Wednesday, April 30, 2008

John McCain's health care disaster

John McCain rolled out his health care plan yesterday. For the tens of millions of Americans who currently receive their benefits through their employers, it promises to be a total disaster, as the average family’s premiums will more than double. From the New York Times:
Mr. McCain’s health care plan would shift the emphasis from insurance provided by employers to insurance bought by individuals, to foster competition and drive down prices. To do so he is calling for eliminating the tax breaks that currently encourage employers to provide health insurance for their workers, and replacing them with $5,000 tax credits for families to buy their own insurance....

Democrats and some experts said the proposal might lead some employers to stop offering health insurance, and questioned whether the tax credit would cover the cost of private insurance.
There is no “might” about it, the proposal will cause many employers to drop health care insurance altogether or significantly roll back their offerings. The tax break that employers get is the most significant incentive for them to offer insurance to their employees. Without it, the only incentives to an employer are intangible. For instance, more competitive benefits help attract better workers, and healthier employees are more productive. But how many companies will continue to shell out $7,000-8,000 per family per year for coverage if they are not able to deduct those costs? Probably not that many.

Based on the most recent statistics, the tax credit will not nearly cover the cost of private insurance. According to the National Coalition on Health Care, the total cost of the average family health insurance plan is $12,100. Of that the average family pays $3,300 in premiums with the rest covered by the employer. Under McCain’s plan, that average family would receive a $5,000 tax credit to offset the cost of the plan, leaving the family to cover the remaining $7,100 in premiums.

The average family who pays $275 per month for health insurance would see their premiums rise to $592 per month under McCain’s plan, a 115% increase.

(I am very lucky that I have an employer that offers a better than average plan and asks me to pay less than the average. Applying McCain’s proposal to my situation, if my employer decided it would be cheaper for them to drop employer-sponsored coverage, my monthly cost for the same plan that I am in now would more than triple from $225 per month to $750 per month.)

McCain suggests that his plan will “foster competition and drive down prices,” but the retail price of the average plan would have to drop from $12,100 per year to $8,300 in order for the average family to see no premium increase. In an era where medical premiums have nearly doubled in the last seven years, can anyone rationally expect that health insurance costs will drop 31% as a result of McCain’s plan? No.

While the promise of a $5,000 tax credit will sound like a great plan to many voters, it is nothing more than another device to shift the cost away from corporations and onto the backs of the working and middle-class. The McCain plan is a loser for ordinary Americans.


Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Might the Wekepeke restriction have teeth after all?

A couple of weeks ago, I questioned the terms of the proposed Wekepeke conservation restriction being negotiated between Clinton and the state and wondered why the Board of Selectmen would be holding their deliberations in secret. According to today’s Telegram and Gazette, the doors will be opened on May 7:
CLINTON— It’s a dilemma that has dogged officials here for months: Should a conservation restriction be placed on the Clinton-owned Wekepeke reservation in Sterling so Clinton can get a $353,600 state grant to help lower a $2.7 million debt exclusion approved last year for the Rauscher Farm property in Clinton?
In a special meeting yesterday morning, the selectmen decided to air the question to the public at the May 7 selectmen’s meeting.

Because the discussions have been held in secret (dubiously, in my opinion), information about the Wekepeke restriction has been hard to come by, but a couple of little nuggets in today’s piece suggest that the state may be trying to put some real teeth into the restriction.. First, from Selectman Kevin Haley:
“Things have changed,” Mr. Haley said. “If we can’t even use that property, it could be a burden to the town with upkeep year after year. We need to find out exactly what it can be used for. And at this point, do you want to tie your hands even more with a conservation restriction?”
Haley appears to be worried that those of us in Sterling with too much time on our hands might actually have been right when we argued that a Nestle-style proposal would not have been a permitted use in the first place. But then he adds that the restriction would “tie [Clinton’s] hands even more.”

What would be more restrictive than not being able to use the water for commercial purposes? Not being able to build out the land at all? Not even being able to develop the land for a golf course or other commercial recreational development? Could the state be pressuring Clinton to preserve the parcel for open space? It looks like that might be the case. Donald A. Lowe, director of the Clinton Community and Economic Development Office, provides another hint:

“It seems like there is little the town can get out of [the Wekepeke] rather than open space.”
Which was the whole point of the conservation restriction when it was first proposed in 2001: to protect the Wekepeke as open space. The question facing Clinton is whether or not it is worth it for Clinton to protect open space in Sterling so that it can pay to acquire and preserve open space in Clinton.

The selectmen should approve the restriction and signal their support for preserving open space wherever it lies.

Previous coverage of the Wekepeke:
April 25: What would Sterling accept at the Wekepeke?
April 11: What does the Wekepeke Restriction actually say?
April 11: Clinton does the right thing
April 9: Sterling should offer to buy Wekepeke at Nestle's price
April 6: Sterling selectmen to oppose Wekepeke plan, but to what extent?
April 4: Vermont looking to restrict Wekepeke-style projects
March 27: This can't be helpful
March 25: Tough decision ahead for Clinton
March 21: Nestle's proposal could change everything
March 21: Nestle nominated for "Corporate Hall of Shame"
March 19: Sterling Selectmen disappoint at Wekepeke forum
March 16: Sterling should oppose Nestle...the right way


Monday, April 28, 2008

40 Days and 40 Nights

I've decided that one of the postive outcomes of the biblical flood was that it would have rid the world of a particuarly bad allergy season. If Noah told me that it was going to rain from now until June 6, I think I'd be OK with that. Sure, the earth may end up under water, but at least my eyes wouldn't itch.

Perhaps the next Noah could negotiate for 40 days and 40 nights of light drizzle. Keep my house above water and my eyes clear. I think that would be the best solution.

Friday, April 25, 2008


I just couldn't be more thrilled about the latest offer from the Red Sox:

The Sox announced they're holding Central Massachusetts Day at Fenway Park on May 18, when they face the Milwaukee Brewers in interleague play.

