Category Archives: Governance reform

Rethinking Online Classes at U.Va.

President Sullivan

President Sullivan

By Peter Galuszka

Just two years after the University of Virginia weathered a crisis and the short-lived resignation of its president for supposedly not embracing online education fast enough, Mr. Jefferson’s school is taking a cautious approach about Web-based courses.

This is a good thing, despite the excitement over having thousands of distant students sign up for MOOCs, or large scale college online courses, and expect to instantly log on to all the good things universities offer with supposedly few of the negatives.

Although U.Va. does participate in offering online courses through Coursera, they are not for college credit and Virginia is not following the example of Georgia Tech which is offering an entire degree program via the net.

The Daily Progress reports that U.Va. administrators and professors are worried that it is too easy for unseen students to cheat on the courses – an important consideration due to U.Va.’s strict honor code. Other problems are the high dropout rate of MOOCs and the fact that they may be best suited for introductory courses because professorial classroom involvement is important for more advanced ones.

These views raise questions after all the hype about MOOCs, including many posts on the blog. A special irony is that just two year’s ago, U.Va.’s highly capable and popular President Theresa Sullivan was forced to resign in Board of Visitors putsch led by chairman Helen Dragas supposedly because of her lack of enthusiasm in embracing new technologies.

One well-known blogger wrote a gushy lead paragraph on a posting stating that “Helen Drags gets it.” Err, maybe not, because Sullivan was reinstated after a huge outcry within the U.Va. community and after major, negative world media coverage.

Elsewhere, MOOCs do seem to be gaining some traction. One at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill noted that a Tar Heel course got 30,000 sign ups on-line.

But a University of Pennsylvania study showed that of 16 open online courses the school offered, fewer than half of all registrants even watched the first lecture.

So, it seems that MOOCs are going through a period of adjustment. And, they are politically charged since many conservatives, still angry over social changes in the 1960s and 1970s, see MOOCs as a way to overcome what they view as the overweening political bias of cossetted universities.

As the Daily Tarheel at UNC reports: “Rob Schofield,, director of research and policy development for the left-leaning think tank N.C. Policy Watch, said though MOOCs have many positive aspects, there are drawbacks.

“This problem is especially worrisome in the current political environment in which far-right politicians are doing everything they can to de-fund public schools and universities and turn them into on-the-cheap education factories,” he said.

Luckily for the Old Dominion, the University of Virginia is evaluating MOOCs with its eyes open.

Why Five Ex-Attorneys General Are So Wrong

mcdonnells arraignedBy Peter Galuszka

The practice of law in Virginia is supposed to be an honorable profession.

The state, which produced such orators as Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson, loves its lawyers perhaps much more than individuals who actually create or do something of value. It could be why the state has so many of them.

This makes a filing in the McDonnell corruption case by five former attorneys general all the more despicable. The bunch includes both parties and is made up of Andrew P. Miller, J. Marshall Coleman, Mary Sue Terry, Stephen D. Rosenthal and Mark L. Earley.

They want corruption charges thrown out against former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell, who, with his wife, has been indicted on 14 federal corruption charges. Their trial, expected in July, will explore charges they misused their position to help a dietary supplement maker who showered them with more than $165,000 in personal gifts and loans.

The five attorneys general claim that there is no clear evidence the McDonnells did anything wrong. Odd, but I thought lawyers knew enough not to try and bias a case that has been through the indictment and arraignment phase and is due for trial but then I didn’t go to law school.

Their other reason is actually more upsetting. Their filing claims that future governors might be reluctant to invite state business leaders on foreign trade missions or to host campaign donors at the governors mansion, according to The Washington Post.

Huh? I don’t see the connection. Of course, governor’s can host trade missions. They can invite people to the Executive Mansion. It’s just that, in the process, the governors can’t reasonably be OK with accepting a $6,500 Rolex from the head of Kia Motors or a special loan for his failing beach houses from the local rep of Rolls Royce North America.

It is stunning that the five attorneys general are caught up in “the Virginia Way” of having hardly any controls on gift giving and spending that everything is OK. They also can’t seem to move beyond the conceit that  anyone who occupies the governor’s chair must naturally be an honest gentleman or gentlewoman.

This kind of thinking helps explain nothing substantive has been done to reform the state’s ethics laws. I can give you five reasons why.

Is Virginia Now the “Mother of Dictators?”

Dictator_charlie3315 By Peter Galuszka

One of the serious problems in this state that has been called the “Mother of Presidents” is that its electoral process is in many ways anything but a democracy.

In far too many districts, especially rural and suburban ones, gerrymandering and autocratic party diktat mean that the races are utterly non-competitive and devoid of much debate on issues essential for the state’s well-being.

In 2013, for instance, only 12 or 14 of the 100 races for the House of Delegates were actually competitive, according to the Sorenson Institute for Political Leadership at the University of Virginia. That’s an odd fact to ponder.

And that is why you get unneeded legislative sessions such as the one starting today to try and sort out Medicaid expansion and a $96 billion, two year budget. My view is that both the expansion and the budget are being held hostage by hard-line social and fiscal conservatives who are unwilling to consider the needs of moderates or even their own constituents, many of whom are receiving Medicaid or who benefit by its expansion. Indeed, polls show that more Virginians are in favor of expanding Medicaid. A broad coalition of activists, Democrats, business executives and moderate Republicans favors it.

For more, check this opinion piece I wrote this Sunday in The Washington Post.

The bottom line is that Virginia is changing but how fast is held in check by engineered voting districts. More people from other states or countries are moving here and that is certain to shake up the old ways of doing business. More millennials are leaving rural areas for cities where there are more jobs and progressive ideas. Eventually, their voices will be heard but not until there’s a level playing field.

According to Leigh Middleditch, a Charlottesville lawyer and Sorenson founder, a crucial task for the Old Dominion is to address redistricting issues. He’s part of the bipartisan Virginia Redistricting Reform Coalition, to bring elections back into balance. As he notes, they’re getting the money and haven’t given themselves six years to complete the job.

I wish them well. If that happens you won’t have a tiny, hard-right cadre representing maybe three percent of the eligible electorate dictating who the candidate is because they only have to worry about a primary in a rigged district.

It’s become “the Virginia Way.”

U.S. 460 Project Implodes: State Suspends Spending

Aubrey Layne

Aubrey Layne

by James A. Bacon

Having spent $300 million on the U.S. 460 upgrade between Petersburg and Suffolk, the state is suspending contract and permit work on the project until a critical environmental review by the Army Corps of Engineers can be completed. Secretary of Transportation Aubrey Layne made the announcement yesterday.

The Corps has given repeated warnings that it might not be able to issue the necessary permits for the 55-mile project, which, according to Southern Environmental Law Center attorney Trip Pollard, “would destroy more wetlands than any other project in Virginia since the Clean Water Act was enacted in 1972.”

The McDonnell administration had bulldozed the $1.4 billion project forward with full knowledge of the Corps’ concerns. The state has been paying US 460 Mobility, it’s public-private partner, $20 million a month as a “mobilization fee,” according to the Times-Dispatch. It was not clear from press accounts what that mobilization fee was paying for.

“How can you spend close to $300 million of the taxpayers’ money on a project where you don’t even have a shovel of dirt turned, no right of way purchased and don’t have a permit in hand?” Del. S. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, head of the House Appropriations Committee told the Times-Dispatch.

“I was speechless,” Jones said. “The way it appeared to have been done, the fact that we were at risk, and that we were paying them a fixed fee every month — and they were getting paid without permits,” he added. “I just have never heard of it.”

If you’re looking for a scandal in the McDonnell administration, this is it. As I have long maintained, the focus on former Governor Bob McDonnell’s ethical lapses in his dealings with Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams Sr. were purely penny ante. What really needed scrutiny was the administration’s policy of funding mega-projects costing in the multiples of hundreds of millions of dollars, including the Charlottesville Bypass. Virginia’s press corps focused on the shiny bauble while ignoring the dusty chest loaded with treasure.

Layne, a vocal backer of the project while serving on the Commonwealth Transportation Board under McDonnell, said the state had temporarily halted permitting work and suspended the contract with US 460 Mobility Partners. According to the Virginian-Pilot, he said the state is more likely to improve the existing U.S. 460 by adding bypasses and bridges — an alternative that had been ruled out previously. The McAuliffe administration, he said, remains committed to improving the corridor.

This extraordinary development raises fundamental questions about the way transportation policy in Virginia is determined. In theory, the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) exercises independent judgment over projects like this, but board members, including Layne, never provided any pushback against McDonnell’s forceful transportation secretary Sean Connaughton. Basic questions about the viability of the project went un-asked. In an in-depth piece I wrote about the role of the CTB in January 2013, I asked, “Who really establishes transportation policy for Virginia, the Commonwealth Transportation Board or the McDonnell administration?” Even before the environmental-permitting issues had arisen, I wrote:

Not a single board member voted against allocating $1.4 billion, including roughly $1 billion in public funds, to the U.S. 460 connector between Suffolk and Petersburg — even though increased traffic on the highway is not expected to materialize for years and the economic return on investment is predicated upon the proposition that massive industrial development will occur in the U.S. 460 corridor.

For that article, I asked Layne if the CTB were a rubber stamp. He told me: “I don’t consider myself a rubber stamp. I ask questions. I go through the agenda a week in advance. I get on the phone and ask questions. … I don’t see how I could make an intelligent vote on something without doing it.”

His perspective has changed. “I’m much more informed than I was a year ago as a CTB member,” Layne told the Pilot yesterday.

While the McAuliffe administration tries to fix the mess it inherited from its predecessor, the General Assembly needs to give serious thought to a higher-level issue: how to reform the CTB. Virginians need a board that asks the kind of tough questions that the CTB simply isn’t accustomed to asking.

Bacon Bits: Madison… Saslaw… Embrey Mill

monticello
About darn time.Writing in City Journal, Myron Magnet writes about the restoration of James Madison’s home, Montpelier. It may be the most unsung historical restoration of the 21st century. A team led by Kat Imhoff has peeled back the 19th-century shell added by DuPont family members to reveal Madison’s original building. Many of Madison’s original pieces, sold off by his drunken, ne’er-do-well step son, have been returned to the mansion. Montpelier may not be Monticello, but it arguably outshines Mount Vernon as example of 18th-century plantation architecture. It’s about time that the writer of the U.S. Constitution had a place where people can commemorate his accomplishments.

Who let the dogs out? State Sen. “Richard L. Saslaw,” D-Fairfax, takes no prisoners in his dealings with Republicans in the General Assembly. But he doesn’t exactly coddle his fellow Democrats either — at least not those in Washington, D.C. In an Alexandria meeting last night, the Senate Majority Leader referred to the lax ethical standards of D.C. politicians. “There’s got to be a shuttle bus between the penitentiary and that city council chambers. Three since last election have gone to jail or resigned, and the mayor’s up to his ass in alligators.” So reports the Washington Post.

Building walkable burbs. Dan Reed at Greater Greater Washington contends that there is a large, unmet backlog in demand for walkable urbanism. What happens if the urban-core jurisdictions are unable to add new housing units fast enough to meet the demand? You see a proliferation of planned, mixed-use communities like Embrey Mill in Stafford County . Writes Reed:

Like many older neighborhoods, Embrey Mill’s master plan envisions a mixed-use retail district, a county recreation center, and public schools within walking distance. The homes take off of traditional styles like you’d see in older neighborhoods; the garages are all in back on alleys, leaving room in front for sidewalks, porches, and a few pocket parks and greens. The streets are arranged in a grid, making it easy to walk around.

Studies show that homebuyers increasingly prefer walkable, urban places. So developers are trying to deliver some form of it wherever they can, whether at Embrey Mill or Brambleton in Loudoun County, the Villages of Urbana in Frederick County, and even Ladysmith Village in Caroline County, 75 miles from DC and 35 miles from Richmond.

I couldn’t agree with Reed’s conclusion more if I had written it myself:

If we push the demand for housing all the way to Stafford County and Fredericksburg, places like Embrey Mill are certainly an improvement over the status quo, since they at least try to offer some basic needs within an easy walk. But if there were more and more diverse housing options closer in, we wouldn’t necessarily need Embrey Mill, because people could find the kind of housing and neighborhoods they want closer in.

