On more than just local government

Thursday, March 31, 2005

Dialing 9-1-1 and getting nothing

In the continuing search for alternatives to the telephone monopolies that have given us higher prices and reduced service, a growing number of people are considering using the Internet for their home and business communications needs. The service, known as Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP, is provided by companies like Vonage, the country’s largest Internet-based telephone service provider.

The problem is that Vonage, according to a lawsuit filed ten days ago by the Texas Attorney General, fails to make clear to its customers that its service does not include traditional 9-1-1 emergency contact. The lawsuit was brought following a Houston family’s attempts to contact emergency dispatch. They were thwarted in those attempts when their house was invaded by burglars. Two victims were shot multiple times while a daughter tried in vain to contact 9-1-1. Unknown to them, their Vonage system didn’t interconnect with the city’s emergency services.

Internet-based telephone system providers are not regulated at the federal or state levels. While some VoIP providers do interconnect with local 9-1-1, it is usually not automatic. In Vonage’s case, for example, a customer has to take some additional steps to enable the system to do that.

But even when they do, the calls from most of the VoIP providers, including Vonage, don’t necessarily go directly to the emergency call center. They often are routed through the police department’s administrative lines, requiring rerouting. This capability is often only available when the front office is staffed, which is usually during regular business hours.

The system also will not provide a caller ID number, which most emergency dispatch centers use to track a call when the person on the line is unable to speak or provide cogent addresses.

VoIP is a fast growing service, having made a ten-fold leap in subscribers in just the last year. According to Vonage, they have 500,000 subscribers in the US. As is often the case, legislation and regulation have not kept up with the speed of technological change. In this case, the Federal Communications Commission and state legislators all over the country must act quickly to help save lives.

Enormous amounts of money have been provided by the public, through fees on your telephone bills, and spent by local and state public safety agencies to create an emergency calling system that is powerful and effective. Calling 9-1-1 is high on the list of the things our children are taught about what to do in an emergency situation.

By not informing their customers, Vonage may be responsible for a growing number of injuries and deaths associated with the inability to contact 9-1-1. It is time to give that responsibility some teeth and force all VoIP providers to make automatic 9-1-1 interconnection a requirement.

Friday, March 25, 2005

Being Bill Clinton

At the opening of his Presidential Library in Little Rock, Arkansas late last year, former President Bill Clinton met up with an old friend of 30 years. The friend is a Pentecostal minister who, despite having very different views on issues such as abortion, supported Clinton in the 1992 and 1996 elections. In fact, this minister was helpful in getting a law passed in his state to provide equal rights in employment for gays, a point that surprised, and pleased the former President. Perhaps his many discussion of issues with the minister had done some good after all, he thought.

However, the minister told Clinton he had to confess something to him. This amused the former President. “If you have to confess to me, it must be real bad,” he told his friend. The minister told Clinton he had voted for Bush in 2004. When asked why, the minister said, “Because you guys stopped talking to me.”

The problem with being Bill Clinton is that you possess a brilliant political mind, have the ability to communicate in a way that people listen to and understand complex issues, have energy and drive galore, yet have, hopefully, decades of life left after having reached the highest possible level of political attainment.

Bill Clinton spoke last Tuesday and Wednesday at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion as part of the Music Center’s Distinguished Speakers series. (It was originally scheduled for Disney Hall, but the response was so great that they moved it into the larger Chandler.) Both nights sold out quickly.

He looks great. He is slim and is keeping himself in great shape following his heart bypass surgery last fall. Clinton’s list of activities seems endless, ranging from tsunami relief to assisting small female-owned businesses in India gain economic traction. One wonders whether he lives in the same 24 hour a day environment the rest of us do.

Yet all this world wide activity has not diminished his understanding of the nuances of the American political scene. He knows why the Democrats came up short in 2004. He knows how to fix it. And, he’ll spend time with anyone who wants to make it happen.

Clinton doesn’t buy the generally accepted notion that the Republicans stirred up the Christian fundamentalist base and that it caught the Democrats by surprise. In fact, he believes that the Democrats gave the Republicans the opening, just like with his minister friend, by assuming these people were lost to the party.

He said groups, such as the Catholic Church, became involved at unprecedented levels in the election because the vacuum created by marginalizing people with different views caused them to feel abandoned and fearful of what the Democrats might do if given power. “I didn’t realize Jesus was involved with any political party,” Clinton said. “One of the reasons they hated me so much was that whenever they tried this stuff, it didn’t work. As soon as the Democrats let it work, they won. We’ve got to stop letting it work.”

Each evening was divided in two parts. For about 45 minutes, the former President spoke without notes and using the classic Clinton body language of outstretched arms seeming to reach out to the audience. He is an engrossing speaker whether you agree with him or not. (I remember one National League of Cities conference in Washington late I his second term when a crowd of thousands, Republicans and Democrats, were held spellbound by an off-the-cuff talk about race and its meaning American society. After the speech, one of my Republican colleagues shook his head and said, “Now, I understand.”)

The key element of his speech was focused on explaining his view of the world in the 21st Century. “The last century,” he said, “was about interdependence. This is good, bad and both.” The good included the interweaving of technology, especially the Internet, into the fabric of the world. What is happening in Lebanon, or in the Ukraine or even China is enhanced, perhaps even completely made possible, by the ability of people to communicate with each other and learn more about the outside world.

On the bad side was 9/11. The interdependence we need for our economic survival, as well as the technology to facilitate communication, enabled people from disparate countries to coordinate an event whose worldwide economic impact is still being felt.

The mixed results can be seen in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, who are intensely interdependent. In 1998, when things were going well, no Israelis were killed by terrorist action. Since Arafat rejected the peace offering at Camp David in 2000 and the Intifada began, 1500 Israelis (average age: 24) and 4000 Palestinians (average age: 18) have been killed. Their interdependence kept them from separating enough to allow room to cool down.

Continuing on the Middle East, Clinton says that Arafat’s death and the election of Mahmoud Abbas. Clinton believes that Abbas has a short period of time in which to turn this interdependence from bad to good. While it may not be an exact role model for other nascent democratic movements, the success of Abbas would have enormous impact on the region.

As for the growing sense of democracy in the Middle East, Clinton expressed great praise for the brave Lebanese who have risen up to call for the removal of Syrian troops from their country. However, he said that a great deal of the credit goes to the Bush administration for involving the French President Jacques Chirac in the process. This example, as well as the involvement of Britain, Germany and France in the negotiations regarding Iran and China, South Korea and Japan in the North Korean issue indicates an understanding of the limitations of unilateralism.

“Whatever you feel about how we got into Iraq, this must work,” he said. “There should be no timetable for our withdrawal. We need to be there until it works.” However, the experience of our involvement in Iraq has made very clear that we do not have the infrastructure to do it again.

However, the primary focus of Clinton’s address was about the need to move from interdependence to an integrated global community expressing shared responsibilities, benefits and values. This community does not, according to Clinton, mean giving up sovereignty. However, it does mean understanding that there is a common structure of need that must be satisfied.

The first part of this structure is security. Without that nothing can succeed. Next is understanding that we can’t kill or occupy everybody who disagrees with us. “We need to fix the terrorism problem, but it must be done through health, economics and stability. New democracies most definitely have need of that.”

Third, “we need more organizational cooperation on both governmental and non-governmental levels.” The reason we have any kind of stability in Afghanistan is not just because of our 20,000 troops, but the addition of 20,000 troops from NATO. “The only way,” he said, “we can keep North Korea from becoming a nuclear Wal-Mart is by working with the other powers in the region.” The $200 billion we will have spent in Iraq makes it, in constant dollars, as expensive for us as World War I. we don’t have the resources, particularly in an era of huge deficits, to do it again.