Tickets for Central Massachusetts Day at Fenway Park will soon be available for purchase by residents of Central Massachusetts. Since there are a limited number of tickets available, applicants must fill out and submit a registration form to participate in this opportunity to purchase.
I wonder what special events they'll have at the park. Perhaps a rocket flyover in memory of Robert Goddard. Maybe a Polar Bear mascot will frolic with Wally. Better yet, how about installing pink flamingos along the bullpen walls.

Honestly, it's not like we rubes out here don't get a chance to buy tickets like everyone else. Last I checked we have phones and the Internet. Just because I can see cows out my front window doesn't make me part of some sort of special class who needs help getting tickets.

If you're from around here and want to sign up for a lifetime of Spam trying to get you to join Red Sox nation chance to win tickets, go to the Red Sox site.


What would Sterling accept at the Wekepeke?

In an editorial in yesterday's edition, the Times & Courier muses about possible uses at the Wekepeke and whether or not any use other than the status quo would be acceptable to Sterling. An excerpt:
Following closely on the heels of the unanimous vote to reject Nestlé was a unanimous vote to clarify the town’s legal control over the 564 acres and the waters they contain. Some possibilities: using the reservoirs for Clinton. Selling water to some other town. Breaching the dams. Selling house lots.

Some of these proposals would elicit vehement opposition in Sterling, for the same reasons the Nestlé deal did. Many Sterlingites would like to see the Wekepeke remain as it’s been for years: an unused water supply, protected from development and available for passive recreation.
Let's take the last point first. Sterlingites would like to see the status quo; it is the best deal for the town and its people. Clinton has to upkeep the land, repair the dams, and for the last 44 years has left the water in the Wekepeke reservoirs untouched as they have been taking water from the Wachusett. What's not to love about that set up?

But keeping the status quo isn't realistic, since Clinton doesn't have the money to repair the dams as mandated by law. Perhaps Representative Naughton will be successful in this year's attempt to secure state funding for the repairs, but it seems like a long shot considering the state's economic situation. (One could argue that if Clinton had been taking care of the dams on a regular basis over the last 44 years this wouldn't be an issue, but that's water over the dam, if you'll pardon the terrible pun). So let's look at the options mentioned in the Times & Courier and try to determine how Sterlingites would respond:

Using the reservoirs for Clinton. This was the original use of the reservoirs going back to the late 1800s. If Clinton were to begin drawing surface water again to supplement the water they take from the Wachusett, they would certainly be within their rights to do so. A daily draw of hundreds of thousands of gallons would lower the levels of the reservoirs, and I would expect that Clinton would restrict some uses (pets, boating, swimming or wading) to protect the purity of the water supply, but no Sterlinigte would have grounds to oppose that usage.

Selling water to some other town. While some in Sterling might balk at the idea (the original 19th century laws refer to the water being for "Clinton and its inhabitants"), there is a long history in the state of intermunicipal water agreements. Leominster Mayor Dean Mazzarella would love to have the Wekepeke as a back-up water supply. There is something nearly perfect about Leominster contracting with Clinton to take water out of Sterling, since it jives perfectly with Mazzarella's trend of disrespecting and disregarding Leominster's neighbors for Leominster's benefit. Even so, the impact would be no different than if Clinton used the water for itself, and such a proposal shouldn't be seriously opposed by Sterling.

Breaching the dams. This proposal would be controversial, but in the end I don't know how much opposition it would generate in Sterling. On the one hand, it would dramatically change the landscape. The reservoirs would be gone, it would take years for the land that was revealed to regenerate, and there would likely be significant costs associated with both the breach of the dams and the subsequent clean-up: there is probably 120 years of assorted debris and trash at the bottom of the reservoirs that would be exposed and need to be removed. And the town of Lancaster might have major issues with this proposal since the Wekepeke's only choke point would be at the Bartlett Pond at the bottom of Ballard Hill. The pond floods Route 117 once or so each spring as it is even with some semblance of flood control upstream with the current dam system. I wonder how often that route would be closed if all of the water from the brook backed up at Bartlett Pond every time it rained.

On the other hand, breaching the dams and returning the Wekepeke Brook to it's early-19th century flow would be the closest thing to true conservation imaginable. Environmental and conservation groups across the country have been advocating for the removal of dams and the restoration of waterways to their original flow. At the Selectmen's forum in Sterling last month, a representative of the Nashua River Watershed Association mentioned the removal of the dams as a possible solution they would support. This solution would call the bluff of any Sterlingite who opposed the Nestle project on environmental grounds (pollution, noise, plastic bottles, etc.). What could be more environmentally pure than this?

Selling house lots. Of the proposals, this is the only one that would (or should) elicit "vehement opposition in Sterling." It is also the possibility that is the most remote. In the end, I don't think Clinton would have the right to sell the land for development under state law, since it was allowed to purchase the land for a specific use and development wasn't it. Also, the possibility of developing the land may be off the table shortly if Clinton finally enacts a Conservation Restriction (not that anyone knows what might be in it). Further, it's not clear how much of the land is developable: Sterling does not have town sewer and much of it may be too wet for septic. And breaching the dams in an effort to build house lots (an idea I find absurd, but the Times & Courier included in its online poll, so someone must think it's viable) might be problematic, since wetlands usually have to be replaced if they are drained for development. Would Clinton just flood a different part of the land?

Ultimately, I would like to see the towns work together to preserve the land for recreation, either by finding a way to repair and maintain the dams or by returning the area to its natural state. That would cost Sterling some money, but it would be worth it. Further, I would like to see us work together to improve the land for recreation. Blaze some hiking trails, make it easier to drop a canoe or kayak in the water, maybe clear a spot for a few picnic tables...turn it into a municipal park and invite everyone to come. Let the Parks and Rec Commissions of both towns jointly maintain the area.

