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Ian Lind • Online daily from Kaaawa, Hawaii

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An interesting tool for ferreting out information

March 4th, 2015 · 1 Comment

I like to share the tools of the trade, which hopefully encourage some of you to improve your sleuthing. Here’s an information tool that has been around for a long time, with periodic updates along the way. I have long considered it a great resource.

It’s called Reporter’s Desktop, and is a tool developed by investigative reporter Duff Wilson. I think it originally dates back to the period in the late 1990s when Wilson was working at the Seattle Times, and was active in Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE).

Reporter’s Desktop is sort of a Swiss Army Knife that’s useful for starting an investigation, identifying leads, and stretching your investigative imagination. It contains a dizzying array of links to information and documents of all kinds.

There are some links that are now outdated, but overall the Desktop holds up very well. It was last updated about a year ago. I’m guessing new tools are being added, while outdated links are slower to be removed.

One of the first links at the top of the page is intended for backgrounding a person–“WHO IS JOHN DOE — and where to get the paper on him.”

It leads you through all the various ways in which a person leaves a trail through public records of many kinds. Using this as a guide, you can fill in local sources of things like court records, campaign finance reports, or real estate records.

In any case, at least browse through the Reporter’s Desktop to get a flavor for the range of sources that are out there. It’s always good to have this information when you suddenly have a particular issue you need to research in a hurry.

→ 1 CommentTags: Media

The economics of athletic mediocrity

March 3rd, 2015 · 6 Comments

I was up on the UH Manoa campus yesterday afternoon and noticed an article on the school’s athletic budget woes as spelled out in a report released in mid-February (“Beyond wins and losses, Underfunding at the heart of continued UH athletic deficit, according to Jay“).

I had followed the coverage of the report at that time, like this KITV story (“UH Athletics report explores cutting programs to save money“), but had never read the report itself. It seems like a pretty important policy document potentially impacting lots of people, on and off campus.

So I went looking for it, thinking it should be easy to find. Where would you look?

I started with the UH Athletic Department’s website. It turns out to be a visually confusing mishmash and difficult to wade through, but there doesn’t appear to be any mention of the report.

So then I decided to check the UH Manoa website, since it’s a report on Manoa athletics and the campus has plenty of public relations staff. Right in the middle of the entry page, there was a list of news releases and, below it, a link to athletics news. I figured my search would soon be over.

First, I checked the news releases prepared by the Manoa campus administration. There were dozens of news releases in February, ranging from a group of high school students’ one-day visit to Honolulu Community College to prizes won by individual UH researchers. But none of the news releases appears to have concerned the athletics budget report. I checked a second time, because I couldn’t believe it wasn’t there. But alas, still nothing.

Still hopefully, I clicked on the link that said “Athletics News.” Ooops. It just took me back to the main athletics website, not to any specific link to “news.”

Finally I resorted to a broad Google search, and found the report, “Financial State of Hawaii Athletics–Revising the Game Plan.”

It turns out to have been buried down among documents that were part of the Board of Regents’ agenda for their February 12 meeting. I didn’t find links to the report from anywhere else on the Regents’ webpage or anywhere else in the UH system.

A conscious attempt to bury the grim news, or just another example of rather inept public relations, or is it just that the administration doesn’t take the athletic issue seriously enough? I just don’t know.

According to the report, the athletics department has some very lofty goals.

They might as well be titled, “Dream on.”

Dream on;

Strengthen the competitiveness of our overall athletics program as a nationally respected NCAA Division I FBS athletics program and build the program to become a candidate for future conference expansion to a high-resource athletics conference (i.e. Pacific-12 Conference).

Strive to be as a national Top 50 athletics program (as measured by the NACDA Directors Cup ranking). UHMAD should always strive to be a top-rated collegiate sports program that the State of Hawai‘i can take pride in. A nationally respected program will aid in keeping the best student- athlete talent in Hawai‘i home and recruiting talented student-athletes from the mainland and internationally.

