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Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Excavating the paper trail at the Big Dig

As the profile to the right mentions, I'm originally from the East Coast and so keep casual track of of news developments there. This amazing story from the Boston Globe should be read around the country, though.

As you know, a couple of massive, concrete ceiling panels collapsed some days ago in a "Big Dig" project tunnel, killing a motorist. The Globe story reports that in 1999 (!), "the on-site safety officer for the Interstate 90 connector directly warned his superiors ... that the tunnel ceiling could collapse because the bolts could not support the heavy concrete panels, and feared for his conscience if someone died as a result."

The officer wrote that he "could not comprehend how this structure can withhold the test of time." That's understandable, seeing as how the plan called for the three-ton panels to be held in place by bolts secured only by glue!

"He said he really began to worry about the ceiling after a third-grade class from his hometown of Norwell came to visit the Big Dig for a tour in spring 1999," the Globe reported.

"He showed the class some concrete ceiling panels and pointed to the bolts protruding from the ceiling, explaining that the panels would one day hang from those bolts. A third-grade girl raised her hand and asked him, 'Will those things hold up the concrete?'

"He started voicing concerns among his colleagues and then to managers after that. 'It was like the [third-graders] had pointed out the emperor has no clothes,' he said. 'I said, `Yes, it would hold,' but then I thought about it.' "

Good heavens. But that's not all: "The Interstate 90 connector tunnel was originally intended to have a much lighter ceiling than the one that caved in and killed a woman on July 10, according to the state engineer overseeing tunnel safety inspections," another Globe story reports.

"But, partway through the tunnel construction, managers of the Big Dig project switched to a design that called for a heavier concrete ceiling that would be less expensive and easier to install, said Alexander Bardow , state director of bridges and structures.

"By the time Big Dig managers made the change, the eastern end of the tunnel, where the accident would later occur, had already been constructed without steel support beams embedded in the roof to hang concrete panels from. Instead, workers suspended the ceiling from bolts drilled into the roof and held there with epoxy, a superpowerful glue."

Glue. Unbelievable.

In my opinion, there may be a geographic component to this scandal. Critics have long claimed that a culture of corruption permeates Massachusetts state government; books have been written about it and about similar cultures in Rhode Island and other New England states. I suspect that culture helped create the atmosphere in which shoddy workmanship and fatally flawed engineering were papered over and ignored.

And is it my imagination, or are such scandals much less common in the upper Midwest, even after allowing for our smaller population? Lloyd Omdahl wrote in his guidebook, "Governing North Dakota," that "abuses in lobbying do occur although most observers agree agree that they are relatively rare in North Dakota. Bribes are unheard of around the North Dakota Legislature." True? True, as far as I can tell; by national standards, North Dakota politics seem scrupulously clean. My guess is that's why we have comparatively few failed public-works projects.

Although the Garrison Diversion's New Rockford Canal doesn't help me make this case ...

Friday, July 21, 2006

Virtual Thunderbirds

The first time you watch this video, you'll think it's a news report or promotional material about the real-life Thunderbirds. But it's not. It's produced by the "Virtual Thunderbirds," who, as their Web site (www.virtualthunderbirds.com) states, are "an elite group of formation and aerobatic pilots flying the flight simulator game Lock On: Modern Air Combat."

So, I guess these pilots log onto the Internet from their homes around America, get together in the flight simulator's virtual airspace and then "fly" Thunderbird-style maneuvers, each using his own simulated Thunderbird jet.

You know, the Internet is just an incredible, astounding thing.

Enjoy the real-life air show tomorrow at Grand Forks Air Force Base!

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Dems right, Hoeven wrong

I like and respect North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven a lot. I think he has earned his high popularity ratings, and the state is much better off for his service.

But I'm disappointed with two of his statements -- the first to a radio talk show host June 19, the second in response to recent questions about those statements.

No, I wouldn't call the statements "lies." But Hoeven does seem to be skiriting, dodging or even stretching the truth with them. That's not like him, and that's why the statements are disappointing.

State Democratic Party leaders rightly called attention to the radio interview. Here's the Associated Press' description of the June 19 exchange:

(begin quote) "During the interview on Fargo's KFGO Radio, Hoeven was asked if he agreed with the statement that he had 'not had discussions with ... any members of the state board about Dr. Potts.' Hoeven replied: 'That's it. You know, that's a personnel decision. That's something, the (Board of Higher Education) needs to make those decisions.'

"Later, in a reference to Potts, Hoeven was asked: "You have not been involved in this issue. Is that correct?" Hoeven replied: 'That's what I'm saying. I have always approached it from the standpoint that that is the board's responsibility.'" (end quote)

More recently, of course, we've learned from the attorney general that Hoeven had, in fact, had discussions with members of the board about Potts, the chancellor of the North Dakota higher education system. My guess is that what he was trying to do in the interview was craft a "non-denial denial" -- that is, make it sound like he was answering "no" to the question when he wasn't really saying anything at all. But he's not very good at doing such things, especially on the fly, so he made his "denial" too strong for it to be easily denied later.

