Oct 28 2014

Media Fail – 1, Transparency – 0

Posted by Steve Ross in elections, media, Shelby County

How I long for the good ole days.

How I long for the good ole days.

Once upon a time I thought the media was a defender of democracy. It was a check on the power government exercised. It was a force for good that sought to keep the people connected and the politicians and bureaucracy honest.

Perhaps it was naiveté, or my fond memories of great journalists from the late 70’s through much of the 80’s and early 90’s.

I gave up any illusions of this fairy tale long ago.

That’s not to say there aren’t great journalists out there…they’re just fewer and farther between…and they’re trapped in a business environment where quantity, punch, and social media ‘engagement’ trumps a balanced account of the news.

Such is the case with this truly ignorant report from WREG that aired in July.

The web story is pretty benign, but the report that actually aired takes a Gary Vosot approach to reporting that demands you turn every fallen acorn into a “sky is falling” event.

The news item I’m referencing involves a little known report called the “Participating Voter List”, aka PVL.

What is the PVL?

The PVL is exactly what it sounds like. Its a list of people who have participated in an election. It includes your name and address, precinct information, and in primary elections, which primary ballot you chose to vote on.

Independent observers, political consultants, and campaigns use the PVL to see who’s voted, which areas are turning out more than others, and to tailor their communications to people who haven’t voted by purging the names of people who have voted from their direct communication list (mail, phone, and canvassing).

If you don’t want annoying calls, knocks, or mail, vote early and all that will stop…if the campaign is managed effectively.

Aside from primary ballot information, there is no information in the PVL that’s any more dangerous to your privacy than the information from an old school phone book, or white pages dot com.

But reporter Michael Quander’s piece makes it sound as if the very act of voting could endanger your privacy in some way.

That’s simply not the case. There are far easier and more informative ways and places to get that information than the Election Commission…though you’d never know it from his actual report.

Because of Quander’s report, the Election Commission now only sends the PVL out by request, instead of publishing it in the deep dark recesses of the Election Commission website where only people who know where it is can find it.

Why is the PVL important?

The PVL is important because it is a way to, in nearly real time, see what’s going on with an election.

The PVL was how Joe Weinberg and I found the redistricting errors that resulted in over 3000 voters receiving the wrong ballot in the August 2012 election.

At that time, the PVL was posted directly on the Election Commission’s website daily. Because of this, we were able to run our tests promptly and without waiting for a gatekeeper to open the gate for us (other than waiting for the report to be posted). This allowed both of us the ability to work, as volunteers…using our own time and getting paid nothing for our efforts, to expose one of the greatest election screw-ups in recent memory.

Had the PVL’s only been available by request, it may have taken several more days to complete our tests, causing a greater delay in resolving the problem, and potentially disenfranchising thousands of more voters in the process.

There is a small, tightly knit group of mostly volunteers, on both sides of the aisle, who pay very close attention to this report. Any delay is a huge setback because we are working on our own time, and of our own initiative.

Thanks to another barrier being placed due to unnecessary fear drummed up by this report, the next election disaster, should it occur, will take days longer to identify.

Way to go Channel 3.

Playing both sides of the privacy fence

But what is perhaps most perversely ironic is that the PVL is more safe than many of the methods WREG, and other commercial websites use to make money off of you.

Have you ever noticed that things you’ve browsed on Amazon or other online retailers regularly show up on ads at completely unrelated websites?

That monetization of “Big Data” is something every single news website in the country uses to generate revenue. It uses cookies, scripts, and your browser history to tailor ads to you, to increase their revenue.

In doing so, they’re taking advantage of your ignorance of potential privacy concerns far more than the Election Commission or any other government agency that is required by law to publish or make available information about you and yours.

A blow to good reporting

Aside from the report being…just dumb…the Election Commission’s decision to no longer post the PVL is also a blow to reporters who know what to do with the report…other than stir up unnecessary FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) in the minds of viewers.

