Monday, June 30, 2008

Sentinel could have used a pregnant pause

Sunday, the Sentinel and Enterprise published an expose on teen pregnancy in the twin cities of Leominster and Fitchburg. Reading the article, which was most likely spurred by the recent discussion around an alleged "pregnancy pact" in Gloucester, one would think that Leominster and Fitchburg were facing a crisis of teen pregnancy, with the cities awash in belly-busting youngsters.

The reality, at least in Leominster, is significantly different. In fact, using the same Massachusetts Department of Public Health report that provides the basis for the Sentinel piece, I would suggest that Leominster has made more strides in fighting teen pregnancies than nearly any city in the commonwealth.

But that's not going to sell papers, is it?

Anyway, after introducing us to a pregnant 15-year-old, the author of the article suggests that things in the twin cities are getting worse:
The Massachusetts Department of Public Health listed Leominster and Fitchburg in the top 25 highest cities for teen births.

Fitchburg, number 7 on the list, saw a 47 percent increase in its teen birth rate from 2005 to 2006.

This indicates that for every 1,000 female teenagers between the age of 15 to 19, 58.2 had babies.

Leominster, number 20 on the list, saw a shocking 73 percent increase in teen births. The number for 2006 totals 30.3 women per 1,000 having babies.
Let's start by giving a little bit better context to the DPH study. Leominster and Fitchburg are listed among the top 25 cities for total number of teen births. This is not really much of a surprise, since Leominster in 30th in the state in total population and Fitchburg just slightly behind. While it would be nice if the two cities weren't on the list, you'd expect the cities with the highest populations to also have the most teen births based solely on statistics.

Now, Fitchburg is number 7 on the list, but it is seventh in teen birth rate, not seventh in most teen births (which was the context provided in the previous line of the story). Fitchburg is 11th in total teen births; still too high, but not quite as high as you might assume based on the way the article is written. Fitchburg also had a dramatic rise in teen birth rate over the last year. While that is disappointing, the study also points out (on the same page) that the teen birth rate has actually fallen since 1996, from 62.0 births per 1,000 to 58.2. Taken in that context, conditions in Fitchburg have actually improved over the last decade.

But that's not going to sell papers, is it?

More egregiously, the paper implies that Leominster is spiraling into an abyss where every street corner is crowded with teeny-boppers pushing strollers and listening to Miley Cyrus on the iPod, thanks to a "shocking 73 percent increase in teen births."

Let's look at this in context. In 2006, 38 teens in Leominster gave birth. While that is 38 or so more than the city would like, it's less than half the 91 teen births in Fitchburg. Moreover, it's nearly half the number of teen births in Leominster in 1996. Over the last 10 years, the number of teen births has dropped from 72 to 38. Because of population changes, the teen birth rate has been cut by more than half, from 64.7 to 30.3.

Shocking? You bet! What a shocking success in turning around what had been a near crisis!

Let's take a look at where Leominster lines up, when the standard is reduction in birth rate. Here are the top 5 cities (of the 25 on this list) when ranked by improvement over the last 10 years:

CITY 1996, 2006 % change
Somerville 43.5, 17.9 -59%
Leominster 64.7, 30.3 -53%
Taunton 63.1, 32.5 -48%
Cambridge 15.1, 8.2 -46%
Brockton 76.2, 42.9 -44%
It looks to me like Leominster has been doing a heck of a job over the last 10 years. While there has been an uptick in the last year, the overall numbers look very good. It's too bad the Sentinel would rather sensationalize the few teen births there are in Leominster than look at why the city has been so successful in addressing the problem over the last decade.


Sunday, June 29, 2008

Zuper Zervice

I had a very nice customer experience this evening at a local pizza shop. I called Mr. Z's in Clinton to order a pair of medium meatball grinders and a couple of moments later, the phone rang. The caller ID said it was Mr. Z's calling back. I assumed that the cashier had inadvertently hit the redial button, but instead the caller said he realized that they were out of medium-sized grinder rolls and called to ask if I would like to order another size.

Now, that's service.


Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Guest Blog: Knuuttila-Flanagan debate takes back seat to fruity Starburst

Since I was helping to organize the state senate debate in Sterling Monday night, I didn't really get to pay as close attention to the candidates and their answers as I would have liked. I didn't think I could blog the event with anything resembling a complete eye. So I did the next best thing...I asked my brother Scott to file a blog post in my place. All of the words that follow are his and his alone. If you have any doubt about that, when you read that he wants to build a casino on the Sterling-West Boylston town line you'll be convinced that what follows...while not from me.

On Monday I had the opportunity (?) to attend a debate at the First Church of Mary's Lamb in Sterling between the two candidates for State Senator for my district. Those eminent politicos are former state representative Brian Knuuttila and current state representative Jennifer Flanagan. Both are Democrats, which is good because otherwise they could have held the debate while bull fighting and I wouldn't have attended. As it is, I mainly went because my brother was one of the organizers and since Sterling hasn't yet painted their seats like Philips Arena in Atlanta, I thought I'd fill one. By the next debate I hope to have hired some seat fillers like they do at the Oscars so I can watch Baseball Tonight instead.

Actually, the debate turned out to be pretty interesting, so I'm glad I attended. Unfortunately, I didn't have the chance to live blog it, as Union Pacific still hasn't finished laying Internet cable all the way out to Sterling, and I didn't want to file dispatches using couriers on cowback. But for those of you interested in local politics -- and I know you're out there by the millions -- I thought I'd try to sum up a few of my impressions.

