Wednesday, March 30, 2011

March 30: Broward School Board Needs Outside Superintendent Search

By Sylvia Gurinsky

Jim Notter saw the writing on the blackboard.

If Notter, Broward County's school superintendent, hadn't announced his decision to retire, there would have been plenty of public pressure on the Broward County School Board to toss him out.

While Notter didn't cause the entire financial and ethical crisis currently in the school district, he was, as so many critics have said, an enabler. Also, he didn't follow up on the gains his predecessor, Frank Till, made academically.

The atmosphere in the school district is so poisonous now that promoting even an acting superintendent from within would be counterproductive. The Broward School Board must begin an immediate, national search for a superintendent who would lift the school district's fortunes, academically and ethically.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

March 29: Lots To Think About With Libya

By Sylvia Gurinsky

So who are these rebels in Libya?

What's their purpose? How organized are they to topple Moammar Khadafi and then govern?

Those are the questions President Barack Obama and his top foreign-policy officials have been pondering.

Unlike his predecessor, Obama thinks before he acts. He also thinks beyond the next election, which seems beyond the capacity of a lot of members of Congress on both sides of the aisle who have been second-guessing Obama's initial hesitation to OK military action until it was clear Khadafi was going to create a bloodbath.

What happens next? One thing, apparently, that the rebels don't want is to return to pre-1969 Libya, which was ruled by a royal family. There has been little discussion about that.

But what do they want? Some fear that they're a front for Al Qaida or other terrorist groups; they're insisting otherwise.

Egypt and Tunisia may flank Libya, but a better analogy for Libya may be what happened in Yugoslavia, when that nation broke apart into war during the 1990s. Then as now, NATO and the United Nations had a strong involvement in the war. And the United States, led by President Bill Clinton, had a strong involvement in the peace.

As Obama said in his speech last night, the United States is invested in protecting people around the world - and in defending American interests and values.

In this case, doing so will require some thought about what - and who - might replace Khadafi.

Monday, March 28, 2011

March 28: The Florida Legislature's Ethics Vacuum

By Sylvia Gurinsky

Ethics issues apparently mean little to the Florida Legislature.

Senate President Mike Haridopolos, who has had a few ethical hiccups regarding his finances recently, briefly yanked Senate Bill 86, which involves conflict-of-interest rules, from a hearing by the Senate Government Oversight and Accountability Committee last week. After lots of criticism, the bill will be heard Wednesday.

That criticism followed more criticism during the last couple of years about ethical lapses among former legislative leaders. But, as usual, many current lawmakers have apparently decided not to notice.

That's because they've brought back a blast from the past: The slush funds, officially known as "Leadership Funds," that their more ethically minded predecessors eliminated in 1989.

Here's a link to what I wrote about that last year:

Last year, Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed it. Last week, lawmakers voted to override that veto.

Voters have been restless in changing elected officials with regard to their pocketbooks. But with the exception of a few communities across the state - Broward County, with its recent history of criminal indictments, being one - they have yet to get really angry about elected officials who think they can bend the rules to their own wills.

Well, Florida, that rule-bending by your state senators and representatives is costing you money.

Ethics mean little to them. How about you?

Thursday, March 24, 2011

March 24: Unseemly For Trump To Fall Into "Birther" Dirt

By Sylvia Gurinsky

Donald Trump, who's mulling a run for president, certainly doesn't have a pristine life. He's had three marriages and two divorces, a couple of bankruptcies and endless jokes from David Letterman about how his hair looks.

But he would be seen as a credible candidate because of his business chops. He's gotten in the hole a couple of times, but he's gotten back out.

He's also been respected by many people for not caring much about conventional wisdom in making his decisions.

Politically, Trump has been a "Rockefeller Republican" - that almost-extinct breed of fiscal conservative and social liberal. One would think he'd be a breath of fresh air in a primary that seems to be going extreme right, more extreme right and totalitarian.

Unfortunately, it seems Trump is going in the other direction - trying to appeal to the Republican extremists instead of trying to lead them back to rationality.

The evidence lies in his adoption of that coded method of racism known as the "birther" campaign. For the sake of right-wing appeal, apparently, Trump has embraced the cause to persuade President Barack Obama to release his birth certificate.

