Tuesday, November 24, 2009

On the Ropes Dept.: Catching up with FairPoint’s decline

Published in the Portland Phoenix

We've been telling you for ages how bad the FairPoint deal was for residents of Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont. To avoid beating a nearly-dead horse, we've held off on reporting some things for a while, but it's time for a quick catch-up on several fronts.

Most importantly, after months of narrow escapes, FAIRPOINT FILED FOR BANKRUPTCY PROTECTION in late October, seeking a federal judge's permission to turn over most of its debt to its lenders and try to restructure itself out of the deep debt and operations troubles the North Carolina-based company is mired in.

That was after seeking $30 MILLION IN CONCESSIONS FROM UNION WORKERS in northern New England. (You may remember that way back when FairPoint was trying to close this deal, it promised to stick to Verizon's old contract, and state regulators believed them, despite union representatives' fears to the contrary.)

Shortly after the bankruptcy filing, several of FairPoint's biggest lenders asked the judge to appoint an investigator to determine, as the lenders argued in court filings, IF THE COMPANY'S DIRECTORS AND TOP EXECUTIVES WERE TRYING TO PROFIT PERSONALLY FROM THE BANKRUPTCY. The lenders also alleged that company officials were not completely honest about the company's financial prospects, and paid out millions in dividends to shareholders, and to a key vendor, depriving the company of cash that might have helped avoid bankruptcy.

Great Works Internet, the Biddeford-based Internet company that featured prominently in the opposition to the FairPoint-Verizon deal, has revealed that a dispute with FairPoint that began in the Verizon days threatens its business. Apparently, the companies never agreed on what price GWI should pay to Verizon for using certain types of Verizon-owned circuits for Internet traffic; now, unless GWI caves and forks over millions in alleged back payments, FAIRPOINT IS THREATENING TO CUT OFF GWI from portions of FairPoint's network. This is already in court, where, naturally, GWI is asking that FairPoint be barred from cutting off service until the matter is resolved.

FairPoint's requests for $38 MILLION IN FEDERAL STIMULUS MONEY to expand broadband connectivity in northern New England have RECEIVED STATE OFFICIALS' BLESSING in all three states (see "Here Comes the FairPoint Bailout," by Jeff Inglis, September 4).

Despite that prospect of additional cash (and because the bankruptcy filing has called the wisdom of such grants into question), FAIRPOINT HAS ADMITTED IT WILL NOT BE ABLE TO FULFILL THE BROADBAND-EXPANSION PROMISES it made, which were crucial to convincing state regulators to approve the deal, and has ASKED THE FEDERAL BANKRUPTCY JUDGE TO RULE THAT THOSE COMMITMENTS WERE NOT REALLY PROMISES AT ALL (though they carry the power of state law), but soft agreements that can be renegotiated. That almost certainly means delays in rolling out broadband — if FairPoint were going to meet its deadlines, it wouldn't be seeking the additional negative attention associated with breaking its word.

In mid-October, FairPoint announced it was HIRING 45 NEW CUSTOMER-SERVICE EMPLOYEES to be based in a Portland call center, in hopes of improving the company's disastrous service record, which has been criticized by customers, regulators, and lawmakers in all three northern New England states. The company claims it has created 400 new jobs in Maine, but has not drawn much attention to the fact that its business plan anticipated four percent of all workers, including new hires, leaving each year and not being replaced (see "No Raises — It Gets Better," by Jeff Inglis, November 20, 2007).

We can be sure things will get worse before they get better, largely because of the jurisdictional disputes that are almost certain to arise between a federal judge in New York City and regulators, lawmakers, and courts in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. If we had to make a prediction, it would be that this will end up before the United States Supreme Court before rural northern New England gets FairPoint's brand of broadband connectivity — which the rest of the country is already phasing out.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Press Releases: Campaign crash

Published in the Portland Phoenix

The single biggest factor contributing to the repeal of same-sex marriage in Maine was how pro-marriage forces used — or failed to use — the media to their advantage. The No On 1 campaign was experienced — the same groups, led mostly by the same people, won the Maine Won't Discriminate campaign in 2005. It was well funded, as it was four years ago. And again it was defending an existing law enacted by the Legislature and signed by the governor.

But as the campaign to save same-sex marriage from a California-style repeal wore on, it became more diffuse, less focused, and, ultimately, too negative to win.

At the beginning, the No On 1 message was clear and defined: this was about love, family, fairness, and equality.

But while that message stayed constant among the volunteers doing the calling and street work, the campaign's official statements and advertising strayed very far, giving the campaign a public persona that was not loving, warm, or open — but rather, at times, defensive, dismissive, and annoyed.

