The Commonwealth Iconoclast

A site dedicated to covering issues relevant to the Commonwealth of Virginia, and nation at large, plus other interesting things too, as I see fit...

Tuesday, March 28, 2006


The French Model

For those who look to Europe as an enlightened, progressive model of civilization, take a look at Paris today.

A very sobering vision indeed.

Perhaps there are lessons to learn from this vision.

Friday, March 24, 2006





Who gets fooled? Who are the fools? Those are the questions for April Fools Day in little Cumberland County, Virginia with the scheduled protest rally involving the County’s current efforts to take land by Eminent Domain. See local media report.

Readers of the Iconoclast may recall the story about little Cumberland County in Southside, Virginia and their efforts to take back a property they sold as surplus only three years ago to John and Mary Meeks, local real estate investors.

The property previously known as the Luther P. Jackson Elementary School includes a complex of former school buildings and 20 acres of land on U.S. Route 60 in Cumberland, Virginia. Three years ago, County officials determined that the vacant and functionally obsolete property was surplus and sold it at public auction for $110,000. See previous Iconoclast article.

Now, County officials have determined that they want the land and buildings back for the purpose of…guess what… school facilities!

Problem is, there seems to be a slight difference of opinion concerning the value of the land. The County wants to pay the Meeks’ $200,000 for the land and buildings and the Meeks’ want something in the range of $2 million for the land and buildings! One might say that the two parties are “light-years” apart on the question of property value.

So, why doesn’t the County take their business elsewhere, buy a new site at a reasonable price and build the needed facilities? Wouldn't the County have other options? Good questions? Problem is... the County needs school classrooms right now! There is no time to build new school class rooms. So the old school seems now to be an attractive option... especially since they didn't plan ahead for any other options.

Why did the County end up with this self-inflicted crisis in the first place? Who is doing the planning for the County's school needs? There are lots of questions but few answers.

While the Iconoclast is certainly sympathetic to the needs of education, we wonder if the underlying issue is about the honorable ends being inappropriately used to justify otherwise offensive means…in other words… doing bad things to achieve good results. Should local government be doing this?

To find out who gets fooled and who the fools are, keep your eyes on the protest rally in Cumberland, Virginia on Saturday, April 1, 2006 (10:00 a.m. to 12:00 noon).

The Iconoclast will be watching.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Politicians and Dumps

Not Such Strange Bedfellows

Conflicting Emotions and Motivations

Have you ever noticed that politicians and dumps are always in the news? Why is that?

In recent weeks, politicians and dumps in New Kent, Cumberland and now Chesterfield are making headlines.

Increasingly, politicians have assumed an awkward position of conflicting emotions and motivations regarding the issue of commercial dumps. The politicians need the dumps to deal with their own local trash problems. Commercial businesses motivated by profit want the job and are willing to spare localities the trouble of running operating a dump under increasingly strict federal, state and local rules.

Commercial dumps are not necessarily going to save consumers money, but they may if large enough and efficient enough. Sometimes commercial dumps wind up costing the consummer more but still they save the local government the bother. Maybe that alone is worth it.

Also, believe it or not, more and more local governments are looking to commercial dumps as “economic development” and a way to bring in revenues to the public coffers. The jobs may not be all that numerous or appealing but the financial motivations may be quite compelling to local politicians.

Proper waste management is very expensive and waste management is big business. In fact, dumps are no longer called “dumps.” They are called “landfills” and they are very carefully engineered and regulated to protect the environment… a big improvement over past practices. Because of this, landfills are subject to lots of rules and regulations and official governmental monitoring.

Thus, businesses involved with waste management must live with the idea that government is going to be looking over their shoulder all the time…and rightly so considering the potential environmental risk of improper waste disposal. Frequently, local government inspectors monitor commercial landfills on a daily basis.

No matter how you look at it, trash is all about the money! So in a nut shell, this is why politicians and dumps are making the news and why politicians and dumps are not such strange bedfellows after all.

