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Archive | Voices and Views

Where’s the transparency?

Post Script Notice: The Cedar Springs Post welcomes letters of up to 350 words. The subject should be relevant to local readers, and the editor reserves the right to reject letters or edit for clarity, length, good taste, accuracy, and liability concerns. All submissions MUST be accompanied by full name, mailing address and daytime phone number. We use this information to verify the letter’s authenticity. We do not print anonymous letters, or acknowledge letters we do not use. Email to news@cedarspringspost.com, or send to PostScripts, Cedar Springs Post, PO Box 370, Cedar Springs, MI 49319.

 

At the December 2014 council meeting, newly elected members Molly Nixon, Rose Powell, and Pam Conley, along with Bob Truesdale, Dan Clark and Mayor Jerry Hall had the opportunity to follow through with an investigation called for by the former council.

The decision to conduct an investigation resulted from a complaint alleging a violation of the Open Meetings Act, when council went into closed session to discipline Councilor Bob Truesdale. The investigation could prove whether there was an actual violation or whether the actions of that council were justified, thereby exonerating, or calling to account, those actions which would help future councils avoid pitfalls in this area. The present council said NO! Only Perry Hopkins was willing to discuss and vote on the action but he had no support from the rest of council and his motion died for lack of support.

All discussion of this agenda item was done for the most part out of the public eye. Unless one attended the workshop in the tiny kitchen area of City Hall you would have no idea that the decision was essentially made there. The proof? It’s in the fact that no discussion took place in public at the council meeting. Why did Molly Nixon make a motion to not investigate and then, after a hushed word or two from Mayor Hall, withdraw her motion? Why were they afraid to discuss the issue in public? What are they afraid an investigation will show? Why wouldn’t those council members want to get to the truth? Is this the transparency they proclaimed so loudly they would support?

Don’t they want the ousted candidates to have the opportunity to be exonerated and their reputations restored for all to see?

I believe Fankhauser, Troost and Bremmer do deserve the opportunity to have their actions vindicated as publicly as they were accused and only by following through with the investigation will that happen. Again, it will cost taxpayers nothing to have this done.

I am calling on this council to follow through with the investigation. Let’s let the Prosecutor decide this issue and not let the present council shove it under the rug. If you truly want transparency and fairness in Cedar Springs, call and let the City and the Mayor know you support this effort at 616-696-1330.

An informed voter,

Kathryn A. Bremmer 

 

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Paying it forward

By Robert Morrison

Phil and Mary Sue are generous hosts. Thanksgiving is their special time with family, but they regularly invite “orphans”—people like my wife and me who have no other place to go. This year, we looked forward to joining Phil and Mary Sue’s family and friends at their home. They were expecting 17 guests. No Indians on the guest list this year, but Phil says he will let the occasional Australian stand in for them.

On Monday of Thanksgiving week, however, Phil got word that his 98-year old mother had had a stroke. Mary Sue was already in Florida, helping out with Phil’s mom, when he was summoned to her bedside.

It was soon clear they would not be returning for the holiday. Bravely, Phil’s daughter, Katie, husband Rob, her brother, Ben, and his girlfriend, Mel, pledged to carry on in the parents’ absence.

By Wednesday morning, it was clear that our Thanksgiving feast was in jeopardy. My wife, Kathie, and another local guest, Dorothy, stepped in to make Thanksgiving a moveable feast. We’ll have Thanksgiving dinner at our house, Kathie announced, and invite our hosts’ family and friends to join us. The biggest challenge was to find, in the little town of Annapolis and on the day before Thanksgiving, a 25-pound fresh turkey. No time for defrosting a frozen one.

We gathered together on the great day. We included Phil and Mary Sue by cell phone in the Grace we said before our meal. We had never met several of the guests before. Ben’s friend, Mel, is from England. This was her first American Thanksgiving.

