Thursday, March 31, 2011

Back To The Future – Part III : Casinos Are So Yesterday, Dude!

Kenneth M. O’Brien


Massachusetts has traditionally been the home of innovation.

Lately, however, we’ve generated the ideas and the technology and let somebody else somewhere else capitalize on it.

Now, in another step into this pattern of adopting the rapidly obsolescing, we are debating whether to establish two or three sites for casinos. All the politicians love it. It favors labor unions. It favors sycophantic moneyed interests. It promises riches to a couple of communities that are politically favored by being chosen as the destinations for these facilities.

And, once again, it is one small step for a state, one giant bleep for Massachusetts.

Way back in 2004 I wrote an article proposing that the state should focus its natural competitive advantage, technological excellence, on developing an on-line casino.

Over the intervening years the laws relating to internet gambling have shifted. In addition, the basis upon which I proposed the plan has evolved.

As regards the latter, I originally proposed the plan as a basis for generating a revenue source for a statewide health insurance program. This, I argued, would provide us with an enormous competitive advantage in attracting business.

Since then, we have had the birth of Romneycare, as well as the consequences of its afterbirth. The fundamental shortcoming of Romneycare is its inability to control prices and a spiraling level of costs to companies and self-employed individuals. It was this very consequence that my plan was intended to address.

As regards the former, I provided suggestions for circumventing the limitations imposed by the Interstate Wire Transfer Act, as well as potential benefits to local banking interests. During this time Nevada legalized internet gambling within its borders. Despite the restrictions imposed by law, supposedly “illegal” internet gambling outside the U.S. has prospered – and many of the clients are here in the U.S.

U.S Congressman Barney Frank of Massachusetts has fought to legalize on-line wagering.

In the last week alone the issue of on-line computer gambling, and the laws related thereto, have been featured on CNBC, WCVB TV, and the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.

But the state continues to defend its Lottery Commission, which has declined in popularity in recent years. Once the gem of state lotteries, the decline in payouts as well as suffering from competition from multistate lotteries, the benefits to local communities have not kept pace with needs. Rather than substantial efforts at innovation, the agency has merely expanded access to its games, with KENO available everywhere but in your bathroom.

In the meantime, local entrepreneurs have sought to meet the demand from the public.

The T&G article reported about a local “internet café”, “… only one of the 24 people who got four minutes of computer time for each dollar they paid one afternoon last week was on the Internet.

The rest, evidently tired of the debate between the governor and House speaker over whether Massachusetts should have racinos or casinos, were gaming happily on the computers offering about 30 games, such as poker, slot machine-like endeavors, and Dungeons and Dragons where you might win some money.

Similar attitudes were reported by WCVB as regards another facility in Fairhaven.

The State’s response was summarized in the Telegram article. “These forms of unregulated gaming operate without parameters, and in Massachusetts pose a tremendous threat to the Lottery-generated revenues available for cities and towns,” said Lottery spokeswoman Beth Bresnahan.

There's nothing the Lottery can do about games at Internet cafés springing up across the state and nation — but it's not taking the trend laying down. Besides the concentration of games at the cafés, individual sweepstakes machines are popping up at convenience stores.

Last month, the Lottery sent letters to all 7,300 of the places that sell Lottery tickets in Massachusetts saying their licenses to sell Lottery products will be confiscated if they are “discovered using non-Lottery gaming or gaming-like machines.”

The Lottery has reports of 157 Lottery agents “offering alternative forms of gaming that conflict with Lottery sales,” and that matter is before the commission's legal department, Ms. Bresnahan said.


Rather than opposing this trend, the Lottery Commission and the State should embrace it. If over 150 Lottery Agents are offering alternatives then there is an obvious public demand.

Rather than seeking to establish a few destination locations, of which there is already a surfeit, the state should adopt a program that allows local entrepreneurs to start businesses without the “ghetto” consequences associated with casinos. Among many others, the problems arising from such enclaves have been documented by The International Social Science Review and the General Accounting Office.

WCVB reported  "Is this the kind of business we want? I don't think so," said [Fairhaven Selectman, Mike] Silvia.

I would ask Mr. Silvia, “How many local bars offer KENO? How many strip clubs are there in yours or neighboring communities? Are these more desirable?”

The development of a statewide internet casino would have multiple advantages.

First, it would offer entrepreneurial opportunities to all communities. With this would come transitional employment just like restaurants and local shops, rather than the dead-end prospects that exist in casino ghettos. In addition, who knows what new business models may emerge promoting local talent as entertainers or whatever?

Second, it would allow the state to develop a competitive infrastructure for a national and international rollout when the laws are changed. This would be beneficial financially in both the short and long term.

Third, it would focus emphasis on high tech software development opportunities that would generate substantially greater economic benefits as well as reasonable expectations of spin-off business development.

Fourth, as a state-sponsored enterprise, it would have a level of credibility as opposed to the risks perceived in existing fly-by-night operations, as CBS’ 60 Minutes reported.

