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More layoffs in newspaper industry

Yesterday, Gannett Co. laid off 700 employees — including one of my dear friends who got the news this morning. Ugh.
Read about it here.
It’s said to be the largest single round of of newspaper layoffs since July 2009. Gannett is the largest U.S. publisher, in terms of circulation, and owns USA Today.
My friend was one of 13 people laid off in the newsroom of the Des Moines Register.


A green battle begins

Some say the city's push for bike lanes and roundabouts are more sinister than you might think.

Remember back during the spring campaign, when I wrote about the “green grenade” I expected Republicans might throw at Mayor Chris Beutler?

Well they never did really go after Beutler for pushing green initiatives, but now, it turns out, LIBA is.

LIBA wants the mayor to drop out of that group I wrote about in March — the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives, or ICLEI. (Read LIBA’s press statement here: EPA Position Statement)
ICLEI is an international association formed in 1990 to promote sustainable development. More than 1,200 cities, towns and counties and their associations are members of ICLEI.

Mayor Beutler quietly signed Lincoln up with ICLEI in July 2010, saying the group would help Lincoln city government reduce its energy use by 20 percent and the city reduce its energy use by 10 percent over the next two years. LIBA doesn’t like it, saying,

Unfortunately, under the guise of being green, some special interest groups attempt to use the
environment as a weapon to defeat private property rights, curb individual choice, and promote
“social justice.”

LIBA says groups like ICLEI support regulations that would impose unnecessary controls and costs on business and property owners. The city of Lincoln recently hosted a meeting about sustainability goals, during which an EPA official said, “walkability is the issue, non vehicle travel.” He said the keys were more trees, fewer vehicles and strong air quality agencies.

Another consultant said during the meeting, “Lincoln’s development codes have to change to deal with sustainability” and said Lincoln should make the following code changes:

• Adopt a clothesline bill of rights, “The Right to Dry.” (Some homeowners associations don’t allow clotheslines. A law would override homeowner covenants to block clotheslines.)
• Require bicycle parking and bike lockers in all apartment buildings.
• Adopt outdoor lighting regulations that give each project a “lumen budget.” Once you have reached your “lumen budget”, you are not allowed to have any more lighting.
• Require showers in office buildings to encourage people to bike to work.
• Require separating our household waste prior to putting it into the trash.
• Allow gardens in homeowners front yards.

LIBA says Greg Shinaut, of Black Hills Energy, has been loaned to the city half time to promote a green city. Greg said when he met with Mayor Beutler, “The Mayor told me to inject green into all the codes.”

All of this may be music to some people’s ears. Not to LIBA’s.

“Environmental activism must be balanced with respect for private property rights and freedom of choice,” they said.

Lincoln’s membership in ICLEI is up for renewal in July, and LIBA wants Beutler to drop out, saying, “We feel that the citizens of Lincoln are best suited to manage our city’s needs rather than having to take direction from ICLEI, an organization connected internationally with entities like the United Nations and the EPA that seek to implement an agenda that is counterproductive to Lincoln’s business climate.”

Some cities and counties have dropped out of the group due to controversy like the one swirling beneath the surface in Lincoln — including Albemarle County, Charlottesville, Va.; Carroll County, Westminster, Md.; Edmond, Okla.; Spartanburg County, Spartanburg, S.C.; Garland, Texas; and Montgomery County, Norristown, Penn.

I learned just how suspicious some people are of the green movement and the way Beutler is spending $2.4 million in federal stimulus money for green initiatives when I went to a meeting about it in March at a local church. About 60 people were there, including almost all of the Republican candidates for city offices in the spring election — mayoral candidate Tammy Buffington and council candidates Melissa Hilty and Travis Nelson.

The meeting was hosted by the Rev. John Morrow, who calls himself “a right-wing, radical, flag-loving, God-loving, conservative, Bible-believing pastor” and Don Raskey, a local accountant.

Morrow talked about the history of the sustainable development movement — noting that a Seattle planner advises cities to call it “comprehensive planning” or “smart growth” to avoid controversy. He said often city officials hold “visioning sessions” with facilitators or “change agents” to “give the appearance of public buy-in” to their goals.

He said individual rights take a back seat to ICLEI goals, and the ultimate goal is international redistribution of wealth and “public-private partnerships” and “putting nature above man.”

