Monday, May 31, 2010

Bonanza Column 187 – The Washoe County DA

This column began some years ago as a point-counterpoint between Jim Clark and me, representing the right and left, respectively. We quickly discovered, however, that while Jim and I may disagree on political issues on the State and National level, more often than not we are pretty close on local matters.
In his column last week, Jim asserted that it's time for a change in the Washoe County District Attorney's office, and on this one I couldn't agree with him more, though at the end of the day we will probably disagree about who to replace him with, Jim and I are of one mind that Dick Gammick should go. (Though by the way, Jim, it's the Black Knight in Monty Python who keeps getting limbs hacked off and keeps on coming, proclaiming "I'm alright!" The French Knight stays in the castle and hurls first imprecations ("Your parents were silly people" and then a cow.)
Despite Jim's weak knowledge of the Monty Python canon, he's quite right about DA Gammick, who seems to think his job is to stall and obfuscate rather than to execute on the court's decision, no matter how many times the various courts tell him he must. It strikes me as very strange that the chief legal officer of the County seems to think it is his job to use legal chicanery to subvert what the courts, through due process, have found to be the appropriate legal action.
Lord Acton famously said "power corrupts," and for the most part we think of this as moral corruption. Officials of the Minerals Management Service cavorting with oil company executives comes to mind as an example. But there is another, more pernicious form of corruption that occurs when highly placed officials forget who they work for. When corporate executives put profits ahead of the public good (think BP) or when an elected official like Gammick thinks it is his job to protect the county's coffers rather than execute the office to which he was elected, it seems to me that that is as corrupt as any of the other actions.
It's time for the courts to put an end to this foolishness and dismiss these transparent attempts to stall the process. I know the County will take a financial hit from having to provide the refunds, but we in Incline, to whom the refunds are due, have absorbed our own financial hit for years as the County Assessor systematically milked the supposed Incline cash cow for the County's benefit. It's also time for the County to recognize that, like the explorer who was captured by cannibals and bled for their ceremonies, we are tired of getting stuck for the drinks. If you look at the rate of short sales and foreclosures in IV/CB, at the number of properties for sale, at the growing vacancies of commercial space, we are at least as hard-hit by the economic turmoil as the rest of the County, and while I for one don't mind paying my fair share, if I'm going to do more than that, I'd like it to be by my choice.
I sincerely hope that DA Gammick will be defeated in the primary next week. Either way, the question to be asked of candidates for the November election is "do you intend to execute the courts' orders with regard to refunding tax overpayments from IV/CB?" Hopefully we will have two good candidates to whom we can direct this question. If, however, one of the candidates is Dick Gammick, I recommend to your attention Roger Whomes – he has stated that he is on our side, so let's give him a chance to prove it;

Friday, May 28, 2010

Huffington Post Column 19 – What Will We Learn from the Gulf Oil Spill?

The tragedy of the Gulf oil spill has, predictably, raised cries from environmentalists to end offshore drilling once and for all, with corresponding escalation of "drill, baby, drill" from those who would oppose motherhood if environmentalists came out for it.

I'm no fan of offshore drilling – or of oil as our primary energy source. Experiences prior to the Gulf such as Santa Barbara, the Exxon Valdez, etc., make it clear to me that as long as we are dependent on oil, foreign or domestic, there will inevitably be environmental damage.

Most endeavors entail an element of risk, no matter how well they are managed. Despite that, after the Challenger disaster in 1986, NASA instituted a "Zero Defect" program and maintained a flawless safety record until relaxed vigilance led to the Columbia's destruction in 2003. Still, 17 years is an impressive run, by and large. By contrast, the Mariner Group documented a history of some 120 oil spills worldwide between 1967 and 2004 and about a billion gallons spilled since 2000. It's hard to assess these data without comparing it to the total amount of offshore drilling, but the raw amount spilled and number of spills seems undeniably consequential. That combined with the geopolitical results of our dependency on foreign oil is sufficient to persuade me that we need to accelerate our research into alternative energy sources.

