Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Tangled Webs

Here's how not to run a government.  Do what North Bay Village has on the Boards and ADA Issue.

Step 1:  Create a fake crisis.

Step 2:  Don't back down from the story.

Step 3:  Set fire to taxpayer money to prop up the story.

What Happened?

Since this is the "Reality Based Community", let's talk about the known facts.  

Last Wednesday, a resident had a discussion with the Village Chief of Staff and expressed his concern that not having captions on the live broadcast of meeting could leave the Village vulnerable to a lawsuit.  The conversation was reported to the Village Manager, discussed with the Village Attorney, and then the Village Clerk cancelled all the board meetings.  

That was last Wednesday.    

When the board members reacted badly to this and the members of the commission reminded the staff that they did not have have the authority to cancel these meetings, the Village Manager, the Village Attorney and the Village Clerk refused to back down.  

They even refused to put the item on the commission agenda for nearly six days.  

Finally, reluctantly, and incompletely, the Village Manager put an item together on Monday night that was a hastily written quote for closed captioning to be installed at some undetermined future point.  

Committing To The Pretext

George Constanza Commits To The Lie

Remember the Seinfeld Episode where George lies about having a house in the Hamptons and won't back down?  Yeah, it was a little like that last night.  

The staff ran out and hired two ASL interpreters for the Zoom meeting.   This was an absurd move for reasons I will explain below.  


The item came up for discussion.  It started with our Village Attorney explaining that he heard rumors that someone might could be sending a demand letter.  He spoke with the Manager and the Clerk and he recommended that the board meetings, none of which were scheduled between then and the commission meetings, be cancelled.   He really wishes he could say more but you know, legal.   

Apparently, the Village attorney has extensive experience in this area, experience that he never thought he might share with the commission prior to this.  He regrets very much that the statement was "terse" and that people didn't understand for some reason.  

The Village Clerk then stated that it was not her intention to make it a "harsh email."  Sorry about that.  

At no time did either of them discuss whether they have the right to cancel the meetings without consulting the village commission who has the only authority to do that.  None of the dais members expressed any concern about that either.   

In the meantime, the ASL interpreters were showing on the screen, except for when the comments about the situation were read.   

Solving the Wrong Problem

An important part of a power grab is to aggressively solve the wrong problem.  Okay stay with me here.   Warning, there will be numbers.  

There are an estimated 2 million Americans with profound hearing loss that cannot be corrected with devices such as hearing aids.   The vast majority of these people lost their hearing later in life and consequently, only about 25% of the profoundly deaf community are fluent in American Sign Language.   And American Sign is a different language with different syntax, grammar, and sentence order. 

You will often see ASL interpreters at live events because that is the best way to communicate in person and live but it does not account for 70-75% of nonfluent signers.

Of the 3% of the deaf population who claim ASL as their native language (meaning language from birth), most consider themselves functionally bilingual which in the United States means fluency in written English/Spanish. 

So last night, in order to prop up the pretext to cancel the boards, the Village spent a fair chunk of change on a service for ASL interpreters.  A service that was not likely of any benefit to anyone.

What About Closed Captioning? 

Yeah, what about it?   Well here's the thing.   At least two of our platforms already have machine generated closed captioning.   Facebook Live, for example, where I was watching, was busily generating captions, for free.   YouTube Live will also machine caption the broadcast if you have more than 100 subscribers.   

Closed captioning will allow all hearing disabled people to follow the meetings, as long as they are English fluent and additionally help those with limited English.   

It's not a perfect solution.  Machine Captioning is good and if you follow our meetings on Facebook Live you can quickly turn it on to get a sense of how good it is.  Here's a quick screenshot while I was watching.  I noticed very few errors although there were omissions when the participants did not speak clearly into the microphones.  It was a lot like Voice to Text on my phone or Google Translate Live.   

In Yellow, the Manager is Talking and the text is in the lower left hand corner.   For Free.  
The estimated accuracy of Voice to Text Captioning is 85% under normal circumstances but with proper elocution and awareness that usually goes to the mid 90's.  You train the machine and it trains you.   

The big advantage is that reaching 95% of your hearing impaired audience is better than just reaching the 25% who may be ASL fluent.  

But Does That Comply With ADA Section 508?

Maybe not.  It might.  It might not.   But it is good and shows intent.  

