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

March 19, 2015

Closing Loopholes in the Sunshine Law

government hallwaySometimes we like loopholes. Maybe you’ve used one to get out of a traffic ticket or to pay a little less tax. I remember hearing about a poorly thought out tax credit for electric vehicles that folks were using to pay for golf carts. Cute. A little scummy, but cute. But when the government uses a loophole to set policy behind closed doors, it’s not so cute.

There is a loophole in Missouri’s open records and meetings law that allows government entities, such as cities, fire districts, and school boards, to negotiate with unions and set public policy in meetings that are closed to the public. State law should open the collective bargaining process because the public pays for, and depends on, the policies set in these meetings.

Some government agencies have already opened collective bargaining meetings. In 2014, the Columbia Public Schools opened its collective bargaining meetings. It has held open meetings ever since. According to Christine King, president of the Columbia Public Schools Board of Education, the board opened the process because they felt open meetings advanced the public’s interest in full transparency and openness. Such openness in public affairs empowers citizens to hold their representatives in government accountable.

Since the Columbia Public Schools began holding its collective bargaining meetings in open sessions, the local paper, the Columbia Daily Tribune, has covered these meetings, parents, teachers, and anyone else is welcome to attend, and members of the public can view meeting minutes online and see that the parties negotiate in good faith with one another.

Open collective bargaining, as practiced by forward thinking local government entities like Columbia Public Schools and Monarch Fire Protection District, should be standard practice for Missouri state and local governments. One bill, SB 549, promises to do just that by closing the loophole in Missouri’s sunshine law that some public entities use to justify closing collective bargaining sessions. Reform that requires these meetings be held in the open would be a win for anyone who wants transparent, accountable government.

March 7, 2015

Bill Addresses Government Union Transparency Gap

What is the difference between a government union, like the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), and the union representing folks at the brewery downtown?

In the Show-Me State, one big difference is that unions representing public workers, like teachers, police, and firefighters, are not required to be as transparent as traditional private-sector unions. Whereas your neighbor who works for a private business can look up his union’s financial filings and see how union executives use his dues, the dues-paying teacher down the block can be left in the dark about where his membership fees are going. This transparency gap is unfair for workers, but it should also alarm the public, which negotiates with government unions and pays for the services provided by union labor.

transparencySo why do private-sector unions share information about their finances with the public, while Missouri’s government unions do not?

Federal law requires most unions to make annual filings that disclose basic financial information, including assets, liabilities, and money spent on political activities. The federal government makes these filings publicly available and searchable online. This way, a member of the public, including a dues-paying worker, can see how their union spends money. However, federal labor law does not apply to unions representing state and local government employees.

Other states, such as Michigan, have enacted some financial transparency requirements for their government unions. These state laws ensure state and local government unions that fall through the cracks in federal law still have some basic standards of financial transparency. Unfortunately, Missouri lags behind.

Right now, the Missouri Legislature is taking up a government union accountability bill (SB 549) that aims to correct this disparity between private-sector unions and government unions. Among other things, the bill would require government unions to disclose their finances in an annual filing very similar to the LM filings that private-sector unions already make. These filings would allow workers and the public to see how government unions spend taxpayer-funded union dues.

Government unions should be at least as transparent as private-sector unions. Bringing government union transparency up to the same level as private-sector union transparency is simply common sense.

February 20, 2015

Shock and Audit: St. Joseph School District Out Tens of Millions Because of Staff “Stipends”

Missouri has seen its share of boondoggles. To name a few in recent years, Moberly was taken in on a $39 million sucralose scam that downgraded the city’s credit rating, left bondholders hanging, and resulted in jail time for one of the masterminds. In Kansas City, officials had to settle with a developer for millions over the failed Citadel redevelopment project, which saw criminal prosecutions of its own.

Now enters the St. Joseph School District. As reported by the St. Joseph News-Press:

“We went back about eight years and found there was over $25 million worth of stipends either not approved, unauthorized or improper. That $25 million worth of stipends is what we found to be problematic,” [State Auditor Tom Schweich] told the crowd inside the Oak Grove Elementary School commons area.

Since there was not full documentation going back further than 2001, Mr. Schweich added, that number could be in excess of $40 million paid out in stipends over that period.

“That is a startling amount of money,” he said, followed by a collective groan from the audience.

“Startling” is an understatement. The questionable stipends account for, on average, over $3 million each of the last eight years that could have gone toward substantive and proper investments in the education of St. Joseph’s children. Instead, according to the News-Press, it appears the money went to a wide array of cronyistic efforts,

including $45 for a Sam’s Club membership for [Superintendent Dr. Fred] Czerwonka, $1,500 for a painting for [Chief Operating Officer Rick] Hartigan’s office and $7,650 in free Internet service for 16 individuals, including an individual the district claimed they did not know.

