Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Selling support

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Carolyn Gillis, a Falmouth mother who attracted national notice in 2004 for founding — a Web site with a yard-sale motif, where families can sell off their junk and donate some of the profit to benefit the town’s public schools — is broadening her reach. Gillis, who has since set up a similar site for the Westbrook schools, has just expanded the model to, which channels money to charities in Maine and around the country.

The seller posts info about an item for sale, including a suggested price, and designates a charity from a list of about a dozen (ranging from the hyper-local Another Chance Animal Rescue in South Berwick to the globally minded, and chooses a percentage of the sale price that will be donated — from one percent to the full sale price.

Prospective buyers can search for specific items or by product category or, curiously, by the charity they wish to help. Based on the sample ads (all five of them, which are the only postings on the site as of now), a person who wanted to support would have to love the water, because the only items offered on that charity’s behalf are a $60,000 sailboat (with half the money to the group), or a $75 kayak (25 percent donated). An animal-rescue fan has a choice of buying a $3000 baby grand piano or, well, nothing. (Anyone can donate directly to the charities through links on the site, and Gillis doesn’t take any cut.)

Wouldn’t it be nice if somebody tried to sell a piece of toast branded with the image of the Virgin Mary, and (a Web-based casino, which apparently has a collection of such artifacts) shelled out $28,000 for the holy bread and sent a sizeable percentage to a nonprofit along the way? Seems to happen all the time on that other online auction site, whose name we just can’t remember right now.

Thursday, December 7, 2006

Naughty or nice? The holiday displays that put the bah in our humbug

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Portland-area residents do pretty well when it comes to horrendous light displays. By well, I mean absolutely, over the top, slap-a-ribbon-on-me tacky. I’m not talking about the traditional candles-in-the-windows or the subdued wreath-on-the-door. What I want are the light displays visible as you approach from miles down the street, or coming in from I-295. Or even, as Danny DeVito’s character suggests in the light-display extravaganza Deck the Halls, “from space.” We at the Phoenix found these all on our own, without relying on the movie’s Web site, which at press time lists just two “decked” homes in Maine. Clearly the Deck site is asleep at the sleigh, so herewith, our best of the worst:

Decked out
836 Broadway, South Portland
The top location this year, and with a strong prospect for next year’s showcase, is this home clearly labeled “North Pole” (equipped with a leaning, and apparently wayward, penguin), a Rudolph whose nether end is unlit (no guiding light there), an inflated tree around the site, and, to top it all off, Christmas music playing to passers-by. Don’t miss the Nativity scene, because Christmas is really all about the humble Baby Jesus. He would have loved this setup.

On the market
37 Fall Brook St, Portland
For sale: two-unit multi-family house on half an acre, apparently home to Santa and Mrs. Claus, Frosty the Snowman and a friend, and flashing snowflakes. Asking price $225,000, Santa not included.

Santa on a Harley
7 Woodmere Rd, Portland
A simple selection, unadorned with any other accoutrements, a shades-wearing Santa rides a flaming Harley through the suburbs off Allen Avenue. (No, the headlight isn’t red, and there aren’t any gifts in tow. This is Santa’s ride on a hall pass from the missus.)

Evil tree
460 Ocean Ave, Portland
The red candy canes illuminating this tree at Payson Park make me hungry. I also skipped breakfast this morning, so maybe that has something to do with it.

Frozen fish
230 Commercial St, Portland
Sapporo’s display actually looks better on paper than in real life. Perhaps it’s the reflection of the lights in the window distracting from the web of electrical cords exposed to the elements.

Kiss this
37 Casco St, Portland
Atop the entrance to “The Ambassador” apartment building is a festive green pyramid, but don’t stand under the mistletoe on the awning over the door — the passed-out guy on the top step might wake at any moment looking for love.

Zombie dolls
73 North St, Portland
These cheerful fellows make the most of a tiny Munjoy Hill front yard, but unlike the other displays, you have to catch them during the day — at night, they’re turned off and shrivel to tiny pieces of fabric on the ground, only to rise again the following morning.

Balls to the wall
231 Commercial St, Portland
Ah yes, those glowing balls of holiday cheer I love to hate. Get your ball fix throughout the downtown, but nowhere more abstractly than above Decorum.

Stocking stuffers:

Pole dancing
24 St Lawrence St, Portland
Not much special here, except the effort required to lift a five-pointed, two-dozen-lighted star some distance in the air on the back porch of this Munjoy Hill home. Which is enough.

Armed bear
29 Jordan Ave, SouthPortland
A polar bear carrying two sticks of uncertain origin does an approximation of the robot on the side of this lit lawn.

Three Santas
39 Mona Rd, Portland
A bicycle with “spinning” wheels is the first eye-catcher on this lawn, which also features a waving Santa, two other Santas, motorized dolls in the window, Minnie Mouse and Mickey Mouse dressed up for Mickey’s Christmas Carol, and a penguin blocking the front door.

Festooned follies
267 Brackett St, Portland
While perhaps more sweet than tacky, the moving elves in the front window of this West End townhouse are just plain creepy. And the lights around the door are a bit much.

Nonsectarian snowflakes
558 Main St, SouthPortland
Businesses are not exempt from holiday cheer. This chiropractic office has chosen the inoffensive snowflake as its expression of winter wonders.

963 Washington Ave, Portland
Meloon’s Florists takes a very specific approach, with lifelike statues in a timeless moment from “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Is this the part where Santa redeems Rudolph from the status of outcast? Or is it the little-known section where Santa laughs at the illuminated proboscis, just like all the other reindeer? We’ll never tell.

Snow cones?
end of Mona Rd, Portland
It’s unclear what exactly Tigger and Pooh are thinking mounting poor Frosty and the jar of “hunny,” but I’m pretty sure they need some adult supervision.

Choo-choo chintz
921 Highland Ave, SouthPortland
Even the mailbox is decorated at this house, which also includes a decorated garage and a train puffing “smoke” in lights.

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

State: One Santa okay; another no way

Published in the Portland Phoenix and the Boston Phoenix

Maine regulators have refused to approve an English beer’s label featuring Santa Claus holding a beer, saying it makes the product attractive to children. But they didn’t balk at approving the label for Gritty’s Christmas Ale, which shows a man dressed up as Santa Claus, also holding a beer.

In October, the state agency that approves beer-bottle labels (yes, we have one; it’s the Liquor Licensing and Compliance division of the Department of Public Safety) wrote to Shelton Brothers, importer of Santa’s Butt (a winter porter), saying the beer’s label (which shows a rear view of a fat-assed Santa sitting on a type of barrel that’s called a “butt”), and two other beer-bottle labels featuring bare-breasted women, are “undignified or improper.”

Last week, Shelton Brothers filed suit in federal court, saying the state’s ban and the rule it is based on violate the First Amendment’s protection of artistic expression.

New York and Connecticut have recently expressed similar concerns over artwork on bottles imported by Shelton Brothers, a Massachusetts-based beer importer (headquartered, of all places, in Belchertown), but anti-censorship lawsuits in those states led to the bans being reversed.

In remarks to the press before he began declining to comment on the case, Maine State Police Lieutenant Patrick Fleming, who heads the state’s liquor-licensing agency, elaborated, saying the depiction of Santa might appeal to children.

That doesn’t wash with Gritty’s owner Richard Pfeffer. “Children aren’t really in the beer aisle all that much, unless they’re accompanied by adults,” he says. The Gritty’s Christmas Ale label has met with no problems from regulators, and was re-approved in April.

Shelton Brothers imports nearly 150 beers from around the world, and has run into trouble with a few of them, mostly relating to holiday designs brewed by the Ridgeway Brewery in England, whose brewer — a friend of the Sheltons — collaborates with them on beer and label ideas.

Maine officials have also declined to say whether this ruling means long-approved labels on other beers might also now be determined to appeal to children. (In addition to the Gritty’s Christmas Ale with Santa, several breweries have beers whose labels include drawings of dogs, for example.) Approval by the state does not force a store to display or sell a particular beer; stores can choose for themselves.

