the initiative to raise the question “What do we want Incline Village/Crystal Bay to be like in 2025?” This was before TRPA’s Pathway 2007 got started, before Place-Based Planning, before much of anything was happening in this arena. That group pulled together the second planning effort in ten years and held a Town Meeting with over 300 people present. From that meeting came ten committees focusing on issues ranging from demographics to the environment to arts and culture and to recreation, encompassing a hundred or more concerned individuals that spent the next 18 months planning and working with the other efforts that got started as well. From time to time the effort was declared successful, unnecessary, dying, dead, and revolutionary, and on it went.

Now the time has come for the committees to report out what they have learned and to move from planning to action, and that is the purpose of Saturday’s Town Meeting – to move from vision to action and to come out of the meeting with commitments either for direct citizen action or action to influence the appropriate public bodies and officials.

As I told someone today, I’m too old for cynicism. When I was young and had lots of time, I could afford to say “aw, nothing’s gonna change – it’ll just be meetings every ten years forever.” Now I’m older – I don’t have the luxury of cynicism and if I’m going to help change things for the better I need to do it now. Where will you be Saturday morning? Basketball doesn’t start till 3 – why not take a chance that community involvement makes a difference, even when it takes 10 years or it’s indirect.

Column 96 (National) - Gonzales

The current issues surrounding Attorney General Alberto Gonzales point up again the arrogance and complete lack of accountability of the Bush Administration and the willingness of its hard core of true believers to excuse the most egregious behavior on the part of BushCheneyRove on the flimsiest of pretexts.

At this point it’s probably overkill to point out that the Gonzales affair is only the latest in a long trail of lies, obfuscations, and half-truths going back at least to the non-existent WMD’s in Iraq and Saddam Hussein’s non-existent links to Al Qaeda – that trail wends its way through the abortive nomination of the totally unqualified Harriet Miers for the Supreme Court, on down to the exposure of Valerie Plame and the scapegoating of Scooter Libby as the fall guy for the Administration’s lies about that. Now we have the firing of eight US Attorneys, where we are to believe was somehow just an innocent exercise of executive prerogative.

There is no question that the firings were political. All eight cases bear the same stamp – whether the US Attorneys failed to investigate voter fraud cases that might have reversed Republican victories or whether they pursued corruption charges against Republicans like Duke Cunningham, in every case they resisted interference from Washington and were fired. And please hold the letters to the editor about how Clinton fired all the US Attorneys – there’s a world of difference between pro forma firing and restaffing and firings that targeted specific people who were not, in Sampson’s words “loyal Bushies.” The issue isn’t that they were fired but why they were fired.

We are now to believe that Gonzales, who should be working on his resum̩, or the feckless Ms Miers were behind the firings, but as the Romans said, in investigating guilt, ask cui bono? Who benefits? Neither Miers nor Gonzales had a dog in this fight Рwhy would the Attorney General want to replace conservative US Attorneys, some of whom had just had stellar performance reviews, with party hacks?

The only one who had a motive was Karl Rove. Rove's job is to build a permanent Republican majority; If that means replacing principled conservatives in the US Attorneys Office with Bush loyalists; what in Rove’s record suggests that he or his masters would hesitate?

The Military Commissions Act, the Patriot Act, the disregarding of habeas corpus, due process and the presumption of innocence all proclaim this Administration’s lack of regard for the Constitution and for basic justice. BushCheneyRove also have a low regard for law enforcement; preferring round ups of anyone who might plausibly be detained rather than the traditional methods of investigation and detention.

The Bush Administration is trying to hide behind the doctrine of “executive privilege,” which in this Administration’s case thinly masks contempt for the balance of powers mandated by the Constitution. When Congress rightly demands a public accounting of the actions of public officials, the President offers unsworn “testimony” behind closed doors and without a record, and blusters about a Constitutional Confrontation if he does not get his way, despite the fact that when presidents have tried to invoke this privilege, the courts have been skeptical.