We toasted Mel and thanked her. Had it not been for England’s King James Version, we wouldn’t have all those Thees, Thous, and Thys. And if that King James had not harried the Pilgrims out of his land, they wouldn’t have landed on Plymouth Rock, and we Americans wouldn’t have this celebration!

When Phil’s mother passed away peacefully, and he and Mary Sue returned, they thanked us for taking in their guests. Kathie then told them the story of the time in 1989 when her own mother passed away. Edith May had died on December 19th. Resolving to fly across the country to do a proper memorial service in Takoma, Washington, our family had to fly home on Christmas Eve.

Our United Airlines pilot teased our young children, telling them we were in a race with a little sleigh and eight tiny reindeer. We arrived back at Baltimore-Washington International Airport at 2 a.m. on Christmas morning.

As we drove home, Kathie said there was no time to prepare for Christmas dinner. No stores would be open on Christmas Day. We’d have to eat at Bethesda Naval Hospital, where she was in charge of the food service. That would have been fine, since the Navy goes all out to make Christmas special for those confined to the hospital and those on duty. But it wouldn’t have been the same as being at home.

When we arrived at our house, what to our wondering eyes should appear! We found our refrigerator stocked with turkey, stuffing, and all the trimmings of a prepared Christmas dinner. The dining room table was set and everything made ready for the holiday meal.

When she returned the next day to the hospital and thanked her staff—officers, enlisted, and civilians—for all that they had done, Kathie asked them what we could do to repay their extraordinary kindness. They had made this Christmas one we would never forget, Kathie told them.

“You don’t have to repay us for anything,” said Elaine, my wife’s deputy. “Do something like this for someone else.” Now, we call it paying it forward. And so, this Thanksgiving, we did.

Losing a beloved parent is always hard, and especially so during the holidays. But bearing one another’s burdens is what we do. And it is at times like this that we come closest to the true meaning of Christmas: We are commanded to love one another as He has loved us.

Robert Morrison is Senior Fellow for Policy Studies at the Family Research Council in Washington, D.C.

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Look Up, Americans—it’s not as bad as you think 

V-Lee-Hamilton-webBy Lee H. Hamilton

We are one glum country.

Trust in the federal government is at historic lows, according to Gallup. More than half of the respondents to an October Rasmussen poll think our best days are behind us. And just a few weeks ago, an NBC/Wall St. Journal poll found that the one thing Americans agree upon, whatever their race or circumstances, is that the system is stacked against people like them.

I have just one thing to say to this: could we all take a deep breath?

We deal with our challenges from a position of strength. We have friendly neighbors to the north and south, oceans to the east and west, and a growing, relatively young population. We possess abundant natural resources, the world’s most capable military force, a nuclear arsenal second to none, and a deterrent power envied by every other country on earth.

We’re doing better economically than any other major industrialized nation, and have put more people back to work since the recovery began than the rest of the industrialized world combined. Our people possess strengths in abundance. We have a remarkable reservoir of talent and a strong entrepreneurial tradition that nurtures inventiveness and draws countless people from abroad eager to make something of their future. Does that sound like a once-great nation on its knees?

I’m not blind to our shortcomings or to the severe challenges we confront. If you read this column regularly, you know that. But in the face of extraordinary difficulties, we adapt, persevere, and eventually emerge stronger. In the end, government may act slowly, and it’s often well behind where you’d wish it to be, but it does act.

All these things give our society a resilience to keep in mind the next time you see a news story or commentary hyping a pessimistic view of our future. We have a long way to go, there’s no doubt about it. But I’m reminded of a young woman a few years ago who asked me, after a bleak speech I’d given laying out the problems of the world, “Is there any hope?” My answer now is the same as it was then: Yes, of course there is.

Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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What lies ahead 

 

V-Lee-HamiltonBy Lee H. Hamilton

Given all the words and images devoted to the midterm elections over the past few weeks, you’d think the results had told us something vital about the future of the country. In reality, they were just a curtain-raiser. It’s the next few weeks and months that really matter.