Coal Giant Alpha Pays Biggest Water Fine Ever

MTRBy Peter Galuszka

Alpha Natural Resources of Bristol, the coal giant that took over troubled Massey Energy of Richmond in 2011, has the dubious honor paying the highest fines ever of $27.5 million for water pollution violations at its coal mining operations in five Appalachian states, including Virginia.

Massey Energy, the owner of the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia where an explosion killed 29 miners in the worst such disaster in the U.S. in 40 years, held the previous water pollution fine record of $20 million issued in 2008.

The Environmental Protection Agency says that from 2006 to 2013, Alpha and its subsidiaries violated water pollution permits 6,000 times and allowed toxic materials such as heavy metals into streams and the watersheds of Tennessee, West Virginia, Kentucky and Pennsylvania besides Virginia. The firm will also pay $200 million to reduce such toxic discharges.

The settlement comes after a pair of unrelated water pollution situations involving coal in West Virginia and North Carolina. Some 300,000 residents of the Charleston area went without drinking water for several days when a toxic chemical used to treat coal leaked into a river. Duke Energy faces fines in North Carolina for improperly maintaining its coal ash storage facilities, leading to a substantial spill into the Dan River which provides drinking water for Danville and eventually, Virginia Beach.

Alpha has touted its “Running Right” safety and management program as it absorbed Massey Energy and its rich coal reserves in a $7 billion deal. Alpha said it was retraining Massey workers who had suffered from Massey’s abusive corporate culture that cut corners on mine safety and environmental control, regulators say.

Alpha had agreed to pay $200 million in a deal with the U.S. Attorney’s Office of Southern West Virginia to cover violations from the Upper Big Branch which it bought and closed after acquiring Massey. Alpha later settled a number of shareholder lawsuits for $265 million. Some of the payout funding had factored into funds set up by Massey before the acquisition by Alpha.

Like most Appalachian coal producers, Alpha has been taking hits with soft markets for steam and metallurgical coal. Its 2013 revenues were $5 billion compared with $7 billion the year before.

Environmentalists say that Alpha’s fine does not address the massive ecological destruction of mountaintop removal strip mining which they say should be stopped at the permit stage. Alpha operates a number of such mines.

The latest fines involve 79 active coal mines and 25 coal processing plants.

Federal investigators are still probing Massey for violations of safety laws related to the operation of Upper Big Branch where the explosion occurred April 5, 2010 and other mines. So far, three former employees have been convicted and Massey’s former CEO Don Blankenship is said to be a target of the probe. There is also a suggestion that Alpha is cooperating with federal investigators in the investigation.

“We Don’t Need No Stinking Ethics Reform!”

maureen_and_bob(1)By Peter Galuszka

It’s no surprise but Virginia legislators appear to doing as little as possible to upgrade the state’s lax ethics rules. In fact, they may be backtracking on some of them.

In a rational world, one would think that something would be done after the indictment of former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell and his wife on 14 federal felony counts. Maybe then the state, which has some of the weakest ethics rules for public officials in the country, would take serious corrective steps.

True to form, with only two weeks left to go in this year’s General Assembly session, legislators are still clinging to their conceit of Virginia exceptionalism.

They insist on believing that somehow the Old Dominion is still dominated by gentlemanly cavaliers who are too honest to be burdened with much oversight. Questioning their integrity disrespects  people of  their assumed social class and is in poor taste.

Indeed, according to Washington Post columnist Robert McCartney, the mishmash of laws is actually quite shocking when you consider just how other worldly their proposals are. Consider:

  • Both the House of Delegated and Senate have bills that would require filing disclosure statements electronically instead of on paper as required now. The bills don’t require the filers to have their statements notarized. Why? Too inconvenient to do so digitally. Of course, they could make it a felony to lie on the statements, but that’s considered too harsh.
  • There would be a new cap on gifts of more than $250 but no limit on how many times gifts could be given. By this logic, an individual or corporation seeking influence could give a total of  $10,000 worth of gifts as long as they are split 40 ways.
  • This applies only to “tangible” gifts like McDonnell’s famous, engraved Rolex watch worth $6,500 from the chief executive of dietary supplement maker Star Scientific. Most gifts given by Dominion or Altria and the like are “intangibles” similar to trips to the Master’s golf tournament in Georgia or hunting safaris in Africa. ProgressVA, an advocacy group, found that of 756 gifts they studied, only 18 were considered “tangible.”
  • Lastly, and most important, there will be no ethics commission with teeth. There will be some kind of “advisory” commission that will not have the power to investigate or subpoena unlike institutions some 40 other states have. Like many forms of regulation in Virginia, this moves things to the “voluntary” level, giving those in power the benefit of the doubt.

