Monday, September 28, 2009
Part 3 of Utah County ethics initiative hearing: mostly commentary on shouters out and some questions and answers
Craig Dennis: Washington and California are even worse at incumbent protection. California has some legislative districts almost as big as congressional districts. (Really?) Our state has very low voter turn out (among lowest 5 state in the nation) and low public engagement. Addressing ethics will raise voter participation. Should the legislature accept gifts or use campaign funds after they leave office? That is inappropriate.
On a business board, we have training and address conflicts. The public demands ethics. Take part. Take this bold step after endless delays.
During Mr. Dennis’ remarks, a lady from the back yelled “Please speak louder!” This was a repeated occurrence for the rest of the night. Now, in one sense this is a perfectly reasonable request. There were 20-30 people standing at the back of the room, including most or all of the Utah County legislators, and the doors were open to the hallway. On the other hand, I could hear everything fine seated from my seat near the back of the room and we were in a conference room on the 3rd floor of the Provo Library with little or no foot traffic out in the hall. The microphone seemed to be working fine. I think the main reason that the crowd in back, and this semi-shrill woman standing near the door in particular, had to keep yelling for the speakers to be louder is because they were the main source of distracting noise in the room. The people standing in back were almost 100% friends and family of the legislators (As I mentioned, the majority of the legislators and those who came with them arrived after the meeting had already begun.), and they were buzzing back and forth arguing points under their breath and talking the entire night. The low roar got worse as Ms. Jensen finished up her presentation and into Mr. Dennis’ remarks, and they quit even trying to be polite during the Question and Answer session. That particular woman, and some others, yelled out for people to speak more loudly every few minutes all during the 2nd hour of the meeting, but would not shut up themselves. I think any person attending that is not part of that group would confirm my account of the noise and interruptions coming from the back.
And while I’m on the topic, the legislative friend group had one other extremely annoying “public meeting strategy." The first time I wrote down when it happened was during the second answer in the Q&A session, but I took specific note of it because it wasn’t the first time it had happened. When the presenters, usually Janet Jensen or Karl Snow, would make a point that the legislators disagreed with, the little group in the back would loudly guffaw, nudge each other, and look around at each other for confirmation of how ridiculous the argument was. You could hear Senator Bramble specifically more than once, but it was widespread in the back. They seemed to think that this was an excellent persuasive tool to convince those in the room that ethics reform was unnecessary. In reality, I think it demonstrated to any seated in the room the arrogance of many in the legislative coterie and their inability to see anything from another point of view.
The Question and Answer Session:
Ned Hill explained that those in the audience had to write their name, county of residence, title, and question on 3 by 5 cards that were passed out in order to speak. He said that gathering the names, county, and title of everyone was a requirement of the Lt. Governor’s office for the public meetings. We were supposed to hand the cards to Don Jarvis who was in the aisle, who then passed them to Ned Hill. Mr. Hill then shuffled the cards and would pick one randomly from the stack in his hands, giving that person 2 minutes to comment or question. At first, the questions were short; as the session went on, people started using more of their 2 minutes trying to convince the crowd of their view, asking a question at the end of their speech. I think Mr. Hill did a good job of randomly choosing—both sides were represented and there was a stretch where 4 or 5 opponents of the initiative in a row were called to speak. (Of course, his wife was called as the last question before the meeting adjourned. I 85% believe that was random.)
Here, I will also note that while Senator Bramble indeed yelled out questions more than once, he was singled out a bit unfairly in the Paul Rolly column last week. There had been one out-of-turn question from the audience during Ms. Jensen’s presentation while she was fiddling with the Powerpoint, and others yelled out questions besides Bramble. The incident Rolly recounts when Bramble was shouted down was the 2nd or 3rd question Bramble had yelled out, but immediately before, another guy seated in the window alcove a few feet from Bramble had yelled out a question and gotten a response. I do, however, think it is fair to ding Bramble for hypocrisy, having watched his debate with RaDene Hatfield last fall. There was one moment in their debate when Bramble made a statement about something the legislature had done well. I can’t remember what it was—something like they had budgeted well—but some true statement of accomplishment. RaDene Hatfield quietly burst out “That’s true,” and nodded. Maybe it wasn’t the perfect behavior while your opponent is speaking, but it was an innocuous statement and it was obvious Hatfield had no intention to expound further. Bramble, however, stopped mid-sentence, glared at Hatfield, and brusquely asked something like “Can I finish? Do you want my time?” He had an icy look and was obviously affronted. The comment was nothing and if Bramble had just continued speaking, no one would have recalled it 30 seconds later. So Bramble has a double-standard. It’s OK to purposely yell out if he disagrees with the content of a meeting, but an insignificant aside while he is speaking is a cause of great offense.
Back to Rolly, it was also obvious that he got his info from only one source. While unquestionably the majority of the interruptions came from the standing crowd in back, there was a fair amount of shouting out by both sides at the questions and answers. Many times, someone would stumble over a fact, both questioners and Janet Jensen while answering—stating the wrong number of people, mixing up the pool of commission candidates and the actual commissioners, leaving out facts about the pay, etc. The mistakes were mostly innocent I believe, but the opposing side in the room would shout out corrections as the person spoke. I was glad the clarifications were made on both sides—they were often things I was thinking too—but it was half rude, half just disorderly. It should be mentioned that the loudest loudmouth of those in favor of the initiative was semi-public figure, John Talcott. I had only ever seen his name online, where he is a very opinionated and brash and recently resorted to insulting the appearance of someone he disagreed with. (He was actually seated only one or two rows in front of that particular blogger, and I hoped they wouldn’t see each other. I didn’t notice any interaction.) He was wearing the nametag we were given and loudly yelled out several times. He would correct people, rudely shouted out when Senator Valentine approached the front of the room by invitation of Ned Hill, and was the loudest voice shouting at Bramble that he had to wait his turn like everybody else. He was not the only one, but he was the loudest, even though he frequently yelled out himself.
