Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Bye Bye, Code of Conduct

At Tuesday's Mesquite City Council meeting, the council voted 4-1 to do away with the Code of Conduct, the instrument that was previously used to muzzle council members and to destroy councilwoman Donna Fairchild. 
The document was the embodiment of the "put on a happy face" schtick that was the trademark of the failed previous administration.  Among its more grievous standards was the statement that council members were not permitted to say anything negative about boards or committees to which the council members were assigned.  Nobody on the council seemed to recognize the irony of a government agency in the United States so blatantly impinging on the First Amendment freedom of speech rights of the council members.  As Fairchild said before she died, she didn't surrender her freedom of speech when she took the council oath of office.
Another despicable codicil of the failed and now discarded Code was that council members were forbidden to talk to city employees other than the City Manager.
Despite the fact that Mesquite's City Attorney acknowledges that the Code of Conduct was copied from a document used by Sunnyvale, CA (which is an irony in itself, "Sunnyvale," because the previous administration tried to pretend that everything was sunny and fine in Mesquite), it fit perfectly the aims of a now deposed power hungry City Manager who wanted everything to go through him first, pretending that it would make things more efficient.
Since when is playing the "telephone game" (that game we played as kids, where one person says something to the person next to them, that person passes it on to the next, and so on until it reaches the end of the line as a completely different statement than what was originally said) a model of efficiency?  No, it was all about control and power.  And it was a horrible idea which contributed to the enormous chasm between the city government and the people they were supposed to be serving.  In a well-functioning democracy, a citizen should be able to call a council member, who can then go right to a city employee to get an answer or fix a problem.  Not only should it be a council member's right to go directly to a staff member, it should be their responsibility.  Yes, it might make the job a little harder for that city employee to have five or six extra bosses in the form of a mayor and council.  Tough.  The city government is in place to serve and cater to the people, not the other way around. 
If you read the Code of Conduct, it makes elected officials look like children who need constant supervision by unelected bureaucrats.  For example, one rule is that council members were not allowed to send correspondence to citizens without running it by city staff.  Another is that council members weren't allowed to attend city staff meetings unless specifically invited.
Of course, my personal favorite was the section on "Council Conduct With The Media," which opened with this quote:  "Keep them well fed and never let them know that all you’ve got is a
chair and a whip."  -- Lion Tamer School.
About the only quote that could have provided a more honest and accurate depiction of the previous secrecy-shrouded administration would be if they had simply written "Treat 'em like mushrooms - keep 'em in the dark and feed them plenty of B.S."
As expected, the only councilman to oppose the elimination of the Code of Conduct was Karl Gustaveson, Susan Holecheck's boy and the last vestige of the calamitous Holecheck regime.  And it was quintessential Gustaveson.  The people spoke loudly during the last campaign in opposition of the Code of Conduct.  They didn't like it, didn't want it.  But in typical Gustaveson style, he still seems to believe that he knows what's best for us, knows more than the people, and appears to have little interest in what the people want.  Even after a lopsided political butt-whipping, some elected officials just aren't smart enough to get the message or learn the lesson.
The good news is that the Code of Conduct is gone, which will open the door for council members to be even more honest and transparent in expressing their opinions to the public, intervening personally on behalf of citizens, and telling the ugly truth instead of putting on a Sunny(vale) face. 

