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Halos and Horns

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Tuesday, December 24, 2013
J. Scott Applewhite |
Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick addresses the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., on Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2012. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Horn: Let’s send ex-Westfield State University president Evan Dobelle to a warm place—and this time it won’t be Hawaii, where he went down in flames in 2004 just as he did this year at WSU, clutching a fat wad of cash as he exited both places. Now he’s under investigation by the state of Massachusetts for inappropriate spending of some $200,000 in university funds on a poorly documented mix of travel and what appear to have been personal indulgences.

Though Dobelle claimed that his expenditures helped to gain recognition and support for the school, figures show that WSU’s growth in endowment lagged behind that of the other state colleges during his tenure. Meanwhile, in an action that will create still more expense for WSU, he filed suit against the school after resigning, just as he did against the University of Hawaii.

Dobelle had grand visions, but because of his failure to adjust to financial realities and be satisfied with measured progress, in the end he failed the students he wanted to serve and created inexcusable financial hardship for two taxpayer-supported universities. He lacked the capacity, it seems, for the internal soundings that should lead a distinguished educator to distinguish between vision and egotism.

 

Halo: Sometimes we find ourselves thinking of Reminder managing editor Mike Dobbs as the most underappreciated member of the Valley’s Fourth Estate—then we remember that all the smart people we know appreciate the hell out of Dobbs. This year, we especially appreciate his thorough, honest reporting on the casino issue, a stark contrast to the starry-eyed coverage found in so much of the local media.

 

Horn: And speaking of which … horns to the Springfield Republican for insisting its coverage of the city’s casino competition was in no way compromised by the fact that it had a financial stake in the issue (if Penn National had won a license for its proposed North End casino, it would have bought the Republican’s building and moved the paper to fancy new digs downtown). The paper’s ethically untenable position served neither its readers nor its honest and hardworking reporters.

 

Horn: Horns, too, to Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno for balancing the city’s budget with funds from MGM and warning residents (just weeks before they were to vote on MGM’s proposal) that without that money, they’d see City Hall layoffs and cuts to services—a move that went beyond cheerleading and felt a lot more like coercion.

 

HalO: Above the rings of the Congressional Inferno stands Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), perennially exposing the ambient lying that goes on on the Hill, perenially remembering the needs of working people. This year Bernie has done it again: attacked basic problems with statements and legislation that aren’t warped by ideology or opportunism. Most recently he’s filed a bill that would break up the Too Big to Fail banks, something everyone in Congress knows needs to be done but few besides Sanders have the nerve to do.

 

Horn: If you’ve had your SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program) allotment cut and are wondering if you can eke out a month’s meals by turning off your heat, spend some time this holiday season thinking what a warm winter it would be for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor if the flames of hell were licking at his windows in the Cannon House Office Building. During a year when there were three times as many people looking for work as there were job openings, Cantor was the architect of a plan to cut SNAP by $40 billion over the next 10 years. Besides throwing nearly 4 million people off the SNAP rolls in 2014, his plan would eliminate eligibility waivers previously used by states with pockets of sustained high unemployment.

And while you’re at it, use a little of the underworld’s heat to roast Bret Baier and his late-summer Fox News “investigation,” “The Great Food Stamp Binge,” that attacked the integrity of the SNAP program. Papering over a world of need with an unrepresentative anecdote about a California surfer buying lobster with his SNAP card, Maier turned the snark knife with his rhetorical question about SNAP recipients: “Shouldn’t there be at least some stigma?”

 

Halo: A halo to the Valley’s newest Congressman, Jim McGovern, for his strong leadership on crucial issues like ending the corrupting influence of corporate money on the political system and fighting to preserve the SNAP program and end hunger (in the latter case, literally walking the talk by joining WRSI’s Monte Belmonte on his annual 26-mile fundraising walk for the Food Bank of Western Mass.).

 

Horn: Obamacare sucks. But Barack Obama get his horns for a sin much worse than botching health care reform at even the most basic bureaucratic level: Obama is guilty of promising us that he was a man capable of staying true to his own words: “But let me be clear—this isn’t just about ending the failed policies of the Bush years; it’s about ending the failed system in Washington that produces those policies. For far too long, through both Democratic and Republican administrations, Washington has allowed Wall Street to use lobbyists and campaign contributions to rig the system and get its way, no matter what it costs ordinary Americans.”

