Thursday, October 7, 2010

Send in the Clowns

Last week I was pleased to welcome The Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus to town. A large crowd of trainbuffs, kids, and neighbors gathered at the intersection of York Street and E. 47th Avenue, a leaping lasso of a street crossing on Swansea's east side. A huge and ancient Union Pacific steam engine pulled the circus into the intersection. Whistles blue and smoke and steam filled the air. The circus train is billed as the longest and heaviest train in the world, stuffed full of animals, performers and most importantly, the clowns.

Jonathan, the full-voiced and mellifluent circus ringmaster, introduced me with a flourish, just after he told the crowd about the clowns. When he mentioned "clowns," his hand innocently gestured in my direction. I welcomed the circus performers and told them I took no offense in Ringmaster Jonathan's waving toward me as he brought up the subject of clowns. I told the crowd that the mayor and council wanted to be there but they were in a weekly meeting. A sarcastic wag in the crowd shouted, "Send in the clowns." The people laughed.

I felt like I was at the Newt Gingrich talk with all the tea party and no one world folks shouting and protesting.

"Some may wonder where Barnum neighborhood got its name," I asked the crowd. "With over 300 days of sunshine, the original P. T. wintered many of his circus animals here and P.T. bought land over in west Denver. The city fathers were so happy that Barnum, a genuine easterner, would bring economic development and attention to our fair city, they named part of west Denver for him. I don't believe they used tax increment financing for the development. Barnum loaned younger lion and bear cubs to Mary Elitch for her Zoological Gardens on 38th and Tennyson."

I think Denver has always had a bit of an inferiority complex about things. We are not happy with the way we are. We always seem so delighted when some clowns, I mean, developers, commercial groups or entrepreneurs want to bring some new unusual enterprize into town. We can't wait to give away the farm. Remember the millions the Grand Prix was going to bring to the city coffers? How many times have we been told as Denverites that this event or this enterprize will finally make Denver a first-class city? These venues are often billed as "public-private partnerships." That means the public pays while the private partner leaves town with the money after the circus has its run.

Let's try to remember Denver is already a first-class city. We don't need to feel inferior about our town. We have the stock show. Got your red nose piece? Send in the clowns.

That Time of Year, Again

Fall is my favorite time of year.

One of Shakespeare's Sonnets puts it almost like this: "That time of year when thou mayst in me behold, when yellow leaves or none or few do hang upon bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang..." From memory, so I may be off a word or two. But in the lines Shakespeare celebrates the beauty of autumn in the form of yellow leaves hanging on the ruins of a destroyed cloister, possibly wrecked by Henry VIII and his rapacious hoards of philistines. He recalls a happy memory of the echo of birds singing amidst the signs of the pending winter.

Well, it's that time of year in Denver again.

It's Dollar Dictionary Drive Time. Interneighborhood Cooperation celebrates its 15th anniversary of collecting funds in 2010 which provide a free dictionary and invaluable thesaurus for all Denver Public School third graders. Since the program started, INC volunteers have handed over 225,000 books to over 100,000 Denver students. This program is counter culture. My son, Daniel Patrick, told me once when I introduced him and my daughter, Meaghan Kathleen, to the Oxford English Dictionary in the Regis Library, "Dad, I don't need a dictionary, I have all this on my computer."

That's true, but the Oxford English Dictionary, now even available on a disk, gives you the joy of etymologies, when the word was first used in our language and several quotes by famous authors using the word in context. Steve Nissen and Cathee Fisher, co-chairs of the drive, are to be congratulated for their years of service to Denver's children.

What computers and the Internet are doing to books and dictionaries in our lives makes hand held, old-fashioned books, covers and all, artforms to be kept and saved. In a book dictionary, you can make a small red mark next to a word you've looked up. The second time you look it up, as Sr. Carlos Marie at Holy Family School often reminded us word finders, "One should be embarassed into remembering a word with two or three marks by it."

Send in your donations and checks payable to Dollar Dictionary Drive, PO Box 18347, Denver, Colorado 80218. Tell your friends. Bring some warmth and joy into the lives of third graders in Denver who face the pending winter possibly more content armed with their own personal dictionaries.

And I'm upset. The Regis Library has moved the Oxford English Dictionary to a new place in the Reserve Section.

Change is not easy.

Sunday Reflections

A recent Sunday seemed to be a day which brought lots of relection.

At 10:30 am I arrived at Babi Yar Memorial Park on the edge of Denver. The memorial to the vicious murder of over 32,000 people in a ravine near Kiev in Ukraine was to begin at 11. I got there early as I wanted to find a shady spot. I sat in a shady row on the right side of the audience and when I stood to greet Larry Mizel, I turned around and an older Russian woman had placed her purse on my chair. So I ambled over to the other side and found a semi-shady spot.

One speaker reminded us that those who perished in the murders at Babi Yar died twice. the first time when they were shot and killed and the second time in that the little bit of earth above them bore no markers as to their names. Just a mass grave with thousands ;upon thousands crowded in together. I thought of the many mass graves in the west of Ireland in County Clare. No markers tell the names of those who starved in the famine. They died twice too.

Many older members of the Russian and Ukrainian Jewish community attended and I tried to speak what little Russian I remember from my 4 years of study. I can rattle off poems and prayers. An pianist of Armenian ancestry played three selections for those who died at Babi Yar. I met her later and thanked her for her beautiful compositions.

A young woman recited a prayer in Hebrew for the dead.

I am pround that 12 Regis students attended the ceremony and I could tell they were all moved and they took Alan Gass's tour of the site, as students did last year. They mentioned they did not know about it prior to this event. Dr. Victoria McCabe reports this from many students over the years. The sun was hot and beat down on the crowd gathered for the solomn event.

Letters vs Numbers on the Ballot

At a neighborhood meeting recently at New York Deli in southeast Denver on East Hampden where District 9 Democrats meet every 3rd Saturday of the month, a citizen asked me what is the difference between the number proposals and the alphabetic proposals on the ballot?

Referenda proposed by the Colorado legislature are designated by an alphabetic lineup, a letter.

Initiatives proposed by citizens who have gathered signatures are given numbers.

One wag announced a simple way to figure out the ballot this year: "Vote 'yes' on the letters and 'no' on the numbers." I, however, hope you will study the issues, letters and numbers, and then make up your mind based upon logic and reflection. Remember democracy is a participatory and serious game.

At the end of the meeting I told the owner of the New York Deli that he really needs to work on his waitresses. "They are too nice to the customers, not like New York at all." He responded tongue in cheek: "You can leave anytime, schmuck, I need your seat." And we really need a little humor to get through this election cycle, don't we?

happy Birthday league of Women Voters

last week I attended the 90th birthday of the Colorado and Denver League of Women Voters at the Governor's Mansion.

Attendees congratulated the members of the League present because the League of Women Voters remains a vital part of public discourse.Judge Bob Kapelke lead a chorus of women singers who entertained with frolicksome songs celebrating the League and women voting.

And I remember my mother and grandmother, not members of the League, discussing their "official" sample Democratic ballot which committee people delivered to our house the week before election. These ballots prepared by Dolores Dickman, our long-time Democratic Captain had what she called "circling" parties. People were asked to bring a red marking pen to circle the issues on her "official Democratic Ballot" which she passed out in the precincts.

My mom and grandmother enjoyed reading the election pamphlets prepared by the League of Women Voters of Colorado Education Fund. They liked it that the League gave arguments "for" and against" the proposals. Sometimes Dolores would include the League's analysis of ballot issues. My mom and grandmother enjoyed being good citizens and reading up on the ballot proposals, though they put their trust in Dolores Dickman's recommendations. After my mom studied up on the issue she would inform my dad on how she was voting. He told her he would have to check with Local 858 of the Firefighter's Union to see what they were recommending. Voting gets complicated, doesn't it.

The League has issued another pamphlet on this year's 2010 ballot proposals and they can be obtained at the League Office, 1410 Grant St., B-204 here in Denver. And you can check their website to get more information on the League, which accepts men as well.The League has a voter hotline as well: 303-863-VOTE 8683 which you can call as well.

