May 27 2016

#Baylor

Posted by Steve Ross in Puke

Disgracefull

Disgracefull

I’m a sports fan. But I don’t talk about it much. I may have an opinion on what a coach does, but quite frankly, I usually don’t have enough of a foundation in sports to feel confident talking about it.

I understand this doesn’t stop most people.

So yesterday on the Gary Parrish show I heard his opening monologue about the horrific report detailing the attempts of some Baylor University Football officials to quash complaints of sexual assault against Baylor players.

As a person, I’m disgusted. As the father of a child who will one day go to college, I’m terrified.

I’m terrified because the willful neglect demonstrated by members of the Baylor Football staff, to women with complaints of sexual assault, makes me fearful that, one day, God forbid, if something should happen to my daughter, will there be some Bike Coach short wearing douchebag trying to talk her out of reporting it.

I’m angry because these people, regardless of their official duties, are supposed to help create and maintain an environment of education…not just cover their asses.

I’m sad for the women who were further victimized in this attempt to protect a few men who may have done something awful (we’ll never know if they’re guilty or innocent, though by the actions of the Baylor Football staff, they certainly don’t look innocent).

And it makes me wonder: How can a mom or dad send their kid off to school without knowing how that school deals with sexual assault or domestic violence?

How can parents be sure that a school will hold their child’s best interest over the best interest of the multi-million dollar enterprise that college sports has become?

Will parents start considering a school’s record on dealing with these kinds of issues when they’re discussing with their child what school they are interested in attending?

Because, while I’m not one of those that thinks there’s a boogey man around every corner trying to get you, I know that sexual assault is one of the most under-reported crimes in the US. And that my child has a 1 in 5 chance of being sexually assaulted while she is in college.

And as a parent, that’s terrifying. Its more terrifying that employees of a major University in this country would ignore these realities (because statistics aren’t theoretical) for their own personal gain.

There were a lot of failings here, but the following paragraphs in the summary report really caught my eye.

Baylor failed to take appropriate action to respond to reports of sexual assault and dating violence reportedly committed by football players. The choices made by football staff and athletics leadership, in some instances, posed a risk to campus safety and the integrity of the University. In certain instances, including reports of a sexual assault by multiple football players, athletics and football personnel affirmatively chose not to report sexual violence and dating violence to an appropriate administrator outside of athletics. In those instances, football coaches or staff met directly with a complainant and/or a parent of a complainant and did not report the misconduct. As a result, no action was taken to support complainants, fairly and impartially evaluate the conduct under Title IX, address identified cultural concerns within the football program, or protect campus safety once aware of a potential pattern of sexual violence by multiple football players.

In addition, some football coaches and staff took improper steps in response to disclosures of sexual assault or dating violence that precluded the University from fulfilling its legal obligations. Football staff conducted their own untrained internal inquiries, outside of policy, which improperly discredited complainants and denied them the right to a fair, impartial and informed investigation, interim measures or processes promised under University policy. In some cases, internal steps gave the illusion of responsiveness to complainants but failed to provide a meaningful institutional response under Title IX. Further, because reports were not shared outside of athletics, the University missed critical opportunities to impose appropriate disciplinary action that would have removed offenders from campus and possibly precluded future acts of sexual violence against Baylor students. In some instances, the football program dismissed players for unspecified team violations and assisted them in transferring to other schools. As a result, some football coaches and staff abdicated responsibilities under Title IX and Clery; to student welfare; to the health and safety of complainants; and to Baylor’s institutional values.

In addition to the failures related to sexual assault and dating violence, individuals within the football program actively sought to maintain internal control over discipline for other forms of misconduct. Athletics personnel failed to recognize the conflict of interest in roles and risk to campus safety by insulating athletes from student conduct processes. Football coaches and staff took affirmative steps to maintain internal control over discipline of players and to actively divert cases from the student conduct or criminal processes. In some cases, football coaches and staff had inappropriate involvement in disciplinary and criminal matters or engaged in improper conduct that reinforced an overall perception that football was above the rules, and that there was no culture of accountability for misconduct. Source

May 26 2016

On #RecallKemp

Posted by Steve Ross in activism, City of Memphis, elections

Kemp Conrad

Kemp Conrad

Last week the Commercial Appeal reported on an effort to recall City Council Chairman, Kemp Conrad.

The announcement of the petition, which can be found here, lists some of the dismissive things Chairman Conrad has said about activists seeking to protect the Greensward in Overton Park.

