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Larry Benjamin's blog

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Whistle-blowers' lament

The U.S. Supreme Court's decision Tuesday limiting whistle-blower rights leaves even casual observers to wonder. The First Amendment doesn't protect public employees who make complaints as part of their professional duties, the court majority said. But those rights would attach if that employee made that same complaint as a citizen contributing to the public discourse, perhaps at a news conference, the court seemed to say.

That distinction makes little sense. Sure, employers should expect employees to follow workplace procedures and have the right to discipline, or even fire, them if rules are violated. But talking about a workplace problem out of the office makes it acceptable? I doubt many employers would agree. Why did the high court make it so confusing?

The decision's most troubling aspect is the chilling effect it may have on public employees who want to report wrongdoing but now aren't sure how to go about it. Hopefully, it will encourage employers to stress their internal complaint procedures so that whistle-blowers know how to proceed to right a wrong at the workplace rather than going public.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Exposing the VA's vulnerability

The folks in Washington just don't know how to react when something goes wrong. Latest case in point: the loss of personal information about 26.5 million veterans that were filed on a government-owned laptop and disks stolen from a Department of Veterans Affairs analyst's home in Maryland. VA Secretary Jim Nicholson's response: "decisive action'' against the employees responsible.

This is not the time for finger-pointing and an endless investigation. It's time to admit this is a security breach that calls for immediate implementation of security measures that ensure the confidentiality of veterans' Social Security numbers and birthdates. (Along the way, maybe they can determine why such sensitive data was available on a laptop at an employee's home.) Nicholson says the VA would need more money -- $25 million -- to update its security procedures, not to mention what it would cost to make veterans whole if their information is misused.

Veterans have been violated by this burglary. (They only learned about it 19 days after it happened, an unconscionable delay.) Nicholson should make a VA security upgrade his top priority. Undoubtedly, there's $25 million of fat somewhere in the federal budget. Identity thieves don't need any help.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

The fear factor

Nobody in the nation and most of the world wants to see another 9/11. There are terrorists out there who would like to disrupt, if not destroy, our way of life ... the cherished freedoms of our democracy. Our government should do all it can within legal means to keep our people safe. But that does not mean that the "fear factor'' should be invoked by public or private officials to the detriment of those freedoms.

The latest example came Tuesday from the Chemistry Council of New Jersey in response to an environmental group's report identifying plants in the state that handle hazardous materials, complete with their addresses and the chemicals involved. To the chemical industry, the report gives a road map to terrorists and puts people at risk. C'mon. The information is available from the chemical companies. So it's undoubtedly no secret to terrorists.

An informed public is essential to democracy. The people should be told how they are at risk and what steps the chemical industry is taking to minimize those risks. There's no reason to hide behind fear.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Soil, as in dirt

It's amazing what some New Jersey legislators will do for their core constituents. Take, for example, Assemblymen Douglas Fisher, D-Salem, and Ronald Dancer, R-Ocean, sponsors of a bill to name Downer soil the official state soil. And their notion isn't even unique. Twenty other states have official soils. Twenty!

You'd think our legislators must have more pressing items on their agenda. But Fisher defended the bill as promoting agriculture, the state's third largest industry. When it came to a vote Monday, the Assembly vote was 75-0. Not one legislator had enough gumption to say that although agriculture is important, our state doesn't need to honor it by naming a state soil. They sure know how to waste time.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Baseball is life ...

We're sitting behind home plate (rear of the loge, not field level) at the Mets-Yankees Subway Series game Saturday. The Mets are on the field. Pedro Martinez is ready to throw the first pitch to Johnny Damon and someone signals time out. The umps? A Met? A Yankee? No, it's a TV technician - with a wire running from over his shoulder to the dugout -- with his hand raised. He's like that for a minute, two, three. The sellout crowd figures it out: It's Fox Sports waiting for a commercial to end. The response: a Bronx cheer in Flushing.

You'd think a Mets-Yankees game would have the crowd -- about 50-50 for each team -- loudly hanging on every pitch. Not so this Saturday, except for a Martinez-Derek Jeter confrontation with Damon on third in the third. "Pedro,'' "Derek," "Pedro,'' "Derek'' ... He struck out. With the Mets dominating through eight innings, at times you'd think there were no Yankees fans there. All you could hear were Mets fans. But when Billy Wagner melted down for the Mets bullpen in the ninth, it was all Yankees' noise through the end of the game in the 11th.

As a baseball romantic, the redemptive spirit of the game was never more evident than this weekend. Mariano Rivera loses in the ninth Friday night and then is vintage Mariano in winning Saturday. Wagner is unhittable Friday, can't throw a strike Saturday and is unbeatable Sunday. Go figure!