I've heard and read some comments that Clintonians don't get any benefit from the land because they don't use it. Well by all means, come on up. Bring your families to hike and explore. We want Clintoninans to visit us. How do you think Sterling can support three ice cream stands and mini golf and a petting farm and multiple pick-your-own orchards among other businesses? Because Clinton doesn't have any of those things so Clintonians come to Sterling to buy ice cream and play putt-putt. Believe me, it's in our interest to have Clintonians use the Wekepeke for recreation and stop at the Sterling Ice Cream Bar or Rota Spring on the way home to cool off with a frappe or a float.

Wouldn't it be nice to see the towns come to an agreement on preserving the Wekepeke? Sterling Selectman Sheppard and Clinton Selectman Pasquale could stand together, cut the ribbon to the Wekepeke Peace Park, then lock arms and lead the crowd in a stirring rendition of "Friends are Friends Forever" as happy families take to the reservation to hike it's trails and relax in it's shade?

Whoa, the heat must be getting to me. I think I'm the one who needs to get to Rota Spring to cool off...

Previous coverage of the Wekepeke:
April 11: What does the Wekepeke Restriction actually say?
April 11: Clinton does the right thing
April 9: Sterling should offer to buy Wekepeke at Nestle's price
April 6: Sterling selectmen to oppose Wekepeke plan, but to what extent?
April 4: Vermont looking to restrict Wekepeke-style projects
March 27: This can't be helpful
March 25: Tough decision ahead for Clinton
March 21: Nestle's proposal could change everything
March 21: Nestle nominated for "Corporate Hall of Shame"
March 19: Sterling Selectmen disappoint at Wekepeke forum
March 16: Sterling should oppose Nestle...the right way


Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Earmarks, lots and lots of earmarks

1,512 to be exact. That is how many amendments to the fiscal year 2009 budget were filed by members of the Massachusetts House of Representatives. Nearly all of them are proposed increases to the budget for local projects.

Of the two legislators representing the town of Sterling, only Democrat Harold Naughton filed amendments; he filed 15 (see amendments 710-724). Republican Lewis Evangelidis did not file any amendments to the FY09 budget (or at least he isn't the primary sponsor of any amendments. A Google search only pulled up one amendment to which he is a co-sponsor. I wonder if anyone in the local press will ask him why he decided to stand on the sidelines this year).

Two of Naughton's earmarks would have a direct effect in Sterling. The biggest of the two could go a long way in settling the Wekepeke question. Amendment 716:
Mr. Naughton of Clinton moves to amend the bill in Section 2, item 2810-0700, by adding at the end thereof the following: “provided further that not less than $1,000,000 be provided for the repair of dams located at the Wekepeke Reservoir in the town of Sterling.”
Now, Naughton filed essentially the same amendment last year and it was not included in the final budget. I wonder if it has any chance at all of being included this year's budget, considering the deteriorating economic climate. But if it were to make the final budget it would remove a significant part of Clinton's incentive to develop the Wekepeke. Current estimates suggest that it will cost Clinton between $1 million and $1.5 million to meet their legal obligation to shore up the dams. If most or all of that money came from the state, Clinton wouldn't need to sell the water from the Wekepeke in order to fund repairs.

The other earmark would provide a grant for a community park in Sterling. Amendment 724:
Mr. Naughton of Clinton moves that bill be amended in item 2000 – 0100 by adding at the end thereof the following "Provided further that not less than $50,000 shall be expended for the expansion of Muddy Pond Park in the town of Sterling for the purpose of open space..."
Work on the project has already begun, but organizers are still raising money in an effort to secure the $250,000 estimated. A state grant of $50,000 would go a long way to helping Sterling realize it's goal.

If you feel strongly that either of these two amendments (or any of the other 1,150 amendments) should be included in the final budget, contact your state representative or the members of the Ways and Means Committee. Both Naughton and Evangelidis are members of the Ways and Means, so if you live in Sterling registering your opinion with your rep will also get your voice heard in the Ways and Means.


Monday, April 21, 2008

"Tastes like Z"

I was giving Jackson a bath last night and while he was playing with some foam letters in the tub, he picked up the letter "Z" and put it in his mouth and started to chew on it. I looked at him and shook my head (I've told him before that he shouldn't be putting his bath toys in his mouth). He looked at me, smiled, and said:

"Tastes like Z."

If that's not the funniest thing...

Oh, and we now have two dogs. Anyway, here are a handful of pictures from the weekend.

Summer checking out the camera.

summer 011a
Jackson giving Summer hugs.

summer 005b
Jackson with Summer and Rosie.

Dressed up for church.

A handsome little man.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Charlie Gibson: Don’t know much about history

Last night, while hosting what is being widely criticized as the worst-moderated of the dozens of debates in this cycle, ABC News anchor Charlie Gibson asked what might just be the stupidest, most ill-informed, must-have-gotten-an-F-in-high-school-civics question imaginable. In an attempt to play gotcha with Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama as they each declined to name the other vice president should they win, Gibson followed up with this:

Just to quote from the Constitution again, "In every case" -- Article II, Section 1 -- "after the choice of the president, the person having the greatest number of votes of the electors shall be the vice president."

If it was good enough in colonial times, why not in these times?

The question is so bad on so many fronts; it’s hard to know what he was thinking.

The qissue was whether or not the nominee would choose the other candidate to be their running mate. But the section of the Constitution that Gibson quotes refers to speaks about the general election. “After the choice of the president, the person having the greatest number of votes of the electors” would be the loser of the general election. Applying that section of the Constitution to the current election would mean that John McCain would be the vice president of a Democratic president. It would have nothing to do with selecting a VP during the nomination process.

Further, it “wasn’t good enough in local times.” The elections of 1796 and 1800 were so divisive that they nearly brought the government down, as the vice president was essentially the president’s fiercest opponent. It was bad enough that the process was scrapped with the ratification of the 12th amendment in 1804. In other words, Gibson was quoting a section of the Constitution that was repealed 204 years ago.

“Why not in these times?” Is Gibson proposing to repeal the 12th Amendment and go back to the original design of the Constitution? Or is he proposing that the political parties should follow the same design? That might at least be entertaining. Could you have seen John McCain as George Bush’s running mate in 2000, after the way Bush and his machine just eviscerated McCain in South Carolina? Or going back to 1980, could you envision Ted Kennedy as Jimmy Carter’s running mate as brutal as that campaign was?

