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Archive | Voices and Views

In praise of competence


By Lee H. Hamilton, former U.S. Representative

Not long ago, I was in a meeting to talk about a public policy issue. It was a little complex, and as we considered the various angles I began to think about what it would take to translate talk into change on the ground. I wasn’t analyzing the politics of it; I was focused on the types of people who’d have to roll up their sleeves.

What I came away with was a list of skills, none of them unusual, but all of them vital to getting things done in the increasingly complicated world that government faces. Here’s some of what it takes:

You need a legislative draftsman, someone who understands the specialized language of bill-writing and how to translate ideas into law;

You’ll almost certainly need several lawyers involved to steer clear of legal shoals, as well as budget experts who can handle cost estimates and projections;

It’s helpful to have someone who understands what constitutes ethical and unethical behavior in the field you’re addressing;

There are a lot of subject matters that play a role in almost any major problem: environmental, financial, security and military, logistics, health, education, international dimensions—and you’ll want to be able to consult with experts in all of them;

Because, almost invariably, you’re dealing with computer systems or actual machinery, it’s helpful to have the appropriate types of engineers on hand; 

It’s often helpful to work with a historian or two who can put the problem in context;

You need people who are familiar with the private sector and understand what businesses and corporations can and cannot reasonably achieve, since so many issues today involve both the public and private sectors;

You have to be able to understand and cover the politics of your approach, meaning you need people who can bridge the White House and Congress or the governor’s office and the legislature;

Somewhere along the line you’ll need PR experts who understand radio, print, TV, and social media, since you’ll have to enlist the public, or at least win its support;

And, of course, you’ll need to figure out how to raise the money you’ll need, both through the public purse and from the private and nonprofit worlds.

My point is simple: To make our system and this country work, we need a lot of experts and competent bureaucrats to deal with the problems that come cascading down on government. And here’s what I can tell you, after decades of close contact with federal civil servants: We have them. By and large, this country is served by a professional and dedicated group of public employees, whether you’re talking about the National Weather Service, the Foreign Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Defense Department… We’re blessed with a lot of talented people.

 Which is why I’ve never shared the contempt and outright hostility toward federal bureaucrats that is so often expressed in the public arena these days. They deal with very tough problems and they’re usually good at what they do. They just don’t toot their own horns about it.

This was on full display in the recent House Intelligence Committee hearings on impeachment. As New York Times columnist David Brooks put it recently, “[T]he civil servant witnesses answering questions inspired a lot more confidence than the elected officials who were asking them.” He went on to quote political scientist Hugh Heclo, “It is when you deal with someone who does not perform in a ‘professional’ manner that you learn to appreciate those who do.”

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t some bad apples within the bureaucracy. There always are, but they’re rare. And most of the time, inspectors general, administrative processes, and, when it’s working, congressional oversight address the problems reasonably well. Attacking cabinet officials and civil service employees publicly, the way President Trump seems to enjoy doing, seems counter-productive. These are, after all, the very people he has to depend on to move his programs forward.

In the face of the many challenges we confront, the professionalism, talent, and competence of our civil servants matter. We’ve been fortunate: many of them have withstood attacks on themselves and the systems they depend on for support. So far.

Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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Why trust matters


By Lee H. Hamilton, former U.S. Congressman

To me, it was a thunderclap. Years ago, when I was in Congress, we were in the midst of a tense, contentious debate. Members had gotten irritated, levying charges back and forth, and tempers were rising. Then one member stood up, asked for our attention, and said to us, “Let’s remember: trust is the coin of the realm.”

His statement at that moment hit me broadside: If we were to have any hope of progress, we had to have some faith in one another—even our opponents. It was a lesson I’ve never forgotten.

Our system rests on all sorts of values: open-mindedness, an informed citizenry, honesty, civility, competence. But at its heart, representative democracy is about how we resolve our differences, and if the parties lack trust, then it becomes hugely more difficult to do so.

A representative democracy rests on a straightforward premise: Because nothing gets done without others, you have to have confidence in people and believe that they will do what they say they will do. Without that trust, you simply can’t engage productively in negotiations, compromise, debate, and all the mechanisms we use to resolve differences in our society.