Friday, May 19, 2006

Funny money not funny

The headline read "$5 bills bleached, reprinted, used as $100s.'' It told a tale of counterfeit bills that could happen to any sales person, or any of us involved in a cash transaction. (You remember cash, those dirty green pieces of paper we used to use all the time before pieces of bright plastic took over.)

But the cheat involved in this story waved a gigantic red flag that should have stopped him cold, even in an upscale store like Bloomingdale's. He bought a $1,030 Fendi bag and a $375 pair of sunglasses (after all, it is Bloomies) with cash. Who carries around that kind of money these days? It turns out, he really didn't. He merely passed 15 phony bills.

The moral: When it comes to money, common sense must apply. When that much cash is flashed around, your gut response must be, "Who's he kidding?'' And for good reason: Losing that much money is no joke.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

School fields don't make cut

As state education officials try to get a handle on the outrageous spending by the Schools Construction Corp., it's good to see they are developing criteria to give the proposed projects some priority. That obviously wasn't the case in the past. If it were, then synthetic turf for the Perth Amboy High School field would not have received $1.1 million of the $1.4 billion allocated last July.

Safety, overcrowding and space for early childhood education are issues that count in so many school districts. Athletic fields do not qualify. The emphasis must be on creating the best environment for learning. State officials should rescind approval for any projects that don't meet that mission.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Musical chairs in Holmdel

School boards can place teachers most anywhere. After all, a K-12 certification means the person can teach any grade level. But the teacher transfers on the agenda at the Holmdel Board of Education meeting tonight have to raise eyebrows. According to some of those involved, high school employees connected to the football program won't be there come September, either transferred to other schools in the district or not rehired at all.

Holmdel is the high school where the football coach resigned in the middle of 2005 season after the administration reinstated a player he had dismissed from the team for disciplinary reasons. Many of his assistants followed him in protest. The superintendent promised the administration would not retaliate, one employee said. Now there are reports of nine transfers, including one phys ed treacher who has worked there 34 years.

The board had better have sound educational reasons for the transfers, especially any linked to the football team. Tenure rules prevent a board from getting rid of an employee without cause. But moving someone against his will can encourage a resignation or retirement that accomplishes the same thing. Is that what's really happening in Holmdel? And are the best interests of the students being served there?

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Seaside Park's unkind cut

The municipal version of going for the jugular when it comes to recommending cuts to a defeated school budget is to take funding from sports. That's what the Seaside Park Borough Council did last week in calling for cutting all money for athletics and other extracurricular activities at the Central Regional district. Let the athletes, musicians, singers, actors, service club members, et al, pay a fee for participating, according to a council resolution on the matter.

If the council members wanted to get the attention of both the school board and the public, they succeeded. But it just aggravates the animosity between Seaside Park and the other four members of the regional district. And it imposes double taxation on the parents of the many students involved in extracurriculars - activities that can make a difference in where a student lands after high school. The council members said they acted under the assumption that "programs would not be cut and any cuts would not hurt kids.'' But that's just what they're doing in axing sports, the arts and community service.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Everything old is new again

Looking over the list of registrants for the 40th reunion of my Rutgers University class didn't inspire confidence. I knew maybe four people on the list of about 50. But once we were all together on campus last weekend, any apprehension was dissolved by our common bond: We shared life on the New Brunswick campus from 1962-66, pursued careers (some into retirement) and still feel connected enough with the university to come back to reminisce 40 years later.

So you didn't recognize this person or even that name? Neither did the person you just met, maybe for the first time. Apologize for not staying in touch? Just being there erased any need for guilt. We were just a bunch of middle-age guys who looked like middle-age guys. (Sorry, but women didn't graduate from Rutgers until the early '70s.)

Our class came in third in the Spirit Contest for classes marching in the All-Alumni parade up College Avenue in the morning. If we knew it were a contest, we would've been more boisterous or donned a more outlandish uniform. The winner, the class of 1956, had many more grads and wore goofy hats. Later, we learned the 50th anniversary graduating class always wins that award. So in 10 years, it'll be our turn. Sure hope we don't look 10 years older.

Friday, May 12, 2006

A blot on humanity

People who prey on the less fortunate are despicable. Yes, they're entitled to their day in court. But people like Nancie Fisher of Stafford, charged with acting as a nurse without a license and faking expertise in autism counseling, deserve swift justice and maximum penalties.

