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!

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Governor's Commission Backs Off Addressing Ethics

If you haven't already read Thurday's Deseret News article on Governor Huntsman's democracy commission, please take time to digest its content and implications. In a nutshell, what has recently been informally referred to as the governor's "ethics commission" is now nothing of the sort. The governor originally wanted to study why the citizens of Utah were not participating in the political process and had identified several possible reasons, including discouragement over ethics problems.

Originally, five areas were under scrutiny for both study and redress: campaign finance, lobbying, elections, as well as ethics and redistricting. However, House Speaker, Dave Clark (R) asked the governor to "stand down" on tackling ethics and redistricting as part of the commission's work, and Huntsman has agreed. Apparently the idea that ethics reform and redistricting fall solely under Legislative branch purview, and that Governor Huntsman was stepping on toes, has won the day.

Can We Say "We Told You So", Yet?

In a recent blog Did the media dupe us on Huntsman's "Ethics Commission"?, my blogging partner, Sara, questioned the intent behind this commission. Kudos to Sara for seeing, and nailing, the writing on the wall! We have both blogged about various incarnations of ethics blunders and the "clear as the nose on your face" need for serious and real ethics reform in Utah. While some may feel that issues of ethics and redistricting should be issues handled by the Legislative branch, Governor Huntsman's decision simply begs the sad, yet critical, opportunity to say "we told you so". The term "ethics reform" has become a popular buzz word used for spin and hype, but has not come to represent, at least as yet, real change in Utah politics.

I also wonder how serious the governor is about gift bans and holding the Executive branch to a higher standard... Just curious. In any case, as it currently stands, the Legislative branch will continue policing itself...and perhaps the governor will continue wondering why Utahns are frustrated with Utah politics and "democracy".

You can keep up on the governor's commission at

Still One of Only Ten States Without an Ethics Commission

I feel like a broken record, but we have underscored on this site that Utah is still only one of ten states that does not have an independent Ethics Commission. Come on, folks. What does it take to get some genuine, objective oversight in this state? In December, I wrote:

Utah is one of only ten states that does not have an independed 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.

Ethics reform was the hyped battlecry of this year's legislative session and hope was high for some of us that it would bear the fruit of an independent Ethics Commission.....especially since early talk about the governor's commission on democracy would take a serious look at ethics. What sounded like a genuine step toward a real Ethics Commission now just falls under the category of "business as usual".

Two, Okay, Three, Fundamental Changes We Need

In a recent post, I mentioned:

On this site, we 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

In my humble opinion, Utah has wasted yet another year and legislative session on hype, feel-good spin, and less-than-real progress toward measureable, impactful ethics reform. The two fundamental changes I just identified are yet at least another legislative session away from being taken seriously. Upon further reflection, I want to add another fundamental change we need: some new, honest, ethical public that change can come from the inside out. Maybe I'll run for office.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Should Senator Bramble apologize?

I recently got the full scoop on Senator Bramble's bill (SB199) that originally included language that would make it impossible for school staff and administration to work in a cooperative manner with any PTA group ever again. It would have been the first bill of its kind in the entire nation, but the bill ultimately failed. However, before it bit the dust the bill's sponsors, Senator Bramble and Representative Lockhart, were afforded many opportunities to prove why the public have been screaming "ethics reform" at the top of their lungs.

The premise of the bill was based on lies, falsehoods and a misrepresentation of the facts. It amounted to a smear campaign.

  • The title of the bill, "Equal Recognition of School Parent Groups", contradicted entirely the original language that "A school may in conjunction with a parent group that requires the payment of dues as a condition for participation in its group, including participation in volunteer opportunities, leadership positions, or the ability to vote." This verbiage was artfully crafted to specifically target the PTA, although it would have some unintended consequences for a few other organizations, as well. The original bill would have restricted all access to the largest parent group in Utah, thus effectively taking the "equal recognition" right out of the title.

  • The citizen sponsor of the bill, Dawn Frandsen, testified in the Senate Education Committee that there were major problems in her school district with fairness by administrators to include Parent Teacher Organizations (PTO) along with Parent Teacher Associations (PTA). She testified that preferential treatment was given to the PTA groups. This testimony was finally refuted by the District Superintendent via an email to legislators. The email claims that Ms. Frandsen never tried to work out this issue of fairness on a district level. Senator Bramble worked off the same assumption and made it public when he uncircled the bill on the Senate floor to ask for a vote to pass it out to the House (5:00). In my mind Senator Bramble owes Superintendent Merrill an apology.