The Bushies’ contempt for Congress should not surprise us. This administration has shown over and over that it does not believe that the laws apply to it, and that it does not respect its co-equal branches of government. Congress should subpoena Mr. Rove and the others, and question them under oath, in public. If Congress has more questions, they should be recalled. That’s Congress’s job- to exercise the “checks and balances” mandated by a document BushCheneyRove do not seem to have read – the Constitution of the United States of America.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Column 95 - Fox News & the NDP

With the move of the Nevada Presidential Primary up to January of 2008, Nevada has assumed an unaccustomed place in the national spotlight. Unfortunately, to some extent, that spotlight seems to have blinded the Nevada Democratic Party leadership to some things.

We have already had one debate among all the Democratic candidates save Obama in Carson City a couple of weeks ago. Another is scheduled, and for reasons that completely escape me, the state party contracted with Fox News to cover the debate. Now I’m no media expert, but that seems to me about as logical as having Al Jazeera cover a Zionist Organization of America convention.

Sure enough, a great hue and cry arose from various Liberal organizations protesting this choice, most notably from Roger Ailes, the head of Fox News and a former Nixon aide (and the man responsible for bringing Rush Limbaugh to national attention) immediately jumped on this as “outside forces” attempting to affect Nevada politics (an area that Ailes has shown no particular interest in in the past).

This seems to me to be a bit disingenuous on Mr. Ailes’ part. While the debate was to take place in Nevada and was aimed at the Nevada primary, it was nonetheless a debate among presidential candidates and as one of the early primaries, it is arguably of national interest and import, but Fox news, which is also the TV home of Bill O’Reilly and what he (without a trace of irony) calls “the no-spin zone” has repeatedly shown that it is not interested in being “fair and balanced,” but is a mouthpiece for Conservative views.

With the issue starting to be raised, Democratic candidates began to rethink their participation in the debate. Finally Ailes gave them and the Nevada Party the excuse they needed to get out of the mess without looking like they caved in to those big bad liberals at MoveOn. In a speech last week he conflated Obama and Osama in a poor attempt at humor and the debate cancelled Fox’s coverage, which Tom Collins, Nevada Democratic Chair should have had the guts to do a long time ago and the judgment not to have done in the first place.

There are 21 months left until the Presidential Election of 2008, and everyone I know is looking forward to it with dread, not because of the candidates or the issues but because it looks like it will bring one more very long round of mudslinging and dirty campaigning that will make the “swiftboating” of John Kerry look like a Sunday School picnic. Fox and other right-wing outlets are already trotting out unfounded insinuations about Hillary’s “thick ankles” (if that’s a disqualifying attribute, Newt Gingrich should give up now) and her supposed sexual preferences, Obama’s fictional mid-East ties, etc., and it will only get worse unless we, the public let the candidates and the media know we’re sick of it. Not much hope there, I’m afraid, but it’s worth a try. What do you say? Send a letter to your favorite media outlet, whether it’s Fox, Air America, CNN, or the local stations and to your party’s potential candidates and let them know you’d like to see a campaign on the issue and not on nonsense. Hey – it could happen.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Column 94 - Let's Talk Trash

Let’s Talk Trash

Overall, “trash” is a profit center for IVGID; if you include the franchise fee paid by Waste Management to IVGID. Within that profit center; recycling loses money, more than one half of which is offset by the recycling fee paid by each property of $1.25 a month. That’s right, each homeowner and homeowners association pays a whopping $15 a year for this service. Seems like a bargain to me.

No one I’ve talked to or heard from is against the recycling program, but according to figures given to IVGID by Waste Management, only about 40% of the properties that put out garbage also put out recycling – not a great showing, but better than nothing. Waste Management recycling has been called limited when compared, say to California, where state law requires a much broader scope of recyclables be picked up and processed. WM takes all kinds of glass (except blue – sorry Skyy drinkers), most metal containers, and plastic bottles with a number 1 or 2 recycling classification. They also take newspaper and other kinds of paper. You can recycle corrugated cardboard, but only if you bring it to the WM facility on Sweetwater, which is open normal business hours during the week and until noon on weekends.

Recycling is one of the few things around that has almost no downside. The more products we recycle and reuse, the less energy is needed to manufacture new products, the fewer trees are cut down to make new paper, the more money the recycling companies make and the more money comes back to IVGID under the contract with WM. The 40% rate of recycling participation here may be due to lots of part-time residents or to a need for education. Making recycling easier and recycling more materials may also help increase participation.

The argument has been advanced that expanding the recycling program might increase the cost to homeowners. Okay, but even if it were to increase by a factor of 5, that means we’d go to $6.25 a month or $75 a year, a figure that’s not going to break or even be noticed by anyone. I spend more than $6.25 a month at Starbuck’s. Right now we recover about 3.25% recyclables from the total volume of trash collected. Estimates are that expanding to other plastics, picking up cardboard at curbside, etc. could increase that recovery rate into the teens.

The one troubling thing in all this is a question that no one I’ve asked has answered to any degree of satisfaction, namely why the contract for trash/recycling pickup is not put out for competitive bid. I’ve heard explanations ranging from “all the potential bidders subcontract to WM (true) and won’t bid against them (maybe)” to “WM is mob-connected and bad things would happen (patently ridiculous). But we won’t know if competitive bidding will make a difference if IVGID doesn’t put out a request for bids and see if they get any.

While I know that there is such a thing as no-bid (also known as sole source) contracts, these are generally used only in unusual situations. Such as when only one firm has a product that will meet the government's needs or only one firm can do the work, or when national security is involved. I see no compelling reason for IVGID to sole source contract for trash and recycling.

There is still time to make your thoughts known to the Board. I for one would like to see (a) recycling expanded to include a wider range of plastics and curbside pickup for corrugated cardboard, and (b) Requests for bids to go out to other providers in the area – if no one bids, fine, but let’s give the little guys a chance against WM, the thousand pound gorilla of the industry. What do you think?

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Column 93 - Responsibility

Well, last week the wider world intruded on us in an unpleasant way. Four Incline High Juniors are accused of sabotaging the school buses in a way that could have resulted in damage and even potentially loss of life. As usual, school officials and people who know the accused say they are nice kids, never would have expected it, etc., and I have no doubt that is true.

Now this is no Columbine, but it still is cause for concern. I’m sure the four of them never thought far enough ahead to realize the potentially disastrous results of their actions, but while that might mitigate their guilt, it does not remove it. These are eleventh graders – if they don’t already drive, they will be eligible to drive soon, and they are a scant 18 months from leaving home, high school graduates, ready to go out on their own into the world – I don’t think it’s too much to expect that they should have given the implications of their actions more thought.

No one knows for sure why many young people today seem to be so prone to irresponsibility. I don’t think it’s all young people or even a majority, but it’s a large enough number for the problem to keep showing up – in school shootings, vandalism, graffiti, and now in cutting brake lines on school buses. As a psychologist who used to work with children, adolescents, and their families, I feel like I should understand, but have no confidence that I do. One possibility is that the consequences are just too remote for people of that age to think about.

Here’s an example: When I was about 10 or 11 years old, Nancy Brown and her brother Bruce offended me in some way that I can no longer remember, so some of my friends and I got a bright idea – we took some excelsior (shredded paper that bananas came in) and a .22 caliber bullet that we got God knows where, embedded the bullet in the paper, put it under Nancy’s window, lit the paper and ran away. Within minutes two things happened: a neighbor put out the fire and a police car, called by another neighbor, pulled up in front of my friends and me and took us into custody. Not more than 15 minutes after setting our primitive IED, I was in front of my parents with a policeman behind me, confessing what I had done and on the receiving end of some serious consequences.

