Tuesday, April 30, 2013

There Are Alternatives

April 30, 2013, 11:45 a.m.

"Getting To 'Yes' by By Voting 'No' on Justice Center"

Nicholas Johnson
The Daily Iowan, April 30, 2013, p. 4

Dave Parsons’ opinion column urged that we “Vote Yes for the justice center” (DI, April 29). He is a member of the committee actively pushing the proposal. As such, his was a commendably civil, best effort to make the most of his unpersuasive case.

University of Iowa students have a stake in this May 7 bond election, and hopefully, they will vote. Justice-center proponents start from a false premise: Opponents don’t understand the need for improvements in our justice-system facilities and procedures.

Not one of my acquaintances opposes the May 7 ballot proposition for that reason. Indeed, quite the contrary. Few, if any, even object to spending whatever taxpayer money we truly need.

No, the dispute doesn’t involve whether we need “something” — for reasons Parsons skillfully set forth.

The dispute is what that “something” should be, how much of it we need, where it should be located, and what reforms in incarceration avoidance should accompany new construction.

I’m not a member of either the “Yes” or the “No” committees. I just want to plan what we need, substantively and procedurally, and do it right, while not making things worse. Like the cable guy says, “let’s get ’er done” — get Johnson County voters to “Yes.”

Fundamental “getting to ‘yes’” strategy involves recognizing the distinction between parties’ “positions” and “interests.” Proponents and opponents share an “interest” in fixing the system. It’s the proponents’ “position” that’s caused the problem.

Proponents’ second logical failing is constructing a position on a conclusion that doesn’t follow from their premises: (1) The Courthouse and jail need fixing; (2) We have a detailed specific plan for doing that; (3) Therefore, everyone must vote for our specific plan.

As a law professor might respond to a student’s similarly faulty argument, “I follow you all but the ‘therefore.’” A need for “something” does not, “therefore,” compel adoption of their proposal.

Proponents’ stance is reminiscent of the late, former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, sometimes called “TINA” because of her response to opponents who proposed alternatives to her policies: “There Is No Alternative” (TINA).

It’s like the line from the country song, “That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.” “That’s our proposal, and we’re sticking to it.” There is no alternative.

Landfills used to be like that. When one filled, there was no alternative to creating more. Today’s acceptance of alternatives — such as recycling and composting — has saved hundreds of acres of farmland.

America leads the world in jail and prison cells. That doesn’t mean, when ours fill up, “there is no alternative” to just building more.

It is no less offensive to attach a big-box modern structure to our National Historic Register, 100-year-old Courthouse — as proponents suggest — than attaching a similar structure to the Old Capitol.

Here’s one of many alternatives:

Many find a detached, stand-alone criminal justice facility more sensible and efficient — sheriff, judges, courts, and jail in one place. Proponents claim it won’t work. Apparently, they failed to tell that to the numerous Iowa counties that have already done it and like it. In fact it’s what we did when we needed more County administrative space: the separate administrative building an easy walk down the street.

This has the added benefits of preserving the integrity of the Courthouse exterior and setting, providing more space inside exclusively for civil proceedings, and avoids plopping a bunch of criminals in jail cells in the center of a downtown area the City would like to develop for tourists and residential use.

If the bond issue passes this time, “that’s all she wrote.” We’ll have to live with a desecrated Courthouse and other consequences. But if it’s defeated May 7 maybe, like Goldilocks’ porridge tasting, the third time they’ll get it right.

There are alternatives.

_______________
Nicholas Johnson
University of Iowa College of Law
www.nicholasjohnson.org
FromDC2Iowa.blogspot.com


Addendum

Something I failed to include in this Daily Iowan column is a response to the proponents' argument that we should build their Justice Center first, and then think about alternative procedures, future trends, "peak-load" analysis (with the associated comparative costs of renting cells), and what our actual need for jail cells will be.

It reminds me of a School Board session during the years I was serving. A proposed new school was on the agenda. I had earlier wanted us to explore alternative approaches to school crowding (such as the recommendations of the National Commission on the High School Senior Year) and teaching (such as team teaching with block scheduling) that would have an impact on both school size and design. The other Board members wanted to go immediately to an architect and ask the architect what we needed. I responded, "You know, normally before you go to the architect you know whether you want her or him to design you a courthouse or an outhouse."

Many of the opponents' suggested alternatives (involving such things as cash bail, priorities for arrests, sentencing, dealing with recidivism, and treatment of those with mental illness, among many more) can have an enormous impact on the number of needed jail cells and the design of the facility.

Following that, there is a basic peak load analysis to be done that I have not seen referred to so far, let alone run and resolved. That involves looking at our costs of incarcerating prisoners here compared with putting them in other counties' jails. There has at least been an assertion that it's actually marginally cheaper to put them elsewhere. That's not necessarily a reason to do it. There are benefits to inmates, their lawyers and families to having them here. But it does affect the peak load question.

Once we agree on the reduction in need as a result of alternative approaches we can project what the maximum daily occupancy will be in any given year, and how many days it will reach that level. We are then left to address: how many days a year do we want to be able to keep all our inmates in a Johnson County facility? How many days a year -- 5? 50? -- does it make more economic sense, on balance, to ship an agreed upon percentage -- 3%?, 10%? -- elsewhere. In other words, how many cells are we willing to build and pay for, knowing that they (like the rooms in a motel) will be empty a giver percentage of the days every year?

The result of that analysis is essential before even designing a facility, let alone building it. (For that reason, it may be somewhere in the proponents' documents, which I confess to not having read and memorized in their entirety.)

_______________

What follows is my online comment in response to a Press-Citizen May 1 editorial, which is reproduced following my comment.

As much as I admire what the Press-Citizen has contributed to civic journalism on the Justice Center issues, I cannot agree with this editorial's conclusion. See, "There Are Alternatives; Getting to 'Yes' by Voting 'No' On Justice Center," http://fromdc2iowa.blogspot.com/2013/04/there-are-alternatives.html

From my lifetime of experience (yours may be different) I haven't found granting requests now, in exchange for promises of doing better in the future, to work out very well (e.g., "take me back, and I promise I'll never have another drink"; "I know I haven't paid you back that last loan, but if only you'll give me this one more loan I swear I'll start paying you back the first of next month").

Proponents' syllogism goes like this: (1) The courthouse needs fixing, the jail needs expanding; (2) We have a specific plan to fix that; (3) "Therefore," you must vote for our specific plan or forever be judged a naysayer. "There Are No Alternatives" (Margaret Thatcher's "TINA.")

That's the logic underpinning the op ed of the charismatic and able Mike Carberry in this paper today, and the League of Women Voters column in this morning's Gazette.

My response? "I follow you all but the 'therefore.'" In fact, there ARE alternatives, as Jeff Cox explains in his column this morning -- and they are alternatives that can have an impact on what we need to do and build. Contrary to the editorial, surely it's worth another 6 months before spending $40 million-plus on something we'll be living with for the next 30 years.

The proponents keep itemizing the need. That's a false issue, a straw man. Virtually everyone agrees "something" is needed. The issue is not whether we need "something" different from what we now have. The issue is what that "something" ought to be, how much of it we truly need, where it should be located, and what incarceration reduction efforts will accompany that design and construction.

"There Are Alternatives," http://fromdc2iowa.blogspot.com/2013/04/there-are-alternatives.html is a response to the proponents' argument that we should build their Justice Center first, and THEN think about alternative procedures, future trends, "peak-load" analysis (with the associated comparative costs of renting cells), and what our actual need for jail cells will be.

Proponents have it precisely -- but it's precisely backwards. This is a time, and opportunity, to be truly creative and innovative in response to our challenges, not to knee-jerk vote "Yes" for the first plan to come along, based on an assumption that if we are putting more people in jail the only alternative is to go on doing what we've been doing and just build more jail cells. We need to fix and plan first, then design and build.