But, then again, maybe we want a few casinos with the side effects sung about by Warren Zevon:


Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Southbridge’s Next Budget: A First Glance

Kenneth M. O’Brien



For those of you who live in town (i.e. for the most part those who don’t have a town job) the most important part of the Town Manager’s budget message was:

”On the revenue side of the equation for property tax, we anticipate using our full 2012 excess levy capacity as well as the allowable Proposition 2 ½ increase plus a modest $100,000 of new growth, which reflects in part the fiscal environment we find ourselves in. This increase is anticipated to be approximately 3.71%.”

That’s not just homeowners – those of you who rent will will ultimately pay for this too.

One remark that struck me as particularly interesting was that retirement costs increased by $91,833 due to a decline in the stock market. Who’s managing these funds? According to Scottrade, over the last 12 months the Dow Jones Industrial Average has grown by 12.4%.

It is also planned to have a 4% increase in sewer rates. The reason is that the demand is expected to decline! Yep, you heard correctly, we’re going to pay more because we are expected to use less. Why?

Well, it was discovered that there was a leak in the basement of one of the American Optical property buildings. As a result, the facility was being billed for this. Now, however, the leak has been found and fixed. Therefore, the lost revenues will have to be made up for by an across the board increase.

A more detailed analysis of the proposed budget is in the works, but just this was enough to remind me of the following anthem:


Saturday, March 26, 2011

A Question Of Scripture

Kenneth M. O’Brien

In what many will regard as a dramatic change of focus, I wish to raise a question regarding Christian scripture that has long troubled me. I will preface my remarks with the observation that I am the product of a Catholic elementary and secondary education. My favorite course in college was a survey course on the history of religions.

It is widely acknowledged that the most perfect prayer in Christianity is the Lord’s Prayer. It is the only prayer that was taught by Christ to his followers. While I accept that there must clearly be allowances made for possible inartful translations from Aramaic to Greek to Latin to English, I must also believe that the existing English language translation that currently exists is accepted by virtually all biblical scholars and theologians.

While there is a minor difference between the Rheims-Douay and King James versions of this prayer in its conclusion that is not what troubles me.

Rather, it is the phrase “… and lead us not into temptation…”

I have always wondered why the divine Son of God would petition the Father not to lead us into temptation. It is not phrased as “spare us from temptation”. Rather, it clearly says that the Father, the author of all that is good and who cannot do evil, might willfully lead us into being tempted to do evil. Isn’t that inherently contradictory to His nature? Isn’t that supposed to be the role of the devil? Yet, His own divine Son seems to acknowledge that He might indeed do this.

Could someone please provide me with a reconciliation of this seeming contradiction?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Back To The Future – Part II

Kenneth M. O’Brien

Yesterday (March 21) I submitted a post to Speak Out Southbridge titled “Lean Forward, Southbridge!

In it I asked the readers of Dennis Martinek’s blog to come forward with positive and constructive ideas to improve Southbridge. I pointed out proposals that had already been made by Dennis, Debby Gregoire-Lefebvre and Brent Abrahamson, as well as myself.

I have been very gratified by the substantial and thoughtful ideas that have already been proposed. I hope that many more will submit concrete and specific ideas rather than vague platitudes like “reduce taxes”, “cut water and sewer rates” or “bring in new businesses”.

I would like to add to the discussion by repeating a proposal that I made in 2008, while I was still on the council.

During the budget review of the proposed school department budget I proposed that we might consider going from a five-day school week to a four-day school week. In order to meet state requirements, each of the four-day sessions would be expanded by an hour and a half.

The motivation for the proposal was the dramatic increases in oil prices that impacted transportation and heating costs.  There was also the ancillary prospective benefit of reduced insurance expenses.

I was roundly ridiculed for this proposal.

Today we are witnessing the same level of oil prices. We have also seen ever-dramatic increases in insurance costs.

However, something has been added to the discussion.

The additional factor is an article that appeared in Time Magazine only four months after I made my proposal. That article pointed out that 15% of the school districts in America had adopted just such a plan.

Not only were the financial savings substantial. Many districts also experienced a substantial reduction in absenteeism.

With budget season currently upon us, coupled with even greater constraints on our financial resources, perhaps it is time to reconsider my “crazy” idea.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Reality Of Libya

For those of you who have never seen it, and who really want to understand why we are participating in the Libyan fiasco, I recommend the movie “Wag The Dog”.

The intervention in Libya has nothing to do with oil. It has nothing to do with sparing human suffering. It has nothing to do with deposing a lunatic despot.

It has everything to do with geography and the political realities of several European heads of state.

Why have France, England and Italy united in supporting this effort?

Why, despite the fact that Germany voted against the motion in the UN Security Council, did German Prime Minister, Angela Merkel, subsequently back the vote? “Speaking after a meeting in Berlin with regional leaders of her party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Merkel said: 'It was important to the participants that we should wish success on the mission as a whole.'
She said the Security Council resolution was 'now ours as well.' “

The fact of the matter is that Europe has suffered for years from the migration of displaced Arabs into the European Economic Community.

France, in particular, has sought to enforce by law restrictions against traditional muslim clothing.

European countries, with their enlightened access to social safety nets, have been exploited by middle-eastern immigrants.

In this respect, they are no different than those in our country who seek to restrict the benefits to undocumented immigrants from countries mostly south of our own border.

