Saturday, March 30, 2013

Bonanza Column 276 - Teenagers vs. Corn

Warning: This is going to be one of those liberal, bleeding-heart columns where I take the distasteful (to Conservatives) position that human life is actually more important than business profits. If you’re one of those who find this position somewhere between objectionable and disgusting, you can stop reading now and start writing your response.
If there was any doubt that the prevailing paradigm in American business is “profits before people,” this will remove it. Yes, there are enlightened businesses that go against this paradigm, but overall the paradigm rules.
If you didn’t grow up in the Midwest, and on a farm at that, the term “walking the corn” may evoke images of Stephen King novels or “Field of Dreams,” but the reality is far darker than that. When corn kernels are blown into silos, they tend to stick to the walls and to clump up, which jams machinery and makes moving the corn out of the silo difficult. The way farmers deal with this is to send workers into the silos, which are often on the order of four stories high, to walk on the corn and break up the clumps. Generally these are minimum wage workers and often they are teenagers.
Walking the corn by itself is not too dangerous. Silos filled with corn, wheat or soybeans become death traps, however, when grain cascades out of control, asphyxiating or crushing their victims and creating vortex effects that suck the workers deep into the grain. Since 2007, 80 farmworkers have died in silo accidents; 14 of them were teenage boys. These deaths were almost totally preventable.
Even though the rate of serious injury and fatalities on American farms has fallen, the number of workers dying by entrapment in grain bins and silos has remained steady. The annual number of such accidents actually rose throughout the past decade, reaching a peak of at least 26 deaths in 2010, before dropping somewhat since. Nearly 20 percent of all serious grain bin accidents involve workers under the age of 20.
The New York Times quotes Wayne Bauer, the safety director at the Star of the West Milling Company in Frankenmuth, Mich., which operates grain elevators in five states as saying: “The concept of walking down the grain should be avoided at all costs, and people sending kids into spaces where they have no business being deserve to be fined.”
To understand the connection between these deaths (and likely hundreds more that go unreported) and the profit motive, you have to understand that, if all the machinery were shut off and nothing other than walking the corn was happening, the danger would be minimal. However, in every case the people running the operation kept grain pouring into the silos, opened the outlet chutes, or both, creating a suction that turned harmless yellow corn into the equivalent of quicksand. Rather than interrupt the operation and have a few hours of down time, they put the workers at risk and were directly responsible for these deaths.
Under Federal Law this sort of safety violation is a misdemeanor, and OSHA typically reduces what little penalties there are. US District Attorneys don’t make the kind of career-advancing splash they love prosecuting misdemeanors, so the Justice Department rarely if ever prosecutes. In other words, the agribusiness concerns that own the silos prosper and the workers die or nearly die. One 20-year old watched two friends, one 19 and one 14 die – the 14-year old was sucked down so far he was beyond reach. As the corn rose up around the 20-year old, he kept a hand free and tried to clear corn away from the face of his friend whose arms were pinned. Ultimately he was unsuccessful and watched as his friend was buried and suffocated.
For the irony fans among us, if any of those teenagers had thought to bring an animal from an endangered species into the silo with him, the animal’s death would have been a felony under Federal Law.
Last year the Labor Department proposed new regulations aimed at tightening protections for children doing farm work. The proposed regulations would have prohibited children under 18 from working in large commercial grain bins, silos or other enclosed spaces. But the Obama administration, sensitive to Republican charges that it was choking the economy with expensive regulations, pulled back the proposed rules this year in the face of furious farm-state objections.
After all, there’s a lot of teenagers out there, but corn is in short supply.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Bonanza Column 275 - How is the IVGID Board like the US Senate?