We don't respond to overflowing landfills by taking more farm land out of production, rationalizing that "there is no alternative" to building more landfills. We think, we innovate, we recycle, we compost (see, among hundreds of others, the Gazette's page-one story this morning, "Road Map for Reducing Waste"). Can't we be equally creative with the jail challenge?

Many of the opponents' suggested alternatives can have an enormous impact on the number of needed jail cells and the design of the facility.

Following an evaluation of those alternatives, there is a basic peak load analysis to be done that I have not seen referred to so far (at least in local newspapers' coverage), let alone run and resolved.

(It involves, but is not decided by, looking at our costs of incarcerating prisoners here compared with putting them in other counties' jails. There has at least been an assertion that it's actually marginally cheaper to put inmates elsewhere. That's not necessarily a reason to do it. There are benefits to inmates, their lawyers, and families to having them here. But it does affect the peak load question.)

Peak load analysis. Once we agree on the impact on need of alternative approaches, we can project what the MAXIMUM day's occupancy will be in any given year, and how many days a year it will reach that level. We are then left to address: how many days a year do we want to be able to keep ALL our inmates in a Johnson County facility? How many days a year does it make more economic sense, on balance, to ship an agreed upon percentage -- 3%?, 10%? -- elsewhere; 5 days a year, 50 days? In other words, how many cells are we willing to build and pay for, knowing that they (like the rooms in a motel) will be empty a giver percentage of the days every year?

For example, if the largest overflow occurs because of drunks on football weekends, we certainly don't need to build and maintain empty jail cells 365 days a year for THAT purpose.

Answering those peak load questions is essential before even designing a facility, let alone building it.

Let's get this one right. There ARE alternatives.


Editorial, "Vote 'Yes' and Keep Addressing Concerns"
Iowa City Press-Citizen
May 1, 2013, p. A12

As a newspaper editorial board, our natural inclination is to side with those who are fighting against the power structure.

• To fight for those who have documented how about 40 percent of the people in the custody of the jail on any given day are black when blacks make up only 5 percent of the county population.

• To champion the causes of those who point out how the jail population has grown five-fold over the past 30 years while the county population has grown only by about 150 percent.

• To back those who are working to reduce the number of university students who graduate with a non-violent drug or alcohol charge on their record in addition to the one, two or three majors that they’ve managed to complete.

But we think those struggles should continue in conjunction with — not in opposition to — the new justice center being proposed.

If you removed every single black inmate from the responsibility of the Johnson County jail, the sheriff’s office would still be responsible every day for farming out overflow inmates to neighboring county jails

If you removed everyone charged with marijuana possession alone — as opposed to in conjunction with domestic assault, driving under the influence or some other charge — it would have almost no effect on the daily population of the Johnson County Jail.

Back in 1981, county officials caved to public pressure and requested a bond for a 46-person jail that in no way met the county’s needs for an inmate population. And even worse, the county agreed to a design that didn’t include options for expansion.

In 1993, the jail inspector allowed the county to double bunk inmates and thus increase the jail’s total bed population to 92 — even though everything within the jail was designed for half that number.

The overcrowding finally reached a boiling point in the late 1990s, and the sheriff’s office tried to make a case then for why a larger jail was needed. Unfortunately, the sheriff and other supporters failed to show that they were interested in finding jail alternatives for non-violent offenders who offer no risk to the public.

In hindsight, their proposal deserved the nearly 2-1 trouncing it received at the polls in 2000.

But that 13-year-old bond issue is very different from the recent proposals for a justice center that will address the problems of a grossly overcrowded jail as well as the space, security and accessibility concerns of a century old courthouse.

And especially since Lonny Pulkrabek was elected in 2004, the sheriff’s office has been working with the county attorney and others to establish credible, workable, successful jail diversion and alternative programs.

Some opponents of the current justice center proposal suggest the county officials should separate the jail component from the courthouse and then find the additional money and political will required to build a larger jail on county land near the intersection of Melrose Avenue and Highway 218.

Other critics say that the most cost-efficient plan would involve tearing down the century-old county courthouse — a historic structure — selling the land and starting the planning process over.

But we’ve long supported the plans to purchase more land near the courthouse and build a joint justice center that would cut down enormously on the risks and costs involved with transporting jail inmates.

Other critics argue that the current plans for a justice center would detract from Iowa City’s plans for developing the Riverfront Crossings neighborhood. Yet MidWestOne Bank officials — knowing full well that a justice center is a likely possibility for the area — recently announced that they are looking to build south of Burlington Street.

Although we share many of the opponents’ concerns over the county’s incarceration rate, we don’t think this project should wait another six months or a year. Maintaining the status quo means that, any given day, about 50 Johnson County inmates are being farmed out to jails in neighboring counties. That costs the county in the neighborhood of $1 million a year — down from a high of $1.3 million in 2011.

The inmates who are farmed out don’t have ready access to their lawyers. Nor do they have ready access to their families or any other support system. And basic logistics say that the inmates who are going to be in the jail the longest are the ones who can be sent furthest away.

And the unfortunate truth is that some inmates with special needs actually might fare better in those other, larger jails because those facilities will have space for the programming that the Johnson County jail has no space to offer in the current jail.

We recognize that the odds are very much against county officials managing to muster 60 percent support for a necessary county service that most people would rather pretend doesn’t exist — or at least would rather pretend doesn’t affect them. But kudos to county officials for trying. And kudos to the 56 percent of county residents who voted “yes” for a slightly larger version of this proposal less than six months ago.

Tuesday’s election won’t have the presidential candidates on the ballot to help bring people out. But we still hope that those county residents who are interested in providing a more secure and safer environment for county employees — as well as for innocent-until-proven-guilty jail inmates — will come out and vote “yes.”

And then we hope, on Wednesday, proponents and opponents alike will continue to work on addressing concerns over the racial disparity among local incarceration rates and will continue to push for those jail alternative/diversion programs to be fully staffed and better funded.

# # #

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Justice Center's Proponents' Faulty Logic

April 27, 2013, 9:30 a.m.

Arguments for Justice Center Proposal Built on Flawed Foundation

Surely it is not really the case that in order to resolve our current justice system challenges, "There Is No Alternative" to despoiling our National Historic Registry, 100-year-old, architectural gem of a Courthouse like this:












When we could resolve our challenges with a more efficient, detached "Criminal Justice Center" for roughly the same cost, leaving our Courthouse's exterior and setting to look like this:













I've got good news and bad news.

Let's start with some good news; an example of a community's successful, innovative responses to a challenge.

When I was a young boy, American communities' response to an increased supply of material needing transformation was to acquire more land to be used for landfills. It wasn't that opponents' proposed alternatives to this approach were rebuffed; it was that such alternatives weren't a part of the communities' policy dialogue. (Recycling during World War II, like rationing, was sold to the public as a part of the war effort, not as a way to avoid additional landfills.)

The late, former British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, was sometimes referred to as "TINA," because of her oft-heard response to the Loyal Opposition's proposals of alternatives to her policies: "There Is No Alternative." It was the response of some in Johnson County to recycling, or other alternatives to ever-more land devoted to landfills.

There is still not unanimity of opinion regarding today's alternatives. I have a couple colleagues who refuse to recycle.

But there appears to be ever-increasing innovation and participation. Consignment stores recycle clothing, furniture, housewares, and many other things that might otherwise have been discarded. Habitat ReStore has used building materials and appliances. Goodwill Reboot recycles computers and related gear -- a major diversion from landfills, as well as savings for users. We pay refunds for the recycling of drink contains made of aluminum, plastic, or glass. We have a recycling center that accepts cardboard, plastic, glass, tin cans, newspapers, magazines, telephone books, and other paper. City trucks pick up recyclable items from containers at curbside. Unused food and other material is being turned into compost and mulch. Some things have become a source of methane gas, or fuel to create heat or electric power. As a result, Johnson County has preserved land for farming, parks -- or suburbs -- that would otherwise have been turned into landfills.

That's the good news. That's an example of what innovative "creative corridor"-type thinking can contribute to resolving a modern community's, or county's, challenges.

