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Governing for the Common Good

1) National: Should building inspection be privatized? Perhaps more insight on this question will be gained as discussion develops in light of the horrific building collapse and loss of life in Surfside, Florida. The inspections there seem to have been contracted out by the private owner (but the amount of municipal contracting out in the U.S. is staggering, and includes building inspection), and questions are being asked about the thoroughness of the inspection and/or if the building owners and managers took sufficient timely action on the warnings the private inspectors reportedly provided. Was municipal oversight of the inspection regime sufficient

A decade ago in a column weighing the wisdom of outsourcing municipal services, Megan McArdle said we should “be careful about outsourcing monitoring functions such as building inspection.  It’s very hard to come up with any sort of performance metric that won’t tempt the company to either issue too many violations, or contrariwise, pass substandard work (especially if you expect them to collect fees for their services.)  Since it’s hard to monitor their work, you don’t gain much from privatization, and indeed, you may lose, since unlike the government, they need a profit margin.”

And in a letter to the New York Times, Mary E. Fellows of Portland, Oregon makes a wider point. “The collapse of the condo tower just north of Miami Beach is truly tragic, and my heart goes out to all those affected by this catastrophe. Sadly, this is also a none-too-gentle reminder to those among us who wish and vote for less government involvement in our lives that first responders, building codes, medical care and a regulated insurance industry are all part of that same despised government.”

2) National: Public administration expert Donald Kettl has issued a clarion call for a broad discussion of the role of the public service, saying the battle for the public service is just beginning. “We are in the midst of a critical debate over the future of the federal workforce—and with it, about the future role of the federal government. It is raising questions more fundamental than at any time since the passage of the Pendleton Act, which established the civil service system in 1883. The questions speak to the role of administrators in our constitutional system of governance and, indeed, the Constitution itself. The issues are gaining steam on the right, all but guaranteeing that the Trump executive order—or something like it—will continue to at the center of the debate over workforce policy in the public sector, not only at the federal level but in the states as well. The debate, however, is not being joined from the left, except to thwart efforts to cut the number of federal employees and make it easier to fire employees. Both sides are missing the most important issue: how to equip the federal government to deliver services to the public, in the best way possible. The stakes here are enormous. Let’s unpack the issues.” 

3) National: President Biden has announced that he will nominate a top union lawyer to serve on the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). “David Prouty, general counsel for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Labor 32BJ, has been chosen to fill an upcoming vacancy on the five-member board. Prouty has held the general counsel position at SEIU, the nation’s largest labor union for property service workers with over 175,000 members, since 2018.

Before that, he was general counsel for the MLB Players Association and also worked for the labor union UNITE HERE, which is comprised of industrial and textile employees as well as ones from hotels and restaurants.”

4) National: A federal appeals court has ruled that “a previous aerial surveillance program operated by the Baltimore Police Department was unconstitutional, ordering city law enforcement to stop using data collected from the since-ended program.” Writing for the majority, the chief judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, Roger Gregory, “said that the use of data collected from the Aerial Investigation Research (AIR) program launched in early May 2020 amounted to a “warrantless operation” and search in violation of the Fourth Amendment.” The current iteration of the program is operated under a Baltimore Police Department contract with a private, for-profit company, Persistent Surveillance Systems.

5) National/Think Tanks: Are you a wonk who follows the nitty gritty of the flow of funds from the federal government to the states and thinks about best practices for spending that money? If so you’ve got to sign up to receive Route Fifty’s new email weekly, This Week in Federal Funding. The first exciting issue has “What to watch: The big pot of federal money in play is, of course, the $350 billion ARPA program that the Treasury Department lau nched last month providing direct state and local aid. A major question with those funds is how places will balance spending to relieve near-term budget pressure against longer-term investments in areas like infrastructure and economic development. The answer will vary from place to place, but is starting to come into focus.”


