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Bugged Station Leads to Lawsuits; Newt Gingrich Live at Amherst College; Lower Tax, More Jobs: Tried, Not True; Congress Renews Ban on Metal Detector-Proof Guns

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Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Bugged Station Leads to Lawsuits

When the new UMass-Amherst police station opened in April, 2011, then-chief Johnny Whitehead announced that the $12.5-million facility “provides our department with all of the tools that a highly professional police force needs.”

According to suits filed by 18 UMass police officers working out of the new station, the building also had something the force didn’t need: a video-audio system set to record conversations not only in the booking room and interrogation areas—where signs warned that the system was active—but even in conference rooms and parts of the building only used by police and support staff.

Including the restrooms.

Officers say that they learned nearly a year after the station opened that their personal conversations were being recorded without their knowledge, and that anyone with access to the computer system could listen to them. Last year one officer, Mark Shlosser, sued Whitehead and two other high-ranking officers—and the president and trustees of UMass—in Hampshire County Superior Court for violating his civil rights.

Shlosser’s complaint pointed out, among other things, that the recording of private conversations in parts of the building not directly used for law enforcement violated the Massachusetts statute relating to wiretaps.

One of the defendants, Deputy UMass Police Chief Patrick T. Archbald, told the court that police administrators didn’t know the cameras had an audio component that was active throughout the building. But Thomas Kenefick, the attorney representing the officers who are suing, told the Advocate that claim is “implausible. When the equipment was ordered, you could see on the schematics the audio feeds.”

Now 17 other UMass police officers have filed suits similar to Shlosser’s. The court has refused to grant the 18 plaintiffs status to pursue a class action suit, but the suits are going forward separately. After the first was filed last year, the court issued an injunction that forced a shutdown of the audio system.

Does it really take suits by 18 people to correct the problem, the Advocate asked Kenefick, or are some of the suits opportunistic? Kenefick insists that there is “no opportunistic reason. These men and women who are now filing suit were with Mark right from the beginning.” The officers felt that it was unacceptable to be working in a situation in which they were sworn to uphold the law even as an illegal condition existed in the workplace itself, Kenefick said.•

 

Newt Gingrich Live at Amherst College

 

Former Speaker of the House and Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich spoke at Amherst College on December 11th, touching on the possibilities for America that would come with embracing developing technologies and moving past the partisan divide in the country’s politics.

In front of an audience that filled Johnson Chapel, he discussed a number of subjects, including smartphones, 3D printing, self-driving cars and opportunities for computerized learning, including online college classes and websites like Khan Academy, which offers a series of educational videos on a variety of topics.

“We have it in our hands to break through in ways that are unbelievable,” said Gingrich. “We are at the edge of a new frontier as exciting as any in American history.”

Gingrich, who spoke at the behest of the Amherst College Republicans, an on-campus group, also called on the audience to “fundamentally re-think this 130-year-old model [of American politics],” saying that he does not believe that the problems in our society can be solved “within the left-right divide.”

Often in his remarks, as well as during a question-and-answer session with the audience, he criticized the political status quo, saying, for example, that the recent budget agreement reached between senators Paul Ryan and Patty Murray “verges on pathos,” as it’s carefully constructed not to raise taxes, but does increase a number of fees paid by American taxpayers.

He also stated that the American prison system should be reformed so as to increase educational opportunities and differentiate between violent and nonviolent offenders, and called for a national debate on America’s role in the larger world.

After his public remarks, while speaking with the Advocate, Gingrich continued to reflect. He noted that intellectual drive is “not the dominant spirit” for House and Senate Republicans, called some of his party’s recent intransigent behavior “just silly,” and said that the GOP’s current strength is in its governors.

Ultimately, though, “It’s not about right or left... it’s about the nature of civilization,” Gingrich said. “Do we want to move forward to a dramatically better future, or stay trapped in a system that’s not working?”•

 

College Presidents: Triple Digits and Rising

 

The time has come around for a tally of college presidents’ salaries by the Chronicle of Higher Education; figures are from 2011. The rankings of presidential compensation at private colleges are sometimes counterintuitive because the most prestigious schools don’t necessarily pay the most.

