Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Proposed Soccer Tent Still A Flop

The City and NCS have proposed building a new "tent"
at the regional park, similar to this one at the CasaBlanca.
Last week, the City of Mesquite and their longtime bedfellow NCS rolled out their latest idea for the local gameshow "Who Can Waste A Million Dollars."
Originally, the plan was to build the shell of an amphitheater; concrete seating under the hot sun in an inaccessible gully; with a temporary stage; in a town where we already have two theater venues we can't fill, including a recently revamped one that has just 200 seats.
NCS and the City joined forces to come up with this bad idea, never bothering to ask local citizens what they might want built or bought with NCS's million dollar gift.
When the inevitable chorus of boos erupted, and continued with catcalls that wouldn't go away, the City and NCS called for a "do-over."
So a new meeting was set, local citizens showed up, and excitement was in the air as it appeared the people might actually get a chance to offer some ideas in an open forum.
Last week's meeting was just another dog-and-pony show, just a different colored dog.
The City and NCS rolled out a prepared presentation on what they wanted next.  Again, while questions and suggestions were permitted, it was obvious that this was just another "done deal" in search of citizen acquiescence. 
The presentation featured a new bad idea to replace the old bad idea: a used tent.
The plan was for the City and NCS to go in on a "fabric building" that could be used for "indoor" events.  The big idea for its use?  An indoor soccer field.  As if the other five unused soccer fields in the Mesquite Sports and Events Complex weren't enough.
To be fair, the venue could be used for other the awards ceremonies at the annual Long Drivers championships.  You know, the event that the MSEC was REALLY built for under the guise of a regional park.  The soccer fields were a dodge used to scam the county into providing most of the funding, since most self-respecting county governments would refuse to knowingly use millions of taxpayer dollars to build a free venue for a multi-million dollar private sports corporation that caters to the rich.
One thing Mesquite truly needs, and has needed for years, is a civic center.  We are supposed to be a tourist town; or at least that's what we were before politicians started dangling Mesquite as a destination for mythical renewable energy projects or a youth sports Mecca with the even more mythical but failed Desert Falls.  Real tourist towns need a place to hold conventions. 
The CasaBlanca built a temporary "Events Center" a few years ago that is (wait for it) a fabric building.  Since then, the City has nagged them about taking it down because it's an eyesore, it exceeded the time limit of its original permit, and former CasaBlanca owner Randy Black never fulfilled his promise to build a permanent event center.
Now that it's the CITY and their bosom buddies at NCS looking to erect a big tent, well, that would be okay.  Right?
So now the City is looking for public support in their endeavor to spend $2-3 million for the tent, which with the million dollar gift from NCS would still cost taxpayers a million or two.
Somehow the city officials missed the memo that said "Dear World, We are in a recession.  Tighten your belts."  You would think the blizzard of pink slips issued to longtime city employees over the last two years might have been a hint, but Mesquite's City Hall has never been accused of being particularly quick or bright.  (Remember the post-dated check we took from the Desert Falls people?)
Oh, and the best part:
The tent we're buying is used.  Two years old, to be exact.  It has a guarantee that only promises the thing will remain standing for another eight years.  And that's if the wind doesn't blow too hard, which it only does about 300 days a year in Mesquite.
Here's the good news: at least we're moving in the right direction.
We've gone from a completely unworkable outdoor venue with torturous concrete seating in an inaccessible place, to an enclosed soccer field in a remote park where we could at least put some uncomfortable folding chairs.
What we really need is a large, permanent, air conditioned convention facility as close to the middle of town as possible.  With some nice chairs.  And a city government smart enough to figure out how to market and promote it to draw in some conventions.
So the new tent is a baby step, although a stumbling one.  Especially since Mesquite already has a tent, conveniently located next to a large hotel and casino.  Also, we still have that whole "recession" thing to deal with before we start burning more taxpayer money (although that didn't stop City Hall from buying an $8 million police station and spending $1.7 million on some high-priced land for a library that we're likely to get just about the same time the first passenger jet touches down at our mythical new airport).
