Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Column 150 – Gibbons (again)

Just when you think there's nothing more to say about Governor Jim Gibbons, he up and pulls another one. Like other grandstanding Republican governors including such luminaries as Sarah Palin and Bobby Jindal, Gibbons has indicated he is considering refusing Federal Stimulus unemployment funds. What makes Gibbons more fun than Palin and Jindal, is that he's so inept at handling the political side of decisions like this.

First of all, he's made it an ideological issue – it's about "the Federal Government usurping state powers." Not really, but doesn't it sound great if you're a 1950's conservative? Then when Reps. Dina Titus and Shelly Berkley (both Democrats, of course – remember Reagan's 11th Commandment) have the temerity to question turning down the funds, he criticizes them for their "attitude that Nevada should bow down to the federal government and give up its own state sovereignty in a mad grab to claim every last penny of stimulus dollars." Wow. Bow down to the federal government? State sovereignty? We're in the worst economic shape since 1929 and this governor is worried about state sovereignty? Give me a break!

Then we find out that, while the staff in the governor's office has been cut substantially (good economic move, except for those fired), the salaries of those remaining are being raised (bad move economically, politically, socially, morally, ethically). Let's cut teachers' salaries and make them pay more for their medical insurance, let's cut money from higher education, let's cut the pay of other state employees, lay them off, etc. But let's give Gibbons' staff a pay raise? I have an idea, let's ask all the people that have taken on more jobs in their work place because other people were let go and didn't get a raise. What do you think they would say?

I've been following the blogs on this last issue, and some people are trying to defend the governor saying it's good business practice – let people go, then raise the salaries of those who remain – after all, it's a net savings – Gibbons' office is under budget (and, incidentally, therefore exempt from legislative review of his practices). You know – like AIG paying "retention bonuses" to the people who stay on, like there aren't ten equally qualified people out of work who could replace them if they left. Well, I work with a lot of businesses – big ones. Businesses with budgets and workforces larger than that of the State of Nevada, and I've noticed something about the companies that aren't looking for a bailout – that are struggling through this downturn. For them, and by them I mean the CEOs of these companies, good business practice includes, but is not limited to, the balance sheet – it includes doing the right thing by their employees and the communities and society of which they're a part. Most of those CEOs, and most of their employees, would rather take a pay cut across the board so that people don't have to lose their jobs. Sure, no one likes it, but no one likes to see their neighbor or co-worker out of work either. Gibbons, apparently, doesn't feel that way about his staff.

I've been tough on Gibbons in these columns – I think he's intellectually, morally, and ethically challenged, and no more fit to be Governor of Nevada than he is to be an Olympic Diver. But can't he at least make a show of giving a damn about the people of the state? To put some vague ideology about "state sovereignty" ahead of jobs, to cut education in a state that's perennially at the bottom of the ladder for educational quality in the country – as Joseph Welch said to another official who put doctrinaire conservatism ahead of basic honesty and humanity: "If it were in my power to forgive you for your reckless cruelty I would do so. I like to think that I am a gentle man, but your forgiveness will have to come from someone other than me…Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?"

By the way, I've heard from a number of you asking if I'm going to write a column on the IVGID Board's reversal on the domestic partner benefits issue. I actually wrote one online, and the Bonanza posted a link to it in last week's paper – if you missed that, it's at or on my blog at or on my Facebook page.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Column 149 – Domestic Partner Benefits Redux

Eighty percent of the IVGID Board got it 100% right last Wednesday. The discussion of reversing their ill-conceived decision to revoke benefits for the domestic partners of IVGID employees got off to a strong start as Trustee Bea Epstein read a statement that was both considered and compassionate in an argument for her motion to reconsider. A surprise came when Trustee Gene Brockman, who had voted for the revocation, said that his concern was based in the current policy's use of a declaration and suggested using an affidavit instead. My dictionary defines an affidavit as "a sworn statement in writing made especially under oath or on affirmation before an authorized magistrate or officer," while a declaration is "a statement made by a party to a legal transaction usually not under oath," so there is a basis for the distinction.

Trustee Chuck Weinberger added a strong statement refuting the three supposed bases for the revocation – finance, danger of abuse, and community sentiment – with clear facts, and after some more conversation, Chairman Ted Fuller opened the floor for public comment from the standing room only crowd, which was overwhelmingly in favor of the motion to reconsider. The most predominant theme of the public comment, particularly an impassioned statement by community activist Barbara Perlman-Whyman, was fairness and equality, and in my view that raised the next hurdle.

