Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Ethics Reform Revisited

I hope everyone had a little time off to spend with family and friends and that your holidays were well spent. With the New Year right around the corner and, perhaps more importantly, the 2009 Legislative session only 3 weeks away, it's just about time to wipe the sleep out of our eyes and pay attention to what lawmakers have in store for us next year. The presents and candy-induced comas will have their turn again sooner than we realize.

In preparation for the upcoming legislative session, I'd like to revisit a few points concerning ethics reform. In October I wrote about the efforts of Utahns for Public Schools to bring about positive change in regards to campaign finance. They published a Pledge for Legislative Ethics Reform and invited candidates and legislators to sign it as a vow of their active support and work for the passage of legislation that would allow for a more open, honest, ethical and transparent government. As of today, 24 Republicans, 47 Democrats and 1 Independent have signed the pledge. However, now that the election results have been tallied and the winners declared, there are only 31 out of 72 who are in a position to make good on their promise. They are:

Sheryl Allen, House District 19 (R)
Trisha Beck (NEW), House District 48 (D)
Laura Black (NEW), House District 45 (D)
Rebecca Chavez-Houck, House District 24 (D)
Tim Cosgrove, House District 44 (D)
Jim Dunnigan, House District 39 (R)
Becky Edwards (NEW), House District 20 (R)
Richard K. Ellis, (NEW), State Treasurer (R)
Julie Fisher, House District 17 (R)
Gage Froerer, House District 8 (R)
Kevin S. Garn, House District 16 (R)
Francis D. Gibson (NEW), House District 65 (R)
Richard Greenwood, House District 12 (R)
Greg Hughes, House District 51 (R)
Christine Johnson, House District 25 (D)
Pat Jones, Senate District 4 (D)*
Dan Liljenquist (NEW), Senate District 23 (R)
David Litvak, House District 26 (D)
Steve Mascaro, House District 47 (R)
Scott McCoy, Senate District 2 (D)
Ronda Rudd Menlove, House District 1 (R)
Karen Morgan (NEW), Senate District 8 (D)**
Marie H. Poulson (NEW), House District 46 (D)
Kraig Powell (NEW), House District 54 (R)
Luz Robles, (NEW), Senate District 1 (D)
Paul Ray, House District 13 (R)
Phil Riesen, House District 36 (D)
Jay Seegmiller (NEW), House District 49 (D)
Jennifer Seelig, House District 23 (D)
Carol Spackman Moss, House District 37 (D)
Christine F. Watkins (NEW), House District 69 (D)

Hopefully there are more legislators who support the pledge but for one reason or another have not signed it. I find it interesting that of all the signers only one current legislator (Pat Jones) who wasn't running for re-election bothered to sign the pledge. I don't believe Utahns for Public Schools meant for this to be a campaign tool, although that's what it ended up being. I would challenge any legislator not listed above to get a signed copy of the pledge in the mail ASAP. There was a time when your word was as good as gold, and perhaps it is for some of you, but how are we to know you care? I suppose we could email or call and ask each one of you individually, but why not let us all know by signing the pledge? If you're not in favor of ethics reform or if you disagree with certain points of the pledge, feel free to post a comment here and let us know what you would do differently. The people, your constituents, are interested in a change. The only people who can make that happen is you, the lawmakers. Now, more then ever, you can see that a change is needed. I personally hope that ethics reform goes beyond the points listed in the Utahns for Public Schools pledge (such as the formation of an independent ethics commission), but let's start somewhere! Please let us know that you hear us!

*Incumbent that did not run for re-election in 2008
**Retired seat in House (District 46), new to Senate

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

House Ethics Committee: Newly-expanded role, but any real change?

Last week, incoming House Speaker David Clark R-Santa Clara reported on a newly-expanded role for the House Ethics Committee. Good news, right? I would hope so, but I also have a nose for lip service, band-aids, and all things superficial. Maybe it's a good step towards more accountability and ethics reform, but it sounds more like an emphasis on training legislators on what is and is not ethically appropriate so that, in Representative Clark's words, "it reduces the [disciplinary] meetings we have to hold." To be fair, it sounds like legislators have also tasked staff attorneys with drafting 17 new ethics bills, along with a few bills addressing campaign finance and lobbyist regulation. This piques my interest because there is at least some change and attention addressing the essential topic of ethics. However, I still believe the real issues and the most direct and effective solutions are being side-stepped.

On this site, Sara and I have called for at least two fundamental changes in ethics reform, and they bear repeating:

1. Strong, clearly-written, and enforceable ethics legislation
2. An independent Ethics Commission

Ethics Legislation
As you may remember, Representative Greg Hughes was recently reviewed for ethics violations. While the bi-partisan House Ethics Committee cleared Hughes, all eight members signed a letter faulting his conduct as "unbecoming a member of the Utah House." "We request that Representative Hughes take steps to change his behavior," the panel wrote, "and to make appropriate apologies to those who may have been affected."

Part of the reason Hughes was cleared came down to dubiously less-than-clear legislation....language so vague as to blur culpability for any number of otherwise obvious misdeeds.