It seems to me that this would be unlikely to happen nowadays. More likely the neighbors, if they were looking at all, would have felt it best to mind their own business, the police, if they were called, would have been careful not to violate any rights I might be thought to have, and my parents would have tried to understand or defended me against the police rather than punishing me. Perhaps I’m being too harsh, but it seems to me that we have lost sight of the facts that (a) children are essentially amoral beings who have to be taught right from wrong and (b) the systems – police, teachers, parents – that are there to teach them and to make sure that bad choices have undesirable consequences have had their hands tied by fear of seeming abusive, violating “rights” that may or may not be useful and a culture of psychologism that makes responsibility a bad word.

I feel for the parents of these four children, but I hope that, if they are guilty, their punishment is significant enough to have them learn something useful. The worst thing they could learn would be that they can do something wrong and then they or their parents or a lawyer can game the system so that they escape the consequences of their choices and their actions.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Column 91 - Recycling

Most of you will be relieved to hear that I won’t be writing another column about John Bohn, but I will take one last word. If last week’s letters in which Bohn and his cronies trotted out the “sore loser” chestnut is the best he’s got, then I think that it’s likely that the complaints filed with the state and any recall effort anyone decides to undertake will likely be successful. The State Board of Ethics has let me know they have decided to look into the matter, so I’ll leave the rest up to you, the residents to say what kind of person you want on the Board.

Now to other matters that deserve our attention. As you may have heard by now, the IVGID Board, at its meeting tonight, will have its first hearings on the renewal of the contract with Waste Management, the company that handles trash and recycling in the District. In this hearing, the public has the opportunity to give the Board its input on this matter, one that affects all of us.

To be sure, Waste Management has been doing a good job for the District to date. They have shown that recycling is a viable business for them in Incline and when you factor in the fees they pay, it is profitable to the District as well. For a very small part of our utility bill we have the advantage of having much of our recyclable trash picked up at curbside and the ability to bring other recyclables, particularly corrugated cardboard, to the facility as well.

Still, we could have more. Right now only number 1 and 2 plastic bottles are accepted for recycling, leaving other plastics to go into the trash. Judging my what I see in the streets on trash pick-up days, many people do not bring corrugated cardboard in to be recycled, and non-corrugated cardboard of the type used in many household items is not accepted for recycling. Finally, the trash/recycling facility on Sweetwater is open only until noon on weekends.

If you believe as I do that recycling has a clear benefit to the environment, tonight’s meeting is an opportunity to let the Board and Waste Management know you want more – not because there is anything wrong with the job they’ve done to date – there isn’t - but because we’ve sent the benefits of that to the District and to the environment and want to extend those benefits.

I would like to see pickup of all cardboard – corrugated or not – at curbside, extension of the plastics recycling to containers other than bottles and extension of the facility’s hours until 4 or 5 on weekends so that residents who spend their day building or cleaning up aren’t restricted to the morning hours to bring in their trash or recycling.

Whether you agree with this or not, tonight is an opportunity to make your views heard by the Board early in the contract renewal process, while there is still time for them and Waste Management to research the impact of these proposals and see what makes economic and environmental sense.

If we can turn out a couple of hundred people for a debate on a non-issue like “affordable housing” then surely we can pack the hall for this, an issue that will have immediate effects on all of us.

Column 92 (National) - Education

Due to a combination of work travel and a death in the family, I missed the deadline for a head-to-head column with Jim Clark last Sunday. The Bonanza was kind enough to provide space today, and since Jim addressed education, I’ll do the same.

I agree with Jim that the data on all-day kindergarten are not persuasive, and it was probably a good move on Governor Gibbons’ part not to commit to it. I don’t know that I would attribute quite the same dark motives to those who support all-day kindergarten that Jim does, but in a time of limited education budgets, it doesn’t seem like a good bet to me.