On to the questions. I caught many of the names of those who asked questions and will include them. I apologize in advance to anyone whose name I misspelled. I missed other names, and will probably leave off a few names of questioners whom I criticize. I want everyone to get a true picture of the tone of the meeting and questions, but I don’t think every individual signed up for the by-name criticism an elected official receives. (And the questions will necessarily be imperfectly summarized. As I know from experience, it is tough to ask a clear, coherent question in a large public setting, and many of the questioners stumbled, restated, etc. as they asked their questions. I tried to summarize it accurately and think I did a mostly good job.)
Jon Morris from Pleasant Grove – How do you think taking the campaign funds left over at the end of a campaign benefits candidates or increases the number of people wanting to run for office? If they lose the money, what incentive will they have to return and be involved and run again? Janet Jensen – They only forfeit that money after 5 yrs. They can run again anytime within the next 5 years and use the money. Who does the money go to if it’s taken? To the school fund or to the charity of the candidate’s choice.
Blair Bateman – The ethics commission is chosen from 20 names. Who chooses the 20 names and how are the 5 commissioners chosen from those 20? Janet Jensen – The 20 people must be legal citizens, live in utah, be at least 25 years old, demonstrate leadership and service, be capable of neutral decisions even if a member of a party, and cannot have been a lobbyist, politician, or party officer within the last 5 yrs. The 4 leaders of the legislature, the head Republican and Democrat of both the House and the Senate, must choose 20 names unanimously. (This is one of the spots where a speaker messed up and corrections were shouted out. Jensen had trouble naming who those 4 people were and was corrected by people in the crowd. It was disorderly, but helpful because she was being unclear. Many of these corrections didn’t have the rancorous tone some of the other shouted comments did.) The 5 names for the commission are drawn at random from the pool of 20 names agreed on by the legislative leaders. This is an incentive to get good people. Since the legislators can't insure their "toady" will be picked, they will choose honest, trustworthy people. If the legislative leadership cannot agree on candidates, the pool of 20 will be chosen by the 5 people helping organize this initiative called "czars" on that handout you received. (The legislative crowd in back laughed loudly at that.)
Bramble shouted out here “Who are the czars?” Janet Jensen stumbled over the names, but Karl Snow and others helped her out. They are Chase Peterson, Karl Snow, Cassia Dippo, Jordan Tanner, former Republican Utah House Representative, and Carol Petersen, former chief clerk of the Utah House. Some people in back said “They’re the ringleaders of this thing.”
Someone yelled out “What if they die?’ Janet Jensen answered that "Of course there is a replacement mechanism.” I had read the bill and wrote down that I thought that wasn’t true. It isn’t and Karl Snow corrected that statement later in the meeting.
OK, I’m sorry, but I’ve had less time then I thought I would. I will have to extend this once again to another post. The majority of the questions and answers are yet to come.
Friday, September 25, 2009
A collection of a few articles about the inadvertent gift ban passed by the legislature..."Accidental ethics reform is better than none"
First - Articles discussing the original intent of the two ethics bills passed in the 2009 legislative session.
This empty link was a Standard Examiner editorial that I saved under the title "Standard Examiner editorial: Gift ban is a joke HB 246, Brad Dee defends "transparency", but didn't copy the text.
My bad. It is gone, but it looks like it was a good one. (I tracked it down on Weber County Forum as well, but the link there is dead too.)
I did save the excellent Tribune editorial though:
Lobbyists keep lawmakers well-fed
Updated: 04/15/2009 05:37:20 PM MDT
So far this year, state lawmakers have gobbled up $92,000 worth of meals, tickets, trinkets and other gifts from legislative lobbyists.
While golf courses and stadiums and concert halls are popular places to woo legislators -- lobbyists like to reserve big blocks of time to better ingratiate themselves with elected officials -- the most popular path to a lawmaker's heart runs through the stomach.
And, despite what has been hailed as reform, the kitchen won't be closing any time soon. It's safe to say that lawmakers' appetite for free food during the 2009 session far exceeded their appetite for meaty ethics reform.
Legislative leaders made big promises before convening, including -- gulp -- a gift ban bill.
House Speaker Dave Clark said he would back a proposal that would allow only nominal gifts worth $5 to $10, and meals offered at an event or proffered to the entire Legislature. But it appears that Clark and his compadres bit off more than they could chew.
Instead, lawmakers approved Senate Bill 156, which should have been titled the "Small Potatoes Act." It bans absolutely nothing, but does change the reporting requirements to make lobbyists reveal the recipients of tickets to all recreational and artistic events plus meals that cost $25 or more. Previously, the reporting threshold for meals was $50.
Theoretically, that would result in names being attached to a lot more gifts. (Of the $92,000 worth accepted so far this year, the recipients were only disclosed for $5,213 of the spending.) But more likely, lawmakers will alter their diets.
By lowering the reporting threshold for meals, lawmakers who don't have the stomach for owning up to these trysts have consigned themselves to moderately priced restaurants. No more linen tablecloths, silver spoons and crystal glasses. We expect there will be considerably more chicken and a lot less lobster bought by lobbyists starting next month.
SB156 sponsor Rep. Brad Dee, R-Washington Terrace, said his bill will add more transparency to the process, but defended the practice of lobbyists paying the tab.
"If someone wants to go and have a dinner with a lobbyist, that's fine," Dee said. We agree. But they should go Dutch. And if lawmakers don't want to pay their own way, and they still feel it's essential to hear what the lobbyists have to say, then why not meet at the office?
Holding a public office should entitle lawmakers to a salary and the right to represent the people who elected them. And nothing more. The Legislature needs to enact an absolute gift ban.
So the original intent was just to report gifts over $25, banning nothing. It looks like Brad Dee was the go-to quote for both editorials.
Second - Articles addressing the legislature's "Oops moment," or the fact that SB 156 actually contained language banning legislators from accepting any gifts worth more than $50.
The quotes in these articles are terribly revealing. You see both Republican and Democratic legislators publicly saying that they think the gift ban should be repealed. Ethics reform is strictly to be promised, never delivered. The D-News articles and KSL story are still up at the links; I'm pasting in the Tribune article and Standard Examiner editorial. Enjoy.
August 14, 2009 - http://www.deseretnews.com/article/705323605/Legislative-gifts-ban-over-50-stand.html
August 19, 2009 - http://www.deseretnews.com/article/705324477/No-gifts-over-50-to-lawmakers.html
August 20, 2009 - http://www.ksl.com/?nid=148&sid=7607037
Lobbyists' gifts of primo tickets now taboo for lawmakers
Freebie limits » Some lawmakers surprised by $50 limit on entertainment
By Cathy Mckitrick
The Salt Lake Tribune
Updated: 08/20/2009 08:24:39 PM MDT
Some state lawmakers, surprised by the reach of a newly enacted lobbyist gift ban, already are giving reasons why the statute needs to be revised.
SB156, which overwhelmingly passed the House and Senate last March, limited lobbyist gifts and meals to those valued at $50 or less. That bans many Jazz tickets, pricey golf rounds and trips.
Senate Majority Leader Sheldon Killpack, in an interview with The Tribune this week, didn't say anything about repealing the gift ban. But he did tout the merits of addressing lobbyist gifts with disclosure rather than outright prohibitions.
"I personally am a believer in full disclosure. I think that's the way to go," Killpack said. "Once you get into a lot of the ban issues, it complicates things."
While many lawmakers in the Democratic minority support gift bans, at least one hopes to roll back the new law.
"It took me by surprise," said Sen. Brent Goodfellow, D-West Valley City. "I think it should change back to how it was."
Goodfellow, who served for years in the House before moving to the Senate, has in the past been one of the biggest recipients of premium court-side Jazz seats.
Some legislators have said the change was inadvertent, even accidental, and slipped through unnoticed by many. That's because the ban was enacted by a change in the definition what constituted a gift to include tickets to sporting, recreational and cultural events.
Rep. Brad Dee, R-Washington Terrace, who sponsored SB156 in the House, said the $50 gift cap -- including events -- was no secret.
"As legislators, we have to come to grips with that," Dee said. "I'm OK with us buying our own tickets and I can pay for my own golf."
The new law mandates disclosure of gifts over $10, a step that Dee believes should be taken even further.
"If there's a lobbyist who buys something for me, including a gift or ticket, it ought to be disclosed in any amount," Dee said. "Until we reach that point, I'm not sure if we're ever going to get it."
House Speaker David Clark said he would be fine with a limit lower than $50, but he believes his colleagues are honest.
"I don't think it's an integrity issue for the Legislature," Clark added. "It's a perception issue on the part of the public."
One lawmaker called the whole discussion "ridiculous," because ethics and gift-giving are personal matters.
"We're sitting here with mountains of problems -- immigration and unemployment -- and we're spending hours on ethics," said Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan. He was one of just two senators to vote against SB156.
"I said this is wrong, you're opening a Pandora's box and they're going to come after you for more," Buttars said of ethical reforms. "We're in a real mess now."
The debate rages for a reason, said Kirk Jowers, director of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.
"There will always be a great deal of tension with ethics reforms because it is the unique situation where individuals are forced to regulate themselves," Jowers said.
"While the public sees no disadvantage in pushing for ever-more stringent controls, lawmakers feel every miniscule restraint."
The Utah Legislature has debated lobbyist gifts for years, along the way killing any number of attempts to outlaw them.
For the most part, lawmakers have handled the issue by requiring disclosure of freebies over a certain dollar value. But year in and year out most gifts have been reported without identifying the beneficiary.
Under a new provision that some say was accidental and others insist was deliberate, gifts valued at more than $50 are banned.
August 25, 2009 - http://www.standard.net/live/opinion/editorials/181266/
Tuesday, August 25, 2009
OUR VIEW: A 'giant step' for ethics
Utah legislators may have thought they were taking a "baby step" forward with Senate Bill 156, legislation that was intended as a gift disclosure bill.
However, the bill, sponsored last year by State Sen. Greg Bell -- who will soon become Utah's new lieutenant governor -- contained wording that prohibited legislators from accepting "gifts" that are valued at more than $50.
We're pleased as punch that SB156 is law and we're more than happy to offer Utah legislators our congratulations for finally passing a gifts ethics bill that has more than baby teeth.
The gift ban should still be absolute but this is a great, "giant step" forward.
It effectively ends the disgusting practice of lawmakers accepting high-priced tickets to sporting events from lobbyists or meals from same at upper-tier restaurants. And they can forget about a round of golf at many courses. However, we know of a lot of low-budget golf courses. If lobbyists and lawmakers need a list, we'll provide one.
There's always bowling too. It's not too expensive at the alley and a game goes well with nachos and cheese and a soft drink.
Frankly, we've always been of the opinion that if lawmakers want to attend a Jazz game, or another sporting event, they should do what their constituents do -- pay for it.
There are still cheap-seat Utah Jazz and University of Utah hoops tickets that lawmakers can mooch from lobbyists, but they better be careful about how many refreshments they scarf; refreshments can be pricey at those venues.
Besides the gift ban, SB156 states that any sports ticket purchased by a lobbyist must include in a report the legislator for whom it was bought. Meals and beverages over $25 and other gifts over $10 also must list the lawmakers' names.
Our strong support for ethics is not an inference that lawmakers are dishonest. Rather it is the expectation that those who are honored to represent us behave in the highest ethical standard. No lawmaker should receive any gift or meal or ticket, etc. that the least of his constituents could not receive. If that mantra was followed, public opinion for elected officials would rise.
One more thing: We wouldn't put it past the Legislature to attempt to "correct" SB156 to restore the gifts legislators unwittingly lost. If that effort is made, shout in protest, readers, and then shout louder.