Unfortunately, it stands in sharp contract to how we're approaching the challenges confronting our justice system.

The County is proposing to build a shiny, big box, modern architecture "Justice Center" and attach it to the Johnson County, National Historic Register Courthouse. Defeated by the voters last November, it's up for another vote May 7, 2013.

The proposal has sparked a lively exchange of views throughout the community.

Unfortunately, the debaters have yet to join issue.

The proponents continue to lean on a straw man that cannot bear their weight. They point out that the Courthouse needs more than just a facelift, and that the way we're running our criminal justice system in Johnson County we're going to need more jail cells -- specifically, we have to have precisely their proposed structure, located exactly where they propose to attach it and nowhere else. Like Thatcher, they insist, "There is no alternative."

The problem with the proponents using these assertions as their basic premise is that those urging a "No" vote agree that the Courthouse needs fixing; many even agree that we may need more jail cells that we now have.

Here is an example of their rhetoric, beginning with the comment I put on the Press-Citizen's online version of a recent column written by one of the Justice Center proponents.

Scott McKeag provides reasons why "something" needs to be done about the Johnson County Courthouse and Jail.

What he fails to address is why he believes in the late former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's theory of "TINA" -- "There is no alternative" -- in this case to the proponents' concept of a modern "Justice Center" attachment on the historic Courthouse.

He acknowledges that even "the 'no' campaign's biggest voices... agree the justice center has to be part of a larger solution" -- the latest of which is Karen Kubby's column, along with McKeag's, in this morning's Press-Citizen. Karen Kubby, "Supportive of Justice Center, Yet Voting 'No,'" Iowa City Press-Citizen, April 26, 2013, p. A7.

There may be some local citizens who believe in doing nothing about the conditions of our Courthouse and jail. But there are none among my acquaintance or persons I have ever met.

McKeag's is a false argument. I'm tempted to respond with the old line, "I follow you all but the 'therefore.'"

The controversy is not about whether "something" should be done. The controversy involves precisely what that "something" ought to be.

There are as many sound objections to the proponents' specifics as McKeag provides reasons for doing "something." See, "Vote No 'Justice Center," -- and give special attention to the links to its "Why vote NO" and "Opinions" pages.

And the opponents have as many positive suggestions for what those better alternatives might be as they have objections to the May 7 ballot proposal. See, for example, the very thoughtful collection of alternative approaches in American Civil Liberties Union, Smart Reform is Possible: States Reducing Incarceration Rates and Costs While Protecting Communities (August 2011), or any and all of John Neff's research and writing.

If the proposition passes "that's all she wrote." But if it fails again, which is always a possibility, what do we do next?

In "Vote 'No' to Justice Center; 'Yes' to Courthouse, Detached Criminal Facility," I propose ways we can "get to 'yes'" on both needed Courthouse improvements and a detached Criminal Justice Center.
Is it really the case that the citizens of Johnson County are genetically incapable of bringing the same kind of creativity, the same kind of willingness to consider alternatives, to our justice system challenges as we brought to our landfill challenges? I just can't believe that is the case.

For some of my other writing regarding the County's Courthouse and jail needs, "Why TINA's Wrong; There Are Alternatives," April 25, 2013; "Criminal Justice Center: My Response to McCarragher; The Discussion Continues", April 17, 2013; "Vote 'No' to Justice Center; 'Yes' to Courthouse, Detached Criminal Facility," April 12, 2013; "Johnson County Can Lead Incarceration Reform; 'If not now, when? If not us, who?'" March 8, 2013; "'Iowa Nice' & the Compromise Three-Step; How the County Can Get to 'Yes' on the Justice Center", November 16, 2012; "Prisons: The Costs and Challenges of Crime" October 15, 2012.

Now here is the column of Mr. McKeag that prompted my response, above.

"County Residents Agree, So Let's Move Forward"
Scott McKeag
Iowa City Press-Citizen
April 26, 2013, p. A10

I spent my entire undergraduate career at the University of Iowa opposing the idea of a new jail.

I had heard the opposition’s points, read their amusing fliers and took their word for it, knowing that our country has a historical track record of inequities in its justice system. I would have voted “no” to any proposal put in front of me up until two years ago.

At that time I was working with area high school students about how to use local research tools as they worked on civics projects of their own, and I began to see the data for myself. I began paying more attention during my visits to the aging courthouse, however infrequent.

Almost accidentally, I began to think for myself. I remember thinking about how and where I would want my tax dollars spent and about how important it is to ensure we aren’t depriving civil liberties and rights for the accused and incarcerated.

I also recognized the importance of empathy and the promise for a better future for those historically on the wrong end of society’s prejudices. Eventually I had the courage to admit to myself and others that building a large enough jail to meet the current and projected needs of the county did not conflict with my desire to see better race and socio-economic relations in our county, state and nation.

More importantly, I realized I could best oppose the misguided “War on Drugs” by demonstrating that lobbying my state and federal representatives is more appropriate and effective on these larger issues, rather than protest voting against my own best interests as a county resident.

Last November I supported the justice center, and I support it now, because I recognize that our jail isn’t full of recreational drug users and “newly drunk” to “sobering up” students. In fact, an April 8 report showed that of the 125 individuals in our jail at that time (which is 79 more than the original capacity of our 1981 jail); zero persons were in for only having marijuana or only having too much to drink over the weekend.

Those 125 were there because the laws above the county level said they had to be.

I support the justice center because you cannot have the most progressive jail diversion and treatment programs in the state if you are forced to use a hallway as a meeting area.

I support the justice center because our hardworking county employees shouldn’t have to risk breathing in mold spores and falling down 100-year-old stairs to file my paperwork in a room that is out of space.

I support the justice center because we need to have adequate facilities to ensure those who are legally mandated to stay in jail don’t have to do so in other counties.

And after observing the “No” campaign’s biggest voices making public comments saying they, in fact, do support the building of a justice center, it becomes clear that we all agree the justice center has to be part of a larger solution. Their issue is with the increased capacity of the proposed jail, which itself accounts for only about one-third of the project’s total cost.

A “no” vote will only serve to make this problem bigger and more expensive down the road for current and future taxpayers. There is something in this proposal for everyone, and current city and county leadership has even begun to explore deeper societal structures to continue its efforts to engage both the public at-large and the opponents of the justice center.

So let’s fight the state and federal battles together tomorrow. It’s time to stand for Johnson County today. Vote “yes” on or before May 7.

Scott McKeag is an Iowa City resident.

# # #

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Why TINA's Wrong

April 25, 2013, 9:55 p.m.

Note: There have been a number of public events held by proponents and opponents of a proposed "Justice Center" box to be physically attached to a 100-year-old Courthouse in Johnson County, Iowa. A bond issue failed to pass in November 2012, and was soon back on a ballot for a May 7 vote.

One of those events was organized by University of Iowa Professor Jeff Cox, and held Tuesday evening [April 23, 2013]. Five persons including myself were asked to serve on a panel, and allocated 10 minutes each, in this order:

Jeff Cox: Yes We Can....Control Local Arrest Rates. The War on Drugs and Racial Disparities
Bob Thompson: Stabilizing Jail Population Growth
Ruedi Kuenzli: What Should We Do With the Current Jail?
Nicholas Johnson: Getting to Yes With a Detached Criminal Justice Center
Caroline Dieterle: Jail Beds for Victimless Crimes

What follows, below, is a combination of an advance text and some transcription from a video the "Vote No Justice Center" organization has made available from its Web site. There are five videos of the evening; my remarks are in Part II, from minute 10:00 to 19:04. (The other panelists are, of course, introduced and recorded on Parts I and II, along with the animated exchanges between them and the audience members on Parts III, IV and V -- which ran over twice as long as the panelists' presentations.) -- N.J.

There Are Alternatives

Nicholas Johnson
Remarks Prepared for Presentation at the
Alternatives to Bigger Jail Event
Plaza Room, Hotel Vetro
Iowa City, Iowa, April 23, 2013, 7:30 p.m.

