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Larry Benjamin's blog

Friday, August 25, 2006

Pluto-izing the world

So astronomers have decided that Pluto isn't really a planet and have thus reduced the planet world from nine to eight. That's a hard hit for anyone whose not-so-fond memories of Astronomy include trying to memorize the planets and rarely getting past eight. But if the International Astronomical Union can take such a bold step, maybe other long-established institutions can fall by the wayside, too.

Take our Legislature in Trenton. Many New Jerseyans are convinced that the two houses (the Senate and Assembly) are do-nothing places where 120 legislators collect $49,000 each to pass laws about the state dirt or state fruit when they're not enacting new taxes. Why not drop to one legislative body, the way Nebraska does it, with two people representing residents in 30 districts. Maybe half the number of politicians will make half as much mischief.

Then there's baseball. To read the attendance figures, with numbers often under 10,000 , the folks in Miami and Tampa don't deserve big league teams. So let's Pluto-ize the majors and go from 30 to 28 teams. Each league would have 14 teams (which American League moves can be decided by an online vote). The distribution of the Marlin and Devil Ray players would strengthen all the teams and put some young stars - Dontrelle Willis, Miguel Cabrera and, yes, Scott Kazmir - in cities where they'll be really appreciated.

Any other candidates?

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Sometimes it pays to be riffed

Letter writers keep telling us that when it comes to what goes on in New Jersey, "You just can't make this stuff up.'' They're right. The latest example: The Gloucester County freeholder whose $90,000 job as assistant to the executive director of the South Jersey Port Corporation was eliminated in April is still collecting paychecks and benefits and is still driving a state car. And nobody on the corporation board can figure out why.

Well, that's life with the politically connected. In addition to serving as freeholder, William Krebs is a friend of state Sen. Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, who arranged for Krebs to get the job when he needed one. Board members found he didn't have enough work to do, so they cut his position. But they didn't follow through in cutting the money or the perks.

How do people like Krebs look others in the eye, knowing they're getting paid for doing nothing? Doesn't it bother him as a freeholder, supposedly watching the public purse, that such an arrangement is happening at the port? But he's a politician, which means he's probably blind to the most elementary ethical concerns. Then again, why did the port board think the director needed an assistant in the first place, especially at $90,000 a year?

Monday, August 21, 2006

No sympathy for Marshall

He had his wife killed and thus ruined his life and that of his family, but Robert Marshall still pleaded for mercy when he was resentenced Friday on murder-for-hire charges. "I made a terrible mistake,'' he said. He knows he caused "a lot of suffering'' for his family. "I take full responsibility for my actions which led to her death,'' he added. Even after 22 years, it just rings oh so hollow.

How can anyone have sympathy for someone who tells the courtroom - which included two of his sons and a former daughter-in- law - that he had "remained faithful'' to his wife until 14 months before his murder? He's proud of that? That speaks volumes about his value system.

The impact on his family was so telling, with one son believing his father should never see freedom while another reiterated his belief that his father is innocent. The ex-daughter-in-law said her children should have a grandfather. It made for compelling courtroom drama. But in the end, Marshall could not not escape the fact that his wife was killed and he made it happen. A life sentence was the right call.

Friday, August 18, 2006

An American obsession

The killing keeps going on in Iraq involving Shiites, Sunnis, insurgents and, regrettably, American troops, and the Iraqi government isn't doing much to stop it. Hezbollah is a new force on the world stage, turning from firing rockets at Israel to reconstructing southern Lebanon, thanks to its benefactor, Iran. The cost of everything, especially gasoline, is high and going higher, with too many folks wondering why the supposedly healthy economy is bypassing them.

So what story dominates the news pages, talk shows and watercooler these days? The JonBenet Ramsey story and reports from Thailand that John Karr killed her. But it was an accident. Finally, the case is solved - or maybe not.

What is it about Americans that we are drawn to crime stories? And if the crime involves a celebrity - O.J., Robert Blake, Kobe Bryant - so much the better. Maybe the dark side of life is much easier to digest than economics or geopolitics. After all, the suspect did it or he didn't. And we have a chance to show our humanity with expressions of sympathy for the victim. Maybe the finality of a conviction provides closure that's so hard to reach in the world. Whatever it is, we can't seem to get enough of these kinds of stories. Is it any wonder why we can't get a handle on the really important issues of the day?

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Sobriety checkpoints as deterrents

A story in today's Press notes that the Brielle police are joining a national crackdown on drunken driving by setting up a sobriety checkpoint on Route 71 Saturday night. Reading about such campaigns brings me back to the letter we received years ago assailing the police and the media for letting tipsy drivers know what highway to avoid. Why spoil the surprise, the reader asked.