Before I do, here are a few disclaimers. I myself am a registered Democrat. During most years I pay absolutely no attention to local politics, though some to national, which logically makes no sense whatsoever: sue me. Because of this, I went into the debate undecided and, like you, only aware of the candidates based on what I read on I've never seen either of them before, so all impressions are first impressions.

The show started off with a flourish of horns and the releasing of a dozen ceremonial doves. Well, no. Instead, they jumped right into the debate; no opening statements, just the basic question, "What are the important issues facing Sterling and Lancaster?" Lancaster, it should be noted, is a neighboring bedroom community filled with a college, a prison, a soccer field and thousands of people who wish they could buy liquor.

The first candidate to answer was Knuuttila, who seemed to have been caught off guard by this abstraction, like they asked him to explain the context of T. S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock". His answer, fittingly, was "Something about a peach?" Actually, he just rambled about the Wekepeke, which marks the one millionth reference to Wekepeke on this website. Email Lance for your commemorative balloon.

Flanagan did have the benefit of going second, so she was able to more closely follow her notes, which I believe read "don't sound like that guy". Besides the Wekepeke, though, she spoke for a bit about the importance of bringing public transportation to the area. This was also the subject of a follow up question later on; about the attempts to extend a rail line through Clinton and Lancaster that would connect the Worcester commuter lines to the Fitchburg line. During this segment, it was mentioned that a time frame of 15 years had been cited, which Flanagan said didn't seem that bad since they had been working for ten years in Fitchburg to get things straightened out.

Now that's a case of some seriously lowered expectations. It's like when you go on a blind date and discover she doesn’t drink. I think Flanagan has it backwards here; it's not that 15 years is reasonable, it's that ten years is equally ridiculous. Personally, I think that public transportation, and specifically rail transportation, is an extremely important issue right now; and given the current rising gas prices, there may never be a better time to address it, because it's at the forefront of everyone's mind. When gas is cheap, pushing through legislation for railways isn't going to be a priority, but right now there's a mandate to do something. This is an issue I wish they would have discussed a little more.

It was again brought up later by Knuuttila, in reference to how the T used to extend out to Gardner and now doesn't, which I think is silly. Apparently they said there aren't enough riders to justify it, but that's a self-fulfilling prophecy. If timely, reliable and affordable service isn't available, people are going to find alternatives.

Personally I think the solution isn't to cut back service, but to vastly expand it. Here's a proposal: the commonwealth should use the right of eminent domain to purchase all the rail in the state. Efforts to increase commuter service have been hampered because the state has liability issues with renting usage rights from the company that owns the track. Well, let's reverse the equation. The state should own the tracks and rent the service to the rail company. This would alleviate the liability issues, and would ensure that the tracks would be available to satisfy the commuter needs first and foremost, with any freight rental being allocated from surplus time. Once the state owns the track, they should then greatly expand rail service throughout the state, adding trains that run frequently and on time. Further, prices should be lowered. The cost to operate a train remains the same regardless of whether there are ten passengers or 400; dropping the price should entice more people to ride, boosting overall revenue.

I recently had the opportunity to visit Japan, which has a large, efficient and impressive rail system that extends throughout the nation. The commuters there use rail travel not just within a city, but for the bulk of their travel throughout the province and nation. This is possible because the trains a) are available at frequent intervals, b) are available at convenient times and c) are both fast and on time. If fast, convenient, affordable and reliable rail service were available to citizens of the state, I believe they would use it, especially in light of current transportation costs.

Anyway. Communism aside, the debate continued for a couple hours. To be honest, there wasn't a huge difference in the substance of the candidates' answers. There was some difference in the style of delivery. In general, Knuuttila seemed very comfortable, engaged and energetic when he received a question that he was prepared for. On those occasions, he seemed to speak directly to the crowd, which responded. However, when he received questions that he was unprepared for, he often rambled, hemmed and hawed, and on at least a couple of occasions completely made up his answer on the spot. It was clear that he had not considered some of these questions at all beforehand, and it was a little weird listening to him think it through out loud.

Flanagan, on the other hand, seemed to address her answers to the moderators as often as to the crowd, which I'm not sure benefited her. In contrast to some of Knuuttila's animated answers, Flanagan's responses were more measured. She also did not seem to be caught off guard by many of the questions. I'm not sure if this was because she actually had considered all the issues or if she was just a lot better at covering herself. My feeling was that it was due to the former, which is probably because she is currently serving as a representative and therefore has to deal with this crap all the time anyway.

Throughout most of the debate things remained civil. There was one point, however, where there was some testiness. I'm not 100% sure which part of the debate it was during -- I was distracted by the fruity sensations of a pack of Starburst I was plowing through. But if memory serves, it occurred during a question about Gay Marriage, strangely fitting given my snack of choice. It wasn't a big blowup, and to be honest, it kind of seemed from where I was sitting as if Knuuttila was trying to get something started; but it just fizzled out, so whatever.

The Gay Marriage question was, however, interesting, even if there wasn't any jujitsu. Basically, Flanagan said she supported it. Knuuttila took a bit of a different tack. As a self-described "conservative Democrat", Knuuttila said that he voted… let's see, how the hell did this work… okay, I guess he voted for the amendment to ban gay marriage because he wanted to issue to come up for a general vote so that all the people in the state could vote on it. Or something like that?

