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Don’t sue over recall

We thought the recall campaign against Baker School Board Chair Lynne Burroughs and Director Mark Henderson was over.

It should be.

And indeed it would be over, had Burroughs, Henderson and Director Andrew Bryan decided Tuesday evening to let this unfortunate episode recede into history.

Instead, that trio, despite two of the three having prevailed at the ballot box less than two weeks ago, refused to let the matter rest.

Fortunately, they didn’t commit the school district to a legal morass that could linger for months.

Yet their decision to seek advice from a lawyer about the possibility of suing Kerry McQuisten, the chief petitioner in the failed campaign to recall Burroughs and Henderson, was neither necessary nor productive.

Vindictive seems to us the more appropriate adjective.

This is not about the money, the estimated $10,000 the school district will have to pay for the Dec. 11 election.

Even if the school district did sue McQuisten, and then won in court, it would recoup only that cost.

The school district’s annual budget is about $15.7 million.

The loss of $10,000 has no measurable effect on the quality of education the school district offers.

What a lawsuit would do — and, arguably, even the threat of a lawsuit, which is where things stand now — is discourage citizens from exercising their legal right to try to recall elected officials.

We opposed the attempt to recall Burroughs and Henderson, and we felt the same about two recall campaigns against Baker City Council members over the past decade or so.

But aside from our opinions about the merits of those specific recalls, we strongly support the recall petition as a valid way for citizens to seek redress against the officials who represent them.

Although we don’t think every complaint that McQuisten leveled against Burroughs and Henderson in her petition was compelling, some of them were. More importantly, none of those complaints was irresponsible or beyond the bounds of reasonable political speech.

Yet the majority of the board, by even pondering a lawsuit against McQuisten, implies to all citizens that even if they have a legitimate grievance against an elected official and they pursue a recall, they might end up footing the bill.

School Superintendent Walt Wegener, in a written report to the board, rightfully noted that making a convincing legal case that McQuisten is liable for the election costs requires “a very high standard of proof” that is “very rarely proven.”

We think the district would lose in court.

We think they’ve already lost in the court of public opinion by considering filing a lawsuit against a citizen who took her case to the voters, failed, and then accepted their verdict.

Would that the victors act as graciously.

Sandy Hook: So now what?

We weep as a nation for Sandy Hook Elementary.

We seethe with anger at the senseless slaughter.

But neither our tears nor or rage will reduce the chances of future tragedies happening, any more than our similar, and understandable, reactions to Thurston and to Columbine prevented Virginia Tech or Aurora.

So what would accomplish this vital goal?

The answer, we believe, is twofold:

First: How we deal with the people who would commit such atrocities.

Second: How we manage the places, and in particular the schools, where they would commit these acts.

We haven’t mentioned guns. This might seem a curious omission in discussing crimes carried out by people wielding guns.

Here’s why we don’t believe gun control laws, such as a revival of the assault weapons ban in place from 1994 to 2004, would have an appreciable effect on protecting our children, and our society, from the next Adam Lanza.

There are so many guns.

We state this not as a value judgment — opinions vary, obviously, on whether the number of guns in America is a good thing or a bad thing.

It’s plain fact.

The sorts of gun control laws that are in effect now, or that well-meaning people have called for since the Sandy Hook shootings, would do little if anything to prevent mentally unbalanced people from getting semi-automatic guns and ammunition for them.

The only way to do that is by gathering the vast majority of such guns that exist now, either through mandatory confiscation by the government, or by encouraging legal owners to turn in their guns, or by a combination of the two methods.

But with millions of guns in existence, this task simply is not feasible.

Then too there are significant legal hurdles to the confiscation part of that equation.

The other obvious flaw in focusing on guns is that they are not a necessary ingredient in the massacre of innocent people.

Killers in Iraq, Afghanistan and many other places — including Oklahoma City in 1995 — have slain dozens or hundreds with bombs made of ordinary, readily available materials.

The bottom line is that people who intend to kill indiscriminately have myriad ways to do so.

Which is why we believe the focus of America’s efforts, legislatively and culturally, should be to identify and deal with such people before they brandish the weapon of their choice. And in the inevitable cases when we can’t prevent that, we need to reduce the vulnerability of their targets.

To the first point, we encourage changes to laws, both state and federal, that would make it more likely that people who could be prone to committing mass murder are identified and treated.

This is a difficult task, to be sure, one for which there is no foolproof solution. The vast majority of people who are “a little different” will never shoot up a school or detonate a bomb next to a federal building.