Generate revenue opportunities that can sustain a budget that supports a Top 50 program.

Improve athletic competition and practice facilities to compete in the recruitment of the best student-athlete talent. Current facilities need renovation and modernization if we are to compete with other athletics programs and put our best face forward when potential recruits and their parents come for their visits.

Significantly improve game-day venue experience. This means our facilities are fully functional, clean and updated for our fans to experience a game atmosphere that is fun and enjoyable for the whole family.

The unfortunate reality followed in a simple statement.

While our department’s sport programs strive to compete for championships, we do so on a very bare- bones operating budget and budget shortfall that has led to program mediocrity. As our department struggles to fund our program aspirations, it remains difficult to achieve a sustainable and consistent level of competitiveness.

There are lots of charts and graphs that follow, but that pretty much says it all. “…a very bare-bones operating budget and budget shortfall…has led to program mediocrity.”

The athletics department predicts a total deficit over the next three years of $11.4 million, based on current estimates of revenues and expenses. But the report notes that this doesn’t include the NCAA’s expansion of allowable student aid for athletes to cover the full “cost of attendance.” Schools don’t need to pay these new costs, but failure to do so will impact the ability to recruit, so most are expected to at least attempt to compete. These costs are estimated to increase the budget deficit by $3.1 million to $3.7 million over the same three year period.

It’s a gnarly economic forecast bearing little good news.

Perhaps that’s why they’ve made the report so difficult to find.

By the way, I haven’t seen any mention of this tidbit that appears at the very tail end of the report.

A recent 2012 study published in the Social Science Quarterly assessing the effects of coaching replacements on college football team performance suggests that these moves may not lead to the happiness the fans envision. E. Scott Adler, Michael J. Berry, and David Doherty looked at coaching changes from 1997 to 2010. What they found should give pause to people who demanded a coaching change (or still hope for one).

Here is how these authors summarize their findings:

Using matching techniques to compare the performance of football programs that replaced their head coach to those where the coach was retained. The analysis has two major innovations over existing literature. First, we consider how entry conditions moderate the effects of coaching replacements. Second, we examine team performance for several years following the replacement to assess its effects.

We find that for particularly poorly performing teams, coach replacements have little effect on team performance as measured against comparable teams that did not replace their coach. However, for teams with middling records—that is, teams where entry conditions for a new coach appear to be more favorable—replacing the head coach appears to result in worse performance over subsequent years than comparable teams who retained their coach.

So the authors found that if you are a bad team, changing your coach didn’t make a difference. And if you are “not bad,” a new coach makes it worse. This result is consistent with studies of other sports.

If it costs a small fortune to fire your coach – and often it does – then a team is probably better off ?just keeping who they have on the sideline. Yes, this may not make the fans of the losers very happy ?today. But it doesn’t make sense for universities to make decisions that cost the school money and don’t ?systematically change the outcomes we see on the field.

→ 6 CommentsTags: Economics · Education · Politics

A look at recent sunshine and public records in the news

March 2nd, 2015 · 2 Comments

Here are a few news stories from across the country that have appeared in the past couple of weeks.

In Florida, a private watchdog group that has been officials to court for sunshine violations is taking on the governor and making waves.

Sarasota Herald-Tribune, “Sunshine group takes on Gov. Scott

The group is unique in the state, Petersen said, in trying to ensure that public officials follow open-government rules they might otherwise ignore.

State attorneys rarely show interest in such cases.

In Missouri, a long-running court case pits a group of police officers against the public’s right to know about the disciplinary actions taken against public employees.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “St. Louis officers still want to keep World Series ticket scandal records private

At issue are dozens of pages of internal affairs records from the police department’s investigation of officers who let friends and relatives use World Series tickets seized from scalpers. Eight police officers and six supervisors were disciplined. Some, but not all, records have been released through successive court rulings.

The officers say they are not hiding anything that isn’t already known, but are concerned about setting a precedent in giving the public access to internal affairs records.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which sued for that access, says the public has a right to know how the government handles employees’ misconduct.

In a ruling last year, Circuit Court Judge Robert Dierker wrote that the officers failed to show “an overarching constitutional right to privacy of employment records of public employees.”

Ask in Missouri, lawmakers have been considering a bill that would shield video taken by body cameras worn by police officers, as well as taken by their dashboard cameras. Under the terms of the bill, these would no longer be considered public records.

Sprinfield News-Leader, “Our view: Public video records at risk in state Senate

Simply put: Language in the bill would permanently close access to all video, even after a police investigation has been concluded, except upon court order or, as stated in a more recent draft, at the request of a civilian review board, pursuant to the prosecution or defense of a criminal case or shown to a person who appears in the recording, although that person could not retain a copy.

It means video from law enforcement cameras would be exempt from the state’s open records law, known commonly as the Sunshine Law.

And from Pennsylvania, an interesting example of technical compliance with the public records law that doesn’t leave a record.

Beaver County Times, “When a record isn’t a record

Times reporter Daveen Rae Kurutz wanted information from our local school districts on the number of children who have not received the required immunizations. Given the recent measles outbreak in the United States, and the ongoing debate over whether parents should have their children vaccinated, it seemed prudent to see what the situation is like in our schools.

Kurutz made a Right-to-Know request to 19 local districts for their School Immunization Law Report that must be filed annually with the state Department of Health. The report shows the number of students in kindergarten and seventh grade who have received the required vaccinations for such diseases as chicken pox, polio and measles.

What she found was that although the districts complied with the requirement to file the report with the state, the districts did not keep a copy of the report, so they could not provide it. Further, several districts maintained that since no such record exists, they are not required to provide one. The districts retain individual immunization information on all students, but not the aggregated information used to complete the report.

In short, the school districts gathered the information required by the Health Department, went to an online portal and completed the form, and then discarded the information collected.

And available in a Kindle edition via Amazon.com.

Florida Office of the Attorney General, 2015 Government-in-the-Sunshine Manual [Kindle Edition]

It’s an estimated 696-pages of sunshine.

And a debate continues in Florida over the application of the state’s sunshine law to university presidential searches.

Sun-Sentinal editorial, “Don’t hide how we pick university presidents

Their argument is simple. They say no good candidates will apply to be president of a Florida university if their names are going to be made public.

Poppycock. If that argument held any water, it would mean none of Florida’s current 12 university presidents are worth their salt. And who believes that?

By all accounts, the presidents chosen in just the last year — former Clemson vice president John Kelly at Florida Atlantic University, former Cornell University provost W. Kent Fuchs at the University of Florida, and former Florida state Sen. John Thrasher at Florida State University — are all dynamic choices.

→ 2 CommentsTags: Media · Politics · Sunshine

State confirmation process lacks key information

March 1st, 2015 · 6 Comments

If you’re interested in the scheduled March 11 hearing on the nomination of Carleton Ching to head the Department of Land and Natural Resources, you might want to check out the explanation of the Senate’s Advise and Consent Process that’s been posted on the legislative website.

In addition to a description of the process, it provides links for watching proceedings via online streaming or archived video, submitting testimony online, etc.

It also includes a link to a list of all the governor’s nominations requiring senate action, which indicates their current status, hearing dates, etc.

It’s modestly helpful, as far as it goes.

But there’s something important that’s missing–any information at all about the nominees, except for testimony presented at the nominee’s confirmation hearing, which isn’t available until after the hearing is over.

The governor’s messages that transmit the nomination to the senate contain just a very sparse stock message, followed by the nominee’s name and position.

In accordance with Article V, Section 6 of the Hawai’i State Constitution, I have the honor to submit herewith for your consideration and confirmation, the following nomination…

Not a bit of additional information accompanies it. No biography, no resume, no work or professional history. Nothing.

So the public is asked to weigh in by offering testimony, but has little to base that testimony on.