Daniel Shelton, one of the brothers who owns the import company, says even if Maine reverses its decision — which state liquor-licensing supervisor Jeff Austin said had not happened as of Tuesday — the lawsuit will continue, to get a court to strike down the state’s rule, which Shelton says is “way too vague.”

In addition to Santa’s Butt porter, Maine regulators have banned sales of Les Sans Culottes (a French blonde ale), whose label features a detail from the 1830 Eugene Delacroix painting Liberty Leading the People. The symbolic figure of Liberty is a bare-breasted woman carrying a French flag and a rifle and bayonet. The painting hangs in the Louvre.

A third label to be rejected by the state, Rosé de Gambrinus (a raspberry-flavored Belgian lambic), features a painting specially commissioned by the brewery depicting Gambrinus, an unofficial patron of beers and brewing and legendary king of Flanders, with a naked woman on his lap (symbolizing beer, according to the lawsuit).

The state has yet to file a reply in court.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Our real founding father? A lawyer’s story of John Cooke

Published in the Portland Phoenix and the Boston Phoenix

It’s just plain too bad John Cooke is not around anymore. The 17th-century English lawyer who turned the divine right of kings to rule unquestioned into a crime punishable by death would be welcome here in our waning democracy.

Geoffrey Robertson, a British human-rights attorney, has drawn from an array of primary sources for his reinterpretation of the life of a man not quite lost to history. Much can be made of its relevance to current events, in which we seek to prosecute malevolent presidents and dictators under the law rather than assassinate them in their beds. We owe this dignity — and many of the protections in the US Constitution, as well as the right to an attorney, and even public registries of land ownership — to Cooke.

He has till now been remembered by a single word: “regicide.” He did, after all, invent a new crime, tyranny, and then accuse Charles I of having committed it. The king’s refusal to recognize the court and the court’s failure to assume innocence rather than guilt (which would have been another innovation) condemned Charles to the ax in 1649.

Robertson is the first biographer of Cooke, whose legal-reform efforts predate and rival those of the American Founding Fathers. (Some are so far-reaching that they remain unfulfilled, such as having lawyers spend 10 percent of their time helping the indigent.) For the better understanding of the real roots of American democracy alone — and where we have gone astray since — this book is more than worth the read.

But Robertson goes farther, delving into tiny, gruesome details and bringing a lawyer’s mind to the task of reviewing their significance. Although many historians have marveled at the efforts to which the Parliamentarians went to create a legalistic air about the trial of Charles I, none has so minutely described the machinations by which the Puritans massaged the law, the Bible, and their own consciences in the effort to do right, in the right way. Robertson sheds new light on how devotion to the law and to the word of God gave the Puritans’ life daily meaning, and he chides historians for not discovering what he did.

Although religion was the starting point of 17th-century religious reformers in England, morality became their watchword, and ruthless logic their method. But the English Puritans (a separate group from the Brownists, a tiny sect who later became what we know as the Pilgrims) got in their own way while trying to improve the godliness of their government. In the middle of the Civil War, some Puritan thinkers realized that what they really wanted was to restore the king to the throne. But they also realized that he would never accept the constitutional-monarchy constraints Parliament was seeking to impose.

What to do? Finding someone to sneak in and stab the king or poison his food was not acceptable. Instead, they found a lawyer to put the king on trial. That lawyer was Cooke, whose sense of logic and justice was so powerful that even when on the scaffold himself in 1660, about to be hanged, drawn, and quartered at the hands of the Restoration, he comforted other condemned men and encouraged his family to rejoice that he was going to meet his beloved God.

The Tyrannicide Brief: The Story of the Man who Sent Charles I to the Scaffold | By Geoffrey Robertson | Pantheon Books | 448 pages | $30

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Bangor Daily lays off 11; Press Herald hiring

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Two days after Election Day, the Bangor Daily News laid off its sole State House reporter and 10 others.

The Thursday layoff victims included 35-year veteran AJ Higgins, who started at the newspaper as a “stereotyper,” creating lead plates for the printing presses, and worked his way up to serving as the paper’s State House reporter in Augusta.

Managing editor Julie Harris said Friday “we’ve had better days,” and “it was a very sad day here yesterday.” She said the reason for the layoffs was “economic” — specifically that “circulation is down” and “advertising is down.”

Executive editor Mark Woodward said all departments were reduced in some way, noting that the company’s staff is down about 20 people over the last several weeks, as a result of some people retiring and others leaving “of their own volition,” in addition to the layoffs.

Higgins, reached by phone on Friday, said cheerily he was “looking for work,” and seemed unperturbed. “I think my boss felt worse than I did,” he said. He said he “knew something was up about a week ago,” that the paper was not getting the revenue the company hoped for. “I figured there was about a 20-percent chance they would come for me,” because he was “probably one of their higher-paid reporters,” and because the paper has access to Associated Press coverage of the State House. Woodward said the news staff would determine next week how to handle coverage in Augusta and elsewhere with fewer staff.

“They’ll have something but they won’t have what they had, and I think they know that,” Higgins said. He said the editorial department “took the biggest hit,” though there were others laid off from other departments.

A prepared statement from Woodward’s office said the laid-off employees were “offered extended severance packages,” which Higgins described as “generous . . . very fair, very kind.”

In other Maine newspaper developments, the Portland Press Herald has posted 27 open positions on the newspaper’s jobs Web site, The open positions, primarily in the news and circulation departments, include: online editor, assistant managing editor for features, distribution assistant, and circulation helper.

Wednesday, November 1, 2006

‘In the story’: Cape Elizabeth author Clint Willis explores himself in a biography of others

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Clint Willis grew up reading the stories of adventurers like Chris Bonington, a twentysomething English climber around whom collected a group of young mountaineers who would redefine their sport, and, for some, the definition of the possible.

Willis, a longtime rock climber who now lives in Cape Elizabeth, read their climbing journals, spending as much time between the pages as some of the writers spent on the sides of mountains.
And when he grew up, Willis, rooted in rock climbing, made the intellectual leap to mountaineering. He has never climbed a big peak, but that didn’t stop him from bringing armchair adventures to a wider audience, beginning with the November 1997 publication of Epic: Stories of Survival from the World’s Highest Peaks. It was the first of a series of anthologies of particularly strong writings by mountaineers pushing the limits of their bodies, minds, and spirits.
Following shortly with High: Stories of Survival from Everest and K2 and Climb: Stories of Survival from Rock, Snow and Ice, Willis created collections, as he noted in introductions to several of them, that were the kinds of anthologies he himself wanted to read. Those books and about 40 others published the stories that didn’t make the headlines — except maybe in passing — but were true-life, human stories of a person or a small group going well beyond what most of us think we can achieve, doing something incredible, and surviving.
With his newest book, The Boys of Everest: Chris Bonington and the Tragedy of Climbing’s Greatest Generation, Willis heads into new territory. But though it is not an anthology and he has written every word, the stories he tells are still very dependent on the writings of others. (Some were even included in his earlier collections.) The book, on local shelves now, has been named a finalist in the “mountain literature” category at the prestigious Banff Mountain Book Festival (with results to be announced Thursday).
Bonington and his friends attempted — and climbed — some of Europe’s most spectacular peaks — the Eiger, the Bonatti Pillar of Petit Dru, the Central Pillar of Freney on Mont Blanc — and made early or first ascents of Himalayan routes thought by many to be unclimbable. Their efforts were monumental, their suffering at times crippling, their survival seemingly impossible.
What’s more, they climbed these peaks with little or no support from the traditional climbing establishment, and largely without native porters or sustained “siege-style” assaults, like those common on Mount Everest even today.
These men were legends-in-the-making; among them were Joe Tasker and Peter Boardman, whose writing was nearly as powerful as their climbing, and Don Whillans, who invented the high-altitude shelter known as the Whillans Box on a series of climbs with Bonington. But it was their writing that earned Willis’s respect, almost more than their physical and mental exertions. “These guys are my heroes,” he says.
Willis writes as though he’s an expert mountaineer who knows firsthand the cold and pain and blood of a daring high-altitude climb. He isn’t. He writes as though he witnessed the events he describes. He didn’t. Yet his voice is authoritative because he’s steeped himself in the climbers’ first-person accounts and experienced the thrills and hardships of climbing vicariously for so long that he has internalized the sport’s emotional vocabulary.
He relied heavily on the people about whom he writes, who left detailed chronicles of their exploits as they laid the groundwork for light and fast movement up, down, and through the mountains — their lives quite literally hanging in the balance.
“Almost all of these guys have written about their expeditions,” Willis says, noting that many climbers keep journals of their efforts that include “blow-by-blow” recollections of the most minute details, so precise that — if a climber had three hands — he could, with the right skills, equipment, and daring, follow right along the route as if reading simple driving directions.
The book itself is almost cinematic in its alternation between big-picture “wide shots” of a climber’s position (physically, emotionally, situationally), and tight close-ups where the reader can see the grain of the rock as a climber’s fingers scrabble for purchase. In its transitions between great intensity and great detachment — the drama of a literal cliff-hanger turning into a distant image of a body falling through the sky — The Boys of Everest lacks a consistent tone, which can be jarring when it is not enthralling. And because of its scope, the book is sometimes necessarily choppy, moving back or forward in time between chapters as Willis maneuvers the characters (and their backstories) into position for the denouement: the 1982 assault on Mount Everest that decimated what remained of the team.
Willis has been inspired by these risk-it-all adventurers, not just in his life, but in his writing. He faced challenges similar to the people he wrote about: complete freedom to move anywhere he could conceive of, the cold crush of reality on his dreams, the loneliness of the endeavor, and the fact that he was not in control of what happened next. And he was able to explore his own youthful dreams and visions, much the way the subjects of his books did.
Where the climbers themselves disagree or are silent, Willis has used his imagination — always based on as much research and fact as he could find — to fill in some of the gaps, such as recreating the exact circumstances under which a disoriented, exhausted climber just walked off the edge of a mountain into freefall.
He admits this approach is unorthodox, but he takes advantage of resources many biographers lack: the living memories of the people Willis writes about, or their surviving friends and family, revisited repeatedly over the five years he spent writing the book.
In doing what he called taking “liberties,” he felt a deep sense of responsibility with the stories of his heroes: “all we have to give each other, is the reality of our lives,” he says, suggesting that even an accidental misportrayal would be nothing short of betrayal.
He likened his efforts to “being in the story,” and while researching and writing, found a deeper understanding of the men whose lives and feats had inspired the younger version of himself: “When you reimagine a story this way, you end up realizing that it actually happened,” he says, his voice breaking with emotion.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Press Herald to host section-front ads