But evidence is mounting that the BP Deepwater Horizon spill may have been the result of negligence and corner-cutting both by BP and by some government agencies, and if that is the case, it takes it out of the realm of accidents and into that of criminal liability. While it will take some time for a full investigation, and current priority is rightly on stopping the undersea gusher, the presumptive evidence is mounting. Whistle blowers are coming forward who suggest that BP knew of potential problems and ignored them, up to just before the blowout. BP's estimate of the damage have been consistently well below those of government and independent assessors, and a pattern of buck-passing is already well under way.

If, as seems likely, it is the case that BP was negligent and/or attempted to cover up or dodge their accountability, it seems to me that several actions are called for: First, Congress should immediately rescind the cap on liability judgments – if BP turns out not to have been negligent or is not liable, this will do no harm, but if they are, it is a necessary protection for families in the Gulf who have lost income, property, and even lives to the spill and its aftermath . Second, the Federal Government should vigorously pursue criminal charges against all concerned, and should demonstrate once and for all that it is no longer in thrall to Halliburton, big oil, or anyone else. Finally, the administration should vigorously clean its own house, particularly in the Department of the Interior, particularly the corruption in the Minerals Management Service.

Most importantly, though, we must derive from this colossal failure lessons learned and put into action that are commensurate with the loss of life, property, and environmental security. We have available numerous alternative sources of energy that, while none of them is perfect, are cleaner and safer than fossil fuels. Wind, solar, and even nuclear (to the horror of my environmentalist friends) seem preferable to me and would free us of the political and environmental difficulties inherent in what the former President termed our "addiction to oil," an addiction that is fueled by big oil and its ability to corrupt elected officials and government agencies.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Bonanza Column 186 – Memorial Day 2010

When I was a kid, growing up in the Adirondacks, it was called Decoration Day and in addition to a parade and a day with no school, it was observed by decorating the graves of war dead with flowers. In our town, the war dead went back to the Revolution, and included a number of graves of Civil War veterans, World War One soldiers, and most poignantly in those days when we could still remember it and we knew people who fought and some who died in World War Two, that recent war as well.

In 1967 it was officially renamed Memorial Day and moved from the traditional May 30 to the last Monday in May, but it remains what it was – a time for a nation that has not fought a war on its home soil since 1865 – and so could easily distance itself from the wars it has and does fight – to pause and remember those who fought and died to give us that luxury.

Patriotism, support for the military, and honoring the dead and missing has, sadly, become a partisan issue in recent years. One side stakes a proprietary claim to these virtues and the other has become accustomed to being on the defensive about it. That's both a shame and a sham. No ideology, neither end of the avian spectrum from hawks to doves has the rights to love of country or to appreciation of the sacrifices our military people, past, present, and future make. A person can hate war in general or any given war in particular, but that's about war and conflict as a means of resolving differences, not about love of country and certainly not in any way related to how they feel about the people who, voluntarily or by conscription, fight the wars that are waged.

In our community we have a very active group of veterans that spans the eras from WW 2 to Afghanistan – men and women who served in peace and in war and who continue to serve by looking after each other and veterans who are less fortunate than they are. We also have a local firm that makes it their business each Memorial Day to see to it that there is a community observance to honor veterans and remember the fallen and missing. This year that community observance will be combined with a celebration of the anniversary of our community's founding, making an entire day of activity on Saturday, followed by the veteran's association holding a dinner.

In front of the high school in my home town there was a statue of a World War One doughboy, weary, exhausted. Engraved on the base of the statue were the words "Lest We Forget," and at the cemetery each Memorial Day someone would read the most famous of the Poems that came out of that war, John MacRae's "In Flanders Fields." I always recall the closing lines of that poem: "If ye break faith with us who die/We shall not sleep, though poppies grow/In Flanders fields."

