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Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Scranton Sewer Authority Sale (Move along...Nothing to see here folks)

(Photo credit HERE)

Ponder just how fishy the whole Scranton Sewer Authority deal has become, what with a sitting mayor being less than enthusiastic about a full disclosure of legal fees that just happened to be paid to some law firms that also just happened to contribute to his re-election campaign.  For example, the Scranton Times noted in its May 27th edition that an attorney whose law firm received about $200,000 in fees from the Scranton Sewer Authority sale also just happened to give $5,000 to Mayor Courtright's campaign just this year (citation HERE).  As noted by the Scranton Times, this is in addition to the over $14,000 in contributions given to Mayor Courtright's campaign from this same attorney over the years.

This leads me to a perfectly reasonable question:  Is it possible that the $5,000 in contributions were just recycled proceeds from the $200,000 in Sewer Authority sale legal fees?

Making matters even more maddening is the decision by the Sewer Authority board to not ask the State Auditor General's office to conduct an independent audit of the sale.  Gee, now why would they not want such a thing done?  Oh, and the audit itself is needed because of the Sewer Authority's refusal to provide full disclosure of just what the seven figures in legal fees incurred during the sale actually paid for; per the Scranton Times, the legal work records provided by the authority to the newspaper were so redacted as to be practically useless in terms of actual information provided.  The official reason for the redactions is that the information in question involves attorney-client privilege.
Stop here for a moment and note that this was a sale of a public entity, where the sale proceeds went to public governments (Scranton and Dunmore).  If anything, the public itself is a client in all of this mess.  The legal fees, by the way, were in excess of three million dollars (citation HERE).

Another perfectly reasonable question to ask:  Was any of the legal work in question related to lobbying efforts in support of the deal?

Scranton Mayor Bill Courtright is DEAD WRONG in defending a lack of transparency when it comes to the Sewer Authority sale.  I challenge any supporter of the Mayor to provide a reasonable defense of LESS TRANSPARENCY in this deal (and I will gladly publish that defense, word for word, in this blog).  When faced with legitimate questions about just what over three million dollars in legal fees paid for, well, Mayor Courtright's response is that the public just needs to understand the deal (citation HERE).  Call me crazy, but perhaps the public would better understand the deal if there was a full disclosure of just what was received for all of the legal work performed.

The public has an absolute right to a 100% accounting of every penny associated with this sale; anything less simply screams the old-school, backroom, pay-to-play politics that have been typical of Scranton's municipal government for decades.  The sale itself may, in fact, be a perfectly good idea, all be it one now tainted by a shameful lack of transparency.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Road Apples, #172

Courtright Gets It Wrong...The Scranton Times pretty much nails it in an editorial published today (you can read it HERE), rightfully criticizing the Mayor of Scranton for this steadfast defense of secrecy and his defaulting to the tried and true Scranton politician line of "trust me I know what's best".  I'm curious as to how anyone...really, seriously, ANYONE...can defend the lack of transparency related to lawyers fees associated with the Scranton Sewer Authority sale.  Yes, I understand the concept of attorney-client privilege, but this is the sale of a PUBLIC ASSET, so every aspect of the deal should be fully transparent.  

Truly bad phishing example...I do find it funny when phishing emails are actually written in broken English, of the sort that you'd hear spoken in some awful 30's era Charlie Chan movie.  Here's a recent example...
"...just sign in from a new device, we just make sure that you are doing this activity."

Popcorn...I have a love-hate relationship with popcorn.  In moderation, I am fine with it.  In excess?  Well, let's just say that the words "explosive abdominal decompression" come to mind.  Of course, when I go to the movies, as I did on last Saturday to see Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, the word "moderation" isn't on my mind as I am chain-eating a bag full of the greasy stuff, courtesy of Movies 14 in downtown Wilkes-Boro.  I will never learn.

Mother's Day...Last Sunday was mother's day and for all the mothers out there, well, a belated here's to you!  There are few harder jobs in the known universe than being a (good) mother, and sadly it seems like the bad one's get all the press these days.  My mother passed away in 2013, and while in retrospect I had a very difficult upbringing, it's never the less fitting and proper that she be appropriately acknowledged.  Here's to you Mom, wherever you are...

