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Recent editorials published in Iowa newspapers

Published on NewsOK Modified: May 4, 2015 at 9:02 am •  Published: May 4, 2015
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Telegraph Herald. May 3, 2015.

From green to red on traffic cameras

Are traffic cameras at intersections a valuable safety tool to deter red-light violators, or are they simply a means for governments to rake in easy cash from fines?

Though safety is the primary reason government gives when red-light cameras are installed, studies are showing that intersections are not safer -- one type of collision is replaced by another. Increasingly, these cameras seem to be more about the revenue from fines paid on computer-generated traffic tickets.

Let's give red-light cameras a red light.

Our opinion represents a reversal from three years ago, when we endorsed the City of Dubuque proposal to install the cameras. In our view, they were necessary for safety — a way to combat (and penalize) drivers who dangerously and carelessly blow through intersections despite a stoplight glowing red.

Even while endorsing the lights, we did reflect concerns about the motivations. "The city should not view this as a revenue opportunity with improving traffic safety as a positive side-effect," we stated in an August 2012 editorial. "Officials must approach this from a safety standpoint first — as a tool to help enforce traffic laws, and establish parameters such that the revenue generated is enough to cover the costs involved."

At the time, the Dubuque City Council was in the throes of community study and debate on the issue. At the council's request, Police Chief Mark Dalsing studied the question and presented a recommendation for using the cameras as a safety measure. Some citizens were vocal in their objection, saying it was nothing more than a ploy for more revenue, unfair and even an infringement on personal liberties.

Meanwhile, in other areas of the state and nation, the legality and legitimacy of the cameras was being questioned and challenged. For those reasons, Dubuque council members shelved the idea, suggesting they would bring it back. "I don't know if this will come back in a year or a month," Council Member Karla Braig said at the time, "but I do know this will come back."

Well, three years later, it hasn't come back. And that's a good thing.

There are now many more facts in evidence about traffic cameras.

Viewing cameras as a tool strictly to increase safety and not a means to raise revenue seems a bit naive. It is clearer that red-light cameras are primarily a money-making endeavor. Yes, in some cases they have had a positive influence on safety. But in other cases, the number of accidents at an intersection with red-light cameras went up. In some cases, the speed cameras had no impact on slowing down traffic.

A year after the City of Dubuque tabled its plan to pursue a contract with Redflex Traffic Systems, the City of Chicago, which has the nation's biggest camera program, dropped its contract with Redflex after the vendor was found to have acted unethically, including lavishing gifts on a city transportation official overseeing the camera program.

The Chicago Tribune commissioned a first-ever scientific study and last December reported that "T-bone" collisions — the typical crash when a red-light violation is involved — decreased by 15 percent. However, rear-end crashes — often due to a driver slamming on the brakes to honor a red light, to the surprise of the driver right behind — increased by 22 percent. (Only injury accidents were part of these calculations.)

"The biggest takeaway is that, overall, (the red-light program) seems to have had little effect," Dominique Lord, of Texas A&M University, the lead researcher on the Tribune project, told the newspaper.

Meanwhile, class-action lawsuits are pending in multiple states over the constitutionality of traffic-enforcement cameras. The Iowa Department of Transportation has ordered about one-third of the cameras in the state to be removed. The Illinois House recently approved a bill restricting their use.

Opposition to red-light cameras is not an open invitation for drivers to break the law, increasing the risks of injury or death in intersections. Indeed, we'd like to see more enforcement of red-light violations, as police resources allow.

Though it is clear that, at the time, Dubuque officials wanted to install the cameras for all the right reasons, it is also clear that city government dodged a big pothole by shelving the issue. Letting the idea simmer proved prescient. Plus, the delay gave our Editorial Board the opportunity to watch the issue play out, do further research, and change our opinion from green to red.

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Sioux City Journal. April 30, 2015.

Allow time for gas tax hike to work

On multiple occasions in this space, we stated our support for an increase in Iowa's gas tax, and we believe passage by the Legislature this year of a 10-cent hike was the right decision.

In order for Iowa to substantively improve in meeting its obligation to provide a safe, modern system of roads and bridges, the increase was, in our view, necessary.

Because the ink isn't dry yet on Gov. Terry Branstad's signature of the gas tax increase, however, we aren't ready to hear anything about more funding increases for transportation this year.

In an April 22 story from the Journal's Des Moines bureau about the Iowa House approving a $365.2 million budget for the Iowa Department of Transportation, State Rep. Dennis Cohoon, D-Burlington, said the state will need even more money for transportation "sooner rather than later," suggested the state consider options such as privatization of roads and tolls and warned the revenue stream from the gas tax increase will begin to decline within the next few years.

