Transparency: a tired refrain

For 40 years I’ve been having this conversation with newspaper readers, with elected officials, public employees  — even their lawyers, who often are less ignorant of the law than they are adept at looking for ways around it — and it’s getting old.

If you think that sounds condescending, then I’ll bet you think this song is about you … and it is.

Transparency is the name of this tune, and it is about everyone. If you’re a voter, it’s about your ability to trust your government and all of its extensions. If you also happen to be a public servant, it’s about your ability to gain and maintain the trust of all the rest of the voters. It’s about your responsible handling of the information with which you have been entrusted, and it’s about your willingness and responsibility to account for your actions.

You’re being transparent if you are obeying those laws. If you’re not, be prepared to be viewed as irresponsible, defiant, arrogant, controlling, suspicious and having something to hide. There are additional relevant adjectives, but you get the gist.

Unfortunately, some public agencies just don’t care. They appear determined to undermine open meetings and open records laws, forcing their opponents into court and spending taxpayer money to pay the legal fees. Public relations be damned.

Institutions of higher learning are now among those trying hardest to avoid the sunshine, to hide in the shadows.

The University of Kentucky has sued its student newspaper in an attempt to avoid complying with an attorney general’s order to release information — even to the attorney general himself — about how it handled allegations of sexual misconduct by a professor. The independent student newspaper will have legal fees in the tens of thousands, at least. Fortunately, it has financial support from the professional community.

Northern Kentucky University is requesting a gag order be issued in a lawsuit over the school’s handling of an alleged rape in a dorm three years ago. The victim claims the school and police mishandled the investigation. A local newspaper, on its own dime, has asked through its lawyer to intervene.

If you are the parent or prospective parent of a college student, you deserve to know how these problems are being handled. Hell, if you pay taxes, you deserve to know.

The universities argue they are trying to protect the privacy of the victims. But the identities of victims have in no way been revealed by either the professional or student media, and they wouldn’t be even if they were in hand. The universities know this. They are kidding no one about their real motives.

What they don’t want is anyone but their lawyers diving into their policies or the way they handled the situations in question. They don’t want to be examined or held accountable publicly. That’s all we can assume, based on their actions.

But the schools aren’t alone in their accountability fears. The Kentucky Horse Park Commission recently tried to keep a Lexington Herald-Leader reporter from an “invitation-only” meeting about the future of the park. How is that justifiable? It’s not, and after some pressure, the reporter eventually was allowed into the meeting. But the commission’s notion that it could get away with a secret meeting on so broad a topic is incredibly frustrating.

These are just the most troubling and visible in a recent wave of incidents occurring at every level of government almost every day. There are state agencies, city councils, fiscal courts and school boards across Kentucky that often act in either complete ignorance or complete disdain for the laws requiring they conduct business openly.

Most public agencies and officials try to do the right thing, and most who don’t are usually undereducated or ill-advised. But it doesn’t take much of an effort, or a law degree, to understand the rules, rules that are handed to all elected officials on their first day.

A responsible local press spends a good deal of its time educating and re-educating public officials about what their responsibilities are under the law, and holding them accountable. It’s easier in some communities than in others. But there is no denying that 40 years since this state passed laws that attempt to guarantee transparency, enforcing them remains a challenge.

So while this tired refrain is getting old, those of us who care will continue to put it to music whenever necessary.

 

Mountain air

The mountains can always cleanse my soul, even when I’m just among them rather than walking along their beautiful pathways — like today. I sit at this computer as my wife and her sister do the hiking. I’ll be their shuttle guy over the next three days. They are eternally grateful, as am I, this time. I need the peace that solitude can bring.

Despite not being on this hike — I will likely to join them on the next one — I still can smell the freshness of the slightly cooler air, the late blooming foliage and the turning leaves as I drive to the trailhead each morning to deliver their supplies, and even as I walk through downtown Bryson City, North Carolina, to scope out the local restaurants and watering holes, I smell it.

My hikers are in Macon County, marching along The Appalachian Trail through Nantahala National Forest. On our arrival, we couldn’t help but remember the late 90s, when there were more than just hikers and bears roaming these very mountains on one of the biggest manhunts in memory. The feds were frustrated and discouraged.

Eric Rudolph camouflaged himself for some five years in these parts. He was responsible for the Centennial Olympic Park bombing during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. One person was killed and 111 others were wounded. He also injured five in 1997 by bombing an Atlanta lesbian bar, and he killed two in 1998 by bombing an abortion clinic in Birmingham.

He had extensive military training and a right-wing hatred, reportedly steeped in his upbringing, for gays and pro-choice advocates. Macon County, North Carolina, specifically a small town named Murphy, was his home, and it was where he returned to hide out. He reportedly lived off the land in this region and rummaged through garbage until he was caught doing just that by a rookie cop on patrol in the early morning hours of May 31, 2003. He landed in prison and avoided the death penalty.

If you spend much time in this part of Appalachia, you can see how Rudolph avoided capture for so long. I suppose if you think about it too much, you might find yourself looking around every tree, every switchback and into the woods for another fugitive of justice. But most likely you will see just another tree, or if you’re lucky, a bear.

I will drive each of the next three mornings for about an hour to reach a pre-determined meeting place, a break in the trail where section-hikers park their cars, leaving them there to facilitate either starting or finishing their next adventure. The backroads are laced with creeks and cozy houses sporting all sorts of hanging plants, mountain farmland expertly toiled, perhaps even some folks who knew Eric Rudolph in one way or another. Maybe he robbed their gardens, or maybe they left a basket of food on their porch for a native son in trouble.

My mission is to supply my family with fresh clothes and water to carry them on to the next trailhead. I’ll bring along a basket of food. It will include a cup of hot coffee and a sausage biscuit for each, they’ll get a quick update on any overnight news, and then I’ll get a blow-by-blow of the steep climbs, the rock scrambles and the condition of the shelter the night before.

I’ll take a moment while I’m there to draw in a deep breath of the air never scented with the occasional diesel fumes that can sometimes hang in the hollers — trucks carrying equipment for the hard work done on hillsides. It soon drifts away.

When I return, the day may be spent in the hotel — reading, writing perhaps — or I may be found on the oasis up here they call the Sequoyah National Golf Club. Its greens and fairways top the mountain and look just like pictures in a magazine.

But I think a memory I will retain from this trip will be an encounter with an old man and his grocery store. It was very brief, but it was a step back in time. We pulled into a gas station up the road that had its pump handles covered and began to worry that fuel might be scarce. I decided I would fill up at the next store I saw, which happened to be King’s Grocery.

It was an old building. An enclosure of outhouses stood beside it to serve as public restrooms. The pumps were red and rusty. A sign said they contained 100 percent gas (no ethanol) and another said, “No credit cards and no debit cards. Sorry.” He was at least 20 cents higher than the going rate.

The store was cluttered and the old man sat on a stool behind the register, which didn’t appear to be plugged up to anything. I went in to tell him I was filling up, and went back to hand him two Jacksons to cover a $30 purchase. “I guess I owe you a dime,” he smiled and said as he handed me a sawbuck. It was the first time in a while I had actually paid a real person for gasoline, and used cash. I even had to put together that a dime was actually a $10 bill. I think he saw that in my grin.

There was something about that exchange. I know. It was a breath of fresh air.

 

 

Come Unto Me- A Meditation on Dog Training: Part One

This is a great read from a former staff member. Thanks, Jenny, for this calming diversion.

Yoga for y'all

As a child, I had a few notable dogs, and not one of them, to my knowledge, spent a single moment of their lives on a leash.

We lived in the country where dogs roamed free. They’d come to the back door for kibble or scraps (except for Trinket the toy poodle who exclusively ate hot dogs and Doritos). They went under the porch for extra shade. They’d keep us company for any adventures we took outside and would follow Daddy more faithfully and happily than any of the rest of us even though he was quickest to scold them and was never one to pet them.

They were our dogs, and we were their people; but we all belonged to nature first and foremost.  Our dependence on one another was loose and fairly balanced. We provided easy food, but they could hunt up some supper of their own if…

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With Bensenhaver gone, transparency may be ‘under duress’

Amye Bensenhaver likes to talk. There’s no denying that. She’s talks fast, too, like she’s afraid she won’t be able to give you all the information she has before the next question comes. And Amye has a lot of information.

That is, of course, why I called her.

It turned out to be a call Amye probably wishes she hadn’t taken. Her interview with me resulted in the strongest of reprimands and, ultimately, her decision to retire Thursday from her position as an assistant state attorney general. She has said it was the “last straw.”