As a general statement, I’m supportive o citizen led efforts to make change in our city, no matter how large or small. Unfortunately, this effort may not be the best use of people’s time, when time is of the essence.

It’ll all be over in 2 years

As the CA article notes, any effort to recall a sitting City Council member can’t be brought until two years into their term, which would be 2018. By the time the recall petition came to a vote in November of 2018, not only will the issue most likely have been decided: either by mediation or Council action, but Conrad’s term will be nearly over (13 months and change remaining).

Since Conrad is term limited, he won’t be a part of the Council when a new group is sworn in on January 1st of 2020.

While I understand people’s anger with Conrad’s words, tone and sentiment, going after him in this way is a waste of time. A recall effort at this point is a flight of fancy and won’t really solve anything since there’s still a chance that he wouldn’t actually be removed from office by a vote.

Remember, they tried this in Wisconsin with Scott Walker, and he came out of the experience stronger than ever.

Get to 7

As someone who routinely bugs the shit out of me, City Council Attorney Alan Wade, likes to say, “7 votes carries the day”.

So if you’re going to do politics…do it. Get 7 votes against Conrad’s ordinance.

That may sound hard, but its a helluva lot easier than trying to recall him when this whole thing is irrelevant.

Chances are there are 7 votes to get on the Council, but you have to be smart about it. Anger isn’t persuasive for most people. Anger leads to a hardening of the attitudes.

So Rule #1: Don’t be a dick.

Rule #2: Don’t threaten or get heated (see Rule #1).

Rule #3: Appeal to most people’s sense of ‘calmer heads prevailing’

If you present your case like this: “We want the Overton Park Conservancy to have a voice, and we support the ongoing mediation efforts. We’re not asking you to vote against the zoo, we’re asking you to vote against this ordinance at this time to give the mediation a chance to work.”

Does that get you what you want? NO

But its a way to keep you from getting what you absolutely don’t want…Conrad’s ordinance.

In those conversations, whether they be in person, on the phone, via email, or by mail, you may get some feedback indicating the Council member’s inclination. Start Counting

There are some other things you can do with 7 votes that I won’t get into. Get the 7 first, then give me a call.

Now, you may have tried this on some level, but what I’ve observed of City Council meetings, this hasn’t been presented to the Council this way. I’ve heard a lot of anger, and finger pointing, but not a lot of solutions. Choose any speakers wisely. Project calm. Project that you’re the more reasonable party than Conrad and his hastily written ordinance.

Conrad’s already taken some of that away from you by holding fire on the Second reading. Praise him for that.

The ordinance is the stick. Mediation is the carrot. Take the carrot and be happy, or get 7 votes and kill the ordinance.

Thinking Long-Term

While mounting a recall of a sitting Council member may be a waste of time, mounting an effort to change the way the City Council is elected may not be.

Right now there are 7 single member districts and 2 “Super Districts” with 3 members each.

How we got to this is a long and storied tale, but basically it came about as a result of an agreement between a Federal Court and the City Council way back in 1996.

If you want all the gory details, you can find a post I wrote about it in 2011 here.

Here’s what’s important. There are 7 districts with between 89,000 and 95,000 people in them, and 2 districts with over 323,000 people in them. What this does is makes everyone in the city have 4 City Councilmen, which is fine in theory, but as we’ve seen in the two decades since this arrangement has been in effect, has led to less diversity and more groupthink.

By pushing for a change in the way the district system works from the current arrangement to 13 single member districts, the districts get much smaller…just under 50,000 people per district.

What this would mean is it would take less money to get elected (especially compared to the Super Districts) and some areas of town that have never been home to a representative on the City Council since this arrangement was conceived would suddenly have more of a voice.

It puts the elected leaders on the Council closer to the people and thereby, more directly responsible to the people.

Would such a system prevent someone like your least favorite member of the Council (whomever that is) from getting elected? That would be more up to you than its ever been. And that’s the point.

The City Council doesn’t redistrict until before the 2023 election, but it will take a lot of pressure, and probably a Federal Court ruling approving of the new system to put it into effect. And it will meet some stiff resistance because some very powerful people will suddenly be less powerful and have to deal with people they’ve never had to deal with before, ever.

Just something to think about….but for now, start building bridges and rallying the votes to get 7 in the City Council. Because that’s how you get what you want… or at least keep from getting what you don’t want in a representative democracy.

May 16 2016

Gibbons Returns Triumphant

Bill Gibbons, via tn.gov

Bill Gibbons, viatn.gov

Bill Gibbons, the former Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security and a former Shelby County District Attorney General has returned to Memphis to take on crime once again.

