Thursday, September 26, 2013

Pontiac native’s book on Detroit reissued

A book on Detroit by Pontiac native Zev Chafets that was published in 1990 has been reissued after a push from talk show host Rush Limbaugh.

“It was in the fall of 1986 that I first saw the devil on the streets of Detroit,” Chafets wrote.

“We were introduced by a friend who works for a local radio station. ‘Spend the evening before Halloween with me and I’ll show you something you’ve never seen before,’ he promised. ‘People try to burn down their own neighborhoods. They call it Devil’s Night.’”

Chafets, a former columnist for the New York Daily News, continued:

“I vaguely remembered Devil’s Night. When I was a kid growing up in Pontiac, a grimy industrial clone of Detroit ten miles north of the city, it had been a time of harmless pranks — window soaping, doorbell ringing and rolls of toilet paper in the neighbors’ trees. But it had been twenty years since I lived there, and a lot of things had changed. One of them was Devil’s Night.

“Three years earlier, in 1983, for reasons no one understands, America’s sixth largest city suddenly erupted into flame. Houses, abandoned buildings, even unused factories burned to the ground in an orgy of arson that lasted for seventy-two hours. When it was over the papers reported more than eight hundred fires. Smoke hung over the city for days.

“What at first appeared to be a bizarre outburst turned into an annual tradition. By 1986, Devil’s Night had become a prelude to Halloween in Detroit in the way that Mardi Gras precedes Lent in New Orleans, or the Rose Bowl parade ushers in the New Year in Pasadena.”

“It really is a fascinating story about Coleman Young and the white flight to the suburbs and how Young decided to do battle with them rather than make peace and bring them back,” Limbaugh told his listeners.
  According to Wikipedia, Devil's Night is an integral part of the 1994 film “The Crow,” which was set in Detroit.

    In the 1997 film Grosse Pointe Blank, which takes place in the Detroit suburbs of Grosse Pointe, the character Debi Newberry says that her apartment burned down on Devil's Night.
  Detroit hip-hop group D12’s 2001 debut album is titled “Devil's Night” and features a song with the same title.
 The 2002 film “8 Mile” features a sequence where the characters torch an abandoned house in Detroit that was used for crime, in reference to Devil's Night.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Westland sued over access to documents

Michigan taxpayers should be grateful to the Mackinac Center for Public Policy for taking up a battle on its behalf.

The center claims in a lawsuit that the city of Westland is charging an illegal fee to people seeking public information.

In June, Michigan Capitol Confidential, which is the news service of the Mackinac Center, sent Freedom of Information Act requests seeking financial information from every municipality in the state that operates a golf course. Westland responded that the city requires a $5 fee before it will provide any information.

Westland also said it would cost $1 per page for copying costs and $45.61 per hour for the person gathering the information.

This is a problem common to media outlets in Michigan. FOIA should not be seen merely as a freedom-of-the-press type of law, however, since all citizens are empowered by it. After all, the public documents sought are produced at the expense of taxpayers who own them.

Michigan has a good FOIA law, but poor enforcement procedures. The only way to get enforcement is to do what the center is doing — filing a lawsuit. News entities increasingly lack the resources to seek justice in a system seemingly tailored for the rich. 

 According to Michigan's FOIA law, public entities may only charge, "a fee for a public record search, the necessary copying of a public record for inspection, or for providing a copy of a public record." This money, the act says, "shall be limited to actual mailing costs, and to the actual incremental cost of duplication or publication including labor, the cost of search, examination, review and the deletion and separation of exempt from nonexempt information."

Mackinac Center attorney Patrick Wright said the fees Westland wanted to charge are illegal.

"Charging a $5 fee to simply start the process is just a roadblock the city has put up to try and discourage people from participating in the democratic process," Wright said. "If it can be $5, then why not $1,000?"

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Pontiac, Detroit fates compared

In case you missed it, the plights of Pontiac and Detroit were compared in a New York Times story.

