Tuesday, October 21, 2008

PalinGate and More....

AP INVESTIGATION: Alaska funded Palin kids' travel

I have to respond to this because it opens up some many more questions for me, a Alaska State employee, than it answers. For, how on Earth was Sarah able to much less did, charge the travel expenses for her kids. There are several check and balance systems in place that should have prevented this in the first place. Maybe there's some executive priveleges I am not aware of (if there are executive priveleges, why are wasting tons of our money trying to indict Ted Stevens, another story.)
Steps to travel for an employee of Alaska's Executive Branch:
Request travel permission from supervisor, if request is for out of state travel, then a regional supervisor must approve, then it gets forwarded to headquarters where an agency Commissioner's designee must approve. The travel request must state dates, destination, estimated costs, and justification of why this travel is needed. Sarah doesn't have a supervisor so gets a free one here. Too bad, that's an important check that should be in place to prevent new articles.

Travel arrangements MUST be made through the State Travel Office or STO. Now the STO is the last vestige of Frank Murkowski's infamy. This is a corrupt private institution that all state employees must patronize to travel. The STO charges the state for EACH transaction. Meaning every airline reservation has a fee, every hotel reservation has a fee, every rental car reservation has a fee. The Travel agency is making some huge bucks on this, but does anybody investigate this SCAM?! The process has been relaxed somewhat in that the employee can now make their own hotel and rental car reservations. They can make their own airline reservations but are not allowed to purchase the ticket themselves, STO must do that. The STO uses State Procurement protocols to process your request, which is done online. They will not proceed with your reservation unless you've certified by email that you have approval to travel from your supervisor. Some employees, such as myself, have a Purchase Credit Card number on file to charge the airline ticket too. You can make arrangements for other people through the STO, but because I've never done this, I don't know how exactly this works, but the STO has to operate under the State's procurement code.
How Palin was able to charge the tickets for her kids is beyond me. Were they employees? Were they hired on as volunteers? An employee can't just start making reservations willy nilly for people USING the STO! If Palin doesn't have to use the STO, then I'm really mad, because the rest of us do, and we are forced to pay a private company to make our reservations for us. Which would be fine if it were 1980. But its 2008, and making flight reservations and getting them exactly how you want them on the internet takes a minute or two. For me, STO rarely gets it right even if I tell them I have to leave on Monday, they'll book me on Tuesday. Rarely have they got it right and it costs more of my time to use this stupid ass STO.

Once travel is over, I along with all other state employees, but maybe the governor doesn't, have to complete the paper work -No job is ever complete until the paperwork is done! All expenses have to be accounted for and JUSTIFIED. For meals, I typically get $60 per day divided by various amounts for breakfast lunch and dinner, and I don't know of any limits on Hotels. A 700 dollar a night hotel in New York is nothing really, try getting one in Manhattan for less. I dare you. So 60 bucks is good money for meals, it should cover you, but I'll tell you that is getting harder and harder to do. If I go to a conference I have to submit a conference agenda so the approvers of this form can determine if I was provided any of the meals at the conference thus preventing me from walking away with that meal's allowance. This form has to bee approved by the nearest Adminstrative Manager, THEN it gets sent to Headquarters (Juneau staff) for approval. Interestingly, the supervisor does not have to approve, mainly because a supervisor has already approved the travel, and the estimated cost. Headquarters must approve these travel expenses otherwise the employee is responsible. So How did Sarah get her travel expenses approved!?!! Highly unlikely she did her own paperwork, so someone wasn't doing their job, or someone did their job and did too well, and got caught and Sarah gets blamed, it is her responsibility. But really can you blame them. Who is going to tell the governor they are redhanded wrong? You don't get very far in government telling your boss, much less the governor, they are wrong - isn't that right Walt?!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Flow 2008 - San Antonio, Texas

I loved San Antonio. I couldn't believe how my expectations lead me astay. I found this place to be friendly, fun, warm if not hot, and fairly safe. But I really didn't stray much from the Riverwalk area, which is very touristy, and definitely geared towards getting your money. Nevertheless, the "I'm badder ass than you and I drive a big truck" and "me first" attitudes were missing. The only real downside, and this is mostly my fault for not researching better, was that I didn't get the food that I expected. In fact, I did end up having some of the most disgusting excuse for Nachos in my life at Mad Dog's British Pub. Well go figure, it was a British Pub. But the main purpose was to be there with some friends and drink some beer (over priced beer) outside in the 80-degreee weather. Staying on the Riverwalk at the El Tropicano Holiday Inn was apropose for the Flow 2008 conference. Here we are nationwide meeting learning how best to manage water for the environment, fish, wildlife, and human use, and we have a prime example of extreme human intervention in the natural flow of things. But despite the concrete walls, controlled flow, and extreme paucity of real riparian habitat, there was a certain "zen" of the river that made the experience so relaxing and intriguing.