Gibbons will join the Public Safety Institute at the University of Memphis to lend his experience as a DA to the study of protecting the public. He’s also re-taking the helm of the Memphis-Shelby County Crime Commission…a post he held until he joined state government in 2011.

While some see the move as an encouraging move to combat rising violent crime, its abundantly clear to me that the prescriptions advocated by Gibbons and other members of the Memphis-Shelby County Crime Commission, dating back to the 2006 inception of Operation Safe Community, have done little if anything to combat crime, while using a high water mark in violent crime to herald their “success”.

A False Hope

I touched on the way the Crime Commission juices the numbers earlier this year in a post about being more honest with the public’s data.

Since the inception of Operation Safe Community (OSC), the Crime Commission has used 2006, a high water mark for violent crime in Shelby County, as a benchmark to measure violent crime. This is where politicians get their numbers when they say “crime is down”. But by any real measure, crime isn’t down, especially not this year, which has seen more murders in the first four months of the year than any time since OSC began.

But even last year and the year before that, the rate of violent crime per 1000 people in Memphis and Shelby County hasn’t changed enough to say “crime is down” with any real confidence. This is because, violent crime, as a general statement has been largely the same in every year except 2006…the high water mark.

Screen Shot 2016-05-15 at 10.16.12 AM

As you can see from the chart above, from 2004 to 2014, violent crime in Shelby County, as defined by the FBI Uniform Crime Report and reported by the various law enforcement agencies in the area, has stayed in a range of 15 to 20 crimes per 1000 people. Of the data available when I made this chart, 2006 was the high water mark.

OSC says they use 2006 because that’s when the program began. It then releases reports like this that on page 10 show decreases in crime on a particular month of the year. But in reality, no real progress is made. Violent crime, as a general statement, remains in the same range its been since a dramatic drop in violent crime nationwide in the 1990’s.

This is exactly why no one believes the crime numbers, and they shouldn’t. Crime may be down from a month in 2006 that no one remembers, but it has basically stayed in the same range for a decade.

An Ounce of Prevention

As it stands, local law enforcement acts as a reactionary force. Part of that just comes with the territory. But there are preventative measures that the police can employ that build trust from the public, and build stronger ties with communities without turning every high crime neighborhood into a military style occupation. I talked about some of those strategies after Toney Armstrong announced his departure from the MPD.

While the OSC 2012-16 plan talks about pilot programs for community oriented policing, with Armstrong’s departure, there’s no guarantee that this will continue.

One good thing in the OSC plan is that it calls for more supportive services outside of law enforcement, like mental health treatment access and job training. These are absolutely necessary tools, but there’s little talk of funding sources. These things are trotted out there to quell the ire of liberals like me, while little work is done to secure additional funding.

At the same time, the plan pushes for harsher sentences and mandatory minimums, which have been repeatedly shown to disproportionately impact racial minorities and the poor, at a time when such strategies are falling out of favor, to say the least.

What’s more, there’s not much evidence that the Crime Commission is following up on the progress for these specific initiatives, except when they warrant a press release.

Beware of False Prophets

There’s no question that organizations like the Crime Commission can be effective tools to help bring groups that otherwise wouldn’t talk to each other, together for a common cause. To the extent that this has happened, the Crime Commission has been successful.

The plan the Commission has laid out has lofty goals. But with such scarce communication with the public, there’s little hope of building the kind of buy-in that would help achieve them. The Commission has mostly been used as a PR tool to pump up the stats of politicians rather than bring these and other diverse groups together or educate the public in a real way. Gibbons was involved in the Commission’s creation. This pattern started with him at the helm. So there’s little reason to believe it will change now that he’s back.

Good intentions not withstanding, the Crime Commission which includes a host of ‘community partners’ suffers from the same problems other such boards do…the people who serve on them may be stakeholders, but they are not representative of the community, and so reaching out to the community is virtually impossible…which makes any real success at achieving the consistently moving target of truly reducing crime in Shelby County improbable at best.

There’s no question that Shelby County has a huge task in working to reduce crime in our community. But lets be real about it, and talk about the warts at least as openly as we talk about the successes. Give people actionable things to do before a call to 911 is necessary rather than relying solely on the constant drumbeat of ‘report the crime’. Make sure law enforcement is building relationships lasting relationships with communities of need.

Side Note: As for Gibbons, he has some baggage that just about everyone has ignored. There have been several instances of prosecutorial misconduct that happened under his watch before he went to Nashville in 2011. But Gibbons hasn’t had to answer to any of these findings. Instead it has been Weirich who has been in the crosshairs.