Independent Ethics Commission

Back in August, Sara wrote an excellent post on the topic of legislative ethics, outlining the process for filing and reviewing an ethics complaint and underscoring some of the current problems with the process....along with the obvious need for an independent state ethics commission. Utah is one of ten states who have not formed an independent Ethics Commission. In our case, we have Senate and House Ethics Committees, intended to be bi-partisan in nature with equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats. Utah also relies on the Attorney General's office to provide ethics oversight.
However, given the recent ethics debacles and their subsequent investigations (or relative lack thereof), it doesn't take much to realize that legislators policing legislators is not an ideal model.
Impress Us, Please!
Believe me, I want to be impressed. No, I want to be blown away by how seriously our legislators take ethics, but let's not be fooled by feel-good reports of changes to the House Ethics Committee if they don't translate into real change. Keep an eye on this committee, the bills being drafted....and whether or not the bills even make it out of the House Rules Committee.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Is Utah Senator Howard Stephenson looking for a new job?

A week ago the Salt Lake Tribune wrote an article entitled "Did Utah senator's advocacy go too far?" and quoted from emails that he had written to the Utah State Office of Education (USOE). The tone of the emails spoke for themselves; Senator Stephenson was obviously upset. "I've had it" and "This is past a joke" were only two of many phrases that ripped into Superintendent Harrington and employees of USOE. The article was likely prompted by the Utah State Board of Education's recent change in Board Rule that now prohibits unauthorized personnel (including legislators) to view Requests for Proposal (RFP). The new rule was adopted in response to Stephenson's continued pressure and "help" that he was offering USOE. Superintendent Patti Harrington felt the need to protect her staff from political pressure and the Board agreed.

The article, and two subsequent follow-up articles, didn't make Howard Stephenson very happy. He decided to use his weekly Red Meat Radio program to let people know that he feels justified in his actions. He has "worked behind the scenes to try to get improvement there" and he wanted to "expose the underbelly of the most dysfunctional office in the state." He obviously has some very strong feelings. Despite the cooperation of Superintendent Harrington as she has worked so hard to be as cooperative as she could (read the emails, they speak for themselves) and they've worked things out before with success. Instead of acting like a statesman, an elected official, a man becoming a legislator, he makes a coherent, planned, thought-out decision to do USOE further harm and inflict further pressure. Is this how business is done on the Hill? Didn't somebody just get reprimanded for this kind of behavior?

Howard Stephenson is a senior member of the Senate, as he pointed out on his radio program, and Chair of the Public Education Joint Appropriations Committee. He has a lot of ideas about technology and education. His opinions are so strong and he believes he is so powerful that he has no problem getting involved. But is his involvement going too far? Is he trying to do a job that isn't his to do?

Everyone knows an "expert" who thinks they know everything, shouting the answers across the room to questions that weren't asked of them. They overheard the question and they know the answer! Sometimes there isn't even a question being asked, but they're still there, more than willing to let you know their opinion. Bosses out there may relate even better to someone in their office who is always trying to take over, who speak on your behalf when it hasn't been authorized for them to do so. Learning to deal with eager-beavers is a part of life and eventually most of them learn how to control their outbursts. We tend to have little patience for their actions and our annoyance is usually read as a sign that their behavior is unwelcome and inappropriate. Sometimes you must put your foot down and declare, "If you want my job why don't you just apply for it?!"

This seems to be the case with Howard Stephenson. He is so eager to do the job that may or may not be getting done at the Utah State Office of Education that he's literally trying to do it for them. This may reflect on USOE, but it also reflects on Stephenson. Why is he so insistent that one particular business get a contract over another company? Some suggest that he has something to gain, but what if he doesn't. What if he just really believes in the company and believes that they'll do the best job? He gave them an hour infomercial on Saturday during his radio program, ending with their phone number and website address; he must really like them. That's fine, but it's not his job to select the company! That's the job of USOE. If he wants to make decisions in that arena then I suggest he apply within. He certainly has the passion, perhaps he'd do ok in such a position, but he's not in that position!

Stephenson also has some strong opinions on what style of math should be taught in public schools. Again, one might ask, "What's in it for him?" I haven't been able to come up with anything substantial as of yet, although I've looked. I can only surmise that there must be some ulterior motive, that's the conspiracy theorist in me, especially when it comes to Legislators. But even if there isn't, even if he just honestly believes that Singapore Math is the absolute best thing for our children, it's not his job to decide that!! There are people hired to make those decisions and their name is not Howard Stephenson.

There are other examples, that this blog may decide to investigate further, where Stephenson has overplayed his hand and exerted his power and influence. Stephenson referred to it as so-called meddling on his radio program. That may well have been a good action word to use, but his decision to go on the air and publicly criticize the office has elevated the verb to bullying. Sad that we all know what happens to bullies on the Hill. Virtually nothing!

Is his influence still too strong to resist? When we act annoyed at the know-it-alls around us, they usually aren't in a position to give us a cut in pay or even demand that we be fired. But Stephenson believes he is so powerful that he can do just that. It would appear as though he may actually have that kind of influence. Try calling either employee mentioned in the emails that Stephenson recommended be terminated. You won't find them in the jobs they were doing. One of them left USOE earlier than anyone expected and the other is now a secretary. I can't say for certain that both circumstances are not coincidental or unrelated, but somehow I think otherwise.

I hope that his colleagues will help him recognize the error of his ways and seek to advise him on how a Senator acts in what must be a difficult situation for him. No matter how justified he thinks he is, his actions and words are inappropriate, to say the least.