Wednesday, October 31, 2007

It’s one in the morning — how sweet!

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Officials in New Zealand’s capital, Wellington, are considering a new way to reduce violence and other problems at bar-closing time: handing out chocolate. (Seriously! They say it lessens the likelihood of fights. Maybe it’s because eating chocolate triggers the production of endorphins, the brain chemical some call “natural opiates” that make people feel happy and relaxed. Or maybe it’s just hard to punch someone while holding a piece of candy in your hand.)

The NZ idea is based on success with a similar initiative in the English seacoast tourist town of Bournemouth, where businesses and city officials have devised ways to make nightlife both safer and more fun. It comes in the wake of an announcement by a group of local bar owners that “the behavior of a small minority of drunken youths threatened the future” of the downtown “party zone,” according to the Wellington Dominion-Post newspaper.

As Portland continues to grapple with managing the Old Port’s nightlife (see “Growing Pains,” January 27, 2006, and “The Freakin’ Weekend,” February 17, 2006, both by Sara Donnelly), we might consider making like the Kiwis and stealing a couple ideas from Bournemouth (pop. 160,000).

We’ve heard of a couple of their concepts before, specifically getting better support for an all-ages venue and having a night bus to get people home safely — and quickly (see “Ideas From Away,” by Jeff Inglis, January 5). And we actually have in place another one — HomeRunners, which drives you and your car home if you’ve been drinking. (Bournemouth’s service uses compact scooters that fit in the trunk, rather than a second car, like HomeRunners does.)

But there are some new ideas that could work, too, and are worth at least talking about here in Portland:

Number one, of course, would be the chocolate giveaway (though with Fuller’s Gourmet Chocolates gone from Wharf Street, the epicenter will by default have to be Old Port Candy on Fore Street instead). Also:

Having social-service agencies send counselors to bars, to offer support to people in need.

Getting the City Council to grant some (or any) late-night licenses (possibly without alcohol, but letting people hang out and maybe eat something), to both spread the mass release of revelers across several hours, and to let people wind down the night in a more relaxed way.

Asking bars to voluntarily agree to a minimum drink price (so no participating bar will offer specials cheaper than that amount), to reduce binge drinking of cheap booze.

But let’s just start with the chocolate. In England at least, the cops like it, the bars like it, the local government likes it, and we can only assume the staggering drunks getting the handouts like it. We know we would.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Gambling on voters: Downeast Mainers pin their hopes on the turn of the ballots

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Question 1
Do you want to expand gambling in Maine by letting the Passamaquoddy Tribe build and operate a slot-machine parlor, high-stakes beano games, and a harness-racing track in Washington County?
A gambling operation in Calais, right on the Canadian border waaaay Down East, would be farther from Southern Maine than Foxwoods or Mohegan Sun. The Passamaquoddy Tribe wants to build a harness-racing track (which is not a big money-maker) and then use that track as a site for a massive-revenue-generating gambling hall with up to 1500 slot machines.

Supporters — such as the officials and community members in the TV ads pleading with Mainers to salve their poverty-induced misery with cold, hard cash — say it will be a source of economic development in a depressed area of Maine, and that it will provide more money for the state to spend. Opponents say it will prey on residents of an already poor part of the state, and that gambling isn’t a good method of economic development.

But the real dispute is not about this racino. It’s about whether this racino “opens the door” to more gambling in Maine. It may seem like a funny question, given how much gambling there is already.

We have two multi-state lottery games (Megabucks and Powerball), scratch tickets too numerous to count, bingo halls packing in the players, Penobscot Nation-run high-stakes beano games with prizes as high as $25,000, and nonprofit agencies regularly running benefit events consisting almost entirely of casino games. There’s tons of betting on horses — at the two tracks (to which this would add a third) and the four off-track betting parlors (including one owned by the company the state has hired to monitor slots revenue — see “Jackpot,” by Lance Tapley, June 8) — and the annual agricultural fairs. And don’t forget Hollywood Slots in Bangor, which has nearly 500 slots already, and next year will open a parlor with up to 1500 machines.

Question 2
Do you want to spend $55 million to support business development in Maine, including research and product-development grants, and business-expansion loans? (The grants would attract at least $50 million in federal or private matching funds.)
Nearly all ($50 million) of the money in this bond would go to the Maine Technology Institute, which awards grants in key industries where government officials think Maine has a competitive advantage, like marine-related industry and forestry. Grant recipients must find matching funds from other sources, like the feds or their own pockets. The remaining $5 million would go to smaller loan programs to help businesses expand.