Especially in his second answer. Because when a questioner makes a statement and then asks, "Is that correct?", the answer "That's what I'm saying" is close enough to pick the lint off the sweater of "Yes".

Hoeven should have said something like, "Well, I do talk on occasion with board members, and it's safe to say Potts has come up in those conversations now and then." But he didn't. Next time, he should trust his instinct to talk straight rather than to spin.

Make that, the time after next, because the governor ducked and weaved once again in response to questions about the interview. "Hoeven said Friday he had been speaking by cell phone during the June 19 interview and may not have heard some questions clearly," The AP reported. But Hoeven's June 19 answers were on-point and didn't show any misunderstanding of the questions at all. If, in answering the statement, "You have not been involved in this issue," he had said, "Tissue? Who said anything about tissue?" he could fairly claim to have misheard. But instead he answered, "That's what I'm saying. I have always approached it from the standpoint that that is the board's responsibility." And that suggests he'd heard and understood the question perfectly.

Were these fatal errors? No. Everybody makes mistakes, and I expect North Dakotans will forgive Hoeven this lapse. But it was a lapse, the governor should recognize. And he should nip the Artful Dodger-speak in the bud before it becomes a habit.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

School Board absurdity

(Hello readers,

Here's a preview of an upcoming editorial. Your comments? I'll read them and possibly incorporate them into the actual editorial, which I think will appear on tomorrow's editorial page. Thanks -- Tom D.)

Have you noticed? The Farm Bill is in the news again, because some in Congress are questioning it. Others in Congress are questioning the sugar program, still others the war in Iraq, still others the Defense of Marriage Act and so on. And if you add all of these dissident senators and representatives up, and you'd find all 535 congressmen busily "undermining" (read: trying to reform or overturn) some pet-peeve law duly signed by the president and passed by a previous Congress.

Have you noticed something else? Those 535 congresspeople aren't waiting until an issue comes back to the floor. Why, they're going on TV, speechifying in front of Rotary clubs, writing policy papers and newspaper columns, even taking part in interest-group campaigns, all in an effort to get Congress to reverse itself on their issue.

And have you noticed one more thing? This has been going on every day, every week and every year for the entire 230-year history of our country. It's been happening far outside of Washington, too, as it's the stuff of political life in all 50 state capitals, all 3,141 county seats and all 87,525 local governments in the United States.

All but one local government, that is: the Grand Forks School Board.

The board should quickly repeal the absurd "collegiality" provision of its "Annual Governance Review Checklist".

As Herald staff writer Paulette Tobin reported here, the board thinks effective governance means all debate stops when a policy wins a majority vote. They couldn't be more wrong. In America, two fundamental principles of democracy are that a) the minority in any legislative body is required to obey any law passed by the majority; but b) that minority is not at all required to agree with the law -- and, in fact, the minority retains the full freedom to lobby the majority, the public and anyone else in an effort to convince them that the law is misguided.

The board members in favor of silencing minority voices suggests this policy flows from John Carver's "policy governance" board-leadership model. But that's a misreading of Carver, at least as applied to school-board governance. Carver doesn't say school boards should present a united front to the public. He says they should present a united front to the staff -- especially the superintendent, the CEO so important in Carver's plan.

In other words, embittered board members shouldn't go to school-district staff and encourage them to undermine the board's actions. Sez who? Sez Carver himself, in his article in the March 2000 American School Board Journal, titled "Remaking governance: The creator of 'Policy Governance' challenges school boards to change."

Here is Carver on the specific topic of, as he puts it, "one voice from plural trustees":

"2. One voice from plural trustees. Trustees have authority only as a full board -- but few boards behave accordingly. Staff members take instructions from and answer to individual trustees and board committees. Individual trustees judge staff performance on criteria the board as a body has never stated. Superintendents seek to keep individual trustees happy quite apart from fulfilling board requirements. Trustees enjoy getting things 'fixed' for constituents. There is often unspoken agreement that 'you can meddle in your district if you'll let me meddle in mine.'

"It is not enough to dismiss these phenomena as simply politics and personalities. Whether the board intends it or not, the realpolitik of school systems demonstrates regularly that staff members do, in fact, take direction from individual trustees.

"If a board seriously intends to speak with only one voice, it must declare that the staff can safely ignore advice and instructions from individual trustees, that only the explicit instructions of the board must be heeded. Excellence in governance will not occur until superintendents are certain that trustees as a group will protect them from trustees as individuals.