There's good reason for the publicity: reminding drivers that the police are out there. The goal of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is to deter drunken driving by making law enforcement more visible. Police pull over drivers, hand out information about DWI and, if necessary, make arrests. They hope greater awareness of the issue will make the roads safer. Makes sense to me.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Farber's exit

The folks running the show in Trenton must think the people they represent are a bunch of fools. Here we have Gov. Corzine praising Attorney General Zulima Farber for doing a great job as head of the Department of Law and Public Safety and, in resigning, doing "more than might ordinarily be required for a lapse of judgment'' in going to her boyfriend's aid after he was stopped at a police checkpoint. We have Farber acknowledging a judge's report that she violated three ethics rules but noting, "I am steadfast in my convictions that the judge's findings do not compel my resignation.'' If the lines were written to portray Farber as at once a heroic and tragic figure, it didn't work.

Sorry, governor, but this is more than a lapse of judgment. We have the attorney general violating her department's own ethics code by actions, the judge found, that created the appearance of violating the public trust, using her position to receive unwarranted privileges and acting in a way to give the appearance of personal bias. That's unconscionable for the state's top law enforcer in an administration that boasts of high ethical standards.

And sorry, attorney general, but if the judge's findings didn't compel the resignation, they should have. Farber admitted "to being human and making that error.'' But the apology rang hollow. She doesn't seem to appreciate the impact of her appearance at the checkpoint. By going there, she gave every indication that she believes she is above the law. It's yet another example of a public official who deep down believes that if what she did wasn't illegal, then it was OK. But it was wrong, which is what really counts in the eyes of most New Jerseyans. Maybe, in due time, Farber will recognize that truth.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The peeping creep

A guy who for three years videotaped his girlfriend's teenage daughter as she showered, undressed and slept may get away with it because, an appeals court ruled this week, Monmouth County prosecutors charged him with the wrong crime. And only one of the judges said he could be tried again for what that judge called "heinous acts.'' The other two didn't express a view on whether a retrial would constitute double jeopardy.

The decision hinged on laws that link the photographs of a child to sexual situations. That wasn't the case here. This guy admits he took the videos. But apparently he only derived pleasure from seeing this girl in the nude. Maybe that's no different than ogling the Playboy centerfold. But there's got to be a law to punish such sick behavior. He may not have caused her to disrobe or physically harmed her, but she is entitled to an expectation of privacy. And what about psychological damage? Whenever she's in the shower, she has to look around for a videocamera.

Then there's this guy's lawyer. Sure, every defendant is entitled to the strongest defense. But how can he look himself in the mirror knowing that his client is such a creep? Then again, it's not against the law to act like a creep. Maybe it should be.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Closed meetings don't open minds

The head of a homeowners association on Long Beach Island said a closed meeting, such as the one held last week with state and federal officials, is the best way to get information out about the beach replenishment project for the island. It's easy for him to say that because he was among the select few invited to the meeting between officials of the state Department of Environmental Protection and the Army Corps of Engineers and LBI homeowner group representatives, who then report back to their associations.

The problem with open meetings, the homeowners president said, is the number of questions likely to be asked by the number of antagonists there. What's so wrong with that? The point is to make informed decisions about issues. What better way than to ask questions of those in the best position to answer them? As for controlling a meeting with "antagonists,'' the presiding officer should remind the audience about civility, set the ground rules and then enforce them.

While representative democracy has many strong points, these homeowners are relying on their president to give them the straight scoop about the meeting to which they weren't invited, not his spin on what happened. The homeowners would be far better off hearing about it with their own ears.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Terrorism fight politicized

In the days after 9/11, the nation was united as never before. There were no Democrats, no Republicans, no liberals, no conservatives. We were together as one, mourning our losses, proud to be Americans and vowing that terrorism will never visit our shores again. Oh, how times have changed in five years! In the hours after we learned about the British breaking up the plot to blow up 10 planes bound to the U.S. from Great Britain, too many public officials were quick to put a political spin on the news. That's disgraceful.

From a Democrat, Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada: "The Iraq war has diverted our focus ... and has created a rallying cry for international terrorism.'' From a Republican, Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee: "This is the kind of success ... achieved despite damaging leaks and unjustified criticisms of the methods they use to detect and prevent terrorist attacks.''

Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman, running as an independent after losing the Democratic primary nomination to Ned Lamont, said leaving Iraq, a Lamont battle cry, "will be taken as a tremendous victory by the same people who wanted to blow up these planes ...'' One syndicated column quoted a liberal blog as wondering whether the arrests were timed to get maximum media play right after the Connecticut primary.