Part 2 of Utah County ethics initiative hearing: a little Karl Snow, a lot of Janet Jensen, and a dash of Craig Dennis
First, I want to add a note to my last post. I am glad the rude woman passed out literature opposing the initiative. I had already been contemplating whether to ask the lady in front of me who already had a copy if I could see hers. I think we all need the most information possible and I have constitutional concerns about the bill, though I am still processing much of what I heard last night and haven’t had time to do any research. I just strongly disagree with her interrupting a presentation blatantly and rudely. She could easily have passed out the information at the door after the meeting. Or if she felt it was important that those attending have those arguments during the meeting as the various points were discussed, she should have planned ahead and been there early enough to pass out the papers to the citizens as they arrived at the meeting. I stood at the check-in table for a few moments looking for all the information available and would have snatched up those bullet points. Disagreeing strongly with something and running late aren’t excuses to behave like a jerk.
Here’s the last bit of Karl Snow’s presentation, with some commentary in parentheses and links thrown in by me:
One man had $300,000+ of campaign money in a bank account. He donated liberally to other Republicans and became Speaker of the House for 2 terms. (This was Greg Curtis and Snow did not mention his name, or the fact that he was a brash, combative man, worked during and after holding office to use his influence to make sweetheart deals for his clients, and became a lucrative lobbyist for the tobacco industry among others as soon as he left office, causing even the entrenched GOP enough embarrassment to pass a 1-yr moratorium for departing legislators to work as lobbyists.)
There were over 30 ethics bills introduced, few made it out of committee, and those that passed had very little effect. (The only significant reform was unintentional.)
Is the current system working? The Standard Examiner, the Tribune, and the Deseret News have editorialized in favor of the initiative. That’s 3 major papers. He also mentioned KSL editorializing in favor of the initiative. (But failed to mention the editorial in favor with lukewarm caveats from the Daily Herald, which considering the rightwing tone of that editorial page ever since Obama's candidacy gathered steam last year, is the equivalent of a banner ad in favor of reform anywhere else.
We're widely acknowledged as one of the best managed states. Why should we not also be recognized as one of the most ethical?
Karl Snow then introduced the next presenter, and the person who answered most of the questions about the initiative text and legality as the meeting went on, Janet Jensen . She had a list of qualifications: law school, medical lawyer, some other stuff.
Janet Jensen’s remarks: She helped write the initiative. She said they sent the draft to constitutional law scholars at other universities and law schools to check if the law would pass constitutional muster. (She repeated this point several times during the meeting and included “deans of law schools” later, but never mentioned exactly which draft or which parts of this wide-ranging proposal the drafting group supposedly sent. She also never mentioned any of the actual people or schools they consulted. I’m left wondering if the entire proposal as it currently stands received wide approval.)
Democracy is hard work. The members of Utahns for Ethical Government all volunteer, no one has been paid a dime.
We support elected representatives doing their duty, but when unresponsive, the people act. We have seen that sadly the legislators respond more to people who give them money than ordinary citizens.
The legislature has raised the concern that the state will be overwhelmed by initiatives. (or “run by initiatives like California.” That is a quote from Senator Bramble at a citizen meeting a year ago speaking of just the voucher referendum and high bars for referendums and initiatives.) The concern is overblown.
Oregon has had 349 voter initiatives in its history.
Utah has had only 20 voter initiatives in the history of the state.
(I’m assuming these numbers reference state-wide referendums, but I don’t know. County or municipal initiatives could be included in those numbers.)
Article 1, Section 1 of Utah State Constitution establishes 2 sources of legislative power—the legislature and with equal power, the people. ( I don’t know if I wrote that wrong or Jensen quoted it wrong--wouldn’t surprise me either way--, but I think she mixed up 2 separate relevant articles. Article 1, Section 2 of the Utah State Constitution refers to all political power being inherent in the people, and Article 6, Section 1 says what she explained, that legislative power is also specifically designated to the “people of the state of Utah” so that “the legal voters of the state of Utah” may “initiate any desired legislation” and pass it by a majority vote, as provided by statute—i.e. the signature requirements and deadlines imposed by the legislature.) This is fascinating to me. Initiatives and referendums are specifically designated in the state constitution.
You can read the whole initiative at www.utahethics.org
It has three basic parts:
Independent Ethics Commission
Legislative Code of Conduct, enforced by legislature
Outlines procedures to implement above
It is a non-partisan, neutral ethics commission. There will be 5 individuals in staggered terms on the commission. (Missed stuff here.) They are not paid. (I wrote in my notes here [per diem, not count?] I had read the bill and knew they receive the per diem. This came up later and showed some lack of preparation by Jensen and hypocrisy by legislators yelling from the back.)
(This is another part where I thought Jensen was fuzzy on specifics.) Jensen was addressing the concerns that any 3 people can bring charges to the ethics commission against a legislator.
What I heard was that under current statute--any one person may launch a criminal complaint against a legislator. Under the new process of complaint if the initiative were to pass, any 3 people could complain to the ethics commission, paying their own legal costs. (I didn’t get this. Currently, only 3 other members of the House or Senate can bring ethics charges to the current ethics committees. I suppose anyone can accuse a legislator of a crime, but that will be the same regardless of whether the initiative passes next year or not. I think she’s comparing apples to oranges. Right now only other legislators can bring ethics complaints to the committee; under the new law, any three people would be able to bring ethics charges to the commission. Anyone can file a criminal complaint against a legislator now; anyone will still be able to file a criminal complaint then. It seems this point is a very weak justification if any.)
The legislator complained of gets his/her legal fees paid. The commission merely makes a recommendation to the legislature. They can do what they want with the recommendation, even ignore it completely.
There will be mandatory ethics training. I am surprised at how many legislators don’t understand when they have a conflict of interest. (This is where Jensen inserted some snide jabs. This sarcastic side was often funny to me since I agreed with the jokes about campaign money, but it also came out in some rougher remarks during the back-and-forths in the Q&A session later. The angry remarks often made Jensen appear less sympathetic and sometimes condescending. My relative thought she just cracked a little under the hostile scrutiny and attention from the legislative buddies in the back as evidenced by her sarcasm increasing toward the end of the session after several opposing questions.) They don't understand ethics. They don’t always understand the law since they are not lawyers. They just don't understand. I shouldn't be surprised, but I am.
There will be no more personal use of campaign money allowed. Legislators will not be able to contribute to other campaigns w/ their own campaign funds. They cannot be lobbyists while serving or for 2 years after serving in office. There will be a complete gift ban, except for neglible refreshments at public events.
