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Posts published in June 2024

The state of Oregon journalism

Two big slices of news about Oregon newspapers fell shortly after Memorial Day, sending shock waves across the state.

One was the sale of one of the largest Oregon newspaper groups, Portland-based Pamplin Media, and the other was the announcement of major cutbacks in another, EO Media Group, which owns the Bend Bulletin and other newspapers. Both show the immediate urgency for finding a way to rescue community news in Oregon – sooner, not later. Among other things, the Oregon Legislature urgently needs to take up the subject in its next session.

Consider where Oregon newspapers were just 12 years ago, when Steve Bagwell of the McMinnville News-Register and I co-wrote a book, called “New Editions,” about the recent history and prospects for newspapers in the Northwest. We counted 82 paid-subscription, general circulation newspapers, 16 of them dailies, in Portland, Eugene, Salem, Bend, Medford, Albany, Corvallis, Pendleton, Astoria, Ashland, Ontario, Coos Bay, The Dalles, La Grande, Roseburg and Baker City.

Since then an economic hurricane, a perfect storm, swept through the ranks of those newspapers. Many of the dailies which published six or seven days a week now publish three or four days a week if they’re not gone completely. The large business office buildings they occupied nearly all have been sold, along with nearly all newspaper presses, and increasing numbers of newspapers now consist of one or two reporters working out of their homes, with no office support at all. Some Oregon newspapers have been sold to investor groups, and where the papers still are actual print papers, they’re far smaller.

That has largely been the case with Pamplin Media Group, which owned 22 newspapers from Prineville to Forest Grove and Madras to Portland, more than any other owner in the state. Their operations and staff have diminished, But they have continued to publish on regular weekly schedules with reports about their communities.

On June 1, all of those papers were sold to Carpenter Media Group of Natchez, Mississippi, which, until recently, mainly had focused on southern-state newspapers. Pamplin is not its only major recent purchase, even in the Northwest, however. Last year, with backing from two Canadian investment companies, it bought 150 newspapers and other media from Black Press Media of Surrey in British Columbia, and included dozens of Washington state newspapers. Carpenter is now by far the largest newspaper owner in the Northwest.

It appears to be operated by former executives of Boone Newsmedia, which owns dozens of papers in the southern U.S. But other than reports about Carpenter’s many purchases there’s little public information about it – or where the money for all these massive buys is coming from. Carpenter has been buying large papers as well as small, including the dailies in Honolulu, Hawaii and Everett, Washington. What that means for Oregon’s largest collection of newspapers is far from clear.

The development with EO Media Group didn’t involve change of ownership, but it did mark a drastic change of operations.

EO Media Group, named for one of its papers, the East Oregonian of Pendleton, publishes a dozen newspapers in the state, most east of the Cascades. Operated by the Forrester family of Astoria, it has been a rescuer in recent years of community newspapers. In 2019, it bought The (Bend) Bulletin out of bankruptcy and kept it running. When the daily Mail Tribune of Medford shut down, EO started a new paper there, Rogue Valley Times.

EO said on June 3 that it will cut its 185 employees by 28, end print editions at the papers in La Grande, Hermiston, Baker City, John Day and Enterprise, and reduce the number of editions per week at Medford, Bend and Pendleton.

The areas in Oregon that are news deserts – or at least extremely arid regions – are expanding rapidly. And considering the scope of these recent large developments, the collapse of Oregon’s newspapers seems to be picking up speed rather than slowing.

Oregonians need news reports to decide how to vote and participate in their communities, and the businesses that have made that possible are dissolving rapidly. This amounts to a real, immediate crisis for the government and society in Oregon, as it does in many other places.

The answers are far from clear.

The Oregon Legislature did devote some attention to the problem last year with House Bill 2605. The proposal would have prompted a study of the situation but it never had a floor vote. Still, that was a good start. Next year, it ought to mark out serious time and attention to figuring out how to help Oregon citizens keep up with the news around them, so the system of self-governance we have had for generations can continue to function.

Corrections: An earlier version of this article misidentified Boone Newsmedia Inc. and misspelled EO Media Group. It also misstated when the Oregon Legislature considered grants for local media. 