Now, this was presented as a matter of principle; he stated multiple times that some issues are so important that everyone should have the right to vote on them. This may very well be his feelings on the issue. It also seemed like a good way to try to make political hay while sidestepping the question. See, chances are that most voters are going to hear this and say, "yeah, that's right, this is a democracy, we should all have the right to vote on it" and therefore agree with Knuuttila without actually finding out what his position is. Meaning he can avoid the bitterness and stuff that often comes along with this question.

It's a pretty smooth politician move. However, as it happens, I don't agree with him anyway. He's right, there are issues so important that everyone should be able to vote on it. Beyond that, though, there are issues so important that people shouldn't be allowed to vote on them. There are fundamental rights built into our constitution and they are fundamental specifically because they are too important to be voted on; I believe the word "inalienable" has been used for these sorts of things. I believe that marriage is one of these inalienable rights; and therefore should not be subject to a popular vote. So, regardless of what Knuuttila's position actually is on this issue, I disagree with him. Nyah.

The only other issue of substance that they seemed to disagree on was abortion. The candidates were asked whether they would support a ban on abortion is Roe v. Wade was overturned. Flanagan answered that she supported the right of women to choose for themselves. Knuuttila again sidestepped the issue; he said that he was a Pro Life candidate, but that he would uphold Roe v. Wade since it was the "law of the land". As the question asked what they would do in the hypothetical case that it were revoked, this wasn't really an answer, but I suppose it was in a way.

Besides these few questions, the candidates were pretty much in agreement on everything. There was one other interesting section of the debate, even though the candidates agreed. Two questions were asked, one about whether they would support a casino in our district and one about the effectiveness of the state health care plan. Both said that they support casinos, though neither specifically said anything about our district, unless Palmer is in our district, in which case...WTF is Palmer? "Palmer? I just met her!" They both also indicated that they supported the health care plan, but that it needed to be adjusted because it was costing both the state and individuals too much money.

Okay, so… am I the only one thinking that these issues go together? I mean, I'm not named Reeses, but I know you should put chocolate in peanut butter. One the one hand we have a project people don't support that would provide a large revenues stream. On the other hand we have a project everyone supports that needs a revenue stream. It seems like an obvious solution to marry these issues: make the casino legislation contingent upon the revenues being used to fund the healthcare plan.

Now, for all I know, they already are trying this. I wouldn't know; I don't pay attention to these things. But it seems like a no-brainer. While I'm at it, I'll even answer the actual question asked and say that, yes, not only would I support a casino in my district, I think our district is the ideal location for it. Further, I'll tell you right where to put it: at exit 5 on Interstate 190, near the border of Sterling and West Boylston.

This is the optimal location for a casino for several reasons. Firstly, it's proximity to Worcester means that it is nearly equidistant from the major population centers of New England; Boston, Providence, Hartford, Springfield and Nashua are all roughly an hour away. It's location at 190 gives it easy access on an underutilized, federally funded highway, and also greatly reduces impact on the local community, as there's essentially nothing in that part of town except the highway anyhow. Further, being located midway between Leominster and Worcester means that it would be an economic boon to both of those cities; each is within a ten minute drive from Exit 5, and thus easily accessible to all casino guests. This location is also fairly close to Mount Wachusett by means of route 140, creating an opportunity for some synergy between these sites as vacation destinations.

To sum up, the site would provide an economic impact directly to the neighboring communities without significant negative impact on the host town; it would provide a stream of revenue that could fund the health care plan; and it would create a regional tourist destination easily accessible to most residents of New England. Incidentally, it might also give an actual reason for people to fly to the Worcester Airport, which has been trying and failing to come up with a raison d'tere for decades.

Yes, I have extensive experience with Sim City 3000; how could you tell?

Anyway, here are some overall impressions of the evening. Knuuttila impressed some (i.e. my Dad) with his experience and record as a veteran and a police officer as well as a lawyer and state representative. He was quite animated throughout, and came across as an energetic and authentic guy. When asked why he was running he said it was because he loved the job, and he did seem to enjoy the process and the prospect of it. I'm not sure if that's really a qualification, though; I mean, I enjoy driving but that doesn't mean I'm qualified for NASCAR. Other than my mullet.

Flanagan, on the other hand, was more measured in her responses, more businesslike and seemingly more prepared. In other words, she seemed more like a professional politician, for good or bad. Indeed, the only time during the evening when I felt she tripped up was during her closing statements, which followed Knuuttila's laundry list of resume accomplishments. Basically, she told us that she had been working her way up through the political ranks since she was knee high to a sunflower and that this job would be the next step in her political advancement. Er… hooray I guess? Other than that somewhat offputting part of her speech, though, she seemed like she knew what she was doing.

So, there you have it: two hours of people talking in a barn, boiled down to eight minutes of reading or, more likely, forty seconds of skimming the first paragraph and then going to I must add a disclaimer that I took a couple breaks during the meeting to walk around the town square, so I probably missed the questions about Area 51 and Osama Bin Laden or whatever. But everything else is totally in this recap, so when you go to the voting booth, tell them nodrumlins sent you.

And pick up your balloon.


Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Insurgent Candidates 'R' Us

Earlier tonight, I sent notes to the campaigns of Bob Feuer, who is running in the Democratic primary against Congressman John Olver, and Ed O'Reilly, who is trying to unseat Senator John Kerry. We're looking to host forums with all of the candidates on the primary ballot here in Sterling this September and I volunteered to send invitations.