However, in Europe, the migratory flow is even more threatening because it carries with it a cultural, religious and political undercurrent that has given rise to terrorist threats. Many of those who have migrated to Europe, even with initially good motives, eventually become disillusioned and fertile ground for radicalization.. This is even more true in the current economic situation than it was previously.


The strong pressure from the French and the Italians was, in reality a direct response to a perceived reality. Libya is not a “country” in the conventional sense. It is essentially a tribal culture. There are multiple loyalties, all geared to survival and local dominance. In this respect it is analogous to Afghanistan.

Quaddafi has substantial military and financial resources. Without intervention, the opposition would have most likely failed. However, those local leaders and their followers who opposed him would know that they had to migrate.

Their next home – a European country.

In addition to the financial burden that they would place on an already overstrained social safety net system, there is the uncertainty associated with the future ideological commitments of such migrants.

Thus, from a purely self-centered analysis of the consequence of a Libyan meltdown, our European allies decided that the Libyan revolt had to be contained.

However, they lacked the financial and military capacity, as well as the legitimacy to do it alone.

Markers were called in.

By installing a no-fly zone they have achieved their primary objective of  forestalling a massive migration of potentially disruptive Arab refugees into Europe. Hope was given to the insurgents. Quaddafi’s suppression of the insurgaency was thwarted.

Ultimately, European interests have benefitted.. Ultimately, American taxpayers are footing the bill.

The remaining question is, “What is the end game?”.

I postulate that it is not getting rid of Quadaffi or the triumph of the insurgents.

Rather, I see two possible outcomes.

The first, and most desirable, is a negotiated settlement. Such would allow both parties a graceful exit, a partition of the oil profits that was mutually beneficial and neutralization of the role of Libya as a terrorist state in the foreseeable future.

The second, and far less desirable outcome, would be a partition of the country.

However, given the lack of any real identity as a “country” this would ultimately devolve into as much a problem as the current situation.

The current goal for Americans is to realize that, first, we must start making other countries foot the bill for actions from which they, and not we, benefit.

Second, we must truly put America first – not as a military power - but as a realization of what can be the best part of the human spirit.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Profiles In Discouraged – Part VII

The Town Manager’s Latest “Deal”


Kenneth M. O'Brien

 
The Town Council Meeting of March 14 approved a financing plan for the installation of electrical services along Commercial Drive (also known as the access road to the industrial park which in reality only goes as far as the landfill). It had previously been determined that the town, as a result of what Councilor Nikkola at the time referred to as a “good contract”, was obligated to do so. (It should be noted that, subsequently, interim Town Manager Jack Healey termed the same contract, “a terrible contract”.)

In this agreement it is provided that the town will pay National Grid $461,097.67 for the installation of electric lines necessary for the Landfill Gas to Energy Project (LGE, provided for in the contract) to proceed. Under the agreement reached to finance this, as voted by the council on March 14, Casella will issue a check to the town in the amount of $461,097.67 to fund the agreement with National Grid. In return, the town will issue Casella a check in the amount of $180,000. These are funds remaining from the bond originally issued for the construction of the access road to the landfill (i.e. “Commercial Drive”).

In addition, the town will subsequently repay $140,543 of the balance by granting 50% of the revenues from the LGE project that were supposed to come to the town after the project is underway until that amount is liquidated.

Finally, the remaining balance of $140,543 will be forgiven and absorbed by Casella.

The town manager was so pleased with the result of his negotiations on this matter that he has remarked to several councilors that he has repaid a year’s worth of his compensation with this agreement.

While the agreement with Casella to finance the provision of electricity by National Grid appears to be a good deal, it should not be viewed in a vacuum.

Rather, it should be viewed against the backdrop of the savings that Casella has realized by the fact that the town used its bonding capacity to finance the construction of Commercial Drive, which, under the contract, was Casella’s responsibility.

There was a very real opportunity cost to the town in doing this. First, our future bonding capacity was restricted, thus limiting our flexibility in dealing with future eventualities. Second, the strictures resulting from this action required several efforts, involving the expenditure of time, and thus money, to develop a financing plan for the new school. Third, there was the inherent business risk of relying upon repayment by another party.

In order to truly evaluate the “generosity” of Casella in this deal, the forgiveness of $140,543 in up front costs must be compared to the financial benefits given to Casella by our assumption of the bonding of the road. From a financial standpoint this should be done on a net present value (NPV) basis.

In fairness to Casella, they must also be credited with the fact that the repayment of the $140,543 over time is not being charged interest.

Thus, in order to compare the relative financial advantage of these two arrangements, we should calculate the NPV of costs that Casella would have incurred if it had to finance the road on its own. From this we would subtract the NPV of what they are actually paying as a result of the town financing plus the interest foregone on the time payments from LGE revenues to reimburse the outstanding balance.

For those who would like, a formula is available for calculating this. Any amount greater than zero would indicate that Casella has still achieved a financial advantage at the town’s expense. Keep in mind that, in a refinancing completed concurrently with the acceptance by the town of the obligation to finance the road with its own bonds, Casella paid an interest rate of 12%.

Even without doing the calculation, I am confident that they still maintain a substantial financial advantage.
Thus, if the town manager wants to claim that this arrangement has repaid a year’s worth of his compensation, shouldn’t he also agree that he owes us as many years’ compensation as required to liquidate the sellout that he also negotiated?