This column originally appeared in the Oregon Capital Chronicle.

The second big lie

The Trump Era – and, of course, the convicted felon himself – have done potentially irreparable harm to American democracy by perpetuating the greatest lie in our history, namely that a presidential election was fraudulent.

By repeating this lie over and over and over again an idea has been deeply embedded in the minds of millions that no election save the one Donald Trump wins is legitimate. All the court cases, the indictments and convictions for election interference, all the fraud of this big lie has reshaped American politics.

One poll earlier this year found one-third of Americans continue to believe the lie, and apparently there is no dissuading them.

The January 6, 2021 insurrection at our nation’s Capital was a natural outcome of this enormous lie. People who believed Trump and his fellow lie spreaders, and some who clearly wanted to believe, attempted to halt the peaceful transfer of power, a bedrock concept of American democracy that was never before in doubt, even in the tumultuous days before our Civil War.

Now comes Trump’s second big lie, namely that his recent conviction in a New York state court on 34 felony counts was a rigged process perpetrated by a “weaponized” U.S. Justice Department acting at the direction of the president of the United States.

This lie, as with the other big one, has now been amplified by nearly every Republican member of Congress, many of them with law degrees, providing at least a modicum of evidence that they know better, but still they lie.

Idaho: One State’s Embrace of the Big Lies

Consider the stunning pandering to Trump of former prosecutor now senator James E. Risch.

“As a former prosecutor,” Risch said, “I learned early the importance of our constitutional right to the due process of law. Due process is simply basic fairness … New York’s mock trial did not attempt even an appearance of fairness.”

Or Mike Crapo, a Harvard educated lawyer, who took to social media to proclaim that “a politically motivated prosecutor has ashamedly and unprecedentedly weaponized the legal system against a former United States President.” A “dangerous move,” the senator said, “threatening the security of our entire justice system.”

Or Congressman Mike Simpson, in full MAGA dudgeon and singing from the Trump script, also invoked the term “weaponized.” Trump’s unanimous guilty verdict, Simpson thundered, was the result of an “absurd political trial.”

Or Congressman Russ Fulcher: “Americans are awake; the current president’s unjust sham trial of a political opponent has mobilized an army of freedom-loving Americans to take our country back!” Fulcher actually attempted a twofer with his denunciation of the justice system, for good measure throwing in a reference to “unsecured elections.”

Let’s unpack the views of this Grand Old Party of “law and order,” as it once could call itself, by remembering an old saying that has never seemed more pertinent: “If the facts are against you, argue the law. If the law is against you, argue the facts. If the law and the facts are against you, pound the table and yell like hell.”

First, and most strikingly, no Republican, least not the four mentioned here, proclaimed Trump’s innocence. None dealt with the actual charges brought against him, including falsifying business records to hide a hush money payment related to his one night stand with adult film actress Stormy Daniels. Through this illegal scheme, prosecutors argued, and a 12 person jury agreed, Trump was determined to keep the tryst with a porn star secret from voters by paying hush money. The timing of these acts matter because at the time they happened the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape, where Trump bragged of grabbing women’s genitals, had recently been released.

This second big lie, like the first, can’t be bothered by evidence presented or the deliberate judicial process that brought 12 jurors to a unanimous decision. None of this was manufactured. Donald Trump did this to himself.

Then there is the Trumpian charge that Joe Biden engineered all this – “the current president’s unjust sham trial” – simply to get his political opponent. Again the facts are inconvenient.

New York prosecutor, Alvin Bragg, is a state prosecutor not answerable to the Justice Department. Biden didn’t appoint him. New York voters elected him just as Ada County voters elected Risch back in his prosecutor days. Trump might have been prosecuted in federal court for his crimes, but he wasn’t. It was a state-level prosecution based on state law.

And what of the “weaponized” Justice Department of a Democratic administration? Maybe Republicans are referring to the “weaponized” prosecution of the president’s son, Hunter Biden, by the U.S government.

Or perhaps Republicans are thinking of the “weaponized” prosecution on federal corruption charges, again by the Biden Justice Department, of two Democratic – New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez and Texas Congressman Henry Cuellar. Menendez is being prosecuted for, among other things, accepting payoffs from foreign governments, a charge problematic enough for Democrats that they risk a safe Senate seat as a result. Yet, Biden’s “weaponized” Justice Department is pressing the case against a high profile Democrat.