6) National: Writing in The Nation, Jennifer Berkshire traces out the ferocious culture war being waged on public education by the Republican Party. “This spring, New Hampshire has witnessed an extraordinarily acrimonious debate about public education. GOP lawmakers, who took control of the legislature in 2020, have prioritized controversial—and deeply unpopular—legislation, including a sweeping expansion of a program that provides tuition vouchers for private schools and a ban on discussing ‘divisive concepts,’ such as racism or sexism, in the public schools. Crompton, an outspoken opponent of both measures, says, ‘I became a pawn in the culture war and in the scheme to discredit public schools.’ Misty Crompton, a New Hampshire middle school teacher. She isn’t the only one. Fueled by the Trump-era GOP’s insatiable appetite for red-meat issues—and finding fertile ground in a public politically polarized by the pandemic—the culture wars are raging, upending school board races, reshaping local politics, and now threatening public education itself.” 

But teachers, parents and community members are fighting back. For more see the Zinn Education Project’s Pledge to Teach the Truth: Despite New State Bills Against It.

7) ArizonaPublic education supporters are gearing up for another major battle against Gov. Ducey (R), the Arizona Mirror reports. “A coalition of public education advocacy groups that banded together last year to pass higher taxes on the wealthy to increase teacher pay and boost school funding are now looking at ways to stop Republican legislators and Gov. Doug Ducey from undermining that tax increase in a state budget that includes massive tax cuts for the wealthy. The Arizona Education Association, Stand for Children, and Children’s Action Alliance told Arizona Mirror they and other organizations are weighing their options, including challenging the tax cuts in court or going back to voters with a citizen referendum aimed at blocking the tax cuts from ever taking effect.” 

8) California: Rudy Gonzalves, the director of LAANE’s Education Campaign, passes on word of three significant victories toward transforming public education. “We are excited the School Board has met three of our demands,” he reports, including supporting and expanding community schools, ensuring safe and healthy schools, and expansion of the Black Student Achievement Plan. “These victories wouldn’t have been possible without all of the parents, students, teachers, and community members who speak up to demand the schools our students and families deserve. But the fight is not over. We continue to push with renewed energy for LAUSD to establish police-free schools and reimagine student safety by redirecting the School Police budget toward the programs and resources students need to be successful in their educational journeys.”

9) California: Orange County education authorities are on the case of a charter school that is being investigated for “operational discretions,” but have yet to take action. “In recent months, the Orange County Department of Education has issued multiple notices of concern to school leaders over claims that they over reported their enrollment to the state and received disproportionate funding, held classes in a facility not zoned for K-12 education and charged fees for instruction. The school’s potential noncompliance was discussed by members of the Board of Education, the authorizing agency for the charter, in two regular meetings June 2 and June 16.”

10) Florida: Education commission Richard Corcoran, a powerhouse in state Republican politics and longtime advocate of school privatization and anti-union activism, is threatening the Hillsborough County School Board for denying contract renewals to four charter schools. “The district issued this brief statement Wednesday concerning Corcoran’s letter: ‘Staff and legal counsel are reviewing the content and will develop a response with the board next week.’ Jim Porter, the School Board’s attorney, said district leaders will draft the appropriate letters to the schools and to Corcoran, getting input from the board when it meets as scheduled on Tuesday.” Board member Jessica Vaughn said last week, “at this point, I feel like there needs to be some accountability to his abuse of power.” 

11) Illinois: The Daily Eastern News, the student news site of Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois, reports that AFSCME Local 981 has been continuing protests for higher wages and changes to their contracts for a full year. “Union members say they want to retain control over their schedules and to reject the university’s desire to abolish dining employees’ jobs through subcontracting. Natalie Nagel, AFSCME Council 31’s staff representative, said that wage increase in the coming years is another concern. ‘The administration] won’t even guarantee a one percent raise each year over the next three years,’ Nagel said. ‘Those are the kinds of things that we can’t live with. We’re working hard to try to reach an agreement but they’re not hearing us very well in the room, so that’s why we’re protesting outside of the bargaining room too.’”

12) MarylandTomorrow the Montgomery County Board of Education will review two applications for charter schools which, if approved, would be among the first in the county’s history. “Board members said they don’t yet have information about the applications or who submitted them, but there will be a public presentation during the board’s meeting on Tuesday afternoon. ‘I’m curious to see who is bringing forward charter applications and what the program design is,’ board member Pat O’Neill said in an interview.”

