Thursday, April 22, 2010

From my beach visit this morning...

Not sure where the sound went on the video - it was just background noise generated from the bar at the west end of the pier. Oh, back on.

UPDATE: House passes ‘Corruption County’ priority ethics bill, Senate committee OKs tougher approach

Hmmmm, there is hope after all. Click title for article.  From the report:
One of the harsher measures would make it a crime for any public official to knowingly withhold information about a financial interest in something on they vote or cause to take place. It would would also require disclosure of financial interests that could benefit a family member.

Ethics panel faults Lake Worth commissioner for financial disclosure lapses

Click title for link to the Jennings' Ministry of Information (aka Palm Beach Post) article.  In a form true to their propagandist role, no name is used in the headline - so it could be any Lake Worth commissioner if one did not read the entire article.  I find it disheartening that the fourth estate in Palm Beach County produces this quality of news.
Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Happy Earth Day!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Some observations about the Commission on Ethics finding "probable cause" that Commissioner Cara Jennings violated financial disclosure requirements.

Regardless of where you stand in your support of Commissioner Cara Jennings, it is never appropriate to celebrate an apparent ethical violation by a public official.  Like it or not, Commissioner Jennings represents all of the residents in Lake Worth and is identified as a Commissioner in Lake Worth on the press release issued by the Commission on Ethics.  Many who read this press release will not have the benefit of knowing the extenuating circumstances uttered by Commissioner Jennings in her statement at last night's City Commission meeting.  One wonders when the Ministry of Information, aka the Palm Beach Post, will pick up on the finding of probable cause.  Do not look for it in a banner headline above the fold.

Let's take a step back and look at some of the underlying circumstances here.  I think we all can agree that one of biggest investments we will have in our lives are our houses and the land on which they are built.  As such, most people have to borrow money over a long period of time in order to keep their property, pay taxes and afford their living expenses.  It is probably the largest loan, or loans, that anyone will have in a lifetime.  So, where the public trust is involved, it is important that an elected official disclose the basic information about from where that money comes.  In this case, it was a loan that came through the Lake Worth Community Development Corporation.  One of Commissioner Jennings' mates on the the Commission is project manager for that organization.  There is nothing "untoward" about that fact, but it is a material fact that needs to be disclosed.

The original amount of that loan was $15,000.  By way of comparison, the maximum campaign contribution allowed per individual or per entity in the state of Florida is $500.  By order of magnitude, the original loan amount is 30 times as large as the maximum allowed campaign contribution.  Commissioner Jennings likes to point out political campaign contributions and encourages their disclosure during voting if someone who contributed to any sitting City Commissioners' or Mayor's campaign will benefit from the action.  A former Commissioner was reported to the Florida Elections Commission, not the Commission on Ethics, for not including the proper address for one or more, not sure, $500 contributions.  She was levied a fine and the matter was resolved.  Certain supporters of Commissioner Jennings at last night's City Commission meeting were some of the first to proclaim the violation by this former Commissioner in accepting this campaign contribution as one of the more severe signs of corruption in our City.  They were eager to excuse this latest news as an unintentional, non-material gaff.

Yes, the form is complicated and vague.  It is trying to protect the public by showing who is owed what by whom and how much, identify business relationships, etc., while still providing for some degree of privacy for the public official who fills out the form.  That's a tough balancing act and it leads to some gray areas on the form.  There are instructions and they are in plain English.  If you read them, you will be able to get a basic understanding on how and what information is needed on the form.

This is where I have a hard time believing that Commissioner Jennings, who is known for and prides herself on reading everything that comes across the Commission's dais thoroughly, had trouble understanding what was required to disclose.  She is also known for what seem to be, at times, never-ending questions - some qualifying as very insightful.  So claiming a "mistake on a form?" - that part just doesn't make sense to me.

To her benefit, her openness, once this came to light and her actions to correct the reporting after the fact, is commendable.  But, at the end of the day, it was still a violation - thus we have the decision of the Ethics Commission.

Click here for link to Commission on Ethics Press Release re April 16th meeting

Next American City » Columns » Can the Densities of Some Neighborhoods Be too Low for Transit to Work?

Interesting article on how the role of residential density relates to the practicality and viability of mass transit. Click title for link. While Lake Worth is not a "streetcar" suburb, most of the single family areas of the city are relatively low density and similar to those communities discussed in the article.

Transient Public Lodging - What was that all about?

