Friday, October 9, 2009

The citizens of Utah demand ethics reform. It's about time!

I have watched with excitement as a group of citizens from a broad variety of political make-up and diverse career backgrounds launched a citizens initiative to take matters into their own hands and do something about ethics in the Utah Legislature. I have also delighted to see certain legislators squirm and scream as they envision the future of politics on the hill. It won't be as comfortable for them after the citizen's of Utah demand the change that they've been asking for from the Legislature for many, many years.

I knew nothing significant would ever come from the self-governing lawmakers after the last legislative session that ended in March with celebration over very little ethics legislation. It was a session that promised big change and rightly so after the allegations of bribery brought against one representative in October, 2008. The ethics committee was split along party lines on any decision of conduct unbecoming a legislator, but all signed a letter of reprimand. They proved that they're unable to govern themselves.

I appreciated UtahTeacher's recent report (a four part series) on one of the eight required public hearings that she attended. I wanted to attend the Provo hearing specifically because of the memo that was reportedly distributed among lawmakers which encouraged them to attend hearings and speak out against the initiative. I noticed that the hearings were video-taped and posted by the Lieutenant Governor's Office on YouTube a few days ago. It was hard for me to watch, however, because they are not labeled or posted in order, as far as I can tell. To this end, I've decided to make it easy on you and I've posted the hearings and the links to the video segments in order. You'll notice that there are citizens that speak in each of the hearings that are in favor of the initiative and others who aren't happy about it at all. I think it's important to hear both sides and decide where you stand on the issue. I agree with the initiative, if for nothing else, perhaps it will cause the legislators to actually make some change in 2010. Maybe something that will REALLY make pigs fly!


Thursday, September 17, 2009—7-9 p.m.
Southeast Region (Carbon, Emery, Grand, and San Juan Counties)
Grand County Council Chambers
125 E. Center St. (w. entrance)
Moab, UT 84532

Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3 - Part 4 - Part 5 - Part 6

Monday, September 21, 2009—6-8 p.m.
Central Region (Juab, Millard, Piute, Sanpete, Sevier, and Wayne Counties)
Sevier Valley Center, Theatre
800 W. 200 South
Richfield, UT 84701

Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3 - Part 4 - Part 5 - Part 6 - Part 7 - Part 8

Tuesday, September 22, 2009–7-9 p.m.
Wasatch Front Region (Davis, Morgan, Salt, Tooele, and Weber Counties)
SLC Main Library, 4th floor conference room
210 East 400 South
SLC, UT 84111

Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3 - Part 4 - Part 5 - Part 6 - Part 7 - Part 8 - Part 9

Wednesday, September 23, 2009—7-9 p.m.
Bear River Region (Box Elder, Cache, and Rich Counties)
Cache County Office Building, Multipurpose Room
179 No. Main St.
Logan, UT 84321

Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3 - Part 4 - Part 5 - Part 6 - Part 7 - Part 8 - Part 9 - Part 10 - Part 11

Wednesday, September 23, 2009—7-9 p.m.
Mountain Region (Summit, Utah, and Wasatch Counties)
Provo City Library, Brimhall Room
550 No. University Avenue
Provo, UT 84601

Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3 - Part 4 - Part 5 - Part 6 - Part 7 - Part 8 - Part 9 - Part 10

Wednesday, September 23, 2009—6-8 p.m.
Southwest Region (Beaver, Garfield, Iron, Kane, and Washington Counties)
Washington County Library, St. George Branch, Conference Room B
88 W. 100 South
St. George, Utah 84770

Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3 - Part 4 - Part 5 - Part 6 - Part 7 - Part 8 - Part 9 - Part 10 - Part 11

Thursday, September 24, 2009–7-9 p.m. NEW!
Uintah Basin Region (Daggett, Duchesne, and Uintah Counties)
Uintah Basin Applied Technology Center, Multipurpose Room
450 No. 2000 West
Vernal, UT 84078

Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3 - Part 4 - Part 5 - Part 6 - Part 7 - Part 8 - Part 9 - Part 10 - Part 11

Thursday, September 24, 2009—7-9 p.m. NEW!
Southeast Region (Carbon, Emery, Grand, and San Juan Counties)
Grand County Council Chambers
125 E. Center St. (w. entrance)
Moab, UT 84532

No Video Provided on Lieutenant Governor's YouTube Site

Tuesday, September 29, 2009—7-9 p.m. (An optional 8th hearing)
Weber County
Mound Fort Middle School, Media Center
1400 Mound Fort Drive
Ogden, UT 84404

No Video Provided on Lieutenant Governor's YouTube Site

Monday, May 18, 2009

Board of Education making crucial decisions

I'm always interested in what is happening at the State Office of Education. It seems that they've been making headlines more frequently in the last month. From hiring a new Superintendent to firing their two internal auditors to changing Board Rule concerning their auditing process. A few questions have come to my mind as I watch the changes that the State Board members are making or considering.

Crucial Decision #1 - Hiring a new Superintendent

With the announcement by Superintendent Patti Harrington that she would be retiring, a Selection Committee made up of board members was formed, chaired by board member Denis Morrill. There were a few details made public in a Deseret News Article mid-April. I emailed Denis Morril and board secretary Twila Affleck for some details on what the Deseret News article called "committee interviews". I was hoping for some information about the committees but failed to receive a response. However, it was rumored that some high-profile people were seen at a downtown hotel, consistent with selection committees formed in other scenarios. Legislators such as Howard Stephenson, Deputy of Education Christine Kearl, Chief Justice Christine Durham and PTA Education Commissioner Holly Langton were among some of the people seen on Wednesday, May 13. Whether they were there for committee interviews is just a good guess, but most likely that's the case. Why the committee makeup is being kept from the public is a question for the Selection Committee. When it comes down to it, I'm just happy that the board is getting outside input and I think that's a good move, although they are more than likely just helping to whittle down the selection and not necessarily weighing in on the final decision. We should be hearing who they narrowed it down to as early as today. The final decision will be made by the Board Selection Committee on Friday, May 29. Hopefully we'll be hearing an announcement soon thereafter, but the paper reports that we'll know on June 5.

Crucial Decision #2 - Firing internal auditors

During the last board meeting on May 1 the board got into a lengthy discussion about the changes they were considering for the internal auditing process. Current board rule has the internal auditors reporting directly to the board. That's the way it should be, but we'll get to that in a moment. The board was reminded that this was just a discussion of possible changes. They scheduled more discussion for the June board meeting. That being said, it was a complete surprise that the board immediately thereafter (behind closed doors in an executive session) voted to fire the two internal auditors, Kent Mohlman and Tim Salazar. The now former internal auditors say they were equally surprised and have cited various reasons as to why they believe they were let go. Tim Salazar was the first to admit that he knew he worked at the pleasure of the board and could be let go at any time. But he also believes that it was a recent School Community Council audit that Superintendent Harrington disagreed with that led her to convince the board to let them go. Superintendent Harrington defended her actions, so at this point there is a bit of he-said-she-said going on. We can only speculate, but one thing is certain - the timing! What led them to take action so quickly before even solidifying the proposed changes to the internal auditing procedure? Which leads us to crucial decision #3.

Crucial Decision #3 - Changing Internal Audit Board Rule (R277-116)

Since the board is debating changes to their internal auditing process, the question remains, what changes are they considering and are they good or bad? Let's break down the proposed changes found in a draft of board rule R277-116. If they make the changes that have been proposed thus far, the following might be true:

  • There would no longer be a board-controlled review process that is independent. The auditors reported directly to the board, which allowed them to speak openly and not be afraid. This must continue to be the case if the auditing process is to work.

  • The state board would be giving up authority. It would not be prudent for an elected body to give away their authority to independently review and monitor the people they hire to do the day to day work.