I had occasion last week to sit down with a newcomer to Incline Village who wanted to discuss the local political landscape. This gentleman is no stranger to politics – he is a retired professor of International Relations at a major university, a position he took following a career in Washington DC working in the Pentagon, the State Department and the Congress.
Our conversation was wide-ranging, covering everything from local to national issues, and we were both struck by what seemed to us to be parallels among those levels.
Take the gridlock in the Senate caused by the filibuster rules – most recently we saw Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) waste thirteen hours of the Senate’s time to no good purpose - he spent the time talking mostly about the issue of drones. Now this is an issue that deserves considered debate, but the context for Paul’s semi-coherent rant was the President’s nomination of James Brennan as CIA Director, and the sole purpose of it was to delay Brennan’s confirmation which eventually passed 63-34 vote after a vote of 81-16 to end Paul’s filibuster.
IVGID Board meetings don’t allow for the possibility of a filibuster as such, but we’ve seen again and again how one or a few individuals both on and off the Board can bring the Board’s ability to transact the District’s business to a grinding halt. Most recently, in the meeting week before last, two trustee’s objection to the General Manager’s long-standing policy of copying the Chair on any correspondence he has with Trustees was the occasion for stopping the meeting for an hour amid insinuations of open meeting law violations and general nefarious skullduggery.
I’ll grant that the GM’s using blind copying (bcc) rather than open copying (cc) was an error of judgment, one that he was quick to apologize for. Notwithstanding that, the policy makes sense on a number of levels, not least of which is the GM’s partnership with the Board Chair and the Board’s oft-avowed commitment to transparency. The attorney who was present as the Board’s Counsel did not offer any indication that this was a violation of Nevada’s complex open meeting law, and the matter could have been put to rest in minutes with the GM’s apology and a request that in future these communications be openly copied. Instead the conversation was contentious and often on the edge of belligerence – all in all another unprofessional performance by this Board.
Legislative deliberations, from the Senate to the IVGID Board are, by custom, polite to a fault. Often in the Senate we will hear one Senator refer to another as “my friend” while excoriating that person in the most vitriolic terms. Proponents of this pretense of civility argue that it keeps things from getting personal, and I’m willing to allow that that might be true. An unintended consequence of this custom, however, is that it mitigates against anyone openly pointing out that the emperor has no clothes or that something someone is saying is factually incorrect. It also makes it very difficult for leadership to keep things moving efficiently.
It’s still early days for the 2013 Board – in practice that means that inefficient and ineffective practices can still be nipped in the bud before they become ingrained and harder to change. Doing that, however, will take real leadership on the part of the Chair and those Trustees who have the courage not to be intimidated by those who aggressively push their point of view as if it were divinely inspired, whether that is the small, non-representative number of members of the public who have been working to cow the staff and Trustees for several years now or it is another Trustee who insists on his interests overriding those of the other Trustees, the District, or the public.
Just as the Senate, tiring of Sen. Paul’s nonsense, voted 81-16 to end his tirade, the Chair and the other Trustees need to speak up and intervene when one or two individuals try to dominate the conversation at the expense of getting real work done.

Monday, March 04, 2013

Bonanza Column 274 - Time to Repeal SB 271

A bill (SB630) has been introduced in the California State Senate by Senators Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills) and Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) that, if enacted, could end the TRPA as we know it. While I realize that this would be welcomed in some short-sighted quarters, the impact could be disastrous for the lake and for residents of the basin.

My usual disclosure when I write about TRPA: While I did work for TRPA, I no longer have any administrative or management accountability there, though I am doing some training for the staff This column is intended to represent my views and my views alone, and not those of the agency or any of its staff or Governing Board.

Also, despite unfounded bloviating in a recent letter to the editor, I have no agenda with regard to TRPA. I do have, based on my experience there, profound respect and admiration for the commitment, integrity and expertise of those who work there.

The bill talks about California needing a contingency plan if Nevada goes forward with the provisions in its Senate Bill 271 which calls for the Silver State to withdraw from the bi-state Compact in 2015. SB271 was passed two years ago and was intended, as I understand it, to accelerate the process of updating the Regional Plan and to address what Nevada sees as inequities in the TRPA Governing Board voting structure under the Compact.

While the voting issue has not been addressed, SB271 had a major positive impact in that it did accelerate the RPU and in the process created a level of collaboration and cooperation between the two states that had not been seen before and that led to the near unanimous adoption of the Regional Plan in December.

There has been some talk in Nevada about repealing SB271 the current session, but the Sierra Club and Friends of the West Shore lawsuit to prevent the Regional Plan Update from taking effect could make Nevada leery of a repeal that they might see as premature.

The California bill states that “for California to have due time to protect its many interests in the Tahoe basin, the state will need to have a contingency plan in place prior to the dissolution of the bi-state Compact, as contemplated by Senate Bill 271.”

It goes on to say, “The bill would revise the membership of the governing body of the agency to eliminate the existing five members of the governing body, and prescribe requirements for the appointment of a new nine-member governing board. The bill would also revise the composition of a technical advisory committee required to be appointed by the agency, and would request the participation of a representative of the governing board of the Nevada Tahoe Regional Planning Agency. The bill would eliminate a provision authorizing the governing body of the agency to contract with the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency for services.”

In other words, there would be two TRPAs — one in California and one in Nevada — the exact opposite of the bistate collaboration that has taken place over the past couple of years, and no single body accountable for the environment of and around the lake. Kind of like when two outfielders go for a fly ball and it drops between them.

TRPA makes decisions, recommendations, and judgment calls that, unfounded bloviating to the contrary, are driven by the best available science and the commitment of its Governing Board and Staff to the sometime conflicting demands of the environment, the social milieu, and the economy of the Basin. The air, water, wildlife, and vegetation of the basin don't recognize the CA-NV state line. The Federal Government recognized this in setting up the TRPA, and even the most benighted intelligence should recognize it now.

The Nevada Legislature should do the right thing — they made their point, and made it well and effectively. Now it's time to repeal SB271 so we can all rest a bit easier.-->