Because I am this evening advocating a “No” vote on the proposed Justice Center on May 7, it may surprise some of you to know that six months ago I had a column in the Press-Citizen with the headline, “Voting ‘Yes, but . . .’ for the Justice Center.”

[October 15, 2012, p. A7; embedded in ,” “Prisons: The Costs and Challenges of Crime."]
Six months ago I wrote of the need for centralized “rationalization of priorities on taxpayers’ behalf,” given the number of governmental units imposing multiple debts on taxpayers. Regional jails could better serve the needs of the 21sst Century than the 99 county jails that well suited 1840s. I spoke of a detached, stand-alone Criminal Justice Center – both for its own value, and to better preserve our architectural gem of a Courthouse; of that portion of “the criminal population that suffers from the mental health and chemical dependency challenges” and become recidivists; and asked, “Can we do even more to reduce the need for jails?

I concluded, “We need some additions to our criminal justice capabilities. That’s why I’m voting ‘yes.’ But that doesn’t mean additional thought, and modification of what’s now on the drawing board, couldn’t serve us even better.”

What distinguishes my position then from my position this evening is simple: I am less naïve.

I recognized then, as I and some other opponents do now, that there may well be a need for some improvements in both the Courthouse and number of jail cells.

But my naiveté then, I’m embarrassed to reveal, was that we could endorse the proponents’ idea without endorsing their details, and that the proponents would be willing to modify their original idea before implementing it.

What I have come to understand during the intervening months, given the so-called “revised proposal,” is that I was really wrong. I’ve seen the relative intransigence of the proponents; their unwillingness to make any other than the most superficial tweaks in their original plan.

They had a lot of alternative ideas put out there, and they chose not to grab onto any of them. We were left with what Jeff Cox has called “TINA” – “There is no alternative.”

The proponents of the May 7 ballot proposition would have us believe we have only two choices: either we must say “Yes” to anything they propose or they will charge we are saying “No” to everything.

I take a little different position, and like others this evening, have an alternative.

I am not a member of any group with regard to this. What I have been trying to do is to come up with both substantive proposals and procedural ways of evolving them, that could help the voters of Johnson County get to “Yes,” finally vote on whatever it is we decide we need, and go on to the other challenges we have in this county.

And I’ve not been very successful at that, but will share with you some of what I have proposed.

So ten days ago another column of mine ran in the Press-Citizen, this time headlined, “Vote 'No' on Justice Center, But 'Yes' for Courthouse.”

[Iowa City Press-Citizen, April 12, 2013, p. A7, embedded in, “Vote 'No' to Justice Center; 'Yes' to Courthouse, Detached Criminal Facility; Detaching a Jail, Literally and Figuratively,” April 12, 2013; ; and see also, "Criminal Justice Center: My Response to McCarragher; The Discussion Continues," April 17, 2013.]
It was an effort to put forward a proposal and procedure that would hopefully enable us to come to an agreement on this and move on.

In it I made three points I want to leave with you this evening.

In the event the bond issue fails once again on May 7, we need to come up with both a substantive proposal, and a procedure, that will enable Johnson County voters to, as I titled another blog essay, “Get to ‘Yes.’” The centerpiece of my proposal is that we detach the jail from both the Courthouse and the ballot proposition. Here’s how.

1. We should reserve the Courthouse for civil proceedings. There seems to be less divisiveness over fixing up the Courthouse. So let’s vote separately to support that project. By building a Criminal Justice Center that is not attached to the Courthouse, or its ballot proposition, we can get it spiffed up, eliminate much of the overcrowding and security concerns, and provide the needed additional offices and space for civil proceedings.

2. A detached, stand-alone facility for criminal proceedings and jail cells would be much more efficient for those handling criminal cases.

There could be new courtrooms and chambers for judges; offices and rooms for clerks and records, assistant county attorneys, deputy sheriffs, inmates’ lawyers and families, training programs, as well as jail cells – all designed for optimum efficiency by those using them.

There would be much less controversy over its architectural design. Security could be built in

It would be a one-stop shop; a stand-alone facility.

There is precedent. Offices for all County Departments used to be in the Courthouse. They are now in a separate, County Administration Building a few blocks away.

So that’s our precedent. But the fact is there is a lot of precedent around this state for counties that have addressed this very issue and have come to exactly my conclusion. That is something that I didn’t know when I wrote the column and just discovered today.

Numerous Iowa counties have chosen to separate by some distance their civil courthouses from their law enforcement facilities – among them Cedar, Des Moines, Dubuque, Jasper, and Polk. And goodness knows how many more. Obviously, I didn’t have time this afternoon to look at all 99. They have designed almost precisely what I’m talking about: moving all the criminal stuff out of the courthouse, leaving it for civil proceedings.

They know something. What is it they know that we don’t know; something so obvious to them, and so abhorrent to those proposing our own Justice Center?

3. There are reasons to preserve the integrity of the Courthouse. The Courthouse, like Old Capitol, is a valuable Iowa City asset. It is an attraction in an area the City, the Convention Bureau, want to develop.

It may be "legal" to attach a modern architectural extension on this 100-year-old U.S. Register of National Historic Places structure, but why would anyone want to do so? Even if you could do it and not go to jail yourself? Would we put such an extension on Old Capitol? Of course not. Just think of how abhorrent that would be. It’s equally abhorrent when it is attached to the Courthouse.

If we want to make the downtown more attractive to potential residents, students and tourists, and put in little sidewalk cafes or whatever else they may have in mind –- I haven’t checked yet with Marc Moen -- why on earth would we plop jail cells for criminals right in the middle of downtown? Is that a tourist attraction? I don’t think so. And even if it were, I don’t see why tourists couldn't walk another five blocks to it, like we do to get to the Administration Building.

So I don’t see that we get anything in terms of the downtown development by attaching this big box Justice Center to the Courthouse. I think we create additional problems for ourselves in the Courthouse.

We can resolve those problems in the Courthouse. We can provide a better justice facility than anything they are talking about. Particularly since we also despoil an architectural gem of a Courthouse in the process.

As I concluded that column, Iowa City is not like Washington, where the best one can hope for is the least worst alternative – if you can even get that, as we discovered this last week.

Here in Johnson County, we can have it all: improve the Courthouse’s interior, while preserving its exterior and setting. Detach a Criminal Justice Center from the ballot, and from the Courthouse; create one more efficient and pleasant to work in than anything the proponents have even dreamed of so far.

There are alternatives.

# # #

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Criminal Justice Center: My Response to McCarragher

April 17, 2013, 10:30 a.m.

The Discussion Continues

This morning's Press-Citizen [April 17, 2013] contains an opinion piece taking issue with one of mine: Nicholas Johnson, "Vote 'No' on Justice Center, But 'Yes' for Courthouse," Iowa City Press-Citizen, April 12, 2013, p. A7, embedded in the blog, "Vote 'No' to Justice Center; 'Yes' to Courthouse, Detached Criminal Facility; Detaching a Jail, Literally and Figuratively," April 12, 2013.

The column challenging mine is authored by an able local attorney, Jim McCarragher: "Single facility improves safety, security, space," Iowa City Press-Citizen, April 17, 2013, p. A15. Out of a sense of fairness, and respect for this blog's readers, I reproduce Jim's column below, in its entirety, so that you can judge for yourselves who has the better of this particular disagreement, as you weigh your own vote on May 7.

James D. McCarragher is a partner in the firm where I go for legal advice (as did my family's generations before and after me). He is a graduate of the University of Iowa, and its College of Law where I teach. He was one of our brightest graduates. Local lawyers have elected him to serve as their president of the Johnson County Bar Association. He practices law in the Courthouse I am trying to preserve -- including criminal cases.

I respect both his ability and his ethics. I would not suggest for a moment that he is merely mouthing the best arguments he can come up with on behalf of a client; that he does not personally believe in what he is saying, and that it is truly in the best interest of Johnson County citizens. I assume these are his personal, honest, true beliefs.