A legislator can ask for a written opinion or interpretation from the commission on a certain issue. This is commonly done in congress and other federal areas—these “safe harbor” letters make the congressman immune from prosecution if pursuing a course permitted by the commission via this letter. .
Legislators cannot threaten courts—we had a very public case of this recently—or interfere with them or members of state government. The legislature cannot accept donations from corporate, union, or non-profit organizations. Corporations have never been able to donate to federal campaigns. If money remaining in a legislator’s campaign account is not spent in 5 yrs, the money will revert to the school fund or to a non-profit charity of the legislator’s choice. The legislators must disclose conflicts of interest in much more detail than currently allowed. The disclosures will be available to public. File contributions w/ Lt. governor’s office. Legislators cannot be on corporate boards where they were hired just because of their position. (Many of these last points were explained more fully, but this is the gist.)
She then clicked through her powerpoint, repeating most of these points since she had forgotten to click on the applicable slides while speaking.
A guy sitting down asked a question while she fiddled with the powerpoint and she answered. This was before the formal, structured Q&A later. The man asked for clarification of when any ethics charges become public. The Executive Director of the commission vets initial complaints along with staff. This is not public. They don’t do discovery, research, subpoena, anything like that. It is informal inquiry to those involved and the accused is an informal participant. If the Executive Director finds that the charge has any basis, the charge goes before the full commission and is made public. The commission can subpoena documents and witnesses. The legislator is a full participant and can defend his/herself with lawyer of their choice. Cross examination and facing the accusers are part of this process. The hearing(s) of the commission where all this takes place is public. The deliberations of the 5 commissioners to make a decision are not public. However, when they decide, they must release written findings and recommendations which are public. They send these findings and recommendations to the legislature. The legislature can choose to hold their own hearings, debate, to investigate, reject, adopt, modify, etc. They can do whatever they want with the recommendation—it does not legally bind the legislature to a course of action. All these deliberations would be public too. (Though I don’t think that last assertion is correct. I believe the legislature could continue to hold closed hearings like the ethics hearings last year if they chose. The initiative would not bind them to open meetings like the commission would be.)
Craig Dennis, former publisher of Daily Herald, served on numerous editorial boards, member of Provo Rotary Club, on Board of Directors of United Way of Utah County, registered Republican, upstanding, forthright individual, etc. blah blah, then briefly endorsed the initiative. I think he was mainly there for name recognition and endorsement purposes.
Craig Dennis' remarks severely summarized: “Do the right thing and sign the petition.”
That’s all for tonight. I'm tired. I blame any typos on the legislature. I’ll get to the Q&A session which got contentious in a post this weekend.
Thursday, September 24, 2009
What a difference a day and one county further south make...Part One of a summary of the Utah County ethics initiative hearing
I was surprised as I approached the room at the Provo Library and grabbed a name tag from the table. The room was obviously too small and I think the organizers could and should have planned better to allow more people to attend comfortably.
The room filled by the beginning of the organizer’s presentations and a standing crowd eventually formed at the back. I only saw Craig Frank and Curtis Bramble in the room when the meeting started, but most or all of the Utah County legislators arrived by the end of the meeting. I will complement the Utah County legislators in that they stood and allowed others to take their seats. I’ll criticize their obnoxious behavior, along with some others I perceived as mostly associates of the legislators gathered around them, snorting and yelling out in the back.
I’m going to give a blow-by-blow account of the hearing as well as I can. If it bores you, skim I guess. I think many will be interested in the tense atmosphere that developed and the strange offhand comments that I managed to record. I think a meeting like this is where a blog can really fill a need, not having the space limitations of the newspaper. I think I did a pretty good job of getting a lot down, but I know some of the facts, figures, and quotes will be a little fudged since I was trying to listen and summarize at the same time. I’ll indicate when I am extra unsure of what I heard. I also apologize in advance to anyone whose name I mess up. There were many participants whose name we only heard announced once, but could not see written, and I’m sure I did not get them all.
The meeting opened with Ned Hill welcoming the attendees and introducing Karl Snow, former BYU professor and Republican President of the Utah Senate. Hill emphasized Snow’s service as a Republican every this and that for 30+ years as well as his serving as a Mormon ambassador to the United Nations last decade.
Karl Snow, speaking along with a powerpoint presentation: We've waited 20 years for ethics reform. Why? 40 states have independent ethics commissions of some sort. He mentioned the 4-4 votes on multiple charges in the Hughes bribery hearing last year, all split along party lines. (Actually they just said the votes happened during the hearing of “a legislator.” The presenters did not use the names of any legislators or companies when making their case, but I’ll add those names that were obvious to me.)
The Legislature is controlled by special interest money. 81% of campaign donations come from the contributions of special interests. There are no limits on contributions of any type in Utah—1 of only 6 states w/o campaign contribution limits. Corporations are not allowed to contribute to federal races, but 2.45 million in corporate donations were received in Utah within the last…I missed this because of typing and maybe the lady I will mention just ahead. Since 2008 maybe?
Since 2006, one corporation spent $500,000 contributing to Utah politicians of both parties. This corporation contributed to 80% of sitting legislators and frequently has business before the entire legislature. He didn’t say, but I’m pretty sure he had to be referencing Energy Solutions. In Utah, a politician can become a lobbyist one year after leaving office. (He did not mention that this restriction only became law this summer after dozens and dozens of prominent legislators have gone on to lucrative jobs as lobbyists immediately after service over decades, including Greg Curtis, Mike Dmitrich, and Mark Walker this past session.) A legislator can be a registered lobbyist at the same time as serving in the legislature. (Howard Stephenson would be the most prominent here, although there was at least one other, a Democrat woman in the legislature during the 2008 session.) Snow thinks all of this should change.