The big question, as the old Congress reconvenes and prepares to make way for next year’s version, is whether the two parties will work more closely together to move the country forward or instead lapse back into confrontation and deadlock. I suspect the answer will be a mix: modest progress on a few issues, but no major reforms.

Overall, the deep frustration Americans feel toward Washington will likely continue. Especially since, despite the urgent problems confronting us, the House leadership has announced an astoundingly relaxed 2015 agenda that includes not a single five-day work week, 18 weeks with no votes scheduled, and just one full month in session: January.

Why might there be progress? The President wants to enhance his legacy. More politicians these days seem to prefer governing to posturing. The Republican Party may have won big in the elections, but it still cannot govern alone: it will need Democratic votes in the Senate and the cooperation of the President. And both parties want to demonstrate that they recognize they’re responsible for governing.

This is not to say that progress is inevitable. President Obama has made clear that he believes he must act to halt deportations of illegal immigrants, even if he does so without Congress; congressional Republicans say they consider unilateral action an act of war. Meanwhile, the new Republican Senate is almost certain to give the President’s nominees a hard time; while GOP senators are unlikely to want to appear too tough on Loretta Lynch, the nominee for attorney general, the gloves will almost certainly come off for nominees who must negotiate hearings after her.

In the end, 2015 will see a mix of small steps forward and backward. There’s little chance of a minimum wage increase and it’s unlikely the budget will be passed in an orderly and traditional manner. Similarly, significant and difficult issues like major entitlement and tax reform will prove hard to budge.

On the other hand, Congress can probably manage to avoid a government shutdown, and it faces decent prospects of expanding and protecting our energy boom, promoting fast-track trade authority, and funding key infrastructure needs.

Here’s the basic truth: divided government does not have to be dysfunctional. It can be made to work, and if incremental progress on small issues is the way to get started, then let’s hope Congress and the President pursue that course.

 

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No more errands; stay home for the holidays

Vonda VanTil

Vonda VanTil

By: Vonda VanTil, Social Security Public Affairs Specialist

 

Let’s face it, the last thing you’re going to want to do during this holiday season is another errand. You’ve hung the lights, plugged them in, and were frustrated when you realized you needed to replace one little bulb to make the entire string work. That’s a trip to the store. You thought this holiday season would be easy. When it comes to taking care of Social Security business, it is easy. You’ll find that www.socialsecurity.gov makes it easy to stay home and get that one last thing done. You can check off much of your Social Security business quickly and securely from your home using your computer or tablet (which you might have unwrapped early). At the Social Security website you can—

* Create a my Social Security account, which enables you to:

• obtain an instant, personalized estimate of your future Social Security benefits;

•verify the accuracy of your earnings record—your future benefit amounts are based on your earnings record, so it is important to make sure your earnings are recorded properly;

• change your address and phone number, if you receive monthly Social Security benefits;

• sign up for or change direct deposit of your Social Security benefits; and

• obtain estimates of the Social Security and Medicare taxes you’ve paid;

* Apply for retirement, disability, spouses, and Medicare benefits;

* Check the status of your benefit application;

* Request a replacement Medicare card; and

* Apply for Extra Help with your Medicare prescription drug plan costs.

Keep in mind that during the holiday season, your wait time may be longer if you call or visit a local Social Security office. If you need to reach us by phone, you can call us toll-free at

1-800-772-1213. We can answer specific questions from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday through Friday.

Vonda VanTil is the public affairs specialist for West Michigan.  You can write her c/o Social Security Administration, 3045 Knapp St NE, Grand Rapids MI 49525 or via email at vonda.vantil@ssa.gov  

 

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Report shows need to rein in Wall Street

_V-LevinBy Sen. Carl Levin

 

Recently my Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations held the final hearing I will hold as its chairman and one of the most important. Our hearing, and a 396-page report we issued, examined the involvement of three Wall Street banks in the market for commodities like metal, coal, uranium and energy.