I’ll admit to being angry and disappointed about the way she has been treated. Her superiors’ actions were way over the top.

Apparently, the 25-year veteran already was “under duress.” The dressing down she received most recently reportedly came on the heels of other office confrontations over such things as refusing to sign a legal opinion with which she didn’t agree — you can’t order Amye to violate her ethics — and editing an incorrect footnote in another.

Amye’s expertise is judging compliance or non-compliance with the state’s Open Meetings and Open Records laws. She arguably has written more opinions than anyone on the subject, opinions that carry the force of law unless overturned by a court. She knows the statutes so well she often spouts them word for word, chapter and verse included.

So, her unobstructed departure raises these questions: Why would an attorney general in office for less than a year allow an atmosphere to exist that pushes out his most experienced and knowledgable assistant on a subject over which his office wields the force of law? Did he create that atmosphere himself because he wants no pushback on controversial and questionable decisions that have potential political consequences? Were he or his minions unhappy that someone else might be getting too much credit for what happens under his name? (Elected officials tend to roll that way.)

I don’t know any of the answers. But I do know this. The reprimand in question had nothing to do with my skillful interrogation techniques, or any news coming out of the interview that would be remotely embarrassing to Attorney General Andy Beshear or his office. There is no there, there. The reprimand was all about Amye having spoken to me without getting permission. That was against policy — albeit a dreadful one for an office staffed by attorneys who should know what to say and to whom to say it, an office charged with enforcing government transparency laws.

And I’ve got news for the AG’s communications director, Terry Sebastian, who spewed accolades about the story in emails to me before he got the ball rolling on this crazily harsh disciplinary action. This wasn’t the first time in my decades-long journalism career that I’ve called the AG’s office and spoken with an attorney. It’s just the first time I’ve done so during this administration, and I’ve never been placed on hold while permission was requested.

The story was by my measure a positive report — bordering on a puff piece — about the 40th anniversary of the Open Records Act. It was long for a newspaper article, close to 2,000 words, and was commissioned by and distributed through the Kentucky Press Association to its members in celebration of that milestone. Our interview took place on May 25, and the story was published across the state on various dates in mid-June.

Amye Bensenhaver was first mentioned in the piece a little more than halfway through. “Buried” is the word most journalists might use for her contribution. Direct quotes from her were about the number of opinions issued from the office, the kinds of groups and individuals requesting those opinions, about her concern that inmates don’t get enough access, and about the challenges that email records present for the law. All of it amounted to fewer than 300 words, or about 15 percent of the article.

In her reprimand, she was blamed for being critical of the AG’s website, but she offered nothing close to a comment on that subject. That was all me, and I stand by the observation that the website is not as user-friendly to those interested in open meetings and open records information as it has been in previous administrations. Anyone who has used it over the years can confirm the changes.

Since her retirement, Amye has been interviewed by a number of journalists. Able now to speak freely, she has expressed a concern about the affect politics is having — and will likely continue to have — on the decisions the attorney general faces about Open Meetings and Open Records. Based on the recent Retirement Systems board debacle, the latest in a feud between Beshear and Gov. Matt Bevin, she has reason to be concerned. Her fear that enforcement of these laws will be politicized began years ago, she has stated. Her absence in the process will make that more likely.

At the beginning of this column, I mentioned that Amye likes to talk. It will escape no one who has worked directly with her that she also is a good listener, which makes her an excellent attorney. And did I mention her passion for the laws she interpreted? It is unparalleled.

Without her skills and knowledge, the AG’s office is less equipped to properly enforce the Open Meetings and Open Records laws. I hope that’s not by design.

Isn’t it ironic?

A man who can easily be described as a racist and a misogynist, a man who proposes religion as a test for those who would cross our borders, a man who lies and then calls others liars, is now the Republican Party’s presumptive nominee for President of the United States.

Some liberal critics of the conservative movement might suggest this result is, in fact, not so ironic and call this an I-told-you-so moment. But for a party establishment that has struggled to portray itself as “big tent” in its philosophy, a party that has recognized its need to reach out to minorities and women to enlarge its base, there is a different message being preached at this tent revival.

Isn’t it ironic that such a man can bring under that tent more voters than have ever cast a ballot in the party primary? He does so by alienating the country’s largest minority, declaring he will not only build a wall at Mexico’s expense to keep out illegal immigrants but will deport the 11 million already here. He does so by demeaning a female reporter during a debate, declaring that women who get abortions should be punished, calling an opponent and an opponent’s wife ugly, and by chastising Hillary Clinton for raising her voice.

Yet, “I can tell you, nobody loves women more than Donald Trump.”

Isn’t it ironic that Donald Trump can acknowledge that he will say anything it takes to get nominated — changing course if necessary to get elected — and still win the votes of those who have complained that their elected officials have done just that, somehow convincing them that his approach is different?

Isn’t it ironic that a self-professed billionaire has become the standard bearer for the so-called working class, the same group that claims to be suffering from the overblown success and greed of the rich? They apparently believe him when he says HE will put them back to work, HE will raise wages, HE will make certain the rich pay their fair share of taxes, even while refusing to prove he has done so himself, and HE will end Obamacare.

And isn’t it ironic that the Trump base requires nothing but the generalization his statements provide? No details. Just promises. These are the same people who complained that GOP legislators made the same kinds of promises and didn’t keep them.

Perhaps the most interesting result of this GOP primary has been the evolving relationship between Trump and the traditional leadership of the Republican Party. Having convinced all these new voters to come under the tent, Trump nonetheless is at odds with the party establishment, not just about his behavior but about his evolving and unclear position on the issues, about his commitment to conservative values.

There is some question as to whether he has any. Values, that is. And if he does, whether they really are conservative.

That concern led to Thursday’s meetings with party leadership in Congress in the hopes of bringing about some level of “unity” as the general election campaign gets into full swing.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, (R-Wisconsin), who reluctantly accepted the post with the departure of John Boehner last year, has yet to endorse Trump and reportedly used the meeting as an opportunity to get to know his party’s nominee and see where they might agree in principle.

There was no “come to Jesus” moment for either man, apparently, but predictably the spin is that the meeting went “great.” At least that was the assessment of Republican Party Chairman Reince Preibus.

Ryan was Mitt Romney’s running mate in 2012, and many suspect has aspirations to run for president in 2020. He has become the conscience of the Republican establishment, the leader of the party. He is now tasked with finding a way to embrace a nominee with whom he has strong differences and of whom he has been uncharacteristically and openly critical during the campaign.

It is a position Ryan surely never expected to occupy, but it is a must if there is even a chance to defeat Hillary Clinton in November. But there is a bigger picture.

The Republican Party is in control of both houses of Congress and is, or was, in position to retake control of the White House, a complete flip from when Barack Obama took office. Now the question is whether the down ballot candidates can be protected from a volatile, unpredictable nominee, and whether the party itself can survive this circular firing squad.

That’s the ultimate irony.

The back story: lumbering with the lumbar

My back hurts pretty much constantly. I’m not sure why. There are some possibilities.

It could be that big turn I made on No. 18 just before clobbering a drive 300 yards. Maybe it was the drag on the line as I reeled in that 40-pound catfish. Or that workout with the weights. Bench pressing 400 pounds three times is hard enough, but I just had to push it to four.
Right.

None of those exaggerations represents recent events, and at least one of them never happened. Well, two.

It doesn’t take much these days to strain this back. Standing up. Bending over. Walking. Running is not an option. The pain was exasperated the other day when I pretended to throw a folding chair at the TV as I watched Donald Trump kissing Bobby Knight’s … backside.

If you’re in your 60s and have spent most of your working days in a different kind of chair, you know it sometimes feels like you’ve tried those things — 300-yard drives, catching giant fish, bench-pressing 400 pounds — and failed. You probably can say to me, “I’ve got your back,” and mean it.

I haven’t always sat behind a desk, so I choose to blame a good bit of this chronic pain on an injury when working for a coal company as a young man. The truth is I was out of shape then as well. I remember a doctor post-injury dressing me down because I couldn’t even bend over and touch my knees, much less my toes.

It wasn’t just the pain, it was the resulting lack of flexibility.
This is a condition of epidemic proportion. According to the American Chiropractic Association, pain in the lower back is the leading cause of disability across the world, and 80 percent — 80 percent! — of adults have at one time in their lives dealt with low back pain. Half of working Americans report the problem at least once a year, and we spend at least $50 billion a year because of it.