And on a semantic note, nothing that happened when the Constitution was written in 1789 “was good enough in colonial times” since the United States hadn’t been colonies of Britain since July 4, 1776, in case Gibson forgot (and I can’t believe that he did, since he and co-moderator George Stephanopoulos spent plenty of time asking about the patriotism of Barack Obama and his acquaintances).

If you didn’t watch the debate, you might get the impression that Gibson was just following up off the cuff. If that were the case, then one might be able to argue that he just mangled the history a little in his mind. But those of us who watched the debate know that Gibson planned to use this line of questioning all along, because they flashed a graphic with this quote on the screen as he spoke. So the only conclusion is that Gibson either intentionally quoted a section of the constitution that had been repealed over two centuries ago in an effort to take it out of context, or he didn’t realize that the clause he used as the basis for his question was no longer operable. Either way, it was shameful.

What was also shameful was the fact that neither candidate either had the quickness on their feet or the intestinal fortitude to call Gibson on his outrageous premise. The follow-up went first to Clinton. Her best answer would have been something like “Do you realize that what you are suggesting would mean that John McCain would be my vice president? I don’t think it was ‘good enough’ for our forefathers, since the repealed it almost as soon as they enacted it 200 years ago.” Or something like that.

Not to mention that Obama is a constitutional law scholar. I’d have expected that he would be jumping out of his suit to rebut the absurd premise of the question. I realize that standing on stage in front of 11 million people probably puts enough strain in the mind, but he is supposed to know that stuff inside and out. I nearly fell out of my chair when I heard the question, and all I have is a pedestrian bachelor’s degree in history.

At least it appears that this will end up being the last debate of the primary season. The next one we hear will be between Obama and McCain sometime in October, with the less-historically-challenged Jim Lehrer most likely in charge. What a breath of fresh air that will be.


Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Nothing new to discuss: tonight's Democratic debate

You are looking live at Philadelphia, where the 21st debate of the Democratic campaign is about to begin. Frankly, I expected this would be over long ago. I mean, it is over--Clinton's chances of willing are nearly zero--but on we go. Will Hillary be on the attack? Will Obama try to run out the clock? And away we go...
  • Beginning with opening statements? We haven't had a debate with openers yet, have we? Barack tells a story right out of the gate about a "bitter" voter, but he uses the term "discouraged." Is he baiting Hillary? Or by mentioning that theme in the opening, is he trying to get out in front of it.
  • Hillary is looking above the camera. It looks like the spectators in the hall are all above the eye level of the candidate. It feels like she's talking past me.
  • What? A commercial right out of the gate? What is this? There blunts the impact of either of those statements.
  • Oh come on, Charlie. You know that question not going to be answered. Neither of them want the other as a running mate.
  • This had better be good. I'm passing up Red Sox-Yankees for this.
  • Charlie pulling out a clause of the constitution that was amended 200 years ago. That clause would mean that either McCain or Obama/Clinton would be the other's vice president. It was such a bad idea in practice that the country got rid of it almost as soon as they ratified the constitution.
  • Barack, are you patronizing working class people? I didn't like his answer. I know exactly what he is trying to say. He's saying that people vote values issues because they don't think the government can help them. If they believed that a candidate could help change their economic situation, they would vote that way.
  • Hillary won't come right out and say that Barack can beat McCain. She talked around it. Now she gets to it. She's off to a pretty good start, actually.
  • Obama slips in Hillary's baking cookies flub from 1992! Kapow! She wasn't elitist then, and I'm not elitist now. Such a nice, soft little dig. I'll bet this gets play tomorrow.
  • Back to Reverend Wright...I'm having a hard time staying engaged. It's all a rehash. This issue is what, five weeks old now? Hillary would have walked out if she'd been in church the Sunday after 9/11, Barack wasn't there. So on and so on. Why are we spending 10 minutes on this. Clinton ought to just stand out of the way. If the Wright comments are bad enough, let them stand on their own. She's going to get in the way by pushing the issue.
  • Hillary, why did you lie about Bosnia? Pretty good answer. She admitted that she embellished the story, and that she knew she was overreaching. She's overtalking a little--trying to explain it away--she just can't be "one and done."
  • We have yet to get to any of the "issues" in this campaign. As good as the last Charlie Gibson debate was--it seemed to be so centered on the issues--this one has been all about "gotcha" questions and inside baseball.
  • Obama doesn't seem comfortable at all. He needs to be a bit more off the cuff.
  • Oh God! The flag-pin question! Is there truly nothing new to talk about?
  • It's about time Obama asked the question of whether he is going to be held accountable for the statements of anybody who knows him? Good for him for calling George Stephonopolous out.
  • Hillary refuses to let Obama stew in his own trouble. If he's being hammered, she ought to let him be hammered. She tries to keep the issue of the weathermen alive, and Obama hits back with the reminder that Bill Clinton pardoned two of them. She can't leave well enough alone.
Alright, I just switched over to the Red Sox game for a moment and it's 9-7 Sox in the 5th. I'm not going to spend another hour and a half of this kind of old news. I've got the thing on DVR. If it turns out that there is something important that I missed, I can always watch it later.


Monday, April 14, 2008

Bruin and Stewin'

A couple of thoughts that have been swirling in my head since watching last night's Bruins-Canadiens playoff game:

  • That was as much fun as I've had watching a hockey game in a long time. It was a true, edge-of-your-seat playoff game right from the opening drop to the Bruins' goal in OT. End-to-end rushes, fantastic goaltending, and good hard hitting. While it would have been a bitter disappointment if the Bruins had lost, it still would have been worth watching. Even the Canadian press liked the game:
  • BOSTON - If you want to sell the National Hockey League, you don't need more scoring, bigger nets or smaller equipment for goaltenders. All you need are more games played with the same intensity as last night's war between the Montreal Canadiens and the Boston Bruins.