For the past year or so I’ve been working with an organization called the Center for Excellence in Research, Teaching, and Learning (CERTL) at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. CERTL has mostly been involved in curriculum improvement, but more recently was impressed with a very substantial body of data that indicates that communication and collaboration amongst teachers, administrators, students, and parents is a, if not the critical determinant of student achievement. Based on that, CERTL asked the organization I work for to join with them under a grant from the National Education Association to do a pilot program to see if, by improving communication we could impact student achievement. We are working with six schools in Winston-Salem – we purposely targeted the six schools in the district that are in the most trouble under No Child Left Behind standards and have been working with the Principals and key staff in these schools.

I just got back from our third workshop session with the teams from the schools – we have two people from CERTL who provide on-site coaching and support between the workshops – and was very impressed with the progress the schools are making. Trust and morale levels are rising, even in a couple of the schools where communication had been pretty much non-existent. More importantly, students are starting to feel the impact of the change. Let me tell you about one example:

Jerilyn is a first-grader who has been a behavior problem since day one. Finally the teacher called in the school guidance counselor, who is a participant in our program, to evaluate him. The counselor, using communication and listening skills she attributed to her work with us, heard something and asked Jerilyn “do you like to read?” Jerilyn replied in his usual surly tone “yeah.” She went on to ask, “do you like to read hard books?” “yeah.” So she had him start reading – first grade, second grade, third grade level books – he breezed through them all, so she took him to the Librarian who gave him more advanced books – up to fifth grade level and he aced them all. She gave him a comprehension test and found he understood what he was reading perfectly. The Counselor then took him around to the Principal, the Assistant Principal and others and had him read for them.

On the way back to his classroom, Jerilyn burst into tears. Asked why, he said “This is the best day of my life! Nobody ever bragged on me before, nobody ever told me I was smart.”

Jim talked about the Edmonton Experiment in schools running themselves – that experiment is based on the same premise as our work in Winston-Salem – that if you give teachers the freedom to teach and don’t hogtie them with tests, regulations, arbitrary standards, and red tape, they will teach and students will learn – that’s all they want to do, and given the opportunity they will do it. It’s very early days for Governor Gibbons, and readers of this column will know that I’m no fan of his. But if he is serious about implementing self-determination for our schools and our teachers, he’ll have my support on that at least, and I’d urge you to ask our representatives in the legislature to support this very worthwhile program.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Column 90 - The Board's Responsibility

Tom Meyer’s article in Sunday’s Bonanza asks “Did the Board Fumble the Process” of selecting a replacement for Bev Mapps. I’m afraid the question could be answered “yes” based at least on the expectations the Board created in people’s minds.

Last week, as most readers will know by now, the IVGID Board of Trustees selected Chuck Weinberger to fill the seat vacated by Bev Mapps’ resignation. I say “selected” rather than “elected” because by all accounts the process that IVGID HR Director Susan Johnson designed and the Board spent hours debating in December went by the boards (no pun intended) when push came to shove.

To forestall reaction, let me be clear – I have no issue with Mr. Weinberger’s being selected, I think the idea of a younger member of the community on the Board is a good one, and his background seems very well suited to the job. I held no particular brief for or against any of the other 13 candidates, and do a little dance of joy every time I remember that I withdrew my name from consideration.

At the same time, I think there are a couple of issues that can’t be ignored. The Board had a procedure that they were understood to have adopted (though it’s not clear that they actually did); it was thought by many who attended the meetings that they were to select from the 14 candidates a top 3 and then debate that top 3 to elect a new Trustee. They spent all day interviewing the candidates then the Board discussed their top 3, and on a pre-emptive motion elected Mr. Weinberger. At the very least this flouted the expectation the Board had created with many in the community and in the view of at least some of those who put their hat in the ring disrespected their candidacy.

