Friday, December 23, 2005

It's their news

published in the Portland Phoenix

WGME Channel 13 may be running ads lamenting how expensive it is to do business in Maine, but the company is actually getting a pretty good deal.

"Our contract ran out December 1, 2004, and we have not had a pay increase for two years," says Matt Beck, shop steward for WGME's back-of-the-house union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1837, which represents about 50 photographers, technicians, editors, producers, directors, and engineers — just about anybody who doesn't appear on screen — at the station.

They and the folks who do appear on screen say they have been trying to get back to the bargaining table since the summertime, without success.

IBEW members demonstrated Thursday morning, and again in the afternoon of that high-teens-temperature day, on a sidewalk in front of a vacant store at the intersection of Washington and Allen Avenues, near the WGME office in Portland. The station is owned by the Maryland-based Sinclair Broadcast Group, known for its tendency to inject partisan politics into its news coverage, such as 2004's decision to force its seven ABC affiliates not to air a dramatic Nightline segment featuring the names and photographs of Americans killed in Iraq.

Sinclair bought the station from the Guy Gannett Company in 1998, an event that Beck refers to as "when the Dark Ages began." Beck and his union members fear they will be handed a contract they will be "forced" to sign, rather than one developed through negotiation.

Negotiations between the IBEW and the station have been stalled since the summer, which was the last time the union met with Sinclair. Beck says the company has refused to respond to the union's demand to prove its claim that WGME's workers are paid more than their counterparts at any of Sinclair's 59 other stations, which are spread across 22 states. Only two or three other stations have unionized labor. There is no scheduled date for negotiations to resume, he says.

The attorney representing Sinclair during the negotiations, Michael Lowenbaum of St. Louis, says the delay is actually the union's fault, for not asking for a meeting. "We'll meet anytime," he says, adding that he would like an agreement "yesterday."

Company officials, from Sinclair CEO David D. Smith to WGME General Manager Alan Cartwright, did not return multiple phone calls seeking comment.

Beck says the union wants a "reasonable" wage increase — but would not be specific about how much — as well as guarantees that the company will continue to contribute to workers' 401(k) retirement plans, will offer health insurance to part-time workers, and agree to retain a contract provision requiring all employees to become members of the union under penalty of dismissal.

"We just felt it was time to let the public know" about what was going on, Beck says. The union has launched a Web site,, members are wearing protest buttons to work, and they are planning another action in January, perhaps more specifically targeting advertisers.

"Corporate America's gotten a lot stronger" in recent years, says Paul Desjardins, a maintenance technician who has worked at the station for 30 years, saying that is why he wants to remain part of a union that can represent workers' interests.

Cynthia Phinney, the union's business manager, not a WGME employee, says the negotiations have been "pretty frustrating," because "Sinclair's from away. They don't care about Maine."

The reporters and anchors at WGME — members of another union, who began their own negotiating earlier this year — "share in their [co-workers'] fight," said reporter Doug Ray, that union's shop steward. They cannot demonstrate because of a contract restriction, and Ray says it's not at that stage for his group yet, though "their concerns are our concerns."

And though his union has received no company response to the actions last week, other local unions have offered support to the WGME workers, Beck says.

"We want a contract," he says. "This has really just begun."

Friday, December 16, 2005

No deal? No problem

published in the Portland Phoenix

Brian Hanson, who owns the Industry, an 18-plus Wharf Street nightclub that allowed people to dance and party after the 1 am bar-closing time on Fridays and Saturdays, has shuttered his operation and is spending at least $20,000 to convert the facility to a restaurant. Before he opens the doors of his eatery, which he’s naming Right Proper Charlie's, he expects to need a city permit — an "overlay license," required to run any business in the Old Port that makes more than half its money from alcohol sales.

The Old Port's councilor, Will Gorham, wants to ban all after-hours entertainment in the district. (He had originally wanted to do so city-wide but now has decided to leave alone Platinum Plus, which stays open until 3 am Monday through Thursday, to 4 am on Friday, and to 6 am on Saturday and Sunday.) Gorham is also backing a proposal from the city's attorney, Gary Wood, to reduce the quota of bars allowed overlay licenses from 27 to the 22 that are currently in use, thus blocking the opening of any new bar in the Old Port without another one first closing.

At a recent Public Safety Committee meeting, Hanson's attorney, Richard Berne, told Gorham and the committee that in exchange for cooperating with the city — that is, closing the nightclub, which police say keeps drunk and disorderly people on Wharf Street in the wee hours of weekend mornings — the city should keep open a 23rd overlay license for him.

But Berne also said that if the council doesn't cooperate, Hanson, who holds a liquor license, may open the restaurant anyway, and simply assert that it won't make more than half its money on alcohol. He defended that position by comparing the new operation to Fore Street, which has no overlay license and, Berne publicly speculated, probably makes more than half its money from alcohol sales.