  • Email from Supt. Merrill to Sen. Bramble

  • Bramble introduced the bill by saying (5:16), "Dawn Frandsen is really the genesis and it was her experience that has brought this issue to the forefront. This was done at her request." Ms. Frandsen started her testimony by catching everyone up on the basis for the bill (read "upset with the PTA"). She said that when the PTA at her school tried to become a PTO the Utah PTA made it very difficult for her and other parents to become a PTO they were (7:20) "threatened and told that they would be excluded from district privileges". Keep in mind that these are alleged threats by the PTA folks, not the district. Since when does the PTA decide what level of involvement parents have with a school district? If Ms. Frandsen really believed the threats, why didn't she take it up with the district? She later explains in her testimony that in a September 2008 district school board meeting there were discussions that there might be budget cuts that need to be made. Some board members suggested that they get input from the PTA. Frandsen explains, "The woman sitting next to me leaned over to me and asked "why they don't ask the PTOs", and I said, "Oh, they won't. They never have." Frandsen said that a "high ranking cabinet member" happened to be walking by and standing next to us and the woman sitting next to her said to him, "Why don't you ask the PTOs" and his response to her was, "We do not work with the PTOs". (8:30) I immediately began to question why she took one "high ranking cabinet member" at his word and didn't choose to pursue it further if she thought it was such a problem. Why didn't she talk to the Superintendent about the problem? If that's not enough, Frandsen goes on to talk about her problems with the PTA, not her problems with the districts not giving equal access to all parents. She elaborates on problems other parents in other districts (that she "personally talked to") had WITH THE PTA. The bill doesn't address equal access to the PTA. The bill doesn't address making it easier for a PTA to split off and become a PTO. But these are the types of examples that she included in her testimony, which clearly demonstrate that her beef is not with the districts at all, rather the PTA. This will go down in history as the biggest "I'll show you" move from a single parent. The fact that a lawmaker didn't see through this further demonstrates that they had some motive of their own to shut down the PTA.

  • Just as Senator Bramble didn't bother to check up on Frandsen's motive for bringing the bill forward, he also didn't bother to follow up on the validity of an email he received from a grandparent alleging that her granddaughter was not allowed to run for Student Body Office because her mother was not a member of the PTA and hadn't paid PTA dues. He cites the email as a basis for the law to pass out of the Senate when he uses it as yet another example of why a bill like this is needed (4:00). The principal of the school wrote a letter to Senator Bramble explaining that the basis of the email was completely false. However, no attempt was made to set the record straight, no apology...instead, an angry phone call by the Senator and a subsequent hang-up of the phone when the conversation didn't go his way. Sounds all too familiar. Before the angry phone call he had warmed up by ripping into a representative of the PTA outside the doors of the House of Representatives after he became frustrated with the PTA for exercising their right to do what's best for the children. The Daily Herald called it an "animated conversation" but they only saw the conversation. Had they actually heard it they would have used the words "butt-chewing". When Bramble and Lockhart were through with the butt-chewing Bramble must have realized that he did another stupid thing and said as much by huffing, "I'm sure I'll see this in Paul Rolly tomorrow, too!" I'm no Paul Rolly, but I'm sure plenty of people will read this. What he did was despicable. He threatened, he belittled, he tried to silence the PTA once and for all. He said that a PTA lobbyist would need a signed affidavit from the PTA Board when testifying before a committee or else they wouldn't be allowed to testify ever again. He tried to influence their decision by use of guilt, telling them that they could never be trusted again. Trust issues, indeed! But they lie with our legislators who continue to bully, but this time they don't even bother to keep it in house. Unethical behavior at it's best!

    FW Student Officers at Spring Creek Middle School

Perhaps it's occurred to you as you've read about the disheartening actions of abusive legislators that there is an obvious connection between the PTA's involvement in the education coalition effort to squash vouchers and the actions of policymakers whose unethical behavior is standing in the way of progress for Utah's public schools. It couldn't really be a coincidence, could it? Bramble has already refuted the connection, but isn't it interesting that the same legislators and organizations that stood on opposite sides of the voucher issue also stood on opposite sides of the anti-PTA bill?