[ A lady went down the aisle during these last comments, passing out two documents listing arguments against the initiative with the word “DRAFT” in big red letters on the top, blithely ignoring Karl Snow as she interrupted him and obstructed the view of many as she whispered to each row saying something to the effect of, “These were outside and weren’t passed out.” At least one of the documents was authored by Lyle Hillyard, possibly both. I’ll detail the arguments in a different post, but it pulled one current GOP buzzword out to rally opposition that came up later in the meeting. There were 2 numbered points calling the members of the commission “czars” and the sponsors of the initiative “super czars.” Funny. Don’t link them to Ted Kennedy, instead link it to Van Jones and the national healthcare reform debate. As the woman reached the front, right in front of Snow, blocking everyone’s view, and then turned back down the aisle passing out the papers to the other side, Ned Hill stood and said “I wish you would have asked before passing this out. The woman said something vague about Don Jarvis (who was helping with sign-ups and ushering in the back) telling her that her paper “should probably be in here.” Hill told her that opponents could hold their own meeting and pass out things. Much of the crowd cheered that remark.
The kicker is that I overheard a well-dressed woman who was against the initiative discussing the flyer after the meeting, as discussions broke out in little groups all over the room. She referenced the woman passing out the flyers by name, said she went in without permission, recounted what Ned Hill had said about holding your own meeting, and quoted the flyer-passer-outer as saying “I didn’t know” with an exaggerated shrug, all of this while laughing, strongly implying that the woman had been dishonest while intentionally interrupting. (I can’t remember either name, the woman speaking afterward possibly had the last name of Sherrill.) I’ll have more on this woman’s comments in a different post as well.]
I will have to finish this in a different post or maybe even two. Sorry I didn’t even get to the real presentation or the public questions. I have a crick in my neck from where I fell asleep while sitting at the computer.
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
Salt Lake County had a hearing last night and I was surprised to see that only one person spoke against the initiative and only 3 House members showed up, all Democrats. The Utah House leadership has encouraged the legislators to attend the hearings and argue that the initiative is flawed and unconstitutional.
Now don't get me wrong--I absolutely think the legislators should participate in these hearings. The discussion would not be as valuable without opposing viewpoints. The lawmakers are the ones directly affected by this proposal, though I believe their actions and public perception of that behavior affects us all. I've learned from attending meetings the last couple of years that the legislators are also usually more polished, practiced, and direct speakers than the average citizen. It can be intimidating to disagree with them in a public setting.
I think the Utah County delegation will show up to the meeting tonight in full force. Read the Executive Summary and the whole initiative, noting that the lion's share of space is given to the many, many rules concerning the independent ethics commission while the excellent campaign money restrictions, lobbyist restrictions, interference with other officials restrictions, etc. are on pgs. 11-14. Then show up at the meeting, ask questions, make your opinion heard, and participate in the hearing closest to you!
(Also note the typo on the Uintah Basin Region meeting which is scheduled for the non-existent date of Wednesday Sep. 24. Find out if the meeting is really tonight, Wednesday Sep. 23, or tomorrow, Thursday, Sep. 24. Tell your friends. We don't want anyone driving from a different county on the wrong day.)
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
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
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
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
Wednesday, 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
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
Tuesday, September 29, 2009—7-9 p.m. (An optional 8th hearing)
Mound Fort Middle School, Media Center
1400 Mound Fort Drive
Ogden, UT 84404
Monday, September 21, 2009
The challenge of effectively integrating technology and education--A Utah district turns to expensive Play Stations with no teacher supervision?
This post will talk about a recent purchase in a Utah school district that appears to fall squarely into the “enticing gimmick” category.
The Bullet Point Version for easy digestion:
1. A school district received a large amount of stimulus money earmarked for Title I schools. Title I is a 45-yr-old federal funding grant for schools designated as having a high percentage of low-income students.
2. A single employee had almost complete latitude to make the decision on how to spend that money.
3. That person had the feeling, true or false I’m not sure, that he/she had to “hurry” and spend that money.
4. The person got the idea somewhere that kids would use learning programs more willingly if they were on a Portable Play Station (PSP).
5. 60 of the PSP’s were purchased for a pilot program at a cost of $180 each. However, the district did not want to be seen as having purchased Play Stations, so employees are under strict instructions to call them “Achieve Now devices” instead, referring to the name of the learning software that was purchased to play on the non-Play Stations.
6. The Achieve Now software was purchased from a vendor the district had previous experience with, Plato Learning, but Plato had no previous experience making games for the PSP. (Many districts and schools had used Plato “lab” in the past as a remediation class where students spent time using a set math or language drill program from Plato. Both my school and the district in question had cut those labs in past years. My school changed because we found the lab was not as effective as we wished; I believe budget concerns drove the elimination of Plato in this district. I’m sure Plato programs are still in use in schools around the state.) The new Achieve Now “games” for math and language skills are not engaging or adapted for the PSP in any way. They do not use the graphic capabilities of the PSP or even the joystick. You can only use the arrow keys and the games appear to just be bumped over from Plato’s already-mentioned computer division. They are just drill games that could be played on a regular computer.
7. Furthering this unwise rush to spend money on the appearance of progress, the Achieve Now games come in a different format than the regular mini-CD-like discs used for PSP games. Instead, the learning games come on little memory cards similar to what is used in a digital camera, and the PSP has to be specially formatted to use these cards. If a child places a normal game disc into the PSP, an automatic prompt will ask them if they want to update the PSP. When the child selects yes, their game disc will work perfectly, but the PSP will no longer accept the memory cards with the Achieve Now games. This change is irreversible without shipping the PSP back to Plato for expensive reformatting. Plato has advised the district that the reformatting is not cost effective, so they should just tape the game port in back shut and lie to the kids that these PSP’s will not play the regular games.
(Insert memory of some kid named Josh sneaking a Weird Al Yankovic cassette tape into the machine at an audio learning center in 5th grade. We LOVED that center for the week or so he got away with it.)
8. Speaking of cost-effectiveness, two of these memory cards, one for math and one for language arts, were purchased for each of the 60 PSP’s. Each card cost $550, bringing the total for each PSP with two cards to $1280. If a kid reformats the PSP on the first day—sorry, no refunds. Total cost so far = $76,800.