But there is a potential problem when government and waste management people get too cozy and the politicians have conflicting emotions and motivations about how they deal with the commercial landfill operators.

Earlier this week the Richmond Times Dispatch reported that president of Shoosmith Brothers Inc, a business operating a commercial landfill in Chesterfield County, was a central player in the ill-fated attempt by the Chesterfield Chamber of Commerce to pay back the $18,000 for the County Administrator Lane Ramsey’s charter jet trip back to Chesterfield to respond to a personal and legal crisis involving the then Chairman of the Board.

This raises some questions, especially since Tony Lucas, president of Shoosmith is not even a member of the Chamber of Commerce but does head a highly regulated Chesterfield County based commercial landfill.

To be clear, Mr. Lucas did not just give $18,000 to the County to make Mr. Ramsey’s embarrassing lapse of judgment go away. But Shoosmith’s president did essentially “front” the money so that the Chamber of Commerce could act fast and present a check for the $18,000 to the County. Shoosmith’s actual share of the total was much smaller, only a few hundred dollars. But fronting this much money is no small gesture.

To explain his leadership role in this matter Mr. Lucas was quoted as saying that ‘I don’t agree with the flight, but I sympathize with the position [Ramsey] was in.”

Sympathize with the position? What position exactly is he in sympathy with? Does he have a problem with public officials being accountable for their actions? Was this revelation of poor judgment unfair? What?

While it is now clear that politicians and dumps are not such strange bedfellows, this case is a vivid reminder that politicians should always remember that waste management is big business, motivated by profit and is subject to governmental regulation.

Perhaps politicians everywhere would be well reminded to make sure that that their economic motivations to become “bedfellows” with the dump...I mean landfill... operators do not compromise or override their regulatory responsibility to protect the public interest.

Saturday, March 18, 2006


Town of Saltville Finds Innovative Way to Fill Town Coffers

And To

Silence Citizen Voices

The Iconoclast never has any difficulty in finding good examples of bad behavior by public officials.

Our latest example is the little Town of Saltville in Smyth County out in Southwest Virginia.

According to a recent news item in Richmond Times Dispatch, the Town of Saltville has filed a $687,760 civil law suit against one Shirley Ann “Sissy” Bailey of nearby Glade Spring alleging that her “strenuous protest of the town’s plan to turn an abandoned railroad track into a hiking trail has crossed the line from opposition to unlawful and belligerent interference.” The suit includes $337,760 in compensatory damages and $350,000 in punitive damages. See more details on this in the Richmond Times Dispatch.

Town officials justify the law suit for fear that the 51 year old lady or her fellow protesters “could turn violent.” Saltville economic development director Tracy Mitchell was quoted as saying that “We just don’t want violence” and explained that Ms. Bailey was “targeted” in hopes that it would “quiet other land owners and end the dispute over the ownership of the rail line.”

Could turn violent? Targeted? Quiet others?

Since when is a hypothetical crime actionable? One might reasonably guess that Ms. Bailey is probably a royal pain in the butt to the town officials. But the words of the economic development director reveal a disturbing motivation behind the town’s action against this lady and her friends. This sounds an awful lot like intimidation to quash voices of dissent under the color of official governmental authority.

Let us be very clear here before we go further. The Iconoclast is not going to take sides on the merits of the dispute over the ownership of the rail line. The Iconoclast does not know all the facts of the case concerning the history of this dispute or the various legal arguments and facts pertaining to the ownership of the rail line property. These kinds of legal questions just need to work their way through the process. Also, the Iconoclast has absolutely no problem with the Town of Saltville trying to pursue this economic development project.

However, the Iconoclast does have a problem with the idea of public officials from the Town of Saltville trying to intimidate and stifle the right of free speech by filing a law suit that threatens financial ruin to a “targeted” individual with the express hope that it will “quiet others” involved in this dispute.

This is fundamentally wrong!

It is also an attempt by people who are in public offices to undermine a basic Constitutional right as provided in the First Amendment, namely freedom of speech.