Published in the Portland Phoenix

The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram will begin publishing paid advertisements on the front pages of its Business, Outdoors, and Sports sections starting October 1, according to employees who spoke on the condition they not be named, for fear of losing their jobs.

The move comes two years after the paper spent $500,000 to redesign its material to fit a narrower page (a change, according to company statements at the time, that reduced newsprint costs by five percent), and at a time when the paper’s Seattle-based parent company’s commitment to Maine is in question.

Section-front ads represent both a throwback and a look at the future. In centuries past, when newspapers’ editorial copy was unashamedly partisan, many newspapers melded advertising and reporting with little apparent worry that readers would perceive bias in news coverage of a paper’s large advertisers. In recent times, the practice has been considered a violation of the strict division between editorial content and advertising. But page-one advertising is becoming increasingly common as publications scramble for additional ad revenue. And in years to come, the industry may see more publishers adopt the strategy of selling such very-high-profile advertising positions.

Maine daily newspapers are split on the topic. Richard Warren, publisher of the Bangor Daily News, says section-front ads are “not a topic of discussion” at his paper, and though he says he “wouldn’t rule it out . . . it would be a change in our traditional approach.” But the Lewiston Sun Journal sells ads on its front page.

The New York Times and the Times-owned Boston Globe began selling section-front ads earlier this summer. And this month, the Wall Street Journal began running ads on its front page, selling for a reported $75,000 or more per day.

In July, the executive editor at the Press Herald/Telegram’s parent newspaper, the Seattle Times, wrote a column defending his paper’s section-front ads in parts of the paper where “content essentially is a consumer guide and the ad content is an important part of the total content mix, such as Motoring, Job Market, and Travel” — not the news-oriented sections that are getting section-front ads at the Press Herald/Telegram.

The trend worries newspaper ethicists, such as Bob Steele of the Poynter Institute, who wrote in July that his major concern was not ad placement, but the possible shift away from using newspaper profits to pay for improved journalism.

“We must make sure the journalism does not suffer,” Steele wrote. “If we are to make more bucks by selling the out-front space, let’s make sure that some of the increased revenue goes right back into the commitment to journalism.”

On another front, though neither publisher Chuck Cochrane nor editor Jeannine Guttman returned calls seeking comment, three postings on the newspaper’s help-wanted Web site suggest that at least departing staff is being replaced, perhaps signaling the end of a year-old hiring freeze.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Ubu Studio to close next month

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Frank Turek, the collager-assemblist owner of Ubu Studio at 316A Congress Street, will close the gallery at the end of October, he confirmed Monday.

Specializing in the “underground” art scene, the gallery has been home to shows like “Pseudo Science Fiction,” by Mike Libby and “Copyartistamps,” by Reed Altemus. But after two years, Turek is retreating to do his own work, some of which has been on view at the gallery. He has rented a studio workspace in the State Theatre building on Congress Street.

And he may end the gallery’s run with a bang, providing a venue for “Can’t Jail the Spirit: Art by Political Prisoner Tom Manning and Others,” the controversial art show cancelled by the University of Southern Maine September 8, seven days into a scheduled seven-week run.

Turek said he is still working out the details of the show, but if things go as planned, it would open October 6, for the First Friday Artwalk.

Widow speaks out - Wife of fallen trooper: marchers don't understand

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Across the Casco Bay Bridge, at a fund-raiser for the family of New York State Trooper Joseph Longobardo, killed in August while attempting to capture a man who had escaped from a New York jail, members of Maine’s law-enforcement community gathered around the widow of the man murdered by Manning in a 1981 highway shootout.

Donna Lamonaco, wearing a T-shirt with a picture of her husband, New Jersey State Trooper Philip Lamonaco, and a blue bracelet with his name, took questions and hugs from supporters.

She had originally planned to come to participate in a protest against the exhibit at USM, but after university president Richard Pattenaude ordered the paintings removed she converted her visit into a fund-raiser and a chance to thank “all of the Maine law-enforcement officials” who objected to the exhibit.

One of those was Breen Savage, a retired Maine State Police corporal and chairman of the Northeast Conference of the Blue Knights, a law-enforcement motorcycle group.

“The night that Phil died, I was working the Maine Turnpike,” Savage said, recalling that Manning’s group and other violent political-action groups in the 1970s and ’80s had police officers worried they would run into armed men and women during traffic stops.

“Today we call people like that urban terrorists,” Savage said. Then, there was no special word for them, just “outlaws, criminals, crooks.”

Lamonaco said she didn’t mind Manning’s supporters marching so much as she feared they were confused. “You want to march, march,” she said. “If you’re going to march behind a cause, make sure you understand both sides. I don’t feel they understand ... Thomas Manning is nothing but a murderer.”

She did object to people saying Manning had a right to express himself, saying he had lost that right when he went to prison. He can do art, she said, and keep it in his cell.

“You don’t have the right to . . . send it over the walls.”

Now that the paintings are outside the walls, though, she wants to be a living reminder: “I don’t have the right to say you shouldn’t be looking at them, but if you look at them, know the full story of what they represent.”

Wednesday, September 6, 2006

One-stop shopping for eye candy

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Whether you’re after meaty jocks or beauteous babes, you can find them in one place this weekend: Fitzpatrick Stadium on Park Avenue in Portland.

More than a dozen Maine beauty queens, including Mrs. Maine-US, Elizabeth Hamilton-Guarino, and Mrs. Maine-International, Nicole Massey (as well as a few Miss Maines), will be honorary captains of the Southern Maine Raging Bulls football team during Saturday afternoon’s game, a collaboration the team is calling “Beauty and the Cleats.”