The first item under Public Hearings last night concerned the addition of a definition in the zoning code for "transient public lodging."  In so doing,  the definitions of "Hotel" and "Motel" were removed from the zoning code and included under the new definition.  Since it is a change to the definition section, it is not specific to any one area of the city.  It would be used in whatever zoning district allows "transient public lodging" - which would happen to include the area along North and South Federal Highway, but not exclusively.

The reason for the change is to establish some sort of city regulation of hotel guests.  Right now, someone could stay in one of the city's hotels or motels indefinitely and essentially use it like a rental apartment.  There is no maximum length of stay.  In addition to establishing a 60 day maximum stay and the need to have another permanent address somewhere else, there are now requirements written into the new definition that mandate record keeping, payment of the bed tax and inspections.  This documentation needs to be kept on site.  In essence, if the city can keep up with the inspection of two dozen, according to Mr. Bergman, of these sorts of facilities, we will have a better chance at preventing these hotels/motels to be used as longer term rental housing.

Commissioner Mulvehill was concerned about the use of the word "transient" and thought that a better word could be found that didn't have as negative a connotation.  Commissioner Golden made a big deal about the types of people that use these facilities and if this won't just allow the same people to continue to use them.  She didn't seem to understand that this actually puts in a framework to regulate these sorts of uses where none exist now.  She complained about the small size of these units and thought that the addition of kitchen units made the situation worse.  (Whether or not kitchens are part of this use will be depend on other building code requirements and was not part of the new definition)

So, in answer to the One High Vice Mayor Commissioner Golden, let's find ways to build living units of ample size, for owner occupants or renters, that have decent, larger kitchen facilities and contribute to the city's tax base.  Units such as these would not attract the same people as small hotel/motel rooms with cooking facilities.  Funny, wouldn't townhouses or other multi-family buildings provide that solution?

Remember this slide show showing the overall VACANT condition of property along South Federal Hwy?

Many of the former hotel properties are fallow, minimal tax producing land.  Let's ask the question what we would like to see there and find ways to make the city an attractive place to invest and do business.  Then we may not have the "same people" that are using the area now as flophouses.  Let me know how that works out.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Commissioner Jennings read statement that the Ethics Commission found "Probable Cause" for, as she put it, a technical error on a form.

More will be released tomorrow regarding the findings of the Ethics Commission.  She made a distinction between a "technical" violation and an ethics violation.

Solar-powered home gives Lake Worth pair a sunny outlook - and an $8.50-a-month electric bill

This PB Post article is from earlier in the week and only stumbled on to it just now.  Click title for link.

Click here for live audio link to City Commission meeting (4/20)

Click here for full back-up

Summer Sports Camp!

There are 40 spots left as of today.

Funny Coincidence

And, as we all know, there really are no coincidences.  Last Saturday, I was looking for inspiration for a new topic for posting here.  Those of you on Facebook know that I post "status" reports on a regular basis and one of them was a request for blog ideas. I received a lot of good suggestions and will work them in as time passes.  So far, the post on communication or the lack thereof, sprung from the responses.

One of them came from a neighbor.  He suggested that I read Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn.  This synopsis comes from Wikipedia:

Ella Minnow Pea is set on the fictitious island of Nollop, an isle off the coast of South Carolina, and home to Nevin Nollop, the supposed creator of the well-known pangram "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog." This sentence is preserved on a memorial to its creator on the island, and is taken very seriously by the government of the island. Throughout the book, tiles containing the letters fall from the inscription beneath the statue, and as each one does, the island's government bans the contained letter's use from written or spoken communication. A penalty system is enforced for using the forbidden characters, with public censure for a first offense, lashing or stocks (violator's choice) upon a second offense and banishment from the island nation upon the third. By the end of the novel, most of the island's inhabitants have either been banished, or have left of their own accord.
The plot is conveyed through mail or notes sent between various characters, though with the banned letters missing, creating passages that become more and more phonetically or creatively spelled, and requiring more effort of the reader to interpret.
The island's high council becomes more and more nonsensical as time progresses and the alphabet diminishes, promoting Nollop to divine status. Uncompromising in their enforcement of Nollop's 'divine will' they offer only one hope to the frustrated islanders: to disprove Nollop's omniscience by finding a pangram of 32 letters (in contrast to Nollop's 35). With this goal in mind "Enterprise 32" is started, a project involving many of the novel's main characters. With but five characters left (LMNOP) the elusive phrase is eventually discovered by Ella in one of her father's earlier letters: "Pack my box with five dozen liquor jugs." The council accepts this and restores the right to all 26 letters to the populace.
 I am really getting into it now and find it a fun, fictional account how certain "orthodoxies" can take over a community and become as accepted as an Emperor without clothes.  It also deals with the dangers of totalitarian government control through the restriction of communication and language.

