City manager shows serious class

I like Jared Miller’s style.

The Amarillo city manager has been on the job for just a few days and he already is serving notice that he is in the business of learning about the municipal government he is now administering.

Miller has told all candidates for the City Council and for mayor that he wants to hear from them. He wants to know their objectives, their goals and their aspirations. Miller wants to sit down with all them and, I am going to presume for a moment, listen intently to what these individuals have in mind if they get elected to the council.

They, after all, will be his bosses. Two incumbents are running for re-election. Three new council members will take their seats after the May 6 election; one of the newbies will be the mayor, the presiding officer of the governing body.

Yes, it will be a consequential election with the second consecutive new majority taking over from the previous group. The size of that new majority, of course, is yet to be determined.

Miller’s role will be determined by how well he and the new council work together.

The part of Miller’s style I find appealing is his proactive approach to determining how that relationship should develop. He’ll learn about all the candidates, who in turn will learn about the city’s chief executive officer.

Moreover, Miller is likely to learn about this community and the amazing change that’s occurring at this very moment.

I have encountered a tiny handful of individuals over the years who have come to communities such as this one, assume positions of importance and power — and never ask a single question about their new city of residence. They come here believing they have all the answers and aren’t interested in learning anything new.

An individual such as that, simply, doesn’t know what he doesn’t know.

Jared Miller looks to me as though he is intent on learning.

I am heartened by what I am sensing early in the Miller administration at City Hall.

‘Bosses’ demand answers from ’employees’

Representative democracy is a messy business.

Members of Congress are finding out just how messy it can become. Many of them have gone “home” during the congressional break. Moreover, many of them have had town hall meetings in which they’ve been shouted down by voters angry over any plan to get rid of the Affordable Care Act.

Many others of them have decided against having town hall meetings. They need not hear from their bosses, they say.

I have to express some admiration for congressmen and women who are willing to stand up, take the heat, and then absorb the comments.

Many citizens have been chanting at their employees — these members of Congress — with a simple message: We’re the boss!

Indeed, they are.

And they deserve to be heard. They deserve all they time they desire to make themselves heard. The people whose salary they pay must take it. They must listen.

This recent development brings to mind a local government body that used to operate in a more “employer-friendly” manner.

Randall County, Texas, voters elected a county judge, Ted Wood, who took office in 1995 and restructured the way county Commissioners Court meetings would take place. Wood did so to give county constituents a greater voice; he intended to give them a broad forum to speak their peace.

Wood’s thought was a simple one: We work for the county’s residents and we owe it to them to give them all the time they need to tell us what’s on their mind.

He would open the floor at the end of county commissioners meetings to residents. He would let them speak for as long as they wanted. Wood’s policy drew the ire of some of his fellow county commissioners. His constituency, though, encompassed the entire county, while each commissioner represented only a section of the county, a single county precinct.

Therefore, Wood threw his weight around.

Was he wrong? Did he allow county residents to take control of these meetings? My recollection was that the meetings didn’t go on forever. They did have end points.

However, the county judge had his heart in the right place. He knew who were the bosses in this form of government we call “representative democracy.” Ted Wood understood that he worked for the taxpayers who pay the bills, not the other way around.

Members of Congress who aren’t listening to complaints from their bosses need to understand that truth, too.

Obama and Trump: they walk on common ground

Illinois state Sen. Barack Hussein Obama told us during the 2004 Democratic National Convention while he delivered the keynote speech that “only in this country is my story possible.”

He was a self-proclaimed “skinny kid with a funny name.”

Indeed, his story was a remarkable one: a black father who was born in Kenya; a white mother from Kansas; Mom and Dad split when young Barack was a boy; Barack barely knew his father; Mom and her young son moved from Hawaii to Indonesia; Barack got a first-class education, went into public service — as a community organizer, a state senator and a U.S. senator — then got elected president of the United States.

This was not a silver-spoon existence. His election as president was a most unlikely event, given the many circumstances of his early life.

He demonstrated that “anyone” can be elected to the highest office in the nation.

Hmmm. How about that.

Donald Trump, I submit, has some commonality with his immediate predecessor. It’s not that Trump was born into a similar family situation, or that his parents struggled financially.

But think about this: In his way, Trump, too, has shown that “anyone” can be elected president of the United States.

Where’s the symmetry? It’s kind of weird, but consider some aspects of this man’s life.

He grew up the son of wealthy parents. He went to a military high school; he then graduated from an Ivy League university; he went into business when Daddy Trump staked him a few million bucks to get started; he built the business into an empire.