(circa 1977, in Atlantic City NJ; Mom, Chris, Joe & Steve)

Rubberbanding...I'm finally starting to get out of my rubberband feelings (see HERE), although I suspect that I'm going to have odd feelings about free time for a while yet to come.  What helps is having a full slate of home projects to focus on; first up is some work on our kitchen, where wallpaper has been steamed off the walls and things are getting ready for some painting.  For the record, if you have wallpaper in your house BUY A STEAMER!  It dramatically reduces the time and effort required to remove old wallpaper and it doesn't smell like fermented urine either.  After the kitchen is done I have a project for my home office in the wings, which fortunately involves a road trip to IKEA.

What's I'm Currently Reading...I pulled a few quotes from David Foster Wallace to use in some work I'm doing, so it's only natural that I'd want to read another of his books.  I'm just starting to read Consider the Lobster and Other Essays.  My only negative feedback?  The type in the paperback edition is very, very small.  

President Snowflake...A good read by Tony Schwartz (who wrote Art of the Deal) for the President, can be found HERE.  Some of what Schwartz wrote mirrors comments by Howard Stern regarding how much the President must hate his job.  The truly ironic part?  It's Trump's ardent "Alt-Right" supporters that like to call liberals "Snowflakes", but yet is there a bigger, more delicate snowflake out there than Donald Trump? 

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Scranton School Board Primary Election 2017

I still follow politics (more or less) in Scranton, and of all the races out there, the most interesting, by far, are those for open positions on the Scranton School Board.  With that in mind, here's a point of consideration for all you Scranton voters out there:  


Granted that the mental health professionals out there (including my daughter Stinky) probably take offense to my use of the word "crazy" so how about "incredibly foolish" instead?  

Here's my logic for the above:  When these folks take office and they have to vote for either...

a) The fiscal health of the District


b) The fiscal health of their family

...what do you think will win out in the end?  I can tell you who will lose...the taxpayers.  Yes, conflict of interest is a real thing, in spite of what many local politicians will have you believe.  Granted that the local school board in my neck of the woods isn't much better, although I'm reasonably sure that the president of our school board at least graduated from high school.  Now I know, the current Scranton School District board president Sheridan has a G.E.D., but just let that one sink in for a moment...the president of a school board failed to graduate from high school.  How is that not like nominating someone who dropped out of basic training to be head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff?  

(The U.S. Joint Chief's of Staff; all completed basic training)

For the record, having a G.E.D. doesn't speak to president Sheridan's intelligence...or the intelligence of anyone else with a G.E.D. for that matter.  What it does speak to though is his (specific) commitment to life-long learning and fitness to lead an organization that is designed to deliver formal education to children.  Call me crazy, but I somehow think that the folks running an educational system should have a vested interest in...and committment

Speaking of the President of the Scranton School Board, he too has a conflict of interest (in my opinion), namely that he is also President of the Scranton City Democratic Committee.  Given the choice between doing what's right for taxpayers OR bolstering his political party, what will Mr. Sheridan do?  I don't believe that these kinds of conflicts arise all the time, but consider this scenario:  A less-qualified by highly loyal party operative is looking for employment in the district and finds an open position.  The competition for that position is someone who lacks local political connections but is better qualified for the job.  Who wins?  Come on now, we all know that answer, and the Scranton School District is saddled with yet another life-long, politically connected employee.  It's a perverse "Circle of Life" kind of thing, but this time featuring weasels instead of lions.

The Scranton School District is headed for a state takeover, and while painful, I also think it's necessary.  Simply put, the Scranton School Board is incapable, mostly by virtue of competence (as in the lack of), of managing its way out of the current and long-simmering financial crisis that stands at more than $33.6 million.  The current board did not create this crisis, and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania contributed to it in a significant way*, but in the end, this same current board has continued a long history of mismanagement and nepotism that goes back decades in Scranton.  They choose not to make tough choices so tough choices will be made for the next board.