It really is a flaw in the system, as it is hard for the public to assess the qualifications of a nominee if those qualifications are not publicly available anywhere.

And it’s not necessary.

Consider how it’s nominations are handled across the street at Honolulu Hale, our city hall. It begins with a Mayor’s Message. Yesterday, for example, the mayor nominated Gary Nakata to serve as director of the Department of Community Services. Mayor’s Message 22 doesn’t have much more information than the comparable governor’s messages.

However, it is accompanied by two key attachments. First, there’s a nominee/appointee form, which includes info including the nominee’s age, occupation, employer, potential conflicts, education and work history. And then the administration attached the nominee’s full resumé.

It’s a world apart from the absence of information provided–or not provided–on gubernatorial nominees.

If there’s additional information made available to senators, including the chair of the committee that will review the nomination, it apparently isn’t available to the public.

This is likely one of those “we’ve always done it this way” situations.

And its one where change is long overdue.

→ 6 CommentsTags: Legislature · Politics · Sunshine

Civil Beat flags misuse of executive session by rail board

February 28th, 2015 · 5 Comments

Earlier this week, Civil Beat’s Nick Grube had an important story showing that Honolulu rail officials misused a confidential executive session to discuss their approach to lobbying for an extension of the general excise tax for rail (“Behind Closed Doors: Honolulu Rail Officials Planned Political Strategy in Executive Session“).

Directors of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transit justified the executive session as an opportunity to discuss legal issues with the board’s attorney, “especially the General Excise Tax (GET) surcharge”.

But the minutes show that the board’s conversation focused almost entirely on the political maneuvering that would be necessary to extend the general excise tax surcharge for the $6 billion project beyond its 2022 sunset. There was little, if any, questioning of Takeuchi reflected in the minutes.

Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest Executive Director Brian Black said it’s troubling that such discussions took place out of public view, especially when HART said it needed the privacy to talk with attorneys. He added that this specific example highlights the need for better enforcement of possible Sunshine Law violations.

“It almost seems to validate everyone’s fears,” Black said. “Many people fear that the boards use the exceptions, such as the legal advice exemption, and that they just use it for themselves to be able to talk frankly.”

It seems to have been a pretty blatant abuse of the section of the state’s sunshine law which provides for executive sessions.

Here’s the general premise of the sunshine law:

Every meeting of all boards shall be open to the public and all persons shall be permitted to attend any meeting unless otherwise provided in the constitution or as closed pursuant to sections 92-4 and 92-5….

Closed executive sessions are allowed for certain reasons specified in the statute.

§92-5 Exceptions. (a) A board may hold a meeting closed to the public pursuant to section 92-4 for one or more of the following purposes:

(1) To consider and evaluate personal information relating to individuals applying for professional or vocational licenses cited in section 26-9 or both;

(2) To consider the hire, evaluation, dismissal, or discipline of an officer or employee or of charges brought against the officer or employee, where consideration of matters affecting privacy will be involved; provided that if the individual concerned requests an open meeting, an open meeting shall be held;

(3) To deliberate concerning the authority of persons designated by the board to conduct labor negotiations or to negotiate the acquisition of public property, or during the conduct of such negotiations;

(4) To consult with the board’s attorney on questions and issues pertaining to the board’s powers, duties, privileges, immunities, and liabilities;

(5) To investigate proceedings regarding criminal misconduct;

(6) To consider sensitive matters related to public safety or security;

(7) To consider matters relating to the solicitation and acceptance of private donations; and

(8) To deliberate or make a decision upon a matter that requires the consideration of information that must be kept confidential pursuant to a state or federal law, or a court order.

But the minutes show there weren’t questions about legal issues raised, only issues about political strategy.

What we don’t know is how common this sort of end run around the sunshine law is, whether for this board or others.

And the article doesn’t indicate what triggered Grube’s interest in this particular set of minutes.

In any case, it was a good catch by Civil Beat, another example of why it’s good to have CB providing competition to the other daily news media.

→ 5 CommentsTags: Politics · Sunshine