Friday, August 19, 2011

Sending a Child Away to School

He stood there by himself looking kind of forlorn. I took one last glance over my shoulder at my incredibly smart, gifted, and talented son standing by a lamp post near the dorm that will be his home for the next nine months. The summer day was sunny and warm.

Despite the numbers of fellow university students and family members wandering around, my normally confident son looked lonely and unsure. Part of the problem is that none of his close friends (of which he has many) will be attending the same university. He had options to attend the universities where most of his friends are going, but none of those schools offered the kind of program in which my son is (at present) interested.

I had various mixed emotions as my wife and I walked to our vehicle. Despite my son's uncertainty, I was completely certain that he would be just fine. It never takes him long to find friends in new situations. I was pretty sure that he would start some great friendships before the evening was out.

For my part, I was in a hurry to get on the road. I knew that we'd be battling rush hour traffic part of the way and I had a commitment to keep at home. Besides, it's not as if my son is stuck on a remote campus. He's planning to come home over Labor Day weekend. Our regular course of activities will bring us close enough to see him at school from time to time as well.

Thinking of a similar situation from my younger days, I started to remember how I felt. I was a little homesick for the first few days. But I was soon so engulfed in my new duties that much of the uncertainty quickly faded. Sure, there were new and different things to deal with. But like almost everyone else, I quickly learned to cope. I am quite confident that my son's experience will be similar; perhaps even better.

Moving away from home into a university dormitory is a huge step in my son's young life. Moving a child out of our home was somewhat of a step for me too, but I was more focused on the tasks to which I need to attend over the next few days. Getting my son to the university and getting back home was one of the tasks, but hardly the only one that is significant.

I wrote a few weeks ago about my Mom putting her home of half a century on the market. We followed the realtor's advice. Mom got a credible offer on the home a week after the sign went in the front yard. That's a very rapid turn over in the current real estate market. The realtor obviously knows what he is doing.

Ever since getting the offer, Mom has been looking intensely at homes. She keeps changing her mind about what kind of home she should get. She actually made an offer on a beautiful home. I was thinking that she and Dad should have moved into a home like that eight years ago when they returned from their mission. Mom is still in pretty good shape for her age, but the home is likely too much for her to care for at present. Mom sensed this too. She ended up withdrawing her offer.

But we still have to get Mom moved out of her current home by the end of the month. We have moved a bit of stuff at a time to a storage unit. But there is still a fair amount of stuff that has to go. Since Mom hasn't decided on a new residence, we are making arrangements for her to live temporarily with family. That means sorting out what can go into storage and what Mom absolutely must take with her. Then when Mom decides where to live we will have to move everything again.

The situation with Mom is only one of the things that is keeping us hopping at present. There are so many end-of-summer and start-of-school events going on that we barely have time to breathe. Getting my son moved to the university turned into just another current in this huge stream of events.

I must say, however, that I am very proud of my son. He has worked hard in school. He starts at the university with a year and a half of college credit already under his belt. The entire floor of his dormitory is reserved for students that have been accepted into the university's honors program. Despite his academic focus, my son managed to enjoy social life in high school. I'm certain that this pattern will continue in his university life.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Impeachment Is for Serious Government Criminals

I cringed when I read a post by a local citizen suggesting that the mayor of our city should be impeached for his administration's response to the current public works facility controversy. The citizen had discovered that local officials in North Ogden can neither be impeached nor subjected to a recall election. They can, however, be removed through a judicial process if they have committed crimes.

The citizen's writings reminded me once again that many do not understand the purpose or process of impeachment. Moreover, few seem to grasp the gravity of the matter and the long-term damage it wreaks on the political system.

In short, impeachment is for actual criminals. For that matter, it is for those that commit relatively serious crimes — crimes that most citizens think should disqualify the person from holing office. Impeachment is not a tool to be used at a whim to attack one's political opponents.

Impeachment is only the first step in a process. Impeachment is similar to a grand jury indicting a suspected criminal. It is like pressing formal charges in a case. No legal consequences apply unless the impeached individual is convicted. And then the only consequence that can apply is removal from office and disqualification from holding office. (Although criminal and civil suits may also be brought through regular legal channels.)