To see a copy or bid farewell to the now-defunct Code of Conduct, go to

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Suicide Blind Spot

The Mesquite Police Department is one of the finest in the state, and possibly one of the better departments in the entire country.  While too many people inside and outside of Mesquite want to paint our officers as a collection of Barney Fifes, and insist they're patrolling a 21st century Mayberry, the truth is quite different.
Just last week, a routine traffic stop by a Mesquite officer resulted in arrests for possession of illegal credit card equipment and credit cards.  The only reason these criminals were taken off the street is because a Mesquite police officer was diligent, smart, and pursued his instincts.  After asking if he could look through the car, he conducted a thorough search of the vehicle from California, finding the equipment that was obviously being used for an illegal enterprise.
The department has made numerous arrests over the last 12 months that came about from rapid responses and sharp, alert cops.
Also, the department has become more transparent during the last three years, even with a City Hall that has repeatedly tried to squash information.  Under interim police chief Troy Tanner, the flow of information from the department has continued to improve, despite recently losing one of the best Public Information Officers in the state.
Unfortunately, despite all that openness, the department and the city government continue to have a blind spot.
When someone takes their own life in the city of Mesquite, this transparent, open machine goes into secrecy overdrive.
The recent suicide by a Virgin Valley High School student is a tragedy, and is no doubt a horrendous burden on the family and friends she left behind.  No amount of words can soothe the gaping hole in their souls caused by the girl's death.  In a civilized society, their pain warrants sympathy and discretion.
However, in that same civilized society, that discretion should not include the suppression of the facts surrounding what is technically and legally deemed a form of homicide.
The demand for information by the media and the public is not a matter of morbid curiosity, or just an insistence on the people's right to know.
It's an issue of safety and community involvement to fix things that might be broken.  People cannot correct something when they don't know there's a problem.
As most mental health experts will agree, any suicide attempt whether successful or not is a cry for help.  In this instance, because of the Mesquite Police Department's decision not to release information on the death, that cry will go unheeded and in vain.
No one can bring this teenager back.  But if the facts surrounding her death are covered up as they appear to have been in this case, we lose an opportunity to learn from it and possibly prevent it from happening to another young person.
The rumors around town have been rampant that the girl was the victim of bullying.  This may or may not be true.  If it isn't true, the police department should say so, lay out the facts, and put these rumors to rest.
If it is true, then someone needs to be held accountable.  More importantly, the people of this community need to know so measures can be taken to keep it from occurring again. 
In the murder-suicide involving city councilwoman Donna Fairchild, there were indications that a form of political bullying may have taken place.  That doesn't excuse the murder part of the equation, but might help explain how things reached such a tragic place.  If properly investigated and reported by the police, it would again help stanch the flow of rumor and innuendo that flourishes in an informational vacuum.  The public could also use the information to try and find ways of putting legal, moral, and procedural safeguards in place that might keep this from repeating itself.
In the Fairchild case, police became more forthcoming with information once City Hall's secret-keepers stepped out of the way and allowed the police department to provide their own briefings, but there were still plenty of secrets held by police, including details of the autopsy and conversations between the councilwoman and people at City Hall.
Then you have the 2009 jailhouse suicide of Tim Thompson.  The department was willing to permit a video of the suicide to be viewed by the media, but the idea was squashed by City Hall.  The result is that today, more than two years later, rumors persist that the man's death wasn't a suicide, but something more sinister.
In the case of the most recent suicide, more information should have been released.  Yes, the family's wishes for privacy need to be respected, but the safety of the rest of our kids must take priority.  If bullying is taking place in our schools, that is a societal problem that must be addressed by the community.  It's not the school's burden alone.  Police by themselves can't stop it. 
Mesquite is a caring small town, and the residents of this town would stand united in spreading the message and teaching our young people that bullying cannot and will not be tolerated. 
But the community can't spread that message if it doesn't know whether bullying is taking place, or if it was a factor in this girl's heartbreaking death.
As the cliche' goes, information is power.  Withholding information makes the people powerless.  And once again, the vacuum which remains will almost always be filled with humanity's worst nature.
Interim Chief Tanner and the dedicated officers of the Mesquite Police Department have shown they're better than this. 
They have to get rid of that blind spot, and do a better job of informing the public on the hard stuff to go along with the press releases about their victories.
The lives of our children and friends just may depend on it.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Mayor, Council Provide 'Wow' Moments