9. At the district’s bulk pricing, that $1280 for each set is enough to buy about 2 and ½ desktop computers. A multitude of websites feature free drill games of the same quality, or in many cases higher quality than the precarious memory cards. If the computers were installed in a lab in a school, they could then be used to play math or language practice games AND ALSO be available for all of the other activities computers are used for in a school. (writing, powerpoints, grades, research, etc.)
10. These 60 PSP/2-card sets were purchased to pilot in 2 schools’ summer programs. The current plan is to soon purchase 30 sets for each of the Title I schools in the district, with each set costing that same $1280 price—$38,400 per school. I don’t believe those purchases have been made yet.
11. The early feedback from those involved in the summer program has been negative. The games are boring and the employees involved had difficulty cajoling the students to play the Achieve Now games for any extended period of time. The language arts games are especially confusing and their real effect on reading comprehension, vocabulary, etc. is extremely questionable. The problem is magnified because the the PSP’s and Achieve Now games are being used exclusively in after-school settings supervised by aides. The aides are generally assigned only to supervise and are unprepared to answer questions that arise if a student is practicing a skill he/she does not understand. The classroom teachers will not be involved in order to give advice at what level of practice to place kids on the Playstations. It’s a case of throwing the kids in a room with a game and hoping they learn.
12. I believe this was a well-intentioned attempt to find creative ways to reach struggling students, but the spending decision was made hastily at a district level without input from school personnel actually working with these disadvantaged students. The district is paying an extremely high cost for a mediocre product. Just sticking a boring learning activity on a Play Station will generally not make a kid enjoy it more. If high quality learning content were developed that took advantage of the PSP’s enticing capabilities at a cost effective price, then maybe an investment into these machines would aid student achievement.
As it now stands, I believe the “Achieve Now devices” are merely an ineffective boondoggle. I hope that district personnel will seek honest feedback about the program and reconsider the upcoming purchases. There are better ways to use the hundreds of thousands of dollars from the stimulus.
Friday, September 18, 2009
Hello. I’ll start with a quick update on my blogging or lack there of--I think about the issues daily and have a ton of posts semi-written in my head about current education topics and other issues dating back to the legislative session. I’d love to post daily or even weekly, but the reality is that I will likely be blogging in spurts for the near future rather than on any sort of set schedule. I hope to get in 10 posts or so in a spurt the next few weeks, and would like to do a belated 2009 Legislative Report Card as rated by me. I’m going to try that for December, in time to digest the information before some issues are continued in the 2010 session and the budget situation forces even more drastic cuts.
It’s the beginning of the school year, and I thought I’d again present the reality of class sizes as conveniently ignored by both the Utah State Office of Education and the legislature in one of their rare collaborative ventures. The last official stat I saw bandied around was 22.5 students per class on average for the 08-09 school year. Maybe K-2 was close to achieving that…I don’t have hard evidence, but anecdotal claims say that was too pie-in-the-sky for even the early grades. I know later elementary classes are not that small, and I definitely know what’s happening at my school.
I work at a junior high in Alpine District, one of the larger districts with more financial cushion than the smaller districts. I teach a “core” subject, meaning one of the subjects with an end-of-year CRT test that counts towards the Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) standard that determines if we are labeled a “failing school” under the No Child Left Behind law. Core subjects are often “protected” somewhat with class sizes smaller than elective classes. I averaged 32 students per class last year (08-09) and had to get extra desks for the classes larger than that.
This year (09-10), excluding one special non-core class for students who need extra assistance, my average class size is 33.4. For the first time in my career, I have some students seated in chairs in the back at tables because I don’t have room for any more desks. The classes of all core subjects at the school are averaging about the same, and the elective classes are averaging 38-42 students per class. Other secondary schools in the district are facing similar numbers. There are local claims that class size is an unimportant factor in learning, but I firmly believe otherwise. Everything in a larger class takes more time and less material can be covered, classroom discipline—a means to the end of learning—is worse, one-on-one teacher/student time decreases, and the workload is increased for the teacher. That affects the amount of involved assignments and home work that can be given, again decreasing the amount of material covered and practice of that material.
Larger class sizes decrease the effectiveness of good teachers and exaggerate the flaws of bad teachers. I believe all arguments to the effect that large class sizes don’t matter fall flat when confronted by any parent. Does any parent of any student, whether the brightest gifted student or a struggling child achieving below grade level, think their student will do just as well in a class of 35 as in a class of 25? I would speculate that 95% or more of parents would tell you otherwise. I don't want my children to attend school in classes of that size.
With that said, I know we cannot avoid further cuts in education funding next year with the budget crunch pain coming. I am personally and sincerely grateful for the quality work done by the legislature this past session in terms of balancing the budget under difficult circumstances. Even more difficult choices will have to be made in the 2010 session. Many smaller districts did not rehire their first, second, and third year teachers this year, and I think Alpine will likely follow suit to some degree next year, again increasing class sizes. Our school could lose up to three teacher FTE’s next year under current projections—meaning 100 or more students would have to be redistributed each period, increasing the class size of the teachers who remain.
However, when it comes down to drastic measures, I would strongly favor reasonable cuts in teacher pay—reasonable and temporary cuts—before mass layoffs and even larger class sizes. I know many teachers would argue that is a bad precedent to set, but packing classes more and more full when they’re already averaging more than 30 students per class from late elementary school on is even worse. Oversized classes do not benefit the students or the profession. I can rearrange my finances for a couple years more easily than I can overcome the laws of physics and give personal attention to more than one kid at a time.
But when LaVarr Webb, lobbyist and Republican mouthpiece, advocates “boost[ing] public-education class sizes dramatically, “force[ing]” many public school classes to be online, and “an aggressive voucher program… saving billions over the long term,” realize that all savings from these approaches can only come on the backs of our kids. The massive savings would only come by packing our students into “dramatically” larger classes (larger than 33, not 22.5), putting instruction online and paying someone low wages to oversee students working on the computers, and by closing public schools to fund private school vouchers.
Hard times are here and cuts are coming, but don’t let anti-public education voices use them as an excuse to push a destructive agenda.