"And with more fuel-efficient cars and alternative-energy vehicles and, hopefully, better roads, raising the fuels tax in the future won't bring in enough revenues," Cohoon said in the story. "You could raise it a little bit, but another 10 cents would not bring in a much as it did this time."

With all due respect to Rep. Cohoon and his concerns about the future, we are fairly certain few, if any Iowans are listening to him, and we don't blame those who aren't.

Raising the gas tax was controversial and opposed by many Iowans. Talk about more increases in funding for transportation less than two months after its passage by the Legislature is incredibly ill-timed.

For today, the focus within state government in Iowa should be maximizing the value of raising the gas tax and allowing the increase to work for the state in the ways we are confident it will.

Tomorrow's transportation needs are a topic for, well, tomorrow.

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Iowa City Press-Citizen. May 2, 2015.

Hiring more minorities brings new challenges

The Iowa City Community School District announced its intent this week to make enormous strides to increase the diversity of its staff and administrators within the next five years. The district's goal is to increase minority staff in the areas of race and ethnicity to 15 percent in each category by 2020.

While we laud the district for paying attention to such metrics, we hope the district is ready for the challenges that will come with implementing the action plans to achieve these goals.

ICCSD equity data for the current school year show 42 of 969 teachers, or 4.33 percent, are minorities, and 87 of 825 support staff members, or 10.55 percent, are minorities. No administrators were minorities based on the Oct. 1 data, but the district has since hired two — equity director Kingsley Botchway and a new principal for South East Junior High, Amber Boyd, who are both black.

In a district where more than 35 percent of the student body is minority, the numbers of minority faculty, staff and administration are visibly lagging. And while the minority population of our student body has increased steadily over the past 10 years, according to enrollment data, the hiring of minority and diverse employees has not.

Botchway said officials plan to increase the number of minority staff hired by diversifying the district's applicant pool through partnerships with universities and search firms, and by adjusting how the district advertises job openings.

Teacher diversity is not just an Iowa City problem. A 2014 Pew research study showed that for the first time in the country's history, nearly half of the country's nearly 50 million public school students were children of color in 2014, at 49.7 percent. Conversely, 82 percent of teachers were white, according to the study.

Why does increasing the number of minority teachers matter, you might ask. Well, it matters a lot.

Evidence also exists showing that this "diversity gap" between teachers and students is directly tied to the "achievement gap" of minority students.

An April 2015 study published in the Economics of Education Review shows that minority teachers are better equipped to counter negative stereotypes minority students face. They're also able to serve as role models and mentors for those students, according to the study, and less likely to hold biased views of a minority student's academic ability because they can directly relate to the student's cultural background.

The study showed:

— Black, white and Asian students who had teachers who looked like them did better on standardized tests than in a year when the same students had a teacher of a different ethnicity.

— The effects were generally largest for elementary-aged and lower-performing students.

— Elementary-aged black students, in particular, showed greater benefit from having a teacher of similar ethnicity.

As district officials begin to hire more minorities, however, we hope they are prepared for a new challenge — retention.

If minority teachers feel isolation, or aren't able to share professional experiences with others who are like them, they are more likely to leave to find jobs elsewhere. Again, that won't be just an Iowa City problem; it happens at school districts — and other places of business — across the country that don't employ significant numbers of minorities.

Ultimately, we agree that improvement needs to be made.

But as the district begins to modify its recruitment and hiring practices and procedures, it is imperative — not to mention the law — that the best candidate for the job is hired, no matter their race or gender.

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Fort Dodge Messenger. May 2, 2015.

IRS drops the ball on customer service

More than 8 million times during the past few months, the Internal Revenue Service's telephone system hung up on taxpayers who wanted help. Only 40 percent of those whose calls did get through were able to talk to a human being. Many of them had to endure more than half an hour on hold before that happened.

Members of Congress who heard that report from IRS Commissioner John Koskinen recently were furious. They should be.

According to an investigation by the House Ways and Means Committee, the IRS diverted $134 million spent on customer service in 2014 to other purposes this year. The sort of lack of concern for serving the nation's taxpayers does not make the IRS look good.

Ask yourself this:What would happen if the IRS called you — and you hung up on them? Pretty clearly the excuse that you were short-staffed wouldn't be well-received. This fiasco must be promptly corrected. Congress should insist that in the future taxpayers are treated with proper respect.