Here is the response I got from the Feuer campaign:
Thank you for your interest in my U.S. Congress Campaign! I continue to be flooded with messages from those who are ready for a change in leadership. Your interest is important to me. My staff and I are working tirelessly in responding to each message personally. Thank you for your patience.


Bob Feuer for Congress
And moments later, this reply from Ed O'Reilly's organization:
Thank you for your interest in the my U.S. Senate Campaign! I continue to be flooded with messages from fellow Massachusetts constituents ready for a change in leadership. Your interest is important to me. My staff and I are working tirelessly in responding to each message personally. Thank you for your patience.


Ed O'Reilly
"A Massachusetts Democrat for the U.S. Senate"
Apparently if you are running against an entrenched incumbent, you get a handy dandy campaign kit that includes a standard email auto-reply.


Friday, June 20, 2008

Knuuttila, Flanagan to debate Monday in Sterling -- BE THERE!

If you have even the remotest interest in the issues facing our communities and the commonwealth as a whole, you need to get down to the First Church in Sterling Monday night at 6:30 to take in the debate between Jennifer Flanagan and Brian Knuuttila, the two candidates for state senate.

Bring friends, loved ones, supporters, enemies, whoever. There will be an open forum section of the debate, so if you or someone you know have some issue that is near and dear to your heart, come on down and ask the candidates what they think about it.

Here is the official release:
The Sterling Democratic Town Committee will host a forum with the Democratic candidates for state senate Monday, June 23 at 6:30 p.m. at the First Church in Sterling. State Representative Jennifer Flanagan of Leominster and former State Representative Brian Knuuttila of Gardner will be there to discuss the issues facing our district and the commonwealth and to answer questions from voters. The event is open to the public. Directions to the First Church.

Thursday, June 19, 2008


I just realized that sometime late yesterday, I logged my 30,000th visitor. The pace at which I bring in readers has been remarkably consistent. Other milestones:

1,000: July 31, 2006
5,000: October 21, 2006
10,000: February 1, 2007
15,000: June 24, 2007
20,000: October 20, 2007
25,000: February 24, 2008
30,000: June 18, 2008

Write the state house to support the Wekepeke

Budget negotiations are underway in the state house to determine which items from the house and senate budgets will make the final bill sent to the governor for his signature. One of the items in the house budget that is up for negotiation is the $250,000 appropriation for repairs to the dams and general upkeep of the Wekepeke reservoirs.

I believe that the appropriation will be an important step toward repairing the dams and will take some of the pressure off the town of Clinton, which needs to find $1 million or so over the next few years to bring the dams up to snuff.

If you agree with me, please contact the members of the conference committee. They are:

Senator Steven C. Panagiotakos
Senator Stephen M. Brewer
Senator Michael R. Knapik
Representative Robert A. DeLeo
Representative Viriato Manuel deMacedo
Representative Marie P. St. Fleur

Here is the text of the email I sent to each member earlier this week:
Dear [Senator/Representative],

I am writing to ask for your support of an item in the House budget proposed by Representative Harold Naughton which would appropriate $250,000 the upkeep and repair of dams at the Wekepeke Reservoir in Sterling. Please consider including the item, included in line 2800-0100 of HR4701 (page 76), in the final bill that comes out of the joint committee.

The appropriation is crucial to the towns of Leominster, Lancaster, and Sterling in the Wekepeke watershed. Were the dams to fail, citizens and businesses in these towns could be affected by flood waters downstream of the Wekepeke Reservoirs. Appropriating the funds proposed by Rep. Naughton would allow dam repairs to begin and provide necessary protection to those citizens and businesses.

The town of Clinton owns the reservoirs and the land on which they are located, and they are responsible for the upkeep of the dams. Because of the proposed cost, Clinton has discussed selling water rights to commercial bottling operations. The impact of commercial operations in the Wekepeke are unknown, but citizens are concerned that their wells could be affected, the finest native brook trout breeding area in the state could be ruined, and area residents could lose passive recreation opportunities. Including the funds proposed by Rep. Naughton would provide the town of Clinton the resources necessary to begin repairing the dams, protecting the Wekepeke watershed by removing the need for Clinton to raise the money through commercial pursuits.

Thank you for considering the appropriation for the Wekepeke dams.
Previous coverage of the Wekepeke:
June 19: Clinton signs Wekepeke restriction. Now what?
May 2: Naughton secures funds for the Wekepeke
April 29: Might the Wekepeke restriction have teeth after all?
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


Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Clinton signs Wekepeke restriction. Now what?

According to this morning's Telegram and Gazette, the Clinton Board of Selectmen finally signed the Wekepeke conservation restriction a mere seven years after town meeting approved it. In an uncharacteristic show of benevolence, the Clinton board is actually going to let someone else see it:
[Chairman Kevin] Haley said the conservation restriction on the Wekepeke, Clinton’s former public water supply, would be made available for the Sterling selectmen.
As I've argued previously, the Clinton board has been stretching the Open Meeting Law to it's limits by holding these deliberations in executive session. For all we know, the restriction could be as limited as prohibiting people from driving clown cars around the reservoir (although other indications suggest it probably has more teeth than that).