Citizens can some times be cantankerous and disagreeable. However, in America, citizens have a basic right to express their opinions so long as those expressions do not go beyond certain boundaries to jeopardize public safety or the rights of others.

If Ms. Bailey is committing some act of violence, she is probably in violation of some section of the criminal code. So the Town of Saltville should file appropriate criminal charges whether they are felony or misdemeanors. Haul her into criminal court, present the charges and the evidence and let her face the charges. If she is convicted, let her face the consequences prescribed by law.

But no, the Town of Saltville is going after this lady through a civil suit to recover what most would see as a very significant amount of money… probably far in excess of any monetary fine likely to come from any criminal prosecution of her actions. The word punitive, like in to punish, should sound some alarms here.

Is this some new form of creative public financing? If successful it will certainly keep the local tax rate low and disgruntled citizens silent and bankrupted. Anyone having even the mildest of concern about any public action by the Town of Saltville will be well advised to keep their mouths tightly shut for fear of similar repercussions.

But seriously, this action is a sign of something much more ominous: an attack on civil liberties by the very government that is supposed to be protecting those liberties.

For a local unit of government to file a civil law suit against Ms. Bailey based on what Ms. Bailey or her friends might do in the future is a ridiculous concept and abuse of civil liberties. It is also, clear that the intent of the Town of Saltville to intimidate and silence dissenting voices of citizens within their community. Intimidation of this sort is something we like to think is only found in backwards countries where you have dictators and military bosses in charge.

Citizens of America deserve better behavior of their public officials. This abusive behavior by public officials in the Town of Saltville should be loudly condemned by all freedom loving citizens everywhere.

As for Ms. Bailey, she had better watch her self and stay on the right side of the line or she will surely be facing the consequences. But so long as she remains on the right side of the line, let the lady speak.

Let freedom ring!

Monday, March 13, 2006

Eminent Domain Virginia Style

Eminent Domain Virginia Style

Should Citizens Fear their Local Government?

Case Study: Cumberland County Kangaroo Court

Who ever said that “all politics is local” sure hit the old nail right on the head!

This past year, readers might vaguely remember the buzz about the decision of the United States Supreme Court in a case referred to as Kelo vs. New London. To listen to civil libertarians talk, this decision was tantamount to the collapse of Western civilization and a giant step towards totalitarianism in America.

To the average person, Kelo wasn’t really seen as all that relevant to those core issues that we as Americans are duty-bound to fight to the death over… you know… freedom of speech, abortion, the right to keep and bear arms, abortion, and… did I mention abortion?

Kelo was about extending the concept of “Eminent Domain” to applications never before seen, at least in America. Hell, the term Eminent Domain isn’t even an American term as far as I can see. It is a legal term going back to the Old World and at least as far back as 1730. Before that time, kings and other assorted potentates could do pretty much as they pleased anyway so they had no need for a fancy legal term like Eminent Domain.

The concept of Eminent Domain, in a nut shell, means that the government, federal, state or local, has the superior right of sovereignty to take your land. Normally, to do so, the government needs to have appropriate public interest justification. Also, Eminent Domain presumes “fair compensation” for the parties giving up their property.

But the Kelo decision is significant in that it effectively broadens the public interest justification for Eminent Domain to include economic reasons. It is in this realm that the entire concept of public interest justification and fair compensation gets very blurry and… very scary. From the Kelo decision, citizens now have a good reason to be fearful of local governments across America and across the Commonwealth.

The fact is, Kelo, while not having the “hot button” appeal as some other issues (abortion for example) turns out to be a pretty darned scary Supreme Court precedent and one that has already come home to roost right here in our own beloved Commonwealth and even in our littlest and most tranquil communities. For example: Cumberland County.

What may be one of the most egregious abuses of the concept of Eminent Domain since the U.S. Supreme Court decided Kelo vs. New London this past year may be the case soon to be known as Meeks vs. Cumberland County. The facts of the case as we understand them from the Richmond Times Dispatch are as follows.