Question 3
Do you want to spend $40 million to renovate and expand buildings at Maine Maritime Academy, at community colleges, and at UMaine campuses, and an additional $3.5 million to support renovations and improvements to schools, museums, historic buildings, and libraries?
Renovations and building expansions at the state’s institutions of higher learning are never-ending, and funding them is downright expensive. They are so costly, in fact, that public universities leave them out of their regular annual budgets, preferring instead to borrow money to pay for the work. This bond also adds $1.5 million into the state’s revolving fund for school renovations and expansions, which already has $6 million available. The extra money means more schools can be fixed up or expanded. And the bond includes $2 million to match funds raised for projects to improve museums, libraries, and other cultural buildings.

Question 4
Do you want to give $20 million to the Land for Maine’s Future land-conservation program, plus an additional $7.5 million to improve state parks, plus $1.5 million to improve irrigation systems, and a further $6.5 million to support river-based economic development programs?
The Land for Maine’s Future program has conserved nearly 445,000 acres of key Maine land (scenic spots, wilderness, shorefront, and easements on working farms and forests), at a total cost of $97 million, or an average of $220 an acre. The new money would continue that effort. And in recent years, state bonds have been issued to promote water-quality projects on farms, to fix up state parks, and for water-related economic-development projects — in this case to revive riverfronts in environmentally sensitive ways.

Question 5
Do you favor extending term limits for legislators from 4 to 6 terms?

Maine lawmakers are prohibited from serving more than four consecutive two-year terms in one house of the Legislature before they have to take a break for at least two years (though the “break” can include serving in the other house). Term limits were imposed in 1996 as part of an effort to get “new blood” into the Legislature, and to expunge inward-looking cronyism from the State House. The previous limit, of four terms, was an attempt to strike a balance between longevity-given experience and fresh ideas; this is a proposed revision to that balance.

Radios, beds, and commissioners
Cumberland County questions explained
Question 1
Should the county spend $1.7 million to upgrade radio and data-transmission systems for police, fire, and rescue personnel to use?

It may seem amazing in the 21st century — and seven years after 9/11 highlighted the problems (and deaths) that can result — that firefighters and police officers from different agencies can’t talk to each other on the radio. Sure enough, that’s still true here. This bond would buy radio and computer systems to prevent that, and would also provide systems that local police departments could use — not just the county sheriffs.

Question 2
Should the county spend $1.1 million to build an expanded medical clinic at the Cumberland County Jail?

Each day, roughly 200 inmates at the Cumberland County Jail need some sort of medical care, whether for an illness or injury, or a chronic condition, or even to deliver a baby. The jail’s 900-square-foot infirmary is too small to handle that amount of traffic — especially when inmates are accompanied by guards, or if someone has to spend the night receiving medical care. If there’s no room, inmates who are sick have to return to their cells, or get treatment at a hospital, which is much more expensive than if something can be handled at the jail. The money would build a 3000-square-foot expansion to the infirmary, allowing nearly every inmate with medical needs to be treated without leaving the jail.

Question 3
Should there be seven directly-elected county commissioners, instead of three?
Cumberland County residents are served by a three-person commission with the power to increase our property taxes. Lots of its spending is for services Portlanders don’t use, like sheriff’s deputies on patrol, who rarely work in towns with their own police departments. (Other county services, like the jail and maintaining property records, Portlanders do use.) With three districts, the same person has to represent the needs of Portland, Falmouth, Cumberland, North Yarmouth, and Long Island. (The other districts stretch from Cape Elizabeth to Standish, and from Brunswick to Bridgton.) This would further subdivide the county, letting each commissioner represent a smaller group of people.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Legislature moves to protect Maine journalists

Published in the Portland Phoenix

In September, Maine Superior Court Justice Arthur Brennan ordered 15 media organizations to surrender videos, photographs, and notes of interviews — including material never published or broadcast — from their coverage of a November 2006 fire in Biddeford.

The organizations, which included community-weekly newspapers, daily papers, and the state’s largest TV stations, were told to turn over the information — whatever still remained — to a private company because the company convinced the judge it feared a future lawsuit in connection with the fire, and needed the information to prepare a defense, in case such a suit was filed.

This case, and others of national prominence in which attorneys — often prosecutors — seek to use information collected by journalists as evidence in court (and demand access to material that had never before been made public) has led to a renewed discussion among policymakers of whether there should be so-called “shield laws” protecting journalists from being forced to disclose confidential sources and information.

“The whole point of these laws is to get accurate, useful information flowing to the public,” says Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in Washington DC. “They ensure that the public has a better chance of getting truthful, independently reported information, ... maintain the independence of the media, and also make it possible for sources to come forth and inform the public.”