(If I lived in Clinton, I think I'd be quite frustrated at the board's penchant for operating either in executive session or without public comment. According the article in this morning's T&G, the board adjourned the meeting last night without allowing any of the 25 or so citizens who had attended to comment on the Rauscher Farm issue. At least in last night's case, citizens spoke out against the adjournment to the press after the meeting; in the secrecy surrounding the conservation restriction, I'm not aware that any Clintonian challenged the board's loose interpretation of the Open Meeting Law.)

According to last Friday's Clinton Item, one of the sticking points on the Conservation restriction has been the question of whether or not Clinton would be able to use the Wekepeke as a public water supply in the event Clinton needs the water at some point in the future. In an effort to address Clinton's concerns, Sterling selectman Paul Sushchyk responded in Tuesday's paper that the Clinton board has nothing to worry about:
Sushchyk said Sterling residents are against any commercial water pumping operation at the Wekepeke. Last year, Nestlé Waters of North America began looking into striking a deal with Clinton for the water at the Wekepeke. This created a great deal of controversy before being rejected by the Clinton Board of Selectmen. Sushchyk said Nestlé would have had to come before Sterling for a zoning change at the Wekepeke. However, he said Clinton would not need to get permission from Sterling to draw the water for municipal use.

“Those are two different things,” Sushchyk said. “I don’t think anyone has a problem with Clinton drawing water for its own use. That is clearly what the aquifer is for.”
I don't know that Selectman Sushchyk accurately describes the feelings of the people in town. Whether or not anyone in Sterling would have a problem depends on the meaning of the word "draw."

If by "draw," Sushchyk means Clinton can take water out of the surface reservoirs as outlined in the acts of 1876 and 1882, the Selectman is probably right. Few if any Sterlingites would have a problem with Clinton using the waters of the Wekepeke for the purpose it was originally set aside.

But if "draw" means pumping water from the underground aquifer, there would likely be opposition (including from Sterlingites like me). While a plan whereby Clinton pumped water from the aquifer for municipal use would be closer to the original use than the plan to turn the water over to Nestle, it still would be a different method of extraction than originally approved. One of the bases for opposing the Nestle plan was that pumping from the aquifer was not an allowed use, only extraction from the surface waters was permitted.

That's why the wording of Sushchyk's comment to the Item is troubling. Back in February, then Clinton Selectman Robert Pasquale asserted "We own the aquifer." He was widely criticized; while Clinton clearly owns the reservoirs and the land surrounding them, the aquifer is much, much larger than the Wekepeke land and provides water to homeowners and wells in both Lancaster and Sterling.

Hopefully Sushchyk was misquoted when he suggested that the aquifer is "clearly" for Clinton's use. That is a position that few Sterlingites would support.

Previous coverage of the Wekepeke:
May 2: Naughton secures funds for the Wekepeke
April 29: Might the Wekepeke restriction have teeth after all?
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


Friday, June 13, 2008

They got me

For the first time since sometime before Reggie Lewis died, I got all fired up watching a Celtics game as they came back against the Lakers tonight. That may be more impressive than their comeback.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Dem Convention: Cracking down on no-shows

So, where were all of the delegates?

Yesterday, I noted that Senator John Kerry might have had a chance of getting the 85% he was hoping for if more of his committed supporters--specifically elected office-holders--had attended the convention and cast their votes in his favor. I was wrong. Looking more closely at the numbers, challenger Ed O'Reilly got 579 votes, which would have been good enough for more than 15% even if all 3,500 delegates had voted (he would have needed just 525). So O'Reilly was going to be on the ballot regardless of any missing delegates. But the fact that there were over 900 no-shows at the convention is troubling.

If the delegation from the Worcester and Middlesex district was any indication, those of us from the small towns took our responsibility to the party more seriously that Democrats in larger cities. All four of Lancaster's delegates were in attendance; all three of Westminster's delegates were there; all three of us from Sterling showed up (although we weren't perfect either; we had four seats allocated to us and only filled three of them at the caucus). In fact, Bolton seated four delegates even though they are only allocated three seats; because there were no-shows from other towns the Bolton alternate was seated. In contrast, just five of Fitchburg's 25 delegates attended; only one of Clinton's 13 delegates were in the arena, and amazingly, just one of Leominster's 28 delegates bothered to make the trip.

I would estimate that only 40% of the delegates allocated to the district were in attendance Saturday. Frankly, that's embarrassing. Though I don't have numbers from the other 39 districts, since a total of 74% of all of the delegates voted, our district must have been one of the worst attended of all. (Anecdotal evidence suggests that other delegations also had attendance problems. David S. Bernstein at The Phoenix reported that there was a paucity of delegates from Boston as well.)

Certainly some of the delegates who missed the convention had excellent reasons to do so. For instance, Representative Hank Naughton of Clinton was training with his Army Reserve unit. But I suspect that many other absentees missed the convention for less urgent reasons.

The Massachusetts Democratic Party should take steps to ensure that all conventions are well attended, including off-year elections such as this one. To increase participation, I propose two changes. First, the party should only hold conventions in even-numbered years. So called "issues conventions"--those in odd-numbered years--are sparsely attended and expensive. A bi-yearly convention schedule would make the one off-year convention more meaningful by increasing the number of issues to be discussed. It would save the delegates and the party money. The party could look at innovative ways to continue participation in odd-numbered years, such as holding a virtual convention or sponsoring and encouraging events at the district level.

The second change would encourage cities and towns to send delegates who are committed to attend the convention by penalizing those committees that do not fill their delegations. I propose that the party reduce the number of delegates allotted to a city or town by half the number of no-shows at the previous convention (rounded down).

