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Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Rooke Fined for Campaign Finance Violations

By Maureen Turner

 

Springfield City Councilor Tim Rooke has been hit with a $5,000 penalty by the state’s campaign finance agency over some questionable uses of his campaign funds.

Last week, the Mass. Office of Campaign and Political Finance announced that the veteran councilor had agreed to pay the fine for a series of violations of state law uncovered by an OCPF audit. The audit was triggered by a complaint filed with the agency.

Among the violations were several rather blatant examples of Rooke’s use of campaign donations to pay for personal expenses, including $1,500 for landscaping at his home; $933 for a three-night stay at a hotel in California, where he’d traveled to attend a wedding; and $300 for a stag party gift. Rooke was also penalized for paying $500 to his teenage son for unspecified campaign work.

The audit also found several bookkeeping problems in Rooke’s campaign account. For example, his committee could not produce receipts for “numerous” expenditures made from the account, including reimbursements made to Rooke and to his wife, attorney Michele Rooke; failed to report certain campaign expenditures in 2011 and 2012; and issued 13 reimbursements of $50 or more—a violation of state law—some of them to the candidate and his wife. In addition, the audit showed that on “multiple occasions” Rooke paid for campaign expenses out of a personal account.

According to the agreement between Rooke and OCPF, the candidate reimbursed his campaign account for the landscaping and hotel bills in January, after the state agency began its investigation. He’s also paid $2,000 of his $5,000 fine, with two more payments of $1,500 each due later this year.

The day that OCPF was due to release its findings , Rooke released a pre-emptive press release to local reporters, informing them of the audit and its results. “As the candidate I am responsible for all activities and I accept full responsibility for our inability to provide 100 [percent] of the needed documents and filing of timely reports,” he said.

Rooke also offered context for some of the more embarrassing violations: the $1,500 landscaping job, he said, was done in preparation for a fundraiser held at his home. The hotel bill “should have been entered as a loan from the campaign to the candidate.” And the $500 payment to his son, he said, was for three years of work, including “put[ting] up and tak[ing] down over 200 lawn signs each election year [and] updat[ing] our computer sign locations, addresses and contact information.”

Perhaps prudently, Rooke did not offer details about the $300 stag-party “donation.”

Rooke also suggested that some of his committee’s missteps could be traced to the illness and subsequent death, last December, of his campaign manager and treasurer Mike Rodgers, a former School Committee member. “Many receipts and reports were misplaced or lost due to his mental and physical condition,” Rooke wrote. “Notwithstanding this fact, I accept full responsibility as stated above.”

Rooke also gamely offered praise of the OCPF auditors, who, he wrote, “were always professional, very fair and understanding of our circumstances.” It remains to be seen how understanding Springfield voters will be come the November election.•

 

Amherst Residents Oppose Student Housing Development in Historic Cushman

By Pete Redington

 

Residents in North Amherst and other concerned citizens recently formed the group Save Historic Cushman to oppose the neighborhood student housing development project proposed by the Athens, Ga.-based real estate firm Landmark Properties.

“We are concerned about [a] proposed new development that would decimate our neighborhood’s unique pattern and character,” the group’s website SaveHistoricCushman.com reads. “The parcel in question is part of the largest contiguous forest land in Amherst and home to our world-famous salamander population. It is identified in Amherst’s Master Plan as a priority parcel for conservation.”

“Basically our neighborhood is not protected by zoning bylaws,” Save Historic Cushman’s president Jack Hirsch tells the Advocate. “[Fortunately] the land has been proposed to be acquired in the [2009] Open Space and Recreation Plan,” Hirsh continues, “[though the proposal was] never acted on due to it being lower priority.”

Landmark Properties owns or operates 23 student housing developments at colleges ranging from Florida State University in Tallahassee to the University of Arizona in Tucson to Penn State University in State College, Penn., according to its website. Over half its “community” properties are located at the University of Georgia, in Athens.

“Housing for college students,” reports The Wall Street Journal, “long dominated by small players willing to put up with beer pong and raucous parties, is attracting some of the biggest names in real-estate development.

“The moves are designed to help the companies better weather the next economic recession by diversifying into areas considered less sensitive to downturns. During the real-estate crash, as prices of single-family homes declined and apartment landlords reduced rent, many student-housing landlords continued to raise rent, thanks to the generosity of parents and student loan programs.”

The village of Cushman is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The parcel of land being sold is controlled by longtime local lumber company W.D. Cowls, Inc., which has been family owned since 1741.•

 

Daily Collegian: No “Fresh Print” on Friday Morning

By Stephanie Kraft

 

The latest casualty of the financial bite in the newspaper world is the Friday edition of UMass’ Daily Collegian. Low ad revenues on Friday, together with a debt to the Student Government Association and the cost of printing, were responsible for the decision to stop publishing on Friday, according to Collegian editor-in-chief Katie Landeck.

Landeck, who graduated from Minnechaug Regional High School, entered UMass because of “the promise of fresh print in the morning and the opportunity to work for a daily,” she wrote in a statement about the decision to shut down the Friday edition. She is also an intern at public radio station WNCR and a free-lance writer.

Landeck’s statement exuded both commitment to the paper and regret that it will no longer be a true “daily.” “The belief seems to be that newspapers are too expensive to print and that more people read news on the Web these days,” she wrote. “But society can’t afford for newspapers to stop printing. Newspapers sort and prioritize information in a way the Internet currently doesn’t. And beacons of new media like The Huffington Post give readers what they want, not what they need.