Morrow talked about a plan to eliminate humans on at least 50 percent of land, population control and mobility restrictions. He talked about groups that want to limit water consumption to five gallons per day.

“That sounds like a stinky deal to me,” Morrow said.

Raskey noted that Milo Mumgaard was hired to be Lincoln’s point man on spending the federal green money — without being “subject to the usual hiring review.” He talked about how the city’s “traffic-calming measures” like bike lanes and roundabouts and city lighting upgrades and smart meters (LES) and the solar-powered stoplight at 84th and Highway 2 are all part of this sinister movement.

“They want you out of your car, folks,” he said.

He said Beutler’s Cleaner, Greener Lincoln’s goal is to make Lincoln the “green capital of the Great Plains.”

It was clear most of the people in the audience were on board with the idea that the green movement has sinister underpinnings. People ate it up with Amens and oohs and aahhs.

Frankly, I’m not sure which side is right. My parents are pretty conservative and my Dad loves his Fox News and so they’d probably believe a lot of what the anti-Greenies are saying. However, my Mom is more green than most Obama-lovers and taught me to:

• Save rainwater and use it to water plants (long before rain barrels became cool)
• Recycle Ziplock bags and aluminum foil, when possible.
• Use plastic grocery bags as garbage bags.
• Shut off the A/C and open the windows at night in the summer to let the cool air cool the house, rather than electricity.
• Never waste food if you can avoid it.
• Open and close the window shades to keep the house cooler in the summer and use the natural light, rather than electric lights, whenever possible.
• Plant a huge garden and can as much as she could to feed our family.

I knew I’d taken her conservation mantra too far when I found myself debating the most frugal way to delete words on my computer one day at work.

She’s a conservative Republican, but she’s also practicing green principles every day, in a thousand ways. Not to over-simplify, but that tells me there has to be a sensible middle ground on this issue.


Why didn’t the Corps release more water, sooner?

One of the best accounts I’ve read so far is here.

This reporter also did an earlier story in which he analyzed releases from Garrison Dam, rather than just reporting he said-she said accounts. He found that the U.S. Corps of Engineers was rapidly releasing water until March 20 through through May 5. Good reporting on an issue now irritating public officials up and down the Mighty Mo.


More “Omaha’s cool” coverage

Let the jumping-on-the-bandwagon commence. The New York Times agrees with Esquire and NPR: Omaha IS cool. No, we are not jealous. We are building an arena and soon we’ll be just as cool as you, Omaha!


What do you do when your nest doesn’t just empty, it falls out of the tree?

My sister, D'Ette, on the morning in question. Notice the big dimple.

My nephew Daniel graduated high school recently back in my hometown of Bowman, N.D., and I decided to drive 12 hours to be there because it wasn’t just that my sister’s youngest was leaving the nest.

But we’re not just talking about empty nest syndrome: Over the course of a year, her whole nest has been upended and is precariously close to falling out of the tree.

Let me explain: My sister D’Ette has two children and up until last year, she was married. Then her husband left her for one of her best friends. He was No. 1 on D’Ette’s speed dial, she was No. 2.

But this is not your typical divorce: D’Ette is severely handicapped. When Jeff and D’Ette got married, she was still able to walk – although people thought she was drunk because she stumbled from one side of the hallway to the other as she made her way through Bowman High School – always with a big, contagious smile on her face. She couldn’t walk a straight line, but she went out for gymnastics anyway and eventually became the team manager – cheering me on from the stands.

They were love-drunk so they got married and Jeff didn’t worry about what the future might hold. They had two children who – as D’Ette’s friend likes to say – are made of pure gold. Blond-haired angels who make me sick, frankly, because they’re damn near perfect.

But D’Ette’s disease – the same disease two of my other siblings have/had – just gets worse. It does not get better. And so she went from walking when she married to using a wheelchair and her muscles – all of her muscles – just got weaker and weaker. And you know I understand it has to be hard to go from husband to husband/caretaker. I get that.

People probably thought Jeff was a martyr for sticking with her for more than 20 years; I think he just got tired.

My sister D'Ette and her daughter, Hope. Or as I call her, Hoprah.

So anyway, she lost Jeff, and her oldest daughter, the appropriately named Hope, went to Guatemala on a mission trip last year and fell for a Guatemalan named Rudy. They will be married next month and she will graduate college in a year.


And then Daniel graduates and will leave home at summer’s end.