13) New HampshireState lawmakers have passed a new budget that includes school vouchers and a restrictive curriculum. “The budget includes the creation of voucher-like ‘education freedom accounts’ that can be used toward private or home school expenses. It also includes much-debated provision related to education and race. An earlier version, echoing a now-rescinded Trump administration order, sought to ban discussion of ‘divisive concepts’ in schools. The approved language, pitched as an effort to strengthen anti-discrimination laws, would prohibit teaching children that they’re inferior, racist, sexist or oppressive by virtue of their race, gender or other characteristics. Opponents said the provision robs young people of an inclusive education. ‘True history, if we are honest, we can agree it was painful, harmful and worthy of examination,’ said Rep. Latha Mangipudi, D-Nashua. ‘This refusal of truth is insidious because it denies the reality we see with our own eyes and experience ourselves. Living in denial of our past makes us doomed to repeat it in the future.’”

14) New Jersey: The state Supreme Court has reaffirmed that “the state must consider whether a new or expanding charter school would promote segregation. The court also upheld a prior ruling that the state must analyze whether charter expansion would hurt a school district’s budget — but only if the district raises that concern. The court called the former state education commissioner’s decision ‘deficient’ for failing to consider whether the charter schools’ expansion would further segregate students by race or concentrate students with disabilities and English learners in traditional public schools. In the future, the state must carefully consider those possibilities, the court said.”


15) National: In a turbulent week for infrastructure politics and policy, President Biden on Thursday announced bipartisan agreement on an infrastructure package, but then ran into a firestorm of Republican opposition after saying he would only sign such a bill if it was paired with an ambitious human infrastructure bill. Under pressure from Republicans, Biden walked back his statement, leaving the situation confused. [Read the White House term sheet]

But there is still a long way to go in the process. Congress has left DC for two weeks for the July Fourth holiday, and is only expected to come up with something concrete on infrastructure in terms of bill texts and pay-fors by at best the end of July and possibly all of August. It’s anyone’s guess what the final packages, if any, will look like in September when voting might begin, but we can expect the kinds of ructions that happened last week to pockmark the process for months. 

In short, we are in for what will probably be the biggest substantive national debate on infrastructure in American history over the coming months.

Some takeaways:

  • The announcement of the bipartisan agreement was greeted by the national media as a major achievement for Biden and his staff considering the level of rancor in Washington and across the country.
  • But the deal attracted opposition from Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and criticism from progressives for falling way too short on environmental action and conceding too much on privatization (see below). 
  • House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has thus far stood firm, saying the House won’t take up the bipartisan infrastructure bill until the Senate passes a larger, more sweeping infrastructure package through budget reconciliation. On the other side, Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) said of the two proposals “I am glad they have now been delinked.”
  • The proposed human infrastructure companion bill to the physical infrastructure bill also attracted criticism from progressives for being too small. Sen. Elizabeth Warren also fired a shot across the bow of the White House by warning that she would vote against any attempt to pass the latter while killing the former. “We can’t let the infrastructure train leave the station while child care and clean energy get left on the platform—or while billionaires and big corporations don’t pay their fair share in taxes. It’s one deal.”

16) National: Meanwhile, the privatization industry greeted the announcement of the bipartisan deal as a potential boondoggle and a huge win for them. “The bipartisan group that put this bill together has been keenly focused on the importance of private investment, including the concept of asset recycling, which has been championed by infrastructure funds for a number of years,” said D.J. Gribbin, a former Koch Industries and Macquarie Capital operative who served as Trump’s infrastructure czar and is now Senior Operating Partner at an infrastructure advisory and deal sourcing firm. 

And they have their eyes on some of the choicest pieces of public infrastructure in the whole country: “President Joe Biden’s administration could kick off an asset-recycling initiative with federal government-owned power and generation companies such as the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Bonneville Power Administration, Gribbin said. He added that government-owned dams around the country that generate hydroelectric power and haven’t been well maintained could also be part of the program. Other federally-owned infrastructure that investors have long coveted include the Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and Washington Dulles International Airport.”