And what of those 12 New York jurors? It was telling that Trump trial judge, New York County Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan, told potential jurors at the outset of jury selection that anyone who didn’t want to be considered for the Trump jury could simply leave. Many did, presumably some of them not eager to run the risk of being harassed, or worse, by Trump and his followers.

The remaining jurors, including all those selected for the trial, were subject to vetting by Trump’s defense team. The dozen selected, at least before the verdict, satisfied those lawyers.

Imagine their responsibility: The first former president indicted and convicted of a felony. That these jurors took their civic duty as a solemn, patriotic responsibility of citizenship deserves not only respect but deference.

Calling the Trump trial an “absurd political trial,” as Simpson did, or a “mock trial,” as Risch has done has one particularly pernicious outcome. It denigrates the American citizens who served on that jury – the people who actually heard the evidence and had the duty to sift through all of it – despite knowing they might well jeopardize their own personal safety by signing on for the responsibility.

And what are these Idaho elected officials saying by playing their own voters for such rubes? How do they credibly dismiss 34 felony convictions? And what of the 54 charges still pending against Trump? Is each and every one a manufactured “absurd political trial” where “mock” justice will play out?

We know – all of us know – why Risch and Crapo and the rest are behaving as they are. They are afraid.

Afraid of Trump.

Afraid of the MAGA mob.

Afraid of a future primary opponent.

Afraid of losing a job.

Afraid, as former Maryland Governor Larry Hogan has discovered, that one can be cast out of the party of “law and order” for simply saying that Americans should respect the outcome of a trial.

The second big lie joins the first as Trump’s contribution to America’s future. Recovery from these lies will not be easy or quick, and the next few months will determine whether recovery is even possible.

This November we will not merely elect a president. We will conduct a referendum on whether American institutions, including courts and judges and juries, can again be respected and defended.

Tragically, many Republicans have already voted NO.

 

The Big Fill

Well, this is a mess.

On the highway over Teton Pass, near the Idaho-Wyoming border, the fallout happened on the Wyoming side, though that was the luck of the draw. The Wyoming Department of Transportation said that the sequence of events started on June 6 with a motorcycle crash on Wyoming Highway 22 (which is the continuation of Idaho 33), observation of a possibly-related pavement break, and a quick repair job, after which traffic flowed normally. The Idaho Transportation Department has been providing assistance.

Next day, travelers spotted a mudslide in the same area, and Wyoming staff “surveyed the area and investigated the cause of the mudslide and have determined it was more than likely due to the heavy water saturation and spring runoff. With warmer weather, the chance of further issues will decrease. Water continues to come off the mountain, but maintenance crews have been able to channel the runoff off into controlled drainage ditch and into a culvert.”

WYDOT also reports, “we have affectionately named [it] the Big Fill Slide.”

Since then, the road has been closed. Having driven it a number of times, I can attest that a fix will be challenging and unlikely to be finished swiftly.

Until it is, it’s a problem for the whole region.

Idaho’s Teton Valley area, and its main communities of Driggs and Victor, has been among Idaho’s growth spots economically and demographically, among the few in a truly rural area. That has a lot to do with its close ties to Jackson, Wyoming, also a boom location. The connection has been symbiotic, partly because of business spilling over from one side to the other (mainly from Jackson to Driggs and Victor) but also because a lot of people made their homes on the Idaho side, partly because of property availability and cost but maybe also in part because of how crowded and busy Jackson is becoming.

Highways 22 and 33 are the lifeline patching this two-state community together. Ordinarily, it’s a short and slick commute: From Victor to Jackson is just 24 miles over the pass, and most (not all) of the drive usually can be done at full highway speed.

Problem is, there are no easy alternate routes. To the north, you’d drive for many hours all the way up to West Yellowstone, go through the national park, and south to Jackson - wholly impractical for anything less than a scenic day trip. The preferred route will run to the south, from Victor over the mountains down into Swan Valley, along the Palisades Reservoir to the Wyoming line, then north to Jackson - just shy of 100 miles, much of it over mountain terrain. Decent highway, but a long drive of the getting-old-fast variety if you’re doing it twice daily.

