Thursday, March 27, 2008

A bad body

From Jim Rice's new blog:
Last year people said Curt Schilling was fat...he’s not fat, he just has a bad body.
I've been saying that about myself for years!


This can't be helpful

From the T&G:
Mr. Sheppard asked for a copy of Nestlé’s bid, which the selectmen agreed to provide. He also asked that a forum be planned with officials and residents from both towns.

Chairman Robert V. Pasquale Jr. reluctantly agreed to a forum, after urging from fellow board member Mary Rose Dickhaut.

“There’s a lot of concern over nothing,” Mr. Pasquale said. “Those people up there in Sterling have a lot of time on their hands.”
Instead of insulting we "people up there in Sterling" how about having a dialogue with us? If you want this project to go through so badly convince us why it is legal, and why it is good for the community.

While it seems clear that Mr. Pasquale couldn't care less what the people of Sterling think, he could at least be polite to our elected representatives. It's particularly disrespectful that a Clinton Selectman would make this comment with his equal from Sterling in attendance.

It's also not a very good negotiating tactic; some of us think the Sterling Selectmen are the only ones in town willing to make a deal. Insulting them when they reach out to you might drive them away from the table.

I hope Mr. Pasquale can set aside his contempt for the "people up there in Sterling" long enough to make it through this proposed forum.


Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Happy Easter!

I finally downloaded our pictures from Easter. Here are a few...

winter 037
Jackson saving his Easter money.

Playing with bubbles.

winter 066a
Easter outfit.

winter 072
Easter Egg hunt. Perhaps next year we can have warmer weather.

Happy Easter, everyone!

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Tough decision ahead for Clinton

The details of Nestle's proposed deal with Clinton have been clarified, and now the onus is back on Clinton's selectmen to determine their next move. Here are the clarified details, from the Item:
In Clinton, the organization is offering to pay the town’s current rate for untreated and undelivered water: $2.55 per 100 cubic feet. Clinton could potentially garner $200,000 to $300,000 annually based upon state mandated withdrawal volumes. Nestlé would also chip in another $200,000 for dam repairs.

Nothing is written in stone for Sterling as of yet, but Nestlé proposed to enter into a contractual agreement with the town concerning the project and additional annual payments to be made to the Town of Sterling.
As previously reported, the $200,000 for dam repairs would be split with an initial payment of $100,000 and five annual payments of $20,000 to follow.

I don't know what Clinton was expecting, but that doesn't seem like very much money to me. $300,000 annually is less than one percent of Clinton's entire budget, and equivalent to about two percent of their entire property tax base. So if Clinton were to use that money as a straight offset to property taxes, the average homeowner would save $65 each year. Or to put it another way, Nestle's payments to the town would just about pay the annual budget of the Bigelow Library.

Every little bit helps, but I expected Clinton to come out of this with more than that.

The proposal for $200,000 over six years for dam repairs seems particularly meager, since it's been widely reported that the repairs will cost around $1.5 million. Regardless of how much Nestle pays, Clinton is going to be on the hook for the repairs one way or the other. If they took Nestle's money from the repair fund and the money from the yearly water payments, it will still take them five years to raise the funds to fix the dams.

To put Nestle's proposal into perspective, Nestle would be paying 3/10 of one cent per gallon of water. So when you head to Hannaford to spend $4.99 for a case of Poland Springs water, the water in that entire case would have cost Nestle $0.01 (They're obviously paying for purifying, bottling, etc. on top of that, but still, that's a pretty hefty margin).

So what is Clinton to do? I would be surprised if the Selectmen accept the RFP as it is written, but I don't know what they are expecting. If they don't accept it, will they counter with their own proposal? Will they ask Nestle to go back to the drawing board and see if they can squeeze a few more pennies out of their purse? Will they just scrap the whole idea and find something else to do with the property? And what will they do about the Conservation Restriction that was passed in 2004, which is still waiting to be signed and is required if the town wants state money to buy the Rauscher Farm?

Clinton can't just do nothing with the Wekepeke. If they just let the dams go and one of them were to fail, Clinton will be on the hook for the liability, and that could very well be more than the $1.5 million it would cost to repair them. They could sell the land back to Sterling, but the status of the dams would be part of any deal: if the dams weren't repaired before such a sale, you can bet Sterling would want a $1.5 million discount since they would be on the hook for the repairs and the liability. Besides, the chances of Sterling passing an override to purchase the land is very slim.

One option that was discussed briefly at the Sterling meeting last week was to demolish the dams altogether and restore the Wekepeke Brook to it's natural path and flow. That idea was mentioned by a representative from the Nashua River Watershed Association as one possible solution that the NRWA would support. What would something like that cost? Would it be significantly cheaper than the $1.5 million to repair the dams? (I suppose you could strap some dynamite to the dam and that would be a lot cheaper, but the dams would probably have to be dismantled in an orderly fashion) And what sort of opposition would that engender from Lancaster? Without the dams upstream, the brook would flow unfettered to Bartlett Pond at the base of Ballard Hill. As it is, the pond overflows and shuts down route 117 once a year or so. What would the impact be if the old mill at Bartlett Pond were the brook's first choke point?

But before we get that far, politics may render the whole discussion moot. At the Sterling meeting, State Rep. Harold Naughton spoke very carefully about Clinton's upcoming elections, but left the impression that the future of the Nestle proposal could be affected by the May election for two seats on the Board of Selectmen. He did not say exactly what the effect would be, but I inferred that if there were turnover on the board, the whole project could be in jeopardy. It seems to me that nearly every decision the Clinton board makes is a 3-2 decision, so I surmised that if one of the two incumbents were to lose, the 3-2 decisions might start going the other way. And if that's the case, will it prompt the board to try to act before the election, in order to lock in a decision on the Wekepeke's future?

I don't know, but now that Clinton has heard what Nestle is proposing, it seems to me that the project is farther from reality today than it was last week.