In years past, experienced reporters and election observers have used the report to do good journalism in the public interest. I remember the first time I started seeing reports like this, but in particular, the work of Commercial Appeal reporter Zack McMillian back in 2010 when he was on the political beat.

He used the information in a way that challenged me to dig even deeper into the report…which ultimately led to the discoveries Dr. Weinberg and I made going public.

Journalism is supposed to both inform people, and make those who engage in it, either by profession or by hobby, better. Quander’s report doesn’t do that. It preys on the uninformed fears of people, who are already scared of the very big data his company makes money off of.

So way to go Michael Quander, and the Producers, News Directors, and other influential decision-makers at WREG Channel 3. You’ve just made it harder for people just like you to do their job. I know you’re proud.

Oct 21 2014

Roland’s Folly – Part Infinity

Posted by Steve Ross in Shelby County, State Politics

Shelby County Commissioner Terry Roland

Shelby County Commissioner Terry Roland

Shelby County Commissioner Terry Roland says the County has a legal problem.

See, back in 2007 and 2009 the County Commission passed two ordinances that established a prevailing wage and a living wage for workers who work for County contractors.

The idea behind the ordinances is simple: If the County is going to pay a company to do a job, that company should pay their workers either a living wage, or the “prevailing wage” i.e. the wage paid to the majority of workers working in a specific field…rather than lowballing workers in a tough economy at a time when unemployment was high.

It should come as no surprise that the Tennessee Legislature…led by Ron Ramsey, Brian Kelsey, Glen Casada and Beth Harwell just plain hated the idea that people should get paid enough to live on…or at least in line with market prices for labor of a specific type. So, they passed a law outlawing these kinds of ordinances.

That was in March of 2013.

Fast forward to today…18 months after the fact…Commissioner Roland has sponsored two ordinances that would overturn the County’s living and prevailing wage ordinances…because they’re against the law.

Now, that may not seem like a big deal, but both ordinances stand as a statement against the kind of interference from Nashville that has been the hallmark of the Ramsey/Harwell era.

Roland wants to overturn this because he says it puts the County at risk of a lawsuit. But the County has been abiding by state law since it was enacted…because state law has supremacy over local ordinances and all that stuff you learn in a basic Civics class.

By the way, County Attorney Marcy Ingram says changing the ordinances is necessary. But if you look at her track record of “opinion” you should find yourself questioning her legal judgement. If someone tried to sue the county for not complying with state law simply for having an ordinance on the books, that suit would be thrown out immediately, because, in fact, the County is complying. That the County has a law on the books that has been superseded by state law is unremarkable.

Now, you might ask yourself, why keep this on the books since its no longer relevant.

The answer is simple, because the people of Shelby County, through their elected leaders, passed these ordinances long before the State decided to intervene. In fact, there was an election between the passage of these ordinances and the passage of the new state law, and everyone who voted for the ordinances, including the author, was overwhelmingly re-elected…enshrining public opinion in favor of the ordinances. And in doing so, we made a statement about our collective values. For all we know, the state may decide one day to change their law, which would mean our ordinances…still being on the books, would be back…in full effect.

Terry Roland wants to make sure this never happens.

I hope the County Commission will take this opportunity to take a stand against the state’s interference, and reject Roland’s proposed ordinances and stand for fair wages for workers, even if the state’s GOP legislative leaders don’t give a damn about them (because that much is abundantly clear).

If you want to read the ordinances proposed by Commissioner Roland, you can find them here.

Living Wage Repeal
Prevailing Wage Repeal

Aug 13 2014

Too broken to bother with?

Posted by Steve Ross in Shelby County

Not everything is fixable...but that doesn't mean its disposable

Not everything is fixable…but that doesn’t mean its disposable

There are some things in this world that are more disposable than others.

When they break, rather than trying to put Humpty back together again, you just discard it.

Wine glasses are the weakest link in our home. Hell, probably every home.

They’re not really that expensive (if you keep getting the cheap ones) and when they break you don’t even consider fixing them because…well that’s just too OCD.

Chances are, the thing wouldn’t hold anyway, or would leak like a sieve.