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(*) There has been much written about Pennsylvania's public sector pension crisis, and I'll not add to that here, other than to say it's my opinion that the whole mess is a classic example of entrenched politics at it's very worst.  Legislators wanted richer pensions, and to get them they basically bought off the politically powerful teacher unions.  I don't blame teachers for getting better pensions; heck, who wouldn't want that?  Instead, this is a textbook example of why there shouldn't be career politicians in the first place.  Again, when personal interests of the elected compete with the public good, who usually loses?

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

A Message from Penn State President Barron (and a comment from me)

I am a proud alumnus of Penn State and a life member of the Penn State Alumni Association.  In addition, I've financial contributed (in a very meaningful way) to the University for many years and I was a member of the Penn State Harrisburg Alumni Society Board.  Having established my connection to the University, I'm not speaking out of turn by noting that it's been a troubling few years for Penn State.  While Penn State changed my life for the better...and for that, I will always be in debt to the University...I've found myself disagreeing with many of decisions made by the school's administration over the years.

The death of Timothy Piazza shines an important light on one element of Univesity life that needs to change:  The Greek Fraternity/Sorority system.  A University should be a place for opened doors, for exploration, for the expanding of horizons, for opportunities to meet and interact with all manner of people.  It shouldn't be a place where you go to hang out with people that are just like you.  It shouldn't also be a place where bad behavior is institutionalized and, sadly, rationalized as being somehow "good", somehow offset by some volunteer work.  A university shouldn't be a place for exclusive social clubs.

It's time to end "frats" as they currently exist.  They are relic from a long ago age that needs to be buried once and for all.  Simply tinkering around with their governance will not create meaningful change, as that's been tried before in many other venues.  Just as you can't expect a squirrel to avoid your birdfeeder, you can't expect frat houses to be anything other than exclusive drinking clubs.  It's simply what they's what they do.

Will my alma mater take the lead on this issue?  Likely no.  Like football, the Greek system at Penn State enjoys a special kind of protected status that shields them from even the most reasonable of criticisms.  As a result, I'm simply left shaking my head in disgust at Penn State one more time.

You can read the official University statement on this issue below.

* * * * * *
Dear Penn Staters,

The recent tragic death of student Timothy Piazza has shaken and impacted all of us in the Penn State community. Our hearts go out to the Piazza family and friends during this tremendously difficult time.

We are reaching out to you today as you may observe Penn State being more vocal on this serious matter. Due to the complexity of this issue, the University believes it is important to offer perspective and background to those reporting.

Further, as the May 5 grand jury findings in the investigation of former members of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity have now been released, you may have questions, or others may come to you with inquiries. We wanted to:
  • Share a link to the statement distributed late last week from my office on the grand jury findings;
  • Reiterate the commitment Penn State has had for more than a decade to focus on the Greek-letter community and issues that have impacted these groups nationwide, including the introduction of educational, enforcement and other programs, as well as policies that clearly spell out consequences;
  • Highlight the unprecedented steps Penn State has taken over the last few months. We have developed a resource with critical context - Penn State Update, which:
    • Underscores and contextualizes the national issue with extreme alcohol abuse, that also impacts our community
    • References actions taken earlier this year by the University
    • Indicates resources available
There are no easy solutions, but the commitment remains strong. As mentioned in previous communications, Greek-letter organizations are self-governing private groups on private property, and thus instituting change is quite challenging and complex. The University welcomes and needs the partnership of alumni, parents, national organizations, and all other partners involved. Support and engagement are necessary in order to ensure immediate, vital and sustainable change.

An atmosphere needs to be established that protects and promotes the well-being and safety of all students in the Penn State community. Our efforts are focused on curbing dangerous drinking and other high-risk behaviors, and to bringing out the best of Greek-letter organizations and the communities they create.

Please feel free to use this information resource and share with others as appropriate.

Eric J. Barron
President, Penn State

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Defunding Planned Parenthood

A few thoughts about the abortion issue and Planned Parenthood* specifically.