Friday, March 21, 2008

Nestle's propsal could change everything

SATURDAY UPDATE: Ken MacGray at the forum posted a note from Nestle that is being circulated among the press:
Hi Clinton and Sterling reporters --

there's an article on the above paper's web site tonight which contains significant factual errors -- including an outlandish figure of 28 million. We have an executive summary of the RFP response prepared which we'll provide you on Monday. While we work at getting a correction over the weekend, we just wanted to make sure the mistake did not get repeated elsewhere.

Thank you and have a good weekend.

Nancy J. Sterling, APR
Senior Vice President, Strategic Communications ML Strategies, LLC
The discussion there is speculating that the proposal is for $2.55 per 100 cubic feet of water, which would bring the contract down to $280,000 per year from the reported $28 million. If that speculation is true, it changes the discussion 18o degrees. Would it be worth Clinton's trouble for an additional $280,000?

In any event, I guess we'll have to find out Monday to find out if Nestle's Easter basket is filled with cash or not.

Nestle presented Clinton with their offer for the Wekepeke water on Friday, and it is impressive. Frankly, the magnitude of the proposal will probably significantly change the discussion about the project's viability. Here are the first details, from the Times and Courier:
Nestlé, which has spent the last year expressing interest in tapping the aquifer beneath the 564-acre Wekepeke Reservation in northern Sterling, is seeking to pay Clinton $2.55 per cubic foot of water extracted. Nestlé officials had earlier proposed installing wells with maximum safe yields of 230,000 gallons per day, or approximately 11.22 million cubic feet per year — a potential payout to Clinton of $28.62 million.

Nestlé is also offering Clinton an initial, one-time payment of $100,000 for Wekepeke dam repairs, plus another $100,000 annually for ongoing maintenance, broken into five $20,000 annual installments. In addition, the company will pay Sterling $200,000 to $300,000 annually.
Let's try to put those numbers into perspective. According to, the entire fiscal year 2008 budget for the town of Clinton was a shade north of $37 million. Of that, about $14.7 million were raised in property taxes. Essentially, if Clinton chose to do so, they could stop collecting property taxes altogether and still bring in an annual surplus of $13.9 million.

Obviously, that is a huge impact. What would Clinton do with the money? Use it for capital improvements? Salaries for more police and fire? I suppose if they wanted to, they could do an Alaska-style plan where they give each resident a $1,000 dividend in addition to paying no taxes.

Look at it another way. The proposal is for a 25-year contract, with three 10-year options. Assuming the options are picked up, that is $1.573 billion over 55 years. Even if the contract was not renewed, it would still pay Clinton over $700 million. That's A-Rod money.

As it affects the Wekepeke, the amount of money promised could remove some of the legal obstacles to the proposal. Specifically, it could affect the issues of the unsigned conservation restriction, the purchase of the Rauscher property, and the agreement with the Massachusetts Water Resource Authority to provide water to the town for free.

At the meeting in Sterling on Tuesday, State Rep. Harold Nauhgton answered a few questions about his opinion of the proposal. He said it was both his opinion and the opinion of the House of Representatives' counsel that the 2004 Conservation Restriction on the Wekepeke property would not allow Nestle or any other corporation to draw water for commercial purposes. That opinion has put Clinton in a bind, since the Conservation Restriction has to be signed and enacted in order for the town to receive the $353,600 state grant to help it purchase the Rauscher property.

All of that may be moot now. Certainly, it won't be in Clinton's best interest to approve the restriction if it costs them over $700 million over the next 25 years. But even if the money and water didn't begin to flow for years, the town might be able to use the contract as collateral for a loan or to a bond issue to purchase the Rauscher Farm. Essentially, they could tell the state that they don't need their grant and purchase the Rauscher Farm anyway.

The other obstacle that Rep. Naughton mentioned Tuesday was Clinton's relationship with the MWRA. I asked him if he would support a petition to amend the Conservation Restriction to allow pumping if the Clinton Selectmen asked for such an amendment. He did not commit one way or the other, but said that he had some real reservations that if Clinton were allowed to sell water from what was originally a municipal water supply that the MWRA might no longer provide Clinton with water from the Wachusett Reservoir for free. Well, it seems to me that the town would have plenty of money left over to pay for water from the reservoir should the MWRA decide to end the free ride.

Of course, there are other obstacles that still remain. The question of whether or not the 1876 and 1882 Acts even allow commercial use has yet to be decided. Ultimately, that one will probably go to court. Even if that is decided in Clinton's favor, Sterling's zoning doesn't allow for commercial pumping. Assuming the zoning is not changed, Nestle will probably have to go to court again to determine if the Mass DEP's jurisdiction over commercial pumping supersedes local zoning.

I've stated previously that I don't think Sterling should be playing ball at all with Nestle until the 1876 and 1882 issues are decided. My opinion hasn't changed. However I wonder what effect the details of the RFP will have on the people of Sterling. Will they consider the offer of $300,000 annually an insult, considering that Clinton will be getting 100 times that amount, and harden their opposition? Will they warm to the plan, figuring that $300,000 is a starting point and that if the town negotiates with Nestle, it can push the payments into seven figures? I don't know.

But I know that the proposal will likely change everything. I just haven't figured out how.


Nestle nominated for "Corporate Hall of Shame"

In an interesting coincidence, considering all of the discussion here about the possibility of Clinton selling it's water rights in Sterling to Nestle, the international advocacy group Corporate Accountability International has nominated Nestle for it's Corporate Hall of Shame. Nestle is vying for a spot against such renowned corporate scofflaws as Blackwater and Countrywide Mortgage.

Nestle has been nominated "for numerous labor violations including child exploitation, contributing to the obesity epidemic, and threatening community water supplies for its bottled water brands."