OK, here’s some more strange circumstance. Trump would get married three times; he would cheat on his first two wives and then would brag about it; he was host of a reality TV show; he owned a beauty pageant; he behaved like a boor at times.

Trump never ran for public office. He didn’t serve on a school board, or a city council, or a county commission. He never served in a legislative assembly.

The very first public office he ever sought was the presidency of the United States of America.

Does the president’s history suggest to you that he was well-prepared to become head of state of the greatest nation on Earth?

Me, neither.

Thus, Donald John Trump — just as Barack Hussein Obama before him — demonstrates to me that, by golly, anyone can be elected president of the United States.

HPPR set to deepen its news footprint

I came home this evening from work and found a nice surprise that had come in today’s mail.

It was an invitation to the launch of High Plains Public Radio’s brand new all-news programming that begins March 6.

This is a big deal, folks, one that makes me happy in the extreme about the quality of news that will be available to public radio listeners in Amarillo and much of the rest of the High Plains.

It will be at 94.9 FM on the radio dial.

Here’s what I understand about it.

HPPR, which broadcasts news from National Public Radio, will continue with its regular morning and early-evening news content, with features such as “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered” being broadcast daily.

But when the HPPR broadcast at 105.7 FM turns to music in the morning at the end of “Morning Edition,” the 94.9 FM channel will continue to offer news, features, commentary and assorted items from throughout the region and, oh yes, the rest of the world.

I spoke with Wayne Hughes of Amarillo, the former head of the Panhandle Producers and Royalty Owners Association — and a longtime contributor to HPPR — about this several months ago. He told me of the fundraising effort that was underway in the region to pay for the new operation.

Given that public radio doesn’t broadcast “radio advertising” in the fashion that privately owned stations do, it must rely on listeners to donate; yes, public radio has its share of corporate sponsors, too.

Why am I so excited about this?

Well, I am not much of a classical music fan. My taste in music is limited basically to classic rock ‘n roll. Our classic rock offerings in Amarillo are a bit limited.

However, I am a news junkie. I like getting my news via public radio when I have the radio nearby — and have it turned on.

The all-news station is going to fulfill my craving for news.

I’ve written before about public radio and the value I believe it has brought to the region since it started in the 1980s. The late Levi Bivins, along with his brother Mark, and Jay O’Brien all were instrumental in launching HPPR in the first place.

I am indebted to all of them for the hard work they performed in assuring quality public radio listening to those of us who aren’t all that nuts about morning drive-time blather on many of the commercial stations.

HPPR is now set to take the next big step in its evolution.

I am one listener who is mighty excited to welcome it.

‘Town hall meetings are great … ‘

I want to discuss a brief, concise and pithy message that popped into my Twitter feed this morning.

It comes from my state senator, Kel Seliger, an Amarillo Republican. It says: “Town Hall meetings are a great way to report to and interact with the public we serve. I’ve had 374. At least 37 planned for Q3 2017.”

Bear with me as I parse this statement for just a moment.

Town hall meetings have become something of a story in the past few days as members of Congress have taken their post-Presidents Day break, returned home — in many instances — to meet with their bosses.

They’ve discovered that the folks back home are none too happy with them. They don’t want their “employees,” those members of Congress, to mess with the Affordable Care Act.

Some members of Congress — such as Mac Thornberry, R-Clarendon — have decided to skip the town hall meetings altogether.

Thornberry is meeting instead with local business leaders, trying to assess the impact of federal regulations on their businesses. One of those leaders told me this week the discussion dealt with the difficulty of the rules handed down by the Obama administration and that Thornberry has given them assurances that he would work to loosen government’s regulatory reins.

Thornberry’s Amarillo meeting was a friendly event. I know … it’s shocking, shocking.

It’s fair to wonder if state Sen. Seliger would believe so strongly in the value of town hall meetings if he were forced to face down the beast that’s been awakened by the Republican-controlled Congress’s desire to repeal something that folks need.

Yes, Kel, these events “are a great to  way interact with the people we serve,” which brings me to another critical point.

These government officials do work for us, you and me. Whether we cast our votes for them or for someone else, they answer to us. We pay their salaries, provide them with their staff, pay for their public transportation, their stationery, their telecommunications devices; I almost wrote “typewriters,” then remembered that we don’t use typewriters any longer.

To that end, it is important to remind these individuals of that indisputable, irrefutable fact. The crowds at these town meetings across the land — in “red” and “blue” congressional districts alike — are doing that very thing. Good for them!

Retirement won’t mean disengagement

This is the latest in an occasional series of blog posts commenting on upcoming retirement.