According to Berne, Right Proper Charlie's will be similar to Brian Boru or Gritty McDuff's, which have active bar scenes as well as restaurant menus. Both have overlay licenses.

"You will be eliminating a nightclub and you will have then a restaurant," he said to the committee, which would appear to be good from city officials' point of view. Lieutenant Janine Roberts, head of the Tactical Enforcement Unit, which focuses on the Old Port after dark, talked at length about the dangers underage people were being exposed to because they are drawn to the Industry, which is near several bars.

Gorham, chairman of the Public Safety Committee, expressed his concern about "minors" — many between the ages of 18 and 20 — being "exposed" to people who have been drinking.

Erica Schmitz, coordinator of Portland Communities Mobilizing for Change on Alcohol, and Jan Beitzer, executive director of Portland's Downtown District, both said they wanted fewer bars in the Old Port and supported a city-wide ban on after-hours entertainment.

Nearby bar owners objected to Hanson's proposed deal. Doug Foos, owner of Bull Feeney's and chairman of the city's Night Life Oversight Committee, said he and his group want to keep the number of overlay licenses at 27, but are "vehemently against" giving an overlay license to another bar on Wharf Street.

Tom Manning, owner of Digger's and Liquid Blue, said he was "not opposed" to fewer overlay licenses.

Councilor Donna Carr, a committee member, didn't attend the PSC meeting, and did not return multiple phone calls seeking her comments.

Before she left for another meeting, Councilor Cheryl Leeman, the third committee member, said she supported outlawing after-hours entertainment citywide, grandfathering Platinum Plus, and giving Hanson an overlay license to run his restaurant, saying "for all practical purposes, you have one now."

N.O. peace for Perry's mourners

published in the Portland Phoenix

New Orleans police broke up a memorial service for Portland activist Meg Perry Sunday, by handcuffing and searching Katrina-relief volunteers who were singing songs and reminiscing about the life of the 26-year-old social-justice advocate. Perry, an organizer from Portland’s People's Free Space, was killed, on Saturday, when that group’s familiar green, bio-diesel Frida Bus crashed on a Louisiana highway,

A local memorial service will be held December 17 at 2 pm at the Brunswick United Methodist Church, 320 Church Road. Perry's parents, Robin and Rosalie Perry, then plan "to return to New Orleans and pick up where Megan left off," doing work to "help the displaced, the indigent, to do whatever we can to help people in need," her father said Tuesday.

Perry was in New Orleans with 12 volunteers she had recruited to go to the Gulf Coast, in November, to help with hurricane-relief efforts (see "Frida Deals with Katrina," by Sara Donnelly, November 4) She was thrown from the bus when it rolled on its side on I-10 near the Superdome in an accident whose cause remains under investigation. Eight other people on the bus were taken to the hospital with minor injuries, according to Officer Jonette Williams of the New Orleans Police Department.

After a memorial service attended by hundreds Sunday in a community garden that Perry had helped clear, till, and plant in New Orleans's Eighth Ward, a few close friends stayed behind to sing songs and tell stories about Perry. "They weren't bothering anyone," said Sakura Koné, an organizer of the New Orleans–based relief group Common Ground Collective, for which Perry was volunteering.

A passing police officer noticed the group, Koné said, and called for backup. Some were handcuffed, "others were forced to spread-eagle on the various police vehicles," and the group was being treated "as if they were a threat to the community," Koné said.

Captain Juan Quentin, the commander of the New Orleans police public information office, said he had heard nothing of the memorial service or anything afterward, and suggested that if it had happened, someone should have called the police to complain.

Officer Williams said she did not know of any such event, and Robin Perry, who said he stayed through the memorial service and "later on," also said he had not heard of the incident.

Several People's Free Space activists confirmed that there was an encounter with the police after the memorial service, but declined to give specifics, saying they were conferring with their lawyers.

Nate Brimmer, one of the Maine volunteers in New Orleans, said the group would likely be taking the train back from New Orleans, and declined to comment on whether the volunteers had gotten their bags from the bus, which is in police custody.

The Common Ground Collective planted a fig tree in Perry's memory during the ceremony and has renamed its community-garden creation effort the Meg Perry Community Garden Project. Volunteers also planted nasturtiums, an edible flower, and artichokes, Perry's favorite vegetable, Brimmer said.

The Maine volunteers will return in time for Perry's memorial service Saturday, and most expect to return to the Gulf Coast to continue volunteering.

"We need literally thousands of volunteers," Brimmer said. In some homes that were flooded, there are "three inches of fuzzy mold from the ceiling to the floor" in homes that did not have flood insurance.

The ruin of the Gulf Coast has provided an opportunity to rebuild society in a more just structure, Brimmer said. Perry saw all of society's problems as linked, and at their root "too much competition, not enough co-operation, not enough love, not enough community," he said.