An additional growing force in the world is that of NGOs, or non-governmental organizations. In situations, such as tsunami relief, these groups have been the most effect means of getting help to the people who need it immediately. “We need to cooperate and coordinate to make the best use of this powerful new resource,” Clinton said.

Finally, it is important to make America a better and better model of the value of an integrated global structure. “Our present economic policy,” he said, “undermines this. Tax cuts are not a good example of shared responsibility.

“We’ve never had four tax cuts in time of war. But worse, our policies have driven 80% of our national savings to service the deficit. Over 40% of our new debt is owned by other countries. We are making China richer every day while making ourselves poorer.” Other world leaders have told Clinton that if they did what the Bush administration has done economically, they’d “be in jail.”

He cited hope for the future, however, using a quote from Winston Churchill. Before the US entry into World War II, Franklin Roosevelt did everything he could, surreptitiously, to help the British. The Lend-Lease program is the best example. When hounded by the press and other political leaders about why the US wasn’t joining them in the war effort, Churchill told them to be patient. “The US.” he said, ‘always does the right thing…after they have exhausted every other alternative.”

The next 45 minutes was an interview by NPR (KCRW) radio newsman Warren Olney. He hoped Clinton would be expansive in his answers, probably a request he really didn’t need to make. The answers were chock full of information, but, as is the former President’s style, never boring.

The natural first question about Hillary’s plans was deftly avoided by saying that “she hadn’t told him and, he hoped, he would be disappointed if he weren’t the first to know.” He had enormous praise for his wife’s efforts as Senator from New York, indicating that she is the Senator with the most bi-partisan bills over the last 4 years. She is up for reelection in 2006. After that, she will consider what comes later.

The next question dealt with social security. Clinton’s answer was a perfect example of his ability to speak to a complicated subject and deliver it in an understandable manner for everyone. In short, he does not agree completely with the Bush privatization plan, but feels that it may be a good start. His problem is that it doesn’t resolve any of the intrinsic problems with the system.

Clinton has no problem with adding a layer of privatization on top of a base level program, but does not see the value in diminishing the system, thus likely adding more future seniors to the level of poverty. For 18% of all seniors today, social security is their only source of income. This does not include those people on disability income or survivor’s benefits, which the Bush plan doesn’t seem to deal with.

Congress has been using the Social Security surplus as cover for its own spending. This year’s deficit of $400 billion is actually $550 billion. The $150 billion “borrowed” from Social Security makes it look smaller. In addition, the trustees of the plan, who are responsible for future projections on the system’s viability, have consistently moved the target.

During Clinton’s last year, it was supposed to go bankrupt in 2027. Now, it is 2048. Projections out 50 to 75 years are notoriously inaccurate. But something needs to be done, he said. There is a short term problem when the baby boomers hit the system. After that, it returns to normal again, as there are relatively more and more younger workers to fill the system’s coffers.

In closing, Clinton returned to his theme of shared responsibility, benefits and values. “We make a big mistake,” he said, “in thinking that we have to dislike the people we disagree with. That is a miserable way to live. We need to debate our differences, not denounce our opponents.”

Once China, for example, becomes rich, they will make choices about how to spend their money. Will it be for defense or for infrastructure? “Having shared responsibilities, benefits and values will make that decision one that will be better for us and the rest of the world."

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

I guess the era of big government ISN’T over

No matter what position you may take on the sad situation regarding Terry Schaivo, the woman in Florida whose life, and possible death, are the subject of strongly felt emotions on both sides, the one sure thing that has emerged is the desire of the Federal government to work its way into some of the most intimate decisions a family can make.

The problem is not this particular case itself. For some, it is the place of government to protect those who seem not to be in a position to protect themselves. That is the basis for a great deal of disability law. But for others who understand that no matter how much a piece of legislation is aimed at a specific case, they are worried that history has proven that it never really is.

Why should someone in local government be concerned about this? Because local government is the place where the impact of these decisions is felt the most. Rarely, however, does any compensation come with the demand. In the local government business, these are known as unfunded mandates.

