Tuesday, April 29, 2014

John Haas: Portsmouth's Untenable City Solicitor

The central problem with city government in Portsmouth is not the form of government it has, namely the mayoral or city manager variety. The central problem is the kind of men who run for and get elected to city government. The men who occupy public office  are for the most part failures. They are men, usually,  who have failed in business, in a profession, or in a trade, or who are not now or perhaps have not for a long time  been  gainfully employed and want the benefits and the prestige of holding  public office. No form of city government is going to work with incompetent city officials, whether they are elected or appointed, and whether the form of government is mayoral or city manager. 
As an example of an incompetent city official, take city solicitor John Haas. According to the Portsmouth Daily Times (29 April 2014), “Portsmouth City Solicitor John Haas says he cannot represent Portsmouth City Council when it comes to public records requests in the future.” Why not? Because, Haas told the PDT, the city council “has placed my office in an untenable position.” What does “untenable” mean? A tenant is “Someone  who pays rent to use or occupy land, a building, or other property owned by another.” The original and strict meaning of untenable is that an apartment or a house  or an office for some reason cannot be occupied, cannot be tenanted.
That is not the meaning of untenable that Haas has in mind, (if you will allow me the liberty of using “mind” in connection with him). Another meaning of untenable, and the one Haas apparently has in what passes for a mind is a place or a position or an office, such as the office of  city solicitor, that cannot be defended. But no one is attacking Haas or the office of city solicitor. They are rather proposing to change the office of city solicitor from an elective to an appointed office.  John Haas is obstructing city government by refusing to carry out one of his responsibilities as city solicitor because he doesn’t approve of the proposal of several councilmen to change the city solicitor position from an elective to an appointed position. It is hard to believe  that a lawyer would think he has the right to refuse to perform a duty of the  city solicitor because he doesn’t think it’s a good idea to change the office from elective to appointed. Changing any public office from elective to appointed or appointed to elective is a long, complicated, democratic  process, as is spelled out in the city charter.
      But it is Haas himself who is untenable, who is indefensible, who is not qualified to hold the office of city solicitor. He is not qualified  because he is in terms of his understanding of the law, incompetent. He doesn’t understand that by refusing to handle public records requests he is not fulfilling one of the duties of his office that he swore to perform. He cannot choose which of his duties he is going to perform and which he isn’t. The issue of whether the city solicitor should be elected, or whether it is a bad or good proposal,  is not the issue. At no level, local, state, or federal, does government work that way. But Portsmouth apparently is an exception and a public official is going to be allowed to choose which of his duties he performs and which he will not. Fire fighters are not allowed to choose which fires they are going to put out; police officers which laws they are going to enforce; sanitation workers which trash they are going to pick up;  and deadbeat dads are not allowed to decide which of their children they are going to pay child support for. But Haas is going to decide he is not going to handle public records requests and the Portsmouth Daily Times is not going to point this flagrant dereliction of duty out to its readers? That’s not just untenable, it’s intolerable. Oh, and two more things. Haas like two other council members, Kalb and Malone, have declared bankruptcy. And didnt Haas first get his foot in the door of the city solicitor's office by being appointed? Isn't that how many of these untenable, bankrupt characters start their political careers, by being appointed? As Snuffy Smith would say, Isnt that a crock?

* * *

When you consider the council members who began their careers as appointees, the list is not encouraging. Baughman was originally an appointee, when his friend and his next-door neighbor John Thatcher, conveniently resigned as Fifth Ward councilman. And then Baughman himself resigned before he could be recalled, making the appointment of John Haas possible in the endless appointee game of musical chairs that is orchestrated by Portsmouth’s powerful, unelected clique. Jerrold Albrecht first got on the council by appointment, and so did the notorious shyster Mike Mearan. James R. Saddler is the most recent appointment. Saddler had not shown any interest in city government previously, except when he had to appear in court for numerous speeding violations, including a DUI for which his license was suspended. For all those who prefer to begin their political careers by applying to the council for a vacated position rather than run in an election, we should have buttons that say not “I Voted,” but rather “I Applied.” 
                 from City Council Appointees: Portsmouth's Perennial Problem” 

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Flight 370

Imagine if you can, on this the sad first
Anniversary of the Boston Marathon  bombing,
That you were one of the passengers,
Numbering 227 according to Malaysia Airlines,
On the doomed Flight 370,
Flying in a sleek Boeing 777, with robin-egg blue wings
In the middle of the night, on  March 18, 2014,
Flying from the  capital Kuala Lumpur,
To Beijing, some 2700 hundred miles away.

