I am a great admirer of local low-income advocacy groups.
During the past year I have watched them fight for the rights of the handicapped, the poor, the elderly, the disenfranchised.They have consistently provided information to the public and government officials and agencies that are supposed to serve people including low-income people.
They have also successfully captured the interest and enthusiasm of many Utahns who donate time to help various groups.
The advocates are a big help to me professionally, too. When I need special information or fast access to someone for a story, they always seem to send me to the right place. Their fingers rest on the heartbeat of the state.
Even as one of their most ardent fans, though, I don't always agree with them. (They don't always agree with each other, either.)
They are at their best when they work with the "system" to solve problems and provide information. Last week, a handful of advocates disappointed me, because they weren't trying to solve, but rather to place blame for, problems.
For several months, the media have run stories about the proposed consolidations of two welfare offices into one at the ExpoMart.
The Department of Social Services lost the lease on its downtown district office and decided that the office at 2835 S. Main was too small to accommodate the new case management computer system. So they looked for and found a place large enough to combine the two.
"From a financial point of view," Lynn Samsel, district manager with the department, said, "it was the only thing that made any sense. And the facilities are much better, for both caseworkers and clients."
Several low-income advocates by no means all of them, incidentally raised serious objections to the move of the department.
Parking downtown is inadequate, they said. Travel time will increase for those who live at the south end of the existing district. They fear that armed security guards who patrol the ExpoMart area will deter clients from coming to the office.
And they were concerned that a food pantry, within a block of the old South Main office, will suffer when the distance to the welfare office is increased.
All of these things will create barriers to public assistance access, they said.
When they became aware of the proposed move, they asked the department for a meeting, which was granted. At the January meeting, Norm Angus, department director, said a three-year lease had already been signed.
The advocates were furious that the lease was signed "behind their backs," and I can sympathize with them on that. They should have been told before the meeting.
Since that time, they have repeatedly requested a public hearing on the move. I've listened to lengthy debates on it in at least four public meetings.
Last week, they met with Reed Searle, aide to the governor, to request a hearing.
Angus and Samsel have said it won't do any good. The state is committed to a three-year lease, and the department has never, in the past, asked advocacy groups for permission to move a state office.
The disagreement between advocates and officials is healthy. I don't think the department needs to ask permission to move an office, but it should have been more sensitive to advocates' concerns.
I think in the future it will be. Ten hours defending the move will linger in official memories for a long time.
But there was a disturbing undertone to the "conversations."
Not once during those hours of complaining and arguing and accusing did I hear an advocate look for ways to ease the potential problems.
Instead, they baldly stated that "if the problems we've mentioned occur, and we think they will, we'll be here." Watching and waiting, to point a finger and say "I told you so?"
"I've already talked to the American Civil Liberties Union," one said. "If there are barriers to receiving services, we will litigate."
Which is probably fair. But not once did I hear an advocate suggest a solution to the problems.
No one said, "I think you made the wrong decision when you signed the lease, but maybe I can help you notify clients about parking, or the pantry or whatever."
Somehow, I expected better than that from a group I have come to like and respect. They know the problems, they usually can find solutions. This time, they didn't seem to want to try.