Yet neither do such people attack without ever giving a hint of the potentially murderous trouble that lurks in their flawed minds.

To the second point, we think schools should make the “lockdown” strategy something nearer the standard rather than one employed only during the rare emergency.

This isn’t to say our classrooms should be turned into prisons.

But the simple act of locking doors, which requires no legal action and impinges on no one’s rights, could save lives.

Although the Sandy Hook tragedy has devolved into a predictable, and predictably polarized, debate over guns, on the positive side of the ledger, everyone abhors what happened.

We hope this universal outrage prompts us as a society to try to deal with this terrible problem in an analytical rather than an emotional, or political, way.

Keeping guns out of schools might well help. But keeping murderers out absolutely will save lives, and that should be our foremost goal.

After the recall....

The Baker School Board recall election is over, and the voters have spoken.

So what did they say?

Most clearly they said they want to retain Lynne Burroughs as board chair, and Mark Henderson as a director.

We suggested in this space last month that defeating the recall was part of what we consider to be the best outcome.

But that’s also not the only message that comes from Tuesday’s special election.

This was a long ways from a landslide.

In Henderson’s case, 43 percent of voters believed he deserved to be recalled from office.

As for Burroughs, 45 percent were in favor of her being recalled.

These aren’t majorities, obviously, but neither are the percentages so small that they should be ignored.

Baker City Herald Editorial Board

A significant number of their constituents aren’t satisfied with the representation of Burroughs and Henderson.

We suspect the overriding reason for the dissatisfaction is that Burroughs and Henderson voted this spring, along with director Andrew Bryan, to impose a punitive censure against director Kyle Knight that has cut off Knight from some information related to the school district’s operations.

We believe this was a mistake, and one that reduced Knight’s ability to represent the people who elected him in May 2011.

But we also believe that the circumstances that led to Knight’s censure can be prevented from recurring, and that the board can, if not fully repair its rift, at least put in some sutures that will hold.

The incident that prompted Knight’s censure, and led to both the campaign to recall Henderson and Burroughs, and to Knight’s pending civil rights lawsuit against the district and the two board members, was Knight’s decision, in March, to forward to the Herald and other local media an email from Superintendent Walt Wegener to board members. The email from Wegener (who’s also a defendant in Knight’s lawsuit) explained that a school district employee, Carol Srack, had been placed on administrative leave and that she was going to be fired for using district credit cards to buy personal items.

Srack was fired, and she was convicted both in the school district case and on similar charges related to her work with the Baker Rural Fire District.

Burroughs, Henderson, Wegener and others contend that Knight, by forwarding what they deem a “confidential” email, violated a number of state and federal laws as well as the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of due process.

We’ve seen no compelling evidence to support those claims.

However, there’s no doubt that Knight acted unilaterally in divulging the contents of Wegener’s email. That’s not a legal issue, but it does affect the relationship between school board members.

There’s evidence that forwarding the email wasn’t Knight’s first choice, though. He initially asked Wegener, in an email, whether the board would convene in an executive session (closed to the public, but open to the media) to discuss the Srack situation.

That session didn’t happen.

But now that the recall is over, the board should have a meeting — one open to the public.

The subject of that meeting: How the board should handle future cases that involve public records which some officials consider confidential — Wegener’s March email being an obvious example.

Such cases are rare, to be sure.

But when the next one arises, the board should schedule a meeting to talk about when records must be available to the public. The board should have on hand for that meeting a copy of the Oregon Attorney General’s manual for the state’s public records and meetings laws.

There’s no guarantee, of course, that all five board members would agree. But at least such a meeting would allow for a frank discussion that could lead to a compromise suitable to all, and that avoids having Knight or another individual board member act separately.

Which, by the way, would eliminate any need for the punitive censure to continue. 

Tax bill a good deal for state

The surprise special session of the Oregon Legislature that Gov. John Kitzhaber will convene Friday is likely to be a quick and congenial gathering.

Which is how lawmaking ought to be when the bill on the table is so sensible and beneficial to the state.

Kitzhaber was right to call this bill “a huge win for the state of Oregon” in a press conference on Monday.

Here’s how the bill works:

It gives the governor the authority to guarantee the current state tax structure will stay in place for any company that commits to spending at least $150 million on capital improvements, and hiring at least 500 new employees, over five years.

The impetus for the bill, though, is one company.

One very large and very wealthy company that was started in Oregon, remains here and now wants to expand here: Nike.