Blair McGowan of the Crofoot Ballroom in downtown Pontiac called our attention to it.

A few choice excerpts follow:

• “As speculation grows about what Detroit, just 30 minutes south of here, will look like when it is expected to emerge from bankruptcy proceedings and state control a year from now, Pontiac’s experience offers a glimpse at the myriad complications that accompany a transition back to elected leadership after an emergency manager departs.”

• “‘They didn’t work with me or have anything to do with me for two years,’  Louis H. Schimmel, the most recent emergency manger in Pontiac, said about the City Council. ‘They have no idea how to run this city.’”

• “Mr. Schimmel, whose budget will be locked in for two years after his departure, is one of four members of a state advisory board that will monitor financial decisions made in Pontiac until the transition is complete.”

• “‘ I just want to make sure my policies don’t go down the drain,’” he said, adding that the handoff would take at least a couple of years. State officials will determine when the transition is over.”

• “Though far smaller than Detroit, Pontiac followed a similar descent into fiscal disarray. Home of General Motors’ namesake brand, the city and its coffers were crippled by the downturn of the auto industry. It has lost more than one-quarter of its taxpayers over the past four decades; today, its population is roughly 60,000.”

Monday, September 16, 2013

Getting answers from Oakland University

If you’ve ever listened to “Car Talk” on National Public Radio you know that the hosts often speak apologetically — though humorously — about their NPR connection. They are trying to placate their conservative audience.

Some conservatives are critical of NPR because it receives federal funding. Conservatives get government support too, whether in the form of tax breaks or benefits, but there is no point in trying to be too logical about that today.

No, today we address another object of conservative scorn — the American Civil Liberties Union.

The context is Oakland University’s reluctance to embrace transparency.

Two Oakland Press journalists, Paul Kampe and Megan Semeraz, have courageously taken on this behemoth as they have sought explanations behind the firing of women’s basketball Coach Beckie Francis.  They have been stonewalled by OU officials hiding behind false assertions of about what the public is entitled to see under Michigan’s Freedom of Information laws.

FOI laws vary from state to state, and are administered differently as well. The problem is not Michigan’s law, but how it is enforced, or, rather, not enforced. Practically speaking, the only way you can force an entity like OU to comply with the law is to take it to court.  The problem with that is that no media lawyer worth his or her salt can take the case because they all do work for OU and, thus, have a conflict of interest.

Now OU is trying to muzzle its students.

A condition of the school’s student-athlete handbook stipulates student-athletes not speak with the media without the prior consent of the Athletic Communications Department. Journalists Kampe and Semeraz have been prevented from speaking with current players since Francis’s firing June 12.

That is where the ACLU enters the picture. It has sent OU  has sent a letter asking the school to discontinue its practice of preventing student-athletes from discussing their treatment under  Francis.

Thank God for the ACLU. Conservatives can gripe all they want to but without the ACLU in this case, the public is hopelessly shut out. If the ACLU didn’t stand up to a government institution in this case, no one else could.

Maybe there is no groundswell among the public demanding the information about Ex-Coach Francis, but OU is a tax-supported institution. If the public doesn’t care how its money is spent, that bodes ill for our nation’s future. Fortunately, some people still do care.

Government at all levels suppresses information. If the public doesn’t stand up and demand the government it wants, it will get the government it deserves.

None of this is to disparage OU as the great institution it is. But as Lord Acton said: “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Kudos to Oakland County, Brooks Patterson

It couldn’t have happened to a greater county or a better leader.

The national spotlight fell on Oakland County as the current issue of Governing magazine, the  nation's leading media platform covering politics, policy and management for state and local government leaders, saluted Oakland’s government and long-time leader, L. Brooks Patterson.

Publisher Erin Waters noted that “If you ask the average American citizen what part of our government owns and maintains 44 percent of the roadways and spends $68.3 billion on health-care services, I don’t think you will get the correct answer. If you ask a government employee
which government entity spends a combined $472 billion on law enforcement, education, construction and human services, a few might know, but many won’t.