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Profiles In Discouraged – Part VI

One Step Above Slavery

Kenneth M. O’Brien


People talk incessantly about saving “our town”.
The fact is, it’s no longer “our town”.

It hasn’t been since May of 2007.

That was when the contract between the town of Southbridge and Casella Waste Systems was adopted.

I am sure that there are many who will say that I am exaggerating.

I’m not.

You see, we signed a contract.

But that contract is absolutely meaningless. At least as far as “the people” are concerned.

The reason is a clause in the contract that reads as follows:

30. MODIFICATIONS
            30.1 This extension Agreement cannot be changed orally, but only by agreement in writing signed by the party against whom enforcement of the change, modification or discharge is sought or by its duly authorized agent.”

The “duly authorized agent” for Southbridge is the Town Manager. That means that anything to which the Town Manager and Casella agree overrides any provisions of the contract.

The first case of this was the “side letter” between interim town manager John Healey and Casella of June 6, 2008.that effectively changed the effective date of the contract prior to receiving all required site assignment approvals..

Since then we’ve seen alterations in the posting of the financial assurance mechanism, the abolition of the Recycle Bank Program, the attempt to impose the “Smart Cart” program, modifications in the reimbursement of town incurred debt, failure to fine Casella for the dumping of unauthorized waste, and threats to “fine” Southbridge residents for not conforming to the dictates of our “Recycling Coordinator” while leaving out-of-town violators unscathed.

In the process, the revenues that were originally promised for this “contract” have steadily diminished, as has the projected life span of the landfill.

Simultaneously, our population has shrunk (they were the smart ones), businesses have vanished (they couldn’t survive), property tax rates and water and sewer rates have skyrocketed, and property values have plummeted – all far in excess of the national averages.

It’s a widely acknowledged axiom that the definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing and to expect a different result.

Well, let’s just keep on keeping on. Let’s keep our Town Manager and his indebtedness to our corporate benefactor as well as the legal advisors who gave us this gift.

Let’s keep electing those who support this agenda.

Above all, let’s hope that we can get a program in transitional education that will teach us how to profit as sharecroppers in a landscape of trash.

After all, sharecroppers are better than slaves, right?

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Look Before You Leak Part II

Kenneth M. O’Brien



In an effort to be “fair and balanced”, I thought I would provide you with an industry response to the issue of complaints about “smart” water meters addressed in the previous article. Interestingly, it appeared the same day as the CNN report aired. Somehow this industry mouthpiece was prepared to address the story.

I find especially interesting the comment in the last paragraph, “As our technology continues to improve and we are able to improve the measurement and management of our water resources, how will we ease the growing pains for consumers who will find themselves at the receiving end of a much more accurate—and much more expensive—water bill?”

LET THE EFFICIENCY BACKLASH BEGIN
March 1, 2011
Elizabeth Cutright, Water Efficiency Editor

Last week I highlighted the plight of a Washington family who found themselves staring down the barrel of a $2,600 repair bill for a broken water main on their neighbor’s property. At the end of my blog I asked, “If the consumer is not accountable for the water loss, where will the utility find the funding for these costly repairs,” and I wondered—should we brace ourselves for similar stories?

 

Over at CNN, a “Special Investigative Unit” (headed by Kyra Phillips) has begun looking into the sky-high water bills that are popping up all over the country. Focusing on the situation in their own backyard—Atlanta, GA—Philips uncovers several stories that sound eerily similar to the saga playing out in Washington, including spiking water bills and monthly charges of $1,000 or more on accounts that had previously averaged $200–250 per month or less. In many cases, the recipients of those bills have been left without a smoking gun to explain the uptick in charges—no leaks, no increased usage, no unusual water demands.

 

Some blame has been placed on the city’s automatic metering program. As we all know, whenever a community installs an AMR/AMI system—especially when paired with new billing software—water bills tend to increase, due in large part to increased metering accuracy. In Atlanta, some of the increases were also traced to erroneously installed meters and subsequent double billings—about 1% of the meters checked by the city were improperly installed; a problem that was initially discovered in 2007 and which the city has spent the last four years rectifying.

 

When asked by CNN to comment on the ongoing effort to repair faulty meter installations, Peter Aman, the city of Atlanta’s chief operating officer said, “The majority of the people who complain about high water bills have some issue that is not associated with the meter. Many, many of them have either leaks or increases in usage through irrigation or pool filling that they didn’t fully understand the impact of, but that’s not to minimize the fact that we do have some cases of meters that aren't functioning properly. And, we’re addressing those on a case-by-case basis and giving people their money back. To me, the story here is there has been a complete loss of trust between the city and its citizens, and its customers.”

 

CNN reports the city has not found issues with meter manufacturer Neptune Technologies Inc. or Systems and Software Inc. (which installed the billing software). Aman believes the company that installed the residential meters should be held accountable because the malfunctions were traced to an improper fit between the meter itself and the meter base underneath, which points to an installation error. In 2007, the city put in a system to monitor the rest of the system upgrade in order to forestall any similar installation errors—but, according to Aman, “we’re still finding these mismatches out there.”