I would encourage more people to get involved as it would seem that our politics are being taken over by overly zealous individuals on the far left and the far right. With that kind of framing of our laws and policies, it's really quite amazing that we're not worse off than we are. We need reasonable people out there making their voices heard and working to control the insanity, so I invite you to get involved!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Are pigs really flying, or are legislators just lying?

I had high hopes coming into the 2009 Legislative Session. I had hoped that something would be done about ethics reform this year. Finally, not only was the public ready (this year more than ever), but it seemed legislators were ready, too. Several complaints were brought forward just months earlier. These ethics complaints clearly demonstrated that legislators were unable to govern themselves when it came to following through on any action that might be brought against one of their own. Most agreed that they needed to fix it and many vowed to do just that.

In January of 2007, a Deseret News writer suggested that Utah would ban lobbyists' gifts "when pigs fly". When a few bills made it to the House Ethics Committee for consideration the committee members took the opportunity to blame the media for the public's "misperception" of ethics on the hill, claiming that they only know what the media tells them and often the media isn't giving them the entire picture. During discussion of HB 213 Ban on Gifts to Legislators they felt comfortable enough to joke that they had seen pigs flying above the capitol that morning and the Deseret News reporter was even in the room. At the end of the session, Speaker Clark was presented with a pig made out of wood - wings and all! The funny thing is, HB 213 was stalled in rules committee just as we suspected and it FAILED! How could they possibly have taken credit for flying pigs when there is no ban on gifts to Legislators?

Of the 21 ethics reform bills that were filed, only 5 of them were sent to the Governor for his signature. The Utah State Legislature website breaks it all down for us, but let me fill you in on some details.

HB 346 Campaign and Financial Reporting Requirements Amendments

You might find it interesting to know that HB 346, Campaign and Financial Reporting Requirements Amendments, originally required contributions and public service assistance to be reported within 5 days of the day on which they were received. The main purpose of this bill was to increase the speed of reporting requirements, thus making it more difficult for legislators to report donations after they had already been elected. It passed out of the House Ethics Committee with a favorable recommendation and then out of the House with a unanimous vote with original language. On the Senate floor the bill was substituted, meaning that changes were made to it, specifically that the 5 day reporting requirement was changed to 30 days. The bill was substituted yet again (on the very same day, two days before the end of the session) and under suspension of the rules it was considered read for the second and third time and a vote was taken and passed out of the Senate.

Senator Valentine made the first substitute that did the real damage. A second substitute was written up but not made public or voted on, and finally, Senator Bramble added definition language to the bill in the third and final substitute, essentially watering the bill down even more by adding more things that "Contribution" does NOT include.

When a bill undergoes that many changes after it has already passed out of the House it is necessary for the House to either "concur" or agree to the Senate amendments or take another vote. It is common practice for the House to concur on Senate Amendments and for the Senate to likewise concur with House amendments to Senate bills, especially as the session winds down to a close. What is that good for? Laws that haven't been closely scrutinized. Laws that lose their original intent. Only four representatives voted not to concur to the Senate amendments.

HJR 14 Joint Rules Resolution - Ethics Training Course Provisions

HJR 14 is the only piece of legislation that adds rules to ethics procedures and this is what concerned me the most. After all the problems the ethics committee complained about, not having the proper guidelines and guidance when it came to knowing if Greg Hughes was guilty of the complaints brought against him, I would have thought that they would try to fix their process and rules! The best they came up with is to have legislators undergo online training, but what happens the next time fellow legislators file another ethics complaint? Do the new rules requiring legislators to know what is ethical and what isn't ethical help the ethics committee with the problems they had last year?

To add to the debacle, the Senate mucked with this bill just like they did with HB 346. With only one day left in the session they amended the bill to include lobbyists! I might have thought that a great thing if it weren't for the last line of the amended bill. It states:

45a S. (6) A lobbyist who does not complete the training required by this rule is subject to an
45b ethics complaint under Senate or House rule. .S

Notice that it doesn't say "A legislator or lobbyist". I find that somewhat curious. Are legislators not subject to an ethics complaint if they fail to complete the training? Legislators are off the hook according to this new law and apparently nobody noticed.