While I find the nomination an interesting coincidence, my opposition to the proposal is based on my belief that it is illegal and would not be the best thing for Sterling, not because of some high-minded environmentalism. In fact, I like Poland Springs water, drink it quite often, and had no qualms about munching Nestle-brand candies from Jackson's Easter basket last week.

But for those who oppose the project on more global grounds, this news can't hurt.


Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Sterling Selectmen disappoint at Wekepeke forum

Last night, over 150 Sterlingers met with the Board of Selectmen to discuss the town's position on Clinton's plan to sell allow Nestle to pump water from land they own in Sterling. All of the citizens who spoke at the forum spoke against the plan, many of them asking the Selectmen to participate in the effort to defeat the plan. But it became clear early in the 2 1/2 hour meeting that the Selectmen have no stomach for a fight with Clinton or Nestle, and nothing that was presented during the evening appeared to change their position.

Without the endorsement of the Board of Selectmen, efforts to oppose the plan are bound to be undermined.

As reported in today's Telegram and Gazette, the opinion of special counsel Mark Bobrowski is that the current zoning does not allow an entity to draw water for commercial purposes. In the scenario that he outlined (and returned to again and again during the meeting) the town of Clinton or Nestle would propose a change in the zoning to allow the use, Sterling would hire a hydrologist (potentially with funds provided by Nestle) to determine the impact on the Wekepeke aquifer, the scientists would report on any adverse effects, and the town meeting would vote the proposed change up or down. Under this scenario, if the town meeting defeats a zoning change Nestle could not pump water out of the Wekepeke.

Over and over again, Bobrowski spoke about this scenario where the town meeting would reject a zoning change and the plan would be stopped. However, he also noted at one point that Nestle's position is that local zoning does not apply since their proposal is to pump more than 100,000 gallons of water a day, since water draws of that capacity are permitted by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. According to this theory, if the state issues a permit it would supersede the town's bylaws.

Another topic of discussion was the question of whether or not this use is even permitted under the 1876 and 1882 acts that established the Clinton Water Works and gave Clinton the water rights to the Wekepeke. As I discussed earlier this week, it's my position that the Nestle proposal is not an allowed use under the acts and that the rest of the discussion is moot. I am not the only one. Attorney James Gittens has researched the issue and also believes that the acts do not allow a project like the one that has been proposed. Before the meeting, he filed a petition with the Attorney General's office requesting:
I call upon your office to send a ‘cease and desist’ order to the Town of Clinton Selectmen to forestall their impending violation of Ch. 14 of the Acts of 1882 and I also call upon your office to bring a Superior Court action against the Clinton Selectmen to enforce Ch. 14 of the Acts of 1882 if need be.
Gittens has also drafted a legal opinion supporting the claim and has signaled his intent to bring a suit against the town of Clinton based on the 1876 and 1882 acts. Gittens and other citizens (including me) asked the Board to be a party to a potential suit to have the Acts of 1876 and 1882 interpreted. Gittens even offered to represent the town for free in the action, but the Board declined to accept his offer or support legal action.

I am disappointed that the Selectmen are not willing to try to stop the project before it even gets started. A ruling that the proposed use is not permitted under the existing state laws would stop the project in its tracks. If it's not permitted, it's not permitted. Further, two of the three selectmen said that their ideal solution would be to have Sterling purchase the Wekepeke parcel from Clinton. It seems to me that the parcel might be affordable for a possible Sterling purchase only if the water rights have no commercial value. (Clinton has not suggested that they are interested in selling, so any discussion of a purchase is hypothetical anyway.) Yet, the Selectmen are not willing to work to have the the use ruled illegal.

Even more frustrating, the Board of Selectmen wouldn't even commit to delaying any discussions with Clinton or Nestle until this question is decided. If the Board doesn't want to put their necks on the line to actively help stop the proposal, fine. But the town should not play ball with Nestle or Clinton until the rules of the game have been interpreted.

Perhaps the most telling moment was the board's response to a question about the possibility of fighting Nestle in court over zoning. The questioner asked if the Selectmen were willing to commit whatever resources were necessary to defend Sterling's bylaws in the event of a suit. One selectman responded that if it were "20 or 30 thousand" they would, but that they wouldn't want to get into an expensive legal fight. The inference there is shocking. Essentially, the selectman was conceding that if Nestle wants to push Sterling the town won't be willing to stand up to defend it's own bylaws. If that is the Board's position, then it follows that the Board is willing to negotiate a deal with Nestle to allow the development because they don't think they can afford a protracted fight.

I went to the meeting hoping that the Selectmen would help lead the effort to protect the Wekepeke from development. I at least expected them to support opposition to the plan. They made it clear that the people of Sterling would be fighting alone.


Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Red Sox, Volvo not picture perfect

I'm flipping through the mail this evening and I get to this:

red sox ad 1

So I think, "This will be cool. Maybe I'll get a nice picture to tack up on Jackson's wall." It wouldn't have to be a shot of Big Papi or Dice K; a Dustin Pedroia or...hell, Kevin Cash...would be OK. So I open the envelope and pull out this:

red sox ad 2

OK, so the envelope doesn't explicitly say that a picture of a Red Sox player is inside, but it's reasonable to assume that with the Red Sox logo next to the words "Photos Enclosed: Do Not Bend" that the enclosed photo would be of something other than a red hatchback, isn't it?

This lesson in deceptive advertising was brought to you by the Boston Red Sox and Gallo Volvo of Worcester.


Monday, March 17, 2008

Ladybug Picnic

I pulled up the blinds on the sunny side of the house this morning, only to see this:

Actually, I saw the equivalent of five of these shindigs, as I counted 60 ladybugs on and around the window and it's sill.

A few ladybugs? Cute. 60 ladybugs on a six-foot-square window? Creepy.

I guess it's time to bring out the big guns.