But if you’re not making upwards of a quarter of a million dollars a year, you’re only a modestly paid college president these days, though your institution may be hiring armies of poorly paid adjuncts and your students are getting deeper and deeper into debt. The median total compensation package for presidents of private colleges was $410,523.

The Chronicle ranks presidents by total compensation, but here they are listed in descending order of base pay, because total compensation in a given year may reflect variables such as bonuses. At the top in terms of base pay was Anthony Caprio, president of Western New England University, who drew $437,100 a year. With total compensation of $528,634, Caprio was in 165th place among 550 college presidents on the Chronicle’s list. Next up was Adam Falk of Williams College; earning a base salary of $409,168, Falk placed 137th on the list because his total compensation reached $563,032.

Third in terms of base pay was Mount Holyoke’s Lynn Pasquerella, with a salary of $350,000; her $485,973 in total compensation placed her at 186th. Closely following her was Richard Flynn of Springfield College, with $341,000 in base pay and $506,218 in total compensation, who placed 173rd on the Chronicle’s list. Carol Leary of Bay Path College was next with $324,072 in base pay and $428,475 in total compensation, placing her near the middle of the rankings at number 231.

Leary was followed by Carol Christ, then president of Smith College, who with $316,560 in base pay and $484,223 in total compensation ranked 188th. Carolyn Martin of Amherst College received $181,158 in base pay; her total compensation of $259,131 put her in 407th place.

Jonathan Lash of Hampshire College was lowest-paid in the area, with $122,974 in base pay, $172,953 in total compensation and a ranking of 471st. American International College did not appear on the list.

Worth noting: Compensation for presidents of public universities is rising, too. UMass president Robert Caret gets a base salary of $425,000, more than any of the private school presidents listed above except for Caprio.

And the picture of executive compensation in relation to other compensation at educational institutions more and more reflects the picture in the corporate world. In the 10 years from 1999-2000 to 2009-10, average presidential pay at the 50 richest universities increased by 75 percent, while pay for professors increased by only 14 percent.• —SK

 

Lower Tax, More Jobs: Tried, Not True

 

It’s an axiom with fiscal conservatives that corporations create more jobs when they pay less in taxes. The idea involves some reasonable assumptions, but it may have a glaring flaw: it’s just not true, according to a new survey by the Center for Effective Government, known for many years as OMB Watch.

CEG pulled figures for 60 large corporations from a list of 280 Fortune 500 companies that had the highest and the lowest effective tax rates for the period between 2008, a year of heavy recession, and 2010. Here’s what they found:

•Of the 30 companies paying the highest tax rates, 22 created a collective total of nearly 200,000 jobs between 2008 and 2012. Only eight reported cutting jobs. Among those that added jobs was home improvement giant Lowe’s, which paid more than 36 percent in taxes and hired 28,820 new workers between 2008 and 2012.

•Of the 30 companies that paid little or no tax, half added jobs and half cut jobs between 2008 and 2012 for a combined loss of 51,289 jobs. Job cutters included Verizon, which reported $32 billion in profits between 2008 and 2010, but took $951 in tax refunds and still laid off 56,000.

The Center also found that so-called “tax holidays” for corporations don’t necessarily lead to job growth. During a tax holiday in 2004, it reported, 58 companies repatriated $218 billion in profits and took a combined tax savings of $64 billion; over the next two years, those same firms cut 600,000 jobs.•


Congress Renews Ban on Metal Detector-Proof Guns

 

Both the Senate and the House of Representatives have voted to renew the Undetectable Firearms Act of 1988, which makes it illegal for the next 10 years to manufacture or possess guns that can pass through a metal detector and X-ray machine undetected. The action prevented the law from expiring on December 9.

In the House, the renewal was passed by voice vote, which means that enough Representatives voted in favor of the resolution to make a precise count unnecessary, while in the Senate, the law was ultimately passed by unanimous consent.

Despite this veneer of bipartisan support, there is still some controversy about the viability of the law as currently written.