 “The answer, if you haven’t guessed, is America’s counties. They employ 3.3 million people and have 19,300 elected officials, but knowledge of what they do is woefully inadequate.”

Last month the National Association of Counties  hosted its annual conference in Fort Worth. The event borrowed NACo’s current — and relevant — campaign, “Why Counties Matter.”

“I was honored to take part in the event and appreciated the opportunity to host a discussion with a few prominent county executives who are achieving results, despite challenging circumstances,” Waters wrote. She continued:

“Few leaders serve as better examples than the Oakland County, Mich., Executive L. Brooks Patterson. Oakland County shares a border
with Detroit, and Patterson has served the county for 21 years. He first entered government service as a public defender there, and during those 16 years, he never lost a case.

“Later, as county executive, he exhibited resiliency and good judgment in anticipating the economic decline and holding the county to a strict three-year rolling budget, which resulted in a $250 million surplus during a time when neighboring cities and counties were experiencing the opposite. Patterson believes in identifying and recruiting talented people and then stepping aside to let them do their job. He, along with fellow county executives in Ulster County, N.Y.; Athens County, Ohio; and Cook County, Ill., to name a few, are the best reflections of what counties do and why they matter.”

We couldn’t have said it better ourselves. We just wish our national government would follow Oakland County’s example.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Probing opposition to Obamacare

What is at the heart of Republican opposition to Obamacare?

We get it about government control, socialized medicine and all that, but Medicare and Medicaid are relatively successful programs.

At its core, the new Affordable Care Act is about supplying insurance to people who don’t have it.  They may be retired, disabled or working for an employer — usually a small business — that doesn’t provide coverage. Or they may be children of such individuals.

Many of these folks are on their own and cannot afford the high premiums such insurance carries. To push ideas like medical savings accounts to such individuals misses the point about where the dollars to save will come from in the first place.

Do the Republicans who oppose Obamacare just not want these folks to be covered? Is it a matter of them saying they have their coverage and they don’t want to share the medical services they enjoy with others?

To be sure, as more people are covered, medical facilities and doctors’ practices will be stretched. But is the answer to limit care to the haves and ignore the have-nots?

Visiting with the Oakland Press Editorial Board recently, U.S. Rep. Sander Levin, D-Royal Oak, wondered whether the social contract is eroding.

What is the social contract?

According to Wikipedia, the concept originated in the Age of Enlightenment and  typically addresses the legitimacy of the authority of the state over the individual. Social contract arguments typically posit that individuals have consented, either explicitly or tacitly, to surrender some of their freedoms and submit to the authority of the ruler or magistrate (or to the decision of a majority), in exchange for protection of their remaining rights.

In a rational society freedom is not absolute. For instance, there are such things as speed limits, taxes to support national defense and laws prohibiting pollution. A typical phrase used to be: “Your freedom ends where my nose begins.”

 There is also help for the individuals who cannot provide for themselves.  It is as American as apple pie.

“The social compact — also called "The Social Contract" — was made popular by French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the 18th century,” said Fox commentator Bill O’Reilly. “Basically, Rousseau says that a central government has an obligation to help its citizens in pretty much every way ... The desire for protection is not only against Al Qaeda or Attila the Hun, but also against starving or being homeless.”

Obviously the question in a free society is how much help to provide. That is up to the people.

Few Americans, for instance, are opposed to unemployment benefits, Social Security, Medicare, providing lunches to children from low-income families, educational benefits to veterans of the armed services and financial help to those who are disabled.

Whether education and health care are basic rights is certainly suitable for debate, but denial of such benefits raises legitimate questions about the definition of compassion.

Of course, affordability comes into play as well. The people of Michigan, for instance, have decided they will provide whatever care — at whatever expense — is necessary for those permanently injured in auto accidents through our no-fault insurance program. Some of us are proud of this fact.

