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Tired of 5J board's discord

It would require a considerable level of naívete on our part to expect the Baker School Board, after more than a year of regular acrimony, to suddenly embrace a spirit of unity.

We don’t expect, as the cliché goes, board meetings to conclude with a rousing rendition of Kumbaya.

Yet even after a period that included the vote to censure board member Kyle Knight, a failed attempt to recall board members Lynne Burroughs and Mark Henderson, and Knight’s lawsuit against the district (which was settled in December), we do expect more from our elected board members — on both sides of this ongoing dispute — than they demonstrated last week.

The occasion was the extension of Superintendent Walt Wegener’s contract. The board voted 3-2 to add one year to Wegener’s deal, which now continues until June 30, 2015.

Although we don’t think Wegener needs a three-year contract — two years offers him sufficient security — the board’s decision to tack on another year is not unreasonable.

The same can’t be said, though, for parts of the written performance evaluation of Wegener that Henderson and fellow board member Andrew Bryan compiled, and that they and Burroughs approved. Henderson and Bryan recommended in the report that the board extend Wegener’s contract through June 30, 2015. Burroughs, Henderson and Bryan voted in favor of that extension.

One passage in particular in the report seems to us unnecessary and inflammatory. In the section headlined “Additional Comments,” Henderson and Bryan wrote: 

“Our strongest recommendation is for Walt to specifically disengage as much as possible from the ongoing pressures of board members with agendas, divergent philosophies of district administration, or lack of fundamental understandings with board function and administrative rules.”

In other words, Wegener ought to ignore the two board members — Knight and Jim Longwell, who aren’t mentioned by name and don’t need to be, so obvious is the inference — because they don’t agree with everything Wegener does.

Besides being bad advice, this recommendation insults residents of the district who support Knight and Longwell and expect them to act as effective representatives on the school board.

Which bears directly on our other complaint.

Knight and Longwell, though they voted against the motion to extend Wegener’s contract, did not participate in evaluating him.

Longwell declined to say why he didn’t do so.

That’s not acceptable — our elected officials have a responsibility to explain their actions, or inactions, to their constituents.

Knight at least offers an explanation, pointing out that during his nearly nine-month censure he didn’t receive Wegener’s weekly reports.

But that excuse rings hollow.

Knight has attended meetings during that time, and since he feels that he is sufficiently well-versed on district operations to vote against extending Wegener’s contract, he ought to be able to explain why.

Action, not words, on PERS

The parameters of the coming debate over PERS, Oregon’s budget-busting retirement system for state workers and many local government and school employees, are beginning to clarify.

And it looks to us increasingly likely that Oregonians will at long last find out whether Gov. John Kitzhaber truly is committed to reforming this system, or whether his pledges were mere posturing.

We hope it’s the former.

If the Oregon Legislature lacks the political courage to deal with PERS, then the retirement system will continue to force school districts to lay off teachers, and cities, counties and the state to pare services, all to ensure that retired public employees, who are the beneficiaries of one of the most generous pension plans in the country, don’t lose so much as a penny from their compensation.

On average, starting July 1, about $1 in every $5 that public agencies spend will go toward PERS. That average is higher still — 26.7 percent — for school districts.

In his proposed budget, Kitzhaber suggests a pair of changes to PERS that could save hundreds of millions of dollars:

• Stop compensating PERS retirees who live outside Oregon for Oregon income taxes they don’t even pay because they don’t live here.

• Allow cost-of-living adjustments for only the first $24,000 of retirees’ annual income.

Those amendments wouldn’t fix PERS — too many elements of the system, and in particular certain benefits which accrue only to Tier 1 employees, those hired before 1996, are locked in by contractual obligations.

But Kitzhaber believes that both of his proposals are in play, legally speaking.

But at least one of the state’s two big public employees unions begs to differ with the governor.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), which represents about 24,000 workers (the Service Employees International Union represents a similar number of public employees in the state), opposes both of Kitzhaber’s ideas.

Ken Allen, executive director of Oregon AFSCME Council 75, told the editorial board of The Oregonian that he believes the cap on cost-of-living raises would be overturned in court.