But critics of privatization weighed in forcefully. “One of the concerns that I do have about the bipartisan bill is how they are going to pay for their proposals, and they’re not clear yet,” Sen. Bernie Sanders has said. “Privatization of infrastructure, those are proposals that I would not support.” Mary Grant of Food & Water Watch said “this White House-approved infrastructure deal is a disaster in the making. It promotes privatization and so-called ‘public-private partnerships’ instead of making public investments in publicly owned infrastructure. (…) Communities need real support, not privatization scams. The most sensible infrastructure solution is to provide robust public funding for publicly owned projects, which would discourage price-gouging by corporate interests, protect public control over these precious assets, and save everyone money.”

The most detailed response came from The American Prospect’s David Dayen and Alexander Sammon. Dayen called the bipartisan Senate infrastructure plan a stalking horse for privatization, saying “it takes about two seconds to recognize how ridiculous this is. The government doesn’t require a 10 percent margin on equity, tax credits, and interest payments. That’s a layer of profit that gets built into the expenditure. Governments usually contract out design and construction to private contractors, but there are only two ways for these companies to reduce ownership and operation costs below what the public sector would spend, while still being profitable. They can cut back, either on safety or labor or maintenance; or they can extract a lot of profit from users of the infrastructure (think toll roads). If the infrastructure isn’t inherently profitable, like a bridge in New York City or a toll road in southern California might be, the upgrade probably won’t get built.”

Alexander Sammon says “whether or not Thursday’s deal becomes law, it’s still stunning to see the Biden White House, the self-proclaimed most climate-centric executive office ever elected, manage to divine the one way to do infrastructure spending that actually sets us even further back on climate. Even if a second bill is passed, it would have to undo or override the commitments of the first bill to become an environmental triumph. And given that the first bill pledges privatization, it will be even more difficult to enact that, as some of those infrastructure assets won’t even be publicly held.” His conclusion? “A Bad Deal Is Worse Than No Deal at All.” 

For a critique of “asset recycling” see Jeremy Mohler, Will this failed Trump policy be slipped into the infrastructure bill? and In the Public Interest’s Research Brief: Lessons learned from the Australian “asset recycling” program.

16) National: Municipal securities dealer groups said Friday they oppose the creation of a $20 billion national infrastructure bank as part of the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure framework, the Bond Buyer reports. “The proposal for a new federal financing bureaucracy met with immediate and strong opposition from Municipal Bonds for America, the Bond Dealers of America and the American Securities Association. ‘By nationalizing federal investment in local infrastructure via an infrastructure bank, the provision would minimize a centuries-long partnership among federal, state and local governments in infrastructure investment,’ said BDA and Municipal Bonds for America in a joint statement. The two groups said that Congress and the administration instead should empower state and local governments to make additional investments by ‘reinstating tax-exempt advance refundings, expanding private activity bonds, raising the limit of bank qualified debt and creating a new direct pay bond, the American Infrastructure Bond exempt from sequestration.’” [Sub required]

17) New Jersey: Food & Water Watch says Senate President Steve Sweeney RICH act is “a sneaky privatization scheme aimed at wresting control of public water and wastewater systems.” Food & Water Watch New Jersey State Director Matt Smith released a statement saying ““Steve Sweeney’s new pro-privatization push is being cloaked in misleading rhetoric about protecting workers’ pensions. Don’t be fooled: This is just a crafty scheme to encourage corporate takeovers of our state’s public water and wastewater systems. The RICH Act would push privatization and valuation studies on community systems, forcing them to either come up with the funds to make capital improvements themselves or lose control of their systems, either directly through a sale or by handing them over to a state fund that will be geared towards promoting privatization. What’s worse, this bill actually reduces the public’s ability to reject a sale of their publicly-owned assets.” 

18) New Jersey: As Newark eliminates its lead water pipes, New Jersey is advancing a 10-year plan for statewide removal. “Newark is on the verge of completing its lead pipe replacement program, removing more than 20,000 pipes in about two years. For comparison, Flint has replaced about 10,000 pipes in five years. And lead pipes across the state would be replaced with safer plumbing in the next decade under a bill that lawmakers sent to the governor on Thursday. 

New Jersey would be just the third state to mandate replacement of lead pipes, according to the Environmental Defense Fund. ‘The lead service line replacement bill is a revolutionary step forward in making New Jersey lead-free,’ said Chris Sturm, managing director of policy and water at New Jersey Future.” 

