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Casino Projects Now One-for-Two, With One Vote to Go; Westfield State Spending Spree; Reading, Writing and Reciting the Pledge; Perugia Press: Coping With Success

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Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Casino Projects Now One-for-Two, With One Vote to Go

West Springfield voters offered up an important reminder last week: in that famously mismatched battle, it was David who defeated Goliath.

In this case, the Goliath was Hard Rock, the giant casino company that hoped to open an $800 million resort on the grounds of the Big E. But on Sept. 10, residents, by a vote of 55 to 45 percent, rejected the host community agreement negotiated between the company and town officials. Without that local approval, the proposal cannot advance in the competition for the sole casino license that will be awarded in western Mass.

The agreement, which Mayor Gregory Neffinger signed back in July, promised $18 million in annual payments to the town, plus an upfront payment of about $41 million, the bulk of it to be used for road improvements. But that wasn’t enough to win over skeptical opponents, who sounded the same concerns expressed by casino opponents around the country: that the project would hurt existing businesses, increase crime, and lead to a host of social ills, including higher rates of bankruptcy, suicide, gambling addiction and domestic violence.

In its campaign literature, No Casino West Springfield, the grassroots opposition group, also argued its case from a social justice angle, noting that the biggest losers at casinos are “disproportionately … people with low incomes, less educated, racial minorities, the elderly, the formerly incarcerated, returning veterans and those with a wide range of emotional and behavioral problems, the very people government is supposed to protect and to help.

“Gambling revenues are relentlessly regressive and a de facto tax on the poor,” the group said.

No Casino West Springfield’s victory was even more impressive given how dramatically the group was outspent by Hard Rock: according to initial campaign finance reports, which don’t include the week leading up to the vote, the casino company spent close to $1 million getting out its message, while the opposition group spent just shy of $1,800.

In July, Springfield voters approved a plan by MGM to build a casino in the South End. That leaves one more local community to vote on a casino proposal: Palmer, which will weigh in on that town’s agreement with Mohegan Sun on Nov. 5. The state Gaming Commission is expected to award the casino licenses next spring.•

 

Westfield State Spending Spree

In a time when the struggle to pay for higher education is one of the most pressing issues affecting students and their families, reports of extravagance on the parts of university presidents appear against a stern backdrop. An auditing firm hired by Westfield State University has detailed excessive travel expenditures by University president Evan Dobelle between 2008 and 2011; spending was reduced, the auditors found, after the university imposed restrictions on travel in 2012.

Earlier, Dobelle and other WSU officials charged expenses stemming from trips to London, Vienna, Spain, Vietnam, China and Thailand on university credit cards. Dobelle, quoted in the Springfield Republican, told the school’s board of trustees that fundraising and other activities involved in changing Westfield’s status from college to university required “substantial investment of time and financial resources and cultivation of support.”

But that hardly explains $20,069 spent for staff and students to attend President Obama’s 2008 inaugural, including $7,500 for a buffet breakfast; $12,000 in bills from a hotel in Bangkok; a $10,000 tab for a six-day stay in San Francisco for Dobelle and two WSU administrators; hotel bills exceeding $500 a night, and more. Because WSU is a public university, the Massachusetts Attorney General and Inspector General are also reviewing Dobelle’s expenditures.

Though WSU’s board of trustees ordered the audit last October, some trustees have praised Dobelle as a “visionary” and said criticism of his spending has been unfair. But one alumnus has cancelled a pledge of $100,000, calling Dobelle’s financial practices “imprudent.”

 

Reading, Writing and Reciting the Pledge

As kids around Massachusetts settle into the new school year, the Supreme Judicial Court is considering a case that challenges the constitutionality of the daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance—specifically, its reference to “one nation, under God”—in public schools.

The case began with a 2010 lawsuit filed by an anonymous family against the Acton-Boxborough Regional School District. The family, who are atheist, argued that the pledge discriminates against their three children and other non-believers by equating patriotism with belief in God.

The family brought the case to the SJC on appeal after a lower court ruled against them last year. That ruling turned, in part, on the fact that state law requires public school teachers to lead their classes in a daily recitation of the pledge but does not require that students participate.

“The Pledge is a voluntary patriotic exercise, and the inclusion of the phrase ‘under God’ does not convert the exercise into a prayer,” Middlesex Superior Judge S. Jane Haggerty wrote in her ruling. The case, she noted, touched on a “familiar dilemma in our pluralistic society—how to balance conflicting interests when one group wants to do something for patriotic reasons that another group finds offensive to its religious (or atheistic) beliefs.”

At the SJC hearing earlier this month, an attorney for the Acton-Boxborough school system argued that because reciting the pledge is voluntary, the plaintiffs’ children and others who share their beliefs are not compelled to take part, or can choose to omit the reference to God. But attorney David Niose of the American Humanist Association, who is representing the family, dismissed that argument, telling the SJC, “ The exercise itself still discriminates. It defines patriotism a certain way.”

The school district’s position is supported by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a Washington. D.C.-based nonprofit that represents an Acton family who support the pledge, as well as the local Knights of Columbus. A Becket attorney told the SJC that the pledge expresses a “political philosophy”—one that emphasizes the limits of governmental power—rather than a religious one. The Becket Fund has described the plaintiffs in the Acton suit and their attorneys as “atheist advocates” and warned, “If they have it their way, Massachusetts will only allow patriotic ceremonies if they do not refer to God.”

It could be months before the SJC releases a ruling in the case.

The original Pledge of Allegiance was written in the late 19th century by Francis Bellamy, a Baptist minister and socialist who hoped to revive the post-Civil War nation’s moribund sense of patriotism by having schoolchildren recite a daily pledge to flag and country. It was adopted by Congress in 1942, although the reference to God wasn’t added until 1954, at the height of the anti-Communist “Red Scare” in the U.S.

Over the years, that addition has sparked numerous legal challenges, with several courts ruling in recent years that the pledge is not discriminatory when students are not required to take part in its recitation. In 2010, the federal appeals court in Boston ruled against a New Hampshire family who objected to the mention of God in the pledge. The plaintiffs appealed the case to the Supreme Court, which declined to review it.

Vermont is one of only five states in the country, and the only one in the Northeast, that doesn’t require public schools to set aside time for recitation of the pledge.• —MT

 

Local Swimmer: Media Missed the Boat on Nyad’s Swim

In the wake of Diana Nyad’s historic swim from Cuba to Florida, long-distance swimming has enjoyed an unusual amount of media attention. Not all the focus on the endurance sport, however, has been celebratory.

Earlier this month, the 64-year-old Nyad became the first person (male or female) to successfully swim from Havana to Key West without a shark cage. Her fifth attempt at the 110-mile route took her just under 53 hours. She first attempted the crossing back in 1978, when she was 28 years old.

Soon after her swim, however, questions regarding the validity of her accomplishment began to rise to the surface from the community of athletes who knew the most about her feat: open-water swimmers themselves.

“We’re not necessarily judging,” local Valley marathon swimmer Sydne Didier told the Advocate. “We just want clarification.”

Didier, an Amherst resident, teaches swimming while training for races in such locations as Lake Memphremagog, on the Quebec border of Vermont, and the Jersey Shore, where this past weekend she attempted a 15-mile race, her longest yet. She says the media has misunderstood the swim community’s questioning of Nyad’s Florida to Cuba crossing.

“There’s not a ton of us, so there tends to be a lot of support within the open-water community,” Didier says. “People want to know how to replicate her swim, what her game plan and feeding strategy were. Sharing information is a type of support, and [Nyad] has not done that.”

“Open-water marathon swimming was born in August 1875, when British shipping captain Matthew Webb plunged into the English Channel at Dover and started breaststroking eastward,” notes National Geographic. “He pawed through thickets of jellyfish and swirling currents, and after 21 hours and 45 minutes, he landed at Calais, France. He accomplished what many had thought impossible, becoming the first man to power himself unaided across the busy shipping lane.”