These are not activities that banks typically take on. For decades, our laws restricted banks to traditional banking businesses like taking deposits and making loans, and they were generally barred from commercial businesses like mining coal, warehousing uranium or running power plants. That changed in 1999, when Congress passed a law that weakened that traditional separation of banking and commerce. Our subcommittee spent more than two years examining the impact of those changes, and what we found was worrisome.

While Wall Street’s growing role in physical commodities has been discussed and debated, the scope of this involvement and the potential for abuse have not been widely known.

One problem is that operating things like oil tankers and coal mines exposes banks to immense risks in the event of a natural disaster or a catastrophic accident. A Federal Reserve study we reviewed showed that banks involved in these activities lacked the capital reserves and insurance coverage to cover potential losses. Should catastrophe strike, it could undermine a bank or spark fears that it might fail, which would bring turmoil to the U.S. economy. My colleague on the committee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, noted the enormous expense of the BP Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and asked, “What if BP had been a bank?”

Bank involvement with physical commodities also raises concerns about unfair trading, and in some cases, outright market manipulation. JPMorgan recently paid $410 million to settle charges by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission that it used manipulative bidding schemes at its power plants to elicit $124 million in excessive electricity prices in Michigan and California.

One case study from our report highlights the risks to manufacturers, consumers and markets. In 2010, Goldman Sachs bought a Detroit-area company called Metro International Trade Services LLC, which owns a global network of warehouses certified by the London Metal Exchange, or LME, the world’s largest market for trading metals. Under Goldman’s ownership, Metro mounted an unprecedented effort to dominate the North American market for storing aluminum.

Under the LME’s warehouse rules, no matter how many customers want to remove their metal, the warehouse is only required to ship out a limited amount each day. If customers ask to withdraw more metal than the daily minimum, a line or queue forms, and customers have to wait to take delivery. When Goldman bought the warehouses in 2010, the queue in Detroit was just a few days long. But by this year, it had grown to more than 600 days.

We found that Goldman’s warehouse company made a series of complex agreements with some warehouse customers that made it longer. Goldman would pay the owners of aluminum to put their metal in the queue for withdrawal. When that aluminum reached the head of the queue, it was loaded on trucks, but instead of going to a manufacturer, it was shipped a short distance – sometimes just a few hundred yards – to another Goldman-owned warehouse, and placed back in storage. The effect of these deals was that the queue got longer and longer without actually removing any aluminum from the warehouse system.

The lengthening queue boosted revenue at Goldman’s warehouses – the more metal stored in the warehouses, the more rent and fees. But this merry-go-round also affected aluminum prices by increasing the so-called “premium” that customers must pay to cover logistical costs such as storage. Our report found, and expert witnesses confirmed at our hearing, that Goldman’s warehouse, by making the queue longer and pushing the premium higher, was hurting manufacturers and consumers by making aluminum more expensive.

Expert witnesses also told us that if Goldman could use its warehouse to manipulate the queue, and therefore affect aluminum prices, it could profit by employing trading strategies to take advantage of that power. And in fact, Goldman rapidly increased its own aluminum trading after it bought the warehouse company.

Our report offers a number of ways to address these issues. The Federal Reserve is considering rules that could limit banks’ activities in commodities, and it should do so. We also need stronger rules against improper use of insider information and market manipulation. Until such protections are in place, our manufacturers, our markets and our economy are at risk.

Carl Levin is the senior U.S. senator from Michigan and the chairman of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.

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Remembering a classmate

 

 

Dear Editor,

I didn’t know Carolyn Gillette Green died until I read last week’s Post. I remember Carolyn when she rode the Sand Lake High School bus with us. And I remember her being on the cheerleading team for the Sand Lake High School boys basketball games in the Sand Lake auditorium with three or four other girls. All those girls had a lot of pep. Just like nowadays. Carolyn was a wonderful person. She will be sorely missed.