19) Think Tanks: Thomas Stevens, a Detroit lawyer, looks at the “infrastructure wars,” human rights and the right to water and sanitation. Wolfgang Streeck, he says, “summarizes the fundamental results of innovations like Great Lakes Water Authority’s (GLWA) as a powerful form of privatization of democracy and public finance: ‘Privatization of investment in physical and social infrastructure gives rise to a growing private industry operating in what used to be the public sector. … [in] the shift from a redistributive towards a neoliberal state that abandons to civil society and the market its responsibility to provide for social equity and social cohesion.” 

Criminal Justice and Immigration

20) National80,000 people are in solitary confinement in the United States. And do private prisons enforce solitary confinement for profit? Yes they do according to a new lawsuit. “A wide-ranging complaint submitted Monday by over a dozen civil rights groups to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security alleges that the Pine Prairie Immigration and Customs Enforcement Processing Facility in Pine Prairie, Louisiana has been using solitary confinement and punitive segregation not only for disciplinary infractions at the facility, but also as a way to isolate detainees during the COVID-19 pandemic, a response to other mental and medical health emergencies, and as retaliation for detainee protests and complaints.” Pine Prairie is operated under contract by the GEO Group.

21) NationalEfforts are continuing to ban slave labor in American prisons. “It’s time to unequivocally make the evils of slavery and involuntary servitude history, once and for all. We must pass the Abolition Amendment — introduced by Senator Jeff Merkley (OR) and Representative Nikema Williams (GA-05)—to end the exception!” Illustrating the need for the amendment, last week a federal judge overturned a trial against GEO Group, which has been accused of violating the rights of detained immigrants who worked at its facilities by not paying them the minimum wage established in the state of Washington.

22) National/WashingtonA major COVID-19 outbreak has occurred at the GEO Group-operated Northwest ICE Processing Center in Tacoma. Aaron Korthuis, a NWIRP attorney working on the lawsuit, said the recent cases amount to “clearly the biggest outbreak we’ve seen during COVID.” With the availability of vaccines and testing, he added, “at this point in the pandemic, it feels almost like this sort of thing shouldn’t be happening.”

23) National: ICE force-fed detainees who went on hunger strikes, according to a report published by the ACLU and Physicians for Human Rights that was first obtained by BuzzFeed News. “The force-feeding by staff at GEO Group, one of the largest private prison companies in the US that ICE pays to detain immigrants, came at the end of Otieno’s second hunger strike. The protests were a last resort to negotiate the release of asylum-seekers who are detained at Pine Prairie ICE Processing Center in Louisiana, said Otieno, who asked to use a pseudonym because he fears that speaking out will affect his asylum case.”

24) California: In a spirited letter to the editor, Graeagle resident Mark Mihevc defends officials’ decision to close a California state prison in Susanville. “The California prison inmate population has declined 21 percent in the last few years due to new criminal justice reforms voted on by Californians and COVID-19. It will also save taxpayers $122 million. So, closing prisons was/is appropriate. It is what you would expect from a Democratic controlled state that values effective efficient governance. Unfortunately, being laid off is almost commonplace since the mid 1990’s when our government made it easy and profitable for businesses to close American factories and offshore production to foreign countries.” 

25) Maine: Democratic Governor Janet Mills “has vetoed a bill requiring the Maine Department of Corrections to close Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland within two years.” In her veto message, Mills “called the bill ‘fundamentally flawed’ and ‘a simplistic solution to a complex problem’ because it would close Maine’s only youth detention facility before alternative sites are available. The bill would require the state to develop a plan to close Long Creek—which currently houses just a few dozen young people—by June 30, 2023, and re-direct the facility’s roughly $19 million budget to a range of ‘community-based alternatives.’”

26) New Jersey:  The state legislature has passed a bill banning new Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) contracts in the state and prohibiting the renewal of existing agreements. It is unclear if Gov. Murphy (D) will sign the bill. “The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of New Jersey said that if Murphy signs the bill into law, “New Jersey would be among the first states to bar the expansion and renewal of immigration detention within state borders, building on a national movement to end immigration detention.” In April, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signed into law a bill phasing out the use of for-profit jails in the state by 2024, including a notorious immigration jail. In 2019, California and Illinois similarly took action to dramatically scale back ICE detention. Back in New Jersey, the legislation “would not end current contracts—but three counties have already signaled their plans to house immigrant detainees could come to an end,” continued.”

