June 6, 2015

Golden Parachutes for Bureaucrats

NAS PensacolaJoplin Superintendent C. J. Huff announced his retirement last month despite his contract expiring in 2018. A sunshine request from the Joplin Globe revealed the details of the separation agreement.

Superintendent Huff has been credited with helping rebuild the Joplin community after 2011’s devastating tornado. He was the 2013 Missouri Superintendent of the Year and a finalist for National Superintendent of the Year.

That said, the agreement still has some big numbers. Huff will continue to earn his regular paycheck until he retires on June 30. From July 1, 2015, to December 31, 2016, Joplin will pay Huff a total of $262,912.50 in additional compensation. According to the Kansas City Star, “the agreement requires Huff and the district not to criticize each other, and bars Huff from suing the district.” Huff will also receive $50,000 to “assist the new superintendent,” starting in June 2016.

According to the salary schedule for the Joplin Public Schools, a teacher would have to earn a master’s degree and make it to the 26th pay step in order to make $50,000 a year. That is some expensive advice.

This revelation raises a lot of questions. The first, of course, asks, Is this the best use of district funds? Clearly Superintendent Huff was a talented leader, but those 312,000-plus dollars could hire nine new teachers at the starting point on the district’s salary scale.

More than anything, this signals a need for public school finance transparency. A sunshine request from an intrepid reporter shouldn’t be necessary to get these facts into the open. How can taxpayers hold school boards accountable when they don’t even know how their tax dollars are being spent? Watch this video to hear how one legislator feels about public school spending and transparency.

 

June 2, 2015

Branson Firefighters Unionize

firefighters

Last week, Branson firefighters voted 17-7 in favor of unionizing. After the State Board of Mediation finalizes the results, the union is expected to begin negotiating with the city in the hopes of winning an agreement that will set fire department policies, such as compensation and work rules. This may be good news for the 17 firefighters who chose the union to act as their representative, but how this affects the people of Branson remains to be seen.

The city of Branson has a choice in how it will conduct negotiations with the firefighters union: It can keep the citizens of Branson in the dark and meet with the union in closed-door sessions, or it can open the doors to its collective bargaining sessions and allow citizens and the media access to these meetings.

Open meetings like this are important because taxpayers and people who depend on city services need to be informed about what their government is doing. The transparency of open meetings leads to accountability. However, when the public is kept from meetings between government officials and government unions, government often acts in a way to benefit itself to the detriment of the taxpayer.

If Branson decides to hold collective bargaining sessions in open meetings, it will be in good company. Both the Monarch Fire Protection District and Columbia Public Schools already hold open collective bargaining sessions with their employees.

To put it simply: Branson citizens have a right to know how their city and fire department operate and where their tax money is being spent. When the city of Branson and the firefighters union begin negotiating a labor agreement, the city should keep the doors open. This will help ensure that citizens of Branson are well served by their newly unionized fire department.

May 30, 2015

Senator Proposes Transparency for Public School Administrative Spending

State Sen. Joseph Keaveny (D-Saint Louis) has an idea: Require school districts to post administrative salaries to their websites. Watch below to hear why Sen. Keaveny believes public school finances should be more transparent.

May 29, 2015

Senator Proposes Transparency for Government Unions

At the Show-Me Institute’s latest Policy Breakfast, Sen. Bob Onder talked about the need for the dealings of government unions to be out in the open. Not only can state and local government agencies, such as school districts, make deals with unions in closed-door sessions, but government unions also get away with keeping their spending hidden. Here’s what Sen. Onder had to say about government union transparency…

May 27, 2015

Convention Hotel Justification Built on Fiction

Kansas City Mayor Sly James has announced an effort, long discussed at City Hall, to subsidize a convention hotel downtown. Part of the justification for this expense is the need to attract more conventions to Kansas City, despite the fact that the convention industry is already crowded and in decline.

In Kansas City’s case, justification for this expense is also built upon a fiction. When the effort to bring the GOP convention to Kansas City fell apart last year, the Kansas City Star reported a local consultant urging coworkers on the convention bid to stay on message:

“Nothing negative,” one public relations consultant wrote. “The reason given for the decision should be a lack of downtown hotels. Period. Please stick to this messaging. . . . Let’s all take care of one another. We’re still a team.”