Even under the renewed law, it is possible to legally manufacture a gun that does not require a metal part to be fired. To be in compliance, the gun would only need to include a removable, nonessential metal piece. The development of 3-D printing technology, which has come into the public eye in recent months and is already in use, has raised fears that it could soon become easy to create such firearms.

Two bills that would amend the UFA to address this, both entitled the Undetectable Firearms Modernization Act, were introduced in the House and Senate, and Senate Democrats mounted a last-minute effort to amend the renewed bill through unanimous consent; said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), “This isn’t science fiction anymore ... Someone can make a gun in their basement.”

But Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) objected, and the original extension of the bill was passed instead.

The National Rifle Association opposes the Democrats’ efforts. In a statement, the organization wrote that it will “continue to aggressively fight any expansion of the UFA or any other proposal that would infringe on our Second Amendment rights,” and that it has been “working for months to thwart expansion of the UFA by Senator Chuck Schumer and others.”

Another New England Senator, Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, called the failure to enact changes to the law “the latest example of a Washington wracked by extremism.”• —BL

 

Number of Homeless Housed in Massachusetts Motels Continues to Rise

 

This past October, a record number of homeless families were housed in motel rooms across the state—including families from the Greater Boston area who were sent to communities in Western Massachusetts. According to the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, an average of approximately 2,100 families—the most in the program’s history— were housed each night because of the state’s efforts.

But statistics for Monday, December 3rd indicate that 2,171 families are currently staying in motels.

That’s more than half the families who received emergency housing assistance from the state. According to statistics provided by the Department of Housing and Community Development, in October, an average of 3,784 families needed emergency housing on a daily basis, with some going to shelters and others being housed elsewhere.

According to the Springfield Republican, 452 of these families are currently staying in Western Massachusetts. That’s a dramatic increase from this April, when the newspaper reported that that number stood at 255 families, although it’s less than in July, 2012, when 513 families were housed here. Being placed in the western part of the state causes problems for families from the Boston area, making it difficult to stay in contact with support networks and provide children with continuity in their schooling.

In published reports, Aaron Gornstein, the state undersecretary for housing, attributed the spike in the program to “cuts in state and federal housing subsidies, soaring rents in Greater Boston, and still-high rates of unemployment and underemployment, particularly among lower-income workers.”

On average, families stay in these lodgings for about seven months, although some are forced to live in motels for as much as a year as they wait for affordable housing.

According to DHCD documentation, families receiving this sort of emergency assistance must “make all reasonable efforts that can significantly and directly contribute to the household’s ability to find, obtain, or retain safe, permanent housing” to remain eligible for the program—efforts that aren’t easy to make for those sheltered 80 miles away from their permanent residences.• —BL

Buying Time for History

Historic properties in Springfield received an extra layer of protection last week when the City Council passed an ordinance that imposes an automatic delay on the demolition of old or significant buildings.

Under the new regulation, an owner must wait nine months before he or she can knock down any building that’s older than 100 years or that’s on the National Register of Historic Places, with some exceptions.

At deadline, the ordinance still needed the approval of Mayor Domenic Sarno, who was expected to sign it.

 

The measure was proposed by the city’s Historical Commission, which described it as a way to help preserve architecturally or historically significant properties and to “limit the detrimental effect of demolition on the character of the city.” While owners of buildings within the city’s eight historic districts already must seek commission approval before demolishing or altering the exterior of those properties, many of the oldest properties in the city lie outside those districts. City officials estimate that about 6,000 properties will be covered under the ordinance.

The nine-month delay period was a compromise; the Historical Commission had initially sought a 12-month delay.

The ordinance includes some exemptions. Emergency demolitions ordered by the city’s building or fire commissioners for safety reasons would not be subject to the delay. Court-ordered demolitions and demolitions of tax-foreclosed properties would require just a 60-day notice to the Historical Commission. And, significantly, the ordinance would not apply to the “casino overlay zone” in the South End, where MGM hopes to build a casino.

After the City Council vote, Bob McCarroll, a member of the Historical Commission, told the Advocate he was generally pleased with the new ordinance, which was about two years in the making. “The commission can live with it. We’re happy we have a demolition delay,” he said.