Instead of rushing amendments through that result in sub-par law they should have been fixing their own ethics process and rules. If you've forgotten how bad it is read Bob Bernick's take after he listened to the taped testimony of Rep. Greg Hughes during the last Ethics Committee investigation. They desperately needed to make themselves some new rules but they ignored that completely. They'll certainly keep ignoring the need for an independent Ethics Commission, too. But don't worry, pigs were flying this year, right? Congratulations to everyone! Congratulations to the rules committees who did their job with flying colors just as in previous years. They held over 75% of the ethics bills that came before them. They seem to think that's their job. Take a look at some of the good bills that they failed to take action on:
And still more that didn't even get as far as the House or Senate Rules Committee:
You can read more about the lucky five here.

So there you have it. The newspapers have apparently succumbed to the pressure to quit "misrepresenting" ethics on the hill. I've only seen a couple of stories that question whether or not ethics reform happened this year. It's quite clear to me that it did not and my next post will illustrate how out-of-control things got up there this year, specifically concerning Bramble's SB 199 which I like to call the anti-PTA bill. Talk about ethics!

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Bad Bill Alert! Byrne's 65% "Solution" is Back (SB241)

You can read about what I've previously written about the 65% "Solution" here (Aug. 2008) and here (Sep. 2008), but here are some items you should be aware of:

  • It's nothing new. It was a bad idea then, it's a bad idea now.

  • This bad idea originated with Tim Mooney of Arizona. He used Patrick Byrne's (CEO of money and they organized their efforts and formed an organization known as "First Class Education"

  • First Class Education have apparently abandoned their original efforts. Their website is an empty WordPress blog, but don't be fooled. Thanks to technology (WayBack Machine) you can still view their old site.

  • Did I mention that it's nothing new? Four years ago, they attempted to get legislation passed in every state. They ultimately failed (they wanted to have legislation in all 50 states by 2008) despite the nasty memo that they circulated among legislators outlining their POLITICAL MOTIVES!

  • This is not a new bill. In 2006, Utah was included in their efforts when Greg Hughes sponsored HB143 titled "Instructional Expenses Requirements"

  • The 2006 bill made it out of the House Education Committee. It was amended before it passed out favorably with a vote of 7 "Yeas", 6 "Nays" and 2 "Absent".

  • The new bill is being sponsored by Senator Mark B. Madsen in the form of SB241 titled "Instructional Expenses". It is word for word exactly the same bill (unamended version) of HB143 in 2006.

  • Tim Mooney claims that the 65% Solution is currently on hold. When I asked him why it was on hold he told me it was due to timing. When I told him about SB241 in Utah he was surprised and told me that he wasn't aware of it. I asked him if he was still working with Patrick Byrne on this issue and he confirmed that he was.

  • Patrick Byrne is the newly appointed Co-Chair of the Friedman Foundation. Their agenda and goal is to have vouchers and legislation that supports vouchers in all 50 states. They already claim Utah as a success story for their involvement in the passage of the Carson Smith Scholarship program.

  • There is no basis or research for why they chose 65% that should be spent in the classroom. Why not 68% or 72%? Utah already spends at least 65% in the classroom. The purposes of this bill are outlined in their own memo and their agenda hasn't changed. Don't be fooled!

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Developers, Lobbyists, and Legislative Ethics

Interesting stuff, ethics. Sometimes it's hard to tell what's in a name, and it appears that "ethics" can mean different things to different people. Sometimes the apparent lack of ethics in a given situation comes down to a differing world view. Take Sen. Buttars and his view on same-sex couples and their civil liberties. No matter where you fall on the topic, the side you view as "ethical" comes down to fundamental differences in what you define as right and wrong. Buttar's embarrassing antics aside, and acknowledging heated debate and belief on both sides, I believe fundamentally differing world views will always cause each of us to question our definition of ethics and who is right or wrong in any given situation.

Defining Ethics

HOWEVER, broader world view perspectives are not the focus of ethics reform at Capitol Hill. The ethics reform we are all calling for can and should be clearly defined and measured. But will it even come close? A couple of GOP ethics bills have made their way into the Senate, and here are the ethics bills currently being considered in the House Ethics Committee. What exactly is the definition of "ethics" up on the hill? For example, as a public servant, is it ethical to have to list all of the gifts you receive from lobbyists, or is it ethical to simply refuse an honest attempt to remain unbeholden to anyone except your constituents? I have my own opinion, and it has nothing to do with limiting or listing gifts.

