Friday, December 31, 2010

Bonanza Column 217 - As You Sow, So Shall You Reap - Here Comes Reno

In the November election Washoe County voters approved an advisory question authorizing the County to explore the possibility of consolidating the governments of Reno and the County. Despite Sparks making it clear that they wanted no part of consolidation and widespread opposition among the unincorporated parts of the County, the measure passed and Reno lost no time moving toward consolidation, which is all upside for the city and all downside for the rest of us, particularly the area governed by IVGID.

Jim Clark has done a good job of laying out the case against consolidation in his columns, both before the election and since, and I won't rehash the arguments here – go back and read Jim's columns if you're not familiar with them – I think you'll agree it's a bad idea, but that's not the point of this column.

As I write this, it's the last day of 2010, and traditionally columnists take the opportunity to look back at the past year, or in this case the past decade, but I've been looking forward as best I can, and I'm not happy about what I see. Normally optimism comes with the Progressive package, so I'm not altogether comfortable when I see a gloom and doom scenario, but in this case I can't avoid it.

You see, in my fifteen-plus years in Incline I've been involved, more or less centrally, in a lot of efforts to build a future for the community: Independent Incline, Incline Vision, TRPA's Place-Based Planning, attempts to explore the possibilities of becoming more independent politically from Washoe County. All these seemed to have broad support in the community – often Jim Clark and I partnered to rally support on both sides of the political spectrum, and in every case extensive (and I would say very good) research was done on both the risks and the benefits of every option. Where the risk:benefit relationship was not in our favor, we told the truth about that and, for example, took the option of incorporating as a city off the table. Jim and I along with other long-time residents have been advocates for greater independence, whether as our own county (blocked by the legislature) or as a town (rejected by the voters), and have been met with resistance to all these ideas despite our warnings about Reno's agenda and our being seen as a cash cow by the County.

The fact seems to be that it's very hard to advance any idea here that involves (a) change and/or (b) a municipal government that has a wider scope of accountability than IVGID has now. The problem with this is that history has shown that change will happen with or without the popular will, and the only real choice is between managed change and unmanaged change, and unmanaged change is rarely for the better.

In the musical "Kismet" there is a scene where a beggar implores passersby for alms and promises blessings on them if they give, but no one gives. Then he switches tactics and threatens them with a curse "may your taxes increase" and he's showered with money. There is a small but nasty faction in our community that is uses this tactic to undermining any attempt at determining a direction of change. They act for the most part covertly and prefer their opinion over the facts. In the case of the effort to become a town rather than a GID, the numbers were clear and positive. Nonetheless there was a persistent conversation that amounted to "I don't care what the numbers say, it will raise taxes," and in the end the effort was defeated.

I've often quoted in this column de Tocqueville's maxim that in a democracy, the people get the government they deserve. If Reno is successful in their takeover of Washoe County, this will apply to the know-nothings who will believe what they and their friends think and cannot be persuaded by facts, and it will apply to those too lazy or apathetic to study the facts for themselves, instead allowing those same know-nothings to tell them what to think. Unfortunately, in a democracy, the minority have to suffer under the results of the ignorance and prejudices of those who can panic the crowd like the beggar in "Kismet," and so I'm not optimistic about our ability or our will to fend off Reno at this late date.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Bonanza Column 216: To My Detractors

I've been writing this column for over six years now with a short break when I ran for the IVGID Board in 2006. I undertook this labor of love in the first place to bring some balance to the columns and letter to the editor in the Bonanza which, like the community, tended to reflect a Conservative view. Knowing that that view was not held by 100% of the people in town, I decided to write a column from the Progressive side. Over the years that polarity has been reflected in columns on national and state issue and elections, though on local issues Jim Clark and I have rarely disagreed.

A column like this (or Jim's for that matter) will attract responses, mostly from those who disagree. In the old days responding to a column or sending a letter to an editor took some time and effort – you had to write or type a letter, address an envelope, find a stamp, mail it. During all this the heat of the moment would be likely to dissipate and many letters would not be sent. Today, email makes it easy to dash off a response and send it, and with the columns on line, commenting on the web site is even easier, and so perhaps lends itself to less thoughtful responses. Some people seem to read this column on line for the sole purpose of getting aggravated and responding with invective. These I ignore, or if they're especially ad hominem or otherwise abusive I report them as violating the site's guidelines. Others are thoughtful and these I read and sometimes respond to.

It occurs to me in this last column of 2010, my 216th since 2004, to respond to everyone who has and does read the column and to thank those from both sides of the political spectrum who have taken the time to think about the issues I've raised and to respond thoughtfully. I'd also like to thank those who have taken the time to correct me when I've gotten a fact or facts wrong – they gave me the opportunity to correct those errors, and for that I'm grateful.