Reid, Roberts, Lieberman and that blogger should be ashamed to allow politics to get in the way of clear thinking about the very real danger this nation and the world face from terrorists who have no respect for life. How we pursue that fight is fair game for public debate in our democracy. It should not be subverted by cheap politics.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Veterans at risk yet again

It's happened again to America's veterans, another record-keeping computer lost by the Veterans Affairs Department. This time it was a desktop maintained by a subcontractor and affects only 38,000 veterans. You may recall in May, 26.5 million veterans' records were jeopardized when a laptop was stolen from a VA employee's home.

Bad luck? A coincidence? That's hard to believe. Veterans have every right to entrust their records to the VA. That trust is shattered when they learn their privacy may have been violated. Identity theft is hard enough to avoid without a federal agency - and its employees or subcontractors - aiding and abetting it.

The VA has some quality assurance issues to address. They must ensure that one of our most cherished communities - our veterans - is safe from economic harm caused by no fault of their own.

Friday, August 04, 2006

No reward for voting

Some folks out in Arizona think the electorate needs an incentive to vote. So on the ballot in November is a proposal to offer a $1 million reward to one randomly selected voter just for casting a ballot. What a revolting idea! Those who fought for the freedoms that make the U.S.A. so special - and especially those dedicated to voting rights - would be aghast.

Supporters say the reward will help increase voter participation. "It gives them something to shoot for,'' said one of the nearly 184,000(!) who signed petitions to get the question on the ballot. Voter turnout is already healthy in Arizona - 16 percentage points higher than the national average in 2004.

But the petitioners are forgetting one basic thing: voting is a privilege. It is not a lottery or casino game. Offering a reward would trivialize the election process. It would bring out people who are clueless about the candidates or issues but are there just for the chance to strike it rich. People still vote because it's the right thing to do in our democracy. Yes, more people should exercise their right. But dangling a $1 million prize to one lucky customer isn't the way to boost voter turnout. It's little more than a bribe - and that's always wrong.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Friendship confronts justice

What is astounding about the sentencing of admitted wrongdoers is how their friends rally around them. It's a testament to the power of friendship, but what does it say about their sense of right and wrong? Two cases on point within the past week:

Last Friday, a 29-year-old former teacher was sentenced to seven years in prison for official misconduct for having sexual relations with a 15-year-old student from April through June of 2005. The judge received more than 100 letters praising the teacher as a "great man.'' His victim weighed in, holding herself accountable. But the fact remains that he took advantage of his position of authority. As the prosecuting attorney said, "Great men do not have sex with 15-year-old girls.''

On Tuesday, Patsy Townsend, the former deputy Monmouth County fire marshal, was sentenced to six months in prison and five months of house arrest for accepting a $1,000 bribe from an undercover federal agent. Again, the judge said he received numerous letters attesting to Townsend's character. But the judge put it right by noting Townsend operated in a "culture of corruption'' where "officials thought they were untouchable.''

These letter writers were seeking leniency for their friend. Maybe that's what friends are for. But do they think less of the wrongdoing because they know the wrongdoer?

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Going up, Senate style

It's bad enough to learn that among the perks the public is financing in the U.S. Senate is a senators-only elevators. They're available to speed senators to the Senate floor for votes, with attendants pushing the buttons. But somehow what The New York Times called unelected interlopers are cramping the senators' style. They have to compete for elevator space with staffers, lobbyists, reporters and, yes, tourists.

Hold the tissues. This can't really be a big public issue. "I hesitate to say that it's a big problem,'' Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., said. "There is terrific crowding.'' So what! What's so wrong if senators did what everyday folk do in maneuvering around big buildings? A nearly empty elevator is an underutilized resource. That's not good use of public money.

Rubbing elbows with tourists - and maybe even talking with them - might do these senators some good. After all, Mr. and Mrs. John Q. Public and children once in a while are the subjects of their august deliberations. Their interaction could help guide their decisions.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Gibson and anti-Semitism

What is it with actor-director Mel Gibson and charges of anti-Semitism? He can't seem to shake them. His father is a denier of the Holocaust. Gibson says his father is entitled to his view, but it is not one he shares. His "The Passion of the Christ'' was criticized in some quarters as blaming Jews for the Crucifixion. Now, he's apologizing for anti-Semitic remarks to Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies who stopped him on suspicion of drunken driving last week.

Some celebrities believe any publicity is good publicity. That may not be so in this case. It may not be too long before people ask, "Whatever happened to Mel Gibson?'' His quick apology for acting "like a person completely out of control'' indicates that he was, in fact, completely out of control. And his regret that he said things "that I do not believe to be true and which are despicable'' verifies that he did, in fact, say them.

Does the truth really come out when a person is out of control and alcohol impaired? As the folks at Fox News are so proud of saying: We report, you decide!