There’s really no one to blame here, but a few points probably should be made.

The Teton Pass route is only one of many single-option routes for getting from place to place around Idaho. There are places where geography and population combine strongly enough that multiple plausible routes for getting around are available, such as in the Ada-Canyon area (near the larger cities), in the Magic Valley and central Kootenai County and in the Upper Snake-Idaho Falls area. But for most of the state, commerce, emergency considerations and regular traveling is highly dependent on every major road remaining open and working.

That’s a stresser. And it’s not alone even this year. Work on the Rainbow Bridge near Smiths Ferry this season creates real blockage along Highway 55, a key route between the Boise area and places north. The highway may no longer be deserving of the Goat Trail label it long had, but it remains a thin line of connection between major regions of the state.

Topography and budgets will be constraints into the future against fully developing a system with adequate backups for travelers. But the idea of doing better, over the long haul, would be worth considering. If there's no one to blame for the shutdowns today in places like Highways 22 and 33, people half a century from now would be right to wonder why we didn’t at least start to look into how we might do better in years to come.

 

How schools are led

A guest opinion from Michael Strickland of Boise.

In the silent corridors of community governance, school board members stand as unsung architects, shaping the dreams and destinies of public education. Their dedication echoes through the unseen pages of our nation's progress. They craft the vision and objectives for public schools in their area, and establish performance standards for schools and superintendents. Elected by local constituents, these members represent the community's values and aspirations for schools. As community leaders, they maintain open communication to keep everyone informed about challenges, ideas, and progress. With the monumental task of educating nearly 50 million children who make up the students in public schools, board members go beyond policymaking and administration, serving as advocates for students and parents, entrusted with shaping a brighter future.
These dynamics are especially powerful in Idaho where a significant percentage of students learn in small communities. Education is key for the health of rural America. School consolidation, school closures, and a declining economic base for some of these areas have created hardships for families and schools. Rural schools also have serious challenges in staffing a full range of qualified teachers and providing the resources to support their efforts. Further difficulties arise in the fact that research studies about rural education and its particular context, nuances, and complications have always been sparse. In addition, educators are often constrained by certain reform models as well as approaches fueled by high-stakes, one-size-fits-all assessments. Expectations are at an all-time high while funding remains at historic lows.
The pressure for all students to achieve underscores the value of analyzing the school-level factors associated with student success. We need to supplement the portfolio of evidence-based instructional practices for high-needs student populations. Rural school districts are the lifeblood of their communities, serving myriad functions beyond education. They are essential hubs for various community activities, offering access to vital services such as nutrition and mental health counseling. Rural school facilities serve multifaceted roles, doubling as polling stations, disaster evacuation centers, and venues for events such as funerals, family reunions, and weddings. Given that many rural districts serve as the primary employers in their regions, they additionally face distinct economic considerations not encountered in more densely populated regions.
The unique challenges of rural areas, including smaller staff sizes and overlapping roles among decision-makers, can complicate governance and leadership. In rural districts, superintendents and school board trustees often wear multiple hats, from overseeing operations to teaching classes. While this closeness fosters strong community connections, it can blur lines of responsibility and lead to micromanagement or individual agendas. To ensure success, these leaders must strike a balance between their various roles and focus on overarching governance principles. Research involving a rural Idaho district indicates how effective governance practices can drive significant improvements. By working collaboratively and adopting a structured approach, scholars observed that a district could achieve a more robust budget, reduced staff turnover, and increased student achievement. Key to their success was a commitment to "getting on the balcony"—gaining perspective and distance from day-to-day operations in order to focus on long-term goals.
At a recent gathering of the Idaho School Boards Association, I had the opportunity to hear Elizabeth Wargo from the University of Idaho present on this topic. In her article, "Rural School District Leadership and Governance: Eating Your Veggies to Stay on the Balcony," Wargo and her colleagues say, "getting in the weeds'' or micromanagement is "an egregious error in governance that has been associated with low district performance.
Micromanagement on behalf of trustees distracts the team from the work necessary to support district-wide success for all students long term, especially when trustees disagree and cannot come to a consensus and lead as a team."
In small rural communities, handling differences of opinion and fostering relationships with individuals who hold varying perspectives is a highly visible task. School board and superintendent partnerships that adhere to defined governance principles greatly contribute to student achievement. Trustees and superintendents committed to advancing student success share a unified vision. They employ data-driven approaches to establish objectives and track advancements for all students. Transparency and communication are essential. The Idaho district in the study implemented monthly updates on progress towards goals, fostering community trust, and reducing rumors. Bite-sized training sessions during board meetings ensured that trustees stayed informed about governance best practices and policy changes.
Despite the challenges, the success of that Idaho district demonstrates that focused collective action, trust, and ongoing learning can drive positive change in rural school governance. By staying committed to the "right work" and maintaining clear boundaries, governance teams can support districts and enable communities to thrive. Pressures are rising on rural schools and their leaders. Everywhere, there are signs that they would benefit from greater collaboration, citizen participation, and regional analysis. More than ever, part time elected officials are burdened with heavy administrative and financial responsibilities and minimal or nonexistent professional support. Rural school districts need to balance community engagement and strategic planning. By staying focused on the community's long-term goals and fostering open communication, leaders can overcome obstacles and drive meaningful improvements.