In the meantime, one question remains: If NCS has a million to give, why do they and the City continue to resist the idea of putting new ballfields in a sports park?  One thing Mesquite DOES do well is lure baseball camps and softball tournaments, especially senior softball tournaments that bring plenty of fun and monied seniors to our hotels and casinos.  In fact, on several occasions the promoters had to turn away teams because we simply didn't have enough fields. 
Also, the location we're talking about is near Sun City, an active retirement community.  I suspect they'd be more likely to use a softball field than an indoor soccer field.  I've seen a lot of senior softball teams in my time here, but have yet to see a senior soccer team take the field.
Maybe the reason for avoiding a ballfield is the metaphorical comparisons that would surely follow.  In an effort to hit a "home run," NCS and the City now have two strikes.  Perhaps this would be a good time to call a timeout and hold a conference on the mound where the rest of the team, meaning the people of Mesquite who will be paying the bill, can have a chance to offer their ideas and suggestions.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

CNN Story Tries To Tell Fairchild Tale

(Photo courtesy Delaney Studio)
Finally, CNN's story on the Donna Fairchild murder/suicide has hit the internet.
CNN reporter Ann O'Neill spent some time in Mesquite trying to figure out what many of us have been trying to figure out for months: what happened on the night of Jan. 24.
O'Neill found out the same thing discovered by those of us who were close to the Fairchilds...that while there is plenty of speculation and finger pointing in every direction, we will probably never know what caused Fairchild to think things were so hopeless that killing herself was the only solution.
In O'Neill's excellent story, a few people want to blame me for causing city councilwoman to feel she had no other option.
Did I have a hand in her death?
Of course not.
Donna knew, and I believe her friends did as well, that I was trying to get her side of the story out to the people.  There are two newspapers in our town, and the one I helped found was consistently the one to uncover corruption and political wrongdoing in Mesquite.
O'Neill was absolutely right, this community has had a mean streak for years, long before our newspaper started in 2006.  The difference is, the evil was covered up and glossed over until my partners and I decided that the wrongdoing had to be exposed and stopped.
In just the last 18 months, since our expose's on the local water board, there have been three indictments of high ranking officials, including one who was accused of taking more than a million dollars in bribes.  Had we not dug into the shenanigans, there's a good chance that the corruption would still be going on today.
The city government was also known for playing hide and seek with information, including a refusal to release video on an inmate in the city jail who allegedly hung himself in 2009, and a reluctance to share details and internal reports on a police officer who was fired for allegations of sexual misconduct in 2008.
When I first got wind that there was a move within the city to throw Fairchild off the council over a $94 travel voucher, I immediately contacted her to get her side of the story.  Donna and I spoke regularly.  She was one of only two people on the council I trusted, and I believe she trusted me.
When she explained that she turned in the travel voucher by accident, I believed her.  One thing the CNN story doesn't mention is that Donna was never paid for that voucher.  No check was cashed, no money changed hands, the taxpayers were never out their $94.  It doesn't excuse her error, but it does help reaffirm (in my mind, at least) that she wasn't a crook.  A lot of people would disagree with me.
I spoke to her just days before she killed herself.  In that conversation, she was very upbeat, fierce in her intent to fight the attempt to remove her from the council, and angry that what led to all the uproar was a negative statement she made about the Nevada Development Authority.  She was outraged that she was being targeted for speaking out about the NDA.  In the official council agenda, the $94 wasn't the only issue.  She was also accused of violating the city's Code of Conduct by making the derogatory statements about a board she was on while representing the city.  She felt the attack on her was a violation of her First Amendment rights, an attempt to shut her up. 
I agreed.  In fact, the Editorial I had planned for the coming Thursday edition was going to be about exactly that. 
In our conversation, she didn't sound sad, defeated, or even particularly worried.
I ran the story about the accusations and her response because that's what good newspapers do.  Even though I liked and respected her, I couldn't cover it up and pretend that she wasn't facing a possible expulsion vote on the following Tuesday.
As for claims by others that the anonymous comments which readers posted at the bottom of that story might have "driven her over the edge," I find the idea highly unlikely.
For starters, if you look at those comments (most of which are still online), you would see that most of the comments supported her.