 

In the meantime, Atlanta is facing a class action suit, over 22,000 complaints by residents, and 12,291 water bill disputes. With similar scenarios popping up all over the country—including Cleveland, OH; Tampa, FK; and Brockton, MA—it’s clear that, as I suggested in last week’s blog, we may now be “reaping what we sowed—after years of undervaluing water and tying water bills to water use without also adding some sort of ‘infrastructure insurance’ surcharge.”

 

So what do you think? As our technology continues to improve and we are able to improve the measurement and management of our water resources, how will we ease the growing pains for consumers who will find themselves at the receiving end of a much more accurate—and much more expensive—water bill? Should water utilities be doing more to educate and aid their customers when rolling out new billing schemes or infrastructure improvements? And should we be preparing for a smart meter backlash similar to the one currently being faced by power utilities across the nation.


If you want an overview of the problems with these smart meters (for both water and electricity monitoring) from around the country, go to Complaints Board.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Look Before You Leak

Kenneth M. O’Brien

On February 28, DPW Director Tom Daley and Water Department Director Tom Cutler made a presentation to the Southbridge Town Council. The subject was a multi-year project to replace existing water meters with an electronic system that will allow readings to be taken by a water department employee while simply driving by the residence in question.

The Southbridge Evening News of March 2, 2011 reported, “According to Daley, the new system will improve productivity, eliminate estimated reads, provide more equity for the customers and provide a more efficient billing system.”

Interestingly, on the same day this report appeared in the Evening News, another report was appearing on CNN. Titled “Skyrocketing water bills mystify, anger residents”, the report took issue with the merits of the system being proposed for Southbridge.
The report followed a four-month look into Atlanta water bill complaints conducted by CNN's Kyra Phillips and the CNN Special Investigations Unit.

CNN reported that, “Many of the problems arose after the installation of new, automated water meters, which began nearly five years ago, and involved contracts for meter installations, the electronic meters and software equipment.
The automated meter-reading technology eliminates the need for city workers to manually check every meter. Instead, they retrieve the data by driving by each property. The meter electronically transmits data showing the amount of water used.
From the beginning, there were problems.
In 2007, city auditors found they were ‘unable to verify electronic meter readings’ because of ‘meter read errors, equipment failures or human errors.’
Specifically, the audit said ‘about 9% of the meters could not be read due to broken or malfunctioning equipment.’”

The story details the case of one individual whose water bill spiked to $1,200 in November and then to $6,879 in December. Complaining to CNN the individual, who happens to be an attorney for the EPA, said “"I am furious, I am upset, I'm confused. I can't get an answer from the city because they won't admit there is a problem."

Foillowing CNN’s inquiry to the city, the individual’s account was reviewed.  As a result of the review her latest bill is $34.

The report points out that the issue is not limited to Atlanta. “…similar complaints about huge water bill spikes have popped up in Cleveland, Ohio; Charlotte, North Carolina; Tampa, Florida; and Brockton, Massachusetts.”

It is perhaps worth asking whether our leaders were aware of these problems when they approved the switch over to the new system. It is also worth asking what guarantees were provided by the contractor if Southbridge experiences similar problems.

(The author thanks Mike Marketti for contributing to this story.)


Sunday, March 6, 2011

Profiles In Discouraged – Part V

The Press

Kenneth M. O’Brien


The press, the fourth estate.

Traditionally it has acted as a watchdog on the influential elements in society.

On a national level the diversity of news sources has grown even while the absolute number has declined. On the local level, however, there has been a decline in the number and diversity of “legitimate” press outlets.

This is the result of the changing economics of the news industry. It is also a function of the declining literacy of the American public and the growing rigidity of devotion to ideological points of view.

On the local level I am not going to postulate any grand conspiracy theory. Rather, I am going to argue that what has happened to our local press is a function of the process of “co-optation” that has resulted from the economic necessities imposed on traditional newspapers.

By the use of the word “co-opt” I mean the second definition provided by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary: “to take into a group (as a faction, movement, or culture) : absorb, assimilate <the students are co–opted by a system they serve even in their struggle against it>.”
There is little doubt that traditional newspapers have suffered severe financial consequences over the last ten years.

As a result of electronic media and its exploitation of traditional media by aggregating their work, repackaging and disseminating it without compensation they have prospered without the overhead incurred by traditional media.

Consequently, electronic media outlets such as The Huffington Post have prospered, recently being sold to AOL for $315 million, while traditional outlets from whom they essentially “misappropriate” content, have suffered.

This is even more pronounced at the local level.

In addition to the decline in reliance on them for information, the internet has undermined their primary source of income – advertising.

These trends have created a “perfect storm” that has severely constricted the economic viability of local newspapers.

As a consequence local traditional media has had no option but to reduce employment, cut staff and demand more from those who are still employed.

Given this analysis, let me turn to the two major local press outlets, The Worcester Telegram & Gazette and The Southbridge Evening News.

Both have substantially cut back. In the case of the T&G, their local reporter was moved to a Worcester office, after substantial layoffs. In the case of The Evening News, there has been a constant turnover in staff as well as management.

In both cases the demand for output from the reporters has, as a result of staff cutbacks, been increased.

Like any other human beings seeking to make a living they have sought to provide what was demanded by their employers – articles.