A pitch for ranked choice

Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska is hardly a guiding light in the Gem State, and especially those who are cuckoo over Donald Trump. But she does offer a simple explanation about ranked-choice voting – which is an accomplishment in itself.

Appearing on a PBS program a year ago, Murkowski said it’s not complicated at all. She sees it as no different from going to a restaurant and sorting through the list of menu items. Customers will make their first choice, and may have in their minds a second, third or fourth selection.

With ranked-choice voting, she said, voters have the option (it’s not required) of deciding candidates in order of preference. If one candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote, it’s over – we have a winner. It gets a little sticky if no one gets more than 50 percent, but stay with me (or Sen. Murkowski) here.

If there is no clear winner in the first round, she said, “the person at the bottom of the stack who received the fewest votes is eliminated, and their second choice is reallocated to the others. You go through that process until one candidate has received over 50 percent.”

See? That’s not so difficult. And that’s how Murkowski – a moderate Republican – was elected to a fourth term in the Senate in 2022. The process might take a few days, or perhaps weeks, which might cause some Idahoans to balk at the idea. But Alaskans, and certainly Murkowski, appear to be happy with the result. Murkowski, who is no fan of Trump, acknowledges that she would have had a difficult time surviving a primary race under the old closed-primary system.

Alaska’s voting system is nearly identical to the open-primaries initiative that is being pushed in the Gem State. As with Idaho years ago, Alaska had an open-primary system – where anyone could vote in a primary without declaring party affiliation (Democrats were free to vote in Republican primaries). But, as with Idaho, Alaska changed to closed primaries – where the most conservative faction took control on the GOP side. The basis for seeking a change is about the same in both states.

Alaskans wanted more participation, a greater voice,” Murkowski said. Alaska moved to an open primary, where the top four vote-getters (regardless of party) advanced to the general election.

That’s what initiative proponents are calling for here. Hypothetically, that could mean that a gubernatorial race between, say Lt. Gov. Scott Bedke and Attorney General Raul Labrador, would be the featured attraction in a general election, opposed to a May primary. Voter turnout in a general election, of course, is much higher. Murkowski, for one, is all for ranked choice, with 26 percent of the electorate identifying itself as Republicans, and 17 percent identifying as Democrats.

You have 60 percent who choose not to identify with either party,” Murkowski said. “Where do they go? Where is their political home? In a primary, they don’t feel there is any real incentive to participate … and in the general, what they are given are two individuals on the extremes of both sides.”

Idaho’s percentages are more lopsided. According to estimates from the secretary of state’s office, some 57 percent align with Republicans and about 27 percent are unaffiliated. Ranked choice may not put Democrats on the radar, but it could mean that moderate Republicans (on the level of Murkowski) could have more of a fighting chance.

Murkowski sees a practical side for incumbents.