Nike and some other international firms with operations in Oregon, such as Intel, like the way the state assesses income taxes. Since 2006 Oregon has used a “single-sales factor” policy, which means companies such as Nike are taxed only on their sales inside the state.

The benefit, for a company such as Nike that does billions in sales outside Oregon, is obvious.

The bill the Legislature is likely to pass Friday wouldn’t change the tax system — it would guarantee that that system will remain in place.

Critics have branded the proposal as both a tax giveaway and a capitulation by the governor and the Legislature to what amounts to extortion by Nike.

The first complaint is feeble.

The proposed bill wouldn’t change the rules for Nike or any other company, and it certainly wouldn’t give those firms anything, in terms of tax policy, that they haven’t had for the past six years.

Nor does the bill provide companies a leak-proof tax shelter. For instance, Nike and any other company that might sign a deal with the governor under the auspices of the bill would still be subject to higher tax rates should the Legislature or voters decide to raise them, or to a new tax should lawmakers or voters choose to impose such.

The bill’s guarantees aren’t permanent, either: The bill includes a 10-year “sunset” clause so a future Legislature can decide whether to continue the practice.

The second complaint — that Nike is in effect gaining special treatment through the implied threat that without the bill it’ll move to greener tax pastures (Nike has said nothing of the sort, though) — at least contains a scrap of plausibility.

Except tax policy is not a zero-sum game.

Lawmakers have an obligation to their constituents to compare the potential costs and benefits of tax policy.

In the current case, the benefit is at least 500 jobs at a company that pays its in-state workers an average of $100,000, which means significant new income tax revenue for Salem, while the cost, quite likely, is nothing at all.

Little wonder, then, that both Kitzhaber, a Democrat, and Rep. Bruce Hanna, a Republican leader, both endorse the bill wholeheartedly.

Baker Bulldogs: State champs x2

As the curiously named 1970s singer Meat Loaf once opined, “two out of three ain’t bad.”

When applied to winning state football championships, though, that achievement is rather better than “ain’t bad.”

The Baker Bulldogs pulled off that rare feat on Saturday by beating North Bend 52-22 in the Class 4A state title game at Hillsboro Stadium.

Baker players also brought home the championship trophy in 2010.

And the Bulldogs advanced to the final game in 2009, losing that year to Marist of Eugene, a private school that now competes in the Class 5A division for schools with larger enrollments.

To sum up, then, the dynasty assembled by Head Coach Dave Johnson, his assistants, and the dozens of student-athletes they’ve mentored over the past four years includes berths in three title games, and two state championships.

That’s a run not matched around here since the Huntington Locomotives were running roughshod in Oregon’s eight-man football division, winning four consecutive state championships from 1968 to 1971.

The Bulldogs’ sustained success is all the more impressive because, as with any high school or college team, it has of necessity been accomplished with a changing roster of players.

Many high schools have won a single title by relying heavily on one class with unusual athletic talent. In some cases even two or three transcendent players can lead a team to a magical season.

But remaining in the top echelon for four straight years requires multiple classes to perform at a high level.

Football, of course, is only a sport. 

It’s not as important as what happens in the classroom. But it is important.

And in a small town such as Baker City, the success of the football team creates a pleasing atmosphere of camaraderie that can be seen in purple-and-gold posters, and in the many businesses that have posted congratulatory messages on the signs where they normally advertise their latest deal.

We can still argue about the Ducks and Beavers and Broncos, or whether we’re obligated, as Oregonians, to root for the Trail Blazers.

But when it comes to high school football, in Baker City there are only the Bulldogs. And their performance is something we should all be proud of.

City's choice on water treatment

We don’t envy Baker City councilors in the decision they will eventually need to make about protecting the city’s drinking water from threats present and, potentially, in the future.

But we agree with their choice last Tuesday, which wasn’t unanimous, to take more time to ponder the matter.

In fact, we recommend the current council not commit the city to spending any more money on water treatment. Four of the seven councilors have only one more meeting before their terms end and they are replaced by the four councilors who were elected Nov. 6. The new councilors — Mike Downing, Barbara Johnson, Kim Mosier and Richard Langrell — should have a chance to look into the city’s water treatment options.

What we know now is that the city needs to have a new level of water treatment in place by October 2016 to comply with rules from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The city’s only current precaution — adding chlorine to the water — is not effective against such parasites as cryptosporidium and giardia.

The solution city officials have focused on is installing equipment that exposes water to ultraviolet light that inactivates those parasites.

That option, which could cost $2 million or more, is less expensive than another, which is to build a filtration plant.

