Friday, November 11, 2011

Occupy Wall Street - Good Deal. Now How About Occupy Government?

The Wall Street protestors deliver a well-developed disdain for corporate wealth and the undeniable and growing gap between rich and poor. But what they fail miserably at is identifying the incredibly wealthy, and growing, government employee ranks. Witness this well-done story in the Detroit News this week regarding public pensions in the state of Michigan. While 49 people receiving taxpayer-funded pensions of over six figures seems paltry in a day when a corporate board members pulls down the same for doing nothing, remember that these pensioners are also doing nothing. This money is provided to them just for a couple decades of showing up, with no investment on their part.
And let’s talk about greed. John Engler is paid $122,136 a year in pension income from the state, over twice the state’s 2009 family median income of $45,254. But Engler is also paid an annual package worth $1.3 million as president of the National Association of Manufacturers (see page 13).
This is a man who  signed 32 tax cuts into law during his reign as governor of Michigan from 1991 to 2002. We had to raise them again, of course. Those pensions…

Sunday, July 19, 2009


While Michigan is busy making sure the kids at 7-11 and Mikky Dees are properly compensated, we’re grateful to be here in Houston helping ensure the city’s airport system keeps its offshoot enterprises transparent and that everyone involved does the right thing. Public records in Texas are much easier to obtain than in Michigan due to both better laws and a media that has simply put its foot down in many cases and let government know that it has to do its business in the open. Perhaps it is not related, but Texas is also one of the few states not to be economically sagging.
Construction is booming and this city shows few signs of any sort of downturn. Michigan truly needs some kind of body like Texas Watchdog that will work to keep government honest. In many states, philanthropists and business interests are funding watchdog groups in the best way possible; line up with the right people, hand over the means and get out of the way. This does not have to be political in any way. Transparency is an issue that rewards both sides in the best way possible; it creates an even playing field.
So who’s going to get the ball rolling in Michigan? Is there someone else who sees the need for truly non-partisan coverage of government aimed at keeping records open and is willing to bring on dedicated journalism pros to do it?

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Michigan Last in Public Disclosure; Hiatus at Free Michigan

Despite passing legislation in the House regarding public disclosure of financial information for state officials, the bill, HB 4381 has stalled in the Senate. And now, a new study from The Center for Public Integrity finds our state ranks last in public disclosure for public officials.
Considering how the recession has struck the state's newspapers, it's hardly news that this has happened. The media's ability to act as watchdog has eroded considerably.
In our case, we at Free Michigan do this for free, as so many bloggers do. And now, we are taking some time and heading to Texas to work with Texas Watchdog, an esteemed group that we feel represents the future of journalism. Non-partisan coverage of anything, be it a city, issue or statehouse, is crucial. Transparency, as we've noted previously, is a somewhat blurry notion. Texas Watchdog doggedly pursues it better than anyone without even a hint of an agenda other than the truth. This is the journalist spot in which to be.
Here in Michigan, we have some troubles that we hope will be addressed in the future; a supposedly major newspaper located blocks from the statehouse with no capital presence; thinly staffed Lansing bureaus for the two Detroit papers; and several small Lansing bureaus for other media outlets in the state. Free Michigan has been embraced, it appears, primarily by audiences on the right. We take our readers where we can get them, but there is no reason that all of us - right left, center - can't agree that an open government serves the people best. When a state is in a free fall, as Michigan is, we have to look first at the leadership. At the top, that means the governor, be that leader a Republican or a Democrat. In this case, it's a Democrat. When the attorney general's office is accused of overcharging for a public records request, we simply open the records the best we can. In this case, it has been a Republican in charge of that office. Keep us on your favorites list; We'll be back in a while and will be providing updates on our work in Texas while noting developments in watchdog journalism, so please keep your eye on this page in the coming weeks.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Urban Chambers of Commerce: Think Before You Give Them Your Money

Detroit is a well-documented city in the tank, with one of the highest poverty rates in the U.S. and severe problems with corruption. The two city newspapers do a good job of uncovering the fiscal malfeasance and the abuse of the public trust.
But there is a place that has never been mined, and we have to wonder why it’s hands off. The Detroit Regional Chamber talks a good game about bringing good things to town. We really enjoyed this little essay about how the chamber worked on Detroit’s behalf in the auto flap.
But when we look at the chamber’s finances, we see little to enjoy.
What do you make of a group that brings in $5.4 million and spent $3.1 million in payroll-related obligations?
So this group spent 57 percent of its income on paying its officers. We think that's too much going for fat catism and not enough actually going to help the city.
Chamber President Richard Blouse was paid a package worth $444,476, including a base salary of $389, 683 in 2006. So how is he doing?
And Detroit is not alone in its money grubbing chamber folks.
In Los Angeles the percentage of chamber revenue that goes to salaries, benefits, and payroll taxes is 44 percent. In Minneapolis it’s 46 percent. In Dallas, 60 percent.
What a racket. Next time you feel you want to attend some chamber event to help out, remember who you are helping out; the well-dressed folks with the big smiles and the fat wallets.