So educate yourself on the issues, reflect, and vote. Voter turnout is important for the neighborhood. The capitol and city hall know which districts turn out the vote. The powers that be pay more attention to neighborhoods which turnout a high number of votes in an election.

Economic Contradictions

Listening to the radio last week, two news stories presented back to back, offered listeners simple contradictions. The stories stoked more heat than light on public discourse.

Story one: a libertarian candidate for office harshy condemned laws which mandated certain conducts aimed at personal safety among citizens. The libertarian candidate railed against the tyranny of the nanny state. Remember when mom always said: "Don't forget to wear your coat to school."

Story two: a gubernatorial Candidate Tom Tancredo reacted on radio to his being hit by a driver while riding his motor cycle. Tom confessed to the papers that he had chosen not to wear a helmut. Like the monk knight guarding the holy grail in the movie, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, said of the character who selected the wrong chalice: "He chose poorly."

Now candidate Tancredo, with his retired congressional health plan. would probably never want if his accident had left him more seriously wounded. Though he mentioned the pain from the accident was considerable. What should bother us about all this is that lots of people in our country cry "tyranny" when asked to practice simple common sense safety measures. But serious brain injuries of people who don't wear helmuts while riding motor cycles often eventually become economic tax burdens to the general citizenry if their insurance benefits run out.

The state should not have to encourage citizens to practice safe and common sense measures, to make good choices in life which protect health and life. I think lots of people would agree that the real and ultimate tyranny is the many years of health bills taxpayers have to pay to maintain those who made bad choices.

Start with yourself: make good choices which will keep your bad choices from becoming unfair tax burdens to others. Think of it as being patriotic and choose wisely.

Special Advisory Reports

The Denver Auditor's Office has initiated a special service for city agencies which can provide information based on a limited review or time-critical assessement. Special Audit Advisories are not in full compliances with auditing standards, they are non-audit services which can further the accountabillity of the city by providing a reporting vehicle that is flexible, timely, and focused on a singular issue.

Our staff recently issued a special advisory report to the administration of Denver International Airport. The information provided in the report was developed during a a performance audit of the Department of Aviation's safety culture.

The report emphasized the importance of a holistic approach to safety. The report defined safety culture as "those aspects of the organizational culture which will impact on attitudes and behavior related to increasing or decreasing risk." A footnote in the reprot identifies this quote to G. W. Guldenmund in an article in Safety Science entitled "The nature of safety culture, a review of theory and research."

The report's research showed light on two important elements for estblishing an effective safety culture. Firstly senior management must embrace and make a long-term commitment to safety. Second, the report pointed out that employees are an important source for safety ideas. The participation of employees, those on the front lines of action at the airport are crutial to making sure a safety culture is maintained at the highest level at the airport.

Additionally, the research "revealed insights into the importance of training, the best ways to develop leading indicators of safety performance, and how the organizational structure should reflect a commitment to safety."

Citizens can read the SAR Special Advisory Report on the Auditor's webpage:

Special Advisory Reports serve as great tools, like picks and shovels to an archeologist, to help change the culture at the city to one of accountability. I often wonder if I should not have majored in anthropology in order to be a better auditor, a better cultural change agent in our city. But studying Classical Languages, as I happily did, certainly gives anyone a good foundation to understand and change organizational cultures.

We look forward to picking away at apathy and shovel away obstacles to organizational accountabillity at our city.

Unintended Consequences

In December 2009 I wrote an answer explaining why now Denver taxpayers
have to send their tax payments to Dallas, Texas for deposit. Lots of
small business owners button holed me in their stores, in coffee shops
and on the streets asking why they had to waste all that time to send
their taxes and fees to Dallas. They said this was not very business
friendly for Denver to do this to their business folks. Some said they
thought their payments would be late.

A friend, trying to renew his burglar alarm permit just wrote me that he
was "hesitating to mail my check to Dallas, Texas. I figured it was
some sort of scam. Why in the world would the Denver Manager of Revenue
have a Dallas P. O. Box?" At first I too thought it might have been
some cruel hoax perpetrated by an egregious hacker.