Generally, the gold standard is Live Captioning.  That is when a stenographer captures the conversation and using a specialized machine like in the courthouse.  That same stenographer then reviews the transcript, compares it to the recording and makes any necessary updates.   That's like 99% and has consistently been regarded as fully compliant and is generally considered best for remote and broadcast meetings. 

It's more effective, cheaper, less intrusive and accessible to a broader audience than ASL.

So That's The Decision For The Short Term? 

No.  Naturally not.  That would make too much sense.  The short term solution will be to contract ASL interpreters.    

At Least The Board Meetings Are Back, Right?  

Well, probably.   None of the three charter officers brought it up, the commission did not instruct them by motion to do it, none of the commissioners clarified if the charter employees have the power to preempt the commission's rights.   

The mayor did say he thought the boards were back on and the Clerk kind of nodded, so maybe?  

As of today, at 2:54 PM on May 13, the meetings all show as cancelled.  

2:55 PM on May 13
This morning the mayor did send an email saying they were back on in due time.   The Village Clerk followed up an hour later not specifically stating the meetings were back on but that she is looking forward to them being back on.  

Of course, the charter officials may find other circumstances to cancel the boards because apparently that's their prerogative now.  


The Village Staff finds the boards irritating.   Actions must be taken:

Step 1:  Create a fake crisis.

As soon as the "lawsuit" word was mentioned, the Attorney, Clerk and Manager sprung into action and cancelled the board meetings.   The information was second hand and then third hand.   The resident being cast as the villain has stated that he never threatened a lawsuit but inquired if we are at risk of legal action.  
Even though there were no board meetings to be affected, and even though the staff specifically does not have the right to cancel the meetings, they figured it was best.   

Step 2:  Don't back down from the story.
To their apparent surprise, the volunteer members of the boards did not appreciate being treated this way and at least the mayor made clear that this seemed a lot like usurpation on their part. Insubordination is the word I would use. 
Rather than doing what responsible people do when caught up in a conflict, which in this case would have been to say "Sorry. We over reacted.  We'll put the item on the agenda and let the commission decide." they took it to a new level, ignored the commission item for 6 days, hired ASL interpreters for the commission meeting, kept the board in limbo, smirked their way through the item, did not agree until pressed to reinstate the board meetings,  and then didn't think it sufficiently important to set up the board meetings this morning until prodded by the mayor.  
 For its part, the commissioners did not assert their powers, left the over reach unremarked and in one stunning comment by one of the commissioners, expressed  that the board members should be "taken care of."  Uh, no.  The Board Members are writing the proposals for funding, creating and executing programs to help Village residents facing the crisis, trying to keep our wildlife in control and helping small businesses.   The Boards are the unpaid caretakers, but I digress.  

Step 3:  Set fire to taxpayer money to prop up the story.  
Now let's go really nuts.   The Village staff found two amazingly expensive captioning systems and in all fairness, appeared to recognize that even a commission as compliant as this one would not pay that, so they are working full steam ahead on finding a solution.  
Among the people they are not working with to find the solution are the Board Members, the resident who innocently asked the question about legal exposure, the National Deaf Center who kind of wrote the book on it, any hearing impaired individuals in North Bay Village, the Boards, The National Association for the Deaf, or any other useful resources.  
Nope.  They have just proposed useless and expensive stopgaps rather than just admit they thought they'd get away with it and focus back on the critical issues. 

My Apologies

I sincerely hope that this posting does not come across as "terse" or "harsh." and I'm very sorry if the staff for some reason feels that way.    I understand that the key to success for important, secure, well paid employees is to never, ever back down.  As long as they can count to 3 on the dais, why should they? 

To those who wonder how I got all these facts and figures, I Googled them.  Unlike our staff.

Saturday, May 9, 2020

Shut It Down

The text that started it all

The Issue

As has been reported here previously, all the Board and Village meetings have moved to the Zoom platform.   

On Tuesday night, a resident expressed concern that the meetings were not subtitled to the Village management.   This is a legit concern and has been true for years.   

What happened next was a whole new level.  

Shut It Down.  Shut It All Down!

Oh no, a complaint.

Rather than simply saying, "We get it."  and noting that every single meeting has the exact same notice on its agenda that if someone requires assistance under the Americans With Disabilities Act, the Village will provide that assistance, and going forward with the plan to include auto-captioning in the redeployed web site. the Village Manager, the Village Attorney and the Village Clerk got together and decided that the best solution was the cancel all the board meetings, except for Planning & Zoning because that might inconvenience the developers.  