Donald, Donald, Donald (as your friend Mr. Letterman might say). You're smarter than that.

Trump has made some valid points about the United States lagging in the world economically (although he hasn't put money where his mouth is with initiatives for businesses that aren't his own or for schools). But if, presumably, he wants to be taken seriously as a candidate by the majority of Americans, he should drop his dangerous waltz with the birther movement. For a man who really isn't like that, it sends the wrong message to voters.

Monday, March 21, 2011

March 21: U.S. Needs To Get Rid of "Our S.O.B." Foreign Policy

By Sylvia Gurinsky

Language advisory: The term "S.O.B." is used in the context of the topic.

A previous United States president reportedly once said of a foreign leader known for acting less than humane toward his own people, "He's an S.O.B., but he's our S.O.B."

That "Our S.O.B." policy has been in place at least since President Franklin Roosevelt was in office (The story goes that FDR coined the phrase.) and continues today.

The list of brutal foreign leaders the United States has supported or compromised with for its interests is long and includes the likes of Josef Stalin, the Shah of Iran, Sadaam Hussein, both Duvaliers in Haiti, Ferdinand Marcos....And that's just the start.

Of all these marriages of convenience, it can be argued that only one provided results that altered the course of history: The uneasy alliance with Stalin's Soviet Union during World War II, which both the Soviets and the Allies needed against the Nazis.

The list of "our S.O.B.'s" has also included recently deposed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and many Arab leaders who are now in trouble. And Moammar Khadafi, the Libyan leader, started his waltz with Washington in the years immediately following 9/11.

Part of the United Kingdom, another of the nations whose planes are currently strafing Libya, has had a similar mentality: Witness the decision by the Scottish government in 2009 to release Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, the Libyan man found guilty in the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am flight over Lockerbie, Scotland, that killed 270 people. The argument at the time was that al-Megrahi was dying, but we all know that Mark Twain quote about reports of his death. The oil company BP may have played a role in the release to try to get oil contracts in Libya, so the decision turned out about as well as BP's drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.

Marriages of convenience almost never work, and current events are proving that.

President Barack Obama has proven himself ready to think about different ways for the United States to conduct foreign policy with his calls for countries to abide by the wills of their people. It's time to find out how this country and others would do if the United States stopped supporting "our S.O.B.s."

Thursday, March 17, 2011

March 17: What Miami-Dade Reforms Should - and Shouldn't - Include

By Sylvia Gurinsky

Man, did the voters in Miami-Dade County ever speak.

To have 88 percent of those who voted decide to throw out both Mayor Carlos Alvarez and Commissioner Natacha Seijas goes beyond a mandate. Everyone who has an opinion about this issue is mulling what it means.

Here's what it doesn't mean: Contrary to what WFOR-Channel 4 contributor Jim DeFede said the other night, it doesn't mean Dade voters will never support another funding increase. This is the same county that strongly supported The Children's Trust - a well-run program - not so long ago.

What it means is that taxpayers won't support most unwise funding decisions.

Alvarez and Seijas maintained support for salary increases for county staff through an economic crisis that has meant thousands of lost jobs and lost wages. That was a tone-deaf political position that failed to look at reality. Would there have been a recall if Alvarez and commissioners had supported a complete salary freeze? One has to wonder.

Certainly Norman Braman's repeated criticisms of the Florida Marlins deal might have had somewhat less steam in a recall drive if Alvarez and Seijas hadn't supported the staff salary increase.

Already, Braman and others want to go ahead with other reforms, including term limits and changes to the commission structure.

I'm not convinced about term limits for non-executive positions; one only needs to look at the Florida Legislature to see how poorly they've worked.

At-large districts - commissioners representing the whole county to counterbalance the single-member districts - are a much better idea. Taking away countywide districts did not help the Miami-Dade Commission, which has had plenty of people representing their small piece of territory and not understanding countywide interests. That's a reason Miami International Airport had so many problems with its expansion, and why Jackson Memorial Hospital is struggling so much now.