Quite the machines, our backs. Lots of bones and joints and muscles, all of them needing attention. It’s primarily the lack of attention given that region that gives most of us problems. We have used it mostly for the luxury of being seated, and even then we have chosen the wrong position for too long.

We’ve also put more stress on it than is necessary when we’re upright. Turning sideways to the mirror, I can imagine my back as a flexible pole. Tied to it is a rope holding a medicine ball. Good thing the pole is flexible.

So, now I’m trying to deflate that ball (the hardest part) and strengthen that pole. I find myself on the floor doing the first of what I know will be a long list of strength and stretching exercises. Twice a day.

As I have been reminded, it took a long time to get to this point; it will take more than a little time to get better. And, while for years working through the pain for a few days seemed to be the easiest option, it now seems to be getting harder to do that. It takes more than a few days.

In the meantime, the yard still needs mowing, the garden tended, the golf course played. I’ll manage all of that with the help of those exercises and some over the counter pain medication.

I’ll pass on the weight lifting, and I’ll try to resist throwing imaginary chairs at the television.

No promises on that count.

So, what’s all the fuss about gas prices?

Gas was 25 cents a gallon, or thereabouts. The price of everything else at the time was irrelevant, except of course when it came to a Big Mac, large fries and a chocolate shake. Throw in a cheeseburger if your stomach was really growling.

At 16, that seemed like all of the time. We burned it off, too, the calories, that is. Just like the gallons of 25-cent gasoline it took to keep our parents’ cars running up and down Dixie Highway. We cruised round and round the McDonald’s parking lot, windows down, The Beatles playing loudly on the radio, or if you were lucky, the 8-track.

Some of us managed to talk Mom and Dad into our own cars. We had to work off the price after school. Pay them back. My first car was beloved by my best buddies. Not so much by the girls. It was a primer gray ’58 Chevy — nowhere near in its prime — bought for a couple hundred bucks from a friend of my dad. The guy had begun to fix it up but must have run out of either money or motivation. The latter, I came to suspect. We had to eventually pay $50 to have it towed away.

But it gave me, Rod and Doug a few good months, at least. Every now and then one of them will recall it in a Facebook post. It was a beaut.

There were shiny, ocean blue, vinyl bucket seats in the front, mounted on what appeared to be sawed-off two-by-fours that somehow managed to glide up and back on the original rail made for that purpose. The back seat was a matching roll-and-pleat bench. There was no carpet on the floor. You could see the metal bottom to the body, which was rusted out in a spot or two.

It had a cool steering wheel, though. A really small one, like in a race car — or more likely one of those dodge cars at the carnival. It had power steering, but you had to add fluid often and a full turn felt a lot like two.

Mileage? Who would remember such a detail at 25 cents a gallon? This 58 Chevy wasn’t equipped with air-conditioning, so we kept the windows down when necessary. That would be when it was hot or when we needed to prop our elbows on the door and wave at everybody cruising Mac’s.

Then there was the hole in the muffler that, you know, made it sound like more than it was. It was pretty hard to look the part, though, back then, in a 10-year-old car with automatic transmission on the column and bucket seats.

Those were the days, as they say. The old Chevy died, and before long so would the music. We were soon off to the call of college and the real world, where we became indebted to the government and the bank, instead of our parents. And where the price of gas would become a reason to remember and to consider the mileage achieved by every vehicle we would come to own for the rest of our lives.

It became much more than that, however. The price of gas became an indicator of all things. The price of milk. Travel plans. The stock market. Foreign affairs. The value of our paychecks.

That’s only because we noticed it, though, only because it was our paychecks being affected instead of those of our parents. The price of gasoline adjusted for inflation really hasn’t changed much, according to InflationData.com.
The website reports that the lowest inflation adjusted price of gasoline ever recorded actually was in 1998 at $1.48, and in fact, the price of gasoline hasn’t really been relatively different than it is now at any time in history. According to the website, “On an annual average inflation adjusted basis, gasoline prices have tended to peak in the same range over the entire 96-year price history.”

What that means is the 25-cent a gallon gas I was burning back then cost my parents the equivalent of $2 a gallon. Not so different from today’s dip into the pocketbook for a fill-up.

Who wants to go crusin’?