Sunday, March 16, 2008

Sterling should oppose Nestle...the right way

On Tuesday, the Sterling Board of Selectmen will hold an open forum to discuss the proposed deal between Nestle and the town of Clinton. Nestle wants to draw water from the Wekepeke aquifer, transport it from a station in Sterling to their plant in Framingham, and sell it as a Nestle branded bottled water. Sterling should oppose the plan and take action to stop it, but the town should do it the right way.

The right way is to oppose the plan on the grounds that is likely illegal, and take Clinton to court if necessary to have the law interpreted and enforced. The wrong way is to threaten Nestle with all sorts of crazy and unenforceable demands, as the local advocacy group "Concerned Citizens of Sterling" outlined in their recent meeting.

Clinton was given the right to draw water from the Wekepeke parcel in 1882 by an act of the legislature. The act stipulated that Clinton could take water "to take the waters of Wekepeke Brook, in the town of Sterling or any reservoir theron," subject to the terms of an 1876 law that established the Clinton Water Works. That law enabled Clinton to " itself and its inhabitants with pure water to extinguish fires, generate steam, and for domestic and other uses..."

This should be the ground on which Sterling fights.

Whether or not Nestle is allowed to purchase the water rights from Clinton and pump water out of the aquifer should be based on an interpretation of these provisions. Ultimately, I think it will take either a ruling from a court or an act of the legislature to clarify these points (and there is no way the legislature is going to get involved, since Clinton and Sterling share a State Rep. and State Senator. It would be suicide for either Rep. Naughton or Rep. Antonioni to take a side).

It seems to me that Sterling should have a good case that the Nestle plan is illegal. First, Nestle has stated that it plans to pump water from newly-dug wells. It must do so in order to to market the water as "spring water." But the 1882 act specifically references taking water from the brook or its reservoirs, not by pumping from a well. The question then becomes whether or not it is implied that a well would be allowed, or whether omitting a reference to pumping from a well is intentional, and thus prohibited.

I would think that a detailed search of similar acts of the legislature and/or precedent-setting court cases should answer that question. If the legislature had specifically granted another municipality permission to pump water from a well, then Sterling could make a strong argument that by omitting that method of extraction from this specific act, the legislature was not authorizing it. (Similarly, if the legislature had never specifically designated underground sources and Clinton could prove that the courts had ruled that drawing from the ground and from the surface were essentially the same, they would win this argument).

Secondly, the 1876 act establishing the Clinton Water Works specifically references "Clinton and its inhabitants." It seems to me that the current Nestle plan would not pass muster under this provision. Nestle wants to pump the water through the existing water main to a facility they would build on route 12 in Sterling, where tanker trucks would fill up and take the water to the bottling plant. It seems clear to me that if the water is being taken from a facility in Sterling, then it is not supplying Clinton's "inhabitants."

I had a discussion last month with a Clinton-based journalist who asked me if it would be any different if the Clinton plan were to pump the water all the way to Clinton for use by a Clinton business. While the impact on Sterling would still be the same, if Nestle were to build a facility in Clinton and pull the water out of the ground there, as an entity with a facility in Clinton doing business in Clinton, I would say that the water would be used by one of Clinton's "inhabitants" and that use would probably be legal. But if the water is pulled by a business whose facility is in Sterling, with the water never entering Clinton, it is not being used by "Clinton and its inhabitants" and seems to me to an improper use.

I think Sterling has an excellent case if they were to try to fight the plan. Nestle knows this and isn't stupid, so they will attempt to cut a deal with Sterling where the town allows them to pump the water for some sort of mitigation (read: money) and the promise not to take them to court. But the town shouldn't entertain serious discussions with Nestle until they start the process of determining whether or not they can stop the project altogether. They certainly shouldn't start talking about a list of demands, financial considerations, etc. In fact, the town shouldn't be dancing with Nestle at all at this stage, since our disagreement over the use of the land is with the town of Clinton, not with Nestle.

This is where the "Concerned Citizens of Sterling" are threatening to get in the way.

At their meeting last week (which I regrettably was unable to attend), the Concerned Citizens unveiled their list of demands that Nestle should be required to meet in order to do business in Sterling. According to the Telegram & Gazette, they are:
  • That the water not be sold internationally because of a risk that international trade agreements could negate local control over the amount of water withdrawn from the reservoirs.
  • That water pumping be limited to between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. weekdays, with no pumping on the weekends.
  • That the company provide residents with irrevocable guarantees that if their well production is reduced by 30 percent or more, the company will replace the well.
  • That the company buying water thoroughly repair the dams at Wekepeke before water extraction begins.
  • That the company extracting and purchasing water give Sterling a one-time non-refundable payment of $5 million for Sterling’s agreement that the necessary permits be granted, plus 50 percent of the amount the company would pay Clinton.
Good Grief! This is where I lose patience with most advocacy groups. More often than not, it seems that groups like this one (and recently the anti-Wal Mart "Lancaster First") employ a kitchen sink strategy where they throw everything they can at the wall, no matter how outlandish, in hopes that they can get something to stick. When any advocacy group starts coming up with outlandish reasons to oppose a plan, they end up losing credibility and undermining what would otherwise be a noble cause. In this case, the "Concerned Citizens" list of demands are almost uniformly absurd. Let's break them down:

That the water not be sold internationally because of a risk that international trade agreements could negate local control over the amount of water withdrawn from the reservoirs. Talk about a head-scratcher. Let's erect a sign at the town line stating "Welcome to Sterling, enforcer of international treaties and agreements." Perhaps the UN could rent out a storefront on Main Street to police these multinational corporations that want to bypass our laws. I can't think of a better way to say "hey, we're a bunch of amateurs here" than to make a demand based on "international trade agreement."