One of the better restaurants, actually the first meal I ate in SA, was at The Original Mexican Restaurant. The waitress was a ditz, didn't eat Mexican, and could pronounce Rellenos, which she recommended. The were pretty good, but over priced ($16.99!!), and there was no hotter sauces than the tepid Pico de Gallo I had to ask for extra. Another cool place was Jim Cullum's Landing. I wouldn't have known about his place but my Dad prompted me to check it out, because Jim Cullum has a rather wonderful Jazz (Dixieland) band. I was able to catch a couple of their last set later one night after a catered meal at the Buckhorn Museum. Now the Buckhorn is a story in itself, largest collection of dead animals in the world I gather. Everything species there including some that are now extinct. The catered food was great, finger food, except for the roast beest and there were about six food stations around the museum, including a heck of dessert station. I was a bit full of course, but had to try the pecan-sauced crepes, holy cow. There was also fresh stawberries and melted chocolate to dip them in. Rather nice. One of the real cool things was this lady making these little mini gorditas or fresh made corn meal cakes topped with bean goo, cheese and copious amounts of guacamole. In fact there was a pile of cut up avocados for you to pick on. Another good station was the shrimp frittters, and a nice tartar sauce. I had to be a brat though and go over to the avocado station and dip up some chipotle dip for the shrimp fritters. Always trying to kick it up a notch.

Another interesting place was Dolores del Rio, and I didn't eat here, but stopped for a night cap glass of wine and listened to a Jazz trio piano, drums and a young budding basist. Its a quaint hole in the wall in one very old building. There is belly dancing on some nights. I was dissappointed that there was only two types of wine in a glass to choose from (and not many in the bottle). For an Italian place, almost a disgrace. I ended up with a glass of some seemingly poorly cellared Italian Sangiovese and some rather funky jazz. But it would be interesting to dine there nevertheless, bring own wine and pay the corkage.

Finally, as the last hurrah, because we were getting a bit disapointed on Riverwalk food, some co-workers and I got venturous we thought, and went to Mi Tierra. We asked the El Tropicano staff for a good Mexican restaurant, and this is what one of them recommended. Ironically, of all the staff, she was the only gringa, but sounded like she had some scrupples. It was a huge bakery and brilliantly decorated, which a roving 3 piece Mariachi Band (who didn't want to play Hotel California for us- go figure; neither did the band at the Republic of Texas, another story). The food was average. We had to pry a speciall salsa out from the kitchen because the standard table fare was pretty much like pace or La Ranchera out of the bottle. Nothing worse that factory salsa at a Mexican restaurant. Damn. The salsa out of the kitchen was a tomatillo base with some fresh diced jalapenos and onions, so had a kick, needed salt and otherwise good for a green but..nothing really special. My conclusion, is that San Antonio is mediocre venue for Mexican food within the tourist realm. I had much better experience in the outskirts of Phoenix. Another story see earlier blogs. And of course Southern California is unbeatable, better than Mexico. So if you read this, and know a good Mexican restaurant let me know. Here is my criteria for what a Good Mexican place is:

  1. Fresh Homemade Salsa's at least three to choose from, preferably a salsa barr, with limes, cilantro, chopped onions, jalapenos etc.

  2. Fresh made-on-the premises tortillas.

  3. Deep rich chili sauces, including moles (not just the sweet kind)

  4. Lots of grilled choices, chicken, asada, etc. (presence of lingua, birria, tripe etc. good indication they're serious.

  5. Choice of black beans or other whole beans, lard infused bean goo gets a C- or lower.

  6. Rellenos made with large poblanos rather than Aneheims. Ok I like Aneheims, but Poblanos kick it up a notch.

The idea in all this is ingredients, simple fresh ingredients, grilling and staying true to course. The best taco in the world is mequite or oak (avocado wood works too!) grilled flank or skirt steak, sliced up hot with diced onions put that on a double layer of fresh corn tortillas, heated just right, a Pico de Gallo or salsa taquera or roja, a sprinkle of shredded cabbage, a slice of avocado (if there's room) generous squeeze of lime and bam! the perfect taco. Served with beer, in the sun, in the boondocks with a bunch of friends, and we're talking back to Eden baby. The sauces show you care. Why most restaurants can't figure this out is beyond me, but when you find one, they're gold.