Developers and Lobbyists Need To Go

I also wonder if its ethical for a legislature full of developers and former/future lobbyists to to police themselves. The Governor's "ethics commission" does not look like it's shaping up to actually become an independent body providing oversight on ethics at all. The developers and lobbyists will continue to run the state, remain loyal to their overall agendas, and get away with looking like they are truly interested in ethics by participating in this year's high-profile ethics reform. In addition to truly effective ethics legislation and a bona fide independent Ethics Commission, the current gaggle of developers and lobbyists parading as public servants need to be ousted in the next round of elections. They need to be replaced by individuals who are actually interested in, and capable of, actually serving the public in honest, ethical, and transparent ways.

Do your research, my friends. Understand not only the world view of your public servants, but also their definition of ethics and what loyalties they bring with them to the hill...

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Did the media dupe us on Huntsman's "Ethics Commission"?

On January 22, 2009, Governor Huntsman announced a newly-formed Commission. That evening and during the next 24 hours the headlines read "Huntsman appoints ethics reform panel", "Huntsman launches commission to clean up Utah politics", and "Governor organizes government ethics commission". I remember the evening well. I was jogging on the treadmill and nearly fell off it when it was announced on the ten o'clock news. I was pleased, but skeptical.

Imagine my surprise when I hear Doug Wright (a member of the commission) on the morning news clarifying that when the commission was formed Governor Huntsman had a lot more things in mind...ethics being only one item on the long list. Surprise turns to disappointment when I read the formal name of the commission, "Governor's Commission on Strengthening Utah's Democracy". That doesn't sound anything like an ethics commission!

Based on news reports, almost all of them spinning the ethics reform angle, I was able to determine that Huntsman isn't really sure exactly what will come of the commission and that he won't tell the commission specifically what the recommendations should look like. Quotes like, "They will do their thing and we will do ours, and I suspect that over time, some of these things will be taken up" didn't inspire confidence for the direction of the commission. I was beginning to understand that my idea of an ethics commission was a lot different than the media's spin on what Huntsman never meant to be an ethics commission in the first place!

Huntsman spokeswoman Lisa Roskelley said the commission's purpose is to look "at reasons why Utahns aren't participating and don't have the necessary confidence in their government system. This group is not intended to look solely at ethics or even legislative ethics."

Disappointment turns to bananas (as in "mad as heck") when I realize that the local mainstream media fed us what we wanted to hear! A lot of people probably didn't catch on to what they were sold a couple of weeks ago. Happy to see that something was finally being done about last year's unethical behavior, they went along with the daydream. I hate to be the one to wake you up, but wipe the drool off your face and snap out of it! Huntsman has something else going on, but it likely won't bring about the major ethics reform that we have been asking for. Who knows, maybe his commission will be able to have some influence or come up with some good ideas or recommendations. He's not even sure, so how can we be?

I'm sure I'll be looking more into the Governor's Commission on Strengthening Utah's Democracy, but for now there are real bills, a lot of them making their way to the House Ethics Committee as recently as Monday. These bills would have the potential for real change to how business is done up on the hill. Keep an eye on them. They've already made it further than some ethics bills made it last year. Congrats to the 2009 House Rules Commmittee.

Unfortunately, House Speaker Dave Clark has already given up. He recently said, "It's not going to happen in this session. This is going to take, I think, through this next summer." I sincerely hope he was just trying to incite a riot. In any case, it's going to take continued public outcry if anything is to be done. Polls alone aren't enough. We had polls last year and nothing was done. We need polls, scandals (plenty to choose from) and public outcry. The legislators themselves understand the need for public outcry and have stated that it will take " a burst of public support" before they can proceed with any kind of ethics reform legislation, and they were saying that in January, 2008. They told us what it's going to take, you take it from here.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

What is the status of the omnibus bill complaint?

We're less than a week away from the beginning of the 2009 Legislative Session here in Utah and there is quite a buzz surrounding this session. Budget cuts have a lot to do with that and there is also much talk about ethics reform. We've been pretty loud about ethics reform here at the Accountability blog. In fact, before we kick off the next session on January 26, 2009, and all that will come with it, we ought to revisit a few topics that are still ongoing and some that have, perhaps, even been forgotten.