And then just to add to the fun, the two boys got the Village Clerk to put the email under her name because ...

Now Follow This Closely Because It Matters

The Boards don't report to the Village Attorney, the Village Manager or the Village Clerk.  It's right there in our Charter, Article 6.  Just like the Village Attorney, the Village Manager and the Village Clerk report to the commission, the Boards report to the Commission.   The Boards can't fire the Village Clerk, the Village Attorney, or the Village Manager and they can't fire the Boards.  

That right belongs only to the Commission.  

But There Is An Emergency, Right?  

No.  While the staff's neglect of ADA compliance is near legendary, remember this is the group that installed trash cans to block the sidewalk and then argued that 36 3/4 inches were more than enough for a wheelchair until they could no longer keep a straight face and set them up properly, there is no imminent threat.   In fact, there is a Commission Meeting for this Tuesday and the same staff could easily have put that issue before  the commission, their bosses, and brought the viewpoint up.  

There is a general belief that they did not do this because there was grave danger that the commission might not have shut down the boards.  That would be a terrible result for the staff which prefers not be questioned or work in the sunshine.   

So shutting the down the boards, legal or not, and ignoring the commission struck them as the best option.  

But Corona Virus!  Won't Somebody Think of Corona Virus?!

This cheap trick of pretending that a simple question and concern was so overpowering didn't go over well with many of the board members.  
After all, they didn't volunteer to work for the paid staff and being believers in open and transparent government, they complained.  
  • The staff do not have the power to shut down the board meetings without commission approval. 
  • Why did it have to be done immediately when there were no scheduled meetings before the next commission meeting?
The Village Attorney decided to weigh in.  He sent an email to the Village Clerk who forwarded it to the board members.  The email contained many words. Some of them interesting.  

For example, Daniel Espino wrote "Please know that the Village Clerk did not unilaterally cancel your meetings.  She cancelled the meetings in consultation with the Manager and me."  

Well okay then.  The email the village clerk sent was signed by her but seriously, shouldn't everybody know that the discussion was done in the back rooms?  Note that this does not include anything about consulting their boss, the Village Commission.  

Then follows a bunch of words "Working Hard!"  "Corona Virus!", "Not Enough Money!"  

A Gaslight
Then, my favorite sentence from the email "As of right now, no boards (sic) meetings have been disrupted,"  

Let's all take a moment to think about that.  "No Boards have been disrupted."

You can almost hear the unspoken "you idiot" at the end of that. 

Our highly paid attorney is saying "Yes.  We cancelled all the board meetings.  But we didn't "disrupt" them.   How could we "disrupt" what isn't happening?  Stop hitting yourself."  

Okay, But Why Is This Important?

 It's important for two big reasons.  

The Village Clerk, the Village Manager, and the Village Attorney pushed aside the commission on a flimsy pretext and put the Village in danger in an ill-advised attempt to shut out the boards.  

The Commission needs to assert its authority and clearly restrict the overreach of their direct report employees.  This action is a direct attack on the commission and should not be tolerated.  

Far more importantly, the Village is in crisis.  The world is in crisis.  The slow roll virus and the fast crashing economy have turned everything upside down and at a time when North Bay Village is facing record unemployment, residents plunged into poverty, education disrupted and even food hard to get, every voice matters.  That well paid employees take advantage to shut out voices they find unpleasant is a serious warning sign that we may not have the right people employed to work us through the crisis.  

After all, they'll go on to other jobs in other cities but we live here.  And the boards need to be a full partner in getting the Village through what lies ahead.   

I have already been contacted by several of the more active board members (not from mine) who are considering resigning unless this is fixed now.  I think we should hold off and see if the commission shows the courage to take charge and then decide.   

As far as the non-existent threat of a lawsuit, let's be really clear.  Disability rights are civil rights.  They are basic and ADA is remarkably flexible in finding ways to include people.   We currently comply and in particular one board has been fighting a losing battle with the charter officers to improve our inclusivity, one of the boards they want to shut down.  The Village Manager, the Village Attorney and the Village Clerk are using this deceitful pretext to shut down the boards. This is an exploitation of handicapped residents and I hope they at least have the decency to feel bad about that.  

Kevin Vericker
May 9, 2020