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May 15, 2007

City Strobe

Delegation sees American Democracy, Louisville-styleThe Metro Council meeting last Thursday was so boring I briefly considered allowing my body to slink all the way out of my chair and onto the ground, just to see if anyone was awake enough to notice. But rather than befoul my torso with whatever organisms live under those bland wooden chairs, I made a snap decision: Deftly and without warning I popped nine of 10 knuckles, all in a row, loud enough that a woman sitting two rows ahead of me whipped around and gave me a confused, unsettled look.Turns out she was one of a 21-member delegation representing 20 countries and currently city-hopping through the States. They’re here hoping that American Democracy In Action will offer some guidance and wisdom they may apply to local governments in their own countries. Which explained the glare.In particular, the delegation — an official U.S. State Department gig in conjunction with the World Affairs Council of Kentucky and Southern Indiana — wanted to learn about transparency in government, and they were using Louisville (plus D.C., Seattle and Columbia, S.C.) as a laboratory. The experience was localized American government at its dullest, which is also to say its finest. In the absence of media-frenzied politics, here is what we’ve got: The sheer amount of zoning changes the Council must approve every other week tells you that Louisville is for sale to any developer with enough scratch to make the rich people in the neighborhood happy (read: richer). Mayor Abramson appoints nearly everyone to nearly every body comprised of “appointees” that even remotely shares business with the government, and the Council always gives a nod of approval. The Council routinely approves the release of hundreds of thousands of Metro dollars for all kinds of projects, initiatives, contracts, services, and so forth, none of which seem any less or more important than the next or last.“Citizens” are allotted brief opportunities to address the Council before the proper meeting begins. On this day, South Ender and former Council candidate Ray Pierce talked about how the Metropolitan Sewer District is about to ask for a rate increase and, having just spent at least $324,000 on legal fees in a federal whistleblower case that it lost, and being in debt more than a billion dollars, and being under a multimillion-dollar federal consent decree for allowing too much sewage to flow into the Ohio River, and … considering all that, maybe the Council should think a little deeper than in years past about giving MSD whatever rate increase it says it needs for whatever reason it gives. More than one member laughed openly while Pierce was speaking, and most seemed to turn off as soon as he began. In The Courier-Journal the next day, Tina Ward-Pugh, D-9, said, “absolutely, Council will be behind” the rate increase. The Council got the memo from MSD on the increase this week. Considering the extensive and complicated work involved in an EPA consent decree, general sewer repairs, and sorting out why the agency just dumped hundreds of thousands of dollars of ratepayer money into defending its director’s decision to violate state law, that’s a quick turnaround.Transparency, our guests could’ve easily inferred, might as well be talking to a tree in a forest. The scene embarrassed me.Councilmen Tom Owen, D-8, and Glen Stuckel, R-17, played official hosts to the delegation. Owen made some passionate remarks urging Council members to remember the need for increased openness and transparency in official business; thoughts of the “Louisville Arena” and Ohio River Bridges Project danced in my head. One member of the delegation, a young man from Nigeria, thanked the Council for indulging their presence and questions (which came earlier). Smiles and nods, smiles and nods.“They will see how American citizens can impact their local government,” Ben Jones, executive director of the World Affairs Council, told me as the crew shuffled out of Council chambers. “I think that they’re getting the idea that there are sophisticated ways of public input.”That came earlier in the day, he explained, when the group met first with Bridges Project officials and, immediately following that, with Tyler Allen, the Louisville businessman behind the 8664 initiative, the alternative highway plan that continues to gain public support as the funding and political support for two bridges and a redesigned Spaghetti Junction seem poised to implode.“We want them to hear all sides of the story while they’re here,” Jones said of the meetings. Seems Louisville has some things to learn from this delegation, too. —Stephen GeorgeWhat would Jesus download?Contemporary Christians often call their proselytizing activities “outreach,” and there are few cultural boundaries these activities haven’t breached in recent years. With last week’s announcement of Ubuntu Christian Edition’s addition to the Ubuntu Counter Project, Christian “outreach” now extends to the believer’s laptop.Ubuntu, the prevalent distribution of the open-source Linux operating system, is Microsoft’s primary competitor in the operating system market and avails itself of friendly customization, making Ubuntu CE more or less inevitable. And customized it is, preconfigured with Web content filtering, Bible-themed Firefox, a daily Bible verse feature, virtual Rosary, and assorted open-source Christian application software.Based on Ubuntu 7.04 (codenamed “Feisty Fawn”), Ubuntu CE is easily obtained (www.whatwouldjesusdownload.com/christianubuntu/2006/07/download.html). It is, like most open-source software, free, though they do pass the plate on the Web site for those with tithing impulses. One can also buy Christian Ubuntu T-shirts, hoodies and coffee mugs. While some may find this sort of annexation to be excessive and perhaps a little vain, the value of a Linux distribution pre-configured with sturdy family-friendly filtering that’s not easily bypassed is useful and convenient even to the surliest critic. The bundled software includes OpenOffice, Automatix2 and a financial management package. Inclusion in the Ubuntu Counter Project, with its goal of tallying Linux deployments, legitimizes Ubuntu CE in the general Linux community.Ubuntu CE, it turns out, is one of several “Christian” versions of Linux, including ICHTHUX (seriously), which features Christian emoticons and rich Hebrew font. Endless variations of this enterprise are possible: Mormon Linux, Buddhist Linux, Muslim Linux, Flying Spaghetti Monster Linux. That’s the beauty of open source.Finally, in an observation that is either apropos or ironic, depending on one’s political sensibilities, this particular Linux distribution itself is named in the spirit of the Zulu/Xhosa concept of ubuntu, meaning “the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity.” —Scott RobinsonGet a daily dose of Strobe at “The Lip: LEO’s News Blog,” at www.leoweekly.com. Contact the writers at citystrobe@leoweekly.com