As for the ones that attacked her...I always believed she was stronger than that.  She had withstood worse over the years, particularly after an unfortunate incident a few years before in which she told a citizen complaining at a city council meeting that, "if you don't like it, you should leave Mesquite" during a heated exchange.  (As was her nature, she later apologized to the citizen, and always felt bad about her outburst).
So, why DID she kill her husband and take her own life?
Some believe she was bullied into it.  Bullying often leads to suicide.  To me, it's the only explanation that almost makes sense.
Who did the bullying?  There are plenty of likely suspects, both inside and outside City Hall.  The CNN story hints at a few of them.  But without Donna here to specifically point her finger, we'll never know for sure.
The only thing I DO know for certain is that I wasn't one of them.  In numerous talks with Fairchild friends after her death, they have repeatedly expressed that she didn't blame me for running the story.  In fact, at least one from her circle told me that Donna felt I was "on her side." 
It's tough for any journalist to take a "side" in a story.  But I will say this: I believed her explanation, and I believe to this day that the vote planned for the Jan. 24 City Council meeting was a political move against a potentially strong mayoral candidate and an independent thinker on the council.
Another item that wasn't included in the CNN story:  In April, then-mayor Susan Holecheck received only 20% of the votes cast for the office of mayor in the primary, which meant she never made it onto the General Election ballot in June.
One last thing I wanted to address: I didn't lose my job as a result of the Fairchild death or story.
In fact, in a grand stroke of irony, it was one of the very few times while working for the large company that purchased our newspaper in 2009 that I felt my supervisor actually supported me and had my back.  When one of the individuals named in the CNN story called my boss (something he did with great regularity) and told him that "Fairchild's blood is on Workman's hands," my boss told me that he became enraged and basically told the gentleman to go pound sand.
During the two years I worked for that company, I was constantly in battles with my supervisors because they weren't happy with the controversial stories and hard news I continued to pursue instead of lighter fare and softer features.  I wasn't fired, my two year contract was up.  They wanted to go in a "different direction," and chose not to renew the contract.
Believe me, it was a blessing.
As O'Neill noted, the newspaper is now a much softer and gentler publication.
Which brings us to the final question: Does Mesquite have a "mean streak?"  Is it a wicked place filled with terrible people?
Quite the contrary.
It is a town filled with people who are mostly "from somewhere else."  Like ALL small towns, it has its share of corruption, collusion, "Good Ole Boy" syndromes, and gossip.  Plenty of gossip.   It is a town in flux, still trying to figure out what it wants to be when it grows up.  Part of that flux is the evolution from a small town controlled by a very small group of powerful people to a more inclusive place where everyone can have a say.  The new mayor and new city council have embraced that new approach.  They have eliminated the Code of Conduct, opened up previously secret "technical review" meetings to the public, started moving away from the "anti-business" approach which has hurt this town, and have welcomed input in ways we haven't seen in a long time.  I believe Mesquite is on the right track.
But that only happened because somebody dared to exclaim that the "emperor wasn't wearing any clothes"; someone spoke up and exposed the corruption; someone refused to cover up our ugly warts.
So if Mesquite really is mean, and someone must be blamed, then that someone is me.  I have always believed that you can't solve a problem until you admit there IS a problem.  Mesquite has had a lot of problems, and like every town large or small, will continue to have problems.  The only question is whether those problems will be covered up and hidden so our town won't look bad; or the alternative, which is that the problems will be acknowledged, examined, and corrected.  I always opted for the latter.  If that makes me "mean," I can live with that.
Most people agree, I'm the one who wouldn't shut up about the problems.  I'm the one who kept talking about them, and picking at them.  And I didn't always do it in a nice way.  I guess in some instances, I probably WAS mean.
But not in the case of Donna Fairchild.
The good news is that the former mayor is gone; the majority of city council members are gone; the police chief is gone; the city manager is gone; most of the officials at the water board are gone;
And I'm gone. 
Mesquite has a chance to start over, to resurrect its image as the "Diamond in the Desert" where visitors, daytrip gamblers, senior softballers, and vacationers love to "come for a day, stay for a lifetime."
I invite you to come and find out for yourself.  I'll warn you, the town has some flaws and warts.  But it is also filled with welcoming, wonderful people who are working to make Mesquite better and better.