  • A Tribune article said that the board was having a hard time overseeing the audit group, but auditor Tim Salazar reported that there weren't a lot of efforts made by the board to be aware of what the auditors were doing. Changing control to the Superintendent won't help the board know the auditors any better and would make honest reporting without fear of retribution even more difficult.

  • The paper stated that the state board felt they were not capable of effectively managing the audit group. But if they, as a part time board, cannot manage the audit group, how can they effectively manage the Superintendent, who has enormous responsibilities in comparison to the auditors? Also, wouldn't the audit group, if used effectively, help the state board manage the superintendent?
These are just a few concerns that should be considered as the State Board of Education moves forward with their discussion, and eventual decision, in the coming months. There are people that are concerned that the state board is being manipulated by the Superintendent, and that the Superintendent, or other staff, are taking responsibilities that should rest with the elected board. We'll be keeping an eye on things, but hopefully they'll come to the right decisions on their own.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Secrecy in choosing vacant School Board replacement is bad. Hypocrisy is worse.

I surprised myself last month. Upon hearing the news that former Tooele District Superintendent Michael Johnsen was chosen as outgoing State School Board member Richard Moss' replacement, I was thrilled that the Governor actually made a good decision. Not just a good decision, a great decision! However, my elation blinded me to the fact that there was not a shred of transparency in the process. Had the person been someone that I felt was not good for public education you would have been reading this post a month ago when the selection was made! Shame on me for being a hypocrite. Unfortunately, I'm not the only hypocrite.

There is already a problem with how the State School Board is elected in Utah. I've written at length about the process, but to quickly summarize, a committee is appointed from within the Governor's office. They interview candidates and narrow them down to three from within each district. They recommend three candidates to the Governor who likewise narrows the field down to two whose names are then placed on the ballot where the people decide who will be elected. This process needs to be changed and attempts were recently made in the last legislative session but were blocked in the Senate Education Committee.

The current vacancy came when Board Member Richard Moss moved to Arizona in mid-March. A couple of weeks later, Governor Huntsman decided that Michael Johnsen would be the best man for the job. I agree! But the Governor didn't get advice from the Legislators as he should have. The Legislators will need to approve the newly appointed board member, which will likely happen later this month, but Richard Moss has called for them to block the Governor's pick on grounds that it wasn't a fair and open process. He makes an excellent point!

20A-1-507. Midterm vacancies in the State Board of Education.

(1) If a vacancy occurs on the State Board of Education for any reason other than the expiration of a member's term, the governor, with the consent of the Senate, shall fill the vacancy by appointment of a qualified member to serve out the unexpired term.

(2) The lieutenant governor shall issue a certificate of appointment to the appointed member and certify the appointment to the board.

The biggest hypocrites in all of this is Senate leadership, specifically Senator Howard Stephenson. He was quoted by the Salt Lake Tribune as saying, "We've heard a lot about transparency in government and the need to choose representatives of the people in an open process," he said, "and this didn't appear to be open." Stephenson said that the Governor should consider withdrawing Johnsen's selection.

Senator Stephenson is the man who, as President of the Utah Taxpayers Association, bragged that they were able to "beat back a challenge to the committee which recruits and nominates candidates for the state school board". Since I just wrote about his conflicts of interest, I'll simply suggest that you read my recent post on the topic. It's really quite unbelievable that he, out of anyone, would have a valid opinion on the matter. Senator Waddoups chimed in, too, and we all know the problems he's been having; removing Senator Buttars from one committee position and assigning him to another.

I agree with the selection by Governor Huntsman. I hope that the Senate will confirm Michael Johnsen. If they don't give their consent and instead cry foul due to the lack of openness, then I expect them to do something about the flawed nomination process that doesn't allow the people to fairly elect those who represent them. I expect that anyway...I'm just sayin'.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

School Choice: Actual "Choice" or Emotionally-Laden Mindtrap?

As the traditional school year winds down, I've been thinking about the apparent complexitites of education and the chasms between the differing philosophies therein. This post errs a little on the philosophical side, so bear with me.