That water pumping be limited to between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. weekdays, with no pumping on the weekends.
First, the pumping isn't going to make a lot of noise out in the woods and essentially underground or in a concrete pump house, so limiting pumping hours doesn't seem to have any real effect on the quality of life among the Wekepeke's neighbors. I assume the point is to keep the trucks off of Route 12 except during these times. My father, who is much more in tune to the issues of real estate development having been a developer at one time, asked incredulously "Wouldn't they want the trucks to be running at night, since limiting them to the daytime would mean the traffic would be increased at the busiest time of the day." He makes a ton of sense.

That the company provide residents with irrevocable guarantees that if their well production is reduced by 30 percent or more, the company will replace the well. Nestle has stated that they will guarantee the health of the wells of abutters, having them spell this out more clearly makes some sense. I agree with the "Concerned Citizens" here, although Nestle might object to the specific terms outlined here.

That the company buying water thoroughly repair the dams at Wekepeke before water extraction begins.
The upkeep of the dams is Clinton's responsibility, not Nestle's. Clinton has already stated that they will use some of the fees the claim from Nestle to repair the dams. I'm not sure we can dictate the timing of the repairs.

That the company extracting and purchasing water give Sterling a one-time non-refundable payment of $5 million for Sterling’s agreement that the necessary permits be granted, plus 50 percent of the amount the company would pay Clinton. The discussion of an exact sum of money completely undermines everything the Concerned Citizens claim to be for. It suggests that while they stand on principle, they would be willing to set those principles aside for a price. Notwithstanding that the sum of five million dollars is crazy. If I were Nestle and that was going to be the deal, why not just cut a check to Clinton for $4.9 million, buy the piece outright, and do business as a Sterling-based company. I'll bet we don't have bylaws that prohibit this sort of thing. (I realize that it is probably more complex than I've just made it sound and that's probably not a viable option). Were I Nestle, I'd see this demand either as proof that the Concerned Citizens are just posturing and have no intent of dealing with the company constructively, or that they are so out of touch that it's no use for Nestle to deal with them at all.

After everyone has had their say on Tuesday, the Selectmen should resolve to oppose the Nestle plan vigorously on the basis that it is likely not a permitted use, and they should implore the Concerned Citizens to stand down so that we can defeat the proposal the right way.


Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Wachusett student left in Italy to fend for herself

This is completely outrageous! A group of students from Wachusett Regional High School went to Italy for a week to participate in the model U.N., and the chaperones intentionally left one of them behind because she had lost her passport!

I’m nearly speechless. Again, they left a high school kid alone in the Milan airport and flew back to Boston without her. Not even one of the chaperones stayed behind to help. Here’s the story from the Telegram & Gazette:

HOLDEN— An 18-year-old Wachusett Regional High School student was left alone in Italy for a day to arrange her flight home after losing her passport hours before the student group’s scheduled return flight....

“On the night before she was to return home she lost her passport, ID, everything, in the back of a taxi,” Ms. Howe said. She said the two chaperones gave her daughter 200 euros because she also had lost her money, and that they told her daughter to go to the consulate for a replacement passport and a flight home. She was to stay in the airport until her flight, Ms. Howe said. “She was left in Italy for a day by herself.”
What precluded one of the two chaperones from staying behind?

There were other problems with the trip as well, Mr. Pandiscio told the school board: too few chaperones and the fact that one of the chaperones did not fly all the way back to Boston with the students, but rather flew to North Carolina.
So this is what it really boiled down to. There were only two chaperones and one of them was not returning to Boston with the group. So the options were to have the straying chaperone cancel the trip to North Carolina and stay in Italy, keep the entire group together in Italy an extra day so the one remaining chaperone could stay with the girl, send the other 13 kids home alone, or leave the student stranded in Italy until she could figure out how to get her passport and get home.

The adults responsible for the students on the trip chose to leave one behind.

Oh, wait, you mean there might have been another way to get her home?

[Superintendent Thomas G.] Pandiscio told the school board and Ms. Howe the chaperones had copies of the passports and that he believes the student would have been allowed to fly home with the rest of the group using the copy as identification.

He said the chaperones should not have been making last-minute decisions, and that the policies and procedures required them to have emergency plans and telephone numbers.
Well, I don’t agree with the part about the chaperones not making last-minute decisions. That’s kind of why there are there. The problem is that leaving a student alone in Italy is the wrong last-minute decision.

When my son is in high school and traveling to these kind of events, I’ll be damned if they’re going to leave him behind. The school district has 12 years to get this figured out.


Monday, March 10, 2008

Candidate Knuuttila grilled in Sterling

knuuttila clinton 3Saturday, former State Rep. Brian Knuuttila spoke to the Sterling Democratic Town Committee's organizational meeting, introducing himself to the members of the committee and making the case for his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for state senate.

He has some work to do before September, if the response from committee members is any indication.

Knuuttila describes himself as a conservative Democrat, holding conservative views on a number if social issues. He is in favor of the death penalty, describes himself as pro-life, and voted against gay marriage when he had the opportunity. He voted for charter schools, would not promise to vote against expanding them in the future, supports the Republican plan to make a one-time payment to cities and towns from the rainy day fund, and is in favor of casinos.

One member asked him why he wasn't running as a Republican.

At his kickoff announcement two weeks ago in Clinton, Knuuttila noted that he thought it would take a conservative to win the rural towns in the district like Sterling, Lancaster, Westminster, etc. In a general election he might be right, but the Democrats who come out to vote in the primaries are generally more liberal than the population as a whole, and the members of the town committees are definitely more liberal. I wonder if his message can resonate with primary voters; members of our town committee were skeptical.

Of his stances on specific issues, his take on the gay marriage issue did not resonate with me at all. The former rep explained that he had voted against gay marriage when it first came up on constitutional grounds. He used the example of a gay couple that might marry in Massachusetts and then move to, say, Tennessee. His position was that the full faith and credit provision of the constitution would force Tennessee to recognize the marriage and that he didn't think other states should have to follow Massachusetts lead. For that reason, he believed that gay marriage should be a federal issue, not a state issue. In my opinion, that is Tennessee's problem, not ours. His job as representative should be to represent the interests of the people of Massachusetts. At some point, the Supreme court will have to decide if the full faith and credit clause applies in this case. Besides, congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act a number of years ago in an effort to protect states from just this situation.