    Neither team gave an inch as they battled for more than 69 minutes before Marc Savard of Orléans scored on a delayed penalty at 9:25 of the first overtime to give Bruins a 2-1 victory.

    This was old-fashioned playoff hockey which kept the sellout crowd of 17,565 on edge all night, and the victory gave the Bruins new hope in this series. They trail the best-of-seven Eastern Conference quarterfinal two games to one, with Game 4 here tomorrow night.
    Unfortunately, the Globe decided it was Dan Shaughnessy's duty to write the paper's column. You'd think he hadn't even seen the game in person:
    The Bruins haven't been in the playoffs since 2004 (also a first-round loss to Montreal) and it felt pretty flat - especially given everything that's going on with the Red Sox, Celtics, and the Boston College men's hockey NCAA championship.
    Perhaps he'd have rather spent four-plus excruciating hours at Fenway Park.

  • Milan Lucic is a budding star. There are those who have compared him to a young Cam Neely and anyone who watched lsat night's game understands why. He finished his checks--and finished them hard--he was aggressive in front of the net and in the slot, scoring the first goal of the game. He was the dominant player on the ice last night. Now, he doesn't yet have the scoring touch of a Neely (number 8 would have had a hat trick if he'd had the same two breakaway chances that Lucic was unable to finish) and probably never will, but he could be a dominant player for years to come.

  • I didn't mind the influx of Canadiens' fans, but I was put off that the Jacobs family ended up selling ad space on the boards to Montreal companies. I noticed at least three ads for companies that do business exclusively in Canada, including one which was written in French. I suppose the Jacobses can (and will) do anything for money, but you'd think that there would be a couple of companies doing business in New England that would like to buy ad space.

  • Tags:

    Friday, April 11, 2008

    What does the Wekepeke restriction actually say?

    Even though the Clinton Board of Selectmen has voted unanimously to reject Nestle’s Wekepeke proposal (and you know it had to be a bad proposal for it to be rejected by a 5-0 vote…Clinton could resolve that the sky is blue and it would only pass by a 3-2 margin), there are still important questions facing the board that will affect the future of the Wekepeke.

    Foremost is the question of the Conservation Restriction, which needs to be worked out in the next few weeks if Clinton is to receive $353,000 in grant money to help preserve Rauscher Farm. From the Item:
    Selectmen entered into closed executive session to discuss a conservation restriction on the Wekepeke. Clinton and the state have an unfinished deal on the table and both sides have agreed to finalize it. Clinton gets ownership of 17 acres of land next to Mossy Pond from the state. The state gets a conservation restriction on the Wekepeke....

    In 2004, the state legislature approved creating a conservation restriction. The state said, with the restriction in place, “the town of Clinton retains the rights to use water in the Wekepeke watershed lands as a potential water supply for the town.”
    This and every other article I have seen on the issue refers nebulously to “a conservation restriction” without actually specifying what the conservation restriction says. I have searched “the Google” and come up empty; I’ve looked on the town website and found nothing; I’ve checked the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife site and drawn blanks. Which begs the question: What is in the Conservation Restriction?

    Some evidence in the local press suggests that whatever is in the CR, it has been changed due to the questions that have arisen in the discussion around the Nestle proposal. Take this note from Tony Marini’s column in the October 3 Times & Courier:
    The story behind this conservation restriction is too involved to be discussed in this column, but it should suffice to say that the language of the restriction has been changed in a manner such that Clinton will be allowed to fully realize the future potential of this valuable town resource. The state now is in possession of the modified conservation restriction, and the Department of Conservation and Recreation promised prompt action to ratify this agreement.
    Why should it suffice? Tell us what the changes are. For that matter, if there have been changes tell us what the draft said before the Nestle controversy. I can’t find any document stating one way or the other, and since the Board of Selectmen routinely goes into executive session when discussing the restriction, I guess no one really knows for sure. Isuppose Marini may have information about the restriction, considering that he is a vocal supporter of both the Rauscher purchase and of the three members of the Board of Selectmen who make up its majority on the bulk of the town’s issues. Was his comment on the CR an informed one?

    Why does the board goes into executive session to discuss the CR? As far as I can tell, a discussion of a Conservation Restriction is not one of the nine reasons that a public board can go into executive session. Only one of the nine reasons even remotely applies:
    Exception Six - "To consider the purchase, exchange, lease or value of real property, if such discussions may have a detrimental effect on the negotiating position of the governmental body and a person, firm or corporation."

    This exception recognizes that public discussion of negotiations might increase the eventual price paid by the government. As with the collective bargaining and litigation exception, the governmental body must show that an open meeting might have an adverse impact on the body's negotiating position with a third party.
    But the Board of Selectmen is not discussing any issues that would "increase the eventual price paid by the government." Clinton isn't paying anything. I don’t see where the Board has a basis to meet behind closed doors. It only takes three registered Clinton voters to force the Selectmen to either open the CR meetings or show cause for why they should be held in executive session…are there not even three Clintonians who want to know what is going on with the CR?

    In any event, unless someone forces the Board to "show that an open meeting might have an adverse impact on the body's negotiating position with a third party," we are left to guess at the terms of the CR. Right now, we only know what the Conservation Restriction could be. The 2004 act that authorized the conservation restriction states (relevant sections quoted, emphasis mine):
    SECTION 2. The town of Clinton may convey fee interests, easements or lesser interests in land through conservation restrictions under sections 31 and 32 of chapter 184 of the General Laws in certain lands it owns in the towns of Sterling and Leominster....

    SECTION 3. The purpose of these land transfers is to ensure the preservation and protection of wildlife and habitat, and for passive recreation and consistent purposes. The parcels known as the Wekepeke Watershed Lands were taken or acquired by the town of Clinton and used for watershed and water supply purposes. The conservation restrictions authorized herein shall allow for the continuation of such purposes on all or a portion of the parcels, however the conservation restrictions may restrict or regulate, but not unreasonably limit, the acts or uses associated with conducting such purposes....