I for one would like to see a return to Memorial Day being more than simply the "official beginning of Summer" – to its being the holiday when we remember MacRae's admonition and Lincoln's words at Gettysburg, "that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Huffington Post Column 18 - To the Tea Party - It's Not Your Country

In the late 1950's I attended and then worked at a Jewish camp in the Delaware Water Gap area where New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey come together. Near the camp was a town that, we were told, was the headquarters (national or local I'm not sure) of the German-American Bund, a pro-Nazi organization, during the war. In that town was a hotel that explicitly refused to serve Jews and with which we made great sport of going to and getting thrown out of.


That was, as I said, in the late '50's. In 1964, the Civil Rights Act became law in the United States, and what was legal in 1958 became illegal. Like it or not, that hotel would serve Jews, African-Americans, and anyone else that came through its doors, and, I believe, the US became a better place for that.


All of this came up for me as I watched Rachel Maddow interview Rand Paul after his primary victory in Kentucky (see the interview here). In what may have been one of the best TV interviews ever, Rachel, for 15 minutes, without interrupting or being rude, without raising her voice or being in any way unpleasant, asked one question: "Do you believe stores and restaurants should be allowed to deny service based on race, gender, sexual preference, etc.?" She asked it in as many different ways she could, and tried to get an answer from Dr. Paul who bobbed and weaved in an equal number of ways, doing anything he could other than answering the question yes or no.


I don't know much about Rand Paul. He's a physician and is the son of Libertarian Ron Paul. He ran in the Kentucky GOP primary to run for Sen. Jim Bunning's seat, and won the primary by 23% over his closest opponent, running as a "Tea Party" candidate. He began his acceptance speech after the primary victory by saying "I have a message from the Tea Party – we've come to take our country back," leavin very little doubt as to where he stands and whom he represents. In fact, he mentioned the Tea Party nine times and Kentucky only once in his four-minute speech.


So I don't think it's a leap to go from Paul's evasiveness on the subject of discrimination in public accommodations to the Tea Party's being populated overwhelmingly by white people, to a concern for a return to the bad old days that had Rebers Hotel refuse service to me and my fellow counselors.


It would be way too ironic if the election of an African-American President is the stimulus for undoing fifty years of progress in Civil Rights, but I really can't account for the sudden and virulent resurgence of the Radical Right any other way. Granted, best estimates of the Tea Party's membership puts it at between 15 and 20% of the electorate at most, and even Mitch McConnell, no mean rightie in his own right, opposed Paul's nomination, and mainstream Republicans (whatever that means) like Michael Steele and Karl Rove (did I just say Karl Rove is mainstream?) haven't rushed to defend him. Still, I find it worrisome.


The bottom line is I don't buy that the country is theirs to take back, unless by "take back" they mean back to the days of the Bund and the KKK. That's not the country that my parents emigrated to in the 1920's, and it's not the country I grew up to believe in, even growing up in those same bad old days. We have a teacher teaching geometry using angles for assassinating the President as his case in point, we have the President being burned in effigy in Wisconsin, but I refuse to believe that this is any more powerful a lunatic fringe than was the Bund in its effort to vilify FDR ("President Rosenfeld") and to get the US to either stay out of the war in Europe or to enter it on the Nazi's side.


I have a message for Rand Paul and the Tea Party: "It's not your country, and we, the true heirs of Jefferson and Lincoln, aren't giving it up." November is the election that counts, and we need to make it a clear statement to the bullies on the Right that they are not in charge.


Sunday, May 16, 2010

Bonanza Column 185 – Trustees, not Representatives

Before I get to this week's subject, a personal note. Very often when I'm out and about in the community, people will tell me that they like my columns, or even that while they don't always agree with me, they appreciate the way I approach my topics. On the other hand, there are people who post on the Bonanza website and are just insulting – my favorite is the person who said "no one cares what you think, Ed" (well, you did – enough to read and comment). Sometimes people will say I don't have my facts straight – when they correct something I got wrong, I appreciate it, but mostly they just make the accusation, which suggests to me that (a) they don't like the facts I cite or (b) they don't know the difference between facts and interpretations. In any case, thanks to all of you who read thoughtfully. For the others, be assured, I'm not going anywhere. Live with it.

Now to business: With the primary and the election coming up, it seems worthwhile to me to review some things about the IVGID Board of Trustees.

First of all, there's that term "Trustees." A trustee is "a … person to whom property is legally committed to be administered for the benefit of a beneficiary." There's something important to notice there – a trustee administers on behalf of the beneficiary. They don't represent the beneficiary and they're not accountable to the beneficiary. The IVGID Board is charged with administering the assets of the District, but they're not our representatives. – we get to elect them every two years, and so if we don't feel they're operating for our benefit, we can replace them, and as public officials they are required to give us the opportunity to be heard on issues we're concerned about, but if, in the last analysis, they decide that what is going to benefit the District has them act contrary to what some or many people want, they not only have the right to do that, but they have a legal obligation to do that.

A representative, for example in Congress, on the other hand is supposed to do just that – represent the views of his or her constituents. We can't all be there to vote on the laws, so we elect someone to represent us. Since this is a democratic republic, the majority rules, and so it's not unreasonable for a congressperson to represent the majority view in his or her district, perhaps to the detriment of the minority. That's pretty much what democracy is about – the rule of the majority, with the courts there to watch to protect the rights of the minority if the representatives go against the founding principles of the republic.

So what we are electing in November is Trustees, not Representatives. Years ago, the people who then lived in the area decided that a GID was the form of government they wanted, and instituted it. Since then many people living here have tried to change that to a different form of government – a town, a county – that would expand the purview of the governing body beyond water, sewer, trash, and recreation and would provide for a governing body that would be more accountable as representatives, but so far that hasn't gone anywhere.

So when we judge an incumbent like Gene Brockman or any of the aspirant candidates, we should judge Gene's record and the statements and proposals of all of the candidates based on what the job is – to hold our community assets in trust and to be good stewards – to administer them for our benefit. One measure of stewardship is that a good steward leaves the assets entrusted to him or her more valuable than they were when the steward took office. When I hear about so-called "financial conservatism" that sounds a lot like "don't spend any money," I wonder if that will leave the community's assets more valuable. When I look at the Trustees spending money to fight lawsuits that would devalue our beaches, I see them doing their job.

Last week's Bonanza's "Word on the Street" asked "Does the IVGID Board Represent you?" With all due respect to my colleagues, I think this was the wrong question – I would have asked "Does the IVGID Board Do a Good Job of Caring for the Community's Assets?" That's the question. Now, on June 8 and in November, let's answer that question the only way that matters – at the ballot box.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Bonanza Column 184 – IVGID Candidates and a Quick Note on the Governor

Last Monday's IVGID Candidate Forum sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce and the Bonanza was, overall, very informative and well done. Most of the six candidates (the June 8 primary will eliminate two) for the two open seats were thoughtful and conducted themselves well, keeping to the issues and the questions put to them and refraining from attacking each other.

Some themes emerged from the questions and answers. One obvious concern was finances – IVGID has an aging infrastructure that will cost money to repair, and this raises concerns and questions about where the money is going to come from, etc.

It was clear that most of the candidates had done their homework and they were able to answer some complex questions pretty cogently. Because questions were formulated in advance, mostly by Bonanza readers with some by Bonanza staff, many addressed candidates' previous statements and positions, and here in some cases the candidates acquitted themselves less well. Particularly this early in the game I don't expect candidates to be thoroughly versed in the minutiae of the IVGID budget etc., but if a candidate has made it a plank in their platform to improve something, I think it's reasonable to expect them to provide some specifics on how they will do that, and in this some of the candidates' answers were woefully insufficient.