Put simply, it appears probable that public employee unions, who are major supporters of Kitzhaber and other Democratic candidates, will contest any PERS reforms that cut into their members’ (or, more accurately, retired former members’) monthly pension checks.

We would hardly expect a different reaction from the unions, of course; they’re supposed to look out for their members.

But we’re far more concerned with keeping Oregon’s public schools and other vital services intact.

And protecting those government services will require meaningful action on reforming PERS, rather than empty rhetoric, from Kitzhaber and the Democrats who are in charge in Salem.

I-84 isn’t a unique hazard

It comes as no surprise to local residents that the stretch of Interstate 84 between Meacham and Pendleton can be slippery during winter.

Of course this is equally true for the entire 165-mile section of the freeway between Pendleton and the Idaho border, as well as for every other street, county road and state highway in Baker County.

That being the case, the recent spate of publicity regarding the tragic bus crash on I-84 that killed nine passengers on Dec. 30, though understandable and potentially worthwhile as a warning to the public, also seems to us riddled with exaggerations about the lethality of certain parts of the freeway.

There is nothing uniquely hazardous about the place where the Canadian tour bus careened off the freeway.

Although many news reports have focused on the 6-percent grade and curves of Cabbage Hill, which is nearby, the bus driver, who according to an eyewitness was driving much too fast for the icy and foggy conditions, lost control on a section that’s essentially flat and straight.

But even when the pavement is dry a seemingly innocuous section of road can be dangerous if the driver is careless.

Media accounts have emphasized the treacherous conditions not only on Cabbage Hill, but also through the Ladd Canyon pass that separates the North Powder and Grande Ronde valleys, about 30 miles north of Baker City.

Indeed, both places can be tricky to negotiate in winter.

We wonder, though, whether these dramatic descriptions, connected to a terrible accident that in fact didn’t happen in either place, might mislead travelers into believing the freeway is to be avoided.

The truth, as any longtime local could tell you, is that similar conditions prevail at times every winter on secondary roads throughout the region.

The main difference between the interstate and, say, Highway 245 over Dooley Mountain, Highway 86 over the Halfway Grade, or Highway 203 through Medical Springs, is that those state routes are lightly traveled, which means help, should you need it, might be some time in arriving.

The best advice, of course, is to be prepared for trouble regardless of your route, and to drive with particular caution whenever wintry weather is possible. 

These preparations pertain not only to vehicles — properly inflated tires, traction devices and the like — but to the driver as well. Driver fatigue might have been a factor in the deadly Dec. 30 crash.

New use for a very old trail

It’s no small feat to get a trail built in the woods these days.

Unless, of course, the trail is pretty much built already.

Just such a situation exists in Baker and Grant counties. And all the heavy work happened more than a century ago.

The Sumpter Valley Railway Mainline Trail is a worthwhile proposal that we hope happens, and as soon as this spring when the snow melts.

The project’s main advantage, as we alluded to, is that the 42-mile route connecting the Sumpter Valley Dredge and Bates state parks is no mere concept, existing only on paper.

Rather, the proposed route follows the grade built for the Sumpter Valley Railroad, the famous “Stump Dodger” narrow-gauge line that hauled gold ore and ponderosa pine logs from the Blue Mountains to Baker City.

The 42-mile section was built between 1896, when the railroad reached Sumpter, and 1910, when the rails got to their final terminus at Prairie City.

Karen Spencer, director of the Baker County Parks Department and one of the trail’s proponents, said that relatively little trail building would be needed, as the grade remains in remarkably good shape considering its age.

The biggest task, she said, would be to clear trees and brush, and to install signs.

Spencer said the Powder River Correctional Facility has offered the use of inmate crews at the rate of $70 per crew per day, a significant savings over the regular charge of $590 per day.

About 90 percent of the proposed route is on public land, including parts of the Wallowa-Whitman and Malheur national forests.

As for the 10 percent that’s privately owned, Spencer said trail promoters intend to try to negotiate easements or other agreements with landowners that would allow the trail to cross their properties.

However, if any property owners decline to participate, the trail would be re-routed around their land, probably by way of one of the many spur lines that branched off the Sumpter Valley Railroad mainline.

Some sections of that mainline were turned into roads many decades ago.

Those roads would remain as they are, with motor vehicles allowed on sections that are open now, Spencer said.