What is the coincidence?  Well, it just so happens that one of the more ponderous items on tonight's City Commission agenda is the 2010 Goals and Objectives of the City Commission.  The bulk of the document was prepared by Connie Hoffman, the management consultant and recruiter during the last city manager search.  If you look through the document, a consistent pattern emerges where many of the document's "y's" and "x's" are missing - usually no space left blank, just missing.  There might be others too.  If you look at the part of the quote above highlighted in red, you can see what I mean by "coincidence."

Who last checked the inscriptions on our city statues?

Click here for the continuing series on mid-20th Century Palm Beach County history by Bill McGoun

New Parts 5 and 6.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Click here for April 16th City Manager's Report

This was uploaded a little bit before 2 p.m. this afternoon.  The question is still open as to whether there were changes based upon City Commissioner comments from the Friday addition.  This is a screen shot of the "Document Properties" tab in the .pdf file.
It was saved today - does that mean there were changes made to it today from the original?

Anyway, if you have checked out the agenda packet for this coming April 20 City Commission meeting, the city is following a new format for their .pdfs  It's no longer a situation where you can click on an agenda item that you are interested in and have access to just that item.  You get, in this case, a full 466 page document that you can save to your hard drive, if you wish.  Those not familiar with all the functionalities of Adobe Reader may not know about the bookmarking capabilities.  If you follow the red arrow below, when you are on the city's website, you can toggle the bookmarks on and off by clicking on that image.  You can do this after you download the entire document as well.  Each agenda item is then indexed for you and you can click on the item you want to read - it will take you right to that page.
In other items I have read recently, I think this is part of the effort to have the City Commission go to a "paperless" agenda packet - something we have had the technology for and for which I have advocated for a long time.  The potential savings of not printing out the agendas is being low-balled by the city administration.  I think they will be surprised exactly how much money they will save.

But, also in what I have read, there has been talk of the ability to post notes by Commissioners on the agenda items as comments, etc.  Caution is advised here.  I don't know how this can be policed but it sounds like it could be used as a backhand way to communicate regarding coming agenda items - which would violate the Sunshine Law.  Just sayin'.  I'd like to know about how and when that feature will be used and if it will be accessible to the public.

Fee hikes possible as Lake Worth looks for ways to pay for swimming pool repairs

Click title for link to Palm Beach Post article.  True to their role as the Information Ministry of the current majority on the Commission, they don't mention that, beyond the $1 million in direct expenses, Greater Bay is also suing for potential damages of $40 million.  Here is a copy of e-mail correspondence from this morning:
Also, check out this paragraph.  I didn't know that time travel was possible.

The pool work began in 2009.  How could Mr. Kroll have recommended something in 2008 when he "began working for the city after renovations had started?  Wasn't he already here then?  Can this be any more confusing?

The point here is that the pump room was not part of the contract to renovate the pool because that portion was going to be part of the larger project eventually.  The thought was, apparently, let's not spend money twice.  Now that the building is being used, it is a different set of circumstances.  In fact, all of the architectural teams for the Casino renovation, including REG, included the pump house as part of their overall re-do.

"The City Manager's Report is a Weekly Report that is transmitted to the City Commission each Friday evening and is uploaded to the City website on Monday mornings."

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Hmmm...Interesting. Is this increasing or decreasing transparency?

You used to be able to count on the City Manager's report - one of the few regular bundles of information coming from the city - being available on the City's website at the end of business on Friday.  Apparently, we now have a "built-in" delay.  According to the screen shot (below) from the City Manager section of the website, the report is distributed to Commissioners on Friday and posted to the website on Monday morning.
So, instead of getting the administration's unvarnished point of view, we are now getting it filtered through the lens of the City Commission.  Is this going in the right direction?  Maybe we should be asking for the Friday version AND the Monday version?  

Friday's edition is still a public record.

The "Media" and Government

One of my favorite Sunday morning news shows is "Reliable Sources" on CNN.The show appears at 11 a.m. and is hosted by Howard Kurtz.  Kurtz is a media writer for the Washington Post and the show is one of the longest running on CNN.  The program's focus is how media covers the days events and how the media influences the perception of the events they cover.  Sometimes it's about how the media becomes part of the message, beyond the actual facts of what has actually transpired.

Today, Robert Gibbs was interviewed by Kurtz.  Gibbs is President Obama's press secretary.  They talked about the 24 hour news cycle, the advent of blogs, Twitter - which Gibbs is taking to quickly by the way - and the use of live TV cameras in the daily press briefing at the White House.  Gibbs says that he can tell when someone has a particularly good question since they come to the briefing room in full TV make-up.  Gibbs also spent a lot of time defending Obama's availability to the press corp and his willingness, or unwillingness depending on your point of view, to field questions.

This got me to thinking.  We have already confirmed through countless examples that Lake Worth does a very poor job with communication - to residents, business people, other municipalities and governments.  Recently, I am hearing more and more people being frustrated with the opportunities the city gives residents to communicate ideas, feelings, beliefs, desires, problems, etc.  This can be either to the Commission as a whole, to individual Commissioners and Mayor, or many in the administration.  There are exceptions, but still this is a common thread among many.

Bravo to Mayor Varela for his "Coffee with the Mayor" initiative and his "State of the City" address.  This is a good start.  Let's hope it continues.  But how about a weekly or monthly press briefing on Lake Worth issues?  Maybe this will address some of the disenfranchisement people are experiencing.

Part of this frustration stems from the way public comment is formatted for City Commission meetings.  You are allowed only two minutes to bring forth any item not currently on that particular regular City Commission agenda.  For any individual item, you are limited to two minutes if you want to express your concerns just on that one specific thing.  Last Saturday, after the presentations by the architectural firms for the Casino building rehabilitation, public comment was allowed and I had a lot of things to say, but just didn't know where to begin given the two minute limitation.  If you read some of my posts on that topic, I think you can understand why this was a problem.  That particular day, four fifths of the people that spoke were people that the Commission hears from at every meeting, usually on every topic.  It turns out even these "regulars" don't feel as if they are being heard and that decisions are already "predetermined."  They could say anything and the final result would be the same.

Now, there is some question as to whether or not work sessions deserve a public comment period and there seems to be a split view on the Commission on how to address the issue.  We have also returned to a series of daytime meetings.  For example, the meeting when the selection of the architectural team took place at 8:30 a.m.  Work sessions - many times when the Commission comes to a "consensus" which is hard to understand how that isn't a decision -  occur regularly on alternate Tuesday afternoons from regular City Commission meetings.

One of the planks of my last campaign platform was the establishment of regular, monthly listening meetings throughout the city.  It seems no one has taken off with that idea, but the concept is a good one and one that still should be considered to address what is essentially a communication crisis.  One is left to conclude that those elected and appointed officials don't want people to really know what is going on.  They think for some reason this is a safer course of action.  But it really isn't.  It just continues to breed mistrust in what is happening within local government, which foments contempt, which results in anger.  That anger is part of what we see, on a national level, with the Tea Party movement.

In terms of "media" that cover local government goings-on in Lake Worth, we have the Lake Worth Herald and the Palm Beach Post.  Occasionally, if the news event is sensational enough, Lake Worth will be covered by one of the local TV outlets.  Otherwise, local TV stations will tell us who won and who lost in an election, but rarely talk about the issues that led to the result or really have any on-going coverage of local government.  The Lake Worth Herald is a limited circulation local paper that is published weekly.  It can only cover a certain number of items each week and is also constrained by a limited number of pages devoted to news.  It also has a predictable editorial line and has no Internet presence.  The Palm Beach Post assigns a regular "beat" reporter and we may get one or two articles in a week that cover a Lake Worth issue.  The editorial board at the Post might as well be the Information Ministry for the Jennings, Golden and Mulvehill triumvirate.  We will be waiting forever if we are looking for even-handed treatment from those inhabitants of the cozy, paneled corner offices at the Post.

So, to fill the information void, we have a series of blogs here in Lake Worth.  Most of them have links from this blog that can be found in the right hand column.  These are put together by people, through their own expense of time and sometimes money, as a way to communicate to the public.  None of these are guaranteed to be around for a long time - although digital histories prove to be very permanent and the archived messages will long out live their authors.  But no one is requiring any of these people, including yours truly, to continue their efforts.  I am appreciative of the loyal readership that this blog enjoys and hope that you are able to get a lot from it.  We are nearing 3,000 individual posts, by the way, over a period of four years.

But don't rely on it alone!  Read the others even if you usually disagree with them - especially if you disagree with them.  It's only through the synthesis of these "rare" voices that we are able to form our own opinions on a topic.

The bottom line here is that the City and the Commission have to find a way to address this information "gulf." Everyone talks about the importance of transparency in decision-making.  How can that happen if residents either don't know its happening or are not given a chance to voice their opinion before a decision is made?  Or, what if the information vacuum is used by those that fill the void with false or misleading information for their own political benefit?

Your thoughts, as always, are appreciated.