Reporter Dave Helling revisited this argument recently. In the email exchange, another person responded:

I couldn’t agree more. Thanks for reminding us all to stick together. The only thing I would add is a lack of downtown hotels IN CLOSE PROXIMITY TO THE CONVENTION SITE.

It appears everyone fell in line. In Helling’s story about Kansas City’s elimination from hosting the GOP convention, written as soon as the decision was announced and before he received the internal documents mentioned above, he wrote that there were several reasons being offered:

Kansas City’s relative lack of enough high-quality hotel rooms close to the Sprint Center.

The city’s potential struggle to raise $60 million for the event.

Poor rail transit.

That same story goes on to detail the politics included in the GOP’s decision, including this telling part:

“The competition was tough,” said Brenda Tinnen, chairwoman of the Kansas City Convention and Visitors Association. “There are politics involved in these decisions. . . . I’m not sure that there was any one thing that said, ‘OK, this city is better than that city.’”

Tinnen is likely correct. There always are many reasons a convention does not come to a city. It is rarely the case, as some in Kansas City government want us to believe, that conventions are lost because of any one thing. But that is what we hear from the “team” of consultants, government officials, and public relations professionals.

Taxpayers should be wary. Such expensive decisions should be based on sound policy and economics, not a mere fiction promulgated by some on the convention “team” who write about the need to “take care” of one another—whatever that means.

May 13, 2015

Collaboration and Competition

On Friday afternoon, Ronald Garan Jr., a retired U.S. Air Force colonel and NASA astronaut, addressed about 40 students at a charter school in Kansas City, Mo. His talk featured plenty of pictures and videos of his time aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery and the International Space Station. Garan’s talk was about cooperation and collaboration to solve the world’s challenges.

Garan_v2I had the opportunity to visit briefly with Garan after the talk. I wanted to know how he squared the principles of collaboration and cooperation with competition. After all, everything that made his career in the space program possible was accomplished through competition—whether a space race between nations or a bidding process among companies seeking to sell products to the U.S. government. That is when Garan distinguished between proper competition and destructive competition.

Proper competition gets us better good and services. It comes from having an even playing field; the company with the best product wins. A destructive competition does not bring us those things because it often lacks the necessary rigor, data, and transparency.

Without rigor and data, good intentions fail. To make his point, he offered an example from his experience working with developing countries. An organization might have a splashy website and a compelling celebrity endorsement. The company may show off the new wells they put in place, but if no one is focusing on whether those are working properly the whole effort is wasted. Garan said, “Sometimes there is too much emphasis on the new and shiny and not the tried and true.” No one wants to watch a TED Talk on the same old ways of doing things, he suggested, even if those ways are the most effective.

Therein lies the real lesson: Open yourself to rigor, data, and transparency. For governments it means fostering the productive competition that leads to legitimate innovation and improvement. For the taxpayers it means not getting caught up in new things simply because they are new; value what works, even if it is less flashy. And always make sure that government is transparent.

May 9, 2015

No, Transparency Benefits the Academy

University_of_Missouri_-_Memorial_UnionMizzou Professor of Spanish Literature Michael Ugarte recently wrote an op-ed published in the Columbia Daily Tribune where he voiced his opposition to a bill that would require public universities to post course information online.

From Ugarte’s commentary:

[T]he reason I’m against SB 465 is that I don’t trust the motivations of those who are proposing it. It’s a bill with an agenda that goes far beyond a desire for transparency. It provides an opportunity for those determined to question, debunk, attack and diminish the pedagogical and research projects of university professors. I don’t think the effects will be positive; rather, we will have more of the same: animosity and lack of understanding.

As someone who has written on and testified in support of curriculum transparency for Missouri’s public universities, I can tell you that my motivation for supporting proposals like this comes from a conviction that public universities—and all public institutions—should be candid and open with the public about their affairs. Members of a public university should abide by the same transparency laws as everyone else who works in our public sector.

