- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The Wichita Eagle, April 13

Advocates on both sides should come together on legislation that leaves no potential for abuse of municipal power at the expense of low-income homeowners.

Gov. Sam Brownback’s veto of a bill targeting urban blight might seem an overly zealous defense of property rights. But it’s a red flag when proponents insist a law won’t be used as aggressively as its language clearly allows.

The governor’s move should spur advocates on both sides to come together on legislation that leaves no potential for abuse of municipal power at the expense of low-income homeowners.

Wichita and other cities have huge problems with unoccupied, deteriorating properties, which currently are defined as “abandoned” when they’ve been unoccupied for 90 days and delinquent on property taxes for two years.

By expanding the definition of “abandoned” properties to include those that have been unoccupied for a year and have a “blighting influence on surrounding properties,” Senate Bill 338 would make it easier for a municipal government to take over such sites and, with a district court’s approval, transfer possession to nonprofit groups with plans to rehabilitate them.

Organizations such as Habitat for Humanity, Mennonite Housing and Power CDC already have helped clean up and transform not just lots or blocks but neighborhoods in Wichita. It’s reasonable to want to enable their efforts, and do more about the 17,600 vacant properties in the city.

But it was telling that the bill’s opposition in the Legislature, where it passed the House 79-44 and the Senate 32-8, spanned left and right politically.

Sen. David Haley, D-Kansas City, filed a formal protest arguing that the bill would “legalize grand theft” by “not-for-profit” developers in the name of “civic pride” or “community betterment.”

Five other Democrats and four conservative Republicans in the House joined Rep. Gail Finney, D-Wichita, in the explanation of her “no” vote, which warned that the bill allowed “our local governments to expeditiously confiscate, seize or destroy law-abiding citizens’ private property without compensation, adequate notice, and a legal property title.”

Mayor Jeff Longwell and other Wichita City Council members expressed disappointment at Tuesday’s meeting with the veto, complaining about how certain cases stretch for three or four years as homeowners manipulate the system and affect neighboring property rights. They have a point.

But so do opponents including Brownback, who said in his veto message Monday that he would “welcome legislation that empowers local communities to respond to blight and abandoned property that does not open the door to abuse of the fundamental rights of free people.” That should be the shared goal.


The Topeka Capital-Journal, April 16

Schwab case shows importance of having facts

The Raymond and Amelia Schwab episode should be a cautionary reminder for those who would take up a cause before all facts emerge.

Raymond Schwab planted himself in front of the Kansas Capitol on March 13 to demand the return of his children, five of whom were removed from his care by the Kansas Department for Children and Families. According to the Schwabs, their children were stolen by the state because Raymond had used medical marijuana to treat his post-traumatic stress disorder.

Before long, the Schwabs weren’t the only ones protesting. By the end of March, demonstrators were spending 24 hours a day outside the Statehouse, holding up signs condemning a government that “destroys children and families.” A civil rights attorney named Matthew Pappas decided to take the case at the behest of Cheryl Shuman, the president and chief executive officer of the Beverly Hills Cannabis Club.

Shuman, who was in Topeka with Pappas on March 30, said she was trying to put the Schwabs’ case at the center of a much wider conversation: “I want to make sure everyone knows that what’s happening here in Kansas can’t happen to families anymore.”

It all seemed so horrible - a disabled veteran and his wife had been robbed of their children and forced to plead their case on the steps of the Statehouse. How could the state be so callous?

Now that more information has surfaced, Shuman, Pappas and everyone else who supported the Schwabs’ custody fight (such as former Kansas gubernatorial candidate Jennifer Winn) should be feeling a little queasy.

According to evidence cited by the Kansas Court of Appeals, the Schwabs are far from the embattled civil rights heroes they purport to be. A letter written by the Schwabs’ 15-year-old son (whose name remains confidential because of his age) reveals a history of negligence, abuse and methamphetamine use.

The teenager claimed he sometimes had to take the “five children upstairs and had to protect them from both parents, they were scared.” He also said his parents would sleep for days after taking methamphetamines and his father “threatened me saying he would kick me out of the house or hit me if I talk to anyone.”

These are only a few of the harrowing details.

The DCF issued the following statement on March 15: “Although we are bound by confidentiality requirements and prohibited from discussing the specifics of the case, to protect the privacy of his children, we can say Mr. Schwab’s accusations are false.”

Had these words been taken more seriously, demonstrators could have waited for more information instead of flagrantly undermining their cause by associating with the Schwabs.


The Hutchinson News, April 17

Improving our voting system

Imagine, 80 percent voter participation by 2020.

Sounds like an audacious goal - a BHAG (big, hairy, audacious goal), as they say - but it’s the goal, nonetheless, of a nonprofit called Democracy Works. It is a nonpartisan organization with a number of partners that seeks to raise Americans’ engagement with our democracy, especially that of the Millenial generation.

It also is one antidote to state election officials and politicians who seek to make voting more difficult rather than less so.

That makes it good for Kansas, where Secretary of State Kris Kobach has pursued a voter-unfriendly agenda that makes life difficult for those voting for the first time or who have moved or who just want to vote and don’t understand all the complexities involved today.

Millenials are among the most politically active of Americans, reportedly having much to do with the surprising surge in popularity of Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders. But they also are among the worst voters. Voters aged 18-29 came out strong in 2008, participating at a 58-percent rate the year Barack Obama was elected president. But that sunk to 45 percent in 2012 and to just 17 percent in the 2014 midterms.

Democracy Works provides a website at www.turbovote.org designed to make it easy for anyone anywhere in the U.S. to register to vote. Then it helps voters with absentee and mail ballots if they wish and provides alerts and reminders when elections are upcoming. In short, it cuts the clutter of the elections bureaucracy, even in places such as Kansas, where it isn’t easy to vote.

No wonder millenials - or anyone else, for that matter - get disinterested. To get registered in Kansas, you better have proper proof of your citizenship, and you better know the deadlines and show up at the polls with proper ID. Primary elections - and a presidential caucus such as the one Kansas had last month - are even more complicated because the different political parties have different rules about party affiliation and registration deadlines.

While the voter ID law was sensible, it still had the effect of disenfranchising voters in Kansas. And the proof-of-citizenship law was even worse, because not everyone has a birth certificate or other approved document handy.

We need to make sure that only American citizens vote, but we created a system that suppressed voting of far more legal citizens than it stopped the rare illegal immigrant who was casting a vote. Had it been done right, the burden would have been on the government to verify citizenship, not on the citizen who has a constitutional right to vote. The government manages to track and verify citizens for purposes of Social Security, so why not for voter registration?

If the government is technologically savvy enough to hack into the supposedly unhackable Apple iPhone belonging to the San Bernardino, Calif., mass shooter, surely it can figure this out.

Turns out, somebody can. The Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC) is another nonprofit, this one governed by member states, to manage a central database to track registered voters who move within and among participating states. It essentially syncs voter rolls with states’ other citizen databases, such as motor vehicle registration or driver’s license records.

Fifteen states and the District of Columbia participate. Imagine Kansas is one? Of course not.

If Alabama can join such an endeavor, one using readily available technology to make voting easier, why can’t Kansas?

Is not voting the foundation of our democracy? Is there any right we enjoy as American citizens that is more important? You would think this country could get voting right.

And for whatever reason, the U.S. ranks a dismal 138th in the world in voter turnout, according to TurboVote.

Looks like it will be up to nonprofits such as Democracy Works to create systems to work through the bureaucracy that people such as Kobach have created - bureaucracy that has disenfranchised voters, whether unintentionally or not.

We can have a system that verifies voter eligibility yet still makes it easy and simple to vote. But absent that in places such as Kansas, we have third-party tools such as TurboVote to step in where government won’t or can’t make voting easier.


The Lawrence Journal-World, April 18

Adequate funding for community services will be the difference between success and failure for juvenile justice reform in Kansas.

The juvenile justice reform bill signed last week by Gov. Sam Brownback envisions a positive shift from detention to treatment for juvenile offenders in Kansas.

It’s a sound philosophy, but it will only succeed if the state makes the necessary investment in the community services that will oversee young offenders in less restrictive settings.

The new law is aimed at reducing the number of low-risk juvenile offenders in out-of-home placements. Instead, more of those young people would be allowed to stay at home while participating in community-based educational, vocational and therapy programs.

Officials estimate that the number of youths sent to out-of-home facilities will drop by about 60 percent in the next five years, resulting in a savings to the state of about $72 million. The plan is to reinvest that money in community-based programs.

The new law may be well-intentioned, but it has not been universally praised. The Kansas County and District Attorney’s Association, for instance, issued a statement on Monday saying the law will “undermine the discretion of the courts to hold offenders accountable and protect the public.” It also noted that the state had not identified the necessary funding to support the law’s “expansive agenda.”

The funding issue for juvenile justice reform may remind some Kansans of promises that were made when the state began to close residential treatment facilities for people with mental illness. Moving those patients to less-restrictive community treatment facilities was, in principle, a positive move, but state funding for community mental health services has not kept up.

Hopefully, the community services for juvenile offenders won’t face a similar circumstance. It would be unfortunate if the positive aspects of shifting more young offenders to community support programs are overshadowed by problems related to the underfunding of those community services.

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