The statesman and educator John W. Gardner once said, "Perhaps the most important characteristic of an ever-?renewing system is that it has built-in provisions for vigorous criticism. It protects the dissenter and the nonconformist. It knows that from the ranks of the critics come not only cranks and troublemakers but saviors and innovators."

Our government was carved with dissent and debate, sometimes less than polite. In Utah, we seem to choose to play nice and frown upon anyone who challenges our leaders. We seem to be doing what humans often revert to when we feel threatened, deny and hear only what we want to hear. We are content to read our press clippings about how well our state is run, a quality of life to be envied. Our leaders keep talking about Utah values of family, caring for the most needy among us, and the dignity and value of every human being; yet, seem to sweep the poor under the rug.

Utah values? Follow the money. We can spend billions of dollars on freeways, but can't find money to help the growing number of families who now find themselves homeless. Something is wrong when we have our leaders waving magazines touting the great state we have while the local news is telling us we are in need of food and shelters for families.

It seems our policymakers are living in a different world than many Utahns. We now have more people looking for work, more people who have given up looking for work, more families facing foreclosure on their home, more parents dipping into their retirement savings to help their children get an education, and more walking sick because they can't afford medical care or help disabled loved ones. We have elderly living in poverty wearing layers of coats to keep warm, going without adequate food, because they must pay their property taxes. It's wrong.

Our leaders should take a walk to see the growing lines at the Salvation Army, and on church steps where mothers and fathers with baby strollers wait to get their one meal of the day. This is not the Utah I grew up in where we expected the poor to come knocking at our doors and we fed them, where we lived what we heard in church. Now, it looks like we choose to believe the spin-doctors who tell us we have a well-managed state.

This campaign season we have our incumbents telling us we should be nice and trust them and to watch for the October surprise. Well, we had surprises, summits, committees and commissions that finalized their recommendations that seemed to give the illusion of accomplishments. Like good children, we followed what our mothers told us, "If you don't have something nice to say, then don't say it." It's too bad, because when we fail to face our problems squarely, we have resigned ourselves to defeat.

What we fail to realize is that societies, like families, fall apart when they continue to deny they have a problem and suffer in silence. Our state now, more than ever, needs leaders who can be truthful and stop telling us we are the envy of other states; that we are saving the education of our children because we didn't cut too much of its budget and mediocrity is OK. Then they turn around and say they will challenge the federal government at any cost.

Let's have the healthy debate provided for in our system of government. In the end, our generation will be judged by how well we lived and preserved our common values for the next generation. We have a duty to perform.

A Utah native, John Florez has founded several Hispanic civil rights organizations; been on the staff of Sen. Orrin Hatch; served on more than 45 state, local and volunteer boards; and filled White House appointments, including deputy assistant secretary of labor and as a member of the commission on Hispanic education. E-mail: