Looking ’em in the eye

Randall County Tax Assessor-Collector Sharon Hollingsworth wanted her employees to look their “bosses” right in the eye when they talk to them.

So what did the county do? It elevated the floor behind the counter at the tax office to — shall we say — level the playing field.

The tax office is in newly remodeled digs across the street from its old digs next to the 1909 Courthouse building. The North Annex will be razed as soon as crews remove asbestos. The new tax office, on the second floor of what used to be the DA’s office and the county jail, is shiny and new.

It also features an elevated floor that puts tax office employees at eye level with constituents who come to pay their taxes, renew their auto registration — or complain about their tax bill. In the old office, customers stood over employees, which Hollingsworth hinted was a bit intimidating for tax office staffers, especially if a taxpayer became agitated.

The new office is much more customer- and employee-friendly.

And when we’re talking about the public’s tax money, every little bit of comfort helps all around.

Shame on U.N. tribunal

The list of Death Row inmates in Texas who have found religion is virtually endless. Most of them have met their end while proclaiming their innocence and their love of the Lord.

A sentence handed down in the case of a notorious murderer in Cambodia, however, just boggles the mind. He goes by the name of Duch. He was responsible for the murder of an estimated 14,000 Cambodians in a prison that once was the home of a school, Tuol Sleng. It sits in the heart of Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia. I have a bit of a personal interest in this matter. I’ve visited Tuol Sleng twice — once in 1989 and again in 2004. The testimony to the brutality that occurred there is as stark and horrifying as anything I’ve ever seen. Indeed, it is eclipsed only by the killing fields I’ve toured on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, where the Khmer Rouge buried their victims in mass graves.

A U.N.-back tribunal gave Duch a 19-year sentence for his role in the Khmer Rouge’s brutal genocide against Cambodians. It actually sentenced him to 35 years in the slammer, but knocked 16 years off the sentence for “time served” while awaiting trial.

Duch has become a born-again Christian and proclaimed extreme remorse and regret for his role in the killings. Does that sound familiar? It should. Again, Texas has heard many condemned inmates declare their innocence and their discovery of God’s grace — only to have their lives snuffed out by the executioner.

Well, Duch deserved at least as severe a punishment for his role in the torture and murder of Cambodians, many of them children.

The Khmer Rouge butchered Cambodians from 1975 to 1979. Then armed forces from Vietnam invaded Cambodia, revealing to the world what had been suspected all along — that the Khmer Rogue, led by Pol Pot, had been systematically eliminating millions of innocent victims.

And now we have a gross injustice in the shamefully light sentence granted one of the worst of Pol Pot’s goons. What a disgrace.

Part of a story runs wild

Most journalists understand a time-tested adage related to their craft: If your mother says she loves you … check it out.

The Shirley Sherrod story, which has dominated the news cycle of the past few days, shows what can happen when the media don’t follow that bit of wisdom.

A right-wing blogger, Andrew Breitbart, took a heavily edited videotape of Sherrod, a U.S. Agriculture Department field officer, addressing a NAACP gathering. The video contained language that suggested that Sherrod is a flaming racist and that the NAACP endorsed such bias.

The video ended up on the “fair and balanced” Fox News Channel, which then reported what the edited video showed about Sherrod. At that point, the stuff hit the fan.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack asked for Sherrod’s resignation, which she delivered. The White House endorsed Vilsack’s action, declaring that racism has no place anywhere in the federal government.

One big problem emerged right away: The video told only a fraction of the story. It turns out that Sherrod’s remarks were in fact a testimony to a remarkable journey she has taken in her life. It also turns out that Sherrod has many friends in rural Georgia, where she works, who have benefited from her help with issues that have arisen over many years.

And oh yes, many of those friends are white farmers and ranchers. Some of them rushed to her defense when the media began reporting the story.

This is a prime example of the Internet run amok. It also is an example of how so-called “advocacy journalism” needs some serious self-examination.

To his great credit, Vilsack apologized on live TV for acting prematurely. He didn’t offer that maddening passive-voice “mistakes were made” admission. He took personal responsibility for acting without knowing all the facts.

The cable network that reported the incomplete version of the story — the version that did all the damage to Sherrod’s reputation — has turned its fire on the White House and USDA for its hasty decision. It hasn’t yet apologized to Sherrod for fomenting the firestorm that erupted.

And the blogger? Well, he no longer needs to be treated as a serious purveyor of information. He’s a hack.

Sherrod says she considering a defamation lawsuit against Breitbart. Part of me hopes she goes for it. Another part of me wonders whether it’s worth it. Her reputation has been restored now that the edited video has been exposed for what it is: a hatchet job.

Don’t cry for Tiger Woods

I surely hope Tiger Woods is a glass-is-half-full kind of guy.

The golfing great’s earning power has dropped 30 percent in the past year. His endorsement income fell by that amount in the wake of the sex scandal that, since November, had been the talk of the planet — until Lindsey Lohan got into all that trouble.

But before you break out the crying towels for Woods, consider this: He earned $128 million in endorsements in 2008, according to Sports Illustrated; but his estimated endorsement income for 2010 weighs in at a “paltry” $90 million.

What’s more, his estimated endorsement income still is tops in the sports world.

Where I come from, 90 mil is still an obscene amount of money just for putting one’s name on a product.

By my calculation, Woods could walk away today and never play another competitive round of golf ever again and he’d still wouldn’t have to worry about where his next meal is coming from.

That assumes, of course, that he behaves himself.

A long-ago random act of kindness

Many of us in Amarillo think we’re a community of courteous and thoughtful people. It’s gratifying when we hear from visitors who say the same thing.

This note came to me overnight from Verona, Wis. It’s from Rick Tiedemann, who told a story about his aging father’s long-ago trip through Amarillo at the end of World War II.

To wit:

“I had the honor of assisting my father, a World War II veteran, to Washington, D.C. We were on Honor Flight, a nonprofit organization to help veterans see their Memorial before it is too late. You might be familiar with it and there were several Texans attending with him. It was a weekend that I know I will remember forever. You see my father, Lloyd Tiedemann, is of failing health and 88 years old; this is his last trip.

“Let me get to the point of why I’m contacting you. I got to hear many stories from my dad about WWII and his experiences, many for the first time. One of them was about your city.

“My father was a sailor aboard the USS Essex in the Pacific front. It is always eye awakening to hear what people went through in that war 65 years ago. When the war was over his ship came back to Seattle and he was discharged. He and some buddies decided that rather than go home they would take a little adventure trip around the country. Being from the little town of Belmont WI (population 800) he had not seen much of the world until WWII. So he traveled down the west coast of California, into Nevada and eventually ending up in your city. You might ask how he did it well the old-fashion way of hitch hiking. For many that seems like a strange word but it was a different time. He hitched a ride from a guy in show business that was headed to New York and was driving across the country from Los Angeles. They stayed in a motel on the edge of Amarillo for a night. The next morning he remembers they were in a hurry to get on the road. It was a few hundred miles down the road before he realized that he forgot his wallet under his pillow. He was in a panic because he had all his discharge papers and pay in that wallet close to $1,000. Stopping to telephone, he was able to remember and contact the lady that owned the motel. When asking if anyone had found a wallet she said they had and it was already being mailed home. Not a single penny was taken from his wallet and it got to his parents’ house before he did.

“The first thing my dad did after getting his wallet back was send that lady from Amarillo a dozen red roses.

“Well it doesn’t sound like much of a story to some but for him it was a reminder of how people are good, honest and respectful. It was a different time yes but I still believe like my father that people are good.

“I will always have a sweet spot in my heart for you folks in Amarillo, Texas. I know my dad does.”

Well, Rick, we still have nice folks just like that lady at the motel. Thanks so much for sharing your story.

And thank your dad for me for his service to the country.

Greene could become ‘anyone’

Mom and Dad told me once when I was very young that “anyone can become president.”

I believed them, even though I’ve since learned that it’s not entirely true. The “anyone” they had in mind needs some help along the way: some connections, a good bit of money and unrivaled ambition and ego.
But taking that logic down a notch, to the U.S. Senate, I’m guessing that the truism is more realistic. Take Alvin Greene, the Democratic nominee for the Senate from South Carolina.

I’m beginning to pull for him just a little bit.

He emerged from the S.C. Democratic primary as the winner, even though he didn’t campaign for the office. He didn’t spend a nickel. He made zero speeches, issued zero position papers and held zero campaign meetings. But he conquered a field that included a South Carolina legislator.

Now he’s running against Republican incumbent U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, who once declared that the angry health care debate would be President Obama’s “Waterloo,” and that it should be Republicans’ goal to ensure that the president fails at anything he sought to do. A real patriot, eh?

DeMint’s a smart guy, so I guess he played the calculation correctly in South Carolina, a state that is almost as reliably Republican as Texas.

But Greene, thought of around the country as a first-rate doofus, is now starting to actually campaign. He’s an unemployed veteran who lives with his father. He managed to pony up 10 grand to file for the primary, but the Democratic Party isn’t concerned about how he got the money.

It would be fascinating to the max to see this guy make a competitive race against DeMint. And were he to win — well, he becomes the “anyone” to whom Mom and Dad referred so many years ago.

Good Gulf news, but …

The good news today from the Gulf of Mexico notwithstanding, BP still has plenty for which to answer regarding the oil spill.

— Why did crews on the Deepwater Horizon reportedly ignore warning signs before the platform blew up on April 20?

— Did the company take shortcuts regarding the casings used to seal the shaft it had sunk deep into the sea bottom?

— Why didn’t the company have a ready-made action plan drawn up in the event of such a catastrophe?

— Why did BP keep insisting that it would pay “all legitimate claims,” using language it should have known would enrage Gulf coast residents whose lives have been shattered by the oil spill?

Those are just for starters.

But today came word that the company had stopped the oil flow into the Gulf. The coast isn’t out of the woods yet. BP has more testing to do on the containment cap. Then we’ll wait for the relief wells to be finished, and then the company will pour cement into the blown-out well to plug it for keeps.

Meanwhile, the company had better get its “answer men” up to speed. There will be plenty of questions to answer in the weeks to come.

Red-light cameras … once again

Red-light cameras are back in the news.

A study has come out that seems to give ammo to those who oppose the cams because they haven’t made our streets safer. Injury accidents at intersections are up a bit in the two years since Amarillo City Hall deployed the cameras as a deterrent against those who run red lights.

But am I ready to call for a wholesale retreat from this initiative? Not even close.

The data don’t prove anything conclusively. If anything, they suggest that the city needs to do a better job of bringing the cameras to the driving public’s attention.

For example, I drive routinely along Coulter Street, which has red-light cams at its intersection with Elmhurst. Do I notice the sign warning me of the cameras every time I drive by? No. State law requires the city to place the signs 300 feet in front of the intersection. But after awhile, they kind of become part of the scenery — not unlike Stanley Marsh 3’s ubiquitous lawn signs.

The cops said we have a problem with red-light runners. The mayor heard the police concerns and, along with the City Commission, acted in a way designed to make our streets safer.

I’m willing to give the experiment more time.

In the meantime, can’t there be a way to elevate the streetside warnings’ visibility to motorists?

Goodbye, county courthouse

Texas has 254 counties. Almost all of them are run by governments with headquarters in county courthouses, many of which sit on squares in the middle of the county seat.

Not so in Randall County, the second-most populous county in the Texas Panhandle.

The county courthouse, which used to house the government, is rotting on the inside. Its exterior, though, looks nice and spiffy. But the guts of county government has just finished its move off the courthouse square and into the County Finance Building. The Commissioners Court now will begin meeting in the finance structure, leaving the courthouse square to the vacant 101-year-old building formerly known as the county courthouse.

This is a major quandary for the county. It no longer needs the courthouse building. It has moved everything off the square. The criminal justice offices — including courtrooms, prosecutors and clerks — operate in the Justice Center more than a mile northeast of the courthouse square.

The old county courthouse no longer is a functioning part of life in Randall County.

One day — let us hope soon — someone will find a use for the courthouse building. The new tenant will have to find a way to fix up its interior to a condition matching its exterior. It just doesn’t look as though it’s going to be its former occupant: county government.

Hate spews forth

An Amarillo “Vietnam veteran and his wife have had enough” of President Obama and his “radical Chicago thugs.” They sent a letter to be published in the newspaper. It won’t see print. But I thought I’d share a bit of it here, unattributed.

“Those of you that have never been in the military may not know that an American flag flown upside-down is a distress signal. As of today, our flag will be flown upside-down … Amarillo, it is time for Americans to stand up and fight for your country … Let it be known that Amarillo is a city that wants its freedom back … “

Well.

This hate-filled screed begs at least two key questions: What freedoms have we lost? What are Americans unable to do today that we were able to do when Barack Obama took the oath of office in January 2009?

The correspondents said that “we are Americans, Obama and his thugs are not. Those of us that have fought for our freedom will not give it up now because a band of thugs from Chicago do not believe in our traditional way of life.”

One tradition is to disagree respectfully. What has become of civil discourse?

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