As I listen daily — and nightly — to news about the state of our national government under Donald J. Trump, I might be tempted to shuck it all when my bride and I hit the road during our retirement years.

Full-time retirement, I caution you, won’t mean full-time disengagement from the world that continues to swirl around us.

The former — full-time retirement — is approaching at a quickening pace. The latter, well, won’t change once we cross that threshold.

The only difference might lie in that as we travel a good bit more in our RV, we’ll be visiting portions of North America that don’t share the groupthink that is so prevalent in the Texas Panhandle. As such, my intention will be to talk to those we meet as pass through their communities. I hope to glean from them their view of the world.

We’ve had the joy of traveling some already in our RV, which we’ve owned for a couple of years. This past autumn, we took our longest trip — distance-wise — to southwestern South Dakota. It gave us a hint of the adventure that awaits us as we tool our way across two massive nations: the United States and Canada.

Along the way, I intend to be connected fully to the world.

Tempting as it might be — such as it is at this moment as the “news” is broadcast in the background of my home office — I won’t toss it all aside. I suppose you could say I am not wired simply to toss it all aside while we simply travel, kick off our shoes and not have a care in the world.

Modern technology has advanced to where we expect to be connected every mile of our journey. I intend fully to use that technology to keep this blog blazing away with praise where it’s warranted and, oh, criticism where that, too, is deserved.

I hope you’ll join us on our ride throughout North America.

Trump’s Cabinet: at best, a mixed bag

Donald J. Trump hasn’t picked a gang of losers for his Cabinet.

He’s got some winners in the bunch. I am not equipped just yet to assess all of the president’s team members. Some have yet to take office, such as Energy Secretary-designate Rick Perry.

But I do feel driven to offer a word or two on a few of the more visible selections Trump has made.

First, the good picks.

James “Mad Dog” Mattis at Defense might be the best of the bunch. The retired Marine Corps general has turned out to be a seriously mature and thoughtful fellow. Imagine someone with the “Mad Dog” nickname earning that designation.

Gen. Mattis has declared that the United States won’t “torture” enemy combatants, nor will it seize Iraqi oil. He has managed to contradict the president directly on those two key elements. Semper fi, Gen. Mattis.

John Kelly, another Marine general, is a plus at Homeland Security. He’s kept a low profile so far, but has toured the southern border to take a first-hand look at the so-called “porous” border.

Rex Tillerson might be the big surprise at State. The former ExxonMobil CEO brought some serious baggage to his job. I remained worried about whether Tillerson’s relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin is going to skew the U.S. policy toward Russia.

But he is talking reasonably and thoughtfully about U.S. foreign policy so far. His political foes have been quieted somewhat now that he’s on the job.

Let’s look at three Cabinet clunkers.

Betsy DeVos at Education shouldn’t be there. She has no experience — let alone understanding — of public education; she never attended public schools; nor did her children. She favors voucher programs that peel away public funds to pay for private education for parents and their children.

My friend, 2015 National Teacher of the Year Shanna Peeples, has invited DeVos to visit public schools here in Amarillo, hoping she can collect some level of understanding about the hard work that’s going on in public classrooms. I do hope the secretary accepts Shanna’s invitation so she can learn something about the agency she is now leading.

Ben Carson at Housing and Urban Development is another loser who has no business running an agency about which he knows not a single thing. The retired — and famed — neurosurgeon said so himself, through a spokesman; he isn’t qualified to run a federal agency. Trump picked him anyway. Enough said there.

Scott Pruitt, the new director of the Environmental Protection Agency, might be the worst of the bunch. How does the president justify selecting a sworn enemy of the agency he now is leading. Pruitt hates the EPA and sued the agency 14 times while serving as Oklahoma attorney general. He’s a friend of big oil and he detests EPA’s efforts at developing alternative energy sources for the purpose of, that’s right, protecting the environment.

Sheesh, man!

I am hoping for the best. My fear, though, falls short of that. As for the Trump Cabinet winners, I hope their strength rubs off on their weaker colleagues.

Trumpkin to Trump: Don’t compare us to China!

I have a lot of friends in the Texas Panhandle who are Trumpkins, devotees of Donald J. Trump, 45th president of the United States.

No surprise there, eh? The Panhandle voted about 80 percent in favor of the Republican president, which is about normal for this region of the country.

One of those Trumpkins traveled recently to China, spending two weeks in the People’s Republic, touring the giant nation north to south.

We spoke about his trip upon his return to the United States and he offered an interesting and — to my ears — welcome rebuke of Trump’s longstanding assertion about the United States.