 

Horn: Hell began for applicants for unemployment benefits in Massachusetts last July, when the Department of Unemployment Assistance launched a new online disbursement program. It was pandemonium at the unemployment offices, with people unable to complete applications and some receiving demands to return supposed overpayments that they had actually never received. It turned out the program had been installed by a company the state Department of Revenue fired a year earlier because the system they got couldn’t even compute interest.

Then there was the clincher: DUA clients who made a mistake on their electronic applications saw the applications thrown into a review pool with a waiting time of two months. This is the eternity we would wish on the decisionmakers at the DUA: aeons in a plastic chair in front of a machine that tosses you into the eight-week pool again every eight weeks. A machine that thinks you’re a fraud before you even start the process. A machine that unleashes a fresh squad of demons on a human being who’s already in hell trying to feed the kids and pay the mortgage without a job.

 

Horn: Suppose a nuclear reactor is melting down and you’re the technician who has to decide when to vent radioactive gases from the structure. Suppose your vents have no radiation filters, so your only choice is between not venting—and letting heat and pressure build up in your containment—or venting and spraying radiation all over nearby towns.

The smoke of Hades must be blurring the vision of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which last March declined to follow a recommendation by its own chair and other members that filters be put on the ventilators at nuclear power plant of the Mark I type—the kind of design that the Fukushima plant had, and that the Vermont Yankee plant near Brattleboro, the Pilgrim plant in Plymouth and 21 other American nukes have. As Paul Gunter, director of Beyond Nuclear’s Reactor Oversight Project, said, “This is a Fukushima lesson unlearned.”

 

Halo: Let choirs of angels sing the praises of an outfit that offers an investing alternative to Wall Street. It’s the Cooperative Fund of New England, which invests in several businesses in the Valley and many more in Vermont, New Hampshire and Connecticut. In operation for 37 years, CFNE has never lost money for anyone, and its rates of return usually beat those on bank CDs by 300 percent or more. Since 2008, as conventional funds lost money, CFNE’s assets have grown at around 20 percent per year. CFNE is one of a group of funds across the country known as CDFIs (Community Development Financial Institutions) that create a landscape of alternative investment with results you can see in your own community.

 

Horn: A big horn to the Springfield Redevelopment Authority for glacial slowness with the Union Station project and a website that insults the intelligence of the public. To quote the Web page: “During the month of May the construction site fencing has been installed along Frank B. Murray Street. Installation of this site fence marked the first major construction milestone of the project.”

Installation of a block of fencing a “construction milestone”? Give us a break. Twenty-four million dollars in government earmarks have lapsed because of delays with this project. Other towns are courting improved mass transit; Greenfield went to work and got its intermodal transit center built partly in anticipation of the return of “Knowledge Corridor” train service. And we’re told that the big-bang start in Springfield is putting up a fence?

 

Halo: While establishment Democrats and Republicans battle endlessly over the far-from-perfect Affordable Care Act, Progressive Democrats of America has kept up the call for a truly universal and affordable option, Medicare for All. A halo to the true believers of PDA, especially its indefatigable national director (and Florence resident), Tim Carpenter.

 

Halo: A collective halo and a gold-plated slingshot to all the Davids who’ve taken on the casino Goliaths this year, including the grassroots anti-casino campaigns in Springfield, West Springfield and Palmer, plus Monson’s Kathleen Conley Norbut, a long-time activist and leader in the effort to repeal the state’s casino law.

 

Halo: What are the odds of the Valley’s being home to not just one but two well-regarded and influential criminal justice reform groups? (Actually, pretty good, when you think about it.)

A halo to Easthampton’s Prison Policy Initiative for informed research that helps shape justice policy on the national level; this year, that included exposing inequities in the prison phone system (and the big money to be made there) and leading the fight across the country to end prison-based gerrymandering in the electoral system.

And a halo to Northampton’s Real Cost of Prisons Project (essentially, the one-woman band/powerhouse that is founder Lois Ahrens), whose work this year included organizing protests of a new state policy that would subject prison visitors to drug-sniffing dogs, and fighting the expansion of the women’s jail in Chicopee, while continuing to distribute its innovative comic book series on prison and drug policy.