There is new information about the illegal "Omnibus Bill" officially known as SB 2 (second substitute). The plaintiffs have filed for a partial judgement concerning non-triable, unconstitutional issues of fact, specifically concerning counts three and four of the complaint on file. Count three and count four were not the main focus of the complaint last year, at least not for bloggers and news reporters. A lot of work has been done by the plaintiffs and their lawyers to show how unconstitutional the omnibus bill is, based on counts three and four. They are:

  • Count Three: Portions of SB 2 violate the non-delegation doctrine and Article X, Section 3, of the Utah Constitution. (Specific to "Teacher Salary Supplement Program" SB 35 or lines 774 to 864 of SB2)
  • Count Four: Portions of SB 2 violate the non-delegation doctrine and Article X, Section 3, of the Utah Constitution. (Specific to Section 11 of SB 2 - Requiring an "independent party" to evaluate public school instructional materials )

I'm happy to see that this is being pursued and after reading through the "Plaintiffs' Motion for Partial Summary Judgment on Article 10 Related Claims," that was served on January 5th. I was impressed with the amount of case law that was cited and how it applies in this situation. Last year I, and others, focused almost entirely on counts one and two. They state that SB 2 consisted of 14 other bills that, according to the Utah Constitution, a bill is required to have 1) a single subject and 2) a clear title. These were the most obvious parts of the complaint, but now that counts three and four have been elaborated on, they are equally valid and convincing, if not more so.

You'll need to read the document in it's entirety to fully understand where the plaintiffs are coming from, but I'll pull out some main points (the section headers, to be exact) to illustrate the newly elaborated concerns so that you can see what I'm talking about.

    • The Legislature May Not Transfer the Power Which Has Been Constitutionally Vested in a Constitutional Office to Other Agencies or to Private Parties.

    • The USBE Is a Constitutional Office With Constitutionally-Vested Power to Control and Supervise Public Education in the State of Utah.

    • The Teacher Salary Supplement Program and the Textbook Approval Program of SB 2 Are Impermissible Legislative Encroachments upon the Administrative Power of the USBE.


    • Sections 19,20, and 11 of SB 2, the so-called Teacher Salary Supplement Program and Textbook Approval Program, should be declared unconstitutional. Both programs violate the non-delegation doctrine as that principle of constitutional law has been applied on numerous occasions by the Utah Supreme Court. They provide that another agency, the UDHRM, and private parties shall administer programs, the general control and supervision of which are constitutionally committed to the USBE under Article 10, Section 3. The Textbook Approval Program suffers from the additional constitutional defect of delegating government power to a private party.
Whatever happens with the complaint, I believe legislators in the upcoming session will avoid the mistakes they made last year. They will be much more careful about encroaching upon powers and logrolling. We're all watching!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

New Ethics Bills Already Raising Questions....And Eyebrows

Over the past couple of days, the Salt Lake Tribune has followed up on the question of ethics in Utah's legislature. An article in today's paper, for example, highlights the misuse of lobbyist gifts, and provides some insight into the nearly $170,000 in lobbyist gifts legislators racked up last year. Insight, becomes a contradiction in terms with regard to gifts, however, since the vast majority of them have been obscured from public view and almost entirely undisclosed. That is all supposed to change and is something, among other ethics reforms, that many of us have been calling for.

On Monday, a hint of things to come (at least in terms of dialogue and the appearance of change) came in the form of an ethics package consisting of four bills. I've said before, I want to be, blown away, by real change in the legislature. I want these bills to be a real step towards transparency in government and a commitment to putting the public trust and service before monetary gain and political agendas.

Keep your eye on the process of finding consensus and, ultimately, acceptance of these bills, folks. It's bound to reveal a lot about some of our "public servants" and their motives for serving. I hope it raises a few questions for you like it does for me. For example, is Senate President, Michael Waddoups, serious when he says, of banning lobbyist gifts, that "we're inclined to think that disclosure is a better thing than prohibition, because prohibition tends to turn well-meaning acts into criminal acts." WHAT? Is this the same guy who wants liquor to be "prohibited" from even being viewed in Utah restaurants? Does anyone else see the incongruity, no, the borderline schizophrenia here? In addition, a few legislators are squirming in the face of bill "four" in the package which prohibits legislators from becoming lobbyists for a year after they leave office....with no mention of what that means for current legislators who are already paid lobbyists for various industries.

Let the shakedown begin.