When was the last time Mesquite citizens had a "wow" moment at a city council meeting?
Tuesday's gathering at City Hall was the first for the new mayor and council, and this fresh group did not disappoint.
Right out of the gate, the council showed that they aren't going to play games with the agenda.
The most important issue of the evening was to address the thorny question of moving the municipal election dates.
Instead of burying this important topic at the end of the agenda, which was frequently the tactic used by the previous administration, the new council faced it head-on as the first action item on the meeting lineup.
Then, when the council actually took on the topic, they did something extraordinary.
Instead of voting their own preference, they voted in accordance with the will of the people.
During their campaigns, Mayor Mark Wier and new council members Kraig Hafen, George Rapson, and Al Litman were very clear in expressing their opposition to moving the election dates from June of odd years to November of even years.
However, in the June election, the voters approved the move by an 11-point margin in a non-binding advisory question.
On Tuesday, the council voted 5-0 to instruct the city attorney to craft a change to city ordinance which would move the election dates.
In their first heady action as newly-elected officials, fresh from the ego-stoking election and at a time when a lot of politicians might be filled with their own self importance, this group stated and decided that the people had spoken, and that they needed to heed that direction.
No arguments, no posturing, no hints of the old "we know what's best for you" attitude that defined the previous council.
Another "wow" moment occurred this week in a article where Mayor Wier declared that future Technical Reviews will not only be open to the public, they will be noticed and agendized.  By law, this means that the public will be allowed to speak and ask questions during the meeting.  Also, contrary to the position frequently (and erroneously) espoused by the previous administration, the law states that council members not only can but should discuss the issues brought up by the public.
According to paragraph 3 of Nevada Revised Statute 241 2(c), the agenda must include "a period devoted to comments by the general public, if any, and discussion of those comments."
They still can't vote on an unagendized item brought up under public comments, or promise any particular action, but they CAN talk about it.
Also, by agendizing and posting a notice of the meeting, it frees the council to discuss or "deliberate" on the questions listed in the agenda.
In fact, the law defines a meeting as a "gathering of members of a public body at which a quorum is present to deliberate toward a decision or to take action on any matter over which the public body has supervision, control, jurisdiction or advisory power." 
Wier's decision to notice, agendize, and make the Technical Reviews open to the public is worthy of a collective "wow."
Obviously we're all still in the honeymoon phase with this council.  But in only two weeks, they've shown a humility and willingness to champion the public's expressed intent, and an intent to follow through on their campaign promises of openness and transparency. 
In the face of oppressive and stifling summer heat, this mayor and council have brought an exciting breath of fresh air to this desert community.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Technical Reviews Finally Open...Almost

$500?  $500?!?  That's all, just 500 measly little dollars?

According to a story in last week's, City Attorney Cheryl "Point of Order" Hunt cautioned the new city council during their first-ever Technical Review on Tuesday that deliberations during those meetings might lead to a fine for violating Nevada's Open Meeting Law.
The fine?  A whopping $500.
That's just a few bucks more than an individual council member used to get for a car allowance in a month.  It's about what the city pays an outside attorney for an hour of their time, or what they give to the myriad of consultants for two or three hours of work.
If that's all it takes for the people of Mesquite to hear the truth and for the city's business to be discussed openly during a meeting, it's a bargain and should be paid often.
I'm not a man of means, but I would certainly be willing to lead a fund-raising campaign to gather donations from the public in order to pay any potential fines levied against a council member for actually speaking up and speaking out during a Technical Review, or any other meeting.
For years, the City of Mesquite has mastered the art of using Nevada's Open Meeting Laws as a shield to hide their machinations.  If they spent a fraction of that energy in looking for ways to be more open, the people would be happier and the city government wouldn't be held in it's current position of esteem, which is somewhere in the neighborhood of a crooked used car salesman with a law degree.
Last Tuesday, the newly elected mayor and council gathered for a Technical Review meeting, the first of this new administration, and the first ever to be open to the public.
Previously, the city's dodge was to hold several of the meetings with only one or two council members, claiming that it was a requirement of the OML.
At Tuesday's meeting, the mayor and all five council members were in attendance.
Kudos to new mayor Mark Wier and the new council for opening this meeting to the public, a great first step.
The new mayor has done something noble, courageous, and worthy of our applause.  By making the Technical Reviews public, he has opened the process and taken the first step toward bridging a divide which has been alienating the council from its constituents for years.  Extremely well done, Mr. Wier!
Boos go to City Attorney POO and whoever made the rule that, while the public could attend, they were not permitted to speak or ask questions.
She also warned the council against talking, discussing, debating, or anything that might be construed as a deliberation, waving that $500 fine around like an NFL official's penalty flag.
Of course, nobody seemed to have a problem with silencing the public, even though there was only one actual member of the public in attendance other than city staff and the press.
According to that pesky Nevada Revised Statute 241, it seems to be a $500-worthy direct violation of the OML. 
Specifically, NRS 241.020 2(c) states that the agenda must include "a period devoted to comments by the general public, if any, and discussion of those comments."
So, not only is the public allowed to comment, the council members are allowed to answer back.
However, the excuse is that it wasn't an official, agendized meeting, so the rule doesn't apply.
Once again, it looks like City Hall is continuing to audition for the new hit TV show "So You Think You Can Dance Around The Law."
Also, what's the sense in having a party if nobody gets an invitation?
Wier and the council are half a breath away from the real fix, which is to make the Technical Review an officially noticed, agendized meeting.  By doing so, it meets NRS 241 head on, allows deliberation and discussion by the council, and permits the public to attend and speak up.
Once that happens, it will be up to the people of this community to actually show up and participate.  Hopefully the meetings won't devolve into protracted sessions of tedium with endless questions and political posturing.
Only then will the city truly be on the road to real transparency.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Thanks To Eureka For Fireworks