 

Horn: Sometimes they make it so easy… Horns, of course, to Holyoke City Councilors Dan Bresnahan and Todd McGee for the sexist, potty-mouthed, Red-baiting and generally numskulled comments they were caught on tape making before an October Council meeting.

 

Horn: A set of his-and-hers horns to blushing newlyweds and convicted election fraudsters Jack Villamaino and Courtney Llewellyn, the grasping, modern-day Bonnie and Clyde who used their public positions (his as an East Longmeadow selectmen; hers as a town employee) to tamper with voter registrations and absentee ballots in an effort to help Villamaino win the Republican primary for the 2nd Hampden state rep seat. Adding to the gross factor: prosecutors asserted that Villamaino married the inexplicably besotted Llewellyn not out of true love but rather to keep her from ratting him out in court.

 

Halo: Let’s dress Amherst Building Commissioner Robert Morra and the Amherst town government in white robes for implementing a policy requiring all rental units in town to be registered and meet building codes, including fire codes. In a rental market heated up by the presence of thousands of students, the condition of tenant-occupied units had been going down even as their prices were going up until Amherst officials stepped up to the plate with the “Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods Project.” Now the town will have leverage to demand that units be kept up to code, reducing the danger of fires, falls and failed plumbing and heating, and to hold absentee landlords responsible for oversight of their properties. Through the years, a few students have died in fires in rental housing, and the town doesn’t want it to happen again; as Morra told the Advocate when the program went into effect, “Fire escapes are very, very concerning to me.”

 

Horn: Northampton High School officials deserve two sets of horns for having students sign an anti-violence pledge in January that turned out, in fact, to be a ruse to secretly collect their handwriting samples after a anonymous threat was found in a school bathroom. The first is for using shady, dishonest tactics to collect potential evidence; the second is for thinking it was OK to coerce schoolkids into signing any sort of “pledge.”

 

Horn: Horns to Hampden District Attorney Mark Mastroianni for declining to pursue criminal charges against Northampton Police Captain Scott Savino and NPD civilian employee Maryann Keating after it was discovered that the former signed off on paperwork that allowed the latter to collect about $18,000 in pay for hours she did not work. Instead, the two reached a deal that allowed them to resign, with Keating making financial restitution to the city but securing an agreement that city officials would not mention the case to potential future employers. Savino, meanwhile, walks away with $29,000 in unused sick-time pay plus eligibility for his public pension. One more time, folks: you can’t hold cops (or police department employees, for that matter) to lower standards and then expect the public to have faith in the justice system.

 

Horn: And on that subject: Need we say anything more about the horn-deserving callousness of the Chicopee cops who took cell phone photos of murder victim Amanda Plasse and then shared them with their buddies? Shame, too, on outgoing Mayor Michael Bissonnette for the cagey and politicized way he handled the whole fiasco.

 

Horn: In the race to turn our kids into drooling little zombies whose worlds are mediated entirely through screens, toymakers Fisher-Price and CTA Digital pulled into the lead this year. Horns to Fisher-Price for its “iPad Apptivity Seat,” which lets parents park their newborns before apps (get this) “created with child development experts,” and to CTA for its “iPotty,” which allows toddlers to do the same while—that’s right—doing their business (a product so egregious that it won the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood’s poll for the worst toy of 2013).

 

Horn: While much of the coverage of Easthampton cyclist Eli Damon’s conflict with the Hadley Police Department has focused on traffic laws—Damon had battled with the cops over whether he had a legal right to travel in the middle of a lane on crowded Route 9—we think the HPD deserves horns for violating Damon’s civil rights by confiscating, without justification, a video camera he was using to record his interactions with the police.

 

Horn: Not all of us were persuaded back in 2006 when supporters of then-gubernatorial candidate Deval Patrick insisted he was a progressive; “former general counsel for Coca Cola” hardly screams “progressive.” And Patrick promptly lived up to our doubts by, among other things, aggressively pushing for casinos in the commonwealth (although blame must surely be shared with all the Democratic “leaders” and sycophants who leaped to do the governor’s bidding). Adding insult to injury: the horn-winning Patrick’s admission this fall to WGBH that he’d just as soon not have a casino near his plush vacation spread out in the Berkshires. The 2014 elections can’t come fast enough.

 

Halo: So far, Elizabeth Warren appears to be the rarest of breeds: a politician who’s still interested in serving the people who elected her after they’ve elected her.•

 

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