A shield law “would have helped a lot” in the Biddeford case, says Sigmund Schutz, a lawyer with Preti Flaherty in Portland, who coordinated media outlets’ responses. In the end, all but one of the media outlets had nothing to turn over, and the one — the Portland Press Herald — requested that the demand for information be narrowed. After the narrowing, the Press Herald had nothing to turn over, either, Schutz says. But he says no media outlets objected to the ruling on First-Amendment grounds. “Standing on principle without a shield law is expensive,” Schutz says.

A federal shield-law proposal moved to the Senate floor earlier this month, and Maine lawmakers are being asked to take up a similar proposal.

If legislative leaders agree that Portland Democratic representative Jon Hinck’s bill should move forward, it would be debated by lawmakers early next year. If not, the bill would have to wait until January 2009 before even being considered.

In recent years, federal prosecutors, in particular, have gotten more aggressive at using the courts to force journalists to reveal the identities of their confidential sources, often in order to pursue charges against the source for illegally disclosing the information.

The most publicized example was the New York Times’s Judith Miller, who spent 85 days in prison in 2005 for refusing to identify the person who told her that Valerie Plame, the wife of a US ambassador, was a covert CIA agent. That investigation resulted in the conviction of White House aide Scooter Libby for perjury.

Now, Dalglish says, as a result of “the heightened attention to the issue in the federal system,” many of the 17 states without a shield law are considering them, including Maine.

Journalism organizations in the state are looking closely at Hinck’s proposal; the Maine Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists (of which I am vice-president) was slated to discuss it Wednesday, after the Phoenix’s deadline.

Leaders of the Maine Association of Broadcasters, Maine Daily Newspaper Publishers Association, and Maine Press Association all say they will review the bill in the coming weeks, and expect their organizations to back the bill in general principle, while reserving the possibility that they might want some details changed.

Hinck is open to feedback, but thinks the bill is important. “We need a free press, desperately,” he says. “I have sometimes been an intermediary between whistleblowers” and reporters, and he knows it can be difficult to get good information if a source is worried about being discovered.

Suzanne Goucher, president and CEO of the Maine Association of Broadcasters, says one argument against a shield law proposal is that it “becomes a Christmas tree for everything that [legislators] like and don’t like about the media.” But she notes that such a law could be useful, too, citing the September court ruling. “The very fact that the court would grant a motion like this, when there’s no suit pending,” she says. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Press Releases: Straight to video

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Over the past few years, Frank Blethen, the guy in charge of the Seattle Times Company, which owns the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, the Kennebec Journal in Augusta, and the Waterville-based Morning Sentinel, has spent a lot of time supporting federal regulations that limit media consolidation, saying more owners equal more viewpoints, equals better democracy.

But recent moves by the Press Herald suggest that at least the first part of that equation isn’t necessarily true. While the paper may be owned separately from the city’s TV stations, it’s starting to act a lot like them, missing an opportunity to actually serve its audience something new.

Consider, for example, coverage of a vacant house that apparently filled with natural gas and exploded in South Portland on October 1.

Press Herald “online reporter” Dieter Bradbury, who has been with the Press Herald his entire 27-year journalism career, went straight to the scene after hearing about the explosion. Bradbury’s video on the Press Herald’s site was shaky, often without audio, and spent a lot of time showing us fire trucks with flashing lights and police officers walking around. Bradbury and other staffers filed written updates to the story throughout the day, and even into the next.

Other than the video pros covering the silent spots with voiceover, the Press Herald’s work was nearly identical to the TV coverage of the event.

But even Portland’s broadcasters don’t think the city needs more TV news. Two of the five channels that could have their own local news programs instead outsource it to other local stations. WCSH, the NBC affiliate on Channel 6, has a 10 pm news broadcast on WPXT, the Channel 12 CW affiliate. And WGME, the CBS station on Channel 13, puts out a 10 pm news show on WPFO, the Fox affiliate on Channel 23 (Channel 7 on cable).

It’s uncommon for print Press Herald stories to mention the TV coverage of the same events. But editor Jeannine Guttman continues to talk about “convergence” between the paper and the paper's Web site. We should expect, then, a good package story in the paper and online the following day, referencing video, at least, and maybe the previous day’s frequent updates.

Think again.

The 1250-word effort by staff writers Trevor Maxwell and Ann S. Kim on October 2 was written and presented — on the front page — as if no one reading it had heard the slightest rumor of a story that had received blanket coverage from the TV evening news and the Press Herald’s own Web site.

There is no mention — even in the online version of the story — of any video or previous coverage on the Press Herald’s site. And on subsequent days, the in-paper follow-ups repeated information that had been widely available hours earlier from the TV stations. The online follow-ups never once mentioned or linked to any previous coverage on the Press Herald's site, not even the words-only updates.

Let’s not kid ourselves — this was an insignificant story. It had good visuals (if you define “good” as a roof lying on the ground surrounded by tiny bits of wood), but nobody was dead, or even injured. No tragic tale of a life cut short — just a couple of neighbors who were a bit startled by the blast. Not even a family left homeless — the building was under construction and vacant.

The Press Herald has spent a lot of ink on Guttman’s talk of “trailblazing” news coverage. Its staff had a chance at a trial run at collaboration and teamwork on this story, with not much at stake if they did it poorly. Perhaps they gave it a try; if so, they failed so miserably that any effort was completely invisible. Or they didn't try, and will have to work out the logistics while on deadline for a vital story. Either way, they missed a chance to show Portland what they think news coverage should look like.

Gov’t secrecy is fine with Maine’s attorney general

Published in the Portland Phoenix

A man widely believed to be interested in becoming Maine’s next governor, Democratic Attorney General Steven Rowe, is refusing to defend the state’s Freedom of Access Act from a court ruling that would destroy the state’s open-government law almost entirely.

The ruling — that a three-man commission appointed by Rowe can keep its records secret because it was not a government body engaged in government business — is being appealed to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, with the support of the Maine Civil Liberties Union.

If upheld, the ruling would allow Rowe — and any other government official — to “outsource” official business to a purportedly “independent” group of handpicked appointees, in complete certainty that the group’s actions will never become public.

The dust-up centers on the 1989 conviction of then-31-year-old farmer Dennis Dechaine for the 1988 rape and murder of 12-year-old Sarah Cherry, in Bowdoin. Dechaine was sent to prison for life, but a group of citizens who believe he is innocent have subsequently reviewed as much of the evidence in the case as possible — and have taken their efforts to the Legislature and through the courts to overrule repeated refusals from Rowe’s office to turn over documents. One member of the group, James Moore, a retired agent of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, has published two books detailing this investigation and the evidence he has found.

Even without access to crucial documents, Moore’s research raised enough questions in lawmakers’ minds that in 2003 they passed a law specifically forcing Rowe to open his office’s files to the public. And, in 2004, when Rowe violated that law by failing to hand over everything, Moore took him to court and won, getting copies of previously withheld state evidence — including information kept from the jury. Moore and others believe these documents prove Dechaine could not have killed Cherry.

Which brings us back to the Freedom of Access Act. After being forced to release his records, Rowe appointed the three-man commission to investigate the allegations, from Moore and others, of police and prosecutorial misconduct in the case. Rowe promised Dechaine’s advocates that he would publicize the commission’s report, which he did. It’s available on the AG’s Web site even today. It concludes that there was no “substantive merit” to the allegations of wrongdoing.

But when Moore asked to see the commission’s supporting evidence — the documents they reviewed and the notes from interviews they conducted — the commissioners refused, claiming that they are not, in fact, a government agency required to open their files.

In July, a judge agreed with them, but Moore has appealed that decision to the state’s highest court, arguing that the principles of open government demand their files be made public.

Rowe could, at this point, throw his weight behind Moore’s appeal and argue on behalf of the people of Maine that the Freedom of Access Act is gutted by the July ruling. But the attorney general, who has been selected four consecutive times by the Legislature to be the state’s chief law-enforcement officer, and who has once been formally asked by a resolution of the Maine House to support a retrial for Dechaine, appears to be on the side of secrecy. He is refusing to argue — in court or elsewhere — that the commission’s records should be made public.

Despite the fact that Rowe, in his memo appointing the commissioners, wrote that the group would be performing a “very important public service,” he now apparently supports the position that the report was not, in fact, the product of a public body.

Rowe did not return multiple calls seeking comment for this story.

“Presumably what [the commission] found makes the officials look good,” says Moore, professing confusion about why the commissioners have refused to open their files, and why the AG’s office has not gotten involved.

The MCLU is more direct about the long-term consequences of Rowe’s inaction: “The court order, unless overturned on appeal, creates a template by which public officials can dodge Freedom of Access laws by transferring their work to committees outside the scope of the Freedom of Access Act,” says Sigmund Schutz, from the Portland law firm Preti Flaherty, who is helping the MCLU with the case.

