No place to cut? Not even the firewalking?

The Libertarian/May 25, 2000
By Vin Suprynowicz

Since 1996, Clark County taxpayers have spent $68,000 to send 51 police supervisors to "leadership training" seminars at the "Just Focus and Do It Ranch" run by Rapport Leadership International in the rural Pahranagat Valley. As detailed in a May 14 front page feature by Review-Journal reporter Joe Schoenmann, the weekend pow-wows, at $1,352 per officer, include rope obstacle courses, breaking pine boards karate-style, and walking on hot coals (now "optional -- It was pigeonholing us as the 'fire walk people.' ")

The Nevada ranch is run by Michael and JoAnn Knapp, who have done so well in the leadership motivation business that -- from their days in bankruptcy in the late 1980s -- they now do $6 million in business per year, operating the $4 million facility near Mercury, Nev. while spending a good deal of time at their resort home in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico ... where Michael "does a lot of fishing."

Mrs. Knapp has a masters degree in education, with a concentration in the education of the retarded. Mr. Knapp, 60, graduated from Southern Illinois University on a wrestling scholarship and then went to work as a national sales trainer for Collier Encyclopedia.

A veteran of the Midwestern Collier sales force from 1961, now living in Phoenix, recalls the "pitch" the company used at that time was almost demonically effective. The Collier salesmen would knock at the door, asking residential customers if they would like a set of fine encyclopedias for their kids "if price were no object," and then asking if the prospect could afford "10 cents a day -- the price of a cup of coffee" if it would help their children in school.

Admitted to the house, the salesman would inform the happy family that they had been chosen for a "sample demonstration placement" of the Collier Encyclopedia, free of charge.

Of course, having been granted such a boon, it would take an awfully tight-fisted family to refuse to sign up for the "annual update supplement volumes" required to keep the set up-to-date, at only $36.95 per year for 10 years. Why, to make it even easier, the Collier salesman would then even offer to condense those payments to $12 a month for only 30 months. ... "By the time you sat down, it was a done deal," the Collier veteran recalls. "They'd already said they'd spend a dime a day to help their kids. I actually had couples break down in tears, they were so desperate to figure out how to come up with the money in their budget so they wouldn't miss out on this 'free' encyclopedia."

The Collier gambit was, presumably, perfectly legal at the time. Nor is there anything wrong with the Knapps applying their sales and motivation skills today.

The Metro Police Department is hardly alone in trying such methods to help mid-level managers deal with the stresses of modern management -- plenty of private firms also patronize such trendy "motivational trainers."

That said, however, this is tax money, and if there's any scientific data that such expenditures give Metro better supervisors -- let alone filter down to improve police work -- it has yet to be seen.

Among the rank and file at Metro, skepticism is widespread. "People have joked with me about drinking Kool-Aid and secret handshakes," admits Undersheriff Richard Winget, with a laugh.

Washoe County administrator Charles "Beau" Wiseman didn't find a seminar operated by an outfit called Vistar quite so funny. A federal judge up in Reno last month dismissed the civil suit Wiseman brought after he said he was forced to attend the 1997 seminar -- where he was required to wear a tutu and dance as a ballerina in a "mind-stretching" exercise -- in order to keep his job. Wiseman said he also contemplated suicide after being forced to relive his Vietnam experiences in a Vistar group encounter seminar.

The Washoe county board fired the county manager in 1998.

"I don't think they have any data whatsoever to show that they work," says Robert Horgan, a professor of psychology at the University of Tulsa, considered an authority on such leadership seminars.

"Leaders can be abusive, they don't listen, they're arrogant," he says. "How are you going to fix that in one damned weekend?"

Presumably, few find the silliness as traumatic as Mr. Wiseman. On vacation, English and Japanese adults are known to pay people to gather them into groups, shout orders at them, and run them about half-clothed in frigid weather. Maybe it's a cultural thing.

The question is not whether folks should be able to purchase such New Age malarkey out of pocket. The question is whether -- at a time when our politicians are telling us government is stripped to the bone and more tax hikes loom -- the typical struggling Clark County taxpayer should be required to pony up $1,352 apiece to send police supervisors not to seminars where they might learn the latest on search warrants and the use of deadly force -- but for a weekend of chanting "Cumbaya" around the campfire.

And that should be a no-brainer ... even for one of Mrs. Knapp's students.

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