Why bother.

But there are other things that aren’t disposable. When they’re broken, battered or bruised, you need to try and help fix them.

There are lots of both constructive and less-than constructive ways to do that…but we need to understand that just like no two people put a puzzle together exactly the same way…there is also no one set way to fix something you care about.

No matter what, If you value something, you should be willing to be a part of fixing it.

A conversation with a friend

Over the 4th of July weekend, I was at a cookout with some friends. Most of the people I know are on the “more active” side of the political activity scale. Since early voting was just a few days away, the conversation turned to the election.

As it happens, July 4th was just two days after Judge Joe Brown voiced allegations about DA Amy Weirich’s sexual orientation. Needless to say, due to the freshness of the topic, this was at the top of the conversation list.

There was universal agreement that the attack was out of line. Just two years before the County Party had taken a stand in favor of equality for the LGBT community. It seemed wildly discordant that one of the party’s candidates would then turn around and try to use sexual orientation as a line of attack.

Then came the question, “Why is the SCDP such a bunch of clowns?”.

That got my attention.

The speaker went on to air a long list of grievances, many relevant, some less relevant.

I listened intently. We talked back and forth about some of the challenges. After hearing, yet another declaration of the party’s ineptitude I smiled and said, “You have the power to help change that. When’s the last time you came to a party re-organizing convention?”

The answer was either never, or so long ago its not relevant.

We talked about that. Eventually we agreed to disagree as to whether that kind of participation would do any good. Fatalism is a common refrain in Democratic politics, it seems.

This person is a good strong Democrat. Someone we should want working with us. But they don’t feel like its worth their time to fix it. Its not that the party is disposable to them, its that their so frustrated, they don’t know what to do, and they don’t feel like anyone else is doing anything (or knows what to do) either.

Putting Humpty Back Together Again

Humpty before the fall

Humpty before the fall

From my initial involvement in the County party in 2006, to today, there has been plan after plan to try to transform the party into a positive force in the community. Some of those plans have been better than others. Few have ever been executed even partially.

The party is factionalized, regionalized, and its members are often suspicious of each other…concerned about some grand conspiracy to somehow take what little power they feel they have away by empowering some other faction or another.

Its tragically comedic, but it goes back to old fights…some decades old, and grudges that have outlived the patrons.

I’m not going to pretend the body has a long history of being truly effective. In talking to folks who were involved in the 80’s and 90’s, it seems clear that the party has long been more focused on the minutiae and turf wars than on the kind of “global” goals that would bring about success in those Countywide contests that have been so fleeting.

There’s been an internal struggle over the “power of the party” which at the same time has rendered the party largely impotent. And truth be told, there are some elected officials who have benefitted by that impotence…though most of them, at this point, are either long gone, or are halfway out the door.

Putting Humpty together again means getting past some of these old fights. In the 2011-12 cycle, it looked like we were getting there. But much of the progress of that term was lost too easily, as new leadership came in, and much of the party’s institutional memory shifted out.

That’s not to blame Chairman Carson, or the new Executive Committee…because these things happen with leadership change.

But while the leadership at the top of the County Party structure may have been in flux, leadership in terms of elected officials within Shelby County…Mayors, City Council Members, Commissioners, State House and Senate members, and all the way up to Congress, has been largely stable, and completely disengaged.

When your elected Democrats aren’t engaged in the party, there’s no way to get around the leadership struggles…and lose a big part of the organization’s institutional memory in the process.

Leaders must lead

There’s an interesting dynamic between the County Party and elected Democratic officials in Shelby County…the lack of a working relationship of any kind.

Most elected officials have been able to stay in office just fine without the help of the County Party, so its reasonable to understand why they might not see the value in to having an effective organization…until things go wrong.

Then, just like disengaged “rank-and-file” Democrats out there who loudly complain about the party’s failures, so do the party’s electeds.

The most visible example of this is the statement made by Congressman Cohen on election night, which I quoted in this post.