    SECTION 4. The town of Clinton retains the rights to use water in the Wekepeke watershed lands as a potential water supply for the town.
    A lot has been made about Section 4 (the paragraph from the Item at the top of this post appears verbatim in a number of their stories on the subject, they clearly just cut and paste it from one article to another); Section 4 is self explanatory (although it doesn’t suggest whether or not a Nestle-style plan would fall under a “potential water supply for the town." Opponents say it doesn’t.). Section 3 suggests that the conservation restriction “may restrict or regulate, but not unreasonably limit,” those “water supply purposes.” Would a prohibition on a Nestle-style plan unreasonably limit Clinton? It’s not specified.

    But while Sections 3 and 4 are important and relevant, Section 2 is also important since references the General Laws in defining what activities can be permitted or limited under the definition of a conservation restriction. Here is the section referenced in the act (bullet format added for clarity):
    A conservation restriction means a right…to permit public recreational use, or to forbid or limit any or all
    • (a) construction or placing of buildings, roads, signs, billboards or other advertising, utilities or other structures on or above the ground,
    • (b) dumping or placing of soil or other substance or material as landfill, or dumping or placing of trash, waste or unsightly or offensive materials,
    • (c) removal or destruction of trees, shrubs or other vegetation,
    • (d) excavation, dredging or removal of loam, peat, gravel, soil, rock or other mineral substance in such manner as to affect the surface,
    • (e) surface use except for agricultural, farming, forest or outdoor recreational purposes or purposes permitting the land or water area to remain predominantly in its natural condition,
    • (f) activities detrimental to drainage, flood control, water conservation, erosion control or soil conservation, or
    • (g) other acts or uses detrimental to such retention of land or water areas.
    So what are the terms of the CR? Is it simply to "permit public recreational use" but not restrict any other activities? Did the earlier drafts forbid or limit construction, or the removal of vegetation, or excavation? Would “activities detrimental to…water conservation” or the “retention of…water areas” have be prohibited? If so, is the Clinton Board of Selectmen using their executive sessions to change the restriction “in a manner such that Clinton will be allowed to fully realize the future potential of this valuable town resource”?

    The Clinton Board of Selectmen should hold these deliberations in public so the townspeople can see the terms of the agreement, and so they can see if the agreement has been changed due to the discussions with Nestle.

    Previous coverage of the Wekepeke:
    April 11: Clinton does the right thing
    April 9: Sterling should offer to buy Wekepeke at Nestle's price
    April 6: Sterling selectmen to oppose Wekepeke plan, but to what extent?
    April 4: Vermont looking to restrict Wekepeke-style projects
    March 27: This can't be helpful
    March 25: Tough decision ahead for Clinton
    March 21: Nestle's proposal could change everything
    March 21: Nestle nominated for "Corporate Hall of Shame"
    March 19: Sterling Selectmen disappoint at Wekepeke forum
    March 16: Sterling should oppose Nestle...the right way


    Clinton does the right thing

    The Clinton Board of Selectmen did the right thing Wednesday night, voting unanimously to reject Nestle’s bid to draw water from the Wekepeke in order to bottle and sell it commercially. From the Item:
    CLINTON — Facing mounting opposition from Sterling residents to any and all commercial water pumping at the Wekepeke Reservoir, and unsure of the legal and financial fallout of such pumping, the Board of Selectmen voted unanimously Wednesday night to reject a water pumping proposal from Nestlé Waters of North America....

    Selectmen also voted unanimously to have interim Town Solicitor Robert Gibbons begin looking into the legal rights the town has regarding the Wekepeke.

    “We want to know everything,” [Board Chairman Robert] Pasquale said. “Our rights to sell the Wekepeke, to use the water, to sell the water. We want a definition of what rights Clinton and its inhabitants have regarding the reservoir. We know we need to keep it on the back burner as far as maintaining the property and repairing the dams. We thought the offer would be more lucrative to the town than it was. Who knows, a year down the road we may look at it again.”
    The key here is the decision by the board to further investigate the legal issues surrounding the Wekepeke. Some of us who are opposed to the plan believe that it will ultimately be found to be illegal under state law and/or local zoning. I have been arguing all along that Sterling should oppose the plan on these grounds and others with the same opinion have threatened legal action.

    If the questions that attorney Jim Gettens and others raised were part of Clinton’s decision to slow down a bit and investigate the legal issues before agreeing with Nestle, then Gettens and the Clinton Board both deserve credit for their actions. The Sterling selectmen also deserve credit for coming out against the proposal before Clinton made a decision, to whatever extent that opposition helped Clinton come to their decision.

    Of course the issue isn’t settled, it’s just been set aside so that it can be studied a little further. And other activities in Clinton will continue to have an impact on the future of the Wekepeke. The people of Sterling should continue to be vigilant in ensuring that our interests continue to be represented. Hopefully we can work together with Clinton to resolve the issue as the tension between two towns begins to ebb.

    Previous coverage of the Wekepeke:
    April 9: Sterling should offer to buy Wekepeke at Nestle's price
    April 6: Sterling selectmen to oppose Wekepeke plan, but to what extent?
    April 4: Vermont looking to restrict Wekepeke-style projects
    March 27: This can't be helpful
    March 25: Tough decision ahead for Clinton
    March 21: Nestle's proposal could change everything
    March 21: Nestle nominated for "Corporate Hall of Shame"
    March 19: Sterling Selectmen disappoint at Wekepeke forum
    March 16: Sterling should oppose Nestle...the right way


    Wednesday, April 9, 2008

    Sterling should offer to buy Wekepeke at Nestle's price

    There is a solution to the brewing dispute over the Wekepeke parcel in Clinton: Sterling should buy the parcel for exactly the same terms that Nestle proposed.

    It could be a win-win for everyone: Clinton gets the same payments that they would receive if they contract with Nestle, Sterling gets the land, and no one gets to spend months and months in court.

    OK, maybe not a win-win for everyone. Nestle wouldn’t get anything, but they can probably afford the status quo.