My motivation for supporting this bill doesn’t stem from a desire to “question, debunk, attack or diminish” the university, but I find it odd that a scholar would view someone questioning his work as a problem. Scholarship thrives on debate and challenges. As a student at Mizzou, you can bet I questioned my professors. They questioned, attacked, and debunked me right back. And I got a great education because of it.

I disagree with Professor Ugarte’s contention that an open academy will breed animosity and lack of understanding between it and the rest of society. On the contrary, I believe an open and honest discourse is the way you build trust and understanding. And there’s no reason why open and honest discourse can’t involve questions, debate, and, yes, sometimes even debunking.

April 20, 2015

Monarch Voters Choose Transparency Over Union-Backed Candidate

firefighter

This month voters in the Monarch Fire Protection District, a fire district in western Saint Louis County, chose to keep Robin Harris on the board of directors. Harris and fellow board member Jane Cunningham were instrumental in implementing transparency policies for the district, including open collective bargaining. The fact that Monarch kept its current board in place is good news for people interested in local government accountability; however, one special interest group, the local firefighters union, may not have seen Harris’ victory in the same positive light.

Supporters of both Harris and the opposition, Kelley Miller, were standing outside the polls on election day giving out information and encouraging voters to pick their candidate. A man gave me a flier that read, “Vote for Robin Harris.” I asked him why I should vote for Harris, and he told me Robin has done a good job representing taxpayer interests. The man told me he has known Robin for six years.

Lauren, an emergency medical technician from Troy, Missouri, gave me a glossy card instructing me to choose Kelley Miller instead. I asked Lauren why I should vote for Miller, and she told me that Miller would “take politics out of the district.” While she didn’t know Miller personally, as a fellow fire district employee over in Lincoln County, she felt Miller was the right pick for voters in Saint Louis County. She told me that fire protection employees at districts across the region work together during elections.

Lincoln County Fire Protection District, where Lauren works, is a union shop. If it seems odd that an EMT from two counties away would stand outside on a rainy day and ask Chesterfield residents to vote for a candidate she has never met, then this piece of information should clear things up for you. A union’s job is to negotiate with an employer to get the best deal for its members. If the employer happens to be a local government, such as a fire protection district, then the union spends resources to elect public officials that answer to the union. Thus, the union shops in the region work together to ensure that the people elected to the boards of fire protection districts are favorable to their interests.

The union-backed candidate lost this time, but there will be other district elections. The board of the Monarch Fire Protection District may one day be packed with union-backed members. However, the transparency reforms should stay. Transparency protects both officials and the public, so when it comes to local government, everyone benefits.

April 9, 2015

Shedding Light on Anti-transparency Arguments

The Francis Quadrangle columns and main building at the Universi

A bill is making its way through the Missouri Senate that would require public universities to disclose basic information about college courses. Ordinarily, a bill like this wouldn’t be necessary, but a recent court decision gave Missouri’s public universities cover for keeping syllabi and other course content closed from the Sunshine Law. The professors and administrators trying to keep course content from the Sunshine Law argue that transparency laws harm their intellectual property interests. This argument rings false for three simple reasons:

  1. The anti-transparency faction at the University of Missouri argues that professors own the content of their courses, while the University of Missouri’s own rules suggest otherwise. According to 100.030.A.2 of the Collected Rules, the university owns the copyright to “works that are commissioned for University use by the University” and “works that are created by employees if the production of the materials is a specific responsibility of the position for which the employee is hired.”
  2. Even if professors have an intellectual property interest in syllabi, nothing about making this information publicly available would prevent professors from enforcing a copyright claim. If a member of the public accesses a syllabus through the Sunshine Law and then plagiarizes the syllabus, the professor could still sue for a violation of copyright. Making information publicly accessible is not a bar to enforcing copyright.
  3. Fair use should protect disclosure of public records pursuant to state sunshine laws. Fair use doctrine allows for copyrighted work to be transformed or appropriated, within limits, for certain educational, scholarly, satirical, and noncommercial uses. In other words, fair use protects creators and commentators alike, facilitating discussions about ideas and, ultimately, building knowledge for society. For a publicly funded university system to reject this well-established framework suggests that it wants neither the comment nor the discussion the publication of these syllabus materials may generate. If that’s the system’s goal, it’s an appalling objective for an institution of higher learning, public or otherwise.

I doubt college administrators and university professors are ignorant of these facts. I suspect that the intellectual property argument is just an excuse for avoiding the transparency requirements that every other public entity is subject to. If you don’t want the potential scrutiny that comes with transparency, then perhaps you shouldn’t work for a public institution.

April 6, 2015

Chicago Fight Reveals Extent of Government Union Political Involvement

Chicago_L

In neighboring Illinois, a government union representing Chicago transit workers is suing the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) for refusing to let union members pass out fliers in support of one of the candidates in this week’s runoff mayoral election.

From the Chicago Sun Times:

The Amalgamated Transit Union Locals 241 and 308 filed the lawsuit Tuesday in federal court, arguing that the CTA violated workers’ freedom of speech by prohibiting the “Transit for Chuy” flier from break rooms.

But CTA spokesman Brian Steele said the ATU is the lone CTA union “seeking to violate long-standing state laws that prohibit political activities on government property and government time, at taxpayer expense.”

Setting aside Chicago politics, I see this fight as an illustration of the often-overlooked fact that government unions are uniquely political actors. Government unions are one of the most important special interests in contemporary politics. They have special access and privileges, and, as taxpayers, we pay for them. A union’s whole purpose—to influence employer decisions on behalf of its members—is political when the union represents government.

In Missouri, public agencies may meet with unions and set policies in closed sessions. Also in Missouri, government unions may hide their financial and political activities, while traditional unions have to disclose this information to the public.

The framework for American collective bargaining was created to protect industrial workers from progressive-era robber barons. Is it a good idea to allow government bureaucracy the same legal privileges? If we’re going to give government unions this kind of power, we should at least hold it in check with a modicum of transparency.

April 3, 2015

Study Slams Missouri for Lack of Transparency Regarding Release Time

It’s no secret that public agencies in Missouri routinely allow for “release time,” which is paid time off from official duties to allow a government employee to perform union business. However, a recent study by the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) found that Missouri public agencies often fail to track or disclose release time records, making the amount of release time actually used in Missouri impossible to calculate.

Release time is controversial. It allows unionized government workers, such as teachers or firefighters, to perform union duties while on the job. A government union, despite often being referred to as a “public union” or a “public-sector union,” is actually a private organization. The CEI study argues that release time constitutes a public subsidy to a private organization that confers no benefit to the public. When public employees use release time, they are being paid by the taxpayer to perform duties that benefit their union, rather than the public at large.

MoneyThe CEI study, despite only grazing the surface, found thousands of dollars worth of release time used to engage in partisan political activity and to attend union meetings and conferences. The study suggested that this use of release time might be an unconstitutional gift of public funds under the Missouri Constitution.

I can’t speak to the constitutional argument, but at the very least, I find the lack of transparency upsetting. How much time and money are government agencies using on release time? What impact does release time have on state and local politics? How often do employees use release time? I want to know the answers to these questions. A fact-based discussion about the value of release time depends on it.

March 25, 2015

Restoring Accountability and Transparency—Four Quick Points on SB 549

After several posts directed at the labor reforms included in SB 549, it might be useful to summarize what the bill would do. SB 549 is aimed at increasing accountability and transparency in government labor relations. If passed, the bill would:

  • Require a union that seeks to represent public employees as their exclusive representative to stand for re-election by those employees every two years. Existing law often prevents public employees from having a say in who represents them. These elections would ensure public employees have a voice.
  • Require collective bargaining sessions to be held in open sessions covered by the Sunshine Law. Due to a legal loophole, such meetings often are held behind closed doors.
  • Require government unions to disclose financial information in an annual filing. These filings would be similar to the filings traditional private-sector unions already have to make.
  • Limit the term of government collective bargaining agreements to two years, rendering evergreen clauses unenforceable.

All four of these are modest, yet important reforms.

Just a Bill

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