It's once again becoming a place I believe Bill and Donna Fairchild would have liked.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Missing Minutes

While there have been dramatic changes in Mesquite's city government since the election of Mark Wier as mayor and Kraig Hafen, Al Litman, and George Rapson as councilmen, some things never seem to change.
It's pretty likely that somewhere in the venerable and secretive City Hall, someone explained for the someteenth time that "the people of Mesquite aren't very bright, they have short attention spans like Ritalin-deprived sixth graders, and they'll just forget."
This time, the conversation was surely about the city's website, and the removal of City Council meeting minutes.
Earlier in the year, the city had fallen way behind in updating the minutes online, sometimes with gaps of two to three months.
Then in April, right as the primary elections were coming down to the wire and people might be interested in researching how certain candidates voted or conducted meetings, the minutes vanished from the list of previous council meetings.
The City claimed it was a computer glitch (what else).  You know what the problem was?  According to a city official, in some instances the system was showing the "working minutes" instead of the sanitized, "approved" minutes.  Horrors!
Using that excuse, instead of taking down the handful of objectionable minutes, the city zapped them all.
Of course, the city promised the minutes would be back up a week after the primary elections, in time for the general election.
I'm not sure why, after years of lies and deceptions, I would be surprised that the city government once again misled the public.
Here it is August, four full months later, and the meeting minutes are still missing from the meeting page of the city's Sire system.  The city claims you can do a search and find the meeting minutes, but that means you have to know the topic of a particular meeting instead of just being able to click chronologically.  Also, the city website admits that, even in the searchable database, you won't find any minutes for meetings after April 11.
Apparently, it's hard to type up meeting minutes.  Despite the fact that previous City Clerks managed to stay on top of minutes for complicated council meetings that ran as long as three to four hours featuring mystifying building plans and permit approvals, our current City Clerk is just too overwhelmed by the 55-minute sessions that have been the hallmark of council meetings over the last six months.
In fact the job is so massive that, despite numerous layoffs of longtime dedicated city employees, the council voted to approve money to hire a transcription service to type up the minutes.
Only a government could get away with such incompetence.  If a business made a promise to their customers, then didn't follow through, the customers would walk away and the business would fail.  (Unless, of course, that business is Exxon or Microsoft).
This seems like a minor thing until you understand that the minutes are the most important documents maintained by any government.  It's the official record of their actions, and frequently includes information necessary for upcoming decisions, which is a little bit more important than an announcement about the World Series of Beer Pong to be held at a local casino (which happened to be on the front page of the city's website a couple of weeks ago).
With the public unable to see those online minutes, it's difficult for citizens to get up to speed on city issues, or figure out how the city got into such a mess.  Without those voting records, it's also impossible to hold their elected officials accountable because it's tough to figure out who voted for what.
Sure, there are more important tasks demanded of the city's IT department, like blocking staff's access to local news websites and counting how many times someone views a Dilbert cartoon online.  But somewhere in the city's censorship crusade, you'd think they could find time to actually fix a problem that's been lingering for more than 120 days. 
We all know this isn't the IT department's fault, or the fault of the records clerk, it's a move (or lack of a move) by City Hall's leadership.  If this was really important, like buying a new SUV to replace the "elephant" previously assigned as a mayor's vehicle, it would have been done already.
But it's just a series of official documents intended to record the history of the city government, nothing worth losing sleep over, right?.  After all, if the city continues to hide the minutes in a searchable database, eventually the people will lose interest, forget about it, and go back to sleep, which is precisely what the city government wants - peacefully sleeping sheep.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Mesquite Falling Behind

I made a trip to St. George this week, something I am loathe to do. 
While visiting our nearest neighbor, I was struck by something that bothered me. 
At the doctor's office my wife was visiting, I noticed that another office building was being built in the complex off Riverside Road.  As we traveled around the Utah city, I noticed other construction projects in full swing.
Also, on the way to that office, we went through a construction gauntlet on the interstate.  They were building another overpass between exits 4 and 6, and widening I-15. 
The rest of the country is facing round two of the recession, but St. George is booming and thriving.
Obviously, as a Mesquitian, I am jealous.