I think that, based on years of my experiences, most people who support Planned Parenthood are not "pro-abortion"; rather I suspect that they just wish that somehow every pregnancy was planned and that the reasons driving women to consider having an abortion, including rape and incest, never occur.  Count me in on that list.  But these things do happen in the real world.  All of this noted I am disturbed by the notion that a government...any government mind you...can reach inside a woman's body and make a reproductive decision for her; how is this not government intrusion at its very worst?  How is that not the antithesis of a conservative philosophy of small government?  Now I'm equally if not more so disturbed by the idea that, for example, an abortion can occur simply out of a gender preference, but my personal objection shouldn't equate to governmental policy, especially a policy that can reach into someone else's body. 

I'll take this one step further.  It's my opinion that, while abortion is the stated and primary reason for many who want to de-fund Planned Parenthood, a strong secondary (and in fact, maybe primary) reason among politicians and others is in the area of contraception.  You see, some (mainly religious) groups also want to limit or even end access to the contraception services that Planned Parenthood provides.  Serial presidential candidate Rick Santorum has said that individual states should be able to ban contraception, advocating for the overturning of the Griswold v. Connecticut decision.  Ponder that one for a moment:  It's not simply enough to reach into a woman's body, the government also wants a role in the intimate life you share with your husband/wife/partner.  Why?  Well, it's because some have a personal, religious belief that the only purpose for intimacy is procreation. Again, we come back to the idea that another person's personal, religious convictions shouldn't automatically equate to a policy that impacts everyone else.  It comes down to the very notion that some want a very big and very intrusive government to have an awful lot of control over you.  

By the way, the argument that "I know my tax dollars don't directly fund abortions, but giving tax dollars to Planned Parenthood allows them to free up other money that can then go to funding abortions"  is a red herring.  Why?  Here's an analogy:  I believe that it is wrong for the government to collect cell phone data on innocent American citizens, but I also know that my tax dollars don't directly go to funding NSA operations that engage in this very activity.  Should I though, as a matter of principle, be able to withhold part of my federal income taxes because that money goes somewhere else that in turn allows other money to be used for NSA spying?  Of course not.  The "replacement money" argument is just a smokescreen (in my opinion) to punish Planned Parenthood for providing contraception services.  

Respecting Differences
One of the biggest problems with the whole abortion debate in this country is that we've allowed the fringe elements to consume most of the air time.  In fact, just where the fringe elements begin isn't really all that clear anymore.  Think about it:  A rally with people yelling while carrying plastic fetuses on poles makes for a better television story than rational folks having a civil conversation about the abortion issue.  That's life in a 24/7 media universe.  Anyway, I really do believe that reasonable people can respect each other while having differing and even nuanced views on the topic of abortion.  I also genuinely do understand the zeal that some approach this issue, and I do have problems with supporters on both extreme ends of the abortion spectrum.  However, this has to come down to a matter of personal choice for one simple reason:  No government should have the right to tell anyone what to do with what's inside of their body.  What's more, banning abortion will not end abortion, it will simply drive the practice underground as well as making it a choice that only the wealthy (and their political supporters) can afford, while the poor suffer through botched and life-threatening self-induced abortions.

In the final analysis, if your religious views tell you that abortion is morally wrong, that life truly begins at the very moment of conception, well then I respect your views and I know why you shouldn't have an abortion.  You can also tell others that abortion is morally wrong with all the personal conviction you can muster and with all the means at your disposal.  That's your right, and I hope that you acknowledge others have a similar right to express differing views.  Conversely, if you consider yourself pro-choice, then I hope you can respect the passion and heartfelt convictions of those who disagree with you.  However, and this is a big "however", we all have a right to live in a society where there is a difference between religious and secular laws, in spite of what you may hear coming from the Franklin Graham's of this world.  Sometimes these things intersect, but when they do it has to be a matter of almost universal consensus in order for society to function.  The contrary, where there is no line between religious and secular laws, is well on display for us in such garden spots of personal freedom as Iran and Saudi Arabia.

(*) By way of disclosure, I have financially supported Planned Parenthood for a number of years.  I do this for my three daughters because I don't want them living in a world where mainly older white men get to decide what happens to their bodies.

* * * * * *

Post Script:  Please save the commentary about "...but Margaret Sanger supported eugenics..." for someone else who is not quite so gullible.  I am well versed on Ms. Sanger's biography, as I am that of conservative icon Ayn Rand (see below).  If you are a conservative and dismiss Sanger for her early views on eugenics, should you not also dismiss conservative icon Rand for her views of any number of other topics, including abortion?