But it's fair to note, as he ethically and candidly discloses in the personal identification at the bottom of his opinion piece, that he "is a member of the Johnson County Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee." This was the group that laid the groundwork for the defeated proposal earlier that has now been revised into what will be before the voters on May 7.

What he does not reveal is that he and his wife are also listed among the supporters of "Vote Yes for Johnson County Justice Center": "Johnson County Justice Center; Vote Yes May 7th, 2013; Safety, Security, Space" -- sometimes called "Yes for Justice" ("Yes for Justice asks voters to VOTE YES to Build a Justice Center for Johnson County.").

Nothing wrong with that. In fact, one of the great assets of Iowa City and Johnson County is its active citizenry -- on both sides of this issue, as on many other issues. The list of supporters of "Yes for Justice" is long and impressive. There's no reason why those who created this proposal should not be among them as advocates for its implementation.

But that's the point. McCarragher helped create this proposal; he is a member and supporter of the advocacy group urging voters to support it; and he is an advocate in this column of his -- whether he is using his fulsome skills as an advocate in a professional or personal capacity.

When a lobbyist for Exxon takes a senator to lunch, and explains to him the justifications for, and positive effects of, the oil industry's tax break called the "depletion allowance," or the NRA lobbyist explains why background checks on gun buyers won't affect gun deaths, it does not mean that the senator should reject everything the lobbyist says, just because it's his job to say it. It may all be true, and persuasive. But the senator might want to be a little skeptical, try to figure out what issues aren't being addressed, and ask an economist who's not funded by the lobbyist's boss what she or he thinks.

I'm not suggesting McCarragher is paid by "Yes for Justice." I would be very surprised if he was. But he is an advocate for the organization.

I am not a member of any organization either supporting or opposing the Justice Center. My own thoughts on the proposal cannot accurately be described as "opposition." Indeed, one of the first columns I wrote about the first proposal and vote urged a "Yes" vote -- much to something between consternation and anger on the part of my friends in "the Democratic Wing of the Johnson County Democratic Party" -- Nicholas Johnson, "Voting 'Yes, but . . .' for the Justice Center," Iowa City Press-Citizen, October 15, 2012, p. A7, embedded in the blog essay, "Prisons: The Costs and Challenges of Crime," October 15, 2012.

That was followed with two more, which I also considered centrist and constructive. Nicholas Johnson, "How the County Can Get to 'Yes' on the Justice Center," Iowa City Press-Citizen, November 16, 2012, p. A7, embedded in the blog essay, "'Iowa Nice' & the Compromise Three-Step," November 16, 2012, put forth some procedural suggestions. The blog essay, "Johnson County Can Lead Incarceration Reform; 'If not now, when? If not us, who?'," March 8, 2013, was an appeal that Johnson County take the lead in reversing America's reputation as the world's leader in incarceration rates of its citizens.

Nor are the column and blog essay to which Jim McCarragher responds expressing "opposition" to the goals he seeks. It merely suggests a separation of the contentious jail expansion proposals from the generally accepted Courthouse proposals on the ballot, if and when there is a third vote. As with the deadlocked Congress, I'd like to see progress on what majorities agree to rather than a perpetuation of discord over those things they don't.

After we take care of the Courthouse needs, I suggest in that column, we should then agree, and vote "Yes," on whatever jail and Criminal Justice Center needs come out of those deliberations.

Stripped to its core arguments: (1) What does McCarragher take issue with in my column, and (2) which of my points does he choose to ignore?

McCarraher's points and my brief responses.

Courthouse security. My early reading of proponents' arguments left me with the impression they were primarily concerned about Courthouse security because of the present need to bring criminals, and their proceedings, into the Courthouse. If this has really been about security for civil proceedings all along, and there is a need to improve security for that reason, as Nike says, "Do it!" That need, if it exists, will be there regardless of where the Criminal Justice Center is located.

Alteration of Courthouse appearance. McCarragher argues that making the Courthouse secure, and ADA compliant, will be expensive and alter its external appearance. He does not explain why this is so. Most security equipment I have seen, and walked through, was always inside, not outside buildings, and has had no impact on their external appearance. Nor do I grasp his point about ADA compliance. I have assumed we're talking about such things as restroom stalls big enough for a wheelchair; interior elevators, or lifts, for getting up stairs; possibly widening a doorway. It's not clear to me why this would alter the appearance of the Courthouse exterior. As for the cost, both security and ADA compliance will either be done or not. Is he really suggesting that we should not make the Courthouse ADA compliant? In any case, once again the costs are roughly equal whether the Criminal Justice Center is attached to the Courthouse exterior -- where it clearly would have an adverse impact on the Courthouse's exterior appearance -- or located a few blocks away.

Cost of stand-alone Criminal Justice Center. He says his proposal "streamlines spending," whatever that means, and that he offers "one thing instead of two at twice the price," and that spending money on my proposal would be a "waste" of money, requiring two sets of security personnel. These assertions are difficult to evaluate because he provides no data whatsoever; but his conclusions are certainly not intuitive. For starters, the issue is not how much a stand-alone Criminal Justice Center would cost; it should be simply a question of how much more it would cost than the addition the "Yes" folks are advocating be attached to the Courthouse. I don't follow his "one thing instead of two." We're both talking about "one thing"; either "one thing" attached to the Courthouse, or "one thing" down the street. Nor do I agree with the "two sets of security personnel." I was talking about a structure that would be stuffed full of Sheriff's deputies! Are they incapable of providing such security as the Criminal Justice Center would require -- as presumably they do now at the County Jail?

Finally, the idea has already been rejected. Does that assertion, devoid of support, really warrant a reply? How many stories -- that would be hilarious if they were not so sad -- have been told about administrators in all kinds of institutions -- corporate, government, military, universities -- who have responded to suggestions that way, only to have the ideas adopted years later?
Now for what he didn't say; consider the points in my column which he failed to address.

"Relocating criminal proceedings will eliminate much of the Courthouse overcrowding and security concerns, while providing additional offices and space for civil proceedings." Is that not true?

Some of those opposed to the proposal have addressed the architectural design of the addition as dispoiling the Courthouse. I wrote, "There would be little or no public objection to architectural design [of a stand-alone structure away from the Courthouse]." Does he disagree with this advantage?

I wrote, "There is precedent for removing functions from the Courthouse. Offices for all County Departments used to be in the Courthouse. They are now in a separate, County Administration Building a few blocks away with convenient, free parking." Isn't that true?

"Would we put such an extension on Old Capitol? Of course not. We shouldn't want to put one on the Courthouse either. Old Capitol needs its Pentacrest; the Courthouse needs its setting." Does he disagree; does he think an attached, modern structure on Old Capitol would be an improvement for the University?

"Do we want to make the downtown more attractive to potential residents, students and tourists? . . . That being the case, of all the options for housing, entertainment venues, and other attractions south of Burlington, why on earth would we plop jail cells for criminals right in the middle of downtown?" Does he really think a deliberate decision to improve the attractiveness of downtown by placing criminals in jail cells there is a wise decision?

Here is the full McCarragher column in this morning's paper:

"Single facility improves safety, security, space"

Jim McCarragher

Iowa City Press-Citizen, April 17, 2013, p. A15

Nicholas Johnson’s recent guest column claimed there’s a much easier, win-win option to the current proposal for a new Johnson County justice center on the ballot in May.

However, Johnson’s idea of creating a second, separate facility at another location — rather than one streamlined complex — is severely flawed. It would not only create redundant spending the county can’t afford, but it also would not solve the serious security and safety issues for citizens who would continue using the old courthouse.

• Creating a stand-alone building for the jail and criminal proceedings would not solve the continued security and safety threat for civil proceedings at the old courthouse.

Johnson suggests holding criminal proceedings to the newer, more secure facility and leave civil matters at the old courthouse. However, civil cases often can be more contentious than criminal cases when it comes to heated divorces, bitter custody battles and emotional foreclosures.