I began to ponder what makes St. George continue to grow while my beloved hometown is dying before my eyes.
It's tough to figure out.
Both towns have identical climates, meaning extremely hot in the spring, blisteringly hot in the summer, brutally hot in the fall, and sometimes downright pleasant during the brief winter.
St. George and Mesquite have similar LDS roots and continued strong church influences.
Each is located right on the interstate.  Both have nice golf courses.
The differences?
Well, to be honest, Mesquite is in Nevada, which means no state income taxes, very friendly state tax structures for businesses, and a right-to-work state which means unions have trouble getting a toe hold (or another way of putting it, workers can be and are abused, grotesquely underpaid, kicked around, and spit on, and nobody steps up for them).
Mesquite is closer to Nevada's largest metropolitan center of Las Vegas than St. George is to Salt Lake, Utah's big city.
Mesquite is newer and fresher, with excellent infrastructure.  St. George is older, with more rundown areas and more low-income housing, and roads that need some help in places.
Mesquite is open 24 hours a day, with casinos, liberal liquor laws, and used to be focused on tourism.  St. George has some tourism, most of it revolving around their marathon and senior games, and welcomes visitors so long as they are in bed by 9 p.m.  They have one bar, one liquor store, and the beer they serve has an alcohol content of 3.2%.  I've had chocolate milk that had more kick to it.
But here are a few things in St. George's favor.
First, they have a shiny new airport.  The one they used to have was barely bigger than Mesquite's current muni plane place, but Utahns had enough vision 10 years ago to start the ball rolling on a bigger place.  Since then, they've added two interstate exits, several nearby commercial and residential projects, and opened up a whole new section of town.
I suspect Mesquite will start getting serious about an airport just about the time intercontinental space travel becomes the norm.
However, one of the biggest immediate differences is attitude toward business.
If you're a carpetbagger from somewhere else with big dreams, no money, and an attractive sales pitch, Mesquite is your destination.  For example, we rolled out the red carpet, sold land at fire sale prices, accepted post-dated checks, and heralded an unlikely amateur sports park that even little old Hurricane, Utah was too smart to bite into.
But if you're a small business owner, trying to open a store, introduce a new service, or build a little water park with batting cages and a paintball facility in Mesquite, forget it.  You'll see more hurdles than an Olympic decathlon sprinter.
A few months ago, I wrote a story that exemplified the problem.  A woman wanted to keep her used furniture store going, but the city insisted she complete an intrusive 13-page business license application that was the equivalent of a discount proctology exam.  Oh, and about $600 a year in license fees plus a one-time fee of $145.
To open the same store in St. George, it required a one-page application, and a $50 annual fee.
The Mesquite application process has been improved a little bit, but what hasn't gotten much better yet is the inherent anti-business attitude expressed by City Hall for years with high license fees and cumbersome application and approval processes.
Hopefully the new city council will fix some of this, particularly since the current lineup includes a mayor whose full time job is doing marketing and expanding services for the local phone company; a former casino executive; the head broker at an extremely successful real estate company; and a Mesquite native who owns several commercial properties and businesses.
Also, with the departure of Tim Hacker and Catherine Lorbeer, businesses should start feeling a little more warm and fuzzy when visiting City Hall.
Of course, we still need the Chamber of Commerce to step up and become as aggressive in recruiting and helping new businesses as they are in throwing drinking parties and going bowling.  Thankfully, the organization is worlds ahead of where it was two years ago, but it still needs a lot of work and some new vision in which "gaming" isn't a dirty word.  Someone also needs to give them a map that shows the world isn't flat beyond exits 120 and 122, and that it's okay to market and promote Mesquite beyond our borders.
Business is essential for a growing city, even if the community's number one cash crop is retirees.
One more thing:  when a business comes to town, we the people need to support it.  A skating rink is closing because nobody showed up, and the city wouldn't help rework a mostly-empty bus route out to the facility.  A certain resurrected restaurant on Mesquite Boulevard frequently serves less than a half-dozen people for lunch.  A longtime furniture store recently closed down because people would rather go to Las Vegas and St. George to save $50 on a living room set.  If we continue to take our money out of town, it won't be long before we won't have a town.
We don't want to be St. George, any more than we want to be Las Vegas.  But when other areas are thriving and recovering while Mesquite continues to die a slow death, it's time to wake up, look around, figure out what's wrong, and start the hard work of fixing it.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Water District Going Backwards

It all started when the golf courses wanted a long term sweetheart deal from the Virgin Valley Water District, trying to lock in water leases at $250 a share for irrigation water when the going rate paid by the Southern Nevada Water Authority for the same leases was more than $2,000 per share.
Wolf Creek Golf Course was already getting that tasty deal, one they had negotiated before the water district started auctioning their water shares to the highest bidder, which is the most fair way to distribute those shares of a limited resource.  As an aside, the attorney who put together the contract for that discount deal as the water district's legal counsel was the same attorney who also represented Wolf Creek in water matters, but he claimed there was no conflict.  Fortunately, he's no longer the water district's lawyer.
Under the auction process, minimum bids started at $300 a share, and went up from there.  Most of the time, the shares went for the $300 price, but the potential was there for higher numbers.  More importantly, if someone really needed the water, they had the chance to get it by bidding a higher price.  Again, it doesn't get much fairer than that.
In 2010, not long after every other water user in the valley got popped with a 36% rate increase, the golf courses had the gall to not only want to bypass any rate increase for irrigation water, but actually wanted a lease decrease from the $300 threshold back to the lowball rate of $250 a share.  Cherry on top?  They wanted the deeply discounted rate locked in for 10 years.
During the protracted negotiations, the water district decided to completely wipe out a water leasing program they had been using for years and years, just so they could come up with a cheaper metered program for irrigation water that would benefit the golf courses.  The greens guys jumped on it, the water district signed off, and it looked like a happily ever after for everyone except the other 18,000 water users in the valley.
As you would expect, the farmers saw that deal and wanted to know how they could get in on the savings, which included an eight-year freeze on rates.  The water district shrugged their collective shoulders, said "why not," and declared "first come, first served."
That approach might work if you're selling ice cream, but it's a horrendous idea for a rare commodity that's getting more rare and in more demand every day.  It would be like discontinuing the practice of auctioning gold futures, and declaring all gold from now on will be sold "first come, first served" at $1,000 an ounce.  A pretty unworkable idea.
A couple of months ago, the water district finally figured out that the metering idea wouldn't work, and went back to just leasing water shares for the farmers and other non-golf course users.  The only problem is that instead of reinstating the auction process, they announced it would be "first come, first served."  It was the equivalent of NASCAR's pronouncement to "have at it, boys."
Here it is, just two months later, and the catastrophe has occurred.  According to a story in the Mesquite Citizen Journal, Bunker Farms claimed they made a "verbal request" for the water back in May.  Robert Draskovich, a local resident, has been trying to lease water since April, waiting for the VVWD to make up its mind on how to distribute the water shares.  It took a while for the water district to figure out how to make an application form, so he wasn't able to fill one out until June.  Which he did.  Five days before Bunker Farms filled out and submitted theirs.
Sounds easy so far.  Draskovich got his paperwork in first, so it should go to him, right?
Not in the Good Old Boys, whisper and a handshake, arrest-and-indictment-laced world of the Virgin Valley Water District.
On Tuesday, the water district voted to lease the water to the Bunkerville boys on the basis of their "verbal request," leaving Draskovich "S.O.L." again.
All of this could have been avoided had the water district gone back to the auction-based system that had been working well for years, but that would make too much sense.  This is, after all, a quasi-governmental agency, which means their first order of business is to check their common sense at the door.
So my advice today to anyone who thinks they may need to lease water shares in the next, oh, 10 or 20 years, is to call up the water board members this afternoon, tell them you want to lease some water shares someday, and to remember that you asked first.  The good news is that, while rare water shares in 2021 will probably be going for about $10,000 each in the rest of southern Nevada, VVWD will probably still be leasing them (the water shares owned by us, the public) for around $300 a share so long as you have the right pedigree.
And if you happen to have a putting green in your back yard, be sure to mention that fact as well.  As a "golf course owner," you're almost guaranteed to get the water when you're ready, and at a nice discounted rate.