In order to do so they have gone to the easiest source of information. In this particular case it has been the Town Manager – whether it was Clayton Carlilse, John Healy or Christopher Clark.

The Town Manager was happy to provide access to the press. It helped him to further his agenda.

Simultaneously, any rational person can realize, there was an unspoken but realistic assumption that negative comments about the Town Manager or his agenda might restrict access. Such a restriction on access would clearly limit the ability of the reporter to have material for the articles that are the foundation of their income.

Thus, over time, reporters became advocates for one point of view. This was not any kind of insidious conspiracy. It was purely a case of enlightened economic self-interest to provide what was needed to keep their jobs. That, folks, is co-optation.

Numerous examples can be cited.

Perhaps the first is the still controversial proposal by Loin and Hayes to bring the PIMS project to the industrial park.

After exhaustive research, Linda Cocalis and I determined that this was not worthy of consideration.

We attempted to bring this to public attention.

The response from the then Editor of the Evening News, Walter Bird was:
” Sent: Mon, Apr 06, 2009 04:58 PM
Hi Ken, we typically run press releases from organized or established groups (i.e. police department), not citizens. Our letter to the editor page is suitable for that. However, this particular entry would need to be checked for facts as well, because one of the people you apparently sent it to is disputing many of them.
Walter”


Keep in mind that this was shortly after a number of articles promoting the “Future of Southbridge” group that clearly advocated the administration’s agenda. However, a release by a former town councilor and a member of the Sturbridge Board of Health was not deemed worthy of credence.


The content of that press release was as follows:

  Press Release

Monday, April 6, 2009
For Immediate Release

On Monday, March 30th, a presentation was made to the Southbridge Town Council about plans for a new business to be located at the proposed Southbridge Industrial Park.

The presenters, Gregory Hayes and Michael Loin made a number of representations regarding the status of their business, its affiliations, and a projected time frame for decisions by the Town.

The key points of that presentation were:
1. That their sponsors (Heritage Capital Partners Fund, HCPF) had acquired the British company ERT. “Heritage Capital bought ERT in an acquisition made final Friday, Mr. Hayes said.” Worcester Telegram and Gazette (T&G) April 1, 2009.
“Heritage Capital Partner’s Fund’s Envirotech Division…completed purchasing Environmental Recycling Technologies, the British firm that owns the patents, on Friday, he [Loin] said.” Southbridge Evening News (SEN) March 31, 2009.  However, in an email dated March 31, Ken Brooks, CEO of ERT wrote, “We were most definitely not sold last Friday!” In a follow-up email on April 1, Mr. James McKeon of HCPF wrote, “ERT is a publicly traded company and these things are not treated lightly.”
2. That HCPF was committed to this project. “A financial group, Heritage Capital Partner Funds, is committed to building a campus in this area, Mr. Loin said…”T&G April 1, 2009. “The proposal is being funded by a hedge fund, Heritage Partners Capital Fund [Mr. Loin said]”. SEN March 31, 2009. However, in an email from a party associated with HCPF to Ken Brooks (CEO of ERT) with a cc to James McKeon of HCPF, it was stated, “I have heard of these two gentlemen. They are not our people although they met with Jim and his group in Los Angeles a couple of weeks ago.  I believe that they have spent a lot of time with Jerry Bilton and the group out of Atlanta, but have become disillusioned with them. I have not spoken with Jim yet, but it appears that they jumped to conclusions and made assumptions that had no basis in fact. I do not believe that anyone from Jim's group said anything that would have suggested anything along the lines of the announcement they made. Their pronouncement is a complete surprise.”
3. There is a very detailed business plan. “Hayes noted that there was a ‘very detailed business plan’ but it became moot when the hedge fund bought the British company.” SEN, March 31. However, In a phone conversation with James McKeon of HCPF on March 31 Ms. Cocalis asked about a business plan and McKeon told her that they are working out the details and it would not be ready for about a month. He told her that Gregory [Hayes] was using someone else’s business plan and they told him to discontinue using it.
4. There is no relationship with Casella. “The recycling material would be fed to the plant from the Casella Waste Systems-operated landfill, with which none of the partners is affiliated, Mr. Loin said.” T&G, April 1, 2009. However, in the same phone conversation cited above, Mr. McKeon said that HCPF has been talking with Casella. When asked if he knew Gregory Hayes or Michael Loin, he said that he had met Gregory [Hayes].  When asked who Gregory [Hayes] was Mr. McKeon said that he was a broker for Casella.
5. The project is dependent upon agreement to build the access road in six to eight weeks. “Loin and his partner Gregory Hayes of Framingham and others hope to make the new technology the core of a new company moving into the town’s industrial park, and specifically right next to the landfill. But for that to happen, they need the access road built.” And further,  “Loin and Hayes said they’d need to be sure they can get a parcel in the industrial park within six to eight weeks to stay in town. If they saw the town’s commitment to build the road, Loin said they’d be willing to build the plant while the road’s under construction (after the base coat of pavement is laid)….” SEN, March 31, 2009. However, again during the March 31 phone conversation, Mr. McKeon was asked if they had a time frame on a project in the 6-8 week time period and he said that, no, that they haven’t even looked at sites yet.

In reporting this information we are not casting aspersions on the technology involved. It has been successfully in use in Europe for over ten years. It holds great promise and potential for reducing the impact of MSW on our ecology.