For certain, Weirich deserves scrutiny where she was directly involved, but Gibbons was Weirich’s mentor before that, and boss while some of this went down. Yet he’s been able to skirt by while Weirich takes the heat.

Mar 15 2016

The Scattershot Effect

Posted by Steve Ross in City of Memphis, Policy, State Politics

Last night’s passage of HB779 by the Tennessee House brought to light some features of the bill that I was previously unaware of, and some problems that will most certainly result if the bill is passed.

Here’s Rep. Carter speaking on two features of the bill that haven’t gotten a lot of play in the media.

Ed. Note:The clip is about 3 minutes long, but the video doesn’t stop on its own for some reason.

Sunsets

A couple of thoughts about the sunset provisions:

First, it is a good thing that this bill sunsets in 3 years. That certainly does reduce the amount of time that Memphis and other cities would have to be in a holding pattern while neighborhoods organize to leave the city.

Second, the ‘one and done’ provision is also a good thing. This basically gives the organizers of any de-annexation effort one shot to get it done. If, for instance, an effort were to fail in November, the city would know that area is safe from being de-annexed (theoretically).

Unfortunately, there’s nothing stopping a future legislator from writing a bill that would change those provisions in the future. If they can change nearly 200 years of standard land use practice, they can sure as hell change 3 years without even giving it a second thought.

I understand that all legislation is subject to change at any time, but these sunsets give a false sense of security to the impacted cities.

Scattered, Covered, and Smothered

taken from Shelby County Register GIS

taken from Shelby County Register GIS

One of the other things that Rep. Carter talked about last night was something called ‘non-contiguous annexation/de-annexation’.

What that means is areas that are part of the city don’t have to be lined up one after another. This is kind of a hard thing to visualize, so I have a picture of a neighborhood (I removed all the identifying factors because I don’t know if this neighborhood can de-annex or not, its just for illustration).

Lets say, this neighborhood was part of an area that de-annexed itself. Under Rep. Carter’s bill, the City could end all services on the effective date, and still tax the property for the debt accrued while in the city.

But there’s another piece. If some homeowners didn’t want to leave the city, they have a certain timeframe (I think 30 days from the effective date) to petition the city to come back in.

That all seems well and good until you visualize what that might look like, which I have done below.

Non-contiguous Memphis 'what if'

Non-contiguous Memphis ‘what if’

As you can see in this example, just a few of the plots of land in this image have asked the City to accept them back in. The City doesn’t have to, and it might be in their best interest not to.

Here’s why: Providing police, fire and trash pickup for these few plots of land in an otherwise unserviced area would be a very inefficient use of resources for the city. The property taxes and fees collected would never pay for the services. Its only when the city provides services to everyone in a neighborhood that it comes closer to being efficient.

Which means that if the people in these plots of land want to still be in Memphis, they would have to move, because it wouldn’t make good sense for Memphis to annex just their homes, and not the whole neighborhood.

This is one of those provisions that gets stuck in bills to make it seem really Democratic. “If they want to stay in Memphis, let ’em”, says Rep. Carter. He says this, knowing full well that Memphis will have to say no if there’s not enough demand (we might be wise to say no if its not unanimous).

What’s more, this is just one neighborhood of a larger area that de-annexed. It may be that City services have to traverse over miles of County roads just to provide services. There’s no way the City could, in good faith, allow that to happen either.

So this ‘pot sweetener’ is really a red herring. Rep. Carter knows the City could never make a few exceptions for select people. It would be fiscally irresponsible.

Conclusion

At this point, we don’t know if the Senate will vote on this bill this week or next. The House calendar says its ready to be sent over to the Senate, which means it could be any day now.

This afternoon Mayor Strickland met with the Memphis City Council (they were still meeting as I wrote this). Strickland says de-annexation could add between 30 and 70 cents to our already highest in the state tax rate.

Last night Rep. Larry Miller warned the Tennessee House of Representatives that by voting for the bill they were voting for a tax hike. He was right.

I guess Republicans aren’t opposed to tax hikes for some people.

Mar 14 2016

The Egregious Overreach

House of Pain

House of Pain

The Tennessee House passed HB779 in a nearly party line vote tonight 68-25.

The bill if approved, would allow as many as 10 previously and lawfully annexed areas of Memphis to petition for a referendum, which if approved by a majority of the voters in the area, would remove them from the City.