Since then, “English Channel Rules” have stipulated what is and is not allowed in regard to wetsuits, swim caps and assistance with buoyancy.

That Nyad provide “full disclosure” of her swim, Didier says, is especially important to an athletic community that is constantly pushing the limits regarding “what kind of endurance is possible.”•

 

Valley Progressives Gather to Fete Arky Markham

Is the secret to longevity a life of political activism?

Local evidence certainly suggests so; the Valley is rich with dedicated activists of a certain vintage, from Springfield’s Ruth Loving, a long-time civil rights leader, and peace activist France Crow of Northampton—both nonagenarians—to the hat-wearing, protest-song-singing Raging Grannies.

This week, another of the Valley’s senior activists, Rose “Arky” Markham, will be honored for her lifetime of work at a party that comes a few months after her 98th birthday.

In a recent profile, Springfield Republican writer Fred Contrada described Markham as a “peacenik in a small but formidable battalion of Pioneer Valley peaceniks who take on much larger armies without blinking.”

The Sept. 21 party is a fundraiser for the Markham Nathan Fund for Social Justice, which was founded by Markham and her friend, Marty Nathan, in honor of their late husbands, both of them also lifelong activists. The fund supports progressive grassroots groups around the Valley; recent grant recipients include Arise for Social Justice, Jobs With Justice, Just Communities of Western Mass, Out Now!, the Prison Birth Project and Springfield No One Leaves/Nadie Se Mude.

The party’s guest list reads like a Who’s Who of Valley politics and activism: former Northampton Mayor Clare Higgins will emcee, while state Rep. Peter Kocot, City Council President Bill Dwight, Crowe, Jo Comerford of the National Priorities Project, Tim Carpenter of Progressive Democrats of America and others will speak about Markham’s work and legacy. There will also be music and refreshments.

Two days before the party, the Northampton City Council will vote on a proclamation honoring Markham.

“Celebrating Arky Markham: A Life of Joy and Social Justice” will be held on Saturday, Sept. 21, from 4:30 to 7 p.m. at the Smith College Conference Center in Northampton. The event is open to the public and the space is handicapped accessible. For more details, go to www.markhamnathanfund.org.• —MT

 

Perugia Press: Coping With Success

Perugia Press of Florence is not exactly your usual publishing company, even allowing for the fact that nowadays that “usual” publishing company is getting harder to find. Perugia publishes poetry—one collection a year—and only poetry by women. And only poetry by women “at the beginning of their publishing careers,” meaning a first book, or maybe a second.

Perugia’s founder, Susan Kan, is outspoken about the fact that the press has an aim: to help increase the numbers of poetry awards won by women. Its mission statement cites statistics such as these: Pulitzer Prize for Poetry: 73 percent male winners, 27 percent female winners; Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award: 70 percent male winners, 30 percent female winners; Poets Laureate of the United States: 75 percent men, 25 percent women. “Some people believe the reason for such discrepancies... is that men are simply writing better books than women,” says Perugia’s website. “At Perugia Press, we are convinced otherwise and are doing our part to tip the scales into balance.”

So it’s particularly gratifying for Perugia and for Kan that one of the press’ publications, The Wishing Tomb by Amanda Auchter (2012), has won the 2013 PEN Center USA Award for poetry (PEN Center USA is a branch of the elite International PEN). The Wishing Tomb is a book about New Orleans and the “grit, the rampant spice, the twang, the mystery, the brick, the swelter, and the insistent hallelujah of the Crescent City,” in the words of one reviewer.

But victory has brought the press a problem on a new level: the PEN Center wants 500 copies each of all this year’s award-winning publications to give its supporters, and Perugia can’t afford to donate to the donors. So Perugia is seeking, from anyone who would like to help out, contributions to pay for the 500 copies; information is available at http://ymlp.com/zRZDQF]. Meanwhile, Perugia is now open for submissions for 2014; the poet whose manuscript is selected will get $1,000 and have her manuscript published.• —SK

 

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