When we don’t trust one another—or don’t trust one another’s facts — reaching agreement and drafting laws becomes infinitely more difficult. The result is that often, cynicism, suspicion, and lack of confidence in the system hamstring our democracy.

To be sure, healthy skepticism about adversaries is natural and appropriate, but you can’t let it override everything and bring progress to a screeching halt. I would argue that one reason our government no longer works as well as it once did and should now, is that our trust in one another has diminished.

So what can we do about this? I think it’s vital that elected officials — especially of opposing parties — spend time with one another, learning to see one another as human beings who all, regardless of party, care deeply about the country. Similarly, the more ordinary people participate regularly in organizations, political parties, and even ad hoc efforts to improve their communities and states, the more likely they are to learn the fundamental importance of trust.

The fact is: In a system that depends on negotiation, compromise, and cooperation to achieve our goals, finding ways to build trust is essential. Without it, our democracy simply won’t work.

Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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Ask City to opt out of marijuana businesses


Under the leadership of Manager Mike Womack, and invaluable input from City Planner Tim Johnson, Cedar Springs has made great progress in becoming business friendly. We’ve seen old restrictive ordinances changed to encourage business and Main Street filled with new restaurants and beautiful shops as a result. The CBDT has been instrumental in building a library, an amphitheater and parks, creating beautiful spaces for people to enjoy. Homes have been renovated, yards cleaned up and new people are excited to move here. 

It’s taken a lot of hard work to make Cedar Springs a family friendly place to live, work and play. Our City Council holds the power to keep it family friendly, a place where people want to raise a family, to retire and to live in peace and safety. That brings us to a decision they will be asked to make in the near future, whether or not to allow recreational marijuana businesses.

Current rules on recreational marijuana are emergency rules; they are in flux. A popular misconception is that millions of dollars would flow into our city; there is no data supporting that. Will enforcement or medical costs increase for taxpayers to bear? Will more easily accessible product have an impact on safety, on noxious odors, on family relationships, on children? How would it impact the character of our community? Plenty of cities are getting on board, will they live to regret it? Let’s move slowly and see how those cities are affected before taking the “everybody is doing it” attitude.

At the November 15 public forum we were given options on what types of businesses, in which zoning districts, and how many types of each business the City should consider allowing.  The option of completely opting out was missing, therefore, it appeared that allowing marijuana businesses in our fair city was a done deal. It is not. The decision to allow or disallow any such facilities lies with the City Council.

Ask the Council to opt out of allowing recreational marijuana facilities in Cedar Springs by e-mailing City Manager Mike Womack at: manager@cityofcedarsprings.org  

The next public forum will be held on December 12 from 5:30 to 7 p,m, at the Cedar Springs Public Library.

Kathy A. Bremmer

City of Cedar Springs

Post Scripts 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. Writers are limited to one letter per month. Email to news@cedarspringspost.com, or send to Post Scripts, Cedar Springs Post, PO Box 370, Cedar Springs, MI 49319.

* We only print positive letters about candidates one week prior to the election. 

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How do we keep our democracy healthy?


By Lee H. Hamilton, former U.S. Representative

Representative democracy is based on a simple premise. It’s that ordinary citizens can make satisfactory judgments on complex public policy and political issues—or at least grasp them well enough to decide who should be dealing with them.

But the significance of that premise isn’t simple at all. It means that our country’s future depends on the quality of democratic participation by its citizens. Collectively, we have to make discriminating judgments about politicians, policies, and issues. Not just once, but repeatedly and consistently. Moreover, when it comes to improving our own corner of the world, it means there’s no one to depend upon but ourselves.

So, in an era when our democracy appears to be under great stress, what must we do to keep it healthy? Because there are certainly alternatives out there—from out-and-out authoritarianism to the Chinese and Russian models to just plain anarchy—here are some steps I think we need to take.

First, we have to protect our elections. It’s clear that malign actors want to hack them or at least use every means they can to influence them. In the past we tended to assume that our elections were free, fair, and accurate, but we can’t take that for granted any more. This also means ensuring the independence of the judicial branch, which is critical to protecting the integrity of elections against the encroachment of authoritarian-minded leaders and manipulative politicians. We also must protect the media and sources of fair, unbiased information that citizens require when making their judgements about politicians and their policies.