The old courthouse simply does not have the space to put in the security precautions necessary to detect weapons and other harmful devices without impacting the appearance of this architectural gem.

Other changes to make the building safer and ADA compliant would not be just “spiffing it up.” They would be major and expensive undertakings that also would change the look of the building.

The current proposal on the ballot May 7 would avoid all that by building a new building connected to the current courthouse that addresses all security, safety and accessibility needs without having to make any major changes to the old courthouse.

• Two stand-alone buildings would create serious redundant spending. The county already is spending more than a million dollars per year paying other counties to house the overflow of inmates it can’t accommodate because of space issues. Why waste more?

Two stand-alone buildings would require two sets of security equipment, paying two sets of security team salaries and benefits, as well as two separate clerk of courts offices to handle criminal cases in one building and civil in the other.

Now that’s nuts.

Connecting the two buildings under the current proposal streamlines that spending into one secure system with one staff and one clerk of courts and the sharing of other common functions and space.

In the long process of coming up with the current ballot proposal, the idea of a second stand-alone building was investigated, researched and eventually dismissed. Common sense tells us it’s smarter to pay for one thing instead of two at twice the price.

If we have learned anything from this years-long process, it’s that you can continue to committee and question a project to death. We now have a smart, cost-effective proposal on the ballot that has survived this extensive process.

Now is the time to do the right thing and vote “yes” for the justice center on May 7.

_______________
Jim McCarragher is a member of the Johnson County Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee.

My Comment on the Press-Citizen's Online Version of McCarragher's Column

Not surprisingly, I have responded to this column in some detail: "Criminal Justice Center: My Response to McCarragher; The Discussion Continues," April 17, http://fromdc2iowa.blogspot.com/2013/04/criminal-justice-center-my-response-to.html

In it I reference and link three prior columns/blog essays, starting with one urging a "Yes" vote, that were designed to make constructive suggestions regarding (as one was titled) "Getting to Yes." They contained many of the same suggestions in the most recent column to which McCarragher responds: "Vote 'No' to Justice Center; 'Yes' to Courthouse, Detached Criminal Facility; Detaching a Jail, Literally and Figuratively," http://fromdc2iowa.blogspot.com/2013/04/vote-no-to-justice-center-yes-to.html

I then try to pull what seem to be his arguments in his column today and respond to each -- as well as, equally significant, identify the points in my April 12 column he chooses to ignore.

It's too long to reproduce in a comment here, but for anyone who may be interested, you can find it in the blog essay linked at the top of this comment.

Not incidentally, that blog entry, in a sense of fairness, reproduces the entirety of his column -- as it will also contain in the future any additional comments he wishes to add to this discussion.

_______________

Richard A Shannon · Top Commenter · Iowa City, Iowa

It's unfortunate that the County has been unyielding on this issue.

From the outside it appears the County's strategy is to keep putting it before voters in hopes they will hit a time a year where turnout will favor their position. As it doesn't appear they are willing to make or consider substantive alternative plans.

# # #

Friday, April 12, 2013

Vote 'No' to Justice Center; 'Yes' to Courthouse, Detached Criminal Facility

April 12, 2013 7:50 a.m. [And see also, "Criminal Justice Center: My Response to McCarragher; The Discussion Continues," April 17, 2013.]

Detaching a Jail, Literally and Figuratively
_______________


Vote 'No' on Justice Center, But 'Yes' for Courthouse

Nicholas Johnson

Iowa City Press-Citizen, April 12, 2013, p. A7

There's a happy, win-win approach to Johnson County's courts and jail needs well within reach. Sadly the County Supervisors didn't grab it.

So I’m voting “No” on the so-called “revised” proposal.

When this vote also fails, let’s do what almost everyone agrees on: fix the Courthouse. Detach the jail from both the Courthouse and the ballot proposition. Here’s how.

1. Reserve the Courthouse for civil proceedings. Spiff it up. Accommodate ADA requirements and other needs. The Courthouse and Old Capitol are Iowa City's most prized architectural gems.

Relocating criminal proceedings will eliminate much of the Courthouse overcrowding and security concerns, while providing additional offices and space for civil proceedings.

2. Create a detached, stand-alone facility for criminal proceedings and jail cells. It would be much more efficient for those handling criminal cases.

There could be new courtrooms and chambers for judges; offices and rooms for clerks and records, assistant county attorneys, deputy sheriffs, inmates’ lawyers and families, training programs, as well as jail cells. They could be designed for optimum efficiency by those using them.

There would be little or no public objection to architectural design. Security could be built in, rather than reconfiguring the Courthouse.

There would be no need to have this facility either near the Courthouse or more than a half-mile away. It would be a one-stop shop; a stand-alone facility.

There is precedent for removing functions from the Courthouse. Offices for all County Departments used to be in the Courthouse. They are now in a separate, County Administration Building a few blocks away with convenient, free parking.

3. There are reasons to preserve the integrity of the Courthouse. The Courthouse, like Old Capitol, is a valuable Iowa City asset. It is an attraction in an area the City wants to develop.

It may be "legal" to attach a modern architectural extension on this 100-year-old U.S. Register of National Historic Places structure, but why would anyone want to do so? Would we put such an extension on Old Capitol? Of course not. We shouldn't want to put one on the Courthouse either. Old Capitol needs its Pentacrest; the Courthouse needs its setting. [Photo credit: Iowa's County Courthouses.]

Do we want to make the downtown more attractive to potential residents, students and tourists? That appears to be a goal of the downtown merchants, the Chamber of Commerce, the Convention and Visitors Bureau, the City Council, and others.

That being the case, of all the options for housing, entertainment venues, and other attractions south of Burlington, why on earth would we plop jail cells for criminals right in the middle of downtown?

That's nuts.

Particularly since we also despoil an architectural gem of a Courthouse in the process – one that might otherwise actually be an attraction of sorts for those walking or otherwise enjoying the area.

Iowa City is not like Washington, where the best one can hope for is the least worst alternative. We don’t have to settle. We can be creative.

We can have it all: improve the Courthouse’s interior, while preserving its exterior and setting. Detach a Criminal Justice Center from the ballot, and from the Courthouse; create one more efficient and pleasant to work in than anything dreamed of so far.

Vote “No” May 7th on the unrevised proposal.

Then, later, let’s (1) all vote “Yes” for what we do agree on – a refurbished Courthouse; and (2) begin planning, and then agreeing to vote “Yes,” on a Criminal Justice Center that will bring deserved distinction to Johnson County.
_______________
Nicholas Johnson teaches at the University of Iowa College of Law and maintains www.nicholasjohnson.org and FromDC2Iowa.blogspot.com.

_______________

Readers' Comments, My Responses, in Press-Citizen Online Edition

Rod Sullivan · Top Commenter · Iowa City, Iowa

The problem with this proposal is there is one Clerk's Office - the State will not pay for two - and one set of judges. So inefficiency and higher operating costs follow.

Friday at 7:48am


Nicholas Johnson · Top Commenter

Rod, I don't see the problem. As long as the County has more than one judge, and both civil and criminal dockets to which they are assigned, I don't see what difference it makes (in terms of your "one set of judges") whether the one presiding over a given day's criminal cases is located in a structure attached to the Courthouse, or in a spiffy Criminal Justice Center8 blocks away.

Similarly with the "one Clerk's Office." There would still be "one Clerk's Office" (as there would be "one County Attorney's Office") in the sense of organization charts. I assume the civil and criminal files are kept separate now. As with the judges, I see no legal distinction between taking records into an adjoining structure or taking them a few blocks down the street.

Neither one of us knows until the numbers are run, but I think lower operating costs are as likely (from what I believe would be a much more efficient operation, contrary to your assertion) as that there would be "higher operating costs."