I’m not saying Congressman Cohen is wrong, because he isn’t…but just like the conversation with my friend, its a bit hypocritical to criticize the County Party when you’ve not really been engaged in it.

Cohen has built a powerful campaign operation every cycle since 2006. His campaign has very strong fundamentals…and that’s a big reason why he wins consistently.

But as soon as the campaign season is over, that operation goes dark. The operators, by and large, go their separate ways, until the next time they need to assemble to defend the Congressman against a challenger.

That level of expertise is direly needed in the County party. And while some members of the Cohen team have engaged the party, and been largely flummoxed by the goings on, the Congressman hasn’t taken the opportunity to mentor and nurture party leadership outside his organization.

Its not my purpose to beat up on Congressman Cohen. He’s just one example of this scenario.

Truth is Mayor Wharton (the Democratic County Mayor from 2002 to 2009), amassed an impressive campaign structure in his own right in 2011 only to dismantle it and disengage. He’s just as guilty of doing this, as is every other elected Democrat in Shelby County…current or former.

Leaders don’t get to complain that something’s broken, then not try to be a part of working to fix it…especially when they’re associated with it (via party designation).

But lets be clear here. I’m not calling on electeds to set up another kind of ‘boss’ structure. Competing bosses…even long after they’re relevant, and the unproductive fights they engage in, are a big part of what brought us to where we are today.

I’m saying they should lend their expertise, and mentor up and coming leaders who can help the party become more effective.

The effectiveness vacuum we’re going through now is not for the lack of bosses, but because of bosses…and damage caused by them that no one has been able to repair.

I would hope our elected leaders would take part in helping repair that damage…without remaining part of the problem through neglect…or becoming part of a bigger problem through the strong-arm tactics of past bosses.

Conclusion

The local party has had structural problems for a long time.

What has happened this cycle is just a more extreme example of what happened in 2010, and nearly on par with the shenanigans of 2008…minus the success.

Lets get one thing clear: the party isn’t a sentient being. It takes a coalition of people working together to keep going. It takes a great deal of expertise, time and care to have a healthy party.

If the coalition that makes up the Executive Committee puts self-interest, or apathy, or any other negative thing ahead of the building, we find ourselves back at square one wondering, “what now”?

Maybe that’s where we start…with “What can I do to help” rather than just stating the obvious…that its broken.

If we don’t, we’ll find ourselves right back, in this same place in four years time…wondering how to put Humpty back together again…or if its even worth the effort to try.

Jul 09 2014

Playing to his base

Posted by Steve Ross in elections, Shelby County

The suburbs get a tax break this big...the city? Well, about that...

The suburbs get a tax break this big…the city? Well, about that…

Every once in a while someone does something that makes you wonder if they think you’re stupid.

You’ve probably felt what I’m talking about a time or two.

They give you that look.

They slight you in some way.

Or they sell you on a tax cut in an election year, to hide the fact that they gave someone else an even BIGGER, and unjustified tax cut.

If you left Monday’s Shelby County Commission meeting with that taste in your mouth, there’s a good reason…that’s exactly what happened.

Bad Taste in your mouth

In setting the County’s tax rate Monday, the Shelby County Commission gave a 5-cent tax cut to everyone outside of Memphis, and a 1-cent tax cut to people inside Memphis.

How’d they do that? They got rid of a 4-cent rural school bond passed years ago for the construction of Arlington High school.

The bond was only paid by residents in the former Shelby County School District because they got a school out of the deal. Tennessee’s ‘rural school bond’ law, allows a County to issue bonds, set to be paid by a specific group of people for a school, without matching funds for the other schools in that county. So for years, folks outside Memphis have been paying this additional 4-cents for the bond that paid for the construction of Arlington High.

Well, now that the old Shelby County Schools are no more, and only Arlington and Lakeland are using the Arlington High School, folks out in the ‘burbs don’t wanna pay that extra 4-cents for a school that’s not part of their district. And for Arlington and Lakeland to raise enough money to pay the four something million bucks of debt service would have meant raising their County tax rate something ridiculous, and that just doesn’t play in an election year.

So instead Mayor Luttrell,led by Harvey Kennedy talked some hapless County Commissioners into turning their backs on their constituents, to vote for a bigger tax cut for folks they don’t represent.

Fun times huh?

Turncoats

Do they really represent Memphians?

Do they really represent Memphians?

In all, four of the seven votes for this tax ordinance came from folks whose districts primarily represent the City of Memphis.

They are: Heidi Shafer, Steve Basar, James Harvey, and Justin Ford…who you may remember also has a residency question, that apparently no one is interested in pursuing at this point (maybe I’ll file a complaint with the District Attorney General).

These four think its just fine for Memphis to carry the load for the ‘burbs…which is what voting for this tax rate did…while getting nothing in return but more tax incentives for sprawl and the continued hollowing out of the city core.

Apparently, in Memphis, that’s the way we ‘represent’ Memphis. Way to be, folks.

But to add insult to injury, these four didn’t vote for adding in the matching funds that would have come with new construction to the newly constituted Shelby County Schools. Nope. They just ignored that completely, even as the School district has tens of millions of dollars of deferred maintenance for their buildings.

Way to put education first guys.

Playing the Game

Dance with those who brung ya

Dance with those who brung ya

But as bad as these four are, Mayor Luttrell’s assertion that they just want to “normalize” the tax rate is a slap in the face to Memphis.

Of course, Luttrell’s electoral base isn’t really in Memphis, as the map to the right shows. In fact, its out east and north…the burbs.

So what Mayor Luttrell has done is he’s bought Millington, Bartlett, Arlington, Lakeland, Germantown and Collierville a tax cut at the expense of Memphis.

That’s what I call taking care of your own.

What’s more, this goes against some of Mayor Luttrell’s own policies. His website talks about smart growth, but in fact, “normalizing” the tax rate…which really means taking people off the hook who were happy to pay a little bit more before, does nothing to encourage ‘smart growth’. If anything, it encourages sprawl.

But Mayor Luttrell isn’t really interested in the kind of redevelopment and revitalization of the inner core of the city that most ‘smart growth’ advocates long for. His administration hemmed and hawed at a plan to make tax dead properties productive again.

This was something that passed unanimously on the Memphis City Council, but on the County side, anything that benefits Memphis, even if it also benefits the County coffers, is looked upon with scorn.

That’s really ‘smart’ if you ask me. /sarcasm

Conclusion

Its a month before an election, and it would be silly not to expect election year politics to enter into issues like the budget and the tax rate. But I don’t think anyone expected that Mayor Luttrell, a guy who went out of his way to court Memphis moderates in 2010, would do something so brazenly against their interests.

Sure, most of his administration he’s been able to rest on his ‘nice guy’ persona…and there’s no doubt, every time I’ve had the opportunity to meet the guy, he seems genuinely nice. But ‘nice guy’ doesn’t equal ‘working in your best interest’.

That’s the primary problem I have with this policy, it helps one group literally at the expense of another.

That hardly seems like something a ‘nice guy’ would do, but it’s definitely something a guy who’s well versed in hard nosed pandering to your base would do.

Jul 06 2014

Defining the Residency Process

Posted by Steve Ross in elections, Shelby County, shenanigans
County Commissioner Henri Brooks filing her petition for Juvenile Court Clerk - via her Facebook Page

County Commissioner Henri Brooks filing her petition for Juvenile Court Clerk – via her Facebook Page

On Monday, the effort to determine if County Commissioner Henri Brooks does indeed live in her district will come before the County Commission again.

This time will be different, as the Commission will have to begin the process anew in the wake of a completely expected and predictable ruling by Chancellor Kenny Armstrong.

Reports of the ruling (which can be found here, here, here, and here) say Chancellor Armstrong gave Brooks the injunctive relief she was looking for (effectively stopping the current effort to declare her seat vacant), and call for the Commission to set up some kind of trier of fact (either the Commission itself, a designee, or a court) to: 1. Determine where Brooks actually lives, and then 2. Determine if the seat is, in fact, vacant…before going on to seek to fill the vacancy.