To simplify, are we our brother's keeper? To what extent?

Columbia University Professor Thomas Edsall supplied an in-depth look at social contract theory in a recent blog.

One thing is certain: People ought to be able to advance their ideas on the issue without being demonized. They also should be able to articulate their views beyond slogans and sound bytes.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Good-paying jobs, or just jobs?

Walmart workers are free to seek higher wages. They can protest as much as they want. That’s the great thing about America.

Non-union-led work stoppages designed as protests have been reported across the nation at stores owned by the nation’s largest employer. A group called Making Change at Walmart is leading the charge for minimum pay levels of $25,000 annually for Walmart workers. That’s $12 an hour. The group claims the average Walmart wage is $8.81 per hour.

Now if a person doesn’t want to work for that low a wage, he or she can seek a job that pays a higher amount. That, too, is the American way.

The federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour.

The Wall Street Journal reported that the average hourly pay for a nongovernment, non-supervisory worker, adjusted for price increases, declined to $8.77 last month from $8.85 at the end of the recession in June 2009, according to Labor Department data.

 So Walmart is actually ahead of the game.

And in case you haven’t noticed, it’s not like the employment rate in this country is roaring. The federal unemployment rate for July was 7.4 percent, a historic high for a "recovery" that is this far along.

The push for higher wage jobs is nothing new. The Walmart activists say the company made $16 billion last year and, presumably, the wealth isn’t being shared, according to them. But it is probably being shared with stockholders, without whom there wouldn’t be much of a company. This stock resides in portfolios that, among other things, are funding people’s retirements. So let’s not belittle the stockholders. They are as apt to be on fixed, low incomes as anyone.

What if there were more higher paying jobs at Walmart, but the total number of jobs was fewer? Customers might not be happy if the result is longer waits in longer lines.

And more people would be out of work. So it gets down to a question of, if we have a choice, do we want higher paying jobs or just more jobs? Glib answers serve no one’s purpose. Just to say we’re sure Walmart can afford to pay higher wages may not be borne out by actual facts.

As the late New York Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan once said: "You are entitled to your opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts."


Tuesday, September 3, 2013

New Republican-Democrat coalition?

Perhaps a promising new model of bipartisanship is developing right under our noses.

It has occurred nationally and in Michigan, pretty much as a byproduct of what appears to be a growing split in the Republican Party.

What happened is simple in both instances. 

A majority of House Democrats joined a minority of Republicans in approving the tax increase on the upper 2 percent of wage earners in Congress in January. Republicans control the House so their part was for the leadership to not only allow the measure to come to a vote, but to support it.

The same thing occurred in the Michigan legislature. A minority of Republicans in both chambers last month joined a majority of Democrats in approving an expansion of the state’s Medicaid program.

Republicans control both chambers in Michigan while Democrats in the nation’s capital control the U.S. Senate.

Bitter acrimony among Republicans has followed these votes, with opponents of the Tea Party “just say no” strategy branded as traitors to the party.

Macomb Daily columnist Chad Selweski made use of  Rich Studley’s definition of the dispute within the GOP. Studley, chief executive officer of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce,  sent a tweet recently in which he said: “There is a big difference between supporting limited government and being anti-government.”

That about sums it up. Many non-libertarian Republicans are increasingly uncomfortable with the hard lines taken by such  figures as U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, who they see as too rigid. Libertarians tend to take a one-size-fits-all approach regardless of the issue, and in some cases some Republicans would rather be identified with Democrats who appear to be taking a common-sense stance on things that simply shouldn’t be issues.

In Michigan, for instance, Republican Medicaid expansion supporters  could not see the logic of turning down billions of dollars of federal money that will pay for currently uncompensated health care and take pressure off private insurance policy holders. 

These differences are likely to play out in the coming weeks as Republicans devise strategies to handle budgetary and debt issues in Washington D.C.