- Associated Press - Monday, September 18, 2017

The Detroit News. September 13, 2017

Bring competition to liquor sales

Regulators don’t often decide to regulate less. Yet the state liquor commission is attempting to do just that. It wants to open competition in the liquor store industry, and that effort serves well consumers who have suffered under the monopolistic system now in place.

The Michigan Liquor Control Commission proposes to eliminate a rule that limits liquor stores from operating within half a mile of each other. It’s an archaic regulation that’s been in place since 1979, stifling competition and discouraging newcomers from entering the industry.

The commission argues that rescinding the half-mile rule once and for all will clear the muddy waters surrounding liquor license quotas and regulations on distance parameters, which should have been straightened out by a 2016 law governing beer and wine sales at gas stations, but apparently wasn’t.

Why the state government needs to be this involved in the allocation of liquor in the first place is a subject worthy of debate.

Other states are more market driven. But the liquor lobby in Michigan is powerful, and tight state control serves the interests of those who already hold licenses.

If the commission changes this rule, liquor store owners fear new stores popping up around them, or that gas stations will win the right to sell whiskey and other harder beverages.

Indulging the fear of competition is not the smart way to make policy. Store owners are hiding behind the contention that broader availability of liquor will lead to greater alcohol abuse, but that’s specious given how ubiquitous party stores and other outlets are now.

Still, those concerns should be aired during a public comment period. (The commission did try to skip that, and it’s something the current store owners deserve.)

The government shouldn’t be crowding out new businesses in the name of protecting the profits of existing business owners. The market will prove an effective regulator of the density of liquor stores. New business owners aren’t going to open up where there aren’t enough available customers to sustain them.

If a community is opposed to more liquor licenses or stores opening within its borders, that’s a matter for local government to sort out. The state doesn’t need a one-size-fits-all approach to controlling where every bottle of liquor is sold.

The Liquor Control Commission should be applauded for its rare attempt to open the liquor market to more competition.

Lawmakers should not stand in the way.

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Grand Haven Tribune. September 15, 2017

A sign of the times?

Politics can often produce strange bedfellows, as witnessed recently in a sign-swiping case in Spring Lake Township.

The case also provides a clear example of why we need to differentiate between professional journalism and citizen (read: amateur) commentary.

Signs touting Ferrysburg City Councilwoman Regina Sjoberg for mayor in the November election recently disappeared from a Spring Lake Township yard. That much is true.

While Spring Lake Township residents do not vote in City of Ferrysburg elections, the yard in question is in close proximity to Ferrysburg city limits and is on a street that accesses neighborhoods in the city. So it makes sense that they were there.

But apparently there is a township ordinance that forbids political signs more than a month outside an election, so Township Clerk Carolyn Boersma either removed them or had them removed.

That understandably upset Sjoberg.

And it also brought self-described “political nerd” Brandon Hall into the fold.

Hall wrote about the incident on his West Michigan Politics blog. However, he got some of the facts wrong and posted a photo of a Spring Lake Township resident with his story, a man who has nothing to do with the case. Now that man, former Township Trustee Rick Homan, is also understandably upset with Hall.

“Misery and corruption seems to follow (Hall),” Homan told the Tribune for a Sept. 12 story.

The photo Hall posted of Homan with Boersma, by the way, is a Grand Haven Tribune photo. Although he gave the Tribune credit for it, Hall did not ask us for permission to use it.

Sjoberg is also upset with Hall. He quoted her in his blog post, but Sjoberg told Tribune reporter Marie Havenga that Hall didn’t talk to her and he unfairly jumped to some conclusions.

“I don’t know him. I haven’t spoken to him,” she told Havenga. “I don’t have a high opinion of him. I don’t even know how he would have gotten this information. The only thing on my Facebook page was that the sign thief had been caught.”

Sjoberg is running against fellow Councilwoman Rebecca Hopp for mayor, but there’s no indication that Boersma or her husband, who Hall accuses of stealing the signs, are supporters of Hopp, as Hall claims. In fact, Spring Lake Township Supervisor John Nash disputes that notion.

“To think she did it to be a thief or to help (Hopp), there’s no basis for those statements,” Nash told Havenga.

There’s room in this world for citizen journalism, but the irresponsible presentation of “alternative facts” has no place, and could lead to serious issues such as slander or libel.

This is why newspapers staffed by professional journalists remain an important part of a community - because they take the time to check sources and tell the real story.

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Times Herald (Port Huron). September 13, 2017

Special courts may need special treatment

Some Michigan counties have veterans courts. Some counties have mental health courts. Some have sober courts for drunken drivers. And some have drug abuse courts. The specialty courts, as they are called, go beyond the conviction and sentencing of offenders to offer a comprehensive system or rewards and punishments, threats and rehabilitation, support and guidance.

According to data from the state courts system, they are remarkably effective at addressing the underlying problems that cause certain people - such as those with mental health or substance use issues - to commit crimes, and to find a future that doesn’t include return visits to the criminal justice system.

St. Clair County has one of the mental health courts - perhaps the original mental health court. Probate Judge John Tomlinson works with the law enforcement system and St. Clair County Community Mental Health to keep offenders out of jail and in treatment.

“The idea was to avoid recidivism for folks who are having mental health issues (and to) address what was causing them to come back into the system,” Tomlinson told us in April. “That has really happened.”

At the time, we marveled that not every county has a similar court. Perhaps we shouldn’t have.

Not every county is uniform in needing or wanting a mental health court. And, we learned this week, the actual specialty courts aren’t uniform across the counties that are utilizing them.

The State Court Administrative Office suggests policies and procedures for the courts. It is up to the individual specialty courts to adopt the recommended policies.

Legislation passed by the state Senate this week would require the State Court Administrative Office to certify the specialty courts. The courts would have to follow state-mandated policies and procedures. Bill sponsors say consistent rules and standards would make the courts more effective.

There may be a certain logic to that. Criminal courts have consistent, rigid rules that must be followed in every case. The problem-solving courts, though, have grown up to address local issues, which is why some places have them and some don’t. Outside-the-box flexibility and thinking is what makes them work. Boxing them in with the same top-down rules could ruin that.

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Petoskey News-Review. September 15, 2017

Government conflict of interest policies are the right move

Northern Michigan is made up of many small, close-knit communities. It’s one of the many reasons people choose to live here.

It’s not uncommon, for example, for your child’s teacher to be married to your doctor; or your co-worker to be close friends with your neighbor. The examples go on and on.

Often these close connections are a positive attribute of living in a small community, but sometimes it can also be problematic.

That’s especially true when it comes to government.

Living in these small, close-knit communities, it’s even more likely than in more highly populated areas, that sooner or later a conflict of interest - or at least the appearance of one - will arise involving an appointed or elected government official.

In Northern Michigan, because of the small size of our population, no area governmental boards, councils or commissions are full-time jobs. That means in many cases people who serve on these public bodies have jobs and business interests outside of their public service roles.

None of us live in a vacuum. Just because a person serves as a government official - appointed or elected - doesn’t take away his or her standing as a private citizen with personal interests.

Since these situation are bound to crop up sooner or later, we think it would be wise for all municipalities and governmental bodies to draft and implement some kind of conflict of interest policy.

As a prime example of this, the Charlevoix City Council for months has been dealing with a situation in which it has repeatedly been wrestling with the issue of whether the city’s mayor has a conflict of interest in matters that the council is considering and what should be done if such a situation does arise.

Earlier this year, the council considered an ethics policy that would have more clearly defined these situation, but the measure failed on a split vote, in part because some council members had concerns about the proposed policy prohibiting a council member who has recused himself or herself from the matter from speaking from the audience as a private citizen.

Conflict of interest issues can be complicated, and addressing them in the form of a policy or ordinance might take some time and cost some money in legal fees, but in the long run it will ultimately save boards and commissions time and added legal expenses when situations crop up in the future.

Recently, the Harbor Springs City Council approved a measure to bring consistency to the attendance and conflict of interest policies among the city’s various bodies.

As reported in a recent News-Review story, under the new policy, members would be required to disclose any personal benefit, impact or association that they would have in connection with a matter which a board or commission is considering. Members would need to abstain from deliberations or voting in matters where they would not be impartial, or when there is an appearance that the member is not impartial.

We think this is a move in the right direction.

We all want government officials to be acting in the best interest of their constituents. Having policies in place that reduce the chances that someone might have other motives behind his or her official actions is the right move to make.

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