But city council staff answered that "a decision was made last year to
decommission the mainframe that housed the program used for burglar
alarm permits. A 'Request for Proposals' was issued and an evaluation
committee identified a solution offered by PMAM Corp., to administer
burglar alarm permits. The City uses lockbox services provided by the
City's primary bank, JP Morgan Chase, to process checks and the Treasury
Division assisted Excise and Licenses in setting up a lockbox to receive
alarm permit fees and tines. The location for large volume lockbox
processing by the bank is also located in Dallas."

Marshall McLuhan, renowned professor of Media Ecology at St. Louis
University, coined the phrase, "the medium is the message." That phrase
helps explain the unintended consequences of the Texas lockbox.

In the eyes of many Denver citizens the message of the medium of the
Dallas P.O.Box for their taxes now bears the stigma of being a possible
scam. The hiring committee at the city did not imagine the spam
connection with their decision on the Dallas lockbox.

When my friend got this answer, he wrote back: "I am always reluctant to
send money to Texas."

When this contract comes up for renewal again, I bet council and the
mayor may look for a provider with a Denver address on tax and burglar
alarm payments. And as long as the policy change has no unintended
consequence and is competitive in price that is.

Stimulus Fund

You might recall a long time ago,last year, I went to Washington to lobby our Colorado Congressional delegation to put additional audit staff at state and local levels to make sure auditors could monitor the stimulus monies properly. Regrettably no moneys were added for audit staff to monitor the stimulus moneys. So local land state auditors and recipient agencies dealing with millions in stimulus dollars have the increased burden to monitor those funds with the same amount of staff before ARRA funds. Now the cows are out of the barn.

Now an inspector general report on the Recovery Act notes that job shortages in federal sectors present problems.

Here are some examples:

Energy department officials pulled staff from other areas to deal with recovery grants but they "lacked financial experience and failed to get key information from grant seekers." USA Today, September 8, 2010. The result for Energy was even more delays.

FEMA has experienced grant delays and decreased oversight due to lack of knowledgeable staff to review it.

Energy complained the money was flowing to their agency and no one was there to manage it.

This is just as I predicted. And I am very proud of John Carlson and our whole Audit Staff for their participation in the recent Mountain and Plains Audit Forum Conference on Auditing Simulus Moneys. I was honored to co-chair the event. Over 120 attended the conference and we all learned lots about the risks to federal stimulus dollars mentioned above. In Denver we are trying to alert departments in our city receiving stimulus moneys of potential risks and internal control issues. Hope you heard me on Colorado Public Radio talking about it. We have issued several audit alerts related to the city's handling of stimulus grants.

St. Rocco's Procession

Last year you might recall my blog this time of year on St. Rocco's procession at Mt. Carmel Church in North Denver gave us a hint on how the recession was affection the economy in our city.

Each August, the Potenza Lodge of Mt. Carmel Church hosts the bidding of the carrying of the statue of the saint through the neighborhood around the church at W. 36th and Navajo. Many people who came to Colorado from Italy, came from Potenza. This last Sunday was the annual Procession of the Statue of St. Rocco. Marie Lava Clayton was there, the Italian Consul was there, Dutchess Iacino Scheitler was there along with the Casagranda's and the LaNegro's all the way from Boulder. I was there, Tony Lombard and his mom were there and several hundred other people from all over were there. Tom Tancredo did not make it. This year the band with lots of trumpets and trombones enlivened the march along the streets of North Denver. The procession brought smiles to the people who come out on porches to watch.

Last year families from the parish bid slightly over $2,000 to carry the statue. That figure was down from previous years which I took as a sign of a tough economy. But this year the bidding family topped over $5,000 which prompted my cousin, Captain Brian Gallagher of Denver's Police Department, to speculate that the high bid may be a good sign that the recovery is around the corner. I argued that it was probably more generous parishoners, not economic recovery.

After the procession through the neighborhood during which two young women dressed as angels handed out flowers to all the women along the parade route, the people made their way to Potenza Lodge across from Leprino's Cheeze Offices on West 38th. Experts say the feast serves the best sausage and green pepper sandwiches in the city.