We have become too partisan in this country,” she said. “We see that in Washington, D.C. We see people who know where their hearts and minds should be on particular votes, but they know they are going to get creamed by their party if they vote the wrong way. They know they will be primaried by somebody who is more conservative or more liberal.”

I doubt if the slogan for the initiative will be, “What’s good for Alaska is good for Idaho.” But on this matter, Murkowski says her state could be a valuable example for others.

What we demonstrated in Alaska was the possibility that electoral reform can happen, and it can deliver outcomes that are less partisan and perhaps less politically rancorous,” she said.

This idea is worth a shot, if you are unhappy with how the Republican primary – which essentially decides most elections – is choosing its candidates.

Chuck Malloy is a long-time Idaho journalist and columnist. He may be reached at ctmalloy@outlook.com

 

 

Beginning of the end

So, Donald Trump has been convicted of committing 34 felonies.
 
He's to be sentenced in a few weeks unless expected appeals move that July 11 date.
 
He was charged properly.  He had a proper trial.  Upon presentation of good and sufficient evidence, he was convicted by a jury of us proper common folk.  A judge will, eventually, pronounce a proper sentence.  All according to various and sundry proper laws.
 
But, if you listen to the garment-wrenching, loin cloth-tearing reaction to the legal proceedings by Republicans in Congress, you'd think Trump's case had been handled by Judge Judy and a jury of the seven dwarfs.
 
Absurd?  Yes!  
 
But, a couple of angry steps above absurd, the accursed voice of Jim Jordan who loudly threatened to drag Judge Marchan AND his daughter before a committee for congressional tar and feathering!
 
Now, I'm an old guy.  And, I may have napped through that period of time when our entire judicial system was overhauled by some far-right Republican think tank.  So, all this GOP mayhem and threat-mongering may be well-founded.  
 
But, I think not.
 
If, disregarding a mountain of evidence, Trump had been found innocent, I'd guess Jordan and fellow travelers would be dancing in the streets and heaping praises on that same judicial system.
 
All the bombastic whining by Jordan and others is wrong.  Just wrong.  A verdict, reached in a duly-convened State Court, is just that: a verdict.  An appealable verdict.  And, it surely will be.  
 
If that Republican far-right group in Congress is indicative of Republicans at-large, then the Party has lost its way.  If Jordan and his followers really believe the Trump conviction is wrong - that our judicial system is seriously flawed - they're lost in their own bombast.
 
I'd like to ask those miscreants how much attention they paid to the six-week trial.  I'd like to ask them how much of the evidence they actually reviewed.  I'd like to ask them if they actually listened to the Court's charge to the jury before deliberations.
 
Sadly, we don't need to wait for their answers.  We already know how little attention they paid to the proceedings.
 
What we're hearing from Jordan et al is the disgusting response of children who lost a kid's game.  Not an honest, adult reaction from people elected to responsibly carry out the business of this nation.
 
Forgetting that the Trump case was a state matter - not federal - the wrong-headed anguish of the far-right is badly misdirected.  Their threats and efforts to intimidate are, indeed, childish.
 
If there were problems with the lengthy court proceedings, there are plenty of appeal remedies available.  If anything was improper - in the smallest detail - legal minds, working within the legal system, can seek relief.  There are at least six weeks between conviction and sentencing.  Plenty of time to get everything right.
 
There will be more Trump trials.  There will be more convictions.  There will be more justice meted out.  
 
Slowly but surely, the Trump story is coming to an end.  We're not there yet.  But, it will end.  
 
It will.

A course in legal ethics

Despite what many people may think about lawyers, the legal profession sets high standards of ethical conduct for licensed lawyers. The Idaho State Bar has set out those standards in its Idaho Rules of Professional Conduct (IRPC). Violation of the rules can result in disciplinary proceedings, including an offender’s loss of his or her license to practice law. Lawyers are required to know the rules and to comply with them.

The courts also set standards for lawyers, the most important of which is to maintain a relationship of trust with his or her clients. The Idaho Supreme Court has described the trust relationship as, “obligating the attorney to discharge that trust with complete fairness, honor, honesty, loyalty, and fidelity.” Among other things, that means an attorney must not sue his or her own clients.