The Yes On 1 campaign claimed that "homosexual marriage will be taught in Maine schools" (which was loose code for "your kids will be taught gay sex"). But No On 1 did not produce any of the countless Maine teachers who would have said publicly that no matter the outcome of the election, they would always teach what they had always taught: that all students, and all families, have value, and that all people deserve love and understanding, no matter how different they are from us.

Rather, No On 1 got defensive and expressed "outrage" at the ridiculous claims, which — as polls showed — the public wasn't buying. No On 1 even aired TV ads — by far its most expensive and widest-reaching resource — attacking the Yes On 1 message and leadership. (Beyond confusing the point, it violated Rule 1 of campaigning: "If you're talking about them, you're losing.")

And after those ads started airing, the poll results shifted. After No On 1 validated those utterly false claims by repeating them, the fear-of-education message began to take hold. (That confirms Rule 2 of campaigning: "Message repetition is vital. It doesn't matter by whom.")

Some positive, hopeful, family-oriented ads from No On 1 also aired sporadically, embodying the best spirit of the No campaign — declaring that Maine is and should remain a tolerant, loving place where people do not discriminate. But the lack of focus on this core message meant it took time to sink into the public mind.

When it did, it was too late. With less than a week to go, the Yes On 1 campaign showed its first sign of weakness, even backpedaling. New ads promoted the state's domestic-partner registry (creation of which the Catholic Church, a Yes On 1 backer, had strenuously opposed), saying people could support "traditional marriage" and still protect people's civil rights. Those were admissions that the equality message was finally taking effect.

Imagine if the No campaign had spent all its money and time standing on principle, moving on offense: "Some people want to overturn a law that our Legislature passed and our governor signed. That law is an important one granting vital civil rights to a minority population who have been discriminated against for too long."

Even ads asking "What minority are you?" would have been amazing: "How would you feel if someone tried to deny you the right to marry, just because you're left-handed (or blue-eyed, or blond-haired)? You'd vote No too."

But ultimately, the No campaign was too slow, Yes didn't have to respond until too late, and the No campaign never unleashed the most devastating counterattack they had available: the "separate is not equal" message that very well could have carried the day in the state that Won't Discriminate.

Litigation Watch: Ex-USM staffers claim age discrimination

Published in the Portland Phoenix

In complaints filed with the University of Southern Maine's Office of Campus Diversity and Equity, a state legislator and five former colleagues allege they were discriminated against in a recent department restructuring because of their ages. The complainants' ages range between 56 and 63.

Chad Hansen, the attorney representing all six — including state senator Larry Bliss, the former director of the career services office — says while he is at "just the very beginning of the process," additional complaints have been filed through the USM employees' union, and filings are in the works with the Maine Human Rights Commission, a possible prelude to a settlement or lawsuits.

In the restructuring, which combined three departments tasked with helping students handle academics, plan for careers, and handle non-academic issues, eliminated 21 jobs and created 19 new ones — but left six of the new slots vacant — "all the older folks were let go; the younger folks were retained," Hansen says, which "totally stripped the system" of experienced people.

A big part of the problem for the complainants is the six positions left unfilled — "it's not as if they're saying, 'we had to make tough choices between good people,'" Hansen says. The university just simply didn't hire anyone for those positions, though they "hired back all of the younger folks," he says.

Messages left for Daryl McIlwain, associate director of Campus Diversity and Equity, were returned by USM's public affairs department. Spokesman Bob Caswell says three departments — one each handling academic advising, career counseling, and non-academic student needs — were merged into the Office of Student Success, in "one of the most significant reorganizations of an administrative structure ever undertaken here."

Caswell says the search was "open and fair" and found to be equitable by human-resources staff at USM and the wider University of Maine System, as well as by representatives of the employees' union.

While Caswell says the purpose was to improve student retention and graduation and "was never to save money," he did admit that the six unfilled positions were left "open for budgetary reasons." The university has faced budget crunches and student-retention problems for years.

"Advising has kind of been like a nightmare for me," says student Matt Dodge, describing requirements that students meet with advisors before registering for classes each semester, and frequent changes in who his advisor is.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Artist Statements: Recalling genocide

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Painter Stephen Koharian has international relations on his mind when he’s in his studio. Four of the works at his upcoming show at Portland’s Two Point Gallery are responses to the Armenian slaughter of 1915-23, in which 1.5 million Armenians (and a million more Assyrians and Greeks) were killed by the Ottoman Empire, and which Turkey has never acknowledged as a genocide. (Candidate Obama promised he would during the campaign, but President Obama upset Koharian and many other Armenian-Americans when, during an April visit to Turkey, he refused to use that word in front of his hosts.)

Koharian, a 27-year-old Portland native and Maine College of Art graduate whose great-grandparents escaped the genocide and came to the US, wants “Turkey to admit this,” and hopes to provoke