"School Choice" and Other Euphemisms

Euphemism: a word or phrase used in place of a term that might be considered too direct, harsh, unpleasant, or offensive.

In my experience, and as the fruit of many conversations, I've come to believe that the term "school choice" is a euphemism for many things, and probably varies somewhat by person and group.

Here's a partial list:

1. Parents, not the government, should be responsible for educating their children.
2. Our public school system is failing miserably and is far too liberal.
3. Education should be privatized and compete on the free market.

Personally, I don't think "school choice" has much to do with choice in education at all. I think it tends to be a euphemism for promoting whatever agenda it is disguising. In Utah, I think it serves as a smokescreen for the range of ideas I've just listed. I also think it's a term that hooks people emotionally and rallies them around a bandwagon that is not entirely transparent. For example, in the name of "school choice", groups of parents have started charter schools and/or supported vouchers for their children and communities...but have they unwittingly furthered an agenda to ultimately privatize education in Utah? I don't know, but I sure do wonder.

Now, I can be fair. Do I think there are many school choice advocates who sincerely want to improve education? Of course. Are many school choice advocates open to ideas, dialogue, and collaboration? I believe so. To any of you who fall into this category, kudos and please read on. Utah needs you.

Euphemisms and False Dichotomies

The problem I have with a euphemism like the term "school choice" is that it's an emotionally-charged way to set up a false dichotomy. It's a mindtrap that forces a complex issue into two false options. Even in casual conversation, let alone heated political debate, the very term divides people into proponents and opponents. However, the ideas around school choice are not mutually exclusive....we don't simply have choice or no choice. In my experience, it's a complicated mix of competing political, social, and economic ideologies.

In a free, democratic (okay, representative republic) society like America, aren't we all theoretically supportive of "school choice"? I mean, honestly, who in their right mind doesn't want to have a choice in how, where, and in what form they and their children are educated? The reality, at least in Utah, is that we all have choice in education. The public school system allows open enrollment options and non-traditional options like charter schools. Home schooling is a legal option, and private schools are available. For some families, I realize that these options might be purely theoretical. Open enrollment is nice, but you have to drive your students to the school of your choice. Charter schools enroll by random lottery, and private schools require often exorbitant tuition. For some families, these are practical barriers to real choices. I see many of the problems, but there must be better solutions than hiding behind divisive euphemisms. We all want choice, we currently do have choices available, and yet we deal with some very real barriers and challenges. What we need are real solutions.

So, if we're not talking about choice, what are we talking about? I think its about a clash of idealogies, barriers to practical solutions, and often, ego. There, I said it.

A Call for Real Dialogue, Not Idealogues

Idealogue: an often blindly partisan advocate of a particular ideology.

I tend to believe that if people can find enough common ground, solutions to previously perplexing problems often reveal themselves. I'm not completely delusional...I've seen it happen time and time again. However, it takes courage, honesty, humility, and genuine dialogue. Idealogues (and egomaniacs) need not apply. We need creative, collaborative, solution-oriented people who can move beyond tired euphemisms and over-zealous partisanship. I realize there are many idealogical chasms, but there must also be bridges.

As an observer of the complexities of education, I notice that using a term like "school choice" immediately creates division between the very people who could potentially create solutions. It creates a spirit and practice of partisanship that prevents solution-oriented dialogue and cooperation. Language is persuasive. It frames and defines our liberates or confines, it allows or denies, it illuminates or confuses.

Let's let go of the emotionally-laden mindtraps, open up some real dialogue, and figure out how to work together. Education is too critical a topic for euphemistic games.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Senator Stephenson's Blatant Conflict of Interest

I'll lay out the plain and simple facts. You try to process the paradox.

March 30, 2009: Governor Huntsman signs H.B. 345 (Elected Officials - Restrictions on Lobbying sponsored by Rep. Dee) and the bill becomes law. What does this bill do? It simply says that a former legislator is not allowed to register as a lobbyist for one year after leaving office. Why? Because a former legislator could exercise undue influence over their former colleagues. Of course, there are loopholes in this law, but we're talking about the intent of the bill for the purpose of this post.