 

Lyle Perry Jr., Cedar Springs

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Faces and facts tell the story of disability

 

Vonda VanTil

Vonda VanTil

By: Vonda VanTil, Social Security Public Affairs Specialist

 

Every family has stories—stories are a great way to carry on family legacies, pass lessons on to future generations, and share what is important to your family with the rest of the world. Your family stories may include ones about the birth of a child, serving in war, helping people in need, or the deaths of loved ones.

We’d like to share some stories about what it means to receive disability benefits from Social Security and we have a website that does just that:  The Faces and Facts of Disability is ready for you to explore at www.socialsecurity.gov/disabilityfacts.

Learning the facts and hearing people’s stories about disability allows for a fuller understanding of what is perhaps the most misunderstood Social Security program.

The Social Security Act sets a very strict definition of disability. To receive disability benefits, a person must have an impairment expected to last at least a year or result in death. The impairment must be so severe that it renders the person unable to perform not only his or her previous work, but also any other substantial work in the national job market. Social Security does not provide temporary or partial disability benefits. Because the eligibility requirements are so strict, Social Security disability beneficiaries are among the most severely impaired people in the country and tend to have high death rates.

In addition, Social Security conducts a periodic review of people who receive disability benefits to ensure they remain eligible for disability. Social Security aggressively works to prevent, detect, and prosecute fraud. Social Security often investigates suspicious disability claims before making a decision to award benefits—proactively stopping fraud before it happens.

Please read and watch some of the stories about real cases of people who have benefited from Social Security by visiting the Faces and Facts of Disability website at www.socialsecurity.gov/disabilityfacts.

Vonda VanTil is the public affairs specialist for West Michigan.  You can write her c/o Social Security Administration, 3045 Knapp St NE, Grand Rapids MI 49525 or via email at vonda.vantil@ssa.gov  

 

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Michigan’s criminal code most expansive in region

 

From the Mackinac Center on Public Policy

 

MIDLAND — Michigan’s 918-section criminal code is more than twice the size of Ohio’s and Wisconsin’s—and it’s only growing larger. In the past six years, Michigan has added an average of 45 new crimes to its criminal code each year, about half of which are felonies, according to a study released jointly by the Manhattan Institute and the Mackinac Center for Public Policy titled “Overcriminalizing the Wolverine State: A Primer and Possible Reforms for Michigan.”

“With thousands of laws and rules on the books, many people are at risk of being charged with a crime for something most people wouldn’t consider inherently wrong,” said Mike Reitz, executive vice president at the Mackinac Center and co-author of the study. “Being prosecuted for breaking one of these laws can have devastating consequences for individuals and families. It is encouraging to see lawmakers start to address the problem of overcriminalization, but the state needs to do more to prune archaic, unnecessary laws from books.”

The code includes several obscure crimes, many of which do not require criminal intent, meaning that individuals can be held criminally responsible for violating laws unknowingly. Rep. Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, recently introduced House Bill 5807 to address this problem by establishing a default criminal intent standard for newly enacted crimes.

Without a default criminal intent standard, many Michigan residents still face punishment for unknowingly committing crimes, including:

Kenneth Schumacher, who disposed of his scrap tires at a facility that appeared to be legal, but was sentenced to 270 days in prison and a $10,000 fine for unlawfully disposing of the tires because the facility didn’t have a license.

Lisa Snyder, who faced charges of operating an illegal daycare because she helped her neighbor’s children board the school bus each morning, free of charge.

As it stands, Michigan’s criminal code puts residents in jeopardy of prosecution for unknowing violation of obscure laws and stretches scarce law enforcement resources that could be devoted to prevention and prosecution of serious violent and property crimes. Michigan currently spends one out of every five general fund dollars on corrections.

James R. Copland, director of the Manhattan Institute’s Center for Legal Policy, said, “Michigan has an overcriminalization problem. We knew that when we selected Michigan to survey first among states in the Midwest, but our research has uncovered just how much more complex Michigan’s criminal code is in relation to its neighbors.”