"Commitment to the authoritative unity of the board in no way compromises board members' right to speak their minds. Vigorous disagreement among trustees does not damage governance, but allowing intraboard skirmishes to affect the staff is irresponsible. (emphasis added)

"In short, trustees who disagree with the vote may continue to say so, but may not influence organizational direction. It is in boards' interest that superintendents treat a 5-4 vote as a 9-0 vote."

In the interest of avoiding controversy, the Grand Forks School Board has passed a foolish, heavy-handed guideline that tries to stifle dissent and deny elected officials their constitutional right and even duty to speak out. The guideline should be rescinded without delay.

Monday, July 10, 2006

The reporter's new tool

If you haven't read Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem's opinion on the Robert Potts/Joseph Chapman affair, it's here in PDF format and definitely worth your time. As Herald editor Mike Jacobs said in his Sunday column, the document is "part detective story, part gossip column and part shoe-leather reporting," and gives exceptional behind-the-scenes details that left North Dakota journalists shaking their heads in admiration.

Starting with, for example, State Sen. Ray Holmberg's original source for his April statement to The Forum newspaper that "the votes are there" on the board to oust Chancellor Potts. The press had tried for months to learn who Holmberg's source had been on the board, but all the attorney general's office had to do was ask. (The answer: board member Bev Clayburgh.)

Anyway, the AG's opinion goes into so much chronological detail that the document's Open Meetings Law material almost seems to be an afterthought -- even though, of course, it was an Open Meetings Law query that prompted the AG's investigation in the first place.

So here's a tongue-in-cheek idea, North Dakota media types: Are you wondering what the real story is behind a City Council resolution, County Commission vote or any other mysterious public-policy decision? Then figure out an Open Meetings Law angle and ask the attorney general to investigate! True, a reporter could ask all of the same questions of public officials -- as, in fact, reporters did in the recent Board of Higher Education episodes. But while public officials can and do give reporters the brush-off, they turn out to be plenty willing to talk when assistant AGs come calling (armed with subpoenas, I wonder?) from from the state attorney general's office.

Hmm ... I wonder if more than two Grand Forks School Board members ever met privately to talk about, say, televising the school board meetings, publishing the board's minutes or making sharper cuts in the GF mill levy? Gen. Stenehjem, check it out!

Thursday, July 06, 2006

The Meridian Road





It's a lazy time here in the Red River Valley. So, let's take a few minutes to dream of days gone by ... and remember Grand Forks as it used to be ... when Ford Model T's put-putted around the city ... and a family might, on rare occasions, set out for Fargo on the gravel track that ran straight and true to the south of the city ... a track that, despite its primitive appearance to modern eyes, at the time was then one of the best and most famous highways in America: the Meridian Road, pictured above (from a still-existant stretch in Nebraska) and explained below.

The Meridian Road! It was North Dakota's own Route 66, and it's worth remembering today.

I always knew that U.S. Highway 81 was the road to Fargo that people used before the coming of Interstate 29. What I didn't know, but found out while researching a recent editorial on the interstate highway system, is that Highway 81 itself has a long and fascinating history.

In fact, it dates back to the early 1900s, when proponents of the "Good Roads" movement came up with the idea of a north-south route from Canada to Mexico. That was the start of the Meridian Road, later renamed the Meridian Highway, as the link to the Nebraska State Historical Society marker relates. The road was designed to follow the 6th Principle Meridian, principle meridians being the key longitiude lines that surveyors used to plot range lines.

And in Grand Forks, the road (scroll down to the U.S. 81 information) "followed the 'Mill Road', passing by the State Mill and Elevator (ahhh, prairie socialism at its zenith!) and continued on into Grand Forks. I'm pretty sure (don't quote me on this) that it followed Belmont Road out of town until South Washington Street was upgraded to four lanes," the info at the link relates. (By the way, scroll down on this fun page to see the Meridian Highway's identification sign, which is pictured to the right, in a lineup with dozens of other signs, including a bunch from old Route 66. Are there any of those original MH markers to be found on walls or in attics or museums around Grand Forks?)



The Belmont Road idea mentioned above seems right, because if you follow the current Mill Road from Home of Economy south into Grand Forks, the road becomes what's now 5th Street, which then connects easily with Belmont Road. I bet the old WPA Guide to North Dakota has a lot more information about this.

Two more nice links: This one from Thayer County, Neb., talks about how important the Meridian Highway was to the community of Belvidere; and how the town both rejoiced and mourned the road's passing: "In general, Belvidere will welcome the absences of the dust that the heavy traffic has stirred up for years, but will miss the business that the tourist and truck traffic has brought."

And the second link is here, the place where the beautiful picture above came from. Apparently, Nebraska found and protected a still-gravel stretch of the original Meridian Road ... so the pictures there give a great idea of what the road looked like in North Dakota, too, I'm sure.