Another idea not being brought up, but necessary: A living wage for commissioners. Being a county commissioner is now a full-time job, and the $6,000-a-year salary approved with the home rule charter in 1957 is preposterous. A salary increase isn't immunity against corruption, as Broward County has proved, but it can be an incentive to attract better candidates for political office.

Perhaps the Good Government Initiative mentioned in this blog last week ( will be a significant help. In the meantime, there's likely another county election for mayor to go during the next couple of months. Hang on - and hang in there, Dade voters.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

March 15: Sunshine Week - Time To Discuss How To Fix Journalism

By Sylvia Gurinsky

Sunshine Week is generally a time to make sure that public access to government stays open or opens more.

While that should still be done, this Sunshine Week is also a time to discuss what has become of journalism, and how to fix it.

The three-decade long deterioration reached its nadir recently with the tactics behind revelations of political shenanigans by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and partisan statements by former National Public Radio (officially NPR) Foundation head Ron Schiller. In both cases, Walker and Schiller's misdeeds were uncovered not by well-researched and upfront investigative journalists, but by partisan bloggers engaging in tactics unacceptable and unethical in conventional reporting.

By the way, the source of the stories is the reason I disagreed with criticism in the Walker case by the Society of Professional Journalists (Funny that SPJ didn't mention James O'Keefe's similar tactics in the Schiller case.). Are the Buffalo Beast or O'Keefe on the same level and do they have the same ethical standards as The Washington Post and the Associated Press?

No. And they don't pretend to.

Neither do the media companies currently setting up online content sweatshops (known more commonly as content providers) that have a "Heads I win/Tails you lose" economic mentality towards the people who write for them. In most cases, the writers literally earn small change.

Rather, the eyes of anyone concerned with ethical journalism should be fixed squarely on those media companies that profess to cover the world, or any given part of it, fairly and accurately - for everyone.

Those companies - by laying off thousands of capable, ethical journalists; by cutting back on their coverage of important government doings in favor of celebrity stories; by backing off the difficult news stories - created the vacuum currently filled by political hacks and stories-on-the-cheap websites.

There have been successful initiatives in serious journalism, but they are too few and far between for those who have lost jobs during the last few years and are still struggling to regain professional footing.

Recently, a lot of people have been saying that journalism is dead, or that the "yellow journalism" of today is the way it will be.

For the future of this country, it can't be. There have to be honest gatekeepers who publish the truth without fear or favor. They exist. It's time to find a way to bring them back.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

March 8, 2011: Bringing In Some Good Government

By Sylvia Gurinsky

There isn't a lot of confidence by many Floridians that the next two months - the session of the Florida Legislature - will bring much in good government, either from Rick Scott or lawmakers.

So more of the responsibility for promoting good government will rest on Florida residents.

Yesterday's edition of "Topical Currents," the fine interview show hosted on Miami's WLRN-FM radio station by Joseph Cooper, featured two of the best when it comes to good government: Bob Graham and Katy Sorenson.

Both have been building centers to train and encourage not just elected officials but constituents about being involved in the civic process.

The Bob Graham Center For Public Service at the University of Florida was created in part to improve the civic climate in the state, which is abysmal. Miami ranks the lowest among major cities across the United States in terms of civic participation.

The center's efforts are beginning to pay off. Starting with the 2012-13 school year, middle school students will be required to take a civics course and pass a civics test. Students in other grades will also receive various levels of civics education.

The Graham Center is giving the general public a chance to participate in the process, too. Think you can come up with a better budget than Scott and the Legislature? (You probably can, too.) You'll get your chance at the center's website,

Sorenson, who represented Miami-Dade County's District 8 from 1994 through last fall, is beginning the Good Government Initiative at the University of Miami. The initiative, whose official kickoff will be March 21, is to work with local elected officials and candidates on the mechanics of government, including understanding complex legislation, and on numerous issues relating to city, county, school and other local government bodies.

Here's a press release that previews the Good Government Initiative in detail:

During the WLRN interview, Graham mentioned the need for more firsthand engagement by citizens with the government.

These next two months will provide the opportunity. Here's the website for the Florida Legislature:

And the governor's office:

These are the places to follow their actions - and communicate your concerns.