Trustee Brockman made the very valid point that married couples were not required to provide proof of their marriage, and if an affidavit were required of domestic partners, then proof of marriage should be required of married couples. So far, so good. He went on, however, to say that in addition to the affidavit of committed relationship, domestic partners should be required to provide other evidence – for example, a joint checking account, joint ownership or lease of a property, which married employees are not required to provide. Oops, there goes the equality. There are plenty of married couples who, for a variety of reasons, don't have joint accounts or joint ownership, and in any case why should any evidence beyond a sworn statement be required? After all, isn't that what a marriage is (in the civil sense) – a sworn statement of commitment?

Here's the deal: there's no such thing as partial equality. To return to the dictionary, "equal" means "identical in mathematical value or logical denotation." Identical. Not similar, not sort of like, not identical up to a point but then one of them has some more, identical. After the 4-1 vote to rescind (about which more in a minute), the Board voted to charge staff with coming up with a new policy that included an affidavit. Hopefully the staff will respond to the Board's and the community's commitment to equality, and come up with a policy that sets equal requirements for all.

Now about that 4-1 vote. After public comment, Trustee John Bohn attempted to thwart the vote, first by conflating the idea of domestic partner benefits with gay marriage and then, in a trifecta of hypocrisy, to suggest that, since the courts have ruled (misguidedly in my view) that the full faith and credit provision of the Constitution did not apply to gay marriage, the Trustees would be violating their oath to uphold the Constitution if they voted for the motion. When it was clear that that tortured "reasoning" was not going to fly, he tried an even more far-fetched idea – that since the majority of Fortune 500 companies have domestic benefit coverage, a minority must not have it. Presumably that was supposed to have some logic to it. Amid cries of "resign" and "recall" from the crowd, Bohn's view was repudiated and the motion, which should have been unanimous, passed 4 to 1. Too bad. A unanimous vote would have gone a long way toward repairing IV/CB's image in the larger world, I guess you can't fix arrogance and Trustee Bohn continues to mistake the limits of his vision for the limits of the world.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Column 148 – Town Center

Aside from the occasional brain spasm by IVGID Trustees, things are notably good here in IV/CB. We can feel the effects of the economic crisis, but arguably not as acutely as they're being felt in other places. Non-profits are certainly feeling it – donations are down sharply, but those fundraising efforts that really matter seem to be holding up. The IHS Boosters crab feed was a success, Project Mana is still able to help people who need food, and local businesses are even pitching in with discounts for people bringing in canned goods that then go to Project Mana.

Even Nature seems to be pitching in. the March snows should go a long way toward saving the winter tourist season, and who knows, we may even be able to launch boats this summer.

The Boulder Bay Project debate has been remarkably civilized and the folks who are promoting the project are going out of their way to listen to those with concerns and reservations. In short, they're acting like real members of the community. Now news reports have indicated that another major development may be in the offing. The "old" (K-2) elementary school on Southwood will be closing soon, and there is starting to be discussion of possibilities for developing that plot, possibly along with the site of the Village Center, though I don't think anyone has asked the tenants of the Village Center how they feel about that. IVGID is being proactive in getting involved in any plans for the school site, and others including my alternate-week colleague Andy Whyman and developer Vince Scott have been looking at possibilities ranging from recreational use, housing, eldercare facilities, and public facilities have been floated. Even more encouragingly, Scott and others have prominently mentioned "green" building as integral to their plans.

In TRPA's Pathways 2007 planning and our own Incline Vision meetings, the notion of a center for the village in the area of the school site and Village Center came up repeatedly. I've lived here for over thirteen years and came here for years before that, and can remember the sense, when I first came here, of there being no "here" here (to steal from Gertrude Stein). IV/CB really has no community center of gravity – we have the Raley's Center, Christmas Tree Village, the Village Center, and the Hyatt/Country Club Center, but none of these provide what I remember "downtown" providing in the small town where I grew up – not so much a commercial center as a place to come together. I can remember on Friday nights, during the Christmas shopping season, and on Sunday afternoons you would run into people you knew downtown. In the first two cases the stores were open late, but on Sundays it was more a matter of the movie matinees, and people going for walks, and generally knowing that downtown was a place you'd see people and have an opportunity to socialize without having to entertain or plan.