    Nestle’s proposal would pay Clinton approximately $280,000 per year for 30 years. It also includes an additional $100,000 in year one for dam repairs and $20,000 in years 2-6 for dam maintenance. Over the course of the contract, Nestle would pay Clinton $8.6 million. That’s apparently the value of the land to Clinton over the next 30 years.

    Sterling should offer to purchase the land from Clinton for $8.6 million, with the payments spread out over 30 years. Essentially, Clinton would hold a 30-year zero-interest mortgage on the land, with Sterling making payments to Clinton. Sterling should propose to make those payments along the same schedule at Nestle would:
    $380,000 in year 1
    $300,000 in years 2-6
    $280,000 in years 7-30
    But the land also comes with a liability. Clinton is required by state law to repair and maintain the reservoirs’ dams. The cost of repairing those dams is estimated at $1.5 million. Under the simple proposal above, Clinton would still be responsible for dam repair as they are under the Nestle plan. If Clinton wanted to pass the cost and responsibility of the dam repairs back to Sterling, it could be done by lowering the price to $7.1 million. A different pay schedule would have to be negotiated; here are a couple of ideas.

    Since the Nestle proposal assumes that the dams would be repaired in the first six years of the project, Sterling could argue that the $1.5 million rebate should be given in years 1-6, which would essentially result in low or no payments to Clinton over the first six years, followed by full payments over the final 24:
    $ 0 in years 1-4
    $100,000 in year 5
    $280,000 in years 6-30
    In this scenario, there is no financial gain for Clinton in the short term, except that Clinton relieves itself of the liability associated with the potential failure of the dams.

    Another scenario might have Sterling making 30 equal payments of $236,666, but that would leave Sterling with the problem of trying to come up with the money to repair the dams on top of the payments to Clinton.

    A compromise scenario to allow Sterling the flexibility to raise money for dam repair and still provide some revenue to Clinton might be negotiated to look something like this:
    $100,000 in years 1-5
    $264,000 in years 6-30
    There are still other issues to be decided. The Conservation Restriction that Clinton negotiated with the state is still waiting to be signed. If Clinton were to sell the land to Sterling, I would expect that it would sign the CR and claim the $350,000 grant the state has promised for the purchase of the Rauscher Farm. It might be in Sterling’s best interest for the CR to go unsigned if the land were sold, so Sterling could negotiate its own CR with the State and perhaps receive grant money to help repair the dams. Either way, Clinton should demand that a CR be part of the deal so that Sterling didn’t then turn around and try to develop the land for itself (which would be wrong and would likely touch off a brutal fight in town).

    Also, where would Sterling get the money? I don’t know, but if the town were to enter an agreement to buy the land from Clinton, I would hope that the Sterling Land Trust and other environmental and recreational organizations would help raise money to purchase and preserve the land.

    But those are all details that could be worked out. The Sterling and Clinton Boards of Selectmen should seriously consider this proposal and make a deal that would serve both towns’ interests.

    Previous coverage of the Wekepeke:
    April 6: Sterling selectmen to oppose Wekepeke plan, but to what extent?
    April 4: Vermont looking to restrict Wekepeke-style projects
    March 27: This can't be helpful
    March 25: Tough decision ahead for Clinton
    March 21: Nestle's proposal could change everything
    March 21: Nestle nominated for "Corporate Hall of Shame"
    March 19: Sterling Selectmen disappoint at Wekepeke forum
    March 16: Sterling should oppose Nestle...the right way


    Tuesday, April 8, 2008

    Pizza as a bribe

    I know that police officers are often trained to tack on as many charges as they can when arresting someone. For instance, my brother once hit a patch of wet leaves and skidded across the road into a tree, injuring his shoulder in the crash. He got a ride to the hospital. He was charged with speeding, failure to stay to the right--no kidding--and leaving the scene of an accident. Of course, all but the speeding were thrown out by a rational judge.

    But tagging a suspect with bribery for offering a cop a pizza? I'd say that's a little much:
    LEOMINSTER -- A Worcester man arrested early Sunday morning in connection with a domestic assault reportedly tried to bribe a Leominster police officer with food, according to court documents.

    Niko Sekuj, 21, of 360 June St., Worcester, allegedly tried to get Officer John Fraher Jr. to leave the scene as Fraher was arresting him on several charges, including assault and battery and malicious property damage.

    "After I placed handcuffs on Mr. Sekuj ... he stated that he works for local pizza places and if I let him go, 'I'll hook you up' " Fraher wrote in a report. "I then asked him what he wanted me to do, at which time he stated, 'Let me go ... just leave.' "
    Although maybe the officer just wanted to get the suspect downtown, where he could leave the door to the jail open so the suspect could run out and bring the pizza straight back to the station.


    Monday, April 7, 2008

    You don't say?

    Here's the early frontrunner for Obvious Headline of the Month, from the Clinton Item:



    Sunday, April 6, 2008

    Sterling selectmen to oppose Wekepeke plan, but to what extent?

    The Sterling Board of Selectmen finally announced their official position on Nestle's proposal to purchase water from Clinton. They are opposed:

    STERLING — Despite being wooed by Nestlé Waters of North America, and advice from special counsel Mark Bobrowski, the Board of Selectmen will lead the town in a fight against any and all commercial pumping operations Nestlé attempts to set up at the Wekepeke Reservoir.

    “We decided we’re going to oppose Nestlé,” Selectman Richard Sheppard said. “We don’t especially want to see a large scale operation here that could in the future grow.”
    I commend the board for deciding to lead the effort to oppose the plan. I'm a little surprised that the Selectmen took this position--since they had assumed a hands-off stance at the open forum in Sterling last month--but I'm happy that those of us who disagree with the proposal now have the backing of the Selectmen.

    While the Selectmen have now come out against the plan, it's still unclear what steps they are willing to take in opposition.
    How exactly do they plan on opposing the plan? Are they going to actively work against it? Or are they going to just speak against it?

    I fear that it will be more of the latter than the former. From the Telegram & Gazette:

    [Selectman Paul Sushchyk] noted, however, that it would be premature for Sterling to take any legal action at this time. “Until Clinton does one thing or another with the water, we don’t have the controversy to take steps toward litigation.”

