Thursday, March 3, 2011

Why is it so hard to get things done?

Watching the Sisters City Council at work is painful. You leave a meeting feeling like you’ve walked a mile through wet concrete. And that’s just watching. I can only imagine how frustrated and tired the councilors themselves must feel.

The council has been high-centered on enacting a water rate increase and new water rate structure for nine months. Around and around and around, no resolution (well, maybe a glimmer of the beginning of a resolution after Thursday’s workshop). This is only the latest in a litany of issues that have bogged the city down over the past couple of years.

Why is it like this? Why is it so hard to get things done?

There are obvious disagreements and personality conflicts on the council, but that kind of thing doesn’t have to create dysfunction — it could make a board more dynamic. There’s something deeper and more fundamental at play here, something that is bigger than Sisters and our particular issues.

I think it’s about trust.

David Asson argued Thursday morning for a five year business plan based on worst-case scenarios — usage (and therefore revenue) declines or stays flat, expenses go up, etc. This approach makes sense — if you trust that if the worst-case scenario doesn’t develop, you won’t spend the money and won’t enact the associated rate increases. That’s where things start falling apart.

Most folks assume that if a government entity has the opportunity to gain revenue through fees or taxes, it will take it, no matter what. Expecting government to refrain from enacting a tax increase or a rate hike is like expecting a lion to refrain from eating a zebra ’cause it had zebra last week and there’s still leftovers in the fridge. And we expect that that government entity will fight tooth and nail to avoid cutting costs, especially personnel costs.

Those assumptions exist regardless of how responsible local government has or has not been in managing its taxpayers’ money. What looks like prudent management to some looks suspicious to many others — because we have become accustomed to thinking that government is an alien, voracious entity that wants to eat our wallet and our groceries.

And we know we’re right to be suspicious, because we’ve seen it happen.

It’s cognitively difficult to separate generalities from specifics when it comes to problems like this. Whenever some reporter gets caught making up a story or a national icon of journalism like Dan Rather lets his agenda make a sucker of him, I cringe. Anything that erodes faith in “the media” affects our work here. None of us are judged solely on our own merits and failings; people’s perceptions are shaped by what they see on the state, national and international level.
Virtually every institution in our society has somewhere at some time given us reason to distrust it — from Wall Street to the White House, from the corridors of the Pentagon to the doors of the church, from the school house to city hall.

But without some level of trust, it’s impossible to get anything done. And we’re seeing the results of that everywhere. I honestly don’t know how we get out of this morass, locally or across the nation.

Jim Cornelius, Editor


  1. Jim:

    There is no mystery, how can you trust a City Manager and one or more councilors that refuse to answer questions, refuse to engage in any meaningful discussion of the issues, refuse to comply with records requests, put out different and conflicting information on a regular basis, and want to spend a million dollars within the next two years on capital improvements that were recommended in a 2005 Water Master Plan that was predicated on growth that has not happened?

    The meeting yesterday was the first time since this debate began that certain persons acknowledged that the forecasted population in 2010, the basis for the current spending plan, was 13% more than was actually counted in the 2010 census. Less people means less demand for water meaning the need for system improvements based on growth can be delayed.

    The City now has a CPA on the council but he has not helped. He campaigned on the promise that he would research every issue, gather all of the facts, and use his accounting training to arrive at the best solution to every issue. Yet he has consistently pressed to substantially increase the cost of water on top of a 20% increase two years ago while refusing to concede that there may be an opportunity to cut costs. How can you rule out, refuse to look at, refuse to even discuss, reducing expenses to balance a budget? Must the solution always be to demand more money from rate payers?

    There is no mystery, For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.


  2. The problem is leadership, or in this case, a lack of leadership. In military leadership training you are told that the leader is responsible for everything those under his/her command do or fail to do. The focal point should be Eileen Stein. Via the finance manager, budget committee, and city council, and more specifically the council leadership (Mayor and Council President), Ms. Stein has pursued a specific agenda. That agenda has been to generate the maximum amount of revenue for the city. The initial approach was to increase water rates by 114% in 5 years. This translated into nearly a $1 million annual revenue stream into the water fund from rate payers. This was on top of a 20% increase at the beginning of FY 09. This is the goal despite the worst economic conditions since the Great Depression, and a population that is 50% low income.