The Raging Bulls, a AAA semi-pro team (whose collaboration with the beauty queens got started because one of their players works for Hamilton-Guarino’s husband) are the only Maine team in the eight-team Colonial Conference of the New England Football League. They’re 3-3 on the season, tied for second in the Suburban division, with four games left to play.

The Bulls will be slamming into the Medford Mustangs starting at 1 pm (tickets are $6), and we can expect the home-grown raging beauties to be jumping around on the sidelines, cheering the players on.

The team’s final two home games of the season will be against the North Shore Generals, at 6 pm on September 16, and the Lowell Nor’easters, at 6 pm on September 23. There’s no telling if the beauty queens will show up for repeat performances, so don't miss this week’s game.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Press Herald for sale? Maine’s largest newspaper could have a new owner in the next two years

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Union officials negotiating new contracts at three Maine daily newspapers — the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, the Waterville-based Morning Sentinel, and the Augusta-based Kennebec Journal — have begun to assume that the papers will soon be for sale, given the magnitude of the cutbacks sought by management. If the union position were substantially weakened, that would make the papers — which are struggling financially — far more appealing to outside buyers.

The papers are owned by the same family-run company that controls a majority interest in the Seattle Times newspaper in Washington state. And it has been a subject of widespread speculation in newspaper circles that the Times was itself up for sale.

The papers are controlled by the Blethen family, of whom patriarch Frank Blethen is the fourth generation to run the Seattle Times, which was bought in 1896 by his great-grandfather Alden Blethen, who was born in Maine but moved to Seattle as an adult.

One hundred and ten years have taken their toll on the Seattle paper, and the eight years of Blethen ownership of the Maine newspapers have been an additional weight on the finances of the company. Both companies are struggling: in Seattle, the Times is fighting a bitter battle against Hearst, the owner of Seattle’s other daily newspaper, the Post-Intelligencer, hoping to close the P-I. The company has stated that it has lost millions of dollars over the past six years alone.

In Maine, where the Blethens’ 1998 purchase of the Press Herald and the other newspapers from Guy Gannett Publishing was heralded by pledges of increased revenues and decreased costs, costs have increased (despite hiring freezes, layoffs, and the shrinking of the physical size of the newspaper) while revenues have, at best, remained flat, according to company statements.

Because the Blethen interests are privately held, it is difficult to predict or speculate on their business dealings, but changes within the newspaper industry have given the family a new way out of a years-long financial mess. That new way effectively requires the sale of the Blethens’ Maine newspapers, despite the company’s longstanding practice of extolling family ownership over what they call “absentee corporations.”

In September 2003, Frank Blethen (who refused to comment for this story) told Press Herald reporter Edward D. Murphy he had considered selling the Seattle Times to raise badly needed operating cash, but was talked out of it by other family members. He said he was frustrated with suffering continued losses. And though the article summed up Blethen’s position as “ruling out” selling newspapers, it did quote him with a telling statement: “You have to ask yourself the question, ‘Can you just keep going?’” The answer three years later: not much longer.

Seeing the light
The Seattle Times Company is run primarily by the Blethen family, who have 50.5 percent of the voting stock, and by voting as a bloc control the direction of the company, sometimes over the objections of the minority owner. Until just a few months ago, the Knight Ridder media conglomerate held the remaining 49.5 percent of the company's voting stock. Last year, Knight Ridder ran afoul of its shareholders, who forced the company to put itself up for sale in mid-November 2005. The company was bought in mid-March to the McClatchy Company, a California-based newspaper chain whose flagship is the Sacramento Bee. (The $6.5-billion deal received the blessing of federal anti-trust regulators in June, in part because McClatchy sold off some Knight Ridder papers in markets where McClatchy already owned a paper.)

A couple months after Knight Ridder announced it would sell itself off to the highest bidder, Blethen representatives at the Morning Sentinel and the Kennebec Journal introduced new proposals into ongoing contract-renewal talks with those papers’ respective unions. The proposals, which are still being disputed by the unions, would give the Blethens permission to take away tasks from union workers and assign them to contract or freelance workers. But the move that really upset union representatives was a provision that would let the company move those tasks back to full-time workers who would not have to be members of the union.

To union members, that means a person could be laid off, their job taken away and given to a contractor, and the company could later hire the contractor as a full-time staffer who would be outside the union. Over time — some estimate about 10 years; others worry it could be far less — the union would just wither away. It’s a move negotiators have called “union-bashing,” and company representatives have told the unions to expect the same provision to be demanded during next year’s contract-renewal negotiations with the union at the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram. (At all three papers, the unions represent not only reporters and lower-level staff editors, but also workers in layout, printing, advertising, circulation, and distribution.)

The move reversed the position the Blethen family had taken toward unions eight years ago, when buying the Maine papers from the Guy Gannett company: though they were not required to do so by any law or business rule, the Blethens agreed to honor pre-existing contracts with unions. Now, the lawyer for the Portland Newspaper Guild, John Richardson (yes, the one who also serves as Speaker of the Maine House), speculates that the anti-union shift is an effort “to make the papers as presentable as possible for a future sale.”

Stuck in the mud
Some industry analysts say the union-busting attempt is not necessarily an indicator of a pending sale. Rick Edmonds of the Poynter Institute says management simply doesn’t like unions, even though organized labor is weaker because both unions and companies are less financially able to endure long strikes, unions’ ultimate weapon.

Most media companies don’t like unions, agrees Lou Ureneck, a 20-year Press Herald veteran now chairing the Boston University journalism department. “Unions increase costs and reduce flexibility for management,” he says.

“Flexibility” is exactly the buzzword the Blethen Maine Newspapers negotiators are using. An assistant to Blethen Maine CEO Chuck Cochrane returned a call to his office, saying the company would not comment on labor negotiations, which the company feels are “best resolved at the bargaining table.” In response to calls seeking comment on other aspects of this story, the assistant explained Cochrane “does not give interviews” as a general practice.

But representatives of the Portland Newspaper Guild were happy to talk. “We don’t understand their need to take everything away from our contract,” says Darla Pickett, chapter chairman at the Morning Sentinel.

The unions have asked for the company’s justification, and have gotten the response that the company wants “flexibility.” The company says “they have no plan . . . but they just want it,” says Mike Sylvester, the union’s executive director.

He believes that constitutes bad-faith negotiations on the part of the company, recalling an October offer by the union to re-negotiate a side deal to help the company reduce health-insurance premiums. But the company, he says, accepted the offer by demanding the union waive all rights to negotiate over healthcare in the future. The side deal was ultimately worked out, without the waiver of future rights, but “We had to fight them to save them hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Sylvester says.

In Seattle, the Times’s union staffers are embroiled in a bitter dispute that some fear could bring a repeat of the last negotiations, when for seven weeks in the winter of 2000-’01, newspaper workers struck, a move that cost the Times as many as 30,000 subscribers, according to Seattle union president Yoko Kuramoto-Eidsmoe, who also says the Blethens took that dispute “personally.”

All of this was happening before Knight Ridder was actually sold, so the position on unions of the future buyer was not certain, but the industry has been moving away from unions for some time.

In 2003, Seattle Times freelancer Bill Richards, hired under a special contract to report independently on the JOA, reported — to loud Blethen denials — that the Blethens’ financial picture may not be as bleak as they have long claimed. But in the intervening three years, across the industry, expenses have only climbed, and revenues have been flat or declining. So if the Blethens’ picture was rosier than they said then, it has only worsened. In 2004, the Times sold six acres of downtown Seattle land to Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen for $31 million, in a deal Frank Blethen told his newspaper would allow him to avoid major cutbacks throughout the company.

The Maine papers’ picture is worse still: in 1998, the Blethens’ Seattle Times Company officials told the Press Herald they would have to increase revenue and cut costs to make a profit in Maine. But between 1999 and 2003, there were two rounds of layoffs at the Press Herald, by far the largest of the three Blethen-owned Maine dailies. In mid-October 2005, the Press Herald announced a hiring freeze, and a week later said it was laying off 15 workers and eliminating six vacant positions, blaming flat revenues and dropping circulation.