Trump insists he will “make America great again.” He peddles ball caps with that message on them. His ardent followers cheer for his exhortations while wearing t-shirts emblazoned with the mantra.

My friend said China in no way compares to this country. He talked of the massive cities containing tens of millions of residents in each of them. “Four hundred square feet” is considered a roomy apartment, he said. Chinese are stacked on top of each other. They ride around on packed buses. “I didn’t see any ‘neighborhoods,'” my friend told me.

“I don’t ever want to hear Trump try to compare us to China,” he said. “There is no comparison!”

As for the ongoing declaration about “making America great again,” my friend speaks with utmost clarity. “America is great!” he told, with his voice rising. Yes, pal. I get it! I agree with you! I disagree with you fella, Trump!

Well …

It seems that at least one Trumpkin hasn’t quite swilled the entire jug of Kool-Aid.

Patience, please, as city remakes itself

Whenever I venture into downtown Amarillo — which isn’t too terribly often these days — I remind myself of what I’ve thought for as long as I can remember.

It is that no matter the inconvenience we experience today, we’ll be paid off at the end of it all.

I think of such things whenever the city decides to tear up its streets and repave/rebuild them. I grumble at the sight of those construction cones and the orange detour signs. Then I remember that there’s always an end to it.

So it is with this downtown reconstruction effort that’s well underway in many instances.

Buchanan Street is cluttered with construction gear; streets leading from Pierce onto Fillmore and Buchanan are closed off. The city, truth be told, looks like a giant construction zone, which isn’t very pretty.

Chain-link fences have gone up around the ground floor of several long-abandoned retail outlets, signaling the start of construction of something shiny, new and — for my money — rather exciting. Tenth Avenue has some new loft apartments, with more on the way.

And, oh yes, we have that highway construction under way along Interstate 40, with the new direct-access ramp being built onto I-27; TxDOT crews are widening and improving the freeway east and westbound. Yep, it’s a bit of a mess out there — for the time being.

I’m kind of reminded more or less of the old Vietnam War saying about how U.S. troops occasionally had to “destroy a village in order to save it.” Perhaps that’s overstating it a bit, but I trust you’ll understand what I mean, which is that the city needs to erect these  obstacles temporarily while crews work to create something brand new.

Progress sometimes isn’t pretty. Amarillo’s progress is proceeding at what seems like an accelerating pace, which I hope means a quicker end to the ugliness that will precede what we all hope will be a gleaming new central business and entertainment district.

I’m willing to wait for as long as it takes.

Planned Parenthood scores needed court victory

Planned Parenthood is back in the Medicaid game in Texas, thanks to a ruling by a U.S. district judge.

This is good news for low-income patients who need state help in obtaining care such as cancer screenings or birth-control consultations.

Of course, the ruling by Judge Sam Sparks reignites the debate over whether Planned Parenthood operates with a callous disregard for human life by peddling “fetal tissue.”

Judge Sparks, who was appointed to the federal bench by fervently pro-life President George H.W. Bush in 1991, said his decision restores Planned Parenthood ability to participate in the state’s Medicaid program which offers health care at heavily reduced prices for those who request it.

At issue — as always — are those heavily edited video recordings of Planned Parenthood staffers discussing what to do with the remains of fetuses. No one has been charged with any illegal activity, I should add. Yet the state attorney general’s office has maintained that the video reveals callous and cavalier attitudes from Planned Parenthood staffers toward the rights of unborn children.

“After reviewing the evidence currently in the record, the Court finds the Inspector General, and thus [the Texas Health and Human Services Commission], likely acted to disenroll qualified health care providers from Medicaid without cause,” Sparks’ ruling read. “Such action would deprive Medicaid patients of their statutory right to obtain health care from their chosen qualified provider.”

“No taxpayer in Texas should have to subsidize this repugnant and illegal conduct,” Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said. “We should never lose sight of the fact that, as long as abortion is legal in the United States, the potential for these types of horrors will continue.”

Illegal conduct? No one has determined definitively that anything “illegal” has occurred, Mr. Attorney General.

The state keeps playing politics with the health care needs of Texans. Judge Sparks’ ruling no doubt will be appealed, as Paxton has promised. Fine. Take it all the way.

My own view is that Planned Parenthood performs valuable and wide-ranging health-related services to those who need it, but who cannot afford it without state assistance.

As for abortions, it remains legal in this country for a woman to terminate a pregnancy — no matter how fervently many Americans believe the law should be changed.

I also should add that Congress long ago prohibited the use of federal money to pay for an abortion. Therefore, this highly charged issue has become a giant distraction in the overall issue of the health care needs that Planned Parenthood fulfills.

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