To the small minority who hide behind the anonymity of their website user names and respond with name-calling, invective, and the like, I want to say grow up and to let you know that, unless what you're trying to accomplish is to be annoying, you're failing to do anything that makes a difference. It's one thing to point out specific facts I may have gotten wrong, but it's another to say I don't know what I'm talking about with nothing to back that up. Comments on my being a Psychologist or having a degree are about as effective as playground taunts, and as for name-calling, I consider the source.

Here's who I take seriously – anyone, whether they agree with me or not, who makes a reasonable argument. I don't have to agree with them either – I can respect a sincerely held view that is based on reason, facts, or even just plain emotional preference. We may differ on the role of government in society and we may both feel passionately about or opinion, but I can respect the fact that the Conservative, small-government view is one that has been around a long time and is held by many intelligent people – I just don't agree with it. Similarly I have friends who are staunch conservatives who recognize the legitimacy of the Progressive view of government as a provider of services and support, while they disagree with that view as strongly as I do with theirs.

So if you want to display your pettiness by anonymously calling me names or the shallowness of your position by yelling "you lie" without backing it up, go for it, but be clear that you're less useful than my electric teakettle – at least when it gets hot and screams, there is water for tea. I will continue to follow the advice of Mark Twain: ""Always tell the truth. It will gratify some and astonish the rest."

Here's wishing us all a happy, healthy, and prosperous 2011.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Bonanza Column 215 – Who Should IVGID Serve?

In its final meeting last week, the 2010 IVGID Board of Trustees addressed the right question, raised by General Manager Bill Horn. The question was "who are we going to serve?"

Unfortunately, like most good questions, this one doesn't admit of an easy answer. Many would say that the choices are full-time residents, part-time residents, and visitors, but that may be painting with too broad a brush. Still, it's a place to start.

Current figures indicate that about 60% of IV/CB owners and renters would be called part-time residents. That means that, if we go by a simple majority rule, IVGID should be interested first in serving that 60%. I must say that, as one of the 40% who live here 24/7/365 (366 in leap year), I don't find that very appealing. Part-timers need fewer services and generate less revenue for IVGID and local businesses than I do, so maybe it's the full-timers who come first.

Then there are visitors – they may not pay utility or rec fees, but they bring a lot of money into the local economy – skiers, golfers, beach-goers, renters of vacation properties, all pay for those usages and spend money in the stores as well, so we can't really ignore them and IVGID probably shouldn't adopt policies that would turn them to other areas to visit.

In the 15 years I've lived here there has been an ongoing debate about what business IVGID should be in. Many golfers are sure they should not be in the ski resort business, and many skiers don't see the point of their being in the golf business. People find the Rec Center fees too high, but they're generally lower than private clubs, and everybody feels that their favorite activity is subsidizing those they don't use.

Nevada statutes define the responsibilities of a GID as water, sewer, waste, and recreation, and mostly it seems to be recreation that everyone has an argument with. In its role as a utility district, IVGID seems not to be generating much in the way of complaints. In recreation, the prevailing attitude seems to be that the answer to Mr. Horn's question depends on whose ox is being gored. I wonder if that's the best way to approach the question.

In my work with corporations, I see three approaches – companies that deal primarily in "stuff" – auto manufacturers, agribusinesses, oil companies – take the approach of simple accounting – keep costs as low as you can, keep prices as high as is consistent with moving product, and that's about it. The only "soft" consideration is quality – with differences in quality, sales will be a function of price and quality; in a commodities business it's just price, so cost control becomes essential – WalMart has shown that you can do very well with razor-thin margins if you keep costs as low as possible.

The third approach applies to service businesses. These companies have to be intelligent about price, cost, and quality, but depend on service to give them a competitive edge. Nordstrom was one of the pioneers of this approach, and Costco has shown that even in the low-margin, bare-bones approach of a "big box" store, customer service provides a significant advantage.

IVGID, of course, is not a business in the sense I've been discussing – they are a municipal government, albeit one limited by statute. Many of us feel IVGID could do a better job of serving the community if its scope were expanded and it took over many of the functions now under the County's aegis, but the voters rejected that idea in 2008, so we have what we have. Still, if IVGID were to be examined as a business, I submit it is closer to Costco or Les Schwab than to Walmart or Shell Oil or Ford Motor Company. By this I mean that while the quality of IVGID's "products" is important as is its revenues and expenditures, IVGID exists for the purpose of serving the community, diverse as it is in its opinion of what constitutes service.

So Bill Horn's question is exactly the right one and is one that does not lend itself to quick or facile answers. I also would suggest that it cannot be answered, by the new Board of Trustees or by any of us based on narrow self-interest (or the interest of groups we feel are important because they're the ones we belong to). Rather, I would hope that the 2011-2012 Board will take the matter up very seriously and from the perspective of the greatest good for the greatest number. Let's hope they will.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Bonanza Column 213 – NDOW: Neither Civil nor Servants

Somehow over the years since the Teddy Roosevelt presidency, the environment has increasingly become a political issue. This makes no sense to me unless I take a very dark, conspiratorial view that, in the case of the human role in global warming or the BP spill for example, what is really at issue is not so much the environment as big corporations' making money at the cost of people's welfare. Whatever the reason, and however little sense it makes, somehow the pro-conservation stand of TR and John Muir has become identified as a "liberal cause" and the anti-conservation position as conservative, though many of my most conservative friends will tell you that they are environmentalists, while disavowing the work of any of the environmental groups or movements. As I said, this makes no sense to me, but so little does these days.