Frankly, I would not object even if the operating costs did prove to be slightly higher (though I doubt that would be the case). As with any personal, public, or corporate expenditure, the issue is not "cost" in isolation, the issue is the "benefit-cost" relationship. By that standard, I think the benefits from what I propose far, far exceed those from what will be on the ballot, for the reasons I've set forth in the column.

Do you really think it was a mistake to move your office, and that of other Supervisors from the Courthouse to your new County Administration Building? I don't. If you agree with me about that, just think about my proposed Criminal Justice Center again: something designed for optimum efficiency, by the people who will be using it, with the advantages I set forth.

-- Nick

Friday at 8:53am


Deborah Thornton · Top Commenter

And we KNOW the majority of the Johnson County Board of Supervisors are AGAINST inefficiency and higher operating costs in all the things they do, and decisions they make! So we should vote for the new jail. Right! Wrong. Vote NO on the new jail. Spork the Jail.

Friday at 7:57am


Anne Stearns Tanner · Top Commenter · University of Iowa

Continue to pay every county in eastern Iowa to house our inmates. Certainly a wise economic policy.

Friday at 8:43am


Nicholas Johnson · Top Commenter

(1) As the column makes clear, I'm advocating for a Criminal Justice Center. (2) And your comment is obviously directed at Deb Thornton, not me; understood. (3) I take your comment to be sarcastic; that is, you think renting jail cells is not "a wise economic policy."

(4) I haven't run the numbers; I don't know whether renting cells is cheaper or not. But it's not as obvious to me that it is, as apparently it is to you.

We don't have a choice between "free" and "$1 million a year" (to rent cells elsewhere). It's a choice between $1 million a year and $40 million-plus this year.

Which is cheaper, to stay for "free" in the beach house you own, for which you paid $200,000, or to pay $1000 a week to rent it for a week or two each summer? Cheaper to buy a car and leave it at the beach house for when you're there so you can use it for "free," or to rent a car for a week or two once you get there? Cheaper to build an additional "guest house" on your beach property for when family drops in, or just put them up in the motel down the street? You get the idea.

It's at least possible that, looking at it only from the standpoint of our costs of holding inmates, it might very well be cheaper to save some of the multi-million-dollar construction costs and handle the occasional overflow by renting, rather than building, additional cells.

(5) I understand that there are other goals besides just saving money that cannot be met by renting cells. I propose achieving some of those goals with the Criminal Justice Center I describe. Those and other reasons may well justify the cost of construction. But so far I've never found the argument persuasive (I might in the future, once taking a hard look at the numbers), that the reason for spending $40 million-plus is: all the money we'll save by not renting cells for overflow.

(6) Finally, our County Attorney, Janet Lyness, and others have been working at alternatives to incarceration: fewer arrests, ankle bracelets, shorter holding terms, drug courts, mental health services, reduction of recidivism, and so forth. We're lucky we have such people. To the extent they are successful with these efforts we could well see a reduction in the need for additional cells in the future.

We'll still need whatever we still need. But regardless of future numbers we don't need enough cells to handle every single arrest 24/7/365. Calculating the optimum ability to meet daily need is a classic systems analysis peak load problem. Cost of renting cells is relevant. But, insofar as cost is concerned, there is an optimum combination of the number of cells we need to build and have on hand every day, and the number of days it makes more sense (at least financially) to rent others' cells a few days a year.

Friday at 2:10pm


Dave Parsons · Partner & CFO at Tallgrass Business Resources

It wasn't clear to me if you felt the Old Courthouse would not need the same security measures as the new one in your proposal. I was talking to an attorney who said that divorces, custody cases and foreclosures are often more emotional and contentious than criminal cases.
# # #

Monday, April 08, 2013

Crony Capitalism's Failures: Iowa City Style

April 8, 2013 12:13 p.m.
Gone With the Wind
"Two years ago, we were among those cheering the good news that a [wind-energy-focused] Maryland-based company — North American Ductile Iron Company (Nadicom) — had big plans to locate its first North American foundry in Iowa City . . . promising to bring 175 jobs to the area by the second quarter of 2013 . . ..

"But over the second half of last year, a good deal of wind went out of wind energy’s sails (and sales). The industry nationwide began to wobble on shaky ground . . ..

"Nadicom CEO Prasad Karunakaran recently told the Press-Citizen that . . . it’s already the second quarter of 2013, and not only are there no new jobs on the immediate horizon, but Nadicom officials basically have had to go back to the drawing board as to what type of facility would still make the best use of the land available at the park.

"At best, they won’t be able to move on anything until 2015. At worst, that starting date will be a permanent question mark."
Editorial, "'Shovel ready,' but no one's digging anytime soon," Iowa City Press-Citizen, April 8, 2013, p. A7.

The State of Iowa and City of Iowa City bet $14.2 million of your money and mine on this gamble -- without checking with us first. Now it looks like we'd all be better off if they'd just taken that money to the Riverside Casino and tried their chances.

"Tough TIF Talk" outlines 20 categories of reasons why this kind of "business deal" with taxpayers' money is a bad idea.

Today's Press-Citizen editorial is a classic example of just one of those categories: "All ventures have risk. TIFs have more, because public officials with little business experience and no skin in the game make more mistakes than experienced investors watching their own money."

The Nadicom venture discussed in the editorial also fails most of the other 19 categories of reasons why corporatism is a bad idea. But this blog essay is just going to concentrate on that one.

As the editorial reports, the City spent "$2.4 million [of taxpayers' money] to purchase 173 acres" for Nadicom. Believing that to be insufficiently generous, it then passed along an additional "$9.5 million to extend roads and utilities," following which the State, feeling flush as well as generous with other people's money, chipped in "$2.3 million for rail and additional road work."

The road to "economic development" is littered with billions of wasted taxpayers' dollars -- federal, state, county and city taxpayers' dollars. Thousand of projects that may have once looked promising to politicians end up belly up. Capitalism is supposed to meet our economy's needs with the ventures of private investors -- individuals who are willing to risk the possibility of great loss because of what they see as the probability of great gain.

Bear in mind, I'm not objecting to this project. I think renewable energy resources are the Planet's only long term hope. I don't object to permitting clean industry to locate in and around Iowa City -- the right projects, in the right locations. I'm not worried about the shadow Nadicom's structures would cast over Scott and Highway 6.

Indeed, if there was no taxpayer money involved I would not even complain about a failed business. After all, roughly half of all new businesses fail within their first five years. As has been said of Silicon Valley's hopefuls, "in this California cradle of Internet startups . . . failure is accepted, or even welcomed, as a guide for future success." Failcon.

No, my concern has to do with the risks for taxpayers when our local officials do the equivalent of taking our money to the Riverside Casino and gambling it away; and then, when questioned, try to justify what they've done by saying (a) it creates jobs, and (b) "Gee, you know, we might even have won." When governments are cutting the investment of public dollars in legitimate, traditional public functions of benefit to all Americans -- in the name of "cutting taxes" -- is no time to be gambling with those very same tax dollars, betting on private ventures that ought to be funded with private dollars.

And that's just ONE of the 20 categories of what's wrong with corporatism (the blending of government and business). Read the other 19 in "Tough TIF Talk." Go down the list. Can you honestly tell me you disagree with every single one of those 20 categories of reasons why crony capitalism is a bad idea?

# # #

Thursday, April 04, 2013

First Step to Reducing National Debt

April 4, 2013, 7:55 a.m.

Sunlight is the Best Disinfectant



“For the second time in three days, we unseal criminal charges against a sitting member of our State Legislature. It becomes more and more difficult to avoid the sad conclusion that political corruption in New York is indeed rampant and that a show-me-the-money culture in Albany is alive and well.” -- Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, April 4, 2013
Benjamin Weiser and Marc Santora, "In 2nd Alleged Bribe Scheme, a Legislator Was in On the Case," New York Times, April 5, 2013, p. A1.

Congress’ first step in long journey

Nicholas Johnson

The Gazette, April 4, 2013, p. A5

Democrats and Republicans in Washington are seemingly suffering from ideological immobilization regarding the national debt.

Republicans’ Grover Norquist famously said he’d like a government small enough that he “can drown it in the bathtub.” Republicans fear that if taxes are increased, the liberal tax-and-spend Democrats will just squander the money on bigger government and more wasteful giveaways. Meanwhile, Democrats fear that free-range, feral Republicans will ultimately leave us with no solution for our surfeit of poor children other than Jonathan Swift’s suggestion that we eat them.

I understand their dilemma. Being honorable men and women, they know that when you take hundreds of thousands of dollars from someone you have a moral obligation to reciprocate, to meet your donor’s expectations of reward.

Years ago, I documented their expectations. The average rate of return was 1,000-to-one or more. The official gets a $100,000 “contribution”; the donor’s repaid $100 million for his “investment.” The payback can take the form of, say, subsidies, price supports, tax breaks, government contracts, public land, bailouts or tariffs. [Political cartoon credit: Unknown; multiple sources.]

The total isn’t chump change. The International Monetary Fund says global subsidies for fossil fuels alone are $1.9 trillion a year.

Recently, 10 percent of the Fortune 500 corporations had so many tax breaks they not only owed no taxes, they actually got refund checks!

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma, explains what others fear to whisper: “It’s not about tax policy, it’s about benefiting the political class and the well-connected and the well-heeled in this country.”

Legislators need money to be re-elected. Can you see why it’s easier for them to cut Social Security or food stamps than their donors’ rewards programs? (The poor are notoriously miserly when it comes to large campaign contributions.)

So what’s our nation’s first step on this journey of a thousand miles?

Here’s an idea. Ask the Congressional Budget Office and IRS to, first, identify all the special interest tax breaks that lobbyists have obtained. Some benefit an individual company; others an industry, or all business. Forget the other trillions in giveaways; focus on tax breaks.

Don’t eliminate these tax breaks; just make them visible subsidies, as appropriations. Publish them online. Hold news conferences to brief journalists and bloggers, and let them run with it.

Then see what happens. If the public doesn’t respond, well, that’s democracy for you. If they do, it might provide some backbone implants for our “representatives” in Washington.

And Des Moines.

The Gazette’s Erin Jordan has skillfully brought this approach to Iowa’s sales tax. (March 23) “Report: Iowa lost $3.9 billion in sales tax breaks in 2010; Breaks up 62 percent since 2005.”

I’ve written about applying it to TIFs (tax increment financing) — the local form of handing taxpayers’ money over to for-profit businesses, as in “TIF Towers,” http://fromdc2iowa.blogspot.com/2012/04/tif-towers.html.

When it comes to federal, state and local politicians transferring taxpayers’ money to for-profit companies (often in exchange for campaign contributions), the practices and consequences are similar, whether the special treatment comes from local TIFs, state sales taxes or federal corporate income taxes.

The first step to reform is also similar: public disclosure of what’s going on.

How much money is at stake? Who’s getting it? In exchange for how much in campaign contributions?

Neither the media nor public in our democratic society can begin to redress these abuses so long as they take the form of essentially invisible tax breaks, rather than debated appropriations of giveaways, openly arrived at, and shamelessly set upon the table, under lights.

If only Congress’ journey of a thousand miles could begin with this simple, single step.
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Nicholas Johnson, a former FCC Commissioner, teaches at the University of Iowa College of Law. Comments: www.nicholasjohnson.org and FromDC2Iowa.blogspot.com.
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Do you feel sometimes that your elected officials are sidestepping some of these major issues? Did you realize they've all been to dance classes? To "do a little sidestep" requires training, not to mention a good bit of talent:

video

[The preceding one-minute fair use clip is from the delightful 1982 R-rated full-length musical comedy, "Best Little Whorehouse in Texas," staring Burt Reynolds and Dolly Parton, among a great many other accomplished and well-known actors, and still available for rental and sale. It's based on a true story of a brothel outside LaGrange, Texas, that was ultimately closed down in 1973, following the work of investigative reporter Marvin Zindler of KTRK-TV, Houston. The writing was done by Larry King (whom I remember from Austin in the 1950s), the Governor was played by Charles Durning, and the studio was RKO Pictures. The film is copyright by, presumably, RKO. The use of this miniaturized, very brief clip is for non-commercial, educational and commentary fair use purposes only. Any other use may require the permission of the copyright owner.]

And here, for a little more serious approach to the subject, is Larry Lessig and his "We The People, and the Republic We Must Reclaim":



[Photo credit for opening photo: Unknown.]

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Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Are the Iowa Universities' Stations No Longer 'Educational'?

April 2, 2013, 7:30 a.m.

Afterword for "Self Help for a Helpful University"

In "Self Help for a Helpful University," March 1, 2013, I suggested that because the University of Iowa believes it needs to do a better job communicating with Iowans in general, and members of the State Legislature in particular, it might want to consider using for that purpose the network of radio stations it already owns.

Although the state's universities hold the licenses to the stations -- because the frequencies on which they broadcast have been set aside for "educational" stations -- they are currently operated by something called "Iowa Public Radio."

Subsequent to that blog essay, a controversy developed regarding Iowa Public Radio's status.
"The Gazette on Feb. 27 made an open records request to Iowa Public Radio officials, seeking the results of an employee culture survey that was commissioned by the IPR board in December at a cost of $20,000 plus travel expenses. Iowa Public Radio officials responded on March 7 that IPR was not a government body and therefore not subject to open records laws.

"A follow-up email March 12 said IPR officials believe its information 'should be as open to public inspection as possible,' and directed The Gazette to submit the request to the Board of Regents, noting that IPR is not the “lawful custodian” of the records since it is not a government body."
Diane Heldt, "Iowa Public Radio attorney: IPR not a government body," The Gazette, March 26, 2013, p. A8.

My comments on the matter were published as a letter in The Gazette two days later:

Public Universities Not Using Radio Well

Nicholas Johnson

The Gazette, March 28, 2013, p. A5

As a law professor with administrative law focus, Diane Heldt’s well written “IPR Not a Government Body” story, March 26, offers me a delicious final exam essay question.

As a former FCC commissioner, I see more here than Iowa’s open meetings and public records laws.

There’s a reason why Iowa’s public universities hold licenses to this multi-million-dollar statewide network.

Frieda Hennock, the FCC’s first woman commissioner, set aside the low FM frequencies for noncommercial “educational” stations.

Today’s Iowa Public Radio is neither noncommercial nor educational. Indeed, it’s baffling why schools that think they’re misunderstood don’t use this valuable resource to tell their story. “Self Help for a Helpful University,” http://fromdc2iowa.blogspot.com/2013/03/self-help-for-helpful-university.html.

I’ll leave the legal opinions to others, but running commercials on a station licensed as noncommercial isn’t the only problem.

If the universities want to fritter away what their stations could contribute to the schools’ mission, that’s one thing. But if IPR is truly “not a government body,” and a part of neither the Regents nor the state schools, there is, minimally, at least an ethical and moral issue as to whether the schools should continue to hold their valuable licenses to these “educational” stations.
In sum, the remaining issues are: (1) is the delegation of station operation from the state's universities and their Board of Regents to Iowa Public Radio consistent with the spirit behind the initial grant of "non-commercial, educational radio" licenses by the FCC to these universities; (2) how much more problematical does this become if IPR does not consider itself a subsidiary unit of either the actual license holders or their Board of Regents; (3) if IPR is, as its attorney insists, "not a government body," then what is it; (4) how can IPR's provision of time during program breaks to for-profit entities to promote their businesses, in exchange for cash, and stimulating this revenue stream by on-air promotions emphasizing the business benefits to advertisers from doing so, be considered "non-commercial," just because they call it "underwriting" ("if it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck . . ."); and (5) why are the universities so reluctant to put their own "commercials" on their own stations, similar to the examples provided in "Self Help for a Helpful University,"?

If I ever come across responses, let alone "answers," to any of these questions you'll be the first to know.

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