And suddenly the woman who has long prayed that she would live long enough to see her daughter marry or her son graduate high school (many people with this disease don’t) is about to see it all happen within the space of two months.

And then they’ll all be gone.

She lives in a gray ranch house in Bowman that bears the scars of a woman in a wheelchair: every door has been banged up and scratched by her wheelchair – some even have holes punched into them. Doorways were widened and sinks were lowered and equipment installed to make it a home she can live in – with help.

At Daniel's open house. Me and my parents and Daniel are standing, my brother Dusty and sister D'Ette are in the wheelchairs.

However, since she received some money in the divorce, she has assets and therefore the government decided she doesn’t need their help anymore. So she pays people $10 an hour to come help her – but in a state that’s booming with oil, it’s hard to find anyone willing to take a job like that. Much less someone who’s really good at it. And so workers come and go and sometimes they steal from her and sometimes they just don’t treat her with the dignity she deserves and right now she’s struggling to find anyone who will come.

So I figured I’d at least come and help her for awhile as she goes through one of the toughest days of her life.

She pretty stoic about all of this and she’s determined to defy the degenerative nature of her disease, Friedreich’s Ataxia, by trying to do things she cannot do: Like sit up in bed.

Think about that: You and I, when we sleep at night we toss and turn to stay comfortable. She can’t really even do that. And when she wakes up and has to pee, she can’t jump up and run to the bathroom.

She’s been preparing to live alone in that house, so she bought a mechanical lift system that is attached to the ceiling in her bedroom and bathroom. A remote control lowers the lift, she hooks it under her legs, and it lifts her up in the air and carries her from her wheelchair to her bed or toilet.

Sounds pretty simple. Takes me about two minutes to get her in and out of it. Takes her about 20 minutes – and then there’s always the possibility she’ll fall out of it. She does that sometimes. I don’t even want to picture her home alone falling out of that contraption – but when you’re handicapped you get used to face plants and black and blue marks and many other indignities.

She’s got her house rigged up so that if she has to, she can try to live on her own. Ideally, she’d have help getting out of bed, going to the bathroom, bathing, cooking, cleaning and getting back in bed. And all those thousands of things we do in between.

She’s still got that steely resolve that propelled her to try out for gymnastics, but sometimes she crumbles, and when she cries, she doesn’t just cry, she bellows. Whereas you and I would be able to stifle an urge to cry and nobody would ever notice, she erupts into a full-throated wail. Which is why I didn’t really want to sit anywhere near her during Daniel’s graduation, but I did, and she only erupted like Mount Saint Helens a few times.

One of those times was the part of the ceremony where they’re just trying to make parents cry by having each graduate bring them a single rose.

Well, hello, I figure she’s going to fall out of her chair bawling when her Daniel comes walking over to her with a big grin on his face — he doesn’t look embarrassed at all of his mom, who is falling apart right there on the gymnasium floor.

But she makes it through the ceremony and during Daniel’s open house, she positions her wheelchair by the door and surveys the scene from there – smiling even though she’s on the verge of having another good cry.

One morning while I was staying with her, I awakened to the sound of D’Ette talking in her bedroom. So I went in to see if she was calling me or something, and found her lying in bed with the morning sun shining on her face (she refuses to put up drapes) and a big smile on her face.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“Just talking to God – thanking him for this beautiful day,” she said, grinning.

There she lay, a 45-year-old woman wearing an adult diaper, unable to run to the bathroom and pee, unable to go for a morning run or type on a computer or bake a cake or drive a car or climb a molehill, much less a mountain. Unsure what the future might hold for her, unable to figure out what to do now that her nest was empty.

And yet, she was very able. Able to be happy anyway and say “Thank you God for this beautiful day.”

I suddenly felt very ashamed about all the times I complain about having arthritis or that annoying ringing in my ear or my foot injury or bills or jobs or who said this or that or the other thing.

I can go for a jog. My God, I can do a cartwheel.

To see a video of D'Ette using her lift, go to my Facebook page,!/video/video.php?v=10150392079390654&comments


Lots of stuff happening over at the paper these days…

Wow… it’s hard to keep up with what’s going on over at the Lincoln Journal Star these days.

I’m told eight veteran newsroom workers recently agreed to voluntary buyouts that were less than generous — putting the newsroom on edge about whether that’s enough cutting to stave off layoffs.