In Portland, a group of about two-dozen People's Free Space members gathered Sunday night for a hastily-called press conference, before which most of the group — many clad in ripped jeans and knit caps or dreadlocks — checked their appearances in a mirror as TV crews got cameras set up.

"They’ll know she’s a badass," said Alexander Aman as he looked at a photo of Perry taken November 13, the day she and 12 others left Maine for the Gulf Coast region.

A statement read by Kate Boverman mourned Perry’s death, saying "she filled her days working for justice" and was "always ready with a warm smile or to lend a hand."

People who want to volunteer with the Common Ground Collective can call 504.218.6613.

Thursday, December 1, 2005

Sewing business in Oak Hill

Published in the Current

A Scarborough resident has moved her home-based business to the Oak Hill shopping center, and will open Dec. 5.

Bette Brunswick has run the Dancing Damsel, a custom sewing and alteration business, out of her home for about three years, and has been sewing personally and professional for 30 years.

Last week, she started moving her sewing machines into a space that has been home to several businesses in recent years, most recently the Golden Giraffe, which opened and closed almost simultaneously earlier this year.

Brunswick said she had anticipated making the move in the spring, but “spring came early this year,” and the heavy October rains caused water damage in a part of her home workspace, pushing her to make the move now.

With a degree in mechanical design, she creates her own patterns and designs for customers, as well as taking in alterations. Her location is near three drycleaners, which she expects to help business.

Much of her work is in bridal and home décor, a strong market recently, she said. Brunswick said she had also kept her eye out for space near Bosal Foam and Fabric, a fabric store in Dunstan.

S.P. man files million-dollar claim against city

Published in the Current

SOUTH PORTLAND (Dec 1, 2005): A South Portland man has filed a notice that he may sue the city of South Portland for $1 million in compensation for what he says was excessive force used by three police officers during an arrest July 20.

Stephen E. Parker has claimed that as a result of the incident his left shoulder, arm and hand were injured, “including permanent nerve damage,” that he suffered “emotional distress” and that his constitutional rights were violated.

The officers allegedly involved were Officer Kevin Gerrish, who Parker claims initially stopped Parker’s vehicle, and two officers Parker’s claim said responded as “backup,” Officer Jeffrey Caldwell and Lt. Todd Bernard, who was a sergeant at the time. Parker’s claim also names Police Chief Edward Googins and claims wrongdoing also on the part of the South Portland Police Department and the city of South Portland.

Parker’s claim alleges he was shot by a taser gun, sometimes also called a “stun gun,” which fires small electrodes at a person and then discharges an electric shock, temporarily disabling the person.

Parker’s filing claims he “was not dangerous or physically threatening to anyone,” and goes on to say that after Parker was shot with the taser, “officers brought him to the ground and continued their assault on him.”

The claim is not a lawsuit, but notifies the city that he may file suit in the future. City attorney Mary Kahl said many people who file notices of claim do not end up filing lawsuits. The notice of claim gives the city time to investigate and determine what really happened, she said. If there is no out-of-court settlement and no lawsuit, the allegations contained in the notice of claim simply expire, she said.

Parker, 39, of 4 Spurwink Ave. was arrested on charges of operating under the influence and refusing to submit to arrest or detention on Sawyer Street at 8:10 p.m. July 20, according to police records.

Parker was out of state and could not be reached for comment. His attorney, Benjamin Gideon of Lewiston, did not return multiple messages seeking comment. Gerrish did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Googins said the department has launched an internal investigation into the incident, as it does in response to all notices of claim or other complaints. The investigation began earlier this month, when the notice arrived, because Parker had made no previous complaint about the incident, Googins said.

“I can’t respond to his allegation” because of the ongoing internal investigation, Googins said.

Kahl said the claim has been handed off to the city’s insurer, the Maine Municipal Association, where a spokeswoman declined to discuss the claim, or even confirm that it existed.

Kahl said the city investigation is “unlikely” to find fault with any of the officers. If the city did, it could choose to negotiate a settlement with Parker, which would forestall an actual lawsuit. Kahl said in the 15 years she has been the city’s attorney, the city only chose to settle in advance one claim, in which a person slipped and fell on ice.

“Because of the nature of what (police) do,” she said, “it’s not unusual for any municipal police department to periodically have a claim filed.”

“There have been few complaints” of excessive force against the city’s police, and those that have been filed are usually resolved in favor of the police, Kahl said.

In 2003, a federal jury rejected a claim by a North Waterboro woman that South Portland Police Officer James Fahey had used unnecessary force against her during an arrest in May 2002.

The woman, Robyn Toler, claimed that without provocation Fahey threw her to the ground and pushed her head against a police car while she was handcuffed. Fahey said he threw her to the ground to prevent her from spitting in his face. He denied pushing her head against a car.

And in 1992, a federal judge found that South Portland Police Officer Andrew Kennedy had not used excessive force during an arrest on Broadway in February 1991.