One of the problems of this whole affair is that the Commission relied on Administration policy to determine residency, believing that Commissioners should be treated as normal employees hired through the HR process.

But this is not the case. HR only handles paperwork for the purposes of payroll and other basic employee issues, not the hiring process. That duty falls to the voters, which is one reason this administrative investigation didn’t pass muster.

The other, of course is that the investigation didn’t actually determine where Brooks lived, which is problematic.

A third problem is that the investigation was treated as fait accompli instead of something that should be seen as the plaintiffs evidence, up for cross examination, and contestable by countering defense evidence…which would also be crossable by the County Attorney, some other plaintiff attorney, or even the Commission. Then, with the Commission acting as a tribunal…as set forth in Tenn. Code Ann. § 8-48-106, they could rule one way or another based on the facts presented.

Making the Rules Stick

One thing that we’ve learned from this affair, is the Commission (and likely all other elected officers) cannot fall under common employee standards or rules as set forth in County HR policy. The Commission has the power to set its own rules for dealing with issues relating to qualifications of its members…not the administration or any other administrative function.

This is a simple separation of powers issue.

So, the Commission must adopt a process by which these issues are to be dealt with, and pass it by a majority to avoid these complications in the future.

This could be done by amending the Permanent Rules of Order (which I could not find online by the way), or ordinance (either three readings or by vote of the electorate).

Regardless of how its done, standards must be put in place detailing due process (evidentiary rules, burden of proof, and the appropriate venue (who will be the trier of fact…either the Commission, or some external body designated by the Commission)).

Ultimately, the Commission itself would have to act on the recommendation of any external organ, which the Commission regularly does anyway.

The long and the short of it is, this isn’t complicated. This is the way legislative branches of local governments work anyway. It should be the way they work for the purposes of residency or even other membership qualifications as well.

And even though this process may be set up by ordinance or an amendment to the Permanent rules, it would still be up for Judicial Review, because that’s how things work in the good ole U.S. of A.

Starting Over

So the Commission will have to start this whole thing over on Monday. By the time they actually act on it, the issue will likely be moot.

The last Commission meeting before the next term is August 18th. Any action after that point would have no tangible effect other than making a show of it, and any action before that point will probably end up back in court unless the aforementioned rules are in place.

Also, Commissioner Brooks will be able to vote any rules going forward, because regardless of how you feel about her, people are still innocent until proven guilty in this country (though you’d be hard pressed to know that’s the case far too often), meaning Brooks could seek to gum up the works or amend the standards in such a way that is beneficial to her if she wanted to.

In any case, the incoming Commission, which will take office in early September, should seek to quickly address this issue and make rules for itself that would establish an internal administrative and final judgement process to clarify the boundaries of the issue. This would hamper frivolous charges from being brought based on personal or political vendetta, and make it simple for people to understand what was kosher and what wasn’t.

This process may already be set forth in the Permanent Rules, but if it is, and the Commission followed it up to this point, it doesn’t pass muster in the eyes of the Court.

Conclusion

Residency may seem like a simple issue, but as with so many things that revolve around the legislative branch of any division of government, it can get complicated quickly.

This is because legislators are loathe to make rules for themselves, and often set up easy outs in the rules, which makes them about as rock solid as swiss cheese.

Of course, we all expect people to be honest and forthright…especially if they are serving in public office. We’re not surprised when it doesn’t happen, or we perceive that it hasn’t happened.

Ultimately, until the rules for dealing with residency questions are defined for elective office the issue will continue to end up in court. Hopefully, the proposal Commissioner Ritz presents on Monday will set up a process that both meets the needs of the Commission for dealing with questions of residency qualifications for elective office, and addresses the due process concerns already ruled on by the court.

That’s the only way to get to an end game in this controversy…and even still, it may be that the Commission has enough bigger fish to fry that the issue rolls over to the next term.