The trust relationship applies to government attorneys. Last August, an Ada County Judge disqualified Attorney General Raul Labrador from pursuing civil investigative demands against one of his client agencies and some of its employees. The Judge wrote that “the attorney general owes those officials and agencies a duty of undivided loyalty and must exercise the utmost good faith to protect their interests.” Labrador was removed from the case for violating his ethical duty. He was also disqualified from suing his own client in another lawsuit that he filed against the Idaho Board of Education. He was ordered to pay the Board’s costs and attorney fees in the amount of $242,726.

Now we have the public spectacle of at least three public agencies warring against one another over dicey legislation that was designed to stop the sale of the old Transportation Department headquarters on State Street. Labrador can take a hefty share of the credit for this sad debacle. He ran for Attorney General with the promise of being “a true partner with conservative lawmakers…as they work to draft and write good laws.” It seems he dropped that ball on this one. Substantial questions were raised about the constitutionality of the transportation budget legislation that was rushed through the Legislature at the end of its session this year. Labrador failed to weigh in publicly about the constitutionality of the bill, resulting in the tangled mess of litigation that has piled up on the steps of the Idaho Supreme Court in the last several weeks.

The developers who sought to buy the bedraggled old hulk of a building filed suit to have the legislation preventing the sale struck down as violative of the Idaho Constitution. Labrador rushed forward with a brief purporting to represent his client executive agencies–the Transportation and Administrative Departments and the State Board of Examiners. It turns out his brief did not represent the positions of any of them. They all claimed he had failed to consult them, which appears to be the case. The brief he filed on their behalf mirrored the talking points of House Speaker Mike Moyle, the main architect of the suspect legislation. Moyle’s position is completely counter to that of the executive agencies. It certainly seems that Labrador breached the trust relationship with his client agencies and ignored the conflict-of-interest provisions of the IRPC.

Labrador claims that he was unaware of the Governor’s concerns about the legislation. Those of us who read the newspapers could have told him about the Governor’s concerns, which were widely publicized. It’s pretty much of a no-no for lawyers to file court papers without authorization from their clients and, particularly, to assert positions contrary to their interests.

After learning that the court papers Labrador filed for the executive agencies were dead wrong, the Transportation and Administration Departments hired their own lawyers to properly represent them in court. The Board of Examiners is apparently trying to figure out how its interests will be represented in the lawsuit. Speaker Moyle has also hired private counsel to assert his position in the food fight. In the good old days, the Attorney General would have tried to avert such a tangled mess of litigation. That is no longer the case. Now, political chaos trumps the provision of good legal counsel to state agencies. The public is the loser in this charade of justice.

Labrador promised he would not be a “yes man” for Governor Little. He should have told us he did not intend to be a “yes man” for the rules of ethical conduct that all Idaho lawyers are required to follow. Since Rule 8.3 of the IRPC requires Idaho lawyers to report professional misconduct on the part of a licensed attorney, we may not have heard the last of this.

 

Chasing Hope: A Reporter’s Life

The distance was a bit of dissonance in this case. I attended a book signing and speaking event for an author who lives just a few miles north of where I do. But the book in question had reach around the globe, and the story opened with a scene in Congo - where the author was on board a rickety plane that looked to be about to crash.

He is Nicholas Kristof, a New York Times columnist and for years before that a for4eign correspondent for the newspaper. Obviously he survived the rough landing and, just afterward, he pulled out his satellite phone and called his wife. The idea was to tell her he was okay, but when she came on the line, he decided otherwise: The story was best told in person.

Except, that soon afterward his wife got a call from the home office in New York which included the comment that people there were happy Nick had survived. Oops. The lesson after that, Kristof recounted, was: Immediate transparency about important events is helpful in a marriage.

Kristof's memoir, Chasing Hope: A Reporter's Life, is packed with stories about things learned in the field. He's Harvard and Oxford-educated, but much of what he recounts here - and a lot of the book is devoted to the practical work of researching and writing about places around the world, many remote and some of them extremely dangerous - which plainly constitutes its own form of grad school.

Some of that relates to how to get the work done (how, for example, you get past checkpoints filled with armed soldiers when you're in the4 country illegally). Some of it relates to how people live in places extremely different from the United States (the hazards of introducing himself in certain locales) by his nickname).