Detroit Regional Chamber 2006 990

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

State’s Campground Occupancy Rate for 2008: A Not-Too-Bad 54 Percent

Hotels shoot for an average occupancy rate of between 60 and 65 percent, although this year the rates are projected to be lower than average at around 59 percent.
Hotel operators are there to make money, of course, and most answer to.
State campgrounds, paid for by us, don’t seem to have such standards. Nor do they ever have to answer to us.
We have already heard that our state parks are a wreck and have no money although we doubt it and our research weakens such a statement.
An attached report finds that the average occupancy rate for 2008 at state campgrounds was 54 percent, which we don’t find all that appalling. In 2007, the rate was 55 percent. But there are some parks that perform and some that don’t. Indian Lake campground in the U.P. is on the lower end, with an average occupancy of 24 percent for last summer season. State leaders find it OK, though, to spend $875,000 on upgrades to the park starting in September. William Mitchell Park in Cadillac, occupancy rate 62 percent, is getting $2 million for some work.
These campgrounds are valuable tools and create a higher quality of life for us. In times of road commissions and transportation departments that can't figure out how to keep our roads in decent condition, anything that can elevate our lifestyle standard is welcome.

Campground image by Flickr user CaptPiper CC 2.0

Campground Vacancy Rates 2008

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Public Notice Postings Online Are the Least of Our Concerns

The Lansing State Journal today opines on a bill that would permit local governments to post legal notices online if it chooses, rather than the more expensive and requisite public notice in a local publication. (can someone help me out with a number on that legislation?)
“Internet access to foreclosure notices, bankruptcy filings, meeting notices, bids for contracts and the like are great for people specifically looking for this information.
But that's a small, small slice of the public.
Honestly, who plops down in front a computer and says "I've got some time, why don't I check out Delhi Township's Web site and catch up on the latest zoning variances.”
People who want to know things, that’s who. The paper makes a good point in asserting that ideally, these notices would be posted both online and in print. Many of us no longer choose to pay for the print product put out by a number of publications because those pubs have opted out of the news business, for the most part. Some, in fact, don’t even have a statehouse presence.
We live online for much of our news. And that’s where the notices should be. And it is our responsibility to find them, if we want.
What is lamentable is the secrecy with which the myriad boards and panels of the state of Michigan meet.
How about the Michigan Civil Rights Commission meeting tomorrow (Monday)? This is the post you get.
If you want to find out, you call the agency and maybe they will tell you where that meeting is. But there appears to be little or no interest from the public and even less from the media, which was once a guardian of the public trust.
Other boards meet, do some weird things with public money, and no one knows that they were even meeting.
Did you know that on Aug. 19, the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund board will meet at Lansing Community College in Lansing?
We’d love to think there will be a media presence. Several outlets have offices a few blocks from the site.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Knocking Over Shrinking Cities. And Please Pare Down the Support Ranks, Too.

The news industry is always catching up to itself, and more frequently editors are letting through stories that have been published before.
An April story by the New York Times addressed an initiative to “shrink” cities, or taking out blighted neighborhoods wholesale.
The Times’ piece no doubt sprung from this Flint Journal story in March.
This is what news has come to.
The story is based in Flint, which, as you well know, has been a pox on Michigan for a long time and is home to both one of the nation’s highest crime rates and most widespread poverty. It has gone from a population of 200,000 in 1965 to 110,000 today. We’ve often wondered why school districts and municipalities never seem to contract along with the local population.
“Instead of waiting for houses to become abandoned and then pulling them down, local leaders are talking about demolishing entire blocks and even whole neighborhoods. The population would be condensed into a few viable areas. So would stores and services. A city built to manufacture cars would be returned in large measure to the forest primeval. “Decline in Flint is like gravity, a fact of life,” said Dan Kildee, the Genesee County treasurer and chief spokesman for the movement to shrink Flint. “We need to control it instead of letting it control us.” “
This week, the issue is back in the news because a reporter at the Guardian in the U.K. decided to spice it up by adding in a reference to President Obama. Bingo! Big chatter in a slower news cycle.
Having outlined his strategy to Barack Obama during the election campaign, Mr Kildee has now been approached by the US government and a group of charities who want him to apply what he has learnt to the rest of the country. Mr. Kildee said he will concentrate on 50 cities, identified in a recent study by the Brookings Institution, an influential Washington think-tank, as potentially needing to shrink substantially to cope with their declining fortunes. Most are former industrial cities in the "rust belt" of America's Mid-West and North East. They include Detroit, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh,Baltimore and Memphis.”
This talk is good, though, and the idea of taking these properties, plowing them and hoping for a better option is a good one.
The Flint Journal’s blog does a good job of fielding the issue, as it was the first one there.

Flint sign image by Flickr user theworldthroughmyeyes, CC 2.0