Imagine you were young or old,
Male or female, mostly of Chinese
Or of Malaysian descent,
Or one of  the contingent of Indians
Or one of the couple of Ukrainians,
Or  the 51-year-old IBM executive
From the Dallas-Fort Worth area,
From which he’d just returned
After visiting his ex- and two sons,
And was  returning to  Beijing,
To take care of some unfinished business.
He’d spent the last two years in Beijing
Before being transferred to Kuala Lumpur,
The last career move he’d ever make,
Or that you are one of the teen-age couple,
She Asian and beautiful, he European
And doting hopelessly on her,
Who are returning to school in France
From  a vacation on a travel poster beach
Where their footprints in the sand lead
To a sanctuary  in the dunes where they lie on their backs
Looking up at the  blue sky and dissolving  vapor trail
Of a jet that is too high for itself to be seen,
As if it was  disappearing into eternity.

Or imagine you were one of the twenty
Younger Chinese and Malaysian employees
Of an Austin-based semi-conductor company
With an assembly and test-plant in Tianjin.
Or if semi-conductors are not your thing,
Imagine you are the Hollywood stunt man,
Chinese, of course, like Bruce Lee,
Flying to Beijing to see his two kids
Before he flies  back to Malaysia
To film the Netflix series “Marco Polo.”
Or you are the Siberian diving instructor,
Also the father of two kids, on his way home
From a trip to Bali, Indonesia, back to  Irkutsk, in Siberia,
Where he was a member of a  tight-knit Jewish community.
Or imagine you are the pregnant passenger,
Or the one recovering from a miscarriage,
Or that you are the four-year-old sister,
Or her two-year-old brother, the youngest on board.
They were born in America, but their last name was Chinese,
But their first names were  Nicole and Leo.
Or imagine you are the second-oldest passenger,
A 76-year-old Chinese man who has survived
A truck collision, political persecution, and three heart attacks.
He  was one of  the artistic contingent of twenty,
Who were returning from an art exhibit in Kuala Lumpur.
Among the twenty  was an unemployed factory worker
Who managed to save enough to learn calligraphy.

Or imagine you were one of the two younger men
Who were returning to China to visit dying fathers,
Or one of the two older couples who were expecting
Soon to become grandparents, or the young couple
Who had just celebrated their first wedding anniversary,
Or the Indian microbiologist who was flying for the first time
Along with her retired husband and youngest son
Who were on their way  to Beijing to attend the graduation
Of her oldest son, with a degree in engineering,
Or imagine you are  the 29-year-old Iranian
Who  was traveling to Germany illegally,
With a stolen passport, seeking asylum, hoping
To be reunited with his mother, already there.

Imagine that you were any of these passengers one hour
Into  the flight when the plane lost contact
With air traffic control  and disappeared from radar
For the next next seven hours,  or so
The authorities speculated, and flew toward
The South China Sea, or the Indian Ocean,
Or  god only knows where it went down
At sometime not long after dawn
When the plane finally ran out of gas,
Following what some will  believe was God’s will,
And others that a fanatic among the passengers
Or crew felt they were following God’s will
In prolonging the terror  as long as possible,
And mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers,
Young and the old, right-brained and left-brained
The artistically  talented and technically inclined,
The well-to-do and the barely making it,
The happy and the unhappy, the well and the ill,
Chinese, Malaysians, Indians, Indonesians,
And a quotient  of Caucasians,
Somebody’s  near and dear loved ones
Or distant and now dead relatives,
Reminding  us of the terrible things that can happen
To ordinary people, members of our species,
Enduring the  boredom or the frustration,
The divorces, deaths, and diseases
Of their quotidian existence
But suddenly lifted by technology
Along with the 450 ton aircraft  with robin-egg blue wings,
Astonishingly 36,000  feet up in the air,
Cruising at 570 miles an hour
And  held hostage  by an insane person or persons,
Drunk on god and religion, with messianic delusions,
Just as millions of brainwashed believers
Belonging to three crazy, competing teams
That are all in the same  crazy  league,
Playing with  weapons of mass destruction,
Holding humanity at large hostage
As  planet earth speeds around the sun
At  67,000  thousand miles  an hour.