Finally, friends, amici, this procession is what truly separates Denver from the suburbs. This is community building at the best. This parade is what makes Denver a great city. You just don't get something this special, old-world, ethnic, loveable and meaningful in Cherry Hills Village.

Art and Calligraphy as Economic Development

I am sure it never crossed the minds of the patient monks on the Island of Iona off the coast of Scotland whothe year 800 A.D. penned what we now call the Book of Kells that their work would be viewed by over 500,000 visitors a year. But that is what has happened to this Latin copy of the gospels.

After Viking raids and much pillaging by the same, the Irish monks and pious calligraphers decided to move inland on Ireland to the town of Kells. There the text rested until the Cromwellian days. Cromwell wanted to destroy it because it was a papist text and contained pagan symbols and even the renderings of animals.

In the 11th century Gerald of Cambridge saw it and declared it the work of angels and not of men.

We don't even know the names of the several monks who wrote these magnificent words of the four gospels because it would have been showing pride to put their names on a page.

I guess what I am saying here is that Denver and Colorado can do more to promote the arts as a means of getting us out of this recession which is taking longer to get out of than we thought.

History and Myth as Economic Development

I returned recently from my class in Ireland with Regis University students. One of the many areas of Irish culture we study is how the Irish appreciate good stories and myths. And the Irish have turned history and myth into a very prosperous tourist industry. Myth as tourist attraction is particularly evident at Blarney Castle. Every year I stand in amazement as I watch my students line up to kiss the famous Blarney Stone. The myth and history reports that an ancient king who lived around Blarney Castle had a terrible problem, he had a slight speech hesitation, he stumbled when he spoke, he fumbled with his cloak when he gave speeches to his people. He feared giving a speech more than going to war. The Blarney attraction brings in millions in economic development, stone, wool sweaters, restaurants and the like.

One rainy day, which seems like every day in Ireland, the king came upon a whithered crone sitting near the gates of the castle. The soft rain was washing down down upon her wrinkled face. The king took pity on the old woman and gaver her his cloak to cover her from the rain and chill.

She thanked him, I beleive his name was McCarthy, and she wished to reward him for his kindness. She told him to go up to the top of the Blarney castle and kiss this particular stone below one of the overhangs of the castle. If he did so, she told him, he would be cured of his speech hesitation, his speech stumbling and fumbling and his fear of giving a speech. If he kissed the stone, he would be granted the gift of "eloquentia perfects" perfect eloquence.

The king did so and miraculously received the power of perfect eloquence.

So now thousand upon thousands of visitors line up at the castle in hopes they will be able to overcome their fear of giving speeches. Did you know that the fear of giving a speech is ranked as the number one fear by a vast majority of people who are asked People pay good money for this mythological service. I don't think we have anything to compare with the Blarney story which is several hundred years old.

I guess the closest we in Colorado come to such history and myth as tourism compared to Blarney are places like the Great Sand Dunes and Mesa Verde. Local history attracts many hundreds of visitors to a lesser degree Buffalo Bill's grave and Leadville and Central City. And the holy water at Mother Cabrini's Shrine near Golden has been reported to help cure physical and mental ailments. These old and some ancient sites have lots of mystery and mythology surrounding them to appeal to enough of our human foibles to encourage us to want to visit such places. Tragedy can be a source of visitor interest: consider Sand Creek and Ludlow massacres here in our state. Bothe sites are remote and off the beaten path. It takes special efforts to find these sites. Though I fear our civic memory has diminished the tragic in our history as well. Only one of my students on the Regis Ireland trip could tell me the year JFK was assassinated.

I guess what I am trying to say here is that we should not discount myth, history and legend as sources of potential economic tourism. We must continue to think outside the box if we are to recover from the fiscal crisis which engulfs us. Otherwise we can kiss recovery "goodbye," like the thousands kissing the Blarney stone in hopes of perfect eloquence.

In as pirit of full disclosure I must report that I have never kissed the Blarney Stone. I am afraid it might recharge and fall from its lofty place on the top of the castle roof.