Thursday, February 28, 2013


On February 7th, the Gazette reported that three recently elected county officials, Tammy Vopat, Jeff Cope, and Vicky Lopez, voted themselves significant pay increases. One elected official, Dora Hartig, decided not to take an increase, citing two reasons – “it is so very true that the taxpayers elected me to have their best interest at heart” and “With the economy and budgets the way they are, I just couldn’t do it.”
The rationales used for the increases were varied. Ms. Vopat cited concerns that longevity increases, etc. had put her department in a place “where there are employees that are making almost what the elected officials are making, and they aren’t department heads.”  Jeff Cope cited comps with other law enforcement agencies. At the time the article was written Ms. Lopez was not available for comment.
Public reaction to the news was swift, particularly in local watering holes. The Gazette described it as a “public lashing.” KVOE conducted a poll, asking the question Do you agree with the decision of several Lyon County elected officials to grant themselves pay raises for this year?” As of this morning, about 85% disagreed with the decisions the officials made. It’s clear that the decisions were extremely unpopular. It’s also clear that more than just a few revolutionaries in our pubs didn’t like the decisions.
Why is the public so against the decisions? Is it because the people of Lyon County are mean-spirited skinflints? Is it because the people don’t understand market forces? Is it because the people have personal axes to grind?
The answer to all of those questions is a resounding NO!
The people of Lyon County have been very generous to their public officials. According to the most recent U.S. Census data, the average individual in Lyon County makes $18,898 per year. The average Lyon County household brings in $37,954. And, Lyon County’s poverty rate is 21.2%, ranking it one of the highest in Kansas.  With the pay increases these elected officials approved for themselves, their individual incomes are now about three times higher than the average citizen they serve. Their individual incomes are even higher than our average household incomes. If that isn’t generosity, I don’t know what is.
The people of Lyon County also understand that market forces are all too often grinding on them. They know that our incomes are unacceptably low and that our poverty rate is unacceptably high. They get their tax bills every year and see that the cost of supporting our government enterprises is going steadily up. They see their tax bills doubling while their incomes and prospects remain stagnant. The news of neighbors losing jobs when Dolly Madison recently closed isn’t dead letter to them. They’ve seen it up close, in a very personal way. They’re not fools. They know that almost anything can be “justified” by manipulating numbers or making incomplete or selective comparisons to other Kansas counties. They know all too well that our individual and household incomes are lower, often by double digits, than Crawford, Franklin, Geary, and Harvey counties. They also know our poverty rate is higher, most often by 10 percent or more. They know that in the end the justifications will mean that the guys in the corner offices get double digits while the folks in the third line trenches get rice and beans.
The bottom line is this. The people of Lyon County understand the metrics of this situation quite well. They understand all of this and more and they’re feeling a bit angry.  Their anger is justified.
And it’s not about personal vendettas. Most of us voted for these folks and we like them, irrespective of their decisions. My personal interactions with Tammy Vopat and her department have always been cordial and professional. I’ve only spoken to Jeff Cope a few times and our conversations have been quite friendly. I don’t believe I’ve ever had the opportunity to speak with Vicky Lopez, but I know her husband and we’ve always had a good relationship. He’s a good man and I assume that his choice of a life partner means that, like most of us, he married up in life.
No, this isn’t about personal vendettas. It’s about wisdom and timing. It’s mystifying to me that some of our elected officials seem to know so little about the day to day struggles of their constituents and the impact their decisions have on those struggles. And, it’s even more mystifying to hear that if we don’t like the decisions we can vote them out of office in the next election cycle. The sound of the insensitivity is deafening. The wisdom deficit is startling.
Is there a way out? Perhaps it’s too late, but I think it would be refreshing to hear that our elected officials have heard the people and decided to reverse course.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013


The great Swedish actress Greta Garbo didn’t like her privacy invaded. She protected it so well that the Hollywood press of her time linked her to a now famous line from the film “Grand Hotel” – “I want to be alone.” Upon her retirement, Garbo claimed she’d actually said, “I want to be let alone.” That one added word, she said, “made a world of difference.”
Garbo was absolutely right!
A couple of weeks ago I expressed my displeasure with what I see as the dangerous possibility of government bureaucrats electronically snooping around in my house without my permission and without cause. The Attorney General gave them permission to do it, but I didn’t. I believe in the old adage that a man’s home is his castle. I was so frustrated that I penned a couple of complaints to Senator Jerry Moran and Representative Tim Huelskamp. I’m hoping they agree with me.
Earlier that same morning I had the opportunity to express my feelings on C-Span’s “Washington Journal.” At about 7:25 I spilled my guts to Jonathan Turley, law professor at George Washington University. I went through my list of complaints, then closed with a crescendo. “I just want my government to leave me alone.”
I wasn’t sure how Professor Turley would respond. He’s politically liberal and I had told him that I I’m conservative in my approach to life. I was pleasantly surprised. “You’re quite right to be concerned,” he said. “It’s also interesting that you said that you wanted to be left alone. In the 1928 Olmstead v. United States case, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said, unequivocally, that you had the right ‘to be left alone.’”
Unfortunately, Justice Brandeis was relegated to writing the dissenting opinion in the Olmstead case. But, his dissenting words proved to be prophetic – “The makers of our Constitution undertook to secure conditions favorable to the pursuit of happiness. They recognized the significance of man's spiritual nature, of his feelings and of his intellect. They knew that only part of the pain, pleasure and satisfactions of life are to be found in material things. They sought to protect Americans in their beliefs, their thoughts, their emotions and their sensations. They conferred against the government, the right to be let alone—the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men.” In 1942, Justice Frank Murphy, citing James Madison, John Adams, and Brandeis’s dissent,  took up the mantle and argued that the right of privacy is “second to none in our Bill of Rights.”
But, Constitutional rights don’t seem to matter! The snooping is going on. Furthermore, the National Security Agency is building a million square foot facility in Utah to gather and store all the data, yours, mine, our neighbors’. When the facility is completed in September of this year it will have what has been described as a sea of routers and servers capable of storing anything we communicate, including private e-mails, Google searches, cell phone calls, and other sorts of data, like parking receipts, travel itineraries, bookstore purchases, or anything else we either receive or disseminate.
The fact the Government is spending at least two billion dollars on this facility underscores the seriousness with which they are approaching this task.
I believe we need to express our displeasure with this madness in an equally serious manner.
I’m a loyal American. I served in our military for over eight years. I spent a year of that time in harm’s way. I don’t say that to boast. A lot of Americans have done far more than me in their service to the nation. Many have given their lives in defense of freedom and our basic Constitutional rights. None of us, living or dead, served so that a fundamental freedom could be taken away from us with the stroke of the Attorney General’s pen or the all-seeing eye of a massive security apparatus.
I understand my obligations as a citizen as well as anyone. I take them seriously. My eyes get moist when I hear our national anthem. I do my best to serve the community where I live. I pay my taxes. I admit that I don’t tap dance up to the County Courthouse when I pay them, but I do pay them. I’m loyal to this country and always will be.
I also know we’re living in very dangerous times, but I think our government would do well to spend more time attending to Al Qaeda and less time on you, me, and millions upon millions of loyal citizens. I may be a fool, but I believe our government can deal effectively with our enemies without stripping us of our constitutionally guaranteed freedoms.
I hope you feel as strongly about this as I do. If so, express your outrage to our elected leaders.