The buyout was offered to employees with at least 15 years of experience — and if those positions are left empty, the difference will definitely be felt in a newsroom of about 50 employees. That’s a 16 percent reduction in staffing, if my math serves me. But perhaps they will fill some of those positions with cheap, young workers.

And then today comes news that a new publisher has been named: Julie Bechtel, who worked at the Journal Star as circulation and operations manager before leaving in 2002 to become publisher of the Bismarck Tribune in Bismarck, N.D., and then moving to the Quad-City Times in Davenport, Iowa, in 2005.

Yes, I worked for Julie in Bismarck. I found her to be an unorthodox publisher — she is definitely not a boring, stuffy suit. Far from it. I could tell you some stories.

As with most publishers, the bottom line was paramount with Julie. I remember one morning at the daily reporters’ meeting, a reporter was all excited about doing a story about a person who’d found a tiny, live lizard in her head of lettuce bought at the local grocery store. They’d even gotten a produce employee to talk about it, and they’d rather wisely said it’s not that big of a deal when you’re buying lettuce from South America, for example.

I just laughed though, because I knew there was no way in hell that story would get in the paper. Grocery stores, you see, are newspapers’ bread and butter, so to speak.

Sure enough, by day’s end, Julie had spiked the story. She said she’d consulted other Lee publishers before making her decision. Something about how the story lacked news value…

Of course, it was a rarity for Julie to get involved in such a decision. But I love unorthodox managers and found her to be a barrel of fun and fair on other important matters, so it should be interesting to see what she does with Lincoln’s newspaper.

However, with buyouts underway and layoffs looming (?), becoming publisher in Lincoln may not be that fun right now.


BN trains may have to be rerouted from Lincoln to Kansas

The Wendy's and a hotel near the intersection of highway 2 and Interstate 29 are closed and surrounded by a dirt dike. The sign on the hotel said "Lakefront property for sale."

A Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway spokesman said flooding along the Missouri River may cause trains to be rerouted between Lincoln and Kansas.

BN spokesman Andy Williams said today that about 40 trains — most of them carrying coal from Wyoming — travel daily from Lincoln to Napier, Kan., but that route may change.

“We’re hoping not to have to reroute them,” he said.

If that happens, the trains would likely go from Wyoming south down the Front Range.


BNSF rebuttal sheds light on arena situation

Haymarket arena construction

Construction workers near the site of a diesel spill that's being removed from the area where a new arena will be built west of the Haymarket.

Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway has been largely silent during the past several years, as Lincoln has embarked on its plan to convert its
dusty downtown railyard into a $340 million arena and shops.

But now, BN has spoken up.

Don’t know if you saw it, but BN spokesman Andy Williams wrote a letter to the paper trying to set the record straight on what is going on with that extra $3.4 million BN wants from the city in order to get relocated as fast as the city wants it to. BN has been taking a beating in the blogosphere for requesting an extra $3.4 million to move out of the city’s way.

Williams laid out all the delays that have occurred — saying the city was eight months behind schedule in executing agreements and acquiring property for excavated material, six months behind schedule in providing environmental reports to BN and buying the Union Pacific property and two months behind schedule in awarding sanitary sewer work. Williams says “these are just some of the examples of delays” that prevented BN from beginning construction in June 2010. He says construction did not actually begin until March 2011. Which is funny, because all along the taxpayers have been assured that everything is on time, and on budget. Doesn’t sound to me like this train is on time at all, my friends.

“That is much later than the dates even specified in the agreements, yet the completion date of September 2012 has not changed,” he wrote.

Again, I think the city ought to explain to taxpayers — you know, those people footing the bill for this project — what has caused the delays. I’ve asked city officials, and they won’t say. I’ve asked Williams, and he won’t say either. But his letter seems to imply that the city is behind the curve, not BN.

Williams did assure me that BN has a good relationship with the city, despite this little delay problem.

“I would characterize our relationship as very good,” he told me.

Let’s hope between the two of them, they can bring this train in on time.


Dems say Bruning evades campaign limits, owes government $230,000 in back taxes

The Democrats are going after Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning with an Federal Election Commission complaint that alleges he is violating campaign finance and tax laws in his campaign for the U.S. Senate.

(See an overview of the complaint here: FECBruningviolationscovememo)

The Nebraska Democratic Party filed a complaint alleging he transferred about $677,000 from his unsuccessful 2008 U.S. Senate bid into an exploratory committee which Dems say failed to register with the FEC or the IRS, which they say means he’ll have to pay a 35 percent tax.