In the auditor’s words, the stipends operated much like a “slush fund.” Throw in $3.4 million in overpayments from the state to the district because of inaccurate reporting and a swath of closed district meetings that should have been open to the public, and you have the makings of a full-blown scandal in northwest Missouri. It remains to be seen whether criminal action will be taken in the matter, but that seems to be very much on the table at this point.

Frequent readers of this blog know about our positions on transparency (for) and cronyism (against), so I won’t belabor those policy prescriptions in light of the district’s failures. The sheer magnitude of the district’s blackbox behavior is a better argument for vigilance and reform of state and local government than my words alone could offer.

It also goes without saying (though I’ll say it anyway) that “per pupil spending” remains a meaningless statistic, a fact emphasized here. How much you spend “on” a student doesn’t matter if the line items are $1,500 on administrators’ art, rather than $1,500 on the art department.

And yes, there will be many important story lines that will be worth talking about as the district’s actions are fully vetted, but one story line that has to remain front and center is how shameful it is that it took more than a decade for these problems to fully come to light—and the risk that St. Joseph’s scandal is just the canary in the coal mine statewide. That this school district was insulated so long from critical oversight makes me wonder whether similar behaviors might be taking place in one of the other 519 districts (!) in the state . . . and we simply don’t know it yet.

More to the point: If Missouri’s school districts are going to tell the state they have funding problems, then it’s fair for the state and the taxpayers to take a fresh look at how each district spends, or misspends, the state’s tax dollars. That is especially true in light of St. Joseph’s present troubles.

Education funding should be for the children, not for the districts, and it’s time district books were cracked open and thoroughly reviewed. For the state to deliver a quality education for our kids, it needs to hold every district accountable not only to stop problems like this from happening again, but also to ensure that they’re still not happening someplace else.

February 19, 2015

Transparency Would Shine Some Light

The essence of a well-functioning democracy includes transparency and a right to information. When fire protection boards, such as the O’Fallon Fire Protection District, make crucial decisions in closed-door meetings, they are violating a critical tenet of democracy.

file0001605429169Former Fire Chief Mike Ballmann, who claims that the firefighters union pressured the board to fire him, believes that the union has overstepped its role in the affairs of the fire district. When asked about union involvement in the management of the fire district, Ballmann said that the Fire Protection District Board of Directors was “packed with union people so the shop gets what it wants without any grief.” With the union’s heavy involvement in deciding who will run for the board positions, has the government union overstepped its role?

Since the district is funded by taxpayers, its business should be conducted with the interest of the taxpayer in mind. However, when board meetings are closed, interested taxpayers do not get to see how government unions involve themselves in district affairs. Furthermore, according to Ballmann, there are instances when the union shop steward is invited into the closed board meeting, which not even fire chiefs are allowed to attend. The problem isn’t the existence of a union, but rather their conspicuous control over the fire protection district.

The obvious and sensible solution is for fire districts like O’Fallon to follow in the footsteps of the Monarch Fire Protection District and initiate an open collective bargaining process. This would make sure that any changes made to district operations, union contracts, and decisions to hire or fire employees are free from ambiguity. However, despite efforts to gain the O’Fallon Fire Protection District Board’s insight on this issue, the inner workings of the district seem as ambiguous as ever.

Taxpayers are aware of the great importance firefighters play in protecting their community; their concern, rather, lies in the fact that their fire district is lacking representative leadership and sufficient oversight. Transparency is essential to guarantee that the taxpayer interests are being met. Once open collective bargaining becomes the norm for all government unions, we can ensure that both the worker and the taxpayer are being represented and considered in the political process.

February 16, 2015

Balance Through Transparency – Part 3

I previously wrote about the problems with overly adversarial government labor relations. This wasn’t to say that a cozy relationship between government and government unions is always a good thing either.

Fox-HenAnother firefighter I spoke with, who wished to remain anonymous, seemed to think the situation in the Saint Louis region was much worse. He told me that at more than one fire protection district the board routinely asks shop stewards for permission to make personnel decisions. According to him, the union packs fire district boards and management positions with people who answer to the union, which, in effect, gives the union control over the management.

Undoubtedly, the union representing firefighters in Saint Louis County, IAFF Local 2665, has another perspective to contribute. It has not yet responded to any of my requests for comment, but I believe there are multiple sides to this story, and I look forward to hearing from them.

It can be tricky to find the right balance in government labor relations. On the one hand, industrial strife leaves citizens dependent on, and paying for, shoddy government services. On the other hand, too cozy a relationship between a government and a government union yields a “fox in the henhouse” situation, where taxpayers get fleeced by a private entity with exclusive control of a government entity. The trick is to find balance. And the best way to achieve balance is to open up the process to the public and let Brandeis’s policeman sort things out.

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