Fisher took care of a Point Pleasant woman paralyzed from the chest down, even though she had no right to do it. "I entrusted my body to her care,'' the woman said. Fisher was paid $125 an hour by a Barnegat family to advocate for their autistic children, after convincing the family she had credentials she never earned.

These families, and so many like them, need care and compassion. The last thing they need is to have their faith in mankind shaken by an encounter with a fraud.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

The public snubbed again

After Lakewood voters soundly rejected the Board of Education's budget at the polls last month, members of the board and the Township Committee met, as they are required to do, to consider cuts to the spending plan. The committee is ready to vote on a trimmed-down school budget at its meeting at 7:30 tonight.

Assuming all goes well with the committee, then it will be the school board's turn to vote on the new budget. Its meeting is scheduled for 8:15 a.m. Friday. That's right, 8:15 a.m. How convenient for the many people who care about education in Lakewood. But then again, it won't be the first time the school board has met to vote on an important matter before the workday begins. Its meeting to name a new superintendent was held at 8 a.m. last July 6.

The public should be outraged. It should insist that the Lakewood board hold all of its meetings at a time that is most convenient for the community.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Citizens bring common-sense touch

How difficult is it to find ways for your town to save or generate millions of dollars? Not very hard, after reading some of the suggestions from a citizens advisory committee that reviewed Brick's budget.

Some of them apply common sense: employees should begin contributing toward their health benefits; seek competitive bids from health insurance brokers; eliminate or consolidate departments, especially when they duplicate services available elsewhere, such as welfare that the county can handle for free; all bills and invoices should be detailed and itemized, to ensure vendors deliver what's promised.

Others show a keen appreciation of municipal government: introduce the budget early enough to avoid issuing tax anticipation notes (a $320,000 expense), remove restrictions on an unsold liquor license and then sell it for $450,000, sell the former Foodtown site the town bought for $6.1 million four years ago to get some return on the investment.

Now, it's up to Brick officials to implement some of these ideas. Their colleagues in other towns should invite the public to help them make living in New Jersey more affordable. Anything would help.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Showing you can win for losing

When both sides of a complaint claim victory, you've got to wonder what's really going on. When the Government Records Council, the state agency that hears public records disputes, found that Lakewood gadfly Larry Simons had no cause for claiming the Board of Education routinely withholds requests for information, the board attorney was pleased and said the board appreciates Simons' concern. Simons was happy, too, saying he proved his point.

Simons wanted to see board records of what former Superintendent Ernest J. Cannava did to earn the nearly $72,000 the district was paying him as a consultant. The district had no documentation, so there was nothing to withhold. Simons knew that, but he wanted to show how the district pays for things that yield no return - the money was later labeled a "buyout agreement'' - and should be more responsive to the taxpaying residents. That he did, even by pursuing a lost cause. That lesson shouldn't be lost on the Lakewood board or any public agency.

Monday, May 08, 2006

"NJ: The State Without a Slogan''

Yes, New Jersey has failed in its efforts to create a new slogan -- again. The one preferred after a vote of 11,227 residents -- "New Jersey, Come See for Yourself'' -- is out after tourism officials learned that other states have already used it. Other states such as West Virginia! This after turning aside "New Jersey: We'll Win You Over," the choice of an out-of-state marketing firm that the state paid $260,000 to reject.

Thankfully, it's not back to the drawing board right now. A Commerce, Economic Growth and Tourism Commission spokeswoman said the state is proceeding without a slogan, at least until the end of the year. Hooray! Somehow tourism -- a $32 billion industry generating 430,000 jobs -- is doing quite well without one. And what was wrong with "New Jersey and You: Perfect Together" anyway?

Thursday, May 04, 2006

You can't make this up

We in the news business too often figure we've heard it all -- until the next story comes along. The tale of a real estate mogul who bounced a $25.2 million check last month is one of those stories.

The man hand-wrote a check for $25,212,076.35 and asked the teller at the drive-through window to deposit it in another account he controls. When told that account was closed, he convinced the bank folks that a wire transfer was en route to reopen the account. So, they accepted the check. After all, he's been a good customer for five years. He then wrote checks from that account, but the bank says the wire transfer was never made. A judge Wednesday froze all of the man's assets (he has an interest in more than 60 properties in Monmouth and Ocean counties), at the bank's request.

There may be another side to this story. But on the surface, the bank's check-approval procedures are open to question. Accepting a check for $25 million -- and even a lot less -- has to be signed off by a bank officer, you'd think. Yes, we're part of a global economy, but a million dollars -- not to mention $25 million -- is a lot of money. It doesn't strike us as drive-through window material.