There was one trend I found disturbing on a couple of levels. It's one thing, and I think it's fair game, to run against the record of the current Board of Trustees – to cite, for example, some instances where you think they have spent money unwisely and to say how you would have handled it. I don't think, however, that it's fair or wise to run against the IVGID staff. It's easy to criticize, but the staff works under the Board's direction. In my experience the IVGID staff are to a person hard-working, dedicated, and competent, and where the candidates are concerned the staff are not in a position to defend themselves. More importantly, candidates, if you are elected you will be working with this staff – are you sure you want to start off in an antagonistic relationship with them?

Some minor fuss has been made of one candidate's mention of the General Manager's salary and the budget item for IVGID to provide the GM with a vehicle every few years. Again, if you want to get people's attention, it's easy to do that by talking about money, but both items are, in my view, specious. The GM makes as much as the Governor of Nevada – so what? He also makes orders of magnitude less than officers in the private sector who manage smaller organizations and smaller budgets and who have a lot fewer resource constraints. Of what possible relevance is the comparison to the Governor. A company car is not at all unusual as a benefit for someone whose job is 24/7 and takes him all over the district. Most companies and agencies consider it more economical than trying to figure out how to reimburse such an official for use of his private vehicle.

The point, candidates, is this: tell us what you're for, not what you're against. Offer solutions, not criticism or problems. If there are areas you think you can make work better for us, the residents whose assets you propose to hold in trust, tell us how, and be specific. Don't get sucked into the temptation to just criticize and complain – we have enough of that around this community; let's hear how you'll make it better.


On another quick note, Governor Dim Gibbons seems to have stepped in it again. He took an answer that his opponent, Brian Sandoval, gave to an inane interview question some years ago, took it out of context, and is trying to use it to label Sandoval an anti-Semite. I guess the guv's getting desperate. Don't get me wrong, I would love to see Gibbons as the GOP candidate – I'm a Rory Reid supporter – but really, Sandoval is very good and would be a better governor than Gibbons has been on his best day, and he doesn't deserve this level of mud-slinging.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

HuffPo Column 17 – Who’s the Bigger Threat: Shahzad or McCain and Lieberman?

After 9/11 we heard from a great many public figures that if we changed our way of life, if we allowed that incident to cause us to live in fear, "the terrorists will have won." Now almost ten years later, it seems that, in the minds of many on the right, the terrorists have, by that definition, won.

In the wake of the failed Times Square car bomb, we have heard from John McCain, Joe Lieberman, and many others on the right that Faisal Shahzad should not have been given his Miranda rights, that he should be tried by a military tribunal, that the FBI and NYPD should have deferred to the intelligence community in the investigation, etc. Given the apparent lag between his being put on the no-fly list and his boarding the airplane at JFK, we can expect to hear more justification for profiling, etc.

Let's assume, as seems very likely, that Faisal Shahzad did all the things he is accused of having done – and let's assume that he did so with training and some sort of support from terrorist groups in Pakistan or Afghanistan. He is an American citizen and the US Constitution guarantees to anyone accused of a crime in the United States, regardless of citizenship, the presumption of innocence, the right to due process, etc. What McCain, Lieberman, and the others are saying, in effect, is "damn the Constitution; when we are in danger, all that goes by the boards." If we buy that, then the terrorists will, indeed have won.

Bear in mind that this is not your father's war. In the World Wars, in Korea, even in Vietnam, the issue was occupation of territory. World domination would go to whichever power occupied (and therefore ruled) the largest area of the world. The goal of the so-called Islamic Fundamentalists (and any serious student of Islam will tell you they are neither) is not primarily to occupy territory, it is to destroy any way of life, any view of the world that is not in accord with theirs. They want to destroy the State of Israel not so they can occupy that sliver of land, but to strike a blow to the heart of Judaism. They have no designs on occupying the United States – they want to undermine the Western way of life – freedom, equality, democracy – and they believe that if they can fatally wound those principles in the US, the rest of the West will fall with us.