About three years ago, Cumberland County elected to auction off the Luther P. Jackson Elementary School and grounds. No doubt, the property had been idle and neglected for a number of years. Like so many other old school facilities, the Jackson School probably had a long and productive service life but finally out-lived its functional usefulness. Renovating old buildings is expensive and often not as cost effective as building new. The County did what many other communities have opted to do. They sold the old school building at public auction.

A bidder acquired the old school building and 20 acres of land for $110,000. The buyer was a Farmville area realtor, one Mary Meeks and her husband. According to news reports, after the property was acquired, Ms. Meeks mortgaged the property to get a $250,000 loan and spent about $400,000 towards fixing up the facilities. The facility is presently being used for a variety of commercial and community activities.

So far, so good.

But now, lo and behold, the County wants the building and grounds back and they want to use it for…guess what… educational facilities.

Cumberland County might have planned ahead and considered their future needs before unloading the old school for what appears to be a very modest financial gain, thus avoiding this entire problem. But, that is another story for another time. We are concerned here about the fate of the Western civilization and the frightening trend towards an American totalitarianism.

The real problem is not about second guessing the judgment of Cumberland County officials who made the original mistake by auctioning off the property. The real problem rests with the current Cumberland County officials who are abusing private property rights through a heavy handed and inappropriate application of Eminent Domain.

After deciding that they wanted the property back, the County did not waste any time with negotiations or other niceties. They started off with an ultimatum that the County intended to condemn the property and that they would pay Ms. Meeks the sum of $200,000, notwithstanding the mortgage, other investments, or Ms. Meek's trouble in trying to redevelop the property. Apparently this sum was based on the County’s estimate of the property’s worth and not the owner's estimate.

Nor was this a hollow threat. Cumberland County fulfilled its threat by filing a condemnation suit and a certificate of taking against the property and deposited their $200,000 check with the Circuit Court in Cumberland County. Underscoring this heavy handedness, County officials showed up in person this past week to officially declare ownership of the property.

Indeed, $200,000 is more than the Ms. Meeks paid for the property, but according to news accounts, this amount is far short of her total investments in the property and the mortgage. So in effect, the County wants the current owner, Ms. Meeks an her husband, to “eat” whatever losses they may incur in the interest of bailing out Cumberland County for its lack of foresight.

The Iconoclast appreciates that the underlying intentions of the County may be to address a legitimate need for school space that was not planned for… honorable enough but misguided. Cumberland County’s failure to plan ahead is not sufficient justification for abusing the rights of private property owners.

The Iconoclast also understands that the concept of Eminent Domain is valid and may be appropriately applied to certain public needs when justified and when property owners are fairly compensated. But bailing the County out for bad decision making hardly rises to this standard.

In the end, this case study about the misapplication of Eminent Domain in Cumberland County is probably all the Virginia General Assembly needs to understand that the taking of private property for public use must be exercised sparingly, for unquestionably critical and legitimate public purposes, and by fair due process.

Ms. Meeks is quoted as saying: “I’ll take it all the way to the Supreme Court.” Presumably she means the same U.S. Supreme Court that handed down the decision on Kelo vs. New London just last year thus opening the door wide to such abuses in the first place.

Now it is up to the Virginia General Assembly slam the door shut on this scary trend of abusing the concept of Eminent Domain before too many local officials acquire a taste for totalitarianism.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

And the Debt goes on... The Debt goes on...

Wednesday, March 08, 2006



In recent news we learn that U.S. Attorneys are delivering a “gift” of $1 million dollars to the good citizens of Buchanan County, Virginia as a final chapter in the ongoing story of “Operation Big Coon Dog”.

This is indeed good news after a long and difficult three years since the Great Flash Flood of 2002 in Buchanan County left two dead and many homeless in the Hurley community of this rural Southwest Virginia County.

While the flood was certainly a major community tragedy, the scars left by the flood are perhaps more easily healed than the scars left by the betrayal of public trust by those Buchanan County officials who were duty bound to protect the public interest, but who instead, elected to cash in on the adversity of those citizens who they were sworn to serve.