In fact, there are no "perfect" people, and all of us can disagree with the some of the views of people like Sanger and Rand without demonizing all of their work in the process.  It's that painting with broad brush strokes that I think is half the problem in this country, and one of the reasons why, I suspect, so few decent people actually want to run for public office.

For the record, here's what Ayn Rand has written about abortion:
An embryo has no rights. Rights do not pertain to a potential, only to an actual being. A child cannot acquire any rights until it is born. The living take precedence over the not-yet-living (or the unborn).
Abortion is a moral right—which should be left to the sole discretion of the woman involved; morally, nothing other than her wish in the matter is to be considered. Who can conceivably have the right to dictate to her what disposition she is to make of the functions of her own body?
Source HERE.

Friday, May 5, 2017

5 Facilitation Tips

I don't normally write about what I do for a living here, but I'll make this exception.  

* * * * *

What's the difference between "training", "teaching" and "facilitating"?  Well for me, the first two are more or less subsets of the third (facilitating).  Specifically, much of the professional work that I've done with other adults, be it in a classroom, conference room or webinar, is for the most part actually facilitation, although there may be a teaching (or training) element to that facilitation.  That’s an important distinction, by the way, one that separates the amateurs from the professionals in the business of learning.  

Anyway, for your enjoyment, here are my “Top 5 Facilitation Tips”.

1.     Have Fun.  One of your first and primary objectives should be to entertain and engage yourself.  If you do that…if you have fun…then it’s far more likely that the people in the audience will be engaged and have fun as well.  “Fun”, by the way, is serious business, as it helps to create natural connections in the human brain*.  Just remember to always avoid anything that might be perceived as insensitive or (even worse) offensive.  Also, be exceptionally careful with sarcasm (to the point of, well, not using it), as it is very easily misunderstood by others in attendance.
2.     Be Conversational.  As learners, adults want to be acknowledged for their knowledge, experience, and expertise.  Talking “at” them effectively shuts that out; talking “with” them, in a way that encourage dialogue between you and with other attendees, provides that acknowledgment (and much more).
3.     Look for Non-Verbal Cues.  Your audience is always communicating with you, even when they aren’t actually speaking.  What’s the level of eye contact in the room?  What are the facial expressions when you are speaking?  How are people sitting in their chairs...leaning forward or falling back?  All of these things, and more, provide you with a stream of real-time feedback on your effectiveness as a facilitator.  Use that feedback data to adjust your delivery on the fly.
4.     Move Around.  This is the physicality associated with #2.  It’s easy to hide behind objects like podiums, especially if you are self-conscious (as I am), but such things create a very real physical distance and barrier between you and the audience.  Instead, and at a minimum, make it a point to move around the room during the event.  Sometimes “moving around” will just be within the confines of the front of the room.  Sometimes you may actually want to speak from the back of the room, especially if there is something being projected that requires the undivided attention of the audience.  Mostly, though, be intentional in how you are physically present in the room.  There's a fine line between engagement movement and, well, flitting around aimlessly.  In point of fact, nothing you do as a facilitator should be aimless.
5.     Always, Always, Always (and Always) Arrive Early.  Become intimately familiar with the space you are working in, well before the event starts.  Find out how your voice will sound in the room.  Re-arrange desks, chairs, etc. to create an optimal environment for the audience.  Sit in a couple of's the view?  Remove anything that might distract from your event.  Make sure that there's nothing to trip you up (physically...see #4).  Test all of the equipment beforehand.  What does any of this have to do with facilitation?  A ton actually:  Your focus and presence is essential, which is something you will lose if logistical problems unexpectedly arise. 

(*“Brain research suggests that fun is not just beneficial to learning but, by many reports, required for authentic learning and long-term memory”.  Citations HERE and HERE.

In short, be present, be intentional, look for the feedback you will receive (in real time), and have fun.   That sounds far simpler than it actually is, and in fact, you can spend a lifetime practicing these skills.  Daunting?  Absolutely not, as most professional skills are far less about achievement and more about continuous development anyway.  Like life itself, this is less about a destination and more about a journey.