For the second consecutive year, the Fourth of July celebration was saved by the Eureka resort and the family of Greg Lee.
The fireworks started a little late on Monday, getting underway around 9:20 p.m. after being advertised with a 9 p.m. start date, but that’s a minor inconvenience when you consider we could have been left without fireworks at all.
While I personally enjoyed the show from my mom’s back yard instead of battling the traffic and crowds near Mesa Boulevard, I was no less grateful for what the Lee family did.  In fact, that vantage point made me even more appreciative of the gesture.
Paying for the fireworks and bringing an orchestra in for a performance probably didn’t help, like a band or show which draws people into the casino with the expectation at some point they’ll drop a few dollars in a machine or on a table.  I suspect there were a lot of other fans like me who watched from home, which didn’t contribute a dime to the Eureka’s Monday night take.
Greg Lee is one of the smartest guys I’ve met during my time out west, so I’m certain he’s aware of this, which makes the gesture that much more magnanimous.
Following the fireworks, I ended up on the streets of Mesquite, and noticed that those streets were busy.  This town was alive.
And that’s the point.  It’s the thing that Mesquite city officials just don’t get.
Somehow, City Hall can find hundreds of thousands of dollars for consultants, hundreds of thousands more for environmental studies on the mating patterns of the desert tortoise, and even 30 or 40 grand for a new SUV which I noticed in the City Hall parking lot last week.
But they just can’t spare $7,000 for a fireworks show that brings hundreds if not thousands of people to Mesquite, something which would benefit the local businesses that are shouldering more than their share of the city’s cash needs with sales taxes and business license fees that have skyrocketed higher than that green and red circular firework that lit up the Mesquite sky on Monday night.
A Fourth of July celebration is exactly the kind of hometown event this community should embrace in a big way, an opportunity to show off our patriotism, put our shiny streets on display, and let the people from surrounding towns know that Mesquite is a happening place where people are friendly and welcoming.
Instead, the city abandons this responsibility and once again dumps it on the casinos to carry the load.
Without those casinos blasting the Mesquite name up and down the interstate and across TV screens, our town would be about as well known as Tonopah or Panaca.
It’s about more than money and budgets and this devious political tactic of cutting the most visible and most obvious expenditures to make sure the city has plenty of money to give to out of town consultants and lobbyists.
It’s about community pride.
The Lee family certainly has it.
A lot of the citizens do, too.
Apparently, the only place this civic pride is lacking is at City Hall.
We can only hope the new council will re-evaluate this short-sighted notion and embrace the idea that Mesquite must return to being a destination for visitors in search of fun.
The tourists will not return unless we give them a good reason, and it can’t all fall on the casinos alone.
Until then, the best we can do is thank the Lee family and the Eureka for caring more about our community than our own city government does, and express our gratitude for their kindness.