Friday, September 4, 2009
The "I Pledge" video controversy and whether students will be brainwashed if they listen to President Obama speechify next Tuesday
First, the “I Pledge” video controversy was just a silly mistake by a PTA mom unsaavy in how easily things can cause offense when speaking of politics. I do not believe as Gayle Ruzicka does that the video is “radical, leftist propaganda” from a politically-motivated PTA president, although I don’t think that video should have been shown to the elementary kids—the “I pledge to serve President Obama” is not how I view my relationship to any politician; I don’t like encouraging celebrity worship (although the Red Hot Chili Peppers guy kissing his biceps and pledging to the “funk of the United funk of funkadelica” isn’t offensive, it’s just typical celebrity pap meant to make young viewers laugh.); the reasoning behind many of the ideas is over the head of elementary age kids without a lot more explanation than a blurb; and the few semi-controversial topics along with the more universal ones make the video a lightning rod in a school setting. There are better ways to make the point about service.
I’m reminded of a much smaller misunderstanding during the politically-charged 2007 vote on the voucher referendum. I often discuss elections with my students and encourage them to pay attention and get educated about the basics in preparation to vote in the future. I had to really avoid any substantive talk of reasons during the months leading up to the voucher vote, with both sides distrustful of the motives of the other and PCE flacks making frequent trumped-up reports of teachers pushing their views on students. As normal, we discussed elections and what a city council does (being an odd year election), and I explained how a bill is passed and what a referendum is. I had to leave my discussion of the actual issue to, “The green sign people and the yellow sign people both love their kids and have a strong disagreement over school money issues. People have very strong feelings about this right now and I don’t feel comfortable discussing it here. Go home and ask your parents what they think and why.” (This now sounds ironic after Byrne’s comment about us “not caring about our kids.”) Not one student knew anything about my out-of-classroom anti-voucher work. I know a lot of kids did discuss the referendum and vouchers at home, and I had only one short-lived worry I’d offended anyone. After the vote, I queried one class if they had discussed the issue with their parents and asked them why they voted the way they did. A lot of them were nodding or saying they had a good discussion at home or watched the TV coverage, etc., and then one kid piped up that his mom wanted to know why I wanted to know how she voted. My jaw dropped and I stared for a moment as I tried to unwind that sentence and then understand how my motive had been misunderstood. I had to assure the student that I absolutely did NOT want to know how his parents voted. My request had been totally aimed at the students, but I could understand how it could be misconstrued in that atmosphere. I just wanted all of my students to understand their own parents’ reasoning and not be apathetic about the world around them. All of my other years of teaching, including the past year’s presidential election, I believe my kids have benefited from being able to discuss the political system and how it affects their lives. I try to play devil’s advocate to both sides of any issue and I believe the discussions aid my students in understanding both sides of an issue and dealing constructively with differing opinions from their classmates.
Which leads to what frustrates me intensely in the reasoning of those mad about the “I Pledge” video—the overreaching desire to shield children from opposing opinions. These justifications used by a mom bother me:
They shouldn't be troubling our youth with the woes of the world and making them feel like we're in slavery or they have to worry about how many times they flush the toilet or if they have a plastic water bottle," Cieslewicz said, referring to pledges in the video to "end slavery."
What?! We should do away with about every piece of literature studied in school post-Dr. Seuss (though that eco-terrorist Lorax had better be omitted too), including Charlotte’s Web dealing with the possible murder and consumption of the main character? Finding ways to expand the knowledge, perspective, and empathy of naturally self-centered kids (that’s not a reference to a group, just to kids in general) without being unduly negative is an important balancing act, but school is a place to hear and try new ideas. Whether it’s The Bridge to Terabithia, The Giver, Maniac McGee, or Number the Stars, books that insightfully reveal injustice, suffering, and plain old evil help kids develop their intellectual and emotional senses.
The Standard-Examiner’s article had another piece of Ruzicka’s lame reasoning:
Utah Eagle Forum also took exception to the parts of the video where environmental issues were raised, especially those pledging to stop using plastic bags and bottles and limit toilet flushing.
Ruzicka said a lot of families may not view those issues as important. She said children seeing the video may see their mother use plastic bags from the store and "begin questioning her actions."
This from an outspoken critic of public schools and their supposed lack of critical thinking in an article where she is angered by what she calls “a thinly veiled attempt to indoctrinate” children. I don't believe a child questioning his mother about plastic bags is a bad thing. Here’s my hastily worded, but deeply felt disagreement to Ruzicka’s opinion:
If your child doesn’t learn, discuss, and read about numerous things at school that cause them to reflect on themselves, their family, and the world, they are being done a disservice and being left unprepared to think for themselves.
I hope my child hears about environmentally friendly practices at school and comes home to question us someday. We can get motivated to improve if warranted, or explain how leaving the toilet unflushed is not worth it to us, but we do keep a bottle of water in the tank to reduce the water used and why we think that’s especially important here in Utah.
I hope my child hears or reads something at school that makes her cry. I hope she begins to understand the bad things of the world enough to show kindness and mercy to those less fortunate and to be more grateful for the good.
I hope my child learns how to reason for herself independently enough to agree with me when I’m right and see my flaws and disagree with me when I’m wrong.
So to circle back to the upcoming Obama speech on the 8th, I sincerely believe my students can listen to the president and judge his words for themselves and that the “brainwashing” stuff is silly. At a school where students read and debate about the morality of opening trade with China, animal and human cloning, the death penalty, the Holocaust, the Latino drop-out rate, eating disorders, and cute outfits, they should be judged capable to listen to a presidential speech on education.
The fact that President Obama was even giving a speech to students kind of snuck up on district schools and how to handle the event has been debated. In the past few days, different Alpine District high schools have considered requiring teachers to show the speech or conversely forbidding teachers from showing the speech. A Daily Herald article yesterday quoted the district spokesperson saying it was being left up to schools and principals, but as I understand it, a clarification was made that teachers cannot be forbidden from showing the speech as long as accommodations are made for individual students who wish to skip the video. My principal has received calls about the issue already. I really think the whole thing is a tempest in a teapot.