Thursday, May 30, 2013

Press releases: Back to basics

Published in the Portland Phoenix

The past week's events in Augusta provide a teachable moment for Maine's elected officials and the public at large, on the topic of free speech. In a statement last Thursday, Republican Governor Paul LePage blasted Democratic legislators for having "attempted to silence the Governor and violate his right to freedom of speech."
Before we get into the specifics, let's talk for a moment about what freedom of speech means, and what it doesn't. It does not mean that a person can say anything at any time to anyone and face no repercussions. It means that the government cannot stop a private citizen from saying something the government does not like before it's said.
But if the government doesn't like what's been said, it can prosecute people (such as for leaking classified information). And the power of the courts can also be used if private parties don't like what's been said (such as in a libel case).
Now we can turn to LePage's two main complaints.
• "On Sunday [Democrats] refused to allow Governor LePage to speak with members of the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee regarding the Medicaid shortfall the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) faces for the remaining fiscal year which ends on July 1."
The committee was meeting in a hastily arranged Sunday work session, and heard testimony from Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew and Financial Services Commissioner Sawin Millett, as well as discussion among the legislators on the panel.
In legislative work sessions, public testimony is not permitted, though committee members often ask for comments from various interested parties, including state officials but also, at times, non-government employees who have particular expertise on a topic or could be affected by the legislation being discussed.
Paul LePage, private citizen, would not have been allowed to speak unless specifically asked by the committee — but that is not a violation of his right to free speech. It's a matter of legislative process. However, his role as governor should have gotten him a turn talking.
It's true that his administration's position was well stated and well explored by the two commissioners' appearances. But when the head of the state's government shows up to state his position in person, it's an unusual move, and reasonable to think that he should have been given his own opportunity to speak his mind — and, as is the protocol, to remain after making a statement to answer questions from committee members.
It's hard to argue that the administration was censored when top officials were afforded significant amounts of time to speak. But it is a failure to defer out of respect for the office of the governor, if not for the man himself.
• "Democrats have told the Governor that he cannot have a television in the Office of the Governor lobby area, which is on the second floor of the State House. In a letter, Governor Paul R. LePage informed Democratic Leadership today that the television is placed in the reception area of the Governor's Office. Senate President Justin Alfond today told Governor LePage in a morning meeting that he could not have the television on display."
This one's a no-brainer, not least because LePage's characterization of the TV's location is inaccurate — the "Office of the Governor lobby area" is in fact the Hall of Flags outside his office. Anyone, private citizen or public official, who set up a television — with any message, or even turned off and with no message whatsoever — in the Hall of Flags of the State House without proper permission from the bipartisan Legislative Council would have been asked to remove it.
The Hall of Flags is a public place managed for the access, expression, and well-being of all Mainers. Its management is smooth and effective, allowing for a wide range of viewpoints and events to occur in a prominent public space. In this case, the deference should have been from the governor (who has ample platform to share his beliefs) to the shared spirit of the hall.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Poll numbers: Watch your backs, useless people

Published in the Portland Phoenix

The Maine People Before Politics poll released Tuesday is filled with problems, many of which have already been dissected by UMaine political science professor Amy Fried on her Bangor Daily News blog — and some of which have also been parodied by Maine People's Alliance activist Mike Tipping on his Twitter feed (@miketipping).
The questions are leading, and misleading, resulting in skewed and unreliable results. That's not too surprising for a group so closely aligned with Republican Governor Paul LePage — it is exactly the same organization as managed LePage's transition and inauguration into the Blaine House, and just changed its name to keep using the same funds.
But there's one question that is neither skewed nor misleading — and its results are the most illuminating of the bunch, showing the continuing breakdown of our entire political system.
Here's how the poll asked 500 people about Mainers' confidence in political parties:
"Which political party, Republican or Democrat, do you trust more to solve the problem or issue that you believe should be their highest priority?"
Apart from its obvious omission of the Green Independent Party and any sense of the relative prominence of non-party-affiliated politicians in Maine, this is a pretty fair question. And here are the answers, with a margin of error of plus-or-minus 4.5 percent:
REPUBLICAN 139 people, 28 percent
DEMOCRAT 139 people, 28 percent
BOTH EQUALLY 42 people, 8 percent
NEITHER 151 people, 30 percent
NOT SURE 29 people, 6 percent
So while we're arguing about the methodology of an obviously partisan group's obviously inept poll, let's be sure to remember that more people trust neither party than trust either the Republicans or the Democrats to actually achieve anything important. Ineffectiveness: At last, something all parties can agree on.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Learning works: Laptop program change sets schools back 10 years