Imagine if you can that technology is a pact
With the devil who is monitoring our smart phones
And running in-flight movies in our minds
While  annihilation approaches exponentially
Until  we are like the passengers on Flight 370,
Whom we never knew but  have already forgotten—
The old artist who survived three heart attacks,
Little Leo who has not yet learned to count,
The  passengers who are flying for the first time
The teenagers on their backs, looking up at the blue sky,
The unemployed worker who learned calligraphy,
And  the 42-year-old  woman whose birthday it was,
Who will never have to play the numbers game again.

                                                Robert Forrey,  April 2014

Sunday, April 06, 2014

The Hill View Flyer [reposted]

The budget-busting sentence from Sect. 87 of City Charter. The same
language is used in Sect. 89 covering the Fire Dept.

The article below was originally posted on May 5, 2011. Because our new city manager was not around three years ago to read it, I am reposting it so that our un-elected city manager can continue his on-the-job training. He recently complained about the difficulties of trying to balance the budget when the number of employees of both the Fire and Police departments are dictated by the city charter, as if no one had read the city charter before.  A city manager has even less authority than the mayor under the previous system of city government had of changing that onerous provision of the charter. We are stuck with that provision and the city manager form of government, and for that we have the officious First Ward councilman Kevin Johnson to thank. R.F.

The Hill View Flyer: “Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics!”

 The flyer (shown above ) appeared in the mailboxes of residents at the Hill View Retirement Center not long before they voted on May 3, 2011,  on a proposed  city income tax increase. The  purpose of the flyer, in my reading of it, was not so much to inform the residents on the proposed income tax increase as it was to scare the bejesus out of them. If it did not do that with what Mark Twain called “lies, damned lies, and statistics,” then it did it with at least some very misleading “talking points.”
Talking Point #1: The Title

The scare tactics begin with the typography of the title of the flyer, “Talking Points for the Police and Fire Levy.” The  flyer’s title is  not only in larger type, it is  bolded, italicized, and underlined. Typographically, the title  looks alarming. If you did it justice, when you read it aloud you would make it sound like a three-alarm fire. The title is designed to get the attention of the seniors at Hill View by all typographical means. In addition, the title is semantically misleading. Instead of calling a spade a spade, it calls it a heart. Instead of calling the proposed city income tax increase a tax increase, it calls it a  “Police and Fire levy.” “Levy” sounds so much less onerous than  “tax,” and mentioning  the  “Police and Fire” in  the title introduces the issue of the  Hill View residents’ safety. The purpose of the title  may have been to alarm  the  residents of Hill View  about crime and fire. The purpose of the flyer itself may have been to get the residents to vote for the levy as a way of protecting themselves against fire.

 Talking Point #2

“2.8 Million Dollars will be raised yearly by the levy and directly fund the Police and Fire 5.5 year Levy.” Instead of being a damned lie, this  talking point  is a statistic, a misleading statistic.  How much will be raised yearly by the increased income tax depends upon the economy, both nationally and locally. The worse the economy, the fewer the jobs, and the lower the revenue from the Portsmouth city income tax will be. Even when the national economy was booming, prior to the current Great Recession, Portsmouth remained in the same economic doldrums that it had been in for at least a quarter century.  Will the economy be better in the future? Probably  not.  In keeping with the aims of the backers of the city income tax increase,  the projected  2.8 million figure is probably inflated, or “Trented,” to coin a word, assuming City Auditor Trent Williams  had anything to do with  the projection.  In the five and one-half year life span of the 2 percent tax, the annual amount will vary, at best, and for the next couple of  years at least is  likely to fall below the $2.8 million projection. And will the tax really end in five and a half years? And will Peter Rabbit stay out of Mr. McGregor's garden?