The projected cost for a filtration plant is $15 million.

But there’s more to this decision than dollars.

Filtration, though more costly, also has significant advantages over UV treatment, which is effective at dealing with certain waterborne parasites but has no other benefits.

For one, a filtration plant would comply not only with the pending 2016 rules, but also with any foreseeable requirements the EPA might impose for drinking water.

Baker City is a rarity among public water systems in that it’s not mandated to filter its water, even though its sources are streams and springs (rather than groundwater).

Just three other cities in Oregon also are exempt from the filtration requirement.

We’re not so naivé as to expect that the federal government won’t impose more stringent regulations on drinking water in the future. The odds probably are better than even that, within the next few decades, the EPA will eliminate the filtration exemption for surface water sources.

Were that to happen, the city would likely have to build a filtration plant, rendering the installation of a UV system essentially a waste of money.

The other credible threat, and possibly the more imminent one, to the city’s water is a wildfire in the 10,000-acre watershed, much of which is densely forested. A large fire could foul streams with ash and dirt, a problem UV light won’t fix but a filtration plant might.

Councilor Beverly Calder, one of the four councilors whose terms end this year, said she thinks that city should choose the treatment option that deals with the 2016 EPA standards as well as conceivable threats beyond that.

Given the limitations of UV treatment, spending less money on that equipment now, to avoid the bigger bill from a filtration plant, might turn out to be a bad bargain in the end.

What councilors need now — or, rather, next year when the four new officials take their seats — are estimates for how much the city would have to boost water bills to pay the long-term debt it would incur from either type of treatment.

Councilors also need to understand the full range of benefits a filtration plant would offer compared with UV treatment, and investigate the possibility of state and federal grants or low-interest, long-term loans to cover some of the cost.

Although we applaud the current City Council’s concern for sparing water customers from unnecessary expenses, a filtration plant might represent a better investment if it’s built at current costs.

With the ability to spread the cost over decades and about 4,500 ratepayers, the difference in monthly bills between the UV system and a filtration plant might be negligible.

One thing’s sure, though: Nobody would be pleased if the city ends up buying both types of treatment, the “cheap” UV system now and the expensive filtration plant a decade or two in the future.

Reasons we're thankful

On this eve of Thanksgiving we celebrate a couple of reasons — and there are many more, to be sure — why we’re thankful we live in Baker County.

The first involves the generosity of someone who seeks no recognition for a wonderful deed.

We got a call last week from Joann Wellman at All In One Wireless in Baker City. The business is participating in the annual Coats For Kids campaign, which, despite its name, actually collects winter coats for people of all ages.

Joann told us that a customer, who requested anonymity, donated $3,000 — enough to buy 76 new coats.

As much as we’d like to know the identity of this donor — it would make a great story, after all — we also appreciate that the joy of helping others can be far more powerful and lasting than being recognized publicly for doing so.

The bottom line is that almost six dozen local residents will be warmer this winter.

The second bright light hasn’t sought attention for her achievements, either. But Nanette Lehman hasn’t the luxury of requesting anonymity.

Lehman, who teaches second grade at Haines Elementary — a rather conspicuous job — was recently honored as Oregon’s Teacher of the Year for 2012-13.

To put it another way, Lehman is among the very best practitioners of a profession whose importance can hardly be exaggerated.

Were you assembling the kind of community that people would clamor to move to, excellent schools and philanthropic residents would be two of the most vital blocks of its foundation.

Baker County has both.

Which makes us fortunate indeed.

Pass jobs bill for vets

It’s a sad fact that getting Congress to spend billions to put U.S. troops in war zones is easier than convincing lawmakers to help veterans find jobs when they’re back home.

A prime example of this is the Veterans Jobs Corps Act, pending in the Senate.

The bill, which would allocate $1 billion over five years to help train post 9/11 veterans to work as police officers, firefighters and in national parks and other public land-managing agencies.

The legislation, which Oregon Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley is advocating for, garnered 58 votes in September, but it fell two short of passage because Republicans vowed to filibuster.

The objection, as explained by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., in September, is both callous and ludicrous.

“When we find ourselves in $16 trillion of debt and we pay for a five-year bill over 10 years, we make the problem worse,” Coburn said.

But here’s the thing: The money to pay for the job training, though it would be collected over 10 years, would come from such sources as Medicare providers that are delinquent in paying taxes.

It’s not as if we’d be borrowing money from China.

Moreover, Coburn’s claim that the funding strategy would “make the problem” worse is barely credible, considering $1 billion is a pittance in the federal budget.