In 1998, the Press Herald’s circulation was 74,500, and the Maine Sunday Telegram’s was 124,500, according to the press release announcing the sale to the Blethens. In April 2006, daily circulation was at 68,100, and Sunday was at 106,750, according to publisher’s statements on file with the Audit Bureau of Circulations, an independent agency that monitors newspaper circulation. That’s a nine percent drop in daily circ, and 14 percent on Sundays.

Where to go?
The anti-union efforts in Maine (as well as powerful anti-union negotiations in Seattle this year, including a demand for Times employees to accept a two-year wage freeze) will come to a head by the middle of next year. The Press Herald/Sunday Telegram contract expires in May 2007, the same month the arbitrator’s decision is due in the Seattle JOA case.

Even if they win the JOA case, if the Blethens suddenly unveil hidden riches, they will only be inviting another legal battle over allegations they misled everyone in the dispute. And if they lose, with no land left to sell to raise money and limited prospects for improving newspaper revenue, their options will be limited.
One of those options — indeed, one of the best — is to sell a newspaper or a group of papers. Frank Blethen has repeatedly said he would not sell the Seattle Times or the Maine newspapers, citing family connections to the two regions.

The family can’t — or won’t — sell the Times, mainly because Hearst has a right-of-first-refusal agreement to buy it if the paper ever goes on the block. Frank in particular has spent years of time and gallons of ink badmouthing big-corporation ownership of media companies. (And in 2001, the family turned down a buyout offer of $750 million from Knight Ridder, including assuming $250 million in company debt. The family must have known it was the best offer they would see for many years to come.)

The Blethens’ reputation in Seattle is in part based in its opposition to companies such as Hearst. The family “literally think that everybody is out to crush them and their legacy of family ownership,” says Elizabethe Brown, administrative officer of the Pacific Northwest Newspaper Guild, which represents employees at both Seattle dailies. To sell their flagship newspaper to the company they have accused for years of being an “absentee owner” would be a dramatic reversal of course
He could sell some of the smaller papers in Washington, but if he’s keeping the Times, it would certainly be useful to have some regional partners with which to share news and advertising.

What’s left are the papers in Maine, to which the family has sentimental (and thin historical) ties. The Blethen family is well ensconced in the Seattle area; it seems unlikely they would all uproot and move east, though one of the rumors in Seattle is that “Maine is the exit strategy,” according to Brown.

The family has been reducing its presence in Maine of late. The only Blethen family member still working in Maine is Robert Blethen Jr., a member of the “fifth generation” who works in circulation at the Press Herald. (There are other members of the family on the board of directors of Blethen Maine Newspapers, but they are required to come to Maine only once a year, for the company’s annual meeting.)

What then?
Though it would be hard to recoup the $200 million purchase price of the Maine papers, some estimates peg the McClatchy stake in the Seattle Times Company at $300 million, and one analyst has estimated McClatchy paid $150 million for that share, based on accepted formulas for calculating the purchase price of a newspaper asset.

If McClatchy sold its 49.5-percent share of the Seattle Times Company to the Blethens in exchange for the family’s Maine dailies, the Blethens would win on two counts. Not only would they have disentangled themselves from the Maine papers’ union fights and uncertain financial futures, but they would also fulfill a longstanding plan regarding the Seattle paper — namely, to be its sole owner. In March, the Press Herald reported, Blethen executive Chuck Cochrane said in a memo to that company’s Maine employees, “The Blethen Family is committed to retaining its majority ownership of the Seattle Times Company . . . and, if the opportunity ever presented itself, to acquire the minority interest.”

But McClatchy, which kept from the Knight Ridder deal papers in markets averaging 11.1 percent growth in number of households, would likely look at Maine’s projected population growth of 0.5 percent through 2020, and refuse a trade, preferring either to sell its share outright, or keep drawing meager dividends (which in 2005 gave Knight Ridder $3.7 million). That would leave the Blethens to find another buyer.

A self-congratulatory editorial on August 13 in the Maine Sunday Telegram paraphrased Frank Blethen as saying his family will not “take part” in the “jostling and realignment” of newspapers that has come after the Knight Ridder sale, suggesting the papers are not for sale.

On the same day (and also inspired by the 110th anniversary of the Seattle Times), Guttman wrote in her column that the family ownership of the Maine papers is the reason “so many of our journalists and employees have chosen to be at the newspaper.” She did not address the ongoing and looming labor disputes, but paraphrased Cochrane telling staffers “there is no corporate office in our company. There are no corporate directives or missives. At our newspaper, Maine people call the shots.” (That, presumably, includes such “Maine people” as Cochrane, who came here from Washington when the Blethens bought the papers, and Guttman, who started her career in California and came to Maine in 1994.)

Guttman wrote about how “values” and commitment to community are what drive the Press Herald/Sunday Telegram, rather than finances, saying “our goal is loftier than making record-higher profits quarter to quarter, year to year.” (That must be a relief, given the dark financial position the Seattle and Maine papers are in.) She wrote about the “freedom” that family ownership gives to a newspaper. And she quoted a memo from Frank Blethen on the occasion of the company’s 110th anniversary: “We are proud of the dedicated employees . . . We are pleased that we could keep Portland, Waterville, and Augusta away from the sorry fate of the faceless investor ownership which has fallen on most newspapers.”

Who else would be interested in buying? The Costello family, who own the Lewiston Sun Journal, have been expanding their holdings in Southern Maine in recent years, buying the weekly Forecaster chain in 2003, and in 2005 adding the Rumford Falls Times and the Norway Advertiser-Democrat. They, too, are a privately held family newspaper company with years of presence in Maine. There’s also the Warren family, who own the Bangor Daily News.

Chris Harte, a former publisher of the Press Herald/Sunday Telegram (when they were owned by Guy Gannett), who also used to be a Knight Ridder executive, was part of a group that bid to purchase the Philadelphia Daily News and the Philadelphia Inquirer, which became available as part of the McClatchy-Knight Ridder deal, but ended up not being the winning bidder.

Harte, an heir to the Texas-based Harte-Hanks newspaper fortune who lives in Cumberland Foreside and has an office in downtown Portland, is a major investor in the rapidly growing Current Publishing weekly-newspaper empire in Southern Maine. He told the Inquirer in March that he “might look at some of the other” papers Knight Ridder had held as well, though he says he is not likely to be interested in buying the Maine papers.

Kirsten Terry contributed to this report.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Law to address state ethics shortcomings: Baldacci responds to abuses first revealed in the Phoenix

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Three weeks after the Portland Phoenix first reported that Maine Turnpike Authority officials had been treated to a $1342 dinner at a posh Portland restaurant by a Turnpike consultant, Governor John Baldacci has asked all so-called “independent” state agencies to adopt a code of ethics if they do not already have one.

Though it was not illegal, the dinner had drawn criticism from the governor in the Phoenix’s story, in which a statement from Baldacci’s indicated he would “support legislation to apply the same financial ethical standards to independent authorities that apply to state government.” (See “E-ZPass on Ethics,” by Lance Tapley, August 4.)

The Maine Turnpike Authority has no code of financial ethics, according to agency spokesman Dan Paradee. Other agencies covered by the new edict include the Finance Authority of Maine (which handles student-loan grants, business-development loans, and other state-subsidized financial efforts), and the Baxter State Park Authority.

Baldacci, who cannot order other agencies to take specific actions, has also asked officials in his administration to develop a proposed law that would require each “independent” agency to develop a code of ethics, which are not now mandatory, though some authorities do have them.

Proposed Code of Ethics and Conduct:

• Be guided by the highest standards of honor, personal integrity, and fortitude in all public activities in order to merit the respect of other officials, employees and the public. Strive to inspire public confidence and trust in Maine State Government and its related institutions.

• Serve the citizens of the State with respect, concern, courtesy, and responsiveness, recognizing that government service means service to the people of Maine; keep the Legislature and public informed on pertinent issues.

• Strive for professional excellence and encourage the professional development of associates and those seeking to enter the field of public administration in order to provide effective and responsible government to the citizens of Maine. The primary role is to provide the best possible and most cost effective service to the citizens of Maine.

• Approach organizational and operational duties with a positive attitude and constructively support open communication, cooperation, creativity, dedication and compassion.