Most of the time, the issues associated with these unfunded mandates are the result of regulation, such as storm water runoff, etc. However, if the Federal government were to get itself more involved in decision-making at a personal level, like in the Schaivo case, the costs of locally financed programs, such as the health care system, may be severely impacted. And this would be on top of an already overburdened and underfunded system that is today not delivering the care it was created to perform. Will they provide the money to make it work? Unlikely.

The court system, overstetched with its present case load, also could melt down from lawsuit after lawsuit from family members unhappy with the decisions made by those supposedly provided with authority over other family members. Challenges to living wills could increase the difficulty in resolving family issues once thought simple to manage. Will they provide the money to make it work? Unlikely.

Once again, this is not about the Schaivo case, but about what happens if the precedent created by what Congress has done is taken to a logical result. As has been mentioned many times in this space, the only immutable law of government is the Law of Unintended Consequences. This situation seems ripe for proving that that law is always actively in play.

The Schaivo case will not produce a result that satisfies everyone. It is not a dispute that can be mediated. Either she lives or she dies. Yet, when it is decided, it can be finished.

Congress, however, should understand that what it does rarely is finished. By getting involved in this case, it may have opened Pandora’s box. I hope they understand and send resources to ease the burden.

But, I doubt it.

A cautionary tale from "The Independent" in Britain

Paul Cooper never found himself short of friends in the area of north Manchester where he grew up. He was known for his devotion to his dog, Blue, an interest in cookery and an optimistic outlook, despite a motorcycle crash that meant he needed a walking stick to get about.

But a positive contribution to community life counts for little when a neighbourhood starts feeding on fears of crime and takes the law into its own hands.

A murder investigation was under way yesterday after a gang of men near Mr Cooper's home at Heywood wrongly convinced themselves he was a paedophile and beat him to death at his flat.

Detectives were forced to stress Mr Cooper's innocence after being hampered in their investigation by locals who are unwilling to give evidence because they believe he was a sex offender.

Mr Cooper's disability hampered his attempts to defend himself against the attack, by several young men, which took place at about 11.45pm on Friday, at his flat in Walton Close, a concrete-clad block of flats near Heywood town centre.

He was subjected to a "brutal and prolonged" attack, detectives say, and was found with serious head injuries in his bathroom. He was pronounced dead on arrival at Fairfield General Hospital.

Despite the police's insistence that Mr Cooper, 40, was an entirely innocent victim of "mistaken identity", the climate of bigotry and vitriol that contributed to his death was still palpable in Heywood yesterday. "Some people deserve to be killed," said a drinker at the Starkey Arms pub before issuing an obscenity about Mr Cooper and his dog.

Greater Manchester Police have come across the same sentiment as they have set about solving the crime. "We are trying to dispel the myth that has developed in the area that Paul was involved in paedophile activities," said Detective Chief Inspector Jeff Mahon of Greater Manchester Police. "We have checked our records and there is no trace of anything of that nature. However, the myth appears to have led to tragic consequences. Paul was a nice lad who did not deserve to die."

Mr Cooper's death appears to reflect the nationwide climate of suspicion and fear being fuelled by growing public concern over crime and punishment.

Rising hostility toward minority groups, clamour for tough sentences against offenders and a sinister desire for retribution are being driven by an increasingly prevalent right-wing agenda.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Are the values screwed up?

Hours and hours of bloviated Congressional speechifying was spent on whether or not a woman who said she wanted to die can. Not a second has been spent on the ability of a 16 year old, who now seems to have been having a love affair with Adolf Hitler, to get a gun and run through a school killing indiscriminately (after, of course, popping off his grandparents).

Right to life, huh?

Friday, March 04, 2005

The Family Man?

Political campaigns are often filled with rhetoric that, in retrospect, seems impossible to have been uttered. Promises are made, positions are taken and comparisons are cast which have no basis in fact or possibility. This bombast, sadly, is an element of the usual context in which people approach their decision about their vote. Rarely does the rhetoric approach the responsibility of the offices they are all seeking.