Another member wanted to know Knuuttila's position on charter schools. The member noted that the town was paying over $8,500 per student for children to leave our school district to go to charter schools and he thought it was hurting our school system. Knuuttila said that he did vote for charter schools and suggested that he was pressured to vote for an expanded charter school bill because of heavy pressure from Tom Finneran and house leadership. When he was pressed on whether or not he would vote to expand charter schools, he said that he saw a senate seat as a terminal position (he could only see himself serving three or four terms--is he going to term limit himself?) and that would allow him to vote free of pressure.

The admission that he cast some of his votes under pressure was an extraordinarily candid moment for a candidate or former representative. I'm not sure I've ever heard a politician directly discuss the kind of pressure and vote trading that goes on in the state house; certainly not in the context of a campaign. I found that level of honesty refreshing. On the other hand, he did not directly answer the question of whether or not he would vote to expand charter schools should the issue come up, and the member who asked the question thought he was dodging the issue.

I found my self agreeing with Knuuttila on a range of financial issues. I asked him what he thought of the Governor's proposal to allow cities and towns to levy local option taxes such as a meal tax and he said he would be a strong supporter of the proposal. He said that the legislature had already allowed Boston to raise revenues in a similar manner, and he thought every city and town should have the same option if they choose.

Also in an effort to help cities and towns, he stated his support for a Republican proposal to provide financial relief with a one-time draw down of the "rainy day fund." The original proposal would have meant over $400,000 in aid to Sterling. I'm not sure that raiding the rainy day fund is a good idea, but if the legislature continues to block the governor's plans to raise revenues, a plan like this one might be the only way to get help to local governments.

Knuuttila stated that he was strongly in favor of Governor Patrick's casino proposal, although he assured me that he was not in favor of Patrick's onerous proposal to criminalize internet poker and other online gaming. While I agree with some of the governor's proposal, I don't think he should have counted on those revenues in his 2009 budget. And the internet gaming provision is a complete non-starter.

Having met Knuuttila twice, I have been impressed with him on a personal level. While was muffed the charter school question, he was generally candid with us and I think it takes a little bit of courage to stand in front of a skeptical group for nearly and hour and explain unpopular positions. He clearly has a lot of energy and enjoys the campaign; he was on the way to Gardner for an event following he meeting with us and mentioned that he would be attending the town committee meeting in Westminster. While I would expect Leominster Representative Jen Flanagan and any other candidates to campaign hard as well, Knuuttila is making a concerted effort to get out of the gate early and court voters now. That can only help.

Ultimately, I will have to decide whether or not my positions on social issues preclude me from voting for a social conservative like Knuuttila, or if financial issues will win the day and my vote. If Knuuttila is to be the nominee, he'll need to win that battle among many Democrats.


Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Brattleboro votes to arrest Bush, Cheney

Last night I was following results from a handful of towns in Southeastern Vermont, since that is where my family originally hails from, and I have a number of cousins, aunts, uncles, etc. still living there. Well, it looks like the real race in Brattleboro wasn't Obama vs. Clinton, it was on a ballot question that would instruct town police to arrest President Bush and Vice President Cheney should they set foot in the town:

BRATTLEBORO - Voters in two southern Vermont towns passed articles Tuesday calling for the indictment of President Bush and Vice President Cheney for violating the Constitution.

More symbolic than substantive, the items sought to have police arrest Bush and Cheney if they ever visit Brattleboro or nearby Marlboro or to extradite them for prosecution elsewhere - if they're not impeached first.

In Brattleboro, the vote was 2,012 for and 1,795 against. In Marlboro, it was 43 to 25, with three abstentions....

The article read: "Shall the Selectboard instruct the Town Attorney to draft indictments against President Bush and Vice President Cheney for crimes against our Constitution, and publish said indictments for consideration by other authorities and shall it be the law of the Town of Brattleboro that the Brattleboro Police, pursuant to the above-mentioned indictments, arrest and detain George Bush and Richard Cheney in Brattleboro if they are not duly impeached, and prosecute or extradite them to other authorities that may reasonably contend to prosecute them?"
Maybe Bush can schedule a visit over the summer. I can't imagine Sergeant Stumblebum would have much luck getting past the Secret Service, but it would be fun to watch Brattleboro's Finest try.


Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Live-blogging the original Super Tuesday results

You're looking live at CNN Election Central in beautiful crystal-clear High Definition...OK, you're probably not, but I am. Which is generally a great thing, but the first thing I see tonight is Lou Dobbs' xenophobic mug and I wonder just for a fleeting second if HDTV is really such a great idea. Anyway, is tonight the night Obama closes the deal? Does Hillary find the momentum she needs to stay in the race? I'll be blogging the!

First, my predictions...

Vermont: Obama 66-34.
Ohio: Clinton 53-44.
Rhode Island: Clinton 55-45.
Texas: Clinton 50-49. But Obama wins the delegate race by 10+ because of the evening caucuses.

Tomorrow's story: Clinton stay in the race by winning 3 of 4, but picks up no delegates on Obama.

Now to tonight...

7:05 -- And Obama wins Vermont! CNN calls it. Dobbs seems to think it's no big deal, but Gloria Borger suggests that Vermont may be the most important state, since it may be the only blowout and would therefore be the only state where the delegate count is decisive.

7:12 -- Jackson has had enough. He wants to watch "Elmo ping-pong". I tried to compromise with the Bruins, but no luck...I'll be back in a few.

8:05 -- I'm back. Ohio too close to call. Some exit polls suggest it might be a little closer than the polls have shown. Many counties are open until 9:00 instead of the scheduled 7:30 because of the awful weather there, so it might be a long night if it stays close.