We know that times of adversity often bring out the best of human nature and allow individuals to transcend their day-to-day limitations and to rise above all expectations to serve the greater good of their fellow men. Well… this just didn’t happen in Buchanan County. Indeed, the opposite happened. The great adversity that afflicted the citizens of Buchanan County in the Hurley community during the Great Flash Flood of 2002 brought out the worst of human nature… greed, betrayal of public trust and corruption... at least in the hallowed halls of the Buchanan County Courthouse.

Readers of the Iconoclast may recall that “Operation Big Coon Dog” is an ongoing federal public corruption case. Since its inception, this case has resulted in the indictment and conviction of sixteen individuals who saw the tragedy of their neighbors as nothing more than an opportunity to cash in for personal gain.

Of those 16 individuals who were indicted, one was the then current Chairman of the Buchanan County Board of Supervisors James Ralph “Pete” Stiltner Jr. and another was the former Chairman of the Buchanan County Board of Supervisors, Stuart Ray Blankenship. These two “gentlemen” served in the County’s highest office of responsibility and public trust! Instead of watching out for the public interests, these to fine gentlemen elected to sell their integrity and their offices for cash, trinkets, and coon dogs.

Also indicted was former Board of Supervisors member Calvin Leo Ward.

Joining these high elected officials were a number of County administrative officials including the County Road Inspector, the County Coal Road Engineer, and the County Emergency Services Coordinator, and a number of “businessmen” who reaped the profits of this widespread public corruption.

While this “gift” of $1 million dollars coming from seized assets is perhaps significant, it is little more than a symbolic gesture in comparison to Buchanan County’s annual operating budget currently at about $31 million. But this symbol is not so much about the money as it is about bringing closure to the citizens of Buchanan who were betrayed by their highest and most trusted political leadership at a time of enormous community tragedy.

The County could spend the money on repairing roads or on some other needed community project. But, from a practical perspective, a million dollars just doesn’t go very far these days. The money will be soon gone and there will be nothing left to evoke memories of this sad but significant chapter in Buchanan County’s history. The hard lessons learned may be forgotten. And that would be a tragedy.

Maybe, the current Buchanan Board of Supervisors should think long and hard about this gift and find a truly fitting use for the $1 million dollars. Some ideas that come to mind include the following.

Spend some of the money on voter education programs for the citizens of Buchanan County. This could include “Get out the vote” campaigns, a guest speaker program on citizen involvement and public integrity, and scholarships for students who seek to pursue careers in public service. Maybe this could help strengthen the leadership potential in Buchanan County and lead to more responsible County government in the future.

Perhaps they could spend some of the money to educate County officials on ethics and public integrity issues and the responsibilities of public officials to make these concepts rules to live by. Spend a few bucks to send these officials to school and training programs so that they know and understand the concept of public ethics.

For a very modest annual cost, they could establish an office and independent citizen commission to oversee the development of ethical standards for County officials, to hear complaints and to enforce those standards. Such a program, if taken seriously could help head off little problems before they get out of hand and could go a long way towards restoring public faith.

But these kinds of programs, while perhaps appropriate, are somewhat academic and limited in what they can accomplish in the long run. These programs will require time and considerable individual initiative to produce lasting results. Eventually the money will run out and these important concepts may again be forgotten opening the door again to the potential of new abuses. Maybe there is an easier way to guarantee for the long haul that no one in Buchanan County will ever forget “Operation Big Coon Dog” and the sacred responsibility that public officials have to protect the public trust.

To this end, perhaps they could spend some money for a big bronze statue of a “Coon Dog” to be placed in the Courthouse square to remind the citizens and whoever is currently occupying those positions of high public trust in the Courthouse of where they have been and where they never want to go again.

Everybody likes dogs. This would be a classic win-win solution. The big bronze “Coon Dog” would be enjoyed by little children who have occasion to visit the Courthouse square. The “Coon Dog” is an icon of the rural culture of Southwest Virginia and would conjure up in the minds of the old timers fond memories of so many pleasant days in the fields and woods. It would be a “tourist attraction” that could be the backdrop for family vacation pictures for those visiting beautiful Buchanan County. The big bronze “Coon Dog” could be many things to many different people!

But for those who would aspire to hold positions of public trust… for now and for the next three hundred years or so… the big bronze “Coon Dog” would be a constant reminder of their sacred responsibility to protect the public trust and to never forget what happened in the hallowed halls of the Buchanan County Courthouse in 2002.

Perhaps this would be money very well spent. Don’t you think?

Your ideas please?

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

George Allen backs down from a fight?!

George Allen backs down from a fight?! What's next the Cubs will win a World Series?

Senator George “knock their lilly white teeth out” Allen appears to be backing down from a fight, and get this - over taxes! Yesterday, Senator Allen met with assembly Republicans to give them a “pep talk” of sorts, but this time George’s tone was much different. If you remember, two years ago Senator Allen charged down I-95 to Richmond like a Rough Rider charging San Juan Heights and blasted Governor Warner – in his normal caustic, arrogant, and smug self – over proposed tax increases.

But yesterday Allen pranced down to Richmond from the beltway as if he were riding “my little pony”. If assembly Republicans were looking for their spiritual leader to “rally the troops” with his usually dependable dose of venom, they didn’t get it. When discussing potentially increasing taxes to fund needed transportation improvements Allen stated, “I am encouraged that all sides recognize we need more money for transportation.” Huh? What? So it aint so!

I would imagine that Allen realizes that each move he makes from now until November will be under a microscope. Senator Allen knows that the residents of voter rich Northern Virginia are tired of sitting in traffic, and that these same voters could very well determine his fate come November. Therefore yesterday it appeared that Senator Allen chose to stay firmly planted in reality for a change, and advocated for solutions versus partisan grand standing - even if only for an election year. (By the way hopefully solutions to Nova’s traffic woes will be more comprehensive than simply constructing more roads.)

For once I will have to agree with Senator Allen. Yes, it’s obvious that the Commonwealth needs additional funds dedicated to improving transportation, and I too hope that all sides recognize this and find an acceptable solution. It’s just too bad that such pragmatism only comes from Allen during an election year (which by the way will be his first as an incumbent). For Allen maybe this is a good start? But just maybe it’s too little too late?

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Can You Identify this American Progressive?

I'm going to add a new twist to the Iconoclast. I'm going to try to add an image each week or so of an individual who - through their progressive ideals, thoughts, and actions - has helped to shape our nation into not only the "home of the brave", but also the "land of the free".

This weeks I'll start with someone whose progressive ideals made this nation a better place for all Americans. This one should be easy!

Friday, March 03, 2006

Indictments Rain on Appalachia's Centennial Parade!





I guess we knew it was coming. We have been hearing the rumblings for some time. But little did we know just how bad it would be for the little Town of Appalachia, Virginia.

The 300 page indictment handed down Thursday by a Wise County Grand Jury listed the Town of Appalachia’s Mayor/Manager Ben Ellis Cooper and thirteen co-conspirators, most of whom were previously considered “pillars of the community” in an elaborate and ongoing conspiracy to hijack the election process, achieve control of the governing body, give out important positions to friends and family, and to generally rip off the good citizens of Appalachia in a number of greed-driven scams.

Along the Honorable Mayor Ben Ellis Cooper, also indicted were Owen Anderson Sharrett, III, Owen Anderson Sharrett, Jr., Adam Brody Sherrett, Belinda Carolyn Sherrett, Betty Chloe Sharrett Bolling, Dennis Martin Sharrett, Kevin Lee Sharrett, Benjamin Grahm Surber, Don Huston Estridge, Betty Roxann Riddle, Krystal Shana Chandler Turner, Natasha Sherrett Mullins and Walter Mike Baber.

There are some indications that others may have been involved in some aspects of this conspiracy but only the named above were indicted.