At the federal level, a sitting U.S. official must be impeached by the House of Representatives. Members of the house vote on each point in a resolution. Only those points that receive a majority of votes are included in the impeachment.

The process next moves to the U.S. Senate, where members from the House of Representatives act as the prosecution. The impeached official is allowed to have legal defenders. Conviction is achieved only when at least a two-thirds majority votes to sustain at least one of the charges brought by the House of Representatives.

The Founders obviously intended it to be very difficult to achieve conviction because of the serious nature of the matter. Impeachment is so serious that at the federal level, only 19 U.S. officials have ever been impeached. Only eight of those were ultimately removed from office, although, three others resigned. The others were acquitted. (The only two U.S. Presidents to be impeached, Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton, were among the acquitted number.)

The citizen that liked the idea of impeaching our mayor could not say that the mayor had committed any crime whatsoever. As noted in my previous post, it seems an awful lot like the mayor is thumbing his nose at a significant number of his constituents. This may be unwise political behavior, but it is hardly illegal.

When an official holding a significant political office is impeached, it generates a high level of public ill will. It discredits our system in the minds of many citizens. Of course, if the individual has committed notable and widely condemned crimes, it is certainly in the best interest of the people for impeachment to go forward.

But short of this standard, the ballot box is the best place for ousting political officials that we feel should not hold an office. Even after acrimonious campaigns, the regular pattern is for power to be transferred in an orderly and peaceable manner when an incumbent loses. Although some may harbor ill will toward and refuse to support the winner, most quickly recognize the winner's legitimacy.

Impeachment, especially of chief executives of governmental entities, tends to cause negative ripples throughout the system that impact the public psyche for entire generations. That is one reason that impeachment should be rare enough to be reserved for fairly serious crimes.

Some of my city's residents are understandably upset about the mayor's handling of the public works facility issue. Given that Mayor Harris' term expires on 1/1/2014, the citizens will have to put up with him for at least 28+ months. Two years from now public passion on this matter may have dropped enough to allow the mayor to cruise to an easy re-election. Thus, it is also understandable that the mayor's opponents would like to see him ousted sooner rather than trying to beat him at the ballot box later.

But even if impeachment were an option in our city, nothing that we know of that the mayor has done rises even to the minimum standards required for impeachment, let alone the higher de facto standards that have evolved over the years. Unless the mayor's opponents know something I don't know, the mayor is at no risk of being removed through a judicial proceeding.

The mayor's opponents should give up on trying to find a way to remove him from office before the end of his term. They should focus instead on the upcoming election where they have a chance of ousting three council members that support the mayor's actions. Then they should cultivate a candidate that has a chance of beating the mayor in 2013. They have two years to get that campaign put together.

In other words, the mayor's opponents should take the long view and focus their efforts on activities that have a plausible chance of succeeding instead of angrily lashing out in ways that will produce no positive political results.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

North Ogden City to Citizen Taxpayers: Shut Up and Pay Up!

North Ogden City leadership has been angling for a new public works facility for several years now. It seems, however, that anything they do in this vein ends up being unpopular enough to draw citizen ire. The current situation seems like another cycle in that pattern.

The current public works facility is getting rundown. The two-acre lot where it has sat for decades is too small for current and future needs. Much of the equipment is exposed to the elements year round. Due to covered space limitations, employees often work on equipment out in the weather throughout the year. I believe that most city residents agree that something needs to be done about the situation.

A couple of years ago the city named a site for a new public works facility on property already owned by the city. But it was hard against a residential area and far from the city's business/industry areas. Opposition to the site caused the city to eventually back down.

Then a few months ago it was announced that the city would locate the facility on another piece of property owned by the city. It seems that city leaders were unaware that the property had been sold to the city at a greatly reduced price by a local family under the premise that it would only be used as a public park. Some city leaders tried to push the city's case, noting that the city was not technically legally obligated to honor the 12-year-old agreement. In the end, the city backed down once again.