While we can lament his lack of resolve as attorney general, we can also act on it should Rowe ever appear on a ballot for governor.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

US Rep. Allen to protestors: go directly to jail

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Neither US Senator Susan Collins nor the man challenging her for her senate seat will mention an important difference between the two: First District US Representative Tom Allen, a Democrat, has activists arrested when they demonstrate at his offices; Collins, a Republican, lets them stay.

In February, two anti-war protests at Allen’s Portland office resulted in 19 arrests. There were eight more, on September 25, at a rally supporting impeachment of President George W. Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney.

“In Allen’s office, [the staff] really have the attitude like, ‘Why are you coming here? [Allen is] a liberal Democrat. You should be voting for [him],’” says Bruce Gagnon, a longtime Maine peace activist who has been arrested at several nonviolent civil disobedience demonstrations. He says Allen’s staff has been “cold and harsh and even a bit nasty to us” since at least 2005 (see “A Somber Occupation,” by Sara Donnelly, December 14, 2005).

Mark Sullivan, Allen’s spokesman, says the staff calls the police to arrest demonstrators because “at the close of business, we can’t leave the office with people still there.”

“I hope they realized that the man they work for had ordered the arrest of eight of his constituents,” wrote one of the eight who was arrested, Jonathan Queally, in an e-mail to the Phoenix, “whose only demand was that he uphold his solemn oath to defend the Constitution of the United States by holding Bush and Cheney accountable.”

Collins’s office doesn’t feel the need to involve the cops. At a March protest, a member of the senator’s staff was willing to stay the night to avoid throwing the demonstrators out or leaving them alone in the office, says Collins spokeswoman Jen Burita. She says the 12 arrests during that protest were at the insistence of security staff who needed to secure the Margaret Chase Smith Federal Building, not at the request of Collins’s staff.

The test of the senator’s hospitality came on August 31, when five anti-war protestors from Farmington visited Collins’s Portland office, which is not in a federal building. The group, all women involved in Farmington’s chapter of the protest group Women in Black, had an appointment with one of Collins’s aides, in which they urged the senator to end funding for the Iraq war. After that, all five stayed in the office and began reading aloud the names of Americans and Iraqis killed in Iraq.

At the end of the day, the aide asked if the women intended to stay. “We said we hadn’t finished reading the names,” says Lee Sharkey, a retired UMaine-Farmington professor who was with the group. The aide’s response made it “clear we could have stayed all weekend,” Sharkey says, but the aide has a family, and she was “uncomfortable” with the idea of staying so late on the Friday of Labor Day weekend. Sharkey says the protestors “had nothing against her” and didn’t want to keep her from her family, so they left voluntarily at around 9 pm. There were no arrests.

“Clearly the senator wasn’t interested in that kind of negative publicity,” Sharkey says.

Activists have had mixed results at the offices of Maine’s other two delegates to Washington.

Republican Senator Olympia Snowe’s office in Bangor has been “very, very bad,” says Gagnon. “The chief of staff ... slams the door in your face, won’t even let you get in.” In September 2006, 11 people were arrested there during a sit-in. Snowe’s Bangor office is not in a federal building.

At Second District Democratic Representative Mike Michaud’s Bangor office on September 26, the staff was so polite and welcoming to anti-war demonstrators, that the protestors “decided not to sit-in his office,” Gagnon says. “They felt they were having a real dialogue.”

Allen’s efforts to avoid speaking with protestors are extensive: those arrested in February were warned that Allen’s staff would have them arrested again if they returned to the building within a year. The protestors objected, saying that prevented them from having access to their elected congressman, and the warning was retracted, according to Kathe Chipman, who was arrested on February 21 and again on September 25.

Chipman, a retired art-and-architecture librarian, chose not to pay a $40 bail commissioner’s fee on September 25, and stayed in jail overnight because, she says, “I believe that sitting on the floor of an office paid for by taxpayers beyond closing time is not a criminal trespass but rather a purposeful presence, one that is the opposite of ‘criminal,’ since the sole goal is to effect honest adherence to the Constitution of the United States.” She was released without being charged the following day.

None of the February protestors at Allen’s office was charged with a crime, says Portland lawyer John Branson, who has represented people arrested at both February events. And Branson doubts the eight arrested September 25 will be charged, though prosecutors have reserved the right to do so.

“It’s a political decision,” says Branson. “This Republican district attorney [Stephanie Anderson] has essentially done a favor for this Democratic member of Congress by making the story go away very quickly” by not charging those arrested at his office. With Allen challenging Collins, Branson wondered aloud how long Anderson’s favors would continue.

On the Web
Video of protest: |