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Governor Paul LePage described his recent decision to shift the laptop program from Macs to Windows machines as being driven by a desire to promote "college and career readiness." It's a sketchy correlation to say the least — and Tuesday's introductory webinar (mainly for school staff, but open to all) from Hewlett Packard did little to increase confidence.
The webinar started with a five-minute effort to ensure the screen-and-audio sharing technology was actually working, punctuated by uncertainty about which representatives of which companies would be making remarks, or had said they would be there to speak, but hadn't arrived yet. Not an auspicious start.
Next came a very friendly five-minute pitch that could have been from 2002, when the Maine Learning Technology Initiative was just kicking off with Apple and Macintosh laptops for middle-schoolers. Amy Dupuis, the HP representative, and HP "education strategist" Elliott Levin explained why "one-to-one learning" was the "new" direction for education, and how computers facilitate breaking away from the old classroom models.
The focus, repeated throughout the presentation, was on choice — how much flexibility the school districts, and even individual schools and classroom teachers, would have to customize their devices for maximum usability.
What we want from our school laptop program, though, is not the limitless range of choice HP kept touting, but a set of tools proven to work in education settings for students and teachers of varying capabilities. Such solutions aren't going to come from HP and its partners, teachers and tech leaders listening in were told.
While it's true, as Levin said, that "you shouldn't be limited to accessing textbooks from a single source," that was never true of the Mac-based program either.
What the Mac base did bring was a suite of hardware and software, like iPhoto and iMovie, that provided crucially important relative uniformity for teachers across the state, facilitating collaboration between professionals and among students.
That sharing has helped make the laptop program what it is — not the computer-skills instruction program LePage seems to envision, but a tool for education that supports thinking, acting, and learning at modern speeds.
Now, though, with everyone having to learn a new platform, and the very real prospect that no two platforms will be very much alike — even within school districts — the "college and career readiness" lesson will be painfully obvious:
Corporate America is filled with non-standardized, non-interconnected, confusing technology systems that have to be learned from scratch at every new school or job. Technology, as used in government and the private sector, is as often as much of an obstacle as it is an enabler. (Real-life example from this week: JPMorgan Chase's computer system can detect I'm not in California and decline the purchase attempts there of someone who has stolen my credit card number, but can't tell me what my new card number is for two days, and makes me wait another full day for online access to my account.)
We don't want obstacles to learning — we want enhancements! And we don't want students who've been taught to successfully fight with one specific program or operating system — we want graduates who can think broadly, widely, and creatively, and express those thoughts effectively.
All the technology-specific obstacles from 2002 had been cleared, through the power of collaboration and shared experience. LePage's decision has put them all back in place, and expanded the possible range of barriers to actually using technology to learn.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Press Releases: Can I get a witness?

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Remember when public appearances by elected officials were things daily-newspaper reporters went to? Times have changed. On April 16, Republican Governor Paul LePage spoke at a public gathering in Skowhegan, a town whose commercial interests have had a rocky dispute with the guv over his reluctance to issue a bond for investment there. Despite the almost certainty of newsworthy (or at least amazingly quotable) utterances, no media bothered to attend.
So no reporter was present to protest the request from LePage's office to bar recording equipment. Since taking office he's been famously wary of having his words transmitted to the public at large. Nevertheless, no reporter was present, even to take notes, when LePage again demonstrated why that wariness might be justified.
The people of Maine got lucky, no thanks to professional journalists. Only by the purest non-journalistic chance did we learn even more about the troubling ways in which the governor's mind works.
He made the laughable claim (laughing was the response of the UMPI spokeswoman when she heard about it) that there's a "little electric motor" inside a wind turbine on the UMaine-Presque Isle campus, turning the blades even when there's no wind — "so that they can show people wind power works."
At least one intrepid regular person captured LePage's audio and leaked it not to a reporter but to a progressive activist who also blogs for the Bangor Daily News and writes a commentary column for the Kennebec Journal.
The incident has gotten national attention, and again confirms for LePage-watchers that our governor has a dangerously distant relationship with the truth.
It should also confirm for Mainers that our traditional press corps has a dangerously distant relationship with covering our elected officials.
• Even when official faults crop up CLOSE TO THE NEWSROOM, reporters aren't always on top of things. But in a rare example of airing of its dirty corporate laundry, the Portland Press Herald last week ran a sizeable story headlined "Press Herald parent accuses former CEO of misusing more than $530,000."
The Richard Connor era at the PPH was previously most notable for its claims of wonderful profitability to the public — followed by claims of dropping revenue and outright poverty to its employees (who collectively own a portion of the company), resulting in, among other things, massive tensions when it came time for talking about raises.
The legacy of Connor, who left in late 2011, is in its final death throes, now that the Press Herald's employee-theft insurance policy has validated claims Connor misused $537,988.68 in company funds. The man himself steadfastly — almost Trumpishly, now that we think of it — denies any wrongdoing and claims the PPH and its insurance company, Travelers Casualty and Surety, have everything all wrong and that he did not, in fact, do anything untoward.
Of course that hasn't stopped him from admitting doing at least some of the things Travelers determined he shouldn't have, telling reporters for the Press Herald and theBangor Daily News that he did indeed spend company funds for personal dental work, to buy an SUV for his son's use, and on Camden vacation rentals while he was looking for a residence shortly after arriving on the scene in 2009.
It's just, he claims, those expenses were genuinely company-related — so it wasn't theft. He might actually believe that: Connor always had a flair for grandiosity. He treated the newspaper like his personal journal, writing bizarre columns about astrological readings and exercising a very heavy hand in news coverage decisions.
Now we learn he used the paper as his personal bank, too, putting $90,000 in personal expenses on company credit cards and using a further $70,000 in company funds to pay his personal credit card, as well as giving himself "$287,224.78 in unauthorized salary increases and bonuses," according to an accounting released by the Press Herald. Now that's grandiose.