I think, and people in the TRPA and Incline planning workshops seemed to largely agree, that we need something like the downtown I remember. Not the glitzy "ski village" that you find at places like Northstar, Squaw, Whistler, Aspen, and Vail – that sort of place isn't for families and residents but rather for tourists. Rather, something more like the idealized "Main Street" of Disney World – small shops, eating places, parks, and walking paths where we can go to be together, talk, and generally be a community.

This being Incline, some will disagree. Any move for change here runs up against those who want things to be as they were 20 or 40 years ago, but that's not going to happen. It seems to me that we have three choices – become a destination resort like Aspen or Whistler, which I don't think anyone wants, remain an aging community where half or so of the residents are here part-time, or be a real community with a diversity of ages, incomes, etc. In order to do the last one, we will need to create the things a community needs – facilities for old and young, opportunities for all, and places to go that accommodate a range of incomes. A town center would be a step in the right direction.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Column 147 – IVGID Board Revokes Domestic Partner Benefits

The published vision of IVGID says, in part, "we will maintain the reputation of our Community as an excellent place to live, work, recreate, visit, and invest." The actions of the IVGID Board of Trustees last week in revoking a long-standing policy of providing benefits to domestic partners of employees has done violence to that vision. The story was quickly picked up by the national media, and the reputation of our community is sadly tarnished.

The Bonanza editorial staff did an excellent job of dissecting the issue on Wednesday, and if you have not read the editorial entitled "An Embarrassing Stance," I recommend you find it online and read it carefully. I won't repeat their points here, but do want to weigh in with a couple of my own.

In Wednesday's page one story on the issue, General Manager Bill Horn is quoted as saying "the newspaper has made a controversial issue." I would submit that blaming the newspaper for the controversy is disingenuous on Mr. Horn's part. The Board created the controversy; the newspaper did its job in reporting it.

One fact not sufficiently emphasized, in my view, is that this is not a new policy, but the revocation of an old one. IVGID has offered domestic partner coverage in the past, and stopped doing so when the District changed to a carrier, St. Mary's, that did not offer this coverage at the time. Since then, St. Mary's has started offering the coverage, and it would seem that continuation of this benefit would be a no-brainer. It's interesting to note that, according to their website, Saint Mary's Preferred Health Insurance Company is a wholly owned subsidiary of Saint Mary's Health Plans which, in turn, is owned by the Sisters of Saint Dominic. Last I looked, the Catholic Church placed a strong value on marriage, yet here is this health plan offering domestic partner benefits. At least 1300 private companies in the US offer this benefit, as do numerous colleges, universities, and municipalities.

Right now, exactly two IVGID employees are affected by this revocation. These same two were covered before the change of carriers. It seems unlikely that this will open the floodgates, and as pointed out by the Bonanza, the total coverage for these two amounts to 0.14% of the total IVGID budget. Some cost savings.

Other arguments advanced for the revocation are equally specious. The real point of domestic partner benefits is fairness. Marriage, where the government is concerned, is a civil contract. The fact that this contract is also, for many, a religious sacrament is irrelevant to a governmental body – only the civil aspect obtains. For IVGID to provide different benefits to those who choose to enter into this contract, which is a private matter, than to those who for whatever reason do not is unfair on the face of it, and that is why the thousands of entities referenced above have domestic partner benefits. A couple declaring a commitment to each other and signing a contract to that effect is a matter of personal choice – the impact is the same; the difference between partners and spouses is, as a civil matter, a moot point.

So at best, the Board's decision (and kudos to Trustees Epstein and Weinberger for opposing it) is unfair. Worse would be if it is an undeclared attempt to impose someone's private morals on others. Worst would be if this is a misguided and covert expression of homophobia. Most egregious, in my view, is Trustee John Bohn's statement that "I just don't think this community supports [this] and we have to represent our constituents." Mr. Bohn is, of course, entitled to think what he wants. What is outrageous is that he then asserts that following his thought, whatever it is based on, is representing the constituency of Incline Village. This is arrogance worthy of Rush Limbaugh.

So there's really only one principle here, I think, and that principle is fairness and equality – two good old American values. By going against the tide of fairness in this area the Board has failed to live up to its vision and has damaged the reputation of our community. What is called for is a reversal of the decision by the Board before further damage is done.