Hopefully, Gov. Terry McAuliffe will show stronger leadership than he has so far on this issue. He has issued an executive order cutting gives to his staff to $100 but that doesn’t apply to the General Assembly.

Legislators led by the likes of House Speaker Bill Howell seem to see real ethics reform as anathema brought on by outside forces. They see it as insulting to their personal sense of honor.

Many support McDonnell who goes on trial in July. That support, however, is not showing up in “Legal Defense for Bob” funding. My guess is that he’ll cop a plea before then since he needs $1 million for his lawyers and is nowhere close to getting it.

Curiously, according to the Post, McDonnell was offered a deal by federal prosecutors to plead guilty to lying on bank statements and they’d let his wife Maureen off the hook. No deal, said McDonnell.

The Virginia HOA Power Grab

countrysideby James A. Bacon

When I was elected president of the Countryside Homeowners Association last month, I joked with our treasurer Russ Gambrell that our first order of business would be to plot our path to world domination. First we take over the homeowners association. Then we take over Henrico County. Then Virginia, the United States and the world! Mwa ha ha ha!

Actually, Countryside has a very laid-back homeowners association. Our covenant has relatively few restrictions. We’re a purely volunteer organization. We’ve kept our dues low, we hire a landscaper to maintain our two subdivision entrances, we hold neighborhood parties, we mobilize once a year to clean up the creek… and we refrain from meddling in peoples’ business. If a resident has a problem with the dog next door or the mailbox across the street, don’t come to the HOA — work it out with your neighbor.

As president, I bring my laissez-faire philosophy to the job. The last thing — the very last thing — I want is to become an HOA Nazi. I subscribe to the same philosophy with HOAs that I do with government: restrict your activity to a few core functions that you can do really well.

Alas, it appears that not everyone shares my live-and-let-live attitude. Just as government continually accretes power unto itself, it appears that homeowners associations, which perform similar functions as local government, want to do the same. The General Assembly is close to passing legislation that would allow HOAs to impose fines not specified in their covenants. Quoth the Washington Post (my emphasis):

On Monday, a Senate committee approved a bill that would allow such fines for violations of an association’s rules as long as the declaration does not explicitly ban them. Under another, such fines are limited to $10 each day of a violation for 90 days or a one-time $50 charge. The bill would require that “a reasonable opportunity” to correct the violation be given as well as a hearing before the association board.

Del James L. LeMunyon, D-Fairfax, argued that change is necessary to keep communities in good condition and resolve disputes before they end up in court. HOAs need more power to enforce their rules properly, and it’s difficult to amend bylaws because governance changes typically require support of supermajorities.

Franklin R. Short, an attorney who owns property in two homeowners associations, testified against the bill. “This document would strip homeowners of property rights,” he said. “We’re taking away the right not to be fined, and I think that’s a very significant right.”

The Post also quotes Del. Scott A. Surovell, D-Fairfax, as characterizing the bill as a “power grab” for associations.“How many of your constituents have said: ‘My homeowners association doesn’t have enough power. Make it easier for them to tell me what to do.’?”

Bacon’s bottom line: HOAs should be allowed the power to collect fees and fines that are specifically provided for in their charters. But the idea of allowing HOAs to impose fines “as long as the declaration does not explicitly ban them” represents a grotesque enlargement of HOA power and an invitation to abuse. What really amazes me is that Republicans would support such a measure. Republicans expend great energy opposing the expansion of federal-government beyond those enumerated in the U.S. Constitution, yet they seem perfectly willing to give HOAs to exact penalties from citizens in contravention of their governance documents. Is no one experiencing cognitive dissonance here? Continue reading

Tar Heel Grief Just Down the Road

By Peter Galuszka

It’s sad to see mccrorytwo states to which I have personal ties – North Carolina and West Virginia — in such bad ways.