“Is it what we wanted? No. But as I tell everyone, you’ve got to make compromises, or then you’re Congress.”

The ordinance, McCarroll said, could help protect historic properties in several ways. It may inspire developers interested in new building to turn their attention to properties that don’t fall in the protected categories, to avoid the delay. It also buys time to come up with alternative plans that would save a building, such as identifying a developer willing to restore the property or finding someone who would take it for free and move it to another site.

McCarroll pointed to the demolition earlier this year of the historic W.H. Allis mansion on the campus of Mercy Medical Center, which was razed for new office space. The Sisters of Providence Health System had agreed to delay the demolition for a few months after preservationists had protested that plan, to allow time for potential buyers to come forward with an alternate proposal. (See “Last Chance to Save a Piece of History,” March 12, 2013, www.valleyadvocate.com.) While McCarroll praised the hospital for voluntarily postponing the demolition, he suggested that a longer delay might have saved the mansion. “Maybe had there been more time, folks on the government side could have interceded and gotten past some of the roadblocks,” he said.

Finally, McCarroll said, the delay will allow the Historical Commission time to consider creating a historic district to protect a particular building, as it did (controversially) in 2009 to protect Hungry Hill’s Our Lady of Hope Church, after the parish was closed by the Springfield Diocese. (See “Church vs. City,” Jan. 7, 2010, www.valleyadvocate.com.) “It’s not something the commission is going to do often,” McCarroll said, but it is an option that could be employed for buildings considered highly significant to the city.

 

Demolition delays do not always result in a building’s being saved. Earlier this year, the Holyoke Historical Commission imposed a six-month delay, as allowed by ordinance there, on the YMCA’s plan to raze the Farr Mansion to create a new parking lot. (See “For Parking or Posterity,” Aug. 28, 2013, www.valleyadvocate.com.) While neighbors and city officials urged the Y to rethink its plan and suggested alternatives—one local property owner, for example, offered to buy the house and convert it into a café and office space—the organization has stuck to its plan.

Last week, the delay on the Farr property expired, opening the door for the Y to knock down the house. Such examples notwithstanding, McCarroll said, an imposed delay at least creates an opportunity for the public to rally for buildings it would like to see saved and for alternatives to be considered.

The Springfield ordinance passed the City Council by a vote of 10 to 2, with at-large councilor Tim Rooke and Ward 5 councilor Clodo Concepcion casting the two “no” votes. (Ward 1’s Zaida Luna was absent from the meeting.)

Rooke told the Advocate that he appreciates the intent behind the ordinance but thinks that it’s overly broad. “I think if we truly are going to protect or preserve historic properties, the first step would be to make sure we know where they are, what they are and which ones would be classified as historically significant,” he said.

Rather than impose the delay on 6,000 properties, Rooke suggested, the city should conduct a survey of all the affected buildings to identify which ones are truly worth saving. Then resources could be targeted to protecting those properties, he said. Rooke had moved to table a vote on the matter at last week’s Council meeting—he wanted to use the time to talk to Sarno about possible funding sources to do such a survey, he said—but his proposal did not receive the necessary number of votes.

Rooke suggested that a shorter delay, such as 90 days, might be more reasonable. That, he said, would give the Historical Commission time to move to protect a valuable building but would not impose an unfair burden on the property owner. He also questioned the fairness of the ordinance’s exemption of the neighborhood around the proposed casino. “So what were doing is saying to one developer, ‘You have carte blanche,’ and saying to another, ‘We’re holding you to a higher standard.’”

Surveying all 6,000 affected properties, McCarroll said, would be prohibitively expensive—and unnecessary. Over the past 12 months, he said, only about 60 buildings have been demolished in the city (including a number that had been damaged in the gas explosion on Worthington Street last November). Of those, only about half met the criteria of the demolition delay ordinance. “That’s not an inordinate number,” McCarroll said. And, he added, property owners can appeal to the Historical Commission to have the delay waived or shortened, in cases, for instance, where the house has been so dramatically altered over time that it’s lost its architecturally significant details.•

-Maureen Turner

 

 

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