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Recent editorials published in Nebraska newspapers

July 22, 2019

Omaha World Herald. July 20, 2019

Urban-rural dialogue can strengthen Nebraska’s future

The Omaha area was host last weekend to a worthwhile event: Visitors from rural parts of the state took a tour of the Omaha area, to learn about economic development projects, law enforcement programs and more.

It’s a commendable, longtime initiative: In odd-numbered years, rural visitors come to the Omaha and Lincoln areas. In even-numbered years, Omaha and Lincoln folks visit rural communities. The sponsors are the Leadership Omaha Alumni Association and the LEAD Alumni Association, with local partners including the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce.

The goal — promoting mutual understanding between urban and rural Nebraskans — is crucial for the state’s future.

“Programs like that help connect the state,” says Andrew Rainbolt, executive director of the Sarpy County Economic Development Corporation. He led one of the tours for the visitors last weekend.

Urban-rural exchanges have enabled worthwhile conversations and cooperation in some states. Kentucky has used such a program to facilitate dialogue between residents in Louisville, the state’s largest city, and coal-country communities facing big economic struggles. In Oregon, the 4-H program at Oregon State University takes Portland middle school students to eastern Oregon to experience rural life. So far, 430 youths and 80 adults from Portland have participated, and 150 rural families have hosted.

In Nebraska, the urban and rural economies are closely intertwined, and it’s important for residents to appreciate those connections, Rainbolt told The World-Herald.

State Sen. John McCollister of Omaha notes that “despite the fact that 56% of the state’s population is in just three counties, rural- urban cooperation is essential if the state is going to reach its full potential.”

State Sen. Tom Briese of Albion, an energetic booster of rural interests in the Legislature, echoes the point. “We all need to recognize that we have a common goal to create opportunities for all Nebraskans, urban and rural.”

Briese and McCollister both serve on the Revenue Committee, where a reconciliation of rural and urban interests is imperative if the Legislature is to move past this year’s stalemate on issues such as property tax relief and a revamp of business incentives.

The aim, Briese says, should be to “come together and try to do what’s best for our state, and that means creating opportunities for all Nebraskans, urban and rural. My urban colleagues need to understand the importance of a vibrant ag economy and a vibrant Main Street, and my rural colleagues need to understand the importance of a thriving and growing urban Nebraska. I think most of my colleagues have a fair understanding of their counterparts in urban or rural Nebraska.”

Nebraska should strive to work constructively on common needs, says Andrew Ambriz of Broken Bow in central Nebraska, executive director of the Custer County Economic Development Corp.

“Without that dialogue, we’re at odds,” he told The World-Herald. “I feel it’s been a huge detriment to us so far when it’s an us-versus-them mentality.”

Rural and urban parts of the state each contribute in important ways to residents’ growth and development, and those positives should be mutually acknowledged and appreciated, he says.

Nebraska needs bridge builders on rural-urban issues. Elected officials at the state and local levels can play a key role.

The University of Nebraska has long done so through its statewide outreach. So does the LEAD program, which helps agricultural leaders learn about the state.

The annual rural-urban exchange tours are a major plus. And rural-urban cooperation will be important for the Blueprint Nebraska initiative, which will soon outline a state economic development strategy.

The more divided we are as Nebraskans, the greater our challenges. The more united we are, the greater the opportunities. Promoting that understanding and respect is a crucial task for our state’s future.

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North Platte Telegraph. July 21, 2019

Training should be required for county treasurers

Public debate over a public official’s future is fun for no one. Especially in a small community.

Pain and emotions ran close to the surface last week as Lincoln County commissioners heard eight hours of testimony on whether first-year Treasurer Lorie Koertner had fallen so short in her performance as to warrant removal.

Many a human conflict was unveiled, and not just in the Treasurer’s Office. That’s inevitable when people share a workplace and community for many years.

Legal fights in cases like these are inevitable, too. No one should be surprised if the County Board’s dismissal of Koertner — using a state law seemingly unused in 139 years — moves to the courts.

But two things now should be clear:

“ The performance of a county treasurer has implications far beyond the courthouse, because of his or her responsibility for handling tax collections for every local government.

“ Those who receive the treasurer’s post must work to be as fully prepared as possible.

By her own testimony, Lorie Koertner — who knew she would be the next treasurer eight months in advance — fell short of that standard.

County voters last year had good reason to believe Koertner was up to her task, since she had five years’ experience as treasurer in Webster County.

But last week, Koertner said under oath she had never taken advantage of a class the Nebraska Association of County Officials offers for first-time treasurers. She didn’t take it while in Webster County. And she didn’t take it here.

When commissioners asked if she was aware of various state laws setting standards and deadlines for fulfilling her office, Koertner admitted she didn’t know several critical ones.

She’s a hard worker. And yet her lack of knowledge seeded most of the problems cited in the Nebraska Auditor of Public Accounts attestation report, begun after Koertner’s removal May 13.

The six particulars cited by the County Board in last week’s final removal votes closely track with that report, available at auditors.state.ne.us.

As we interpret the report, commissioners had no choice but to act.

As noted here in May, county boards in Nebraska have precious little legal influence over the small group of independently elected “row officials” that includes county treasurers.

Commissioners have some influence at budget time. They also must provide office space, which is why Koertner had to work with them in combining the two treasurer’s workspaces into one.

But county boards cannot tell row officials how to do their jobs or run their offices.

Only when certain row officials egregiously fail in their duties — and mainly only when tax collections are involved — do county boards have any legal ability to remove them.

No county funds were found missing or embezzled from Koertner’s office — though taxpayers should be alarmed that $6.14 million in undeposited checks could be seen around the office when the auditors arrived.

But one can be innocent of criminality, as Koertner surely seems to be, and still prove unequal to a job.

After this experience, we believe the Legislature should add a professional qualification that Nebraska county treasurers must meet in order to serve.

State law already requires this of certain row officials. County attorneys and public defenders must have Nebraska law licenses. Sheriffs must be licensed law enforcement officers and complete a certification course.

Assessors likewise must be certified to perform their task. Even county surveyors must be professional engineers or land surveyors.

No similar prerequisite exists for treasurers.

There isn’t one for county clerks, district court clerks or registers of deeds, either. But the stakes are higher when North Platte’s school board is forced into emergency borrowing because the county treasurer hasn’t processed tax checks or the Sutherland schools miss a bond payment only the treasurer could make.

If it’s unrealistic to require treasurers to be certified public accountants, senators could require general-election or even primary winners to take NACO’s first-time treasurer’s course within a set period of time.

There’s rarely only one reason why any human conflict develops. Last week’s testimony suggested the transition from retiring Treasurer Sue Fleck to Koertner, coupled with multiple staff retirements, contributed to the crisis.

Still, voters have seen why no voter can afford to ignore his or her homework before casting a ballot. Ultimately, what happened in the Treasurer’s Office isn’t on the County Board. It’s on us.

Nebraskans in the other 92 counties should heed our lesson, too.

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Lincoln Journal Star. July 21, 2019

Salary raise justified for University of Nebraska’s next president

At first, Nebraskans may have rubbed their eyes after seeing the dollar figure.

Between $800,000 and $1.2 million in total annual compensation for the next University of Nebraska president? Yes, you saw that correctly.

Let us pose a follow-up question, then: Would that pay range seem feasible for the CEO of a $4.5 billion company? With NU having that large of an economic impact on the state annually, the comparison makes sense.

Though it represents a significant raise over the compensation package for outgoing NU President Hank Bounds, that dollar figure - which would place the job among the nation’s highest for university leaders - is entirely justifiable. If Nebraskans want their university to be as successful as it can be, they must be willing to pony up to land a top-tier leader.

In Bounds, NU landed an absolute bargain. During his four years leading the university system, he performed admirably in challenging times - and well above his pay grade as the 97th-highest-paid college president in total compensation, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Over the span of just six years, the NU job had fallen to that level from 34th place, which is where J.B. Milliken ranked in 2012, his final year as university president.

To ensure NU builds upon its prestige and results, the university’s next chief must be paid at a level commensurate with the results state leaders hope to achieve.

NU Board of Regents Chairman Tim Clare says it best: “I don’t want to sound like we’re being flippant with money. It’s imperative we illustrate good stewardship of taxpayer dollars from the state. But I think if we want to be competitive, to provide the best education for our students and have the best university for our state, you’ve got to spend money to attract good talent.”

Because this job affects all Nebraskans - and will be paid for by them, too - transparency is a must, from the hunt to the hire. Changes in 2016 to state law requiring just one priority candidate to be publicly identified have clouded the public’s view of the process, so Nebraskans deserve a better window into this process, especially in regards to how and how many taxpayer, tuition and foundation dollars are used.

Backers said the move was necessary to lure the best candidates, who might not want their current employer to know they were looking for a new job. But, at a certain point, a high salary and a university system willing to invest in strong leadership ought to be enough incentive to apply, without the additional enticement of anonymity. Transparency should be included in the price tag.

The first search under those new rules, for a chancellor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, cost $122,000 without yielding a single candidate before University of Nebraska Medical Center Chancellor Dr. Jeff Gold assumed the role in addition to his regular duties.

Nebraska can’t endure a similar struggle this time around.

Hiring a capable leader for the university system, Nebraska’s best investment in itself and its future, will demand more money and transparency than the previous search. For a position of this magnitude, the added expense will be worthwhile.

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