Bruning responded by accusing the Democrats — and incumbent U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson — of playing dirty to distract voters from Nelson’s support for Obamacare.

“The state Democratic Party is rehashing their baseless claims previously filed against the Bruning campaign — which had no merit the first time the Democrats complained and still have no merit,” said Trent Fellers, Bruning’s campaign manager. “There is nothing to these allegations. Every single contribution and disbursement of the Bruning campaign has been fully reported to the FEC in one or more FEC reports over several years. The Democratic Party is well aware of that fact but is intent upon changing the subject from Sen. Ben Nelson’s abysmal record as a Senator.”

When Bruning announced his candidacy in November, Dems say he failed to file a statement of candidacy within 15 days or register his committee within 10 days or file a year-end report, as required by law. The complaint alleges that the $448,000 transferred from Bruning’s first exploratory committee to his Senate campaign should have identified the donors and should have been registered as a political committee.

The complaint says:

Yet more than five months later, Mr. Bruning still has not registered this committee. As a result, the public does not know who funded his “exploratory” activities or how the “exploratory” funds were spent – including what happened to the $66,586.46 that represents the difference between what Mr. Bruning transferred into the first exploratory committee in 2007 ($677,251.49) and what he transferred out of it in 2010 ($610,663.03).

This may only be “the tip of the iceberg,” the complaint goes on to say, alleging that by “hiding his donors” to his exploratory committee, Bruning can evade federal spending limits because the donors could give more than allowed by law, and nobody would know it. They say that way he can raise money under three limits, rather than two, as other candidates do.

Let the games begin!


Omaha, cool? Who knew?

First Esquire magazine declares The Slowdown the best indie-rock club in the country. Then, NPR calls Omaha — particularly that area around the Slowdown — cool.


OK, so the NPR blog is thinly reported, and typical “Look! They have culture in the boring Midwest,” but still, we’ll take it, right?

It reminds me of a few years back, when several national press outlets did stories about how Fargo, N.D., was actually quite “wordly and stylish” — contradicting its reputation in the movie “Fargo.”

Downtown Omaha is actually much more hip than downtown Fargo — the Old Market is probably my favorite place in Nebraska, so far. I love driving up for a meal at a place like La Buvette (even though once when we were there a wine bottle literally exploded and injured a customer) and then strolling around the shops (like Jackson Street Booksellers and the awesome Flying Worm), shopping for whatever I forgot at Patrick’s Market (the cutest little grocery store ever) and staying the night at the Italian-style Magnolia Hotel (if I were getting married, I’d have the ceremony in the courtyard). Oh, and buzzing over to Urban Outfitters and Ruth Sokolof Theater (that arthouse theater near the Slowdown) for a movie. That’s a great day trip.

The Old Market Passageway. Courtesy

A few years ago, I did a story about Old Market, and also wrote an accompanying column about how the Old Market is better than the Haymarket. However, the features editor spiked the column — apparently thinking Lincolnites would not tolerate that kind of heresy. But let’s face it: It is better. Mainly because they have critical mass: There are lots of destination points that draw you into Old Market; not as many in the Haymarket.

But the good news is the Haymarket certainly has the potential to be just as hip as the Old Market. We’ve got a good start — with places like Maggie’s and Ivanna Cone and Bread & Cup. If I could wave a magic wand, I’d move Stella (a boutique), the Black Market and Tsuru into the Haymarket — and then open my own little recycled, reused and repurposed furniture store in the middle of it all.

However, from what I’ve read, the Old Market got where it is today not by government dictating development — it happened organically, through individuals. We’ve got some individuals trying to make things happen in the Haymarket now — chiefly, those WRK twins, Robert and Will Scott. Although they’ve lured more chain restaurants than I’d prefer (Noodles & Co., Panera, Qdoba), they are definitely changing the landscape of downtown Lincoln. They are also guiding development near the arena — it’ll be interesting to see what they bring there.

Will an Urban Outfitters be next to the Haymarket? An awesome little grocery store like Patrick’s? The mayor has mentioned Kansas City’s Power & Light District as a model for the area near the area (although other city officials later downplayed the comparison). Time will tell.

Kansas City's Power & Light District -- a shopping district near the Sprint Center that Lincoln officials have cited as an example of the private development that will spring up near Lincoln's new arena.

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