The latest raw news comes from the Tar Heel state where we are seeing the handiwork of hard-right- Gov. Pat McCrory who has been on a tear for a year now bashing civil rights here, pulling back from regulation there.

The big news is Duke Energy’s spill of coal ash and contaminated water near Eden into the Dan River, which supplies Danville and potentially Virginia Beach with drinking water. Reports are creeping out that the McCrory regime has been pressuring the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) to pull back from regulation.

According to Rachel Maddow, DENR officials had stepped in with environmentalists as plaintiffs on two occasions in lawsuits to get Duke Energy to clean up coal ash. But when a third suit was filed, McCrory, a former Charlotte Mayor and career Duke Energy employee, influenced a third lawsuit settlement against Duke to be delayed.

Also, not long before the Eden spill, the City of Burlington released sewage into the Haw River which flows into Lake Jordan serving drinking water to Cary, Apex and Pittsboro. DENR allegedly did not release news of the spill to the public.

Late last year, Amy Adams, a senior DENR official, resigned to protest the massive cuts McCrory and Republican legislators were forcing at her department, notably in its water quality section.

McCrory’s been on a Ken Cuccinelli-style rip in other ways such as cutting back on unemployment benefits in a top manufacturing state badly hit by the recession and globalization. He’s shut down abortion clinics by suddenly raising the sanitation rules to hospital levels, much like former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell did in Virginia.

A reaction to McCrory is building, however. Recently, I chatted with Jason Thigpen who served in the Army and was wounded in Iraq in 2009. When Thigpen returned to his home in southeastern North Carolina, he was upset that the state was sticking it to vets by making them pay out-of-state college tuition in cases where some had been state residents before deploying. So, he started an activist group to protect them.

Next, Thigpen decided to run for Congress. His views fit more neatly with the Republican Party but he simply could not take what McCrory was doing in Raleigh so he became a Democrat and is a contender in a primary this spring.

Why the switch? “I just couldn’t see what the GOP was doing with my state in Raleigh,” He told me. “Also, I didn’t like what they were doing with women. I had served with women in war and they come back to North Carolina and they are treated like second class citizens,” he said.

West Virginia, meanwhile, is still struggling with its drinking water issues from a spill near Charleston. Although drinking water for 300,000 is said to be potable, children are reporting rashes.

Somehow, this conjures up another story involving a Republican governor – Arch Moore.

Back in 1972, Moore was governor when Pittston, a Virginia-based energy firm, had badly sited and built some damns to hold coal waste. After torrential rains, the dams burst and a sea of filthy water raced down the hollows, inundating small villages and killing 125 people. The state wanted a $100 million settlement from Pittston for the Buffalo Creek disaster, but Moore interceded and they settled for a measly $1 million.

Moore was later convicted of five felonies after he was caught extorting $573,000 from a coal company that wanted to reduce its payments to a state fund that compensated miners who got black lung disease.

Does anyone see a pattern yet?

Meanwhile, we in Virginia should breathe a sigh of relief considering just close it was dodging the bullet last election.

A Movement to Impeach Mark Herring?

Is the Virginia state constitution... unconstitutional?

Is the Virginia state constitution… unconstitutional?

Oh, my, it didn’t take long for Virginia’s new attorney general to spark a constitutional crisis. Bearing Drift has published the draft of a resolution, under consideration by two unnamed General Assembly delegates, to impeach Mark Herring for refusing to defend a provision of the state constitution. Read the resolution here.

Money quote: “The nature of General Herring’s neglect of duty is not only unprecedented, but is a danger to all Virginians because without adherence to the paramount law that governs the government of Virginia, all rights of Virginians are at the mercy of government unconstrained by the rule of law.”

Here is Herring’s explanation of why he changed Virginia’s legal position on Bostic v. Rainey, which asks federal courts to overturn the recent amendment to the state constitution banning gay marriage. Stated Herring:

“I swore an oath to both the United States Constitution and the Virginia Constitution. After thorough legal review, I have now concluded that Virginia’s ban on marriage between same sex couples violates the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution on two grounds: marriage is a fundamental right being denied to some Virginians, and the ban unlawfully discriminates on the basis of both sexual orientation and gender.”

– JAB