But some of it too comes from what you learn when you're on the ground and can see for yourself - which can look a lot different than it does from a distance. That applies not only to distance places in Africa and Asia but even to his home town area around Yamhill, where many of the problems facing parts of rural America can come into sharp focus.

There are plenty of reporter memoirs out, and many of them make for lively reading. (In the last few years, I especially liked Seymour Hersh's.) None I've seen, though, has been livelier, or covers more ground, than this one. He talks in detail about life growing up in small-town Oregon, about his time in universities and freelancing articles about places around the globe - an achievement that seemed to me as remarkable as anything else he has done - and dealing with deadly threats, from illness to being in a crowd fire upon by Chinese troops at Tiananmen Square (then frantically running on foot miles back to his residence to send the story so the paper would have its own version).

There's plenty of solid fact and earned wisdom here. And if you're in the mood for an adventure story, you can find a while pile of them between these covers.

Photo/World Economic Forum from Cologny, Switzerland, World Economic Forum Annual Meeting Davos 2010, CC BY-SA 2.0.

 

Doing the impossible

The single most useful political lesson in Idaho from last month’s primary elections may have come not from a congressional or legislative race, but from a school bond election in small-town Salmon.

The lessons weren’t immediately obvious, because they came not from the end result but from the way that result was achieved.

I’m leaning heavily here on an extensive account of this small-district, far-from-metro-area election in the excellent Idaho Ed News, which took the trouble to explain not just what happened, but also how and why. And the how and why are important.

Here’s the background.

As in many rural Idaho communities, the school district has been scrambling for funds for years. Money for operations, much of which comes from the state, has kept the schools running, but building needs have become severe. Those needs center on Pioneer Elementary School, built in 1959 and now close to a disaster area. As the Ed News explained, “the school’s foundation is crumbling, creating ripples in the floor that trip up the tiny feet of its students. Custodial staff crawl through raw sewage to fix backed up lines. Drainage on the site is poor and runoff leaks into the building. Bathrooms and the cafeteria are inaccessible to students with disabilities.” Among other things.

None of this is in dispute or unknown to the community (and the elementary school isn’t the only problem area). The school district board and administrators years ago proposed a bond issue to replace the school. It failed. Then it proposed another. It failed too. And the cycle repeated through 12 bond proposals and 12 failures. The last of them pulled 59% favorable, but that still wasn’t enough, since a two-thirds affirmative was needed.

Many people probably considered the situation hopeless.

And yet on May 21, they passed the bond, as voter turnout surged and 72% of voters signed off.

How did that happen?

First, different people got behind it, in the main not school administrators. That left space for others to jump in, and a core of about 30 volunteers started meeting, month after month, to consider the problem. Some had children in the schools, others were concerned about the community.

After months of work, the group went public and held a series of sessions aimed at both soliciting and answering questions. They also brought opposition arguments into sharper focus. The concerns covered such ideas as, “If we could see a plan and what our money is buying, then maybe we can support it;” “As long as it’s not fancy;” “We don’t need the Taj Mahal.” These were addressed.

On complaints about tax levels, the sessions finally brought a sense of where the break line was, defining the acceptable and unacceptable: Up to $20 million, most people could see their way to support, but not if it shot beyond that. (The proposal that passed was for $20 million.) Donations and alternative finance, and cost savings, were worked out as well.

That was just the beginning. The volunteer group - with help from school officials - conducted a media blitz and an intense public conversation through the local newspaper, online and wherever else was available. Nor was that all, as the Ed News said: “A few days before the election, committee leaders were confident the bond measure would pass, as if they had already tallied each vote — and they nearly had. Early in the bond campaign, the volunteers held a strategy session, where they read through the names of Salmon School District’s 4,999 registered voters and assigned a committee member to canvas for their ‘yes’ votes.”

After more than a  year and a half of organizing, it worked.

The lessons? People in the community should lead efforts like this. They should plan on working very intensively for a long time. They should run media communications, but not rely on that: Nothing beats face to face communication, between the more people, the better.

It’s hard work. But then, real democracy is.