The bill was given momentum by the decision of Essex County officials to terminate a contract to house detainees for ICE at the county jail

27) Washington: Gov. Jay Inslee (D) recently received a demand letter, signed by over 60 community organizations, “calling for an end to Washington State’s ongoing collaboration with ICE. In tandem with the letter was a press conference, “A Call to Gov. Inslee to End the DOC to Deportation Pipeline.” Bunthay Cheam, reporting for the South Seattle Emerald, says “in April 2021, Inslee signed HB 1090, which bans private, for-profit prison companies from operating in the state, setting into motion the eventual closure of the Northwest ICE Processing Center (NWIPC), formerly known as the Northwest Detention Center (NWDC), at the end of its contract in 2025. The NWIPC, located in Tacoma, is run by the Geo Group on behalf of ICE and is the largest immigration detention facility in Washington State with a capacity of over 1,500 beds. (…) While these two pieces of legislation are in the spirit of ending cooperation with federal immigration authorities, Washington State DOC and ICE continue to collaborate. When Inslee signed the Keep Washington Working Act (KWW) into law, he exempted the DOC which continues to impact immigrant and refugee communities disproportionately.

Public Services

28) National/Maryland/Oregon: Mental health facilities are being stretched to the breaking point from one end of the country to the other.

Psychiatric hospital workers at a state hospital in Catonsville rallied for COVID pay recently. AFSCME Council 3 President Patrick Moran “said a shortfall of psychiatric bed capacity, heavily geared toward the forensic patient population, sends others with schizophrenia, substance use disorder and other conditions to the private sector, which also doesn’t have enough beds or staff, and doesn’t have the same funding for long-term patient stays. ‘Maryland is one of the richest states, but they don’t care about quality services for those in need,’ he said. ‘It’s dire, dire, dire. There’s tons of overtime, which means you don’t have staff to fill the vacancies; little or no effort to go outside the confines of compensating people, which leads people to leave.”

In Oregon, “the staffing crisis at the Oregon State Hospital, which necessitated calling in the Oregon National Guard for help, was in the works well before the COVID-19 pandemic. Without additional staff in the near term, the crisis will only continue. Since last November, the hospital has been operating under an emergency plan for providing minimum levels of nursing staff. In the earliest stages of the plan, staff and managers from other departments whose regular duties do not include working with residents on the floor, volunteered for nursing shifts. In May, as the crisis worsened, the hospital activated the fourth and fifth stages of the plan – calling in u ntrained staff from other agencies and then the National Guard to fill shifts.”

29) Massachusetts/Florida: Customers in Stow say Waste Management, the private contractor, hasn’t picked up their garbage in nearly three weeks. “As you drive through town and you’re seeing overflowing trash, it’s disgusting,” Stow resident Tara Dhar said. Waste Management says it has a labor shortage. A similar crisis involving Waste Management is plaguing Clay County, Florida. Wages have risen from $10.50 an hour in December to roughly $15 an hour now.

30) International: A new Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) workshop helps members identify and fight privatization during the COVID-19 pandemic and recovery. “Corporations and consultants are trying to take advantage of the COVID crisis by pitching privatization. We can resist privatization by being on alert for threats and looking for opportunities to bring services in house. Members will leave the workshop with a checklist that helps them protect jobs and services from privatization. Contact your education representative to find out how your local executive, sector committee or other CUPE group can take this workshop in your region.”

Everything Else

31) National: Robert Anderson writes in to the Albuquerque Journal to say that privatization eating away at vital Veterans Administration services. “Many of us veterans have found the quality of medical services at the VAMC here in Albuquerque to be far superior to those in the private sector and in the rural areas. I have used the VA medical center here—and some others in various parts of the country—for my medical needs for over 30 years now due to exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam. The VA has saved my life several times due to good preventative care. For years I was pleased with the quality of care at the VA—until the Choice Act and the Mission Act were started under pressure from Banks’ [Koch-backed] advocacy group.”

Photo by United States Mission Geneva.

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