    Now we have a mayor, who has always advertised himself as a fiscal conservative, acting in way that can only be described as “tax and spend”. We also have a Council President, a CPA by training, who seems unwilling to look at costs before looking at raising prices.

    The City Manager, the Mayor, and the Council President keep pushing the rate increase, and they are pushing very hard. From them we get fear, hyperbolae, and histrionics. When dissenting councilors ask questions, or state opposing points of view, they are interrupted, their questions are side stepped, and their inquiries into the stated facts and assumptions are blocked and thwarted by those same leaders.

    What you are seeing is not leadership; it is coercion, and it is failing. Admittedly, there is a financial problem with the water fund. It is losing money, and that needs to stop. But stopping the financial hemorrhaging requires bringing the council to consensus based on facts, and applying a reasoned and realistic approach. When the council leadership and City Manager are willing to undertake such an approach, then the dysfunction and the waste of energy and resources will come to any end. If the leadership cannot lead, then perhaps new leadership is required – beginning with the City Manager.

  3. There are two reasons that there is a distrust of government:

    1. A government that has been for the last 40 years bought and sold by large corporate interests by means of a corrupt system where bribery has been institutionalized in the form of "campaign financing". And now those same corporate interests have now taken it to a whole new level by getting the Supreme Court to enshrine this bribery as a special constitutional right reserved for corporations.

    2. Government responds to the above form bribery without shame.

    This combination exists at all levels of government. Very few of our elected officials (you can count them on 1 hand, nationally) have been elected to office without accepting these bribes. And the truth is, the peole paying these bribes trust the government they have purchased.

    People are not blind. They know that you get what you pay for and at every level our government is paid for by interests who serve themselves, not the population at large.

    This can be fixed. Make this form of bribery a crime. Pass constitutional amendment to strip corporations of rights that should be reserved for real people. Only people should have rights, corporations should only have privileges which the people can grant or remove through their representative government.

    By making clear that corporations are not people, and hence have no intrinsic rights, we can put a stop to the institutional bribery that corrupts every level of government by simply making it illegal.

  4. The Nugget has put trust of the public sector on the table. This post is about abuses in California. The private sector has ample evidence that public employees are not always ethical.

    The San Jose Mercury News has been successful getting public employee salary data through public record requests. This data shows the well planned and executed rape of the California PERS Retirement Fund by public safety workers which now includes correctional officers. In California, these people all know when they're going to retire because they can opt out at any time by self certifying that they are too stressed to continue. This allows them to retire with full PERS benefits at approximately 50 years old. They get an 80% annuity based on their highest year of compensation plus insurance benefits for the rest of their life! Many of these employees are put into jobs in their final year that allows them to work unlimited amounts of overtime. They retire with an annuity that's 80% of an annual income that's often 2 to 3 times higher than it should be.

    Go to the following website and spend some time surfing. Note at the top there is a line that allows a search on the Bay Area, State, etc. Start with the Bay Area then go to State. Look for massive overtime and "other" compensation. "Other" is where employees sell back accumulated vacation and sick leave in their last year. Keep in mind this is only the tip of the ice burg. Every state has similar problems.

  5. Mike,

    You have provided an excellent summary of the public sector problem, where the public employees conduct "the well planned and executed rape" of PERS.

    This is happening right here in Sisters, with our own School Board giving excessive and unsustainable pay and benefits to the public servants. This rape has been ongoing for many years. And I don’t expect that it will stop any time soon. Perhaps you should run again for a school board position?

  6. I've been watching the situation in California for about three years. I'm a 49er fan so I go to the Mercury News to get my football fix two to three times a week. The Mercury has never done a major story on the abuses to Cal Pers by public safety workers or the thousands of workers who save a lifetime of vacation and sick leave hours and sell them back in their last year to bump their annuity significantly. I talked to an editor 2 years ago about not doing a story and the response, reading between the lines, suggested there was a fear of ending up in a cement suit in the bay for taking on law enforcement. Years ago the biggest abuser was the CHP. Now it's a much broader problem. Everybody want to screw the golden goose. It's unsustainable.

    The issue I'm again watching with the school district is whether the current administration is willing to finally use merit in a reduction in force as allowed by the union contract and Oregon law. Redmond is talking about it and it must be done soon or the public will continue to abandon support of public education. You can't say it's all about the kids when every parent knows at least a few teachers that are not effective.

  7. Oh My GOd! Policemen, teachers and snow plow drivers are not the devils raping our country! I propose that wall street, big oil have far more to answer for than teachers police and snowplow drivers.

    You are not going to fix what is wrong with this country by shooting the victims.

  8. Anonymous:

    There is plenty of guilt that can be spread around. Nowhere have I said that the only problems facing this country come from the public sector. I didn't say it because I don't believe it. The subject is mistrust of the public sector. I've put some hard facts and data on the table. How can you suggest that the cop, fireman, teacher, or snowplow driver that abuses the system is a victim? Who is the victimizer? The legislatures that makes it too easy to scam the system? What happened to personal integrity? I don't get it.

  9. Mike Morgan,

    You have not put any facts on the table. You have implied that people who mess with public employees will be killed, with no evidence what so ever.

    You have claimed that public employees as a class are receiveing unfair amounts of pay that are not due to them ..again with no facts what so ever.

    I took a look at the link you provided and found these actual facts:

    1. 81% of public employees in the bay area make less than $100,000 in total pay which includes all forms of overtime. The vast majority of Policemen and teachers fall into this category

    2. 99% of public employees make less than $200,000 in total pay which includes all forms of overtime.

    3. The vast majority of people who have total pay above $100,000 have titles like Police Chief, General; Manager, Physician, Attorney.

    You have totally misrepresented the data. There may be a few people abusing the system but they are obviously an exception not the rule.

    Again. It is not policemen teachers and snow plow drivers causing these problems. They are victims of the financial collapse in this country as much as anyone else.

    The cause of the ollapse is with wall street not mainstree.

  10. Mr. Anonymous:

    I posted a link to data on the website of a reputable newspaper. I assume people are smart enough to interpret the data for themselves. I'm not going to address the content of your recent post.

    You're trying to make this about the financial collapse in this country and it's not; it's about a local issue of trust and how the lack thereof causes local government to bog down. If you would put some of your pent up energy into something where you might have some impact then I would applaud your effort. I learned long ago that I don't have any influence over policy and decisions that come out of Washington D.C., Sacramento, or Salem. That's why I stick to local issues.

    Why don't you try to get past your fixation on national issues and go to a local council meeting?

  11. Mike Morgan,

    I am responding directly to your post which is a direct assault on the character of public employees. You have accused them of "..the well planned and executed rape of the California PERS Retirement Fund by public safety workers...". You have cited a source of data as proof of your point. That data shows you to be wrong.

    You have gone even further by leveling the outrageous slander that questioning how these public safety workers are compensated will get you killed. That is a lie.

    I am interested in making sure that your libels of our public servants do not go unopposed. You want us to view our teachers in our town with the same contempt you have for public service works everywhere. this is a very local issue and a very personal one as well. You are talking about people we share our community with.

    As for my reference to financial crisis, I only bring that up to point out that the true root cause of the budget crisis at every level of government, local to federal, is the financial collapse the wrecked the economy drying up revenues everywhere.

    It was not Police, teachers and snow plow drivers being overpaid or over funded in their retirement plans.

    But just so you don't miss the point, let me connect the dots for you: The source of data you cite contradicts your claims. That is my point and I can only assume that your lack of response is because you looked at the data and found out I was correct. Either that or you dont really care what the data says, you just want to hate on people who work in public service.

  12. Mr. Morgan's assertions about wanton abuses in California by public employee's unions, are not at all libelous. Those abuses are absolutely documented and proven in case after case. And I detected no "hate" of any kind, directed towards anyone, in his comments.

    California is broken in so many different ways it's sad. Morgan just points out one or two of the many. You need to pull your head out of the sand.

  13. Mr. Anonymous:

    I said: "The private sector has ample evidence that public employees are not always ethical."

    You said: "You want us to view our teachers in our town with the same contempt you have for public service workers just want to hate on people who work in public service."

    I was with a number of our best teachers and school administrators last night. I'll let the readers decide who is engaging in slander and hate.

    I'm done responding to you.

  14. Jim, are you going to make a new post to reflect the content in the most recent issue of the Nugget?