Given that, those on the Right who call for dealing with Shahzad, the underwear bomber, and others by extra-constitutional means are playing right into their hands, Guantanamo, waterboarding and other "extraordinary methods," rendition, all work perfectly for the terrorists. If I were Osama bin Laden I would not see the Times Square bomb as a failure – sure, if it went off, thousands of people would have been killed and damage would have been done; maybe Shahzad would even have got away; but none of that would do the damage to America that would be done if we listen to the chicken hawks on the Right and abrogate the Constitution.

The United States Constitution is the charter document of democracy in America and a model of what is possible for the world. Notwithstanding the places where we fall short of its ideals and principles – notwithstanding Arizona, Goldman Sachs, the Tea Parties, and the lunatic fringes on the Right and the Left, it is what makes us who we are, and we go outside the boundaries of that charter at our peril.

So who is the bigger threat to the American way of life? An inept 30-year old loser who could barely find his ass with both hands if you spotted him a cheek or two US Senators who rose to be candidates for President and Vice President of the United States who publicly call for disregarding the Constitution?

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Bonanza Column 183 – STAR Follies!

I go to Star Follies every year to support our schools and to enjoy it – I never intend to write about it and every year I do because I can't not. It is just about the best thing that this community has to offer.

Over the past couple of months I've spent two weeks in New York at a program for business executives that has as its purpose nothing less than a complete reinvention of who its (already very successful) participants are being in the world. The methodology used is not new to me – I've been working with it in one form or another for about 30 years. What is different is that the methodology of personal transformation is combined with that of the theater. The designer of the program has a long and successful background as an acting coach, and she has brought together some of the finest acting coaches and actors around – people you would know if you watch TV.

In that program I watched as executives who have never had a thought of being on stage took on an assigned project – a song or reading – that they were to perform, with coaching, at the level of a Broadway performance, and I saw them do it – the last evening of the program was in a theater and they performed – brilliantly and movingly. I performed myself and it was a life-changing experience.

So when I went to the Follies this year I watched the performances through the eyes of one who knows what it takes to get up on stage and get way far outside your comfort zone, and I was just knocked out. My purpose here is not to review the Follies – I'm not a critic or a reviewer, and there's no point anyhow. Unlike a Broadway performance, this one is new – new material, new cast, new everything every year. But as someone whose first love was acting and directing, I can't let something as remarkable as this go without comment.

I want to appreciate the great work by everyone involved. Sure, you could say, they lip-sync. But let me tell you from personal experience, if you're not a natural dancer, choreography is much harder than singing or acting, and these folks were step-perfect as well as great in their acting and their lip-syncing. No surprise that the biggest group behind the scenes is the Choreographers.

And the kids. My oh my, the kids – from 5th grade through high school they were amazing. Please – don't talk to me about sullen, withdrawn teenagers. These kids were OUT THERE!!!! And the adults – teachers, principals, professionals, you name it. I won't single anyone out by name – it would be unfair to the others – but I'll make one exception. Gene Brockman was born to play Officer Krupke!

The folks who make the Follies happen – Producer Ron Stichter, Director Don Hertel, and particularly Assistant Director Kathie Goldberg who makes it all work, and the Board of Directors, the Crew, the school liaisons, and all the volunteers, thank you. And I would be remiss if I didn't mention Linda Offerdahl – the costumes were funny, topical and above all professional-grade.

I don't often claim to speak for others, but in this I'm confident that I am speaking for our whole community when I say Thank You, from the bottom of our hearts not only to this year's cast and crew, but to everyone who, for the past 11 years has taken part in this great event.. You give us hope, joy, and peace in our town, at least for a couple of nights, and you contribute to our kids – our future – immeasurably.

If you haven't gone to Star Follies, mark your calendar now for next year, and if you want to have a life-changing experience of going beyond what you think you can do, sign up to perform. You'll love it.