• Avoid any interest or activity which is in conflict with the conduct of official duties. Serve in a manner as to avoid inappropriate personal gain resulting from the performance of official duties.

• Respect and protect the privileged information to which there is access in the course of official duties.

• Use discretionary authority to promote the public interest.

• Accept as a personal duty the responsibility to be informed of emerging issues and to administer the public’s business with professional competence, fairness, impartiality, efficiency and effectiveness.

• Support, implement, and promote programs of affirmative action to assure equal opportunity in the recruitment, selection, and advancement of qualified persons from all elements of society.

• Respect and value the work done by the employees of Maine State Government and its related institutions.

Maine author reviving Marvel character

Published in the Portland Phoenix

The Son of Satan is being reborn in the brain of a Maine writer.

Alex Irvine, a former Portland Phoenix staff writer now teaching English at the University of Maine at Orono, is doing what he calls a “reboot” of Daimon Hellstorm, a character in the Doctor Strange section of the Marvel Comics universe.

The new comic, the first in a five-part series, will be out in October. Irvine has a short-story collection, Pictures from an Expedition, coming out in the next few days, and a novel about Batman, called Inferno, being released by DC Comics shortly, too. (That one includes a new villain, but that’s all we can tell you.)

Irvine landed the Hellstorm gig while on a visit to New York to read a short story at a bookstore, after which his agent introduced him to a Marvel editor, with whom Irvine “kicked around” some ideas for characters to work on.

“The Hellstorm thing dovetailed really nicely with a story idea I’d had in my head for a long time,” Irvine says.

He says the process of creating a comic is “completely different from writing fiction,” involving illustrators and colorists as well as editors. It’s Irvine’s first comic, though he says “I actually wanted to write comics before I wanted to write fiction,” and is talking with Marvel about doing more after this series.

In this story, which Irvine calls “horror-noir-ish,” Hellstorm is “much less super-hero-y,” and is instead depicted as a son struggling with his own independence as well as how to please his father, Satan — a congenital liar who stands for evil but who gets his son’s admiration all the same.

The basic plot involves “an infestation of demons in post-Katrina New Orleans,” which Hellstorm discovers, along with “a woman who appears to be Isis,” the ancient Egyptian goddess whose main task is to reassemble the body of Osiris, the judge of the dead and the granter of life, to resurrect him.

The demons in New Orleans, Irvine hints, are the key to the final piece of Osiris’s body — what Irvine gently calls the “generative organs.” And, not to disappoint fans, the story has plenty of demons and “bloodshed and gruesome stuff,” he assures.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Daytime TV turns into a book

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Blame it on Oprah. Her penchant for finding strange but true stories and putting them on daytime television has inspired not only the tele-shrink career of Dr. Phil, but a novel by an Iranian immigrant living here in Portland.

And, though it’s a suspense thriller, the themes and ideas make Ali Alavi’s The Tombland’s Tale (self-published; 269 pages; $12.95) the kind of on-your-toes-but-feeling-good book Oprah might even like. Plus, it’s fiction, so she needn’t worry about any messy disclosures later.

Alavi, an earnestly softspoken USM grad who moved to Portland as an international student at USM in 1995, set his book in his adopted home, the Forest City, and on Peaks Island, using some of his own frequent haunts, like the USM campus and Exchange Street, and other vaguely camouflaged local elements (“the Atlantic Pearl, a floating restaurant” and the “A.P. Warren” paper company )as settings . Released last week, the creepy thriller explores the disappearance of three exotic dancers who work at a Portland strip club.

In this, his first novel, Alavi found a use for a character he had had in mind for a while, a forensic psychologist with spiritual leanings named Rashid Sanjih. Sanjih, a USM professor, plays mentor to Christopher Wayne, a character based on Alavi himself. Wayne, like Alavi at the time he was writing the book, is an engineer beginning to realize that what he thought he wanted to do in life was not making him happy any more . Inspired by a late-night conversation with his mentor, Wayne retreat s to coastal Maine to write a novel.

Alavi, who has written three poetry collections in his native Persian and several short stories, knew that if was going to use his professor as a character, the psychologist would need a narrative conflict.

Alavi was stymied until he saw an episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show devoted to the real-life tale of a man who had abducted several women and kept them imprisoned for year s. Alavi knew that that story — including an on-camera interview with one of the victims — would form the basis of the book’s plot.

Into that mix Alavi threw some of the research he had been doing at USM, studying business administration, focusing on Jungian analysis of decision-making, seeking the subconscious motivations behind business choices. Inspired in part by New Hampshire author Wayne Dyer’s book The Power of Intentions as well as spiritually influenced fiction by Paulo Coelho, Alavi uses his protagonist to survey the concept that a person who puts himself in a positive, open state of mind causes inspiration to come and positive events to occur.

It’s just the sort of concept Oprah credits with her own success. Chalk up another one for the Queen of Lazy Afternoons.

Baxter School tries to ban Phoenix freelancer

Published in the Portland Phoenix

In response to our continued efforts to investigate conditions for students at the Governor Baxter School for the Deaf on Mackworth Island, the school has attempted to ban Portland Phoenix freelancer Rick Wormwood from the island, which is state-owned property, and part of which is a state park.

Wormwood has reported for the Phoenix about the school’s history of abuse (see “Why I Hate Mackworth Island”), and has continued to seek access to public records held by the school. He has previously been refused access to school grounds over the school’s objections to his reporting (see letter, “Past is Passed,” by Superintendent Larry Taub, June 18, 2004), and school officials have, as recently as last month, objected to Wormwood’s assignment to cover the school for the Phoenix.

An e-mail message, sent by Baxter Director of Business Operations Peter Gray to Wormwood on July 25, says, “you are no longer allowed access to Mackworth Island,” and says Gray made the decision “based on a long-standing history of confrontational outburts on the island,” alleging that one took place during Wormwood’s July 21 visit to hand-deliver a Freedom of Access request to the guardhouse on the island. The e-mail offers no specifics of the history.

In a surveillance-camera video recording of Wormwood’s July 21 visit to the island, shown to the Phoenix by Gray on July 24, Wormwood can be seen having a several-minute-long conversation with the guard. But the video, which has no accompanying audio, does not show Wormwood acting violent, threatening, or physically confrontational.

Wormwood replied to Gray’s e-mail in a letter seeking the formal legal grounds for the ban, in reply to which Gray wrote on July 27 that the school is seeking a restraining order.

Officials at the school, including Gray, Superintendent Larry Taub, and Director of Communications Jim Gemmell, did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story.

Assistant Attorney General Sarah Forster, who represents the Baxter School, says state law gives the school and the Department of Conservation joint jurisdiction over access to the island — which she describes as an “unusual” use of state land — possibly without a restraining order, though she says, “someone who was unhappy with that could sue them.”

Thursday, July 6, 2006

Fighting for freedom: You are the key to government openness

Published in the Portland Phoenix

I carry a copy of Maine’s Freedom of Access Act in my pocket. It’s not only useful as a reference when dealing with government officials who want to hold on to information I or my newspaper would rather they set free, but it’s an excellent reminder of how to approach government officials: with the attitude that they work for us, that their records are our records, and that their business is our business.