Notwithstanding that, sometimes there arises an issue that can be legitimately viewed in political terms, and the Nevada Department of Wildlife (NDOW) has succeeded in making the issue of living with bears political. NDOW has approved plans for a very limited bear season as a way of controlling the burgeoning bear population. There are numerous restrictions on this – it's far from open season on bears – as detailed in a Bonanza article on November 24, and Carl Lackey, almost universally respected as THE local authority on bears in the Sierra, has stated that from a biologists' perspective the hunt makes sense.

Naturally, there are a lot of people opposed to the idea and they have been vocal in their opposition since the hunt was proposed. My purpose here is not to comment on the merits of either side's arguments, but on the NDOW's handling of the matter.

I think it's fair to say that the job of government, particularly those areas of government that deal with complex matters where there is both science and public opinion to deal with, is to listen carefully to all views and then to make a decision based on the public good. As Cato put it "the welfare of the people is the highest law," and often government may feel that one view or the other has right on its side, respect for all views is a core principle in a agencies are called upon to make a judgment call on what best serves the public welfare. Even where the agency democracy. When there is a difference of opinion and a decision must be made, one side will inevitably be overruled, and civil discourse and the opportunity for continued respectful dialogue requires that the side that "loses" go away feeling that their view was heard, respected, and taken into consideration. Where people cannot disagree with dignity, they become rebellious.

In this NDOW failed miserably at its hearing on December 4th in Reno. Far from feeling heard and respected, a significant number of those who spoke against the hunt left the hearing feeling ignored, patronized, and, in the words of one letter-writer in last week's Bonanza like it was "an exercise in futility."

I don't care which side of the issue you are on, no one should ever leave a public hearing feeling this way. In a time when so many of us feel alienated from the political process, to have one more piece of evidence that those who have political power are ignoring us is not a good thing. NDOW are supposed to be civil servants – in this instance they were neither.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Bonanza Column 213: Dirty Pool

For all the niceties of form that are observed once candidates are elected to office, electoral politics is and always has been a nasty business, and neither party or end of the political spectrum has clean hands in that regard. Maybe it's an inevitable side effect of the political system, I don't know, but you can go back as far as you want in the US, the UK, or elsewhere and you'll find name-calling, lying, and mud-slinging.

Notwithstanding that, it seems to me that we may be hitting a new low. It used to be that once someone was in office, issues would be debated on the merits and the dirty politics kept to a minimum and outside of the formal processes of government. Opposition from the rich to FDR's New Deal policies was virulent – Roosevelt was called a Communist and worse – but all that went on outside of the formal debates in Congress, regardless of the views of individual legislators.

Now, however, it seems that Republicans in the Congress have abandoned any pretense of legislative decorum or of having the country's interests at heart and is out to torpedo President Obama's chances for a successful term and possible re-election, no matter the cost to the people they were elected to serve. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) stated after the November elections that making Obama a one-term president was the most important priority for the GOP. Really? In the face of 14% unemployment, an economy in the tank, two wars, escalating tensions in the Middle East and North Korea, this is what the Republicans should spend their next two years on?

Well, it seems so. Right now the smart money says that extended unemployment benefits will end this week, leaving some six or seven million people without any source of income in an economy that remains depressed and a job market that is showing very slow growth, if any. That's millions of dollars that would have gone directly for food, rent, loan payments, etc. – that is, directly into the economy that will not go there and millions of people left without the means to take care of themselves or their families. In what world does that make sense?

Additionally, the GOP is insisting on extending the Bush tax cuts to everyone. The Obama Administration is advocating extending these rates to those with taxable income under $250,000 and reinstating the taxes on those above that – about 1% of the population. This would put about $70 billion to the government's top line and is supported by the likes of Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, who stand to be among those most heavily taxed. The only world in which that makes sense is one where the GOP are far more beholden to the rich than to the people who elected them.

Politics is one thing, and operating against the interests of the people you are elected to serve is another. The GOP has every right to oppose Obama and his policies and to do everything they can to convince the electorate to vote them in and him out in 2012, but I think we have to draw the line at this level of playing dirty – to block anything that might improve conditions for Americans in economic distress because there's a chance it might make Obama look good is worse than bad form, it's dereliction of duty, and hopefully it will come back to hurt those who are doing it in the long run. Meantime, if you're out of work or losing your home or business, the GOP's message to you is "tough luck."