    Selectman Richard A. Sheppard concurred, saying drawn-out litigation involving the large company would be a financial burden Sterling cannot afford.
    I'm concerned with both of these points.
    Those of us who believe the plan should never get off the ground because state law does not allow it would like to see the town to get a ruling on the law now, as opposed to waiting to fight the plan after it has begun. If it's not permitted under state law, then there is no reason to even entertain a discussion on the specifics of this or any other plan.

    It seems to me that the easiest route to a ruling would be to sign on to the petition of Attorney James Gettens, who has already filed a brief with the Attorney General, but it was pretty clear at the open forum that the Selectmen don't want anything to do with Gettens's action. But beyond that, the position of the board is apparently not to do anything until after Clinton makes a move. I think that is a mistake.

    While Selectman Sheppard may be correct that a long court fight may be too expensive for the town, wouldn't it be a better strategy not to admit that? Effectively, the position seems to be "We're against it, but we're not going to fight round 1 and we're not going to be able to pay to fight in later rounds."

    So how effective is the board's position? Only time will tell.

    Previous coverage of the Wekepeke:
    April 4: Vermont looking to restrict Wekepeke-style projects
    March 27: This can't be helpful
    March 25: Tough decision ahead for Clinton
    March 21: Nestle's propsal could change everything
    March 21: Nestle nominated for "Corporate Hall of Shame"
    March 19: Sterling Selectmen disappoint at Wekepeke forum
    March 16: Sterling should oppose Nestle...the right way


    Friday, April 4, 2008

    Vermont looking to restrict Wekepeke-style projects

    I was going to write about a little bit of movement in the Wekepeke discussion between Sterling and Clinton, but the most pertinent information and quotes come from this week’s Landmark and I’ll be damned if I’m going to fork over $37 for a subscription so that I don’t have to wait a week to read that paper.

    (Earth to Landmark: every newspaper around posts it’s current news for free, including weeklies like the Times and Courier, the Item, and the Leominster Champion and Fitchburg Pride...which are both owned by the Landmark. It’s time to keep up with the Joneses. Further, since you mailed this week’s issue to everyone in an effort to gain subscriptions, you should at least make this week’s issue available for free online to be consistent. But I digress.)

    So, here’s a little item from yesterday’s Globe about a bill in Vermont’s legislature to restrict commercial water pumping on a state-wide basis:
    The Senate has passed, and the House panel is soon to take up, legislation that would declare the ground water under Vermont a public trust.

    That's a legal doctrine that the legislation's backers say could provide protections for the state's underground aquifers essentially by restricting individual users from sucking them dry...

    As passed by the Senate, the bill:
    • Declares Vermont's ground water to be a public trust, similar to its lakes and rivers...
    • Sets up new permitting and reporting requirements. Commercial and industrial users would have to report withdrawals of more than 20,000 gallons per day and obtain a state permit for those larger than 57,600 per day.
    • Exempts all but the largest farms, which would have to report to the Agency of Agriculture if they withdraw more than 50,000 gallons per day.
    • Allows courts to impose attorney's fees on the loser of a public trust lawsuit, a measure whose backers said would discourage such suits.
    • Sets up a new permitting system that would require those seeking permits to show their water withdrawal will not have an adverse effect on state water quality standards, wetlands, or other users.
    I don’t know if this legislation is significantly more restrictive that the rules of the Massachusetts DEP regulating commercial water draws in our state, other than the threshold for getting a special permit (57,600 gallons in the Vermont proposal vs. 100,000 gallons in Mass.). But it’s interesting that other New England states are looking at restricting the sort of project Nestle is proposing for the Wekepeke.

    One other point that caught my eye was this warning from Canadian environmentalist Maude Barlow who spoke earlier this week at a hearing on the bill:

    [S]he said that even with a new law in place, Vermont might be targeted by litigation brought under the North American Fair Trade Agreement saying the state's efforts to limit water withdrawals interfere with international trade in bottled water.
    Hmmm. The idea that International treaties could supersede local laws regarding pumping was one of the points of the Council of Informed Citizens that I derided as “a head scratcher” when I criticized their tactics last month. I still don’t think that is ground that we should be staking out at this point on the process, but perhaps that concern is more legitimate than I had first considered.


    Tuesday, April 1, 2008

    Smallpox in Fitchburg

    From Time magazine:

    Smallpox appeared in Fitchburg, Mass. a fortnight ago. The first few cases aroused only routine precautions on the part of the Board of Health...

    By the beginning of last week...Fitchburg had 15 cases. To the community of 40,690 that was EPIDEMIC. [The mayor] issued a proclamation that everyone get vaccinated. [The] chairman of the Board of Health,marshaled the city's doctors. One day 2,500 people lined up for vaccination, another day 3,700.

    But not all of excited Fitchburg was tractable. Mrs. Jessica Henderson of Boston had appeared to represent the Citizens Committee Against Vaccination. Go to jail, she cried, rather than be vaccinated. Pay the...fine and keep your blood uncontaminated....

    Other recalcitrants ceased their stubbornness when merchants clamored about loss of business. Residents of small towns near Fitchburg were staying away in fear. Pressure of Business and Medicine won. At the beginning of this week only 30 inhabitants out of 40,690 were known to have avoided vaccination.
    OK. So there isn't smallpox in Fitchburg. But there was an outbreak during the winter on 1932, as reported by Time magazine. I was snooping through Time's archives just for the heck of it the other day and clicked on a story about Franklin Roosevelt's announcement for president. I stumbled across this article in the same February 1, 1932 issue.

    In the end there were 60 reported cases of smallpox, nearly all in Cleghorn. Amazingly, it took just five days to vaccinate or re-vaccinate nearly all 40,000 residents. It's hard to get an idea, some 50 years after smallpox was eradicated in the US, what this sort of an outbreak would be like. How would it compare? Perhaps if there were 60 cases of bacterial meningitis or tuberculosis? What kind of effect would that have on the city today?



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