Second, we need to work on expanding our democracy in appropriate ways and on fighting off efforts to restrict the vote. There are all sorts of tools states and localities can use to make voting easier and more convenient; many of these—voting hours, for instance, or the location of polling places—can also be used to make voting more difficult. Plenty of politicians want to handicap or exclude voters they don’t like, and this sort of manipulation of our system is as big a threat to its integrity as outsiders’ attempts to hack it.

Third, keeping money’s role in elections within bounds is crucial. The issue is less top-of-mind than it used to be, perhaps because we’ve become inured to record amounts being spent each election cycle. Money will always have a place in elections, but we need to find ways to keep it from disproportionately affecting voting outcomes and impeding those who don’t have the same access to funds as well-heeled candidates and causes.

This is where organizations that urge their members to turn out to vote come in. They have an important role to play, both in boosting turnout and in building networks focused on democratic participation. They’re all “special interests,” of course, with their own agendas, but that’s what it means to live in a pluralistic society. The more different groups are active, the more diversity you get in office and the better the representation you get for the entire population.

Individual participation also matters, which is why civic education is vital. I don’t think we talk about the achievements of representative democracy enough, or celebrate its heritage, or remind ourselves not to become complacent about what it takes to sustain it. In essence, I think we need always to be mindful about how we teach and encourage people to participate—through efforts to educate and register voters, through citizen-led advocacy, through neighbors getting together to change the speed limit on their road or fight groundwater contamination…It all matters. 

And, of course, we need a robust and independent media, using every available platform, that pushes the idea of democracy and promotes free speech, public dialogue, voting, and all the rest of it. 

When Lincoln wondered at Gettysburg whether a “nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure,” it wasn’t just a rhetorical question. It’s an undecided one, and each generation has to answer it. We are being tested to an unusual degree today, and just because we’ve come through the challenges of days past doesn’t mean we’re destined to now. We need to pay attention and do our part to keep our democracy healthy.

Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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Post Scripts 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. Writers are limited to one letter per month. Email to news@cedarspringspost.com, or send to Post Scripts, Cedar Springs Post, PO Box 370, Cedar Springs, MI 49319.

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Unhappy about Sand Lake Halloween party cancellation


I am disappointed that the Sand Lake Fire Department is so selfish as to cancel the Halloween party this year. I am wondering if they are more concerned about their salary than the children they will disappoint. Maybe it is political, and the insurance to cover the event would come out of their salaries. I have heard the new Sand Lake President has been making things fiscally responsible.

Mary Prentice, Nelson Township

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Please vote Nov. 5


I’m writing this letter as a Cedar Springs teacher who has had the honor of working for our amazing district for almost 10 years now, and also as an elected official for the Grand Rapids Public School’s board of education. One of the many reasons public schools are important and successful is that the communities that they exist in have a direct voice in who its leaders are, what its priorities are, and the outcomes that are implemented by the district on a daily basis. Public schools help grow children into active community members and leaders of the future. Public school policies are approved by an elected board who listens to and pursues the interests of it constituents. Your voice matters. 

On Tuesday, November 5, every registered voter has the chance to voice their opinion on the future of our Cedar Springs Public Schools by voting on a bond proposal that will provide funds for new construction, additions, remodeling, site improvements, and more.  As an advocate of public education, the future of our community, and the right for each and every person to have a say through the voting process, I encourage each of you to educate yourselves on the details of this bond by visiting www.csredhawks.org and to practice your right to vote on November 5!  

Thanks for helping us grow the future of Cedar Springs!

Kymberlie Davis, Cedar Trails Music Teacher

GRPS Board Member

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An open letter to the community of Cedar Springs


I would like to invite you to consider voting yes on the upcoming bond proposal.  I have examined the proposed uses of the fund raised by the proposal.  As a previous member of the high school staff I can attest to the efficiency of the school board and staff at cedar and their heart for students.

As I examined this process I found that the board has worked very hard to determine how to resolve the problems faced by the district now and in future years. Overcrowding, and aging facilities are a major concern now and in the future.