Other sections, where the original railroad grade remains, would be open for non-motorized travel, including hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding and, in the winter, cross country skiing and snowshoeing.

Besides adding to the recreational opportunities in the area, the Sumpter Valley Railroad trail would draw attention to a fascinating part of the region’s history.

That these two goals can be accomplished for relatively little cost, and without displacing existing recreationists or affecting private property, adds to our enthusiasm for this project. Finally, the trail will be a fitting tribute to the men who toiled to build the railroad, all of them decades in their graves.

To inflame rather than to inform

Baker City Herald Editorial Board

The debate spawned by a White Plains, N.Y., newspaper’s decision to publish an interactive map showing the addresses and names of people who have permits to own handguns couldn’t happen in Oregon.

There are two reasons.

First, Oregon law doesn’t require residents to get a permit merely to own a handgun.

Second, although Oregon law does require people to obtain a license if they want to carry a handgun in a concealed manner, the Legislature passed a bill last year — HB 4045 — that exempts permit records from the state’s public records law except in certain cases.

Put simply, if the Baker City Herald wanted to create a similar map of Baker County residents who have a concealed-carry permit, we couldn’t get the information.

We don’t much like HB 4045.

We think public records should be accessible by the public.

That said, we don’t consider the White Plains newspaper’s decision a sterling example of community-minded journalism.

Frankly we don’t see what purpose the interactive map serves other than to advance the misguided notion that pinpointing the location of legally owned handguns will somehow protect the public.

We’ve seen no compelling evidence to support this idea.

If a media outlet truly intends to help safeguard people, then its resources would be better spent putting together a map showing, to name two examples, the addresses of registered sex offenders and people who have been convicted of driving while intoxicated.

We’re not advocating such an effort. But it could at least be justified, in that drunk drivers and sex offenders have shown that they present a threat to the public. And that threat is more mobile, as it were, than an inanimate handgun.

Drunk drivers can kill you on the highway or on your own street or in the parking lot at the grocery store. Some sex offenders are literally predators, stalking victims wherever they can be found.

Reporting the number of handgun permits issued in a particular jurisdiction is a worthwhile enterprise that puts an important topic — the prevalence of certain guns — into geographic perspective.

But publishing the likely locations of those guns, as though they were landmines, seems to us an act of sensationalism rather than of well-considered journalism.

What we agree upon

We weren’t naive enough to believe, much less to hope, that the first public statement from the National Rifle Association following the Newtown massacre would elevate the national debate about fatal mass shootings at schools.

Still and all, we are disappointed that this crucial discussion seems to be focusing on issues that not only are inherently polarizing, but that have little chance of making a meaningful difference in preventing future tragedies.

Surely no rational person expected that Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s executive vice president, would stand at a lectern and announce that the organization was in favor of reinstituting the federal gun control laws that were in effect from 1994 until 2004.

Nonetheless, gun control advocates have not only decried LaPierre’s proposal to put armed guards in schools, but they’ve raised the volume on the debate to a shrill screaming match that gives us a collective headache.

Meanwhile, topics about which there is little argument seem to be getting short shrift.

One example is the effort to prevent people with mental health problems — pretty much a universal issue in mass shootings — from getting access to a gun. 

The NRA doesn’t advocate that mentally ill people ought to have unfettered access to any gun, whether a semi-automatic rifle or a single-shot .22.

Nor does the organization oppose the widespread use of locked gun safes — gun safety, in fact, is a point of emphasis with the NRA.

Yet rather than concentrate on these areas of agreement — things that might help us to avoid future Newtowns — the publicity after LaPierre’s statement has much to do with criticizing his organization as tone-deaf on the issue of gun violence.

Yes, LaPierre’s suggestion to assign police to patrol public schools presents major, and possibly insurmountable, challenges, chief among financial ones.

Yet that’s no reason to dismiss the notion outright.

Almost all of us would agree, in a situation such as Sandy Hook Elementary, that having a trained officer with a gun present, were it to have any effect, would likely reduce the death toll rather than add to it.

That said, we would prefer that in future appearances LaPierre talk about ways to keep deranged people from getting guns, in addition to his polished speech about what to do with those people when they show up at school.

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.

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