The study’s authors make three recommendations for policymakers:

  • Create a bipartisan legislative task force to further investigate overcriminalization and make recommendations to the Legislature;
  • Create a commission to the review current criminal law with the intent to consolidate and clarify these statutes;
  • Enact a default mens rea provision, which would require all new criminal laws to meet a minimum standard for establishing intent before a person could be found guilty of a crime.

The full study can be found at http://www.mackinac.org/archives/2014/s2014-06.pdf.

 

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Some Thoughts on Governing 

V-Lee-Hamilton-web

By Lee H. Hamilton

 

I have been working in or around government for over 50 years, and if you asked me to boil down what I’ve learned to one sentence, it is this: Governing is much harder work than most people imagine. This doesn’t excuse its lapses or sluggish rate of progress, but it does help explain them.

Why is it so hard? Partly it’s the country we live in. There were 130 million Americans when I was in high school. Now we number over 300 million, with a diversity and cultural complexity that were impossible to imagine when I started out. Finding common ground, meeting complex needs, answering to an overwhelming diversity of interests — this is not work for the faint of heart.

The structure we do this with makes it even tougher. We have governments at the federal, state, and local levels, and they in turn have branches — executive, legislative and judicial — and a cornucopia of massive agencies. To solve a problem you have to navigate a slow, complex, untidy system whose transparency and accountability are always less than they should be.

This is magnified by an American public that, these days especially, wants mutually contradictory things. We want to rein in Wall Street excess, but we don’t support the regulatory structure to do it. We want affordable health care but don’t like Washington’s involvement in the health-care system. We want to shrink the deficit without any cuts in defense spending or entitlements.

Our diversity, complex structure, and difficulty settling on coherent policies make the hardest part of governing even harder. Building a consensus is the most important and most difficult part of political leadership. If politics is ultimately about the search for a remedy — I know, for many politicians it’s about ego or power or money, but I’m interested in the ideal — then you have to be able to get a consensus around that remedy. You need a majority in the U.S. House, 60 votes in the Senate, and the President’s approval. This country cannot be governed without compromise, dialogue and accommodation, and it comes apart at the seams when we go too long without them.

We often have disagreements in politics, but good politicians know that we have no choice but to work through them. The best want to bring different groups of people together, not pull them apart. They understand that not all the good ideas come from one source, and they reject the idea of constant conflict and permanent gridlock. In a divided country with a government specifically set up to divide powers, we need to follow this process — not because we want to but because we have to.

They know, too, that you have to treat every person with dignity and respect, even though the clashes may be hard. I used to watch Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill engage in tough, hard-hitting dialogue over the issues of the day, but for both of them the underlying premise was that they had to reach an agreement and move ahead. They knew civility had to be the rule — and always ended by trying to top each other with a good Irish story, doing their best to leave everyone in the room in an upbeat frame of mind.

Don’t get me wrong. The clash of ideas is important. In a dynamic system, with competing power centers and a panoply of interests trying to use their power to achieve their objectives, better policy — a policy that more nearly reflects the will of the American people — can emerge from this debate. Playing one side against the other, or merely stating the problem in order to rile up listeners — these are easy. Moving ahead to reach a solution: that’s the hard part.

Which is why our system works so slowly. It’s unwieldy, messy, and often very noisy, but most of the time, it gets there.

Yet there are no guarantees. Our system is not self-perpetuating. There is no automatic pilot. The question Abraham Lincoln asked at Gettysburg 151 years ago is as fresh today as it was then: Can a nation so conceived and so dedicated long endure? We’re still finding out, but we know one thing: It will take hard work.

Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

For information about our educational resources and programs, visit our website at www.centeroncongress.org. Go to Facebook to share your thoughts about Congress, civic education, and the citizen’s role in representative democracy. “Like” us on Facebook at “Center on Congress at Indiana University.”

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