This proposal clearly identifies what construction will be undertaken, where changes will be made to programming, and what technology, traffic, and security issues will be addressed. It is also clear that operation funds will not be wasted on patchwork fixes that merely put a band aid on problems the school is now facing.

I recommend checking the website at csredhawks.org by clicking the first bar at the top of the options where you can access clear documentation, and maps showing what is planned. I support this proposal and suggest you vote yes to help Cedar schools adapt for its needs now and in the future.

Larry Reyburn

Retired Teacher 

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8th/9th grade building a brilliant proposal

Last Thursday, I was pleased to meet two Cedar Springs school board trustees at a Kent County board event. Lowell had recently passed a bond issue, and I was interested to hear about your upcoming vote and the district’s plans for the funds. As with Lowell, Cedar will use the money for the unglamorous but necessary expenditures that update facilities and provide the infrastructure every district needs to serve its community most effectively.

What struck me as the most brilliant proposal for the funds is the creation of an 8th/9th grade building. I taught at Lowell High School for twenty-nine years—mostly before our 9th grade wing was built—and have always felt that freshmen and seniors should not be under the same roof. The groups are vastly different in both physical and emotional maturity, and since most middle schools have no retention policy, freshmen have spent the previous three years facing no consequences for lack of academic effort. Many struggle in the strict high school academic environment, and often discipline problems arise from those struggles.

By putting the 8th and 9th grades together, I see Cedar Springs addressing two issues: First, the freshman/senior gap and, second, a similar gap between 6th and 8th graders. Having students just a year or two apart in age in their own space eliminates a number of problems inherent in a wider age spread. 

As a Lowell Board of Education trustee, I have seen firsthand the positive effect passing both a sinking and a bond issue has had. Schools are an integral part of small towns such as Lowell and Cedar. Bond money stays in the community; it shows that citizens value their public schools; and best of all it is used to invest in our most precious commodity—our children.

Trust that the Cedar Springs Board of Education has performed their due diligence in shaping the plan for this bond issue, and please support public schools on November 5.

Laurie C. Kuna

Trustee, Lowell Board of Education 

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School bond proposal: pay now or pay later


Cedar Springs is blessed with a high performing school system. Superintendent Scott Smith said, ”Quality school facilities are essential to best support students academically, emotionally, and socially.” While our infrastructure my not look it, our newest building—the Middle School—was built in 2002 and our oldest—Beach—was constructed in 1960. During the recession that started in 2008, state funds decreased but costs did not. As a result, maintenance was deferred to maintain academic excellence. Voters approved a 1mil sinking fund millage in 2012, which has helped but expires in 2022.

Another challenge is growth. Most of the buildings are close to or at capacity. This leaves little room for growth when looking forward 10 years with its projected growth of 1percent per year. Last year, the school grew by about 3 percent from about 3,500 to 3,600 students.

In 2016, recognizing the challenges the district’s facilities faced, they engaged GMB Architecture and Engineering to conduct a facilities assessment as part of a long-term master plan for district facilities. GMB specializes in collaborative architectural and engineering solutions for schools. The result of the assessment is the core of the $42 million bond proposal. These funds would pay for the renovation of existing buildings and the construction of a building adjacent to the High School for 8th and 9th graders. This opens up space for future growth. 

If voters do not support the bond proposal, the district will face unprecedented challenges in maintaining its facilities and providing a positive and productive learning environment for students.

While the wording on the ballot proposal is confusing, the bottom line is an increase of .9 mils to your tax bill or about $90 for a residence with a $200,000 assessed value per year. However, after 2022, your taxes will decrease 1 mil when the sinking fund expires. At that point, you will be paying less in taxes than you are now.

We can either pay now or pay later, support our students and vote for the bond proposal on November 5!

PS: For those concerned about Hilltop, there are no plans to tear it down; however, in an effort to contain costs ($6 million to bring it up to code) and reduce operating expenses ($110,000 per year) it will be mothballed at sometime in the future. Superintendent Smith has an exciting vision for the building’s future.

Tom Noreen, Nelson Township

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