A statewide study four years ago and a follow-up in May, whose results were released this week, show how far Maine officials are from remembering who employs them. The studies highlight a serious threat to our democracy: Maine residents are being denied access to important information about our government’s actions, particularly at the local level — information we have the legal right to inspect.
Maine’s Freedom of Access Law is clear and specific when it says you and I have the right to see any piece of paper, any computer file, any sheet of microfilm in the custody of a public official. We have the right to see any videotape, listen to any audio recording, read any e-mail on office computers. It is a simple principle: we own the buildings and pay the workers, so everything inside is ours, too.
Any time you approach a public office, or a public official, you must keep that in mind. Don't walk away empty-handed if an official won't show you the information you want. Demand to be shown the text of the law allowing that information to be kept secret. And don’t walk away unless you personally agree, upon reading the law yourself, that the information is legally secret.
The Freedom of Access Act has your back. It says very clearly at its outset, “public proceedings exist to aid in the conduct of the people’s business. It is the intent of the Legislature that ... actions be taken openly and that ... records ... be open to public inspection.”
You do not have to be a town resident, a Maine resident, or even a US citizen. You do not have to give your name, show ID, name your employer, say why you want the information, or give out any information at all about yourself.
We in Maine now have strong proof that public employees are defying the intent of the Legislature. This is particularly a problem at the local-government level, where, ironically, the officials denying us access to public records are the same folks whose salaries we pay with our property taxes. Nobody argues that “local control” should mean “local secrecy,” but in some towns that’s what we’re getting, even though there is no cost involved in showing a person a piece of paper that already exists on a desk or shelf somewhere.
In 2002, I helped with a Maine Freedom of Information Coalition public-records audit that found not even six in 10 government offices surveyed complied when approached by a member of the public seeking a record that was certainly public (according to lawyers who helped plan the audit). And nearly two-thirds of public employees who allowed access to the documents broke the law in other ways, by asking for ID or a reason the person wanted the information.
Statewide, the results were so bad that the Maine Legislature created a committee to study the 500-plus exemptions in Maine laws that permit public officials to keep information from the public, and to review any future proposals of laws that would allow government records to be kept secret.
This year, a follow-up audit to test compliance — after the law changes, the missives from organizations intended to help governments do their jobs better, and even after a warning e-mail from one town manager to all the others around the state that an audit was in progress May 3 — found more than one-third of public officials audited still broke the law by denying access. And more than half of the offices that did allow inspection of public documents illegally asked for either a reason the auditor wanted the information, or the auditor’s ID, and some did both.
Me? On audit day this year, I was charged $12.50 just to look at a public document in Old Orchard Beach, in what the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition is highlighting as one of the most serious transgressions of the day. On any other day, I would have refused, pulled out my copy of the law, and argued about it. That day, though, the point of the audit was to find out how these sorts of requests were handled. I paid in cash, didn’t give my name, and got a receipt to prove the law had been broken.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Seeing red: Center for Cultural Exchange’s books out of balance

Published in the Portland Phoenix

The Center for Cultural Exchange is in more serious financial difficulty than anyone outside the organization may realize, and is likely to shift its focus away from its past efforts to bring relatively unknown, but culturally significant, performers to Portland for shows with low ticket prices. What will come instead is anybody’s guess, but it will be less expensive to put together.

The news that it would sell its building just four months after vowing to remain in its landmark Longfellow Square home is just the tip of the bad-news iceberg. Even more troubling is a look at the group’s tax returns, which are public records because of the group’s nonprofit status.

The returns show that since at least 2002, the center’s managers have been spending far beyond the center’s revenues. Board president Jay Young and center co-founder James “Bau” Graves say this was because grant money is hard to come by. Graves, who left in December 2005, says it got harder in more recent years as governments cut back on funding for social-service agencies, forcing them to seek donations from the same individuals and foundations that had long funded arts and cultural groups.

The tax records show, however, that revenues weren’t the problem: income was largely flat from 2002 to 2004, even as the center’s spending increased 12 percent during those years. By 2004, the most recent year for which tax records are available, the group’s operating deficit was $188,390.

Young says 2005 “wasn’t great, either,” and acknowledges that while “various substantial grants from national grant-making organizations came to an end ... even with that level of support we had trouble breaking even.”

Rather than cutting back on expenses, the group’s “budgets were optimistic,” Young says, based in part on the past success of co-founders Graves and Phyllis O’Neill at landing significant grants from national organizations. “Though ’04 and ’05 we continued to apply for similar grants,” but when, “for whatever reason, they just didn’t come in ... we just didn’t adjust our budget as quickly as we should have in hindsight,” Young says.

Grant-revenue plans were supplanted by “plans that assumed more success in local fundraising” than actually occurred, and when the losses kept mounting, the center kept covering its costs. “We’ve borrowed out the equity in the building” by taking money from the endowment in exchange for additional mortgages on the building, Young says.

“The idea of what an endowment can be used for has changed” over the years, says Michael Nilsen, public-affairs director for the Association of Fundraising Professionals, a national organization promoting responsible stewardship of money donated to charities. “Typically an endowment is for a particular purpose,” and using that money for another purpose might violate the goals the money’s original donors had in making the gift. But Nilsen says that if the board talked about the decision — which Young says they did — and agreed the risk of never getting back the money being taken from the endowment was acceptable given the circumstances (including, in this case, a mortgage to the endowment), it “might pass the test,” though he cautions, “I don’t think it’s necessarily a practice that charities should be doing all the time.”

How much the mortgages total, “I don’t want to say, since we’re trying to sell the building,” Young says. But once the building sells, there will be “liquid assets, in the tens of thousands of dollars,” and an endowment back at its full strength of $280,000, which Young notes is still small for an endowment.

The building, bought for a song in the mid-1980s — Graves recalls it being either $65,000 or $67,000 — had about $1 million in improvements done, he says, though it’s now on the market for $735,000.

Back in February, when the group announced it would keep its home, executive director Lisa DiFranza says, the prevailing wisdom was “that we could sort of blast through” and make it through the rough patch. Now, after a few months to look over the books, she believes selling is the right move.

The operation has always been supported primarily by grants and donations, with never more than 20 percent of its annual revenue coming from ticket sales, but in 2004 things were particularly bad: ticket sales were not enough to cover either the salaries of the permanent staff (co-founders Graves and Phyllis O’Neill and financial manager Bev Dacey) or the operating deficit, the amount spent above revenue. Young says ticket revenue, even though prices were cheap to ensure people could afford to come to shows, is “way low for an arts-presenting organization.”

Graves, who left the center a few weeks after the 2004 tax filing was completed, says the financial picture was not part of his decision to depart.

Young says the board is “moving in some new directions,” away from the “concert-oriented” approach of Graves and O’Neill, which he calls “pretty esoteric, unique programming” that brought largely unknown performers to the city, where “there isn’t a built-in audience.”

When “trying to build an audience,” and setting low prices, “we just need a heavier subsidy” from local and national sources, from whom “it’s really just impossible to raise that money.” Even if the place sells out, the center’s auditorium holds just shy of 200 people, which at $20 a ticket — which was high in the center’s heyday — only brought in $4000.

Former executive director Lisa DiFranza, whose transition to a consultant role comes as a result of the lack of money to pay her a full-time salary, also describes the center’s previous model as “not a viable option.”

Because the group was mostly self-contained, not operating as a vehicle for funding other arts or culture organizations in the area, the damage will be limited, but Portland will lose a venue that was home to performances as diverse as Celtic-music stars Altan, African-style dancers from Harlem in concert with Maine gospel singers, and fashion shows of international traditional dress. The group also organized performances and events at other venues, including the Festival of Cultural Exchange, bringing together local and international artists and performers along Congress Street in 2004 and 2005.

Young is direct in saying that the center “can’t afford to run promoter’s risks,” the term for what non-show-biz folks call “you book some act and you hope the tickets sell.”

So there will be fewer shows, if perhaps any at all, for the time being — DiFranza notes it is likely the center will be entirely without a space for some unknown length of time — but Young expects the center will work with other promoters and community organizations to “support local immigrant and ethnic communities.”

The building has generated some interest, with “a couple people” taking tours, but no formal offers yet, Young says. He also says the group has recommitted to spending within its means, whatever those may be. “We’ll come out of this in financially solid shape,” he says.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

George vs. George: Compare and contrast

published in the Portland Phoenix and the Boston Phoenix

President George W. Bush is the third man named George to hold the head office of our republic, after his father and George Washington. That makes him, effectively, President George III. The last time our country was ruled by a George III, the American colonists undertook a years-long bloody struggle to overthrow him. Let’s compare and contrast today’s George with the one we got rid of in 1782.

King George III

President George III

He ran up the national debt far beyond the country’s ability to pay, spending millions on occupation of faraway lands (the American colonies in particular), on entangling wars (against France and Spain), and in government subsidies to major corporations (especially the East India Company).

H e ran up the national debt far beyond the country’s ability to pay, spending billions on occupation of faraway lands (Iraq and Afghanistan in particular), on entangling wars (against Iraqi insurgents and the Taliban), and in government tax breaks and overpayments for services to major corporations (especially Enron and Halliburton).