It’s a dangerous path, but one newspapers will continue to go down until readers and advertisers begin to support the industry again.”•

 

Who Wants To Be a Newspaper Reporter?

In a recent survey conducted by CareerCast.com, newspaper reporter was voted worst job for 2013, barely edging out lumberjack and enlisted military personnel for the dubious honor.

“CareerCast.com cited ‘ever-shrinking newsrooms, dwindling budgets and competition from Internet businesses’ among the factors making newspaper journalism jobs the nation’s worst,” reports Slate.com. “The report adds, ‘Newspaper reporters have fared poorly in the Jobs Rated report for years due to the job’s high stress and tight deadlines, low pay, and requirement to work in all conditions to get the story.’ The estimated revenue for the industry as a whole has dropped by half since 2006 and is still falling.”

But according to John Nichols and Robert McChesney, co-founders of the Florence-based organization Free Press, there may be more to the story than dwindling revenue. Tracking 13 major broadcast and newspaper newsrooms since 1970, they found that median CEO salary far outpaced that of editors and reporters during that time.

“Had median CEO salaries risen from 1976 to 2006 at the same rate as the average salary of reporters and editors increased over those three decades,” Nichols and McChesney write in The Death and Life of American Journalism, “the median CEO would have enjoyed a salary of $780,000 in 2006.” Instead, major newsroom CEO salaries that year averaged $11.4 million, growing to $15.5 million in 2009.• —PR

 

Actually, Austerity Doesn’t Add Up

Looking for a nine-letter word to sum up the beleaguered state of our current economic woes? Try austerity.

The theory that public spending must be cut in order to reduce debt and therefore create economic growth was made more popular with the publication of an influential 2010 study written by Harvard economists Kenneth Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart, Growth in a Time of Debt. The study has since been used by several political leaders, including House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, to support fiscally conservative austerity measures.

The only problem is that the report is incorrect, say University of Massachusetts–Amherst doctoral candidate Thomas Herndon, and economic professors Michael Ash and Robert Pollin, who authored their own study, Does High Public Debt Consistently Stifle Economic Growth? A Critique of Reinhart and Rogoff, which was published last month.

In a recent interview with Stephen Colbert, Herndon notes that he looked at Rogoff and Reinhart’s report for his term paper in order to learn the techniques one might use when conducting such an economic study, and was surprised to discover their findings didn’t add up.

“I tried to build the data myself from all the publicly available sources,” Herndon told Colbert, “but I just couldn’t replicate their negative average.”

“We found that these results were based on data errors and unsupportable statistical techniques,” Pollin and Ash, of UMass’ Political Economy Research Institute, write in the Financial Times.

“We are not suggesting that governments should borrow and spend profligately,” the UMass professors continue. “But judicious deficit spending remains the single most effective tool we have to fight against mass unemployment caused by severe recessions. Recent research by Prof Reinhart and Prof Rogoff, along with all related arguments by austerity proponents, does nothing to contradict this fundamental point.”• —PR

 

Phantom Tollbooths Come Back to Life

Massachusetts Turnpike tolls have a zombie-like capability of reanimating themselves after death. The Turnpike was built with a provision that tolls would disappear once the road paid for itself, but those who wrote the early law had no idea what a self-perpetuating institution the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority would become.

Nevertheless, for 15 years residents in the western counties have paid no toll as they traveled between West Stockbridge and I-291 in Springfield, partly because state politicians wanted to quell the ire of those living along the Connecticut River and west about helping pay for the costly Central Artery Project in Boston, familiarly known as the Big Dig. Now, however, the state Senate has passed a bill that would bring back those tolls. The tollbooths, incidentally, were never taken down.

Officials with the state Department of Transportation say the state would realize $12 million a year from the tolls, and that the money would be used exclusively for road and transportation projects in the four western counties.

Rep. Sean Curran (D-Springfield) opposes the plan. Sen. Mike Knapik and Rep. Donald Humason, both Republicans from Westfield, support the plan in principle; an important condition for Knapik is that the new tolls must be used for tranportation projects in the western region.• —SK

 

Cow Power: Making the Lights Come On

If your electricity comes from Brattleboro-based Green Mountain Power, as of this spring you have an environmentally smart opportunity to sign up for electricity produced by cows. The power comes from cow manure, to be precise—manure turned to methane in anaerobic digesters and used to fuel a natural gas engine that runs an electric generator. The energy from the generator is channeled into the GMP system and can be distributed to ratepayers in GMP’s service area who request it.

A secondary benefit of the Cow Power program is that it takes methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, out of the atmosphere. And it helps support Vermont farmers, rather than sending ratepayers’ money to a merchant power company located out of state or even out of the country. Cow Power has about a dozen farm partners and several thousand customers, including business and institutional customers such as Killington Resort, Middlebury College, Green Mountain College and the Equinox Resort.

Until April 25, Cow Power was only available to GMP customers who had been customers of Central Vermont Public Service before the two utilities merged last summer. Now Cow Power is an option for all GMP customers. To enroll, call 1-888-835-4672 or visit http://www.greenmountainpower.com/renewable/cow/enroll/.• —SK

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