If there is a concern that a former legislator could possibly exercise undue influence, what does that say about a powerful, current legislator? What about a powerful, current legislator who is also a registered lobbyist? What about a powerful, current legislator who is also a registered lobbyist AND the president of the Association that he/she lobbies on behalf of?

Here come the plain and simple facts!

  • Senator Howard Stephenson is a powerful Senator serving on an influential committee, namely the Senate Education Committee.

  • Senator Howard Stephenson is a registered lobbyist for the Utah Taxpayers Association.

  • Senator Howard Stephenson declares a conflict of interest with legislative subject areas involving the Utah Taxpayers Association.

  • Senator Howard Stephenson is the President of the Utah Taxpayers Association.

  • The latest issue of the Utah Taxpayers Association newsletter boasts the defeat of HB150 that would have made the State Board of Education seats a fair, open and non-partisan election. From the newsletter:

    "Reflecting the Association’s broad mandate, the Taxpayers Association’s key bills fell into four categories this year: Education Reform, Government Transparency, Taxes and Miscellaneous. In education reform, we continued to champion parental involvement in their children’s education by making sure HB 2 did not cap the number of Utah charter schools. In addition, we beat back a challenge to the committee which recruits and nominates candidates for the state school board. With a membership balanced between representatives from the education and business communities, this board has done a remarkable job of recruiting candidates with a broad array of backgrounds to run for the State School Board. Despite the board’s well-documented success, Rep. Carol Spackman Moss sponsored HB 150 to eliminate the committee. Although the House approved HB 150, the Senate Education Committee did not approve it." (emphasis added)
  • Senator Howard Stephenson is a member of the Senate Education Committee and voted "nay" on the motion to recommend H.B. 150!!
Can you see how blatant and wrong this is? Senator Stephenson openly admits a conflict of interest and at the same time admits that the organization that he is the President of and registered lobbyist of is the one whose "key bill" they "beat back" and that the Senate Education Committee which he is a member of "did not approve it" and he boasts it openly and publicly. Wow!

Perhaps this is something that can be discussed at the Governor's Commission on Strengthening Utah's Democracy. Their next meeting is on May 21 (location to be determined) and the focus for the meeting is lobbying regulations. They even want our opinion so this is our opportunity. We can continue to allow the people in charge to continue to abuse the system, or we can get involved and try to make a difference. If we don't try then we only have ourselves to blame.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Redistricting Rumble: Governor Stands Down, Voters Step Up

Okay, just because Governor Huntsman acquiesced to House Speaker, Dave Clark, by "standing down" on ethics and redistricting, maybe all is not lost. Take a look at this article in today's Salt Lake Tribune covering the efforts of a new coalition formed to breathe life into an independent redistricting commission.

The Fair Boundaries Coalition is calling for an independent redistricting commission, and wants it put to a public vote in 2010.

The Utah Constitution does identify redistricting as a responsibiltiy of the Legislative branch, but there are broad concerns that lawmakers create districts to benefit themselves (and perhaps close-knit groups of lawmakers with similar agendas) rather than creating districts based on population centers and shared interests that benefit voters and that speaks to a more democratic process. Currently, redistricting is a strong and blatantly-wielded power tool that has already affected the political process.

Because citizen initiatives cannot be used to ammend the Utah Constitution, the independent commission is proposed as an advisory role, leaving lawmakers with the final say in redistricting. While there may be some risk that the commission would end up offering only symbolic oversight, it might also serve as a strong first step toward balancing the redistricting scale.

The Fair Boundaries Coalition brings together a diverse, non-partisan group of Democratic, Republican, Third-Party, and Independent members. They need at least 94,000 voter signatures by April 15th, 2010 to secure a place on the ballot. Democracy in action. Step up, voters!