Monday, March 7, 2011

March 7: Unions Must Fully Regroup

By Sylvia Gurinsky

The rallies currently taking place in Wisconsin and other states over union rights and benefits should be just the beginning.

There are plenty of legitimate arguments that unions, while funding plenty of mostly Democratic political campaigns during the last 30 years, haven't done nearly enough to protect and build on the employment and employee rights they were created to fight for almost a century ago.

Perhaps the death of union bulwark George Meany in 1980 and President Ronald Reagan's mass firing of unionized air traffic controllers who went on strike in 1981 gave unions some fears. The union management problems of the late-1980s and early-90s, including the incompetence that helped lead to the demise of businesses such as Eastern Airlines, didn't help. Neither has public opinion against sports unions, generally seen to represent millionaires and not the rank-and-file workers.

Weakened, the unions did not fight vigorously enough against trade pacts and deals with American businesses that led to millions of jobs being shipped to other countries, an increasing salary gap between workers and executives, the continuing lag in salary between women and men or the conditions that led to the current economic crisis.

Unions also did not keep up with the evolving technology as longstanding American employment mainstays collapsed.

Now, the unions will have battles in dozens of states to maintain the rights they still have. They need to be not just maintenance battles. They need to be the start of a new war to re-create, preserve and protect the rights of all workers to good American jobs with good benefits.

Right-wingers and big business are trying to put unions and protections for workers completely out of business. Unions must fully regroup and remember why they exist in the first place.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

March 3: Follow Motivations Behind Proposed JMH Deals

By Sylvia Gurinsky

It sounds like the proposed deal by Massachusetts-based Steward Health Care System to buy Jackson Memorial Hospital is starting to lose steam. One can only hope.

The proposal has generated plenty of questions - including one of whether Florida Gov. Rick Scott - he of the problematic career in managed health care - is a semi-invisible force around it.

That question was triggered by Scott's own question earlier this week of whether Miami needs a public hospital. Well, if Scott ever gets out of his own fantasy world in which no one is poor and needy, he'll see that the answer is a resounding Yes.

Jackson Memorial Hospital was around for 86 years before Scott ever decided to move to Florida; it was founded in 1917. For most of that time, Jackson has been a center for those who could find no place else to go.

It's also become a force of innovation through its numerous centers and partnerships with both the University of Miami and Florida International University.

More recently, though, it's been lacking competent people to stay away from financial ruin and competent oversight from either the Public Health Trust or the Miami-Dade County Commission.

But one thing is clear: A takeover by Steward - a company with no local connections - is not the answer. Neither is privitization, or the shutdown of services for Dade's poorest residents.

There isn't time to waste to save the complex before summer, when Jackson's money runs out. But there's certainly time to investigate Steward's motivations - and say no to a deal.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

March 1: Broward Grand Jury Wrong On Two School Board Ideas

By Sylvia Gurinsky

The outrage presented by the grand jury that examined the corruption and incompetence of the Broward School Board and the district's administration is right.

What's not right is a pair of proposals by the grand jury: Five school board members and an elected superintendent.

Currently, the board has seven members elected in single-member districts and two at-large, or countywide, representatives. The system was put in place in 1998. The idea is that at-large representatives, looking out for the entire county, are a check on single-member district representatives, who might put their own area first.

Broward County's population is approaching 2 million. Five school board members wouldn't be nearly enough to deal with the challenges of that population.

If the school board setup needs a tweak, it would be in the direction of more at-large representatives - maybe four to the seven district members.

Totally unacceptable is the idea of an elected superintendent, which would politicize a position that shouldn't be politicized. Just ask the residents of Monroe County, who voted last fall to switch the school superintendent from elected to appointed after a major scandal.

Broward had a top-notch professional educator - Frank Till -as superintendent until not-so-reform-minded board members threw him out and replaced him with yes-man Jim Notter.

There are now a number of new Broward School Board members. They have said they are interested in cleaning things up. They should be given the chance to do so - starting with replacing the incompetent Notter with a stellar education professional. Cleaning up the current system will be far more effective than overturning it.


Note on Twitter feeds: Sniglets - notes on interesting news items that won't change the world - will be included on Twitter as Snigs. This is in addition to SunStates.

Happy Reading!