We’re more interested in what the bill would make better — namely, an unemployment rate for veterans that exceeds the national average.

End Knight’s censure, but without a recall

Baker School Board Chair Lynne Burroughs and board member Mark Henderson made a major mistake in April when they voted to censure their colleague, Kyle Knight.

More specifically, they erred in making the censure not merely a public condemnation of Knight, which is the typical approach in such cases, but by also imposing punitive measures.

With the support of Superintendent Walt Wegener, Henderson and Burroughs have withheld information from Knight, excluded him from subcommittee meetings and prohibited him from meeting with district officials. By doing so they have in effect partially disenfranchised the nearly 1,600 district patrons who voted for Knight in May 2011.

The board members’ and Wegener’s claims — that Knight violated a host of state and federal laws, as well as the U.S. Constitution itself, by telling the media that a district employee was suspected of (and later convicted of) trying to steal money from the district — are wrong.

Knight’s censure should be revoked.

There are two ways this could potentially happen.

The first is that voters could recall Henderson and Burroughs in the Dec. 11 special election. Their replacements, who would be appointed by the remaining board members — Knight, Andrew Bryan and Jim Longwell — probably would join Knight and Longwell in voting to cancel the censure (Bryan voted with Burroughs and Henderson in favor of the censure; Longwell voted no, as, naturally, did Knight).

The second option is that Knight, who in September filed a $700,000 civil rights lawsuit against the district, Henderson, Burroughs and Wegener, will convince a judge to revoke the censure. 

We think it’s likely that a judge will do so, considering the weakness of the case Burroughs, Henderson and Bryan made to justify censuring Knight.

We hope this latter, legal, route is how the school board dispute is resolved.

Recalling Henderson and Burroughs next month would no doubt be satisfying to some of their critics. We understand, and share, the critics’ frustration.

We opposed the censure vote this spring.

We have criticized Burroughs, Henderson and Wegener for acting as though Oregon’s public records and public meetings laws were intended to exclude the public when in fact the laws’ actual purpose is to ensure the public can keep track of what its elected officials and public agencies are up to.

Advocating for grown-up ways to settle this dispute have gone unheeded.

In late September we suggested a return to the status quo ante — the board withdraws Knight’s censure, Knight drops the lawsuit and the recall proponents suspend their campaign.

None of those things has happened.

To be clear, our preference for ending Knight’s censure by way of his lawsuit — and with no monetary award — rather than through a recall should not be construed in any way as an endorsement of Burroughs and Henderson.

But a recall simply removes board members without either correcting their actions, or blocking the board or another public body from repeating their mistake.

In the best interests of Baker County, the overriding goal should be revoking the censure, the aspect of this controversy that has had the most direct, and troubling, effect on the district’s patrons now, and could have in the future if punitive censures remain possible.

If this goal can be accomplished without removing elected officials from office — itself a form of disenfranchisement, as Burroughs and Henderson have supporters as well — and without saddling the school district or, more likely, its insurance provider, with a bill exceeding half a million dollars, then so much the better.

Moreover, a judge’s ruling would serve as a legal precedent that should prevent the Baker School Board, as well as other public bodies statewide, from enacting punitive censures against elected officials on trumped up charges that, as in Knight’s case, have no merit.

Our votes do matter

It’s natural for some Baker County voters to feel a trifle disenchanted in the aftermath of last week’s election.

Slightly more than two-thirds of us — 67.5 percent — cast our votes in the presidential race for Republican Mitt Romney.

President Barack Obama, who handily won a second term, polled just 28 percent here.

Baker County is hardly unique in this regard, of course.

Geopolitically, Oregon looks like a sea of Republican red with scattered islands of Democratic blue — 25 of the state’s 36 counties went for Romney.

Four of those 25 counties were even more pro-Romney than Baker County — Lake, 75.7 percent; Grant, 74.8 percent; Harney, 72.7 percent; and Malheur, 69 percent.

The national map shows a similar colorscape.

But lest any local voters lament that their opinions were rendered moot, consider Congress. For the eighth straight election, voters in Oregon’s 2nd Congressional District, which includes all of the state east of the Cascades, elected Republican Greg Walden to a two-year term.

A compelling case can be made that Walden’s position more directly affects Baker County than whoever is living in the White House. When a flood wrecks irrigation ditches, for instance,  it’s Walden who’s likely to be the most vocal and influential advocate for local needs and concerns. Our majority voice still rings clearly in the House of Representatives.

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