Some residents were unhappy about the process. It appeared to them that city leadership had deliberately worked out the details under the public radar in an effort to prevent public input.

Many citizens were surprised when city leaders recently voted to bond for $10 million to construct a new public works facility. Opponents have noted that adequate facilities for cities of a similar size have recently been built for less than $2 million. When city leaders got wind of opposition being raised to the bond effort, they pushed up the vote on the matter. It passed the city council 4-1.

However, the city did hold a public hearing on the matter after the fact. This hearing was attended by over 300 people, most of whom were opposed to the size of the bond. While governments throughout the U.S. are struggling to reduce debt and expenditures, it is as if North Ogden's leadership is thinking, "What an awesome time to increase debt and taxes!" (Disguising the taxes as utility payments does not alter their basic nature.)

City leaders became aware at the meeting that some residents had started a petition drive to get the bond measure put on November's ballot. Last Friday, sponsoring citizens presented the petition to the city. It had about 3,000 signatures, which represents one-sixth of all residents and about a third of registered voters. I should note that two of the petition drive sponsors have filed to run for city council this fall. Yesterday the city filed a lawsuit against the petitioners specifically naming the two sponsoring city council candidates as defendants.

The city attorney says that the city finds at least 10 legal defects with the petition and the petition process (see article). Of the statute about public petitions the attorney says, "The law is quite technical." That's code for saying that the law is designed to prevent citizen input. The lawyer basically says that the citizens have no recourse at this point and that the city can move ahead with the bond even if a significant number of citizens are opposed to it.

One of the candidate defendants in the lawsuit makes it clear that this is not about technicalities surrounding the petition. It is about city leaders paying attention to the citizens they supposedly represent.

I have stayed somewhat aloof from all of the wrangling surrounding the public works facility. I did not sign the petition, nor have I offered support to any candidate for a city leadership position. The U.S., its states, and local governments operate under a republican form of government. The Founders intended this to prevent or at least ameliorate the worst government abuses.

The founders recognized the folly in democratic forms of government, which tend to lead to tyranny of the majority. In general, it seems to me that creating public policy by popular vote of the citizenry tends to produce far worse policy than political deal making among elected politicians.

But I also believe that citizens have a right to petition their government for redress of grievances. They have a right to be heard by those elected to represent them. In a republic, elected officials are the servants of the people, not vice versa.

In this particular case, the petitioners are simply asking that those that will have to pay increased taxes for the $10 million bond be allowed to vote up or down on the matter. The petitioners are in no way assured of what the outcome of such a vote would be. They just want the taxpayers to have a more direct say in the matter.

Any lawyer worth his salt should be able to find technical fault with any public petition. That's really not the issue here. The issue is whether one-third of the city's voters should be ignored. Any city leader that demonstrates such an attitude deserves to be booted out of office.

Frankly, the city's actions smack of abuse of power. Whether the elected officials and city employees involved see it this way or not, they should recognize how it looks to the public at large.

Three city council seats are up for election this fall. The primary is less than a month away. It will be interesting to see how the incumbents fare. They have just handed a motivated opposition an issue that will be fire in the belly for the opposition's supporters. They have elevated two challenging candidates to celebrity status.

I note that four years ago when the city held a primary election for these same three council seats, only 918 voters bothered to show up. If the petition sponsors can leverage a goodly portion of the 3,000 voters that signed the petition, they should have no problem ousting the incumbent council members.

Since city leaders are treating the petitioners like their opinions are unimportant, the best avenue left to them is at the ballot box. Ousting council incumbents would send a strong message to the remaining city leadership. It may be the only message they can understand at this point.

I may be miscalculating the level of ire among voters. In fact, the most likely scenario would be for the primary election to draw only marginally more voters than did the primary election of four years ago. It is also likely that the broad field of challengers will dilute the opposition vote enough to allow the incumbents to prevail. Much will come down to how well the challengers leverage this situation to their benefit.

Despite the fact that I count two of the incumbent council members as personal friends, I have to say that I would like to see all three incumbents lose in the primary election. It seems to me that our city leadership needs to be taught a lesson that cannot be ignored.