- Associated Press - Monday, May 25, 2015

Traverse City Record Eagle, May 20.

Nelson review warrants deeper look


Northwestern Michigan College trustees launched their annual review of President Tim Nelson, an exercise that traditionally yields little more than back-patting and self-serving platitudes for Nelson and the community college board alike.

The review is supposed to accurately reflect Nelson’s job performance, point out his strengths and weaknesses and indicate to Nelson the board’s preferred path to NMC’s success. Too often, trustees appear to use Nelson’s review as a device to gloss over his - and their own - stumbles.

It’s a process that’s compromised by Nelson’s overly cozy relationship with several trustees. They zoom down the same political road together, have done so for a decade and a half, and those trustees appear loathe to acknowledge the significant slippage in Nelson’s recent job performance.

To do so might require trustees to do a bit of critical self-examination. That’s never been their strong suit.

But trustees owe it to taxpayers, students and NMC staff to acknowledge Nelson’s increasing ineffectiveness and judge him accordingly.

And it just might be time for trustees to have the talk with Nelson. As in, the retirement talk.

There’s no disputing Nelson’s overall positive influence on NMC since he signed on as president early last decade. The college boasts several strong programs that mostly evolved in solid fashion during his time. Water studies, culinary, nursing, maritime, and others are among offerings that should inspire community pride.

But there’s also long been a sense that NMC officials place more emphasis on those specialty programs than on what should be the heart and soul of a community college: providing basic educational opportunities to nontraditional students, or to those constrained by economics, or to those needing a boost before tackling university life, or to those who can better their careers by obtaining an associate degree.

There’s a sense of elitism that emanates from the NMC hierarchy, and oft-discernible efforts by Nelson and others to distance themselves from the masses. Recall Nelson’s truer-than-intended comments regarding NMC trustees’ and officials’ decision last winter to hole up for a public meeting at a resort 30 miles from town for a “retreat” from the tax-paying little people.  

There are plenty of indications that something’s been amiss with Nelson’s leadership in recent years. In 2013, he fumbled and obfuscated key elements of a fatally flawed tax hike effort, claiming - wrongly - that NMC needed an August millage vote to secure the would-be millage on that December’s tax bills. Nelson made no effort to reveal the special election cost taxpayers nearly $80,000.

Then came NMC officials’ embarrassing effort to fend off a push for trustees to televise or otherwise electronically record their public meetings. Nelson wanted nothing to do with televised meetings and the pesky permanent record that comes with such. Trustees ultimately trampled Michigan’s Open Meetings Act with their back-channels squabble over that issue, and Nelson shares the blame because if he’d taken a proactive stance toward transparency, the board would have followed. He didn’t.

Most troubling is the chasm that’s developed over the last year or so between NMC employees and administration, a fracture precipitated by an administration directive: an employee compensation and classification study. The study surely played a role in spurring NMC’s full-time faculty to demand a unionization vote (and Nelson’s resultant ham-handed effort to threaten those employees); faculty overwhelmingly voted to embrace union representation. A group of NMC department heads likely will follow suit with their own union vote.

It’s remarkable that in Traverse City, in a newly minted right-to-work state, that two new union groups apparently will take root at NMC. It’s impossible not to pin blame on Nelson and his staff.

Finally, Nelson and staff created an uproar with a plan to potentially outsource hiring of adjunct instructors. Blowback from staff and the community in part prompted NMC to twice delay a board vote on the outsourcing notion.

Trustees’ job review with Nelson is one thing. But there’s a bigger issue at hand, and it’s whether the time has come for NMC to move beyond the Tim Nelson years.  



The Times Herald, May 20.

Grand theft isn’t grand theft in Michigan if you steal from taxpayers.

In headline after headline, public employees and elected officials convicted of stealing public funds here and across the state get sentences completely out of proportion to the seriousness of their crimes.

A Kimball Township employee steals $130,000 and gets a few months in the county jail. The Clay Township clerk steals a similar amount and gets a few months in jail. A school bookkeeper in the Flint area takes $1.2 million that doesn’t belong to her and gets a few months in jail. A woman pleads guilty to stealing more than $50,000 from Traverse City schools and gets a few months in jail. Two township officials in Roscommon County steal $4,160 and get no punishment at all.

Yet Michigan law defines that as felony larceny - taking more than $1,000 but less than $20,000 - and it’s punishable by up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. Steal $4,160 from a store or someone’s home and you’d go to prison. Take it from taxpayers and you’re off the hook.

Larceny of more than $20,000 is punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $15,000 fine - unless you take it from taxpayers.

Michigan’s legal system is more focused on punishing violent criminals than nonviolent ones. That’s reasonable. But we have to argue being robbed by someone we’ve entrusted to look after public funds feels like an extra violation.

It feels worse when we learn that everyone involved in these crimes is laughing at the rationale for insignificant time behind bars. Restitution is not punishment, especially when nobody has any expectation it will happen.

But municipalities and school districts have insurance for such losses. They will be made whole by their insurance carriers. A school bookkeeper who steals $1.2 million from her employer isn’t likely to ever get a job, period, let alone one that will pay her enough to return $1.2 million. She needs to go to prison both for punishment and to deter others.

Petty sentences for major crimes are no deterrent. Clay Township taxpayers have been victims twice because the second embezzler learned there was little real punishment for the first. Slap-on-the-wrist penalties have to end.  


The Detroit News, May 20.

Put an end to prevailing wage

The Legislature is on its way to repealing the state’s prevailing wage law. The measure artificially drives up the costs of public construction projects for schools and other government buildings. That’s bad for taxpayers, school districts and job seekers.

Republican leaders in the House and Senate have made repealing the prevailing wage a priority this year, and the Senate has already voted to remove it from the books.

The House should follow suit.

Prevailing wage rules require contractors to pay the local union wage on public construction projects, whether or not their workers are in the union. They inflate the cost of building schools and other public structures, adding 10 to 15 percent to overall project costs.

The prevailing wage is based on collective bargaining agreements that cover only 19 percent of the state workforce.

The Michigan House says 10 other states have repealed their prevailing wage laws. Only six other states have prevailing wage laws as strict as Michigan’s.

Gov. Rick Snyder has said he’s not interested in getting this bill on his desk.

But given how the governor is committed to making Michigan government more efficient, a veto would run contrary to his agenda.

Snyder has expressed concern that ending the prevailing wage would make skilled trade jobs less attractive. And the state has a shortage of workers for such positions. The skilled trades and workforce development will also be a focus of the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Mackinac Policy Conference next week.

An estimated 80,000 jobs are unfilled in Michigan because employers can’t find trained workers.

If school districts and municipalities are able to fund more projects once prevailing wage is repealed, that should create a demand for even more workers.

While encouraging individuals to pursue the skilled trades is a worthy aim, taxpayers should not be asked to artificially inflate their pay.

Jobs in the trades already pay good wages. The shortage of workers in the trades is not a product of anemic pay, but rather a failure of the education system. Most school districts have ignored vocational training in favor of college readiness, leading more to opt for a college degree instead of a welding mask.

A 2013 study from the Anderson Economic Group highlights just how costly the prevailing wage law is for the state.

Public universities, community colleges and school districts - or rather taxpayers - have to pay an additional $224 million a year, thanks to the law.

In addition to the support of many GOP lawmakers, the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and Associated Builders and Contractors of Michigan favor repealing the law.

Supporters of the law maintain the prevailing wage raises the quality of work on projects. But it should be the responsibility of the government entity bidding on a project to ensure a construction company will offer competent work at a fair price.

Complying with the law is a major paperwork headache for contractors. They have to figure out the prevailing union wage in a variety of job categories and locales.

The law drives up costs for taxpayers and limits the amount of public work that can be done.

Michigan would be better off without it.


Battle Creek Enquirer, May 16.

GOP assaults on LGBT rights, home rule

Legislatures are supposed to represent us, but sometimes it seems as though the majority of Republicans in Lansing would prefer to rule us, instead.

Not content with undermining efforts last year to extend civil rights protection to LGBT citizens, GOP lawmakers in both chambers introduced bills last week that would invalidate those protections adopted in some 37 Michigan cities.

So much for the party of small government and “home rule.”

But the assault on local efforts to guard the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender citizens is not the half of it.

House Bill 4052, sponsored by Rep. Earl Poleski, would override all local ordinances governing employers’ relationships with their employees. That would include local minimum wage requirements, or mandates that employers provide more comprehensive leave benefits than required by the state or federal level.

Poleski, a Republican from Jackson County, is the bill’s lone sponsor, but that’s little comfort. Nearly identical legislation - SB 0337 - has the support of nine legislators in the Senate, where the bill has been referred to the committee on Michigan Competitiveness.

Oh, the irony.

Further cementing Michigan’s reputation as a backwater where people can still lose their jobs for simply being gay or transgender is hardly a good strategy for making the state more competitive.

Advancing public policies that further depress wages or drive highly skilled trades workers to more lucrative markets is no way to rebuild the state’s economy.

This is terrible legislation, introduced during the same week that the Senate passedthree bills that would repeal the state’s prevailing-wage laws. Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, called it one of his “top legislative priorities.”

And if it’s not a priority for citizens? No worries. Added to one of the bills was a $75,000 appropriation, which makes the bill immune from a citizen referendum.

Little wonder that citizens have so little faith in state government to guard their interests. This bunch has its own agenda.

We applaud our senator, Mike Nofs, for breaking ranks with his party and voting against the three bills, and you should, too. While you’re at it, take the time to contact our Reps. David Maturen and John Bizon and let them know these bills run counter to the interests of their districts and the state.

Michigan citizens deserve better representation from their Legislature, but that will only happen if citizens demand it. Make your voice heard, and let lawmakers know who really is in charge.

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