8:09 -- MSNBC showing the weather radar, I guess to prove that the weather is awful in Ohio. It's also raining and icing and snowing in Vermont, but I haven't heard any complaints from up there.

8:11 -- Breaking results from Vermont: Obama wins Townshend 170-93! Still waiting on results from Jamaica, Newfane, Brattleboro, Bellows Falls, and Westminster. Not because they're bellweathers or anything, but that's where the family lives.

8:15 -- MSNBC showing huge leads for Obama (42,000 votes) with 0% reporting. Their clock says the polls don't close for another 45 minutes. Results from early voting, I guess?

8:24 -- Terry McAuliffe is such a slippery slimy greaseball. He just finished saying that Florida and Michigan should re-vote because the party rules froze them out, then he says that it's OK if the superdelegates overturn the will of the voters because those are the rules and the Clinton campaign is just playing by the rules. Then give up Florida and Michigan, Terry. Those were the rules and you're just playing by the rules, right?

8:32 -- CNN has Obama up by over 120,000 votes now in Texas. Only 1% reporting. Polls still not closed.

8:38 -- It doesn't look like any votes from Ohio have been reported in the last half hour or so.

8:40 -- Update from Vermont: Jamaica, the motherland, goes for Obama, 132-57! Way to represent, family!

8:51 -- Taking a little break to watch the Bruins.

9:12 -- Bruins are tied 0-0 with under seven minutes left in the game. Tim Russert just said Hillary wants to take on McCain "Mano-a-Womano". No new results, although Tom Brokaw has been suggesting there are 50 superdelegates waiting for the right moment to announce for Obama. I'm guessing the right moment will be tomorrow.

9:19 -- Huackabee is speaking. Since no one cares, I'm going to switch over to the Bruins game. Still scoreless with a minute left.

9:26 -- Bruins lose 1-0 in overtime. At least they got a point. Huckabee is still giving his concession speech. Obama is losing big early in Ohio, but his strong areas will report late.

9:34 -- CNN calls Rhode Island for Clinton. Nothing yet from MSNBC.

9:41 -- I wish I had a cool map like John King does on CNN. They ought to get rid of Wolf Blitzer and the other 25 analysts and just let John King play with his map. Much more riveting television.

9:59 -- I'm not at all interested in McCain's speech. I'll get to hear plenty of him over the next eight months (eight months!). I want to get some more results.

10:02 -- Oh, MSNBC did call Rhode Island for Clinton. I guess I missed it.

10:03 -- I wonder if any of McCain's people realize that playing "Johnny be Good" as McCain's campaign theme song only serves to remind voters that McCain is old old old old old.

10:17 -- Looks like it's going to be a long night in Texas. Clinton leads by 16 points in Ohio, but the cities are still out. So far, my predictions look pretty good.

10:28 -- Just flipped back to MSNBC to see Keith Olbermann commenting on Chuck Todd's posterior.

10:43 -- Obama's lead is down to 600 votes in Texas. Yet, I think he's looking decent. Houston and Austin are still out.

10:49 -- Tom Brokaw just dropped his first reference to 1968. Drink!

10:53 -- Olbermann mentioned a few moments ago that results from Cuyahoga County (Cleveland) may not be in until 4:30 am. I promise I will not still be up for that.

10:55 -- And I guess it doesn't matter, since both MSNBC and CNN have called Ohio for Clinton.

11:01 -- Obama's now down by two in Texas, still waiting for the big cities to come in. This is just amazing. This nomination fight is going to go on for at least another seven weeks. I'm not sure that is going to be a good thing for the Democrats. At some point, something has to give.

11:14 -- Vermont update: Brattleboro goes for Obama by 945 votes (63% to 36%).

11:19 -- Here goes Hillary with the "Comeback Kid" stuff. She just ticked off a list of all of the states she's won. I was half-expecting a "Heeee-yah!" at the end of it, Howard Dean-style.

11:22 -- You'd think that CNN can get an HD camera or two out to these rallies. They've got all of these pretty graphics around the edges of the screen and the feed of Clinton's speech is fuzzy.

11:25 -- Oh God, here we go with the 3 am phone call thing. And now she's dropping McCain's name again. It's almost like she'd rather he win than Obama.

11:30 -- "Yes...we...will!" Hillary really ought to stay away from Obama's slogans if she's going to be accusing him of plagiarism.

11:43 -- Obama is talking right past Hillary, giving a general election speech in contrasting himself with McCain. Interesting visual, to see him talking like the nominee while the statistics to his left show him down by 45,000 votes in Texas.

11:56 -- Well, clearly we aren't going to have a resolution to Texas tonight. I'm off to bed. I guess I'll have to be surprised when I get up tomorrow morning.


Someting in the water in Clinton

And I'm not talking about the possibility that Clinton will sell water from Sterling to Nestle or some other producer of bottled water...I'm talking about the incredible food fight that has erupted between a local blogger and one of the town's selectmen.

Patrick Broderick, a former reporter at the Times & Courier and now a self-styled independent journalist and local TV host, has penned a handful of pieces that have been quite critical of the Board of Selectmen. Now, in most cities and towns, a little criticism comes with the territory. If one is going to run for city councilor or selectman, he or she has to know that there is going to be some criticism out there.

But not in Clinton. In Clinton, the Selectman decides he's not going to take the criticism sitting down. So he creates a website with a URL of essentially the same name, and anonymously posts criticism of the blogger. Here's an idea of what the anonymous website was about:
Well the reporter stopped writing for that outfit, and it now has a much better quality of information that isn’t a one sided political hack job, but factual. The writer has however, continued his fabricated, inflammatory rhetoric on a Blog and is hell-bent on furthering the political agenda’s [sic] of his associates. This comes at the cost of assassinating the characters of specific elected public officials....