For instance, the Clinton Democratic Town Committee is allotted 12 committee-level delegates (the 13th Clinton delegate is State Representative Naughton). Since 11 of the 12 delegates to the 2008 convention did not attend, the Clinton delegation to the 2010 convention would be reduced by 5 delegates (half of 11 is 5.5, rounded down to 5). Delegates would still be allocated on the basis of the town's turnout to the 2008 election as they are currently, but after the delegates are allocated the delegation would be reduced by the five delegate penalty.

Would that be harsh? Perhaps, but knowing that the delegation would be reduced in future years by no-shows would be a pretty strong incentive for city and town caucuses to elect delegates who will actually attend. If the local committees had been told before the caucuses in February that they would lose delegates to the 2010 convention--where all of the state offices will be up for nomination--if delegates missed Saturday's convention, how many more delegates would have attended? Would Democrats in Leominster send just one out of 24 committee-level delegates (the other four are either elected reps. or state committee members) if it meant losing 11 votes in 2010? No way.

In an effort to keep a set number of delegates in each delegation, cities and towns who field full slates would gain bonus delegates from those committees that are penalized. For instance, as a reward for filing a full slate Bolton, Lancaster, and Westminster would each gain a couple of the delegates Leominster gives back.

However it works out, the state party needs to find a way to make the off-year conventions as well-attended as the convention to nominate the slate of state-wide candidates.


Sunday, June 8, 2008

Dem Convention: Voting my Conscience

In the end, when they called my name to vote for the nomination for senator, I switched my vote to John Kerry. I had planned to vote for challenger Ed O'Reilly because I believe that the 3,500 or so delegates at the convention shouldn't invalidate the will of the 10,000 plus voters who signed the papers to put him on the ballot. I was not going to be part of any effort to keep O'Reilly off. But over the 18 hours leading up to the vote, I had a change of heart.

The doubts began to creep in as the O'Reilly party on Friday night. I arrived at the Doubletree Hotel right exactly at 5:00, the time the party was scheduled to begin. As I walked from the parking garage, I noticed O'Reilly people unloading huge signs from trucks and carrying them into the lobby. At 5:00. As the party was supposed to begin. I figured there was no sense in me heading straight to the event (since they apparently were still setting up) so I hung out in the lobby, checked my phone messages, admired the view of the canal from the patio, looked to see if they had free Internet in the business center (they did not) and then went on up about 20 minutes after 5:00. As I entered, I noticed there were about 40 other delegates mingling, and staffers still affixing signs to the walls. I was struck with the sense that the O'Reilly campaign wasn't particularly well organized. That impression was furthered as the candidate's most high-profile endorser, the Progressive Democrats of America, continued setting up their table, signs, etc. until well after 6:00.

While the lack of organization was a red flag (if you can't organize a reception, how are you going to run a senate office) that didn't leave as negative an impression as the candidate himself. I wanted to meet the candidate, shake his hand, and try to get an idea of what he was about. Of course I wasn't the only one--everyone at the reception who wasn't already a committed supporter was there for the same reason--and I was willing to wait my turn. The problem is that my turn wasn't really my turn. I shook O'Reilly's hand, introduced myself, and someone tapped him on the shoulder. He left to speak with other gentleman before I could even start a conversation. A few moments later, O'Reilly noticed that I was still there, mentioned to the man that had interrupted us that he needed to get back to talk to me, and then was intercepted by another party-goer. After about 15 minutes of talking to this person and that, he finally got back to me. I took away the impression that he was flighty and had a hard time focusing on what I--or anyone else--had to say for even a short moment.

I was able to quickly compare O'Reilly to Senator Kerry as the Senator was heading into the hotel at the same time I was heading out. There were a handful of other people in front of the hotel and Kerry took the opportunity to talk with each one. When he got to me, he shook my hand, we spoke for about a minute, and he posed for a photo. The entire time, other people outside the hotel were trying to get his attention, but he remained focused on me the entire time. Whether he was genuinely interested in what I had to say or whether he had learned to appear interested through years of practice I can't say, but I came away from my encounter with Kerry with a much higher regard for him on a personal level than I did for O'Reilly.

Still, I arrived at the convention with every intention of voting for O'Reilly based on the principle that he deserved a spot, regardless of how bad a candidate he appeared to be. Then O'Reilly gave his speech, and I really had a decision to make. I realize that he was rushing to get his remarks in under 12 minutes, but he was loud, and shrill, and screaming, and angry. He sounded like he'd never given a speech using a microphone before. He didn't modulate his voice or soften his speech, even when speaking about his own background. He spent a good part of his speech ripping Kerry, instead of giving a rationale for his own candidacy.

Following his speech, I was left with a dilemma: On principle, I believe ballot access is a good thing. If I vote on principle, I'd vote for O'Reilly. But I was completely convinced that John Kerry would be a significantly better senator that O'Reilly. If I vote my conscience, I'd vote for Kerry.