I watched the debate from the safety of my home here in Memphis. There was some impassioned debate, especially from Shelby County Representatives Joe Towns and Raumesh Akbari, though others including Larry Miller, G.A. Hardaway spoke against the bill, while Mark White, one of the bills sponsors, spoke for it.

Rep. Raumesh Akbari speaking on her amendment

Rep. Raumesh Akbari speaking on her amendment

While the debate was robust, there are still a bunch of questions that were left unanswered. Notably, whether or not residents who would leave Memphis would be liable for long-term costs associated with annexing their neighborhoods that aren’t included in City debt. Representative Carter, a former General Sessions Judge from Hamilton County, seemed confident that these questions were answered. But when questioned about future refunded debt (debt that cities refinance for lower interest rates or other benefits) Carter was vague, as if he didn’t really understand the question, or perhaps he was purposely trying to avoid the question.

The bill now moves to the Senate where, two of Shelby County’s five members are sponsors.

Egregious Annexation

There were some 17 amendments offered on the bill, only one, that didn’t “make” the bill was approved. This amendment was offered by Minority Leader Fitzhugh.

One amendment sought to remove the word ‘egregious’ from the bill.

Egregious was the word of the night. Rep. Carter used it repeatedly to make a process that for decades had been otherwise routine seem like some kind of assault.

Rep. Carter argued that keeping the word in created a legal standard for the kind of annexation the bill dealt with, and the kind it did not. This all seems unnecessary to me, since the bill spells out exactly what kinds, in fact, which specific annexations were offensive based on when and where they happened.

I didn’t know if egregious had some kind of special meaning in a legal sense, so I looked it up on FindLaw. Here’s their definition:

extremely and conspicuously bad.

That doesn’t sound like a rock solid legal foothold to me. I mean, who determines what’s a ‘bad’ annexation?

We’ll have to see what happens in the Senate with this bill. Hopefully, it will be held up, but I’m not holding my breath.

Falsehoods Abound

Rep. Curry Todd telling the floor of the House that Memphis runs a deficit

Rep. Curry Todd telling the floor of the House that Memphis runs a deficit

One of the things that characterized the debate on the actual bill is a falsehood about budget deficits run by the City of Memphis that was either first stated by Curry Todd or Rep. Carter.

The allegation was that Memphis has been running a 70 to 90 million dollar deficit every year, and paying for it with additional borrowing.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I haven’t been following Memphis’ budget hearings as closely as I once did in the past few years, but I’m pretty damn sure that if there had been a deficit that amounted to 10% to 14% of the City budget, I’d have heard about it.

The City has refinanced a great deal of debt over the past few years, taking advantage of their good credit rating, high values, and low interest rates. You can see all of Memphis’ General Obligation Debt here.

It may be that the City has used some of the savings, or even the high premiums that were paid by bondholders above and beyond the refinanced debt for operations, but that’s not borrowing to keep the lights on. That’s borrowing to get rid of old debt and coming out of it ahead.

I’m still not certain that this is what happened, but I know that doesn’t make it ‘deficit spending’, since, you know, Memphis has to have a balanced budget each year by state law.

Questioning the Money

Rep. Carter also questioned Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland’s numbers on the overall financial impact of the bill.

Carter says the City only mentioned $27 million dollars of financial impact in previous discussions.

That may be, but one has to wonder what version of the bill those numbers came from. See, this bill came before the House last year. At that time, the number of areas that could vote to de-annex was less, which means less financial impact.

I know from talking to people in and around the debate, that until very recently, the areas that were to be included stuck with last year’s bill. Its only in the last few days that anyone’s known about the new expanded version of the bill according to these sources.

So perhaps those numbers came from a prior version of the bill and Rep. Carter is ‘misremembering’. Or maybe he’s just following Rep. Todd’s lead and lying outright.

I can’t say.

Conclusion

Now it seems like we’ll just have to wait on the Senate to act…or perhaps, not act.

Earlier today, Governor Haslam questioned the constitutionality of the bill as well as what the impact might be on cities like Memphis, and Knoxville, where he served as Mayor.

All of that remains to be seen.

There’s one thing that’s sure. If this bill gets passed, it represents a two decade reach back in public policy. There’s no question its not fair, and a lot of question as to how constitutional it is.

Remember, two areas recently annexed into the city had been fighting their annexation in court, and lost. The courts have consistently upheld a city’s right to annex based on the rules of the game at the time. One has to wonder if those rulings will be overturned when this is litigated.

If so, no city in Tennessee is safe to plan for its future. The whims of the Tennessee General Assembly will be too great for any city to bear. And that will have a negative impact on their citizens, their ability to grow naturally, and their financial health.