[W]e here at the Indy Dot Com will report the truth, not some vile Thompsonesque gonzo rabble that is just there to denigrate our elected officials for the political gain of others. The Indy will report news in black and white and perhaps even our reflections on the vigilante Bloggers [sic] latest lies…Independent indeed!
This selectman essentially calls Broderick a hack, a character assassin, and a liar....and he does it while posing as an anonymous, independent observer!

Well, he's not anonymous anymore. After a little digging and prodding by Michael Ballway at the Times and Courier (who seems to be genuinely bemused that the former reporter who burned his bridges is now getting a little heat) and Ken MacGray, host of the forum, Selectman Joe Notaro has come forward and take responsibility. On his blog, Notaro writes:
I’d like to set the record straight on the ownership of the domain name Yes, I do own it and have since sometime last fall. I bought this domain to rebut the incendiary and near slanderous rhetoric and name calling that was, and still is being written about myself and others on a local Blog....

We enter into the public arena with a “thick skin” premise, however, open exchange can only be productive when no one is being called names and no one should have their integrity called into question every time a decision is made that someone doesn't like. Let’s face it; without all of the facts and objective criteria, someone cannot be fairly critiqued. Any useful information in Patrick’s Blog is lost because the facts have been twisted like a pretzel, thereby, rendering it a complete disservice to all who read it.
Talk about twisting like a pretzel! Selectman Notaro writes that he intended to rebut name calling, yet he used terms such as vigilante, hack job, and fabricated to describe Broderick and his work. He writes that "without all of the facts and objective criteria, someone cannot be fairly critiqued," yet he was obscuring both the facts and objectivity by posting his criticisms anonymously.

What is going on here? An elected official certainly has the right (some might say the duty) to defend himself, but as an elected official he should do so publicly, not hiding behind some anonymous Web site. To his credit, Notaro has come forward and accepted responsibility for his former site. Perhaps he has a legitimate beef with Broderick; certainly the blogger has been critical of Notaro in his coverage of local issues. But as an elected official, Notaro has the responsibility to respond publicly if he is going to respond at all, especially since Broderick has made no attempt to hide his identity. (I realize there may be a whiff of inconsistency here, since I am posting my opinion on this issue semi-anonymously, but I'm not responsible to a whole town of voters).

For Clinton's sake, I hope the Selectmen and their critics can have an open dialogue about the issues without the animosity that has been building. There are already questions about whether or not that can happen. An anonymous individual has created a website using the name of another selectman (NSFW), and MacGray has asked Notaro if he is connected.


Saturday, March 1, 2008

Prop 2 1/2 tax break for seniors is a bad idea

This week, the house passed a measure allowing cities and towns to exempt certain senior citizens from tax hikes tied to Proposition 2 1/2 overrides. It's a bad idea, and the either senate should reject the measure or the governor should veto it. Here is the story from the AP:

[L]awmakers are pushing a bill that would let cities and towns exempt seniors earning less than $60,000 a year from the overrides. Backers say the bill is a tax break for seniors, but critics say it's just a way to help push through property tax hikes.

On Thursday, House lawmakers overwhelmingly approved the bill, which now heads to the Senate....

[T]he new bill more explicitly links the tax breaks to the property tax override itself -- and that's irking longtime supporters of Proposition 2 1/2, who say the bill is just a way to entice many seniors to look the other way.

"Seniors are our first line of defense against overrides," said Barbara Anderson of the anti-tax group Citizens for Limited Taxation. Anderson helped lead the charge for the Proposition 2 1/2 law.

"Senior citizens are defeating these overrides and they are trying to give them a reason not to vote," she said.

Before you think that I've somehow become conservative in my middle age--believe me the thought that I agree with Barbara Anderson on anything is enough to make me want to take a shower--let me explain. The problem with the bill isn't that it will get seniors to suddenly pass overrides, it's that the bill give tax breaks based not on a progressive idea of who can't afford to pay, but gives breaks to a particular group based only on demographics. The bill won't remove the fight over prop 2 1/2 overrides, it will just change the fight over who should pay.

Certainly many seniors have a difficult time affording the property taxed they already owe, not to mention an additional levy thanks to an override. But there are plenty of homeowners under 65 that fill into the same situation. Not only do these families not get a break, but they end up paying a higher tax rate to make up the difference.

Here is a very simplified example: Let's say a town with 5,000 taxpayers decides that it needs to pass a $2 million override to pay for a new fire house. Splitting the override among all taxpayers would mean an average tax increase of $400. But let's say that 30% of the population is over 65 and makes under $60,000. In this case, 1,500 taxpayers would not have any increase at all, and the other 2,500 taxpayers would have an average tax increase of $571.

Should a young family of four that makes $58,000 and holds a mortgage pay $571 additional dollars in taxes, while a pair of well-off retirees with a $58,000 annual pension, no children at home, and no mortgage to pay off is not hit with the tax increase at all? Of course not. But that's what will happen under this plan.

The effect of that will be to change the debate on prop 2 1/2 issues. The debate will first be about whether or not to pass the abatement for seniors. Will those taxpayers that will be footing the entire bill be apt to vote against an abatement, since it will mean higher levies for them? Very possibly. Will seniors automatically vote in favor of an override if the abatement is passed? Not necessarily. Despite Barbara Anderson's Pavlovian reaction to the word "taxes", I think this will make overrides harder to pass since it may now take two divisive votes to get an override through instead of one.

Regardless of what the impact will be, the legislature should not be granting tax breaks to a class of people based solely on their demographics. If they want to argue for a truly progressive tax break that would affect all homeowners under a certain threshold, they could gain my support (although I think that the entire community should be pitching in for local projects like the ones that generally require overrides).

Even better, the legislature should embrace the proposal to allow cities and towns to pass local option meal taxes in an effort to raise revenues in lieu of property taxes.



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