I watched the crowds during the nominating speeches, and it appeared that O'Reilly might just have enough support on the floor to get to 15%, but I wasn't sure. When it was time to vote I was helped in my decision by the fact that the votes are called alphabetically by town. Two trends stood out to me: first, all of the top Democrats in our delegation (including Senator Bob Antonioni, Representatives Bob Rice, Hank Naughton, Steve DiNatale, and Jennifer Flanagan, Fitchburg Mayor Lisa Wong, and Register of Deeds Kathy Daignault) were no-shows at the convention. If that trend was applicable among other delegations, then a number of committed Kerry supporters were not in attendance to vote (I'll have more on this in another post). Secondly, nearly all of the attending delegates from Gardner and Fitchburg cast votes for O'Reilly. Doing the math in my head and noting that at there were still O'Reilly voters from Westminster still to vote after Sterling was called, it was clear that O'Reilly would do well above the 15% in our delegation regardless of how I voted. If that were the case across other delegations, then O'Reilly should be safe to hit the 15% threshold.

Taking all of that into consideration I voted my conscience and supported Senator Kerry. In the end, O'Reilly took 23% of the delegates. So I guess I got all of what I wanted. The principle of ballot access was upheld, and I was able to support the best man for the job.


Friday, June 6, 2008

Dem Convention: Party Pics

I drove up to Lowell this evening and attended three of the four convention welcome parties in town. I was going to write up my impressions of the parties, but I'm beat and I have to get up in six hours to head back up to Lowell again tomorrow. So here are some pictures instead.

I ran into Senator Kerry as he was walking into the Doubletree hotel, where many of the delegates were staying and where his opponent, Ed O'Reilly, was holding his welcome event. The senator has a reputation for being a bit aloof, but he was very cordial to me.

Ed O'Reilly was also cordial, but he seems to be flighty. He came up to shake my hand, was interrupted, and didn't get back to me for about 15 minutes. Other candidates I met seem to have developed the knack of blocking out the people around and giving their attention to the speaker. O'Reilly asked if I was supporting him tomorrow and I was frank: I was giving him my vote to try to get him on the ballot, but that I was most likely supporting Kerry in the primary. O'Reilly seemed fine with that. I think he just wants people to give him a shot.

To give you an idea how disorganized the O'Reilly event was, these banners for event co-sponsor "Progressive Democrats of America" were being set up a full hour after the event began.

Apparently, if I want a chance to be elected to higher office, I need to move to Barnstable County. I'd be a shoo-in.

Lt. Governor Tim Murray conducting a radio interview with a reporter from WCAP in Lowell. I was fascinated that they were using an earplug attached to an iPod to listen to the audio while using a cell phone as the microphone.

Once I corralled Mr. Murray, I tried to pitch my commuter rail shuttle proposal and asked him to encourage Governor Patrick not to veto the Wekepeke Dam money if it makes it into the final bill. I was slightly taken aback that Murray didn't know where the Wekepeke was, but I tend to assume that our officials know more about the issues which are important to me than I should.

I closed the night at the host party, where I met Congresswoman Niki Tsongas.


I've been beseeched

A Kerry supporter reached out to me yesterday in an effort to dissuade me from voting for Ed O'Reilly at tomorrow's convention. While Kerry supporters have been calling me once a week or so to get my vote, this time the outreach was a little more forceful. This supporter came across my earlier post and emailed me a passionate response, "beseeching" me to vote for the Senator. One of the implied reasons: A vote for O'Reilly hurts Barack Obama and Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire.
....we can either begin the coordinated campaign in June, and start the hard work of winning these seats immediately, or after the Primary in September, leaving Mass residents to organize themselves for trips northward and paying for their own gas.

I beseech you, if you are planning on voting for us in the Primary and General, please support us at the convention. We have far too much work to do this Summer defeating McCain and the Republicans.
Maybe I'm a little naive about the threat O'Reilly poses, but it doesn't seem to me that the Kerry people are going to have to spend that much time and effort in Massachusetts for him to win the primary. And while I don't have much experience coordinating campaigns, I'd expect that Obama at least will have plenty of volunteers available to be organized and sent to New Hampshire if necessary.

I appreciate the hard work of the Kerry supporters in trying to clear the ballot for the September primary, but my position is based solely in my opposition to the 15% rule and my belief that contested elections and a debate of the issues is a good thing for the people of Massachusetts.


Thursday, June 5, 2008

Area shouldn't have to wait for commuter rail

A couple of months ago, efforts to bring commuter rail service to Clinton were bolstered when Lt. Gov. Tim Murray suggested that opening a rail link between Clinton and Boston should be a priority. It’s a great idea, but it will most likely take a decade or more to implement.

But with the cost of gas spiking, commuters from the Clinton area could use relief a lot sooner than that. We don’t need to wait. The MBTA should add shuttle buses to and from Worcester’s Union Station immediately.

As I envision it, the shuttles would be considered an extension of the rail line. Commuters leaving Clinton would pay a full fare to their final destination (Worcester, Framingham, South Station, etc.) upon boarding the bus and receive free transfer to the train when they arrive at Union Station. The buses leaving Clinton would be timed to coincide with the schedule of trains from Worcester. For instance, a bus from Clinton would leave at 6:15 am to arrive at Union Station in time for the 6:55 train.

Similarly, commuters heading back to Clinton would pay the full fare when they board the outbound train, and transfer to the Clinton shuttle for free.