Then, there is the more subtle campaign. That’s the one where innuendo and discomfort with the details of the other candidates’ lives are brought into the mix. Usually, these are not found in the words that are written in campaign material or spoken in debates. They are presented in one-on-one discussions or small gatherings, where no reporters are present and the only ones who hear these personal attacks are the ones meant to hear it.

The issues raised there are the ones people don’t talk about in public. Yet, they actually define the attacking candidate. They are about prejudice. They are about alleged failings in people because they don’t follow the same path the “proper” candidate follows. They are about lies that can’t be spoken in public for fear of being shown for what they are.

The idea that a person is a “family man” purely because they have a wife and a couple of kids defies the truth that we have seen far too often in the newspapers and on television. How many of these “symbols of perfection” have ended up the perpetrator of some criminal activity causing their unsuspecting neighbors to declare, “What a surprise. He was a good family man…?”

The public status of one’s personal relationship tells nothing about the individual, as we all should very well know. After all, don’t more than 50% of marriages end up failing? Yet, some continue to fall into the trap. (It also makes me wonder why the gay community should want to get married, considering how completely the straight community has screwed it up.)

To many who believe in this “family man” ethic, relationships have to fit very strict guidelines. To them, even my own relationship, 35 years of marriage with no children, is a lesser one. After all, isn’t marriage for procreation?

No, it is not. The millions of people who have no children whether by choice, or by happenstance, should not have their lives denigrated in that way. There is no demonstrable example of anyone being a better public official because they had 2.3 children.

The problems facing our city, county, state or country can best be met by smart, involved, principled people who speak directly on what are the problems and the possible solutions. These are people who put their service to the communities they wish to represent at the forefront. Lots of people with very differing backgrounds fit that bill. It is time we focused on what is being said rather than the personal details of speaker.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Fiddling while cities burn

While much of the attention of the public has been focused on the arcane details of the President’s Social Security plan, the fiscal rape of city budgets is going on unnoticed.

The FY 2006 budget proposal issued by the White House last week includes devastating cuts to programs that have worked extremely well in educating our children, protecting our communities and assisting our least fortunate. As an example, the proposed budget includes elimination of the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) Program, COPS hiring grants and likely cuts to Section 8 housing.

CDBG programs help cities to fund job creation, community/economic development and home ownership/affordable housing programs. According to the National League of Cities, last year CDBG created or retained 90,637 jobs. For every one dollar of CDBG funding, approximately $2.79 in private funding was leveraged for economic development projects, like shopping centers and grocery stores.

The COPS hit is particularly egregious since it includes police hiring (police on the street), juvenile programs (particularly after school) and justice assistance (anti-gang activity) grant cuts for programs that have been proven over the years to make communities safer. This COPS program has been credited with putting over 100,000 police officers on the street.

It has funded technology initiatives that have freed up officers from mundane tasks to get them out from behind their desks and on patrol where they can do the most good. It has worked exceptionally well. There is no excuse for cutting it.

The Section 8 cuts hurt the people who live in our communities who need a little bit of help to maintain a residence. The Beach Cities have always had a limited supply of this housing, but for those who need the help, it could be the difference from having to uproot one’s children from schools they are familiar with. It is not a way of life, but a helping hand for a neighbor.

All of these cuts are being piled on additional reductions in city revenues from the lastet swipe by the Governor at local government budgets. Millions of dollars originally intended for local government are being rerouted to Sacramento to help alleviate the State’s fiscal woes. Add this to the ongoing ERAF raid of funds since the early 1990’s and local governments are in a world of hurt. Billions of local dollars are ending up in Sacramento.

Proposition 1A, the fiscal protection initiative for local governments approved by the voters in November, does not take effect until the 2006-7 fiscal year. In the meantime, belts will be worn tighter at City Halls all over California and the country. The cuts in service will be painful. Just remember where they all came from.