Owen Anderson Sherrett, III is on the Appalachia Town Council, and Benjamin Grahm Surber is the head of the Town of Appalachia Police Department, receiving that important appointment after his cronies successfully stole the May 2004 election. Many of the co-conspirators are related to “Andy” Sherret, III including his brother, father, mother, great aunt, and a couple of uncles… a real family affair.

The others who were indicted were just cronies and “partners in crime” who perhaps found it handy and perhaps profitable to have “friends in high places.”

The whole 300 page indictment makes for interesting reading and reveals a certain “above the law” attitude that apparently blinded these individuals to the fact that what they were doing was wrong and to the incredible arrogance in believing that no one was noticing their gradual slide to dark side of local politics, vindictiveness, greed, megalomania and corruption.

The indictment states that “The plan, scheme and conspiracy to get these three people elected included committing numerous criminal acts…” Indeed the 14 indicted individuals collectively face 917 specific charges. The Honorable Mayor Cooper himself faces 244 felony counts.

And as we have recently speculated, those charges go far beyond the stealing of the election. We now learn of allegations of stealing from citizens, illegal drugs, and just raw abuse of power in acts of retribution against perceived enemies. The March 3rd edition of the Richmond Times Dispatch stated that “Once in power, they turned Town Hall into a fiefdom where they could hire family, steal from residents and settle personal scores…”.

I can see a movie coming out of this pitiful story…

But how did this happen in a sleepy little community like Appalachia? Answer: Apparently the whole mess came about largely through the forcefulness of one very ego driven and amoral Ben Ellis Cooper and a cadre of willing accomplices who saw an opportunity to rise above the law and enjoy the fruits of a variety of inappropriate and illegal scams.

The Roanoke Time provides some interesting background on Ben Ellis Cooper in their March 3rd edition in an article entitled “Critics says town’s mayor rules with an iron fist”. This article details the background of a retired military man originally from Appalachia who served most of his military career in the U.S. Air Force in Florida. Since retiring back to his home in Appalachia, the 63 year old Cooper has taken an interest in “civic affairs” and has quickly risen to the top of the Appalachia political power structure through his forceful “top-down” management style characterized by heavy-handedness, micromanagement, excessive control, clashes with colleagues and vindictiveness towards those who he perceives to be a threat to his “command.”

This systemic official corruption in the Town of Appalachia did not appear overnight. Indeed, most of the charges just announced are based on crimes committed two years ago or more. The investigation has been ongoing for at least a year. When exactly the problem started is anyone’s guess.

However, I would speculate that a slightly complacent public attitude to turn a blind eye to unseemly behavior by public officials may have provided the fertile ground for this kind of corruption to get a foot hold and grow. What started out as a slightly comical story of buying votes with “pork rinds” is, in retrospect, no laughing matter. Toleration or acquiescence to small digressions opens the door to larger offences and the kind of systemic official corruption we see here.

This is a tragic and expensive lesson, but perhaps a new and hopeful beginning for the Town of Appalachia. Therefore in honor of the Town's recent 100th Centinnial a parade just might be in order!

Thursday, March 02, 2006

The Future of Higher Education: Bricks-n-Sticks vs. Point and Click?

It’s hard to live near a public college/university campus in the Commonwealth and not hear the roar of a bulldozer or the banging of a hammer. For instance, when I’m in Harrisonburg I constantly hear folks tell me that JMU will be increasing its enrollment by an additional 5,000 – 10,000 students in the next 10 years. Now, I don’t know exactly how accurate this number might be, but I think it’s safe to assume that a sort of “arms race” is now underway in the Commonwealth – and other states as well - in regard to our public institutions of learning.

But as Universities throughout the Country expand their physical campuses, in order to accommodate the influx of new students, another interesting trend is developing. For-profit institutions of higher learning – many of which exclusively conduct classes on-line – appear to be gaining favor with students, and more importantly Congressional legislators. For instance, yesterday the New York Times reported that Congress has recently scrapped the “one half rule”, and now will allow for students enrolled in on-line universities to have full access to Federal financial aid. Here’s a quick blurb from the NYT piece:

It took just a few paragraphs in a budget bill for Congress to open a new frontier in education: Colleges will no longer be required to deliver at least half their courses on a campus instead of online to qualify for federal student aid.