In a perfect world, the extension of the line to Clinton via Shuttle wouldn’t cost commuters any extra (a Worcester-to-South Station “Zone 8” ticket includes all local subway and bus service once you get to the city, one could argue that it should be the same at the other end of the line) but even a surcharge of $1.00 or so each way would probably still be worth it for most commuters. Round trip to Boston would be around $17.50, but compare that to other options:

Drive to Boston and park downtown: $45.60
Drive to Alewife and take the T: $20.57
Drive to Worcester and take the Commuter Rail: $21.06

Broken out over the course of a year, commuters could save more than $700 over the cheapest option, and save thousands of dollars over driving to the city. Those who want to travel to Boston for events or on weekends would also reap the savings.*

The current rail proposal would link Clinton to Boston via Ayer and the Fitchburg rail line. Once the rail link is established, going through Ayer would make the most sense as it would make for a quicker trip to Boston. But in the interim, I believe a bus link to the commuter rail in Worcester is a better plan since it would also solve the problem created when the Worcester Regional Transit Authority ends its Clinton line in July. While the shuttle service would be primarily an extension of the commuter rail, people who wanted to use buses to go shopping, etc. would still have the option of picking up a WRTA bus and Union Station or making the short walk downtown. If the shuttle went to Ayer, people who wanted to go shopping, etc. would find themselves in Ayer.

(Establishing bus service between Clinton and Worcester for the purpose of shuttling customers between merchants is not the plan—it hasn’t worked for the WRTA—but if it is a collateral benefit, all the better.)

I don’t envision a constant run of buses back and forth between Clinton and Worcester; rather, I propose that there be a couple of round trips each morning and a couple more each evening, perhaps adding one late return to Clinton after the last train on weekends and nights when the Red Sox, Celtics, or Bruins are playing. I propose an express bus from Clinton to Union Station, but perhaps one stop in West Boylston would be appropriate.

Where would Clinton put a bus station? The rail proposal would resurrect the old Clinton Depot, but renovating it would take a lot of time and money and there isn’t a whole lot of commuter parking there. For that matter, there aren’t too may large parcels anywhere in town just dying to have dozens of cars parked all day. The best bet might be for the state to lease or buy the old vacant parking lot at the corner off Sterling and Brook Streets (across from the former Supernant site). There are probably others I’m not thinking of.

In any event, those are all details that can be worked out.

And they should be worked out soon. There is no reason that commuters in Clinton, Sterling, and the other towns between the rail lines should have to wait a decade or more for rail service when bus service could be used to provide public transportation to our communities much sooner.

*To calculate cost, I estimated mileage from the center of Clinton and figured gas prices of $4.00/gallon and an average MPG of 23. Your mileage may vary. Costs of parking, rail fares, and tolls are also included. Costs of rail tickets and parking would likely drop for commuters purchasing monthly passes.


Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Herald shocker: Politician plays politics!

In one of the least stunning, least shocking developments on the political landscape, Senator John Kerry's campaign is trying to round up enough state convention delegates to put him on the primary ballot and keep challenger Ed O'Reilly off. Democratic party rules require candidates to gain the support of 15% of the delegates at Saturday's convention in order to qualify for the ballot, so if Kerry can get 85% plus one, O'Reilly's campaign will end before it begins.

This rule has been around for a long time and there is a floor fight for delegates every time there is a contested election. Most recently, Tom Reilly fought like hell to keep Chris Gabrieli off the gubernatorial ballot in 2006 and was nearly successful, with Gabrieli squeaking by with hardly a vote to spare. It happens all the time.

But leave it to the Boston Herald to find drama and intrigue where there is none:

U.S. Sen. John Kerry - wary of a potential political embarrassment - has been calling in favors to top Bay State Democrats in a bid to block a Gloucester lawyer from getting on the ballot to challenge him, the Herald has learned.

Several high-ranking Democrats said the senator has reached out in recent days seeking support and asking for help in preventing attorney Ed O’Reilly from getting the convention votes he needs to force a September primary race against Kerry....

Insiders say Kerry has drawn the ire of some party officials for backing Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton in the presidential primary race and that some may use Saturday’s convention to exact political payback....

“In a (presidential) primary race as close as this one has been, it would not surprise me to see people take sides and for there to be hard feelings,” said state Sen. Jack Hart. “I know the Kerry campaign is calling around to all the delegates, which they haven’t done in the past, asking for their support.”

If O’Reilly gets on the ballot, he would be Kerry’s first primary opponent since 1984.

The lede suggests that the Senator is "calling in favors to top Bay State Democrats" but the only evidence of that is State Senator Hart's suggestion that Kerry is "calling around to all the delegates." I can vouch for the latter; as a delegate, I have received several calls from Kerry organizers asking for my support. I suppose I should be flattered that the Herald considers me a "top Bay State Democrat." Perhaps I should put that on a business card or something.

Further, reporter Dave Wedge suggests that perhaps Kerry might not get past the 85% threshold because Clinton supporters will be piqued over his support of Obama, a premise which seems to me to be particularly silly.

The reason Kerry's campaign is calling all of us top Bay State Democrats looking for support is because he has an opponent for the first time since 1984. Had Kerry been opposed in 1990 or 1996 or 2002, he would have been canvassing for support before those conventions. It has nothing to do with Hillary Clinton or Kerry fearing embarrassment; it is because Kerry wants as much support at the convention as possible in an effort to run unopposed.

While I support Senator Kerry and will be voting for him in both the primary and the general election, I will be standing for Ed O'Reilly at the convention Saturday. I do not support the party's 15% rule and believe that any candidate who files the necessary 10,000 signatures has demonstrated enough support to qualify for the ballot. We should make it easier to run for office and tear down the barrier that allows top Bay State Democrats to squash a candidacy before it gets off the ground. Elections are good things, and I hope O'Reilly makes it onto the ballot.

Then the voters can decide to squash his candidacy in September.



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