Talking Point #3

“6/10 percent increase, 1.4 percent now, brings us to 2.0%, New Boston is at 2.5” 
Talking Point #3, like Talking Point #2, shows it is possible to mislead, if not lie, with statistics. What this  cryptic talking point is saying  is, “The  0.6 percent proposed Portsmouth income tax increase is small, and even when it is added to the city’s current 1.4 percent rate it only takes us up to 2 percent, which is still a lot less than the  2.5 percent income tax rate of neighboring New Boston.”  What this talking point does not say is that the 2.5% income tax rate was one of the money-raising responses the  village of New Boston  made in response to the fiscal crisis it faced when the steel and coke plants closed. But New Boston not only raised its income tax, it seriously cut the costs of its government.  New Boston laid off  public  employees, including police and firefighters, but Portsmouth has not.  If comparisons of income tax rates between Portsmouth and  other Ohio cities are relevant, then it is misleading to compare Portsmouth (pop. 20,000) to  New Boston (pop. 2000) as it would be to compare Portsmouth  to Columbus (pop. 787, 000), the state’s  largest city. Yes, both New Boston and Columbus  have 2.5% income tax rates, but it makes more sense to compare Portsmouth not with villages and metropolises but with mid-sized and small Ohio cities, most of which have  income tax rates below  2%, such as  Jackson (0%); Ironton (1%);  Piketon (1%); Waverly (1%); South Bloomfield (1%); Findlay (1.25%); Ashland (1.5%); Circleville  (1.5%);  Lima (1.5%); Chillicothe (1.6%); Marion (1.75%); and Delaware (1.85%).  As for a neighboring city in a neighboring state, Ashland, Kentucky, has close to the same population (22,000) and close to the same income tax rate (1.5%) as Portsmouth (1.4%).

Talking Point #4

“If [the levy] passes funds will establish the re-opening of Company 3.” 
This talking point says that passage of the income tax increase will enable the fire department to reopen the Company 3 Hilltop station. If the levy passes the station probably will reopen. But what this talking point does not say is that it was the Fire Department itself, after discussing the matter with Mayor-unelect David Malone, who made the decision to close the Hilltop station. “That is the decision myself and the Mayor (David Malone) agreed on in trying to comply with Council’s demand we cut 20 percent out of the budget,” Portsmouth Fire Chief Bill Raison told the Portsmouth Daily Times (3/11/11). The City Council had directed the mayor to cut the Fire Department budget by 20%, but such a sizeable cut would have required financial concessions by the fire fighters that they were not willing to make. Instead of layoffs, furloughs and other concessions, the Fire Department closed the Hilltop Station. The Fire Department had a choice: make financial concessions to ease the budgetary crisis or jeopardize the safety of those who live in the Hilltop area by closing the Hilltop station. They chose to jeopardize the safety of those in the Hilltop area by closing the Hilltop station. Is it possible, furthermore,  that the Hilltop station was closed by the Fire Department because it could then be raised as a safety  issue by firefighters in the door-to-door campaign they waged prior to the May 3rd primary? The flyer itself, assuming the Fire Department had something to do with its creation, is evidence of the department's dishonorable intentions. 

Talking Point #5

“If it [the levy] passes funds will increase manpower (2 currently retired and not filled, 1 projected).” 
To try to meet the  20% budget reduction set by the council, the Fire Department agreed that three retiring members would not be replaced. But Talking Point #5  promises to restore those three eliminated positions if  the levy is passed. If the residents vote for the levy and the positions are restored, the residents would get increased protection from fires and they would be getting it free, because they would not be paying any city income tax. The people who have jobs in  Portsmouth will be the ones  paying for the additional fire protection for the residents at  Hill View, who will be paying nothing.  (See Talking Point #7, below.)

Talking Point #6

“$50,000.00 yearly income                   $25,000 yearly income
            $300.00 increase yearly                         $150.00 increase yearly
              $23.00 increase monthly                       $11.50 increase monthly
                                $00.83 increase daily                            $00.42 increase daily”  
Talking Point #6 uses statistics to suggest that the income tax increase will cost wage earners relatively little, but it does so by calculating only the increase, without saying what the total city income tax for an individual wage earner would be. For someone in Portsmouth earning $25,000 a year, the total city income tax would be $500, not $150, and for someone earning $50,000, it would be $1,000 a year, not $300, which is not small change, even to someone earning $50,000 a year. But how many people working in Portsmouth, outside of the city government, make $50,000 a year? The estimated median income in Portsmouth in 2009 was not $50,000, and it was not even $25,000: it was $20,909. If the city was the only entity  that wage earners had to pay taxes to, that would be one thing, but they also have to pay state and federal income taxes as well as  property taxes to the county (of which the city gets a cut) if they are home owners.

Talking Point #7

 “Fixed income residents will not be affected (Social Security, Retirements, Disabled).” 
As an indication of its importance, Talking Point #7, like the flyer’s title,  is bolded, italicized, and  underlined. Why? Because it is a reminder to Hill View residents that if they vote for the levy and it passes they will not have to pay for it.  This talking point reassures Hill View residents that, though  raising the city income tax will benefit them in terms of increased fire protection,  that increased protection  will cost them nothing. This talking point is factually accurate but morally questionable. Should Hill View residents get the benefits of increased fire protection without having to pay for it? Should someone who has a job in Portsmouth that pays $25,000  but who lives out of the city have to pay $500 a year to reopen the Hilltop station to provide  increased protection for the residents of Hill View, a high end retirement community that people live in by choice? And it is not just those earning $25,000 who would have to pay 2% of their pay to provide additional protection for the residents of Hill View. So would those working at McDonald’s earning not much more than half that. A cashier at McDonald’s makes about $16,000 a year and a crew member even less.
Talking Point #8

The statistics cited in Talking Point #8  may have been intended not just to inform but also to scare, as mentioned earlier in Talking Point #6.  Even if the statistics are  not misleading (and I would argue some of them are), they are tied to the closing of the Hilltop station, on 17th Street, which the Fire Department itself decided to do. If the firefighters had been willing to pay a higher percentage of their health benefits, pensions   and forgo cost of living increases, it probably would have been possible to the keep the Hilltop station open and the statistics shown above would not apply to Hill View residents. Am I being cynical in thinking the Fire Department may have closed the Hilltop station partly to provide statistics that  could be used to frighten  Hill View residents into voting for the city income tax increase?

Was the closing of the Hilltop Fire Station calculated to scare the hell out of Hill View residents? 

Talking Point #9

“Population: No Decrease since 1987. As per the 2009  Census, Portsmouth population was  20,354.” 
Talking Point #9 is not just misleading, it is dead wrong.  Census records show there has not been a decade since 1930 that the population of Portsmouth has increased or even held its own. Since 1930, Portsmouth has steadily lost more than half its population. The assertion that there has been no decline since 1987 is not true. Why does the Hill View flyer make a  false claim about Portsmouth’s population not decreasing?  The flyer is apparently  trying  dispel  the common sense notion that a city that has lost half its population in the last eighty years probably  needs less, not more, firefighters. It would be useful for purposes of comparison  to know how many firefighters there were in the Portsmouth Fire Department in 1930, when the population was  about 42,000,  or  how many there were in 1950, when the population was about  37,000.  Has  the Fire Department increased in number as the population has  decreased?  I don’t know, but I do know from census records that the population has shrunk drastically. As for the claim that there has been no decrease in population since 1987, census figures show there were 25,993 in 1980; 22,676 in 1990; 20,909 in 2000; and about 20,000 in 2010. That is a loss of about  6,000 people in the last four decades. 1987 was no exception to the rule that Portsmouth has been in a steady population decline for a long time. 

Insulation, Solicitation, Obfuscation

On May 4th, the day after the primary, I emailed John Prose, the CEO of Hill View, asking him about the flyers and about reports I heard  that two members of the Fire Department had spoken to Hill View residents on the eve of  the voting on the income tax increase. I suspected there might be some connection between the flyers and the appearance of the two firemen. Mr. Prose replied promptly to my email, but instead of  an explanation, he responded with an  obfuscation. To obfuscate is to be evasive, unclear, or intentionally confusing. Obfuscating  is something politicians routinely do in responding to questions they don’t want to answer. So it is still a mystery to me, and to some residents,  how the flyers got into  the Hill View mailboxes. Under U.S. Code for crimes and criminal procedure (Chapter 83, Title 18, Section 1725), it is unlawful for anything, including political flyers, to be put in mailboxes if it  lacks U.S. postage and has not gone through a U.S. post office. The law stipulates that nothing should be put in, on, taped, or tied to mailboxes. Fines may be as high as $5,000 for each violation for an individual and $10,000 for an organization.

I am told Hill View has a policy of not allowing  political solicitation or the circulation of petitions. But it appears that  policy is not being administered equitably. When he was councilman for Ward 3, Bob Mollette told me he more than once was denied permission to speak to Hill View residents, even though he was their elected representative. Why then would two members of the Fire Department be allowed to speak to Hill View residents on the eve of the primary in which the  so-called “Police and Fire Levy” was on the ballot? Prior to the recall election of Jane Murray, Mr. Prose distributed a letter to Hill View residents that seemed to me clearly political in nature. I wonder if those managing senior housing centers in Portsmouth have an obligation  to perform like those late nineteenth-century political ward heelers who influenced immigrants to vote for candidates approved by the party bosses. 

“Lies, damned lies, and statistics.” That’s what politics in America often boils down to, and nowhere more than in Portsmouth, as the Hill View flyer may illustrate.