This clumsy process may be reflective of good reasons, but it further undermines public confidence in a Board that has already seen its integrity compromised by a (now former) Chairman’s ill-considered, unethical, and possibly criminal actions last year and by that same individual’s high-handed dealing with the public in what are, by law, supposed to be open and transparent processes. The new Chair is Trustee Bea Epstein, and I can’t think of a better person for the job, but she has her work cut out for her in restoring the public’s confidence that the IVGID Board are really acting as Trustees of the District’s and its residents’ interests.

Hopefully Ms Epstein will take the lead in ending the Boards appearing by its silence to tolerate Trustee Bohn’s actions last year in withholding news of Ms Mapps’ resignation until after he was re-elected. Complaints have been filed by residents with the Nevada Commission on Ethics, the Sheriff’s Department, and the Attorney General’s office, but the Board’s has thus far allowed Bohn to stonewall the public and stifle any inquiry into what to me seems a clear conflict of interest. If my email and conversations around town (many with people who start by saying they have never agreed with anything I’ve written before) are any indication, a large segment of the public in both Incline and Crystal Bay has lost any confidence they may have had in the Board and in the governance of the District.

What is likely is that the Ethics Commission, the Sheriff, and the Attorney General will be too long in following this up if they follow it up at all. If the Board does not take action to call Trustee Bohn to account and Bohn does not do the honorable thing and resign, the only recourse left to the public will be a recall. By my reckoning, this would require the signatures of 800 to 900 District voters, which is not an impossible number and there are people who will take it on, I’m sure.

Still it would be far better for the community if the Board were to police itself, and I hope that Chairwoman Epstein will make this a high priority – I can think of no better way to start a new term of the Board than by making a clear statement that arrogance and wrongdoing will not be tolerated.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Column 89 - civility

I’ve spent the past week or so in Hawai’i on vacation, and while I’m here, as I always do, I’ve been reading the local newspapers. One thing that struck me here is that the Hawai’i legislature has overwhelming Democratic majorities in both houses, the recently re-elected Governor is a Republican. Despite this disparity, the legislative and executive branches seem to work together well and accomplish a great deal.

Interestingly enough in addition, the letters to the editor in the Honolulu Advertiser and the Star-Bulletin are quite civil. Writers certainly do not hold back on their opinions but they state those opinions without personal attacks and name-calling. Friends and family here who read the Bonanza are quite surprised and disconcerted at the nastiness of letters to the editor in our little paper.

I wonder why this is so. Are people in the Aloha state somehow more polite? Are they smarter? Or does the balmy island weather just take their edge off? Or is there just a small group of people in Incline who prefer personal attacks and name-calling to reasoned discourse?

I think I speak for Jim Clark and Andy Whyman when I say that those of us who write opinion columns in the Bonanza try to keep those columns reasoned and on the topic. We don’t expect everyone to agree with us or even anyone to agree with us – these are, after all, our own opinions – but it’s interesting to me that there are four or five people who seem to think that vituperation is a clever or intelligent response.

When I began to write my column and then again when I ran for office last year, a great many people told me they hoped I had a “thick skin,” and for the most part I think I do. But at the same time I have to wonder what motivates people who think that the fact that Andy or Jim or I state our opinion in a public forum gives them license for personal attacks and name-calling.

To give these individuals their due, I guess it takes a modicum more courage and integrity to write a signed letter to the editor (the Bonanza doesn’t accept unsigned letters) than it does to flame someone anonymously on the web, but I don’t think it’s that much more. I don’t doubt that they have friends who prefer to remain anonymous and who cheer them on, and I guess that’s a plus.

Still I have noted that I never see these individuals at IVGID meetings, particularly the ordinary meetings, or active in Rotary or Parasol or other community activities. Maybe they think their contribution lies in the supposed cleverness of their shots at those who do, but I have to say that after being in Hawai’i it just seems petty and nasty.

So I’ll keep writing and speaking out, as I’m sure will Jim and Andy and others, and I won’t give the snipers the satisfaction of our silence or withdrawal. I just wish they’d come up with something useful to say.