Our only interest is the protection of the interests and welfare of our communities. We feel that no action should be taken until such time that issues pending in court relative to the site assignment upon which so many of the terms of the contract are dependent are resolved. We also feel that more time is needed to sift through the discrepancies that have been revealed by our inquiries. We are also concerned about indications that Casella may be involved in some way with this enterprise.

Finally, it is our hope that, in the future, the town administration will exercise more due diligence on any such proposals before they are given the appearance of an official stamp of approval.

Ultimately I had to appear before the Town Council during citizen’s forum to make these facts public. The paper subsequently published an article attempting to discredit us, but they could not provide any substantive basis. I have subsequently been told by a reliable source that one of the parties to this proposal was, in fact, grateful for our work. He did not realize that he was the victim of a scam. (I stand ready to correct this if I am wrong).

Interestingly enough, the Evening News then found the means to run an article attempting to discredit our findings. These efforts fell dramatically short.

Nevertheless, the Town Manager and a number of his acolytes still choose to cite this as irresponsible intervention in their agenda.

Compounding this has been the participation of personnel of the Evening News on local committees and subcommittees. There have been grotesque distortions of fact in reporting the work of the Charter Review Committee that were protested but never corrected. (Evidence is also available to support this). Are they an independent source of information when they are actually parties to the formulation and implementation of public policy?

Another factor has been the number of articles that the local paper has published on the issue of a leak from the Town Council relating to Executive Session minutes about the matter of the Registry of Motor Vehicles. They got this information through a source that leaked it to them. However, when I made the report of the State Police investigation into this matter public nary a word was said. Could this reflect a political bias?

As regards the T&G, there is also no reluctance on the part of the Town Manager to throw their reporter under the bus when it serves his political agenda. Nowhere is this clearer than in the previously referenced State Police report. In that document it is reported:

Clark was aware that the Worcester Telegram and Gazette had the same information that the Southbridge Evening News had regarding the RMV coming back to Southbridge. Lee was insinuating to Clark that he had gotten this information from a “little birdie”. Clark asked Lee “How big was the birdie”? Lee replied “It was Al Vecchia”! Clark was somewhat stunned by this revelation but felt that Lee was telling the truth and had actually erred by making this statement.

But, this is a consequence of co-optation. Once you have to rely upon someone for your survival, then you are a victim of their self-interest.

As a consequence, opposing views find their outlet primarily through the medium of individuals writing on the internet. These blogs become an easy target for the interests they oppose in a community that is dominated by an elderly and lower income population. A relatively small percentage of these groups access these alternative perspectives. Thus campaigns by administration sympathizers rapidly gain support because the public’s view remains largely shaped by traditional outlets with which they are familiar and thus comfortable. And as shown, these outlets almost invariably favor the existing power elite.

There is further complicity on the part of traditional media that perceive the new information outlets as an economic threat.

The end result is the abdication by traditional local media of their traditional role as a watchdog. As a function of purely economic self-interest they become advocates of the status quo and castigate views expressed by alternative media that are perceived as a competitive threat.

If a cogent opposition to the existing policy trajectory is to be successful, it must find a means of increasing public access to and respect for its product. This is the conundrum that legitimate voices of dissent must confront and to which they must find a solution.


Maybe a starting point would be to get reporters to unionize and bargain for the same residual rights to their work as Hollywood actors.



Friday, March 4, 2011

Back To The Future



Kenneth M. O'Brien

With all the discussion of the need for a plan to improve life in Southbridge, as well as its economy, the potential for employment and the opportunity to start new businesses, I thought that I would re-visit a proposal that I put forward six years ago.



Given developments since the time this was written, revisions would most likely be required.

The Registry of Motor Vehicles is now in the depot location. Given that, any plans to use it as an optical museum are probably scotched.

Rather than the depot location, especially in light of certain geological factors, the Globe area of town would probably be a more feasible location.

There are, of course, those who will pooh-pooh this idea.

But, is it any less feasible than a belief that companies will locate to a half-road accessed industrial park next to the largest landfill in the state?

During the interview process our Town Manager made a big point of his talent at getting grants in his prior position. Perhaps he could use that, to date under-utilized talent, to secure money for a feasibility study. With the projected major reduction in Federal money for Community Development Block Grants it would seem appropriate to direct our Economic Development staff (four now, isn't it?) toward another task.

But, then again, perhaps I'm expecting too much of someone who is paid only a few thousand dollars less than the Governor of the entire state.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Blog Bashers

Kenneth M. O’Brien

Enough is enough!

Martin Niemöller (1892-1984) was an ardent nationalist and prominent Protestant pastor who emerged as an outspoken public foe of Adolf Hitler and spent the last 7 years of Nazi rule in concentration camps.

Niemöller is perhaps best remembered for the quotation:

“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out --
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out --
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out --
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me -- and there was no one left to speak for me.”

The unrelenting campaign to silence a voice of dissent in this town is no less a travesty.

This campaign reached a crescendo this week with the blather of a well-known universal expert and malcontent in front of the town council reinforced by a letter to the editor in March 3rd’s Evening News.

The target of their ire is, and we all know it, Dennis Martinek’s site Speak Out Southbridge.

Mr. Martinek’s site is a unique gift to this community. It is not merely a blog. It is an ongoing conversation.

Unlike many blogs, Speak Out Southbridge is a real expression of community opinion. Everyone is welcome to contribute, regardless of their views. Yes, at times the conversation becomes heated. Yes, at times inappropriate things are said. But in those respects it is no different than real time conversations in coffee shops, local pubs or over the family dinner table.

Most blogs publish an opinion piece every few days.

Not so Speak Out Southbridge!

Dennis updates his site numerous times per day with comments from readers as well as his own observations.

He does this while holding a demanding job as well as being a loving and devoted husband and father.

In addition he has scooped the local press on numerous occasions with real news that might not otherwise have ever seen the light of day. That certainly has not won their affection!

But the scions of Southbridge soporific serenity don’t want you knowing the truth. They don’t want to hear the truth. Like a close-minded devotee of conservative talk radio or liberal talk television they only want to hear and they only want others to hear what reinforces their own beliefs.

But, if you think the crusade against non-conformity stops there, you are mistaken.

One of the most literate and thoughtful bloggers in this town, Brent Abrahamson, used to write a column for the
Southbridge Evening News. We know what became of his column when he didn’t conform to the will of the former editor.

Today’s bloggers are the new technology’s version of the early pamphleteers of the 18th century who formed the backbone of the American Revolution. Yes, their readers have to evaluate the truth of what they say. But the effort to silence or discredit them because you don’t like what they say, even when it is true, flies in the face of why we have the First Amendment.

Kudos to those who will not be silenced. Kudos to Dennis Martinek, Brent Abrahamson and Mike Marketti.

Above all kudos to those who have the courage to read opposing points of view rather than being fed the pabulum that a particular self anointed elite would wish were your sole diet.


Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Profiles In Discouraged – Part IV

Southbridge's Two Party System         

Kenneth M. O’Brien 

Southbridge’s political system is technically “non-partisan”.

Candidates for public office are not identified by any form of label as belonging to any political party.

However, over the last 15 years that has changed. The following is, of necessity, an abbreviated summary of the course of events that have shaped the current political landscape.

The watershed event occurred around the turn of the millennium with the “restore confidence” campaign spearheaded by former Southbridge resident and would-be political ubermeister Ron Chernisky.

In reality this was a thinly disguised effort to unseat the then town manager.

Following its success the core of this group became a strong source in support of local, compliant business interests. The key base of support was in the Downtown Business Partnership.

In subsequent elections they developed and broadened their base of support among managerial and public safety town employees,

The next major development in the evolution of what I will henceforth call the “Confidence Party” or “Cons” revolved around a budgetary crisis in the schools that led to a proposed proposition 2-1/2 override. The failure of this proposal led to numerous teacher layoffs.

The next major evolution of the “Cons” came with the transition in management of the town’s landfill from Wood Recycling to Casella. A close alliance then emerged between the town manager and the “Cons”. In addition, the “Cons” expanded their game to engaging elements of the teaching community through their support of ancillary programs such as the restoration of the previously aborted Recreation Committee. This became increasingly central with the downward spiral in the community’s economic fortunes. These misfortunes resulted in the decline of the Downtown Business Partnership as a meaningful power base.

As things currently stand, the “Cons” game is built upon a three-legged stool. First is unwavering support of the interests of Casella. Second is a close alliance with the Town Manager that employs his appointment power to the benefit of their adherents. Third is support of town employees’ financial interests that ensures the “Cons” electoral success.

The first organized effort to counter the Cons developed in relation to the Proposition 2-1/2 override issue. With the defeat of the override proposal, this group quickly disappeared.

The next major organized opposition arose from the landfill issue. This comprised a widely based group concerned with what was seen as the exploitation of a town resource at the expense of the environment. I will refer to this as the “My Environment” party.

A number of advocates arose in this group opposing the landfill expansion as well as ancillary issues both locally and in adjacent communities. Several candidates for town council sided with this group and advocated their position. Over time, however, the core group of advocates devolved into feuding elements each seeking to portray themselves as the true champions of the cause betrayed by the ego-based interests of others.

Those who were not allied with the Confidence Party, sought to ally themselves with the various factions of the “My Environment” group to establish an electoral base. In so doing, they failed to develop any electoral platform other than their opposition to the landfill and the access road issue. While there was much posturing on the need to improve the business climate and bring business to the community, there were little more than platitudes and the reliance on the appeal of personality.

The “My Environment” Party (the “ME” party) achieved a short-lived victory with the restoration of a three-member Board of Health at the end of 2010.

However, their loss in a special election last month led to a virtually total cave-in on the issue of renewing the contract of the current town manager. I use the term “cave-in” advisedly in light of their evaluations of the town manager as provided on Speak Out Southbridge. It can also be assumed that the prior five-member Board of Health will be restored by the new majority to the benefit of Casella.

The ME party has apparently adopted a new strategy. The basis of this strategy is perhaps best summarized by the words of former Senator Arlen Specter in his words as reported in a campaign ad by his primary opponent Joe Sestak.




Perhaps they have forgotten how that worked out for Specter.


Lest I be perceived as overly critical, I offer the following visual gift to my friends on the council: