Editorials from around New England
Editorials from around New England:
The Burlington Free Press
The Vermont Supreme Court made the right call by making clear that the government cannot escape public scrutiny by hiding behind private email accounts.
The state’s highest court ruled on Oct. 20 that public records stored on government employees private email accounts are subject to Vermont’s public records law.
The decision settles an issue about the reach of the public records law that has dragged on too long. The court came down on the side of government transparency and accountability.
The underlying message is that those who work for the state must stop using private email for official government business.
Associate Justice Beth Robinson, in her opinion on behalf of the court, stated that “records produced or acquired in the course of agency business are public records under the Public Records Act, regardless of whether they are located in private accounts of state employees or officials or on the state system.”
The ruling came in connection with a lawsuit filed by Brady Toensing, an attorney based in Washington, D.C., and Charlotte who is a past vice chairman of the Vermont Republican Party. Toensing had sought emails including those in non-government private accounts involving then-Attorney General William Sorrell and others at the Vermont Attorney General’s Office.
The Attorney General’s Office argued that seeking emails held in personal accounts raises privacy concerns. Superior Court Judge Robert Mello ruled that the public records law only applied to information in government possession.
However, in his Feb. 9 ruling, Mello said, “To be sure, the idea that state officials and employees can avoid valid public records requests merely by conducting official work-related communications on private email and text messaging accounts is a serious and, frankly, disturbing concern.” He left the remedy in the hands of lawmakers.
Instead, the Supreme Court delivered that remedy saying government employees must make “an adequate search” of their private accounts for anything that might be a public record. The justices addressed the privacy concern by saying that the employees are not compelled to turn over their passwords or otherwise open their accounts for a search by others.
The state Supreme Court merely confirms what should be apparent to any reasonable Vermonter, save those select few in government who never seem to grasp the basic principle of open government.
The ruling makes clear that where information is kept does nothing to alter its status as a public record.
The Bangor Daily News
Commissioner Ricker Hamilton made it seem last Friday as if there would be a fresh start at the Maine Department of Health and Human Services under his watch.
Maine’s largest state agency, over the course of Gov. Paul LePage’s administration, has become increasingly closed off from the public and lawmakers and therefore less accountable.
The department last year fired a public records coordinator for releasing an already public document to the BDN. The department seldom responds to reporters’ inquiries. Agency officials have declined to appear before legislative committees to answer lawmakers’ questions. On other occasions, they have responded with, at best, woefully incomplete information to lawmakers’ inquiries about key issues, including the LePage administration’s plans for recertifying Riverview Psychiatric Center, a scathing federal audit that found the department failed to conduct required investigations after the deaths of 133 people with developmental disabilities in state care, and the administration’s plans for spending a $78 million block grant it receives from the federal government each year.
But Hamilton, LePage’s pick to lead Maine DHHS after the departure of Mary Mayhew in May, said last week that he wants to speak frequently with lawmakers and keep them in the loop on major developments, especially as it relates to the LePage administration’s plans to build a psychiatric step-down facility in Bangor — about which administration officials have not been forthcoming with lawmakers and city officials from Augusta and Bangor.
“We want to engage with you,” Hamilton said at his confirmation hearing before the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee. “We want to work with you.”
We welcome this needed change.
Asked if his department, which he has been leading as acting commissioner since Mayhew’s departure, would be willing to provide monthly updates, Hamilton said, “I’ll come here myself. Let’s talk. Tell me where and when.”
He said he no longer wanted to see negative comments about DHHS work in the media.
Hamilton even acknowledged imperfections in DHHS’ past work — something unheard of under Mayhew, who was more likely to deny media reports she didn’t like or blame past gubernatorial administrations for DHHS problems under her watch.
Hamilton said his initial response to a federal audit released in August that detailed the state’s failure to investigate 133 deaths of people with intellectual disabilities and refer cases of suspected abuse, neglect and exploitation of people with intellectual disabilities to law enforcement was “not satisfactory.”
That initial response over the summer was more akin to what would have come from Mayhew: An attempt to explain away the problems by disputing some of the auditors’ findings, saying that some of the lapses in oversight were the result of a departmental reorganization, and saying the department had already corrected issues the auditors identified.
But last Friday, Hamilton stopped faulting the federal auditors.
“Regardless, we did not do the oversight that we should have on that,” he said. “The OIG has given us an opportunity to improve our program. We accept full responsibility.”
Hamilton’s words to lawmakers were encouraging, if difficult to take at face value from the person who oversaw the program the OIG faulted. They at least showed he recognizes that the department he leads is accountable to taxpayers and to the legislators charged with performing oversight.
Hamilton has a lot to prove as the newly confirmed DHHS commissioner. His next step must be to follow through on his promises and actually change the way the department does business.
The Concord Monitor
Many parents of school-age children probably felt a chill when they read this headline in the Atlantic last month: “Have smartphones destroyed a generation?”
It is a question that Jean M. Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University and author of the Atlantic article, explores deeply in her new book, “iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy — and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood.” The term iGen, coined by Twenge, refers to post-Millennials born between 1995 and 2012.
“Members of this generation,” Twenge writes, “are growing up with smartphones, have an Instagram account before they start high school and do not remember a time before the internet.”
Much of Twenge’s research jibes with what many parents can see with their own eyes. Today’s teens are dating and drinking less. They are waiting longer to get their driver’s license and are less likely to be sexually active. They are also working less, even though there are plenty of jobs for teen workers. All of this makes kids physically safer than ever within their greatly extended childhoods.
But the way iGen spends its time has Twenge, the mother of three young daughters, concerned about their mental health — now and in the future.
She has found a link between the amount of time kids spend staring at screens — whether phone, tablet or laptop — and an increased risk of depression and suicide. The role social media plays in their distress is significant.
“For all their power to link kids day and night, social media also exacerbate the age-old teen concern about being left out,” Twenge writes. “Today’s teens may go to fewer parties and spend less time together in person, but when they do congregate, they document their hangouts relentlessly - on Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook. Those not invited to come along are keenly aware of it. Accordingly, the number of teens who feel left out has reached all-time highs across age groups.”
The cultural and technological gap between iGen parents, most of whom came of age as members of Generation X, and their children is significant, as generation gaps tend to be. Gen-Xers have no idea what it’s like to be a teenager in a world where smartphones are ubiquitous, where adolescence is inextricably bound to social media, and that presents a parenting challenge.
But the best approach seems simple enough: Restrict the amount of time kids spend staring at screens. Make them go outside, read a book or play something — anything — that doesn’t require Wi-Fi or a data plan. Twenge acknowledges it won’t be easy to keep kids off their devices, but she makes a compelling case why failure to do so could have devastating consequences for the smartphone generation and beyond.
Cape Cod Times, Oct. 24
Somewhat lost in the hoopla surrounding the announcement that the Boy Scouts will admit girls into their ranks is the question of what does this mean for the Girl Scouts?
It’s not a topic that has gone completely unnoticed. In fact, just a few months ago, national attention was put on the issue when a letter from Girl Scouts President Kathy Hopinkah Hannan to Boy Scouts President Randall Stephenson was obtained by BuzzFeed News.
Ms. Hopinkah Hannan was not impressed by the Boy Scouts “surreptitiously testing the appeal of a girls’ offering to millennial parents.”
Well, there’s nothing surreptitious about it anymore. The Boy Scouts have come out and made the announcement. The group is open for business to both genders. On Oct. 11, the Boy Scouts of America announced that in 2018, girls will be allowed to become Cub Scouts; and beginning in 2019, older girls will be allowed to earn the Boy Scouts’ highest honor -- Eagle Scout. (It should be noted, however, that girls have been admitted for nearly 50 years into senior Scouting programs such as Sea Scouts and Venturing for boys and girls aged 14 to 21.)
Both the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts have seen their numbers decline in recent years. According to The Washington Post, Girl Scout membership, including adult volunteers has fallen from a peak of 3.8 million in 2003 to 2.8 million in 2014. The Boy Scouts have about 3.2 million members, including adult volunteers, although membership declined by about 7.4 percent in one year around 2014.
But overall, those are still strong numbers for both groups. Ms. Hopinkah Hannan, however, thinks the Boy Scouts’ latest move “would result in fundamentally undercutting Girl Scouts of the USA.”
On Oct. 11, Pam Hyland, CEO of Girl Scouts of Southeastern New England, said the Boy Scouts announcement was “an unfortunate decision. We just really believe in the importance of a single-gender leadership experience developed around the needs and interest of girls.” There’s certainly something to be said on that front.
After the announcement, Jeff Hotchkiss, executive director and CEO of the Mohegan Council of Boy Scouts, told Ms. Thompson that 70 percent of those surveyed across the country thought allowing girls to join Boy Scouts was a good idea. “It’s exciting. I think it opens us up more,” he said.
It certainly opens the Boy Scouts up more, but is it the right decision?
History shows that both organizations offer significant opportunities for their members. It’s well-known that those who achieve the highest honors in Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts claim that it helps them when looking for jobs and gives them a strong base of life skills and lessons in leadership. Although it’s also been said that the highest recognition in Girl Scouts - go ahead, how many people can name it? - does not have the same recognition as Eagle Scout. And for those who don’t know the answer for Girl Scouts, it’s the Gold Award.
Does this decision undercut the Girl Scouts? Well, it certainly can’t help. The Girl Scouts now have a significant competitor when it comes to recruitment. There will be thousands of girls who will be intrigued by the opportunity to enter the Boy Scouts. The number of Girl Scouts won’t go up with this announcement. It can only go down.
Will the Girl Scouts open their doors to boys? Would it have the same appeal for boys? It may be an unfortunate fact, but it would seem there may be a lot more girls seeking a Boy Scouts experience than there are boys looking for an opportunity with the Girl Scouts.
Ms. Hyland last month suggested a merger of recruitment efforts. May we suggest a merger of the organizations?
Most people know that the Boy Scouts motto is “Be prepared.” Do you know the Girl Scouts motto? It’s “Be prepared.”
We see two organizations with much the same goals.
While both the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts have to find ways to succeed in a changing world, we’d argue that youngsters who go through the various stages in each organization gain valuable skills and lessons. It seems local dens will either be segregated (all boys or all girls) or commingled based on local preference.
Rather than fight over recruits, however, the two organizations should work together, share resources and find ways, where appropriate, for that “single-gender leadership experience.” They don’t even have to change their names. Just call it The Boys and Girls Scouts of America. Or Scouting USA.
Hartford Courant, Oct. 26
This is what happens when you rush a state budget through the legislature, giving lawmakers (and the public) no chance to read the whole thing: The governor now says there’s a big flaw in it.
How much better it would have been to release this complex document more than a few hours before its passage, so that it could be vetted in public. The legislators who passed it willy-nilly on Thursday now own this possibly expensive mistake.
The governor’s office didn’t get the document until a few hours before the Senate voted on it early Thursday morning. The office says it found that a critical item, the hospital tax, is “seriously flawed.” The mistake could jeopardize the much-needed dollars that the tax was meant to bring in, the governor’s office says.
This could be a big blooper. The governor’s budget chief, Ben Barnes, says the mistake could cause a shortfall of $1 billion — and only because nobody made the language fixes he’d requested.
Instead of relying solely on traditional marketing efforts like TV commercials and print ads, think about complementing your marketing campaigns with simple and less expensive promotional techniques.
It didn’t need to be this way.
Gov. Malloy Says State Budget Has $1 Billion Error, Won’t Commit To Veto
Mr. Barnes says he had flagged legislative leaders shortly before the vote, and other times in the past, on making sure the right language was used in the budget document so that the state can qualify for millions of dollars in federal Medicaid reimbursements.
The budget passed overwhelmingly in the Senate and House on Thursday. But “the language as drafted would make federal reimbursement impossible,” Mr. Barnes says.
Democratic and Republican legislative leaders say that if there is any error, it can be fixed, but that hospital tax lawyers believe the language will pass Medicaid muster.
This issue could have been ironed out, without this drama, if only the budget had been made public before the vote.
A veto by the governor now appears inevitable.
The Providence Journal, Oct. 26
There’s no question that Gov. Gina Raimondo’s administration is working hard to overhaul a new computer system that was supposed to improve the delivery of social services and save Rhode Islanders tens of millions of dollars.
Unfortunately, the state is still dealing with problems caused by the administration’s decision to launch this system before it was ready.
The Unified Health Infrastructure Project has failed to deliver promised savings and its price tag now reported to be north of $400 million. About $89 million of the system’s mammoth cost has come from state taxpayers.
Meanwhile, a snippet of good news about the system last month — that the list of applications waiting to be processed was down to 3,734, from a high in March of nearly 14,000 — turned out to be a mirage. The real number, though not specified, is now said to be as high as 7,468, or double what the state said last month.
According to the administration, the company overseeing the project, Deloitte Consulting, discovered the error last week. A new program that was supposed to streamline processing had misfiled “several thousand” applications.
In announcing the error, the administration stressed that Deloitte has agreed to credit the state $58.6 million. It also agreed to a no-cost extension of its contract to the end of the current fiscal year and to pay what could be millions of dollars in federal fines for the delays in processing applications. Thankfully, that eases the pain for Rhode Island taxpayers, but the system unfortunately remains prone to failure.
More than a year after it was launched, and more than eight months after Ms. Raimondo admitted it was more broken than she first realized, the public has to wonder: Will this system that was supposed to save state taxpayers $40 million a year ever function as promised? Only time will tell.
The fact that Deloitte has “500-plus” of its employees working on the system “every day” more than a year after its launch, according to Ms. Raimondo, points to how severe the problems are. And the fact that the administration approved the launch, ignoring warnings from the federal officials that it was not ready, only shows that there were mistakes on both sides. Clearly, the state lacked strong enough administrators and technical experts to oversee this project. It relied too much on Deloitte, which delivered a badly flawed product.
As state Sen. Louis DiPalma, D-Middletown, said in a statement Wednesday: “The system remains unstable, and it is unclear what the adverse impact to the state budget and our residents will be in the coming months.”
The governor and the legislature may ultimately have to confront the question: Does the state, even now, have the resources and political will to get this system in shape? Or will a different approach have to be taken?