He turned over administration of a vast Asian country to a private company. (India was overseen almost exclusively by the corporate officers of the East India Company.)

He turned over logistics support and some administration of a vast military operation to private companies. (Halliburton and Kellogg, Brown & Root are the major operators of US military bases and outposts around the globe.)

He was roundly criticized by political opponents for attempting to expand the authority of the monarchy well beyond its traditional role. He was roundly criticized by political opponents — and members of his own party — for attempting to expand the authority of the presidency well beyond its constitutional role.
He donated thousands of books to the public, to start a national library. He instituted (then failed to fully fund) an expensive, overarching, nationwide education-reform plan, which has yet to show any positive results.
He was a serious student of science, including having his own astronomical observatory. He often rejected scientific arguments in favor of religious or ideological beliefs, even as he increased funding to the National Science Foundation.

He was very interested in agriculture, and was called “Farmer George” for the time he spent on his royal estates.

H e did a lot of brush clearing on his ranch in Crawford, Texas, during his “vacations” and “working holidays” there.
He took a strong interest in government-policy debates, and had a sometimes-heavy hand in their outcomes. His orders and those of his deputies were often invoked to “edit” scientific reports issued by government agencies, to remove information that would support ideologies other than those held by the White House.

He was blamed for things, like the Stamp Act of 1765 and the Townshend duties of 1767, that Parliament supported, undertook, and enforced, even though they were not always his ideas.

He was blamed for things, like the US refusal to join the Kyoto Protocol, that Congress supported and undertook on its own.
He paid for the founding of the Royal Academy of Arts. His budgets, even after cutbacks in Congress, have increased funding for the National Endowment for the Arts.
He did not learn to read until age 11. He bragged about being a C student while at Yale University.

He imprisoned political opponents andfree-speech advocates.

His administration imprisoned American citizens without trial and investigated journalists for discovering inconvenient truths about his government.
His administration redefined the laws of treason to better control political opponents. H is administration redefined the laws of national security, freedom of information, and terrorism, and then used them to spy on and manipulate political opponents.

He was eventually deemed mentally unfit to rule, by reason of insanity.

Nothing official yet.

Sources UK Government History; BBC; Spartacus Encyclopedia of British History; Associated Press reports; US federal records.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Searching themselves: New book recounts the hunt for a woman and her killer

Published in the Portland Phoenix

The authors of Finding Amy: A True Story of Murder in Maine had no way of knowing their book about the search for Amy St. Laurent, who went missing, as the news reports ominously intoned, “after a night out in the Old Port” in 2001, would come out at a time when the Portland City Council was talking about how to control the nightlife in the city’s busiest district.

They didn’t know that it would come out just a few months after the Old Port disappearances of two other people — one of whom, Lynn Moran, was later discovered dead of no apparent foul play in the water near the Portland ferry terminal; the other, Siphat Chau, is still missing.

Joseph K. Loughlin, who is credited on the book’s cover with his former rank of captain (he is now a deputy chief of the Portland police), and Kate Clark Flora, a former Maine assistant attorney general, don’t directly address the issue of partying in the Old Port, but their book offers a law-enforcement officer’s view of Wharf Street.

After a lovely description of the Old Port — “a mecca for tourists, who . . . flock to the interesting shops and restaurants” — even Flora’s prose gets shrill: “At night, it also becomes a destination for another crowd. . . . Underage teens looking for life beyond the empty streets of their small towns rub elbows with bikers, college students, drug dealers, gangsters, and young professionals. Fights are common. Crowd control is a perennial problem, especially late in the evening as the bars and clubs close, releasing thousands of patrons who are drunk, rowdy, and uninhibited onto the narrow old streets. At closing time, the swarm of bodies on Wharf Street can become so dense in the summer months the uniformed cops find it difficult to see each other when they’re only 10 to 15 feet apart.”

The book veers back and forth between two voices, Loughlin’s play-by-play first-person recollections of the investigation, and Flora’s reporter style, explaining, giving context, sharing an outsider’s wonder at the dedication police officers have to bring to their jobs. Loughlin's tone is authentic and gives an interesting picture of the demands of everyday police life. But Flora's tone misses. Having set the stage, she then waits more than 60 pages to point out that — oh yes! — Amy St. Laurent didn’t disappear in the midsummer crush on Wharf Street, but in late October, and voluntarily left a bar on Middle Street, a far less-busy place in terms of crowds at closing time, for a house on Brighton Avenue.

But despite these shortcomings, the book is a strong read, with a compelling set of elements — it is, after all, a true-crime book — that will bring readers closer to the story behind the news coverage.

Loughlin, who headed the city's detective bureau at the time, defers credit even from himself: “The real heroes in this book are” Danny Young and Scott Harakles, the lead detectives on the case, who spent sleepless nights and countless hours searching for St. Laurent and her killer.

But the most riveting moment, by far, in the entire volume, is the recounting, in tight counterpoint, by Flora and, most compellingly, Loughlin, of the discovery of St. Laurent’s body.

The disbelief is almost raw, even years later, as Loughlin says, “I still can’t believe we found her.”

The fulfillment of the title, easily the most voyeuristic chapter of the book, comes only halfway through the narrative. Finding Amy quickly turns to the subject of convicting Amy’s killer, Jeffrey Gorman, who was arrested while on the lam in Alabanma four days after St. Laurent's body was found, and the story becomes a cautionary tale, of sorts — warning would-be criminals about the vast resources police can draw on, most strikingly their personal commitment to doing the job.

But the book also, and particularly in the endnotes, serves as a warning to women. Loughlin notes that sexual predators are drugging drinks in the Old Port, as in most other club districts, and sexual assaults are common, though fatal ones are still rare.

Finding Amy: A True Story of Murder in Maine (University Press of New England) | Captain Joseph K. Loughlin + Kate Clark Flora | May 12, 7 pm | Books Etc, 38 Exchange St, Portland | 207.774.0626 | May 18, 7 pm | Kennebunk Public Library, 112 Main St, Kennebunk | 207.985.2173

Amy St. Laurent Foundation | Box 664, Yarmouth, ME 04096 | supporting Rape Aggression Defense training + other programs receives a portion of the book-sales proceeds

Wednesday, May 3, 2006

Sidebar: Pill pressure and reproductive rights: What are they? What’s in them? What do they do?

Published in the Portland Phoenix

There are dozens of variations on the birth-control pill, all of which have differing amounts of various chemicals simulating two hormones: progesterone (produced by the placenta during pregnancy) and estrogen (produced by the ovaries as they mature and release eggs). The popularity of certain brands may be tied more to their manufacturers' advertising budgets than anything else; variations on the Pill are among the most heavily-marketed drugs in the marketplace.

Typically, the Pill works by tricking a woman’s body into thinking it is already pregnant. That prevents ovulation, in which an egg is released from an ovary into the fallopian tubes, ready to be fertilized and to implant in the uterine lining. The various types of pills also have differing side effects, and some are thought to have lower incidence of certain side effects. Side effects vary not only from pill type to pill type, but from woman to woman.

The major commercially available brands of birth-control pills range in level from 0.05 mg of a synthetic progesterone (levonorgestronel, in Triphasil, Tri-Levlen, and Trivora) to 3 mg of another (drospirenone, in Yasmin), and from no estrogen at all (in Ortho Micronor and DepoSubQ-Provera, also called “the shot”) to 0.05 mg ethinyl estradiol (in Necon 1/50, Norinyl 1/50, Ortho-Novum 1/50, and Ovcon-50). Those with no estrogen, also known as “progesterone-only” pills, generally have fewer side-effects, because they do not have any estrogen in them to cause more.

Generally speaking, birth-control pills’ side effects can include nausea, headaches, mood changes, blood-pressure changes, skin problems, skin improvements, changes in the internal texture or external appearance of the breasts, vaginal irritation, urinary-tract infections, and irregular bleeding (also called “breakthrough bleeding” or “spotting”). Consult your doctor and read the documents accompanying your specific brand of pills to find out more.

SOURCES: Pill manufacturers’ Web sites,