That change is expected to be of enormous value to the commercial education industry. Although both for-profit colleges and traditional ones have expanded their Internet and online offerings in recent years, only a few dozen universities are fully Internet-based, and most of them are for-profit ones.

The provision is just one sign of how an industry that once had a dubious reputation has gained new influence, with well-connected friends in the government and many Congressional Republicans sympathetic to their entrepreneurial ethic.

I don’t have a passionate opinion for or against the merits of on-line education. I do take pride that I received both my undergraduate and graduate degrees the “old fashion” way. Yes, by the time I attended graduate school portions of a few of my courses were conducted exclusively on-line. It seemed to work fine to me.

Think about it, if someone wants to further their education and an on-line program helps them to do this - then super. Unfortunately, on-line universities are not without controversies. Even the popular University of Phoenix, which presently has an enrollment of over 300,000 students, has had its share of problems. For instance, the Apollo Group - a company that the University of Phoenix outsources with to handle financial aid – has had several well-documented run-ins with the law:

In August 2005, Apollo Group was fined $343,000 (less than one percent of the federal funding the company received during the period) for two federal violations that involved student funding programs. The Office of the Inspector General stated that the university improperly used funds crediting student accounts for fees on prior learning assessments. Another discovery was that it had issued funds to students enrolled in ineligible programs. Apollo's after-tax income for the three-year period was nearly $700 million.

Of course other controversies surrounding the University of Phoenix involve things like Admission Counselors aggressively recruiting potential students in order to meet quotas. On an anecdotal level, I have a family friend who has been employed as an Admissions Director for many years at Strayer University, a for-profit institution of higher learning, which has several campuses throughout the Commonwealth. I’ll never forget when several years back I asked how things were going at Strayer. The answer caught me off guard. It went something like this: “Super, our stock is up $20 in the last 6 months.” (Note: To my knowledge the majority of Strayer’s programs are traditional “classroom” courses, not internet based, but I do believe that Strayer does offer a healthy dose of internet only courses.)

Regardless, my intention here is not to bash on-line education. I’m willing to accept that the paradigm has shifted, and that on-line education indeed has the potential to provide access to higher education to individuals who (because of their careers, schedules, children, etc.) never dreamed of attending college. But it does appear that two divergent forces are at play here: Congressional leadership which seems to be willing to extend access to billions of dollars of Federal aid to students enrolling in on-line education, and states which appear to be willing to spend billions of dollars on “bricks and mortar” to accommodate traditional students. My question: can the two coexist?

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Looming Transportation Showdown...

Some facts to consider going into the coming battle on transportation:

The dollar has 42% of the buying power it did in 1986. (the last year transportation funding was revised)

There are 34% more licensed drivers now than in 1986.

There are 53% more vehicles registered in Virginia now than in 1986.

Something else to think about here is that:
  1. Transportation is primarily funded by tax on motor vehicle fuel sales.
  2. As vehicles get better fuel economy they can travel more miles on less fuel... meaning that as road usage and wear increases, the money available becomes proportionally less.


    There has been an increase by 79% of miles traveled on Virginia's roads since... You guessed it... 1986.


In recent years Virginia has borrowed money to be able to build more than would be possible through traditional pay-as-you go funding

Paying the interest on these borrowed funds consumes an increasing share of $ DOLLARS $ available for construction:

  • In 1989, debt service required 1% of construction funds

  • In 2005, debt service required 14% of construction funds

  • In 2010, debt service will require 20% of construction funds

Now the House of Delegates proposes to add Hundreds of Millions of Dollars in Debt...

As the transportation infrastructure ages... more maintenance is needed...

Virginia currently experiences a growth of over $50,000,000 per year in highway maintenance needs. (That's fifty million dollars a year)

Much maintenance of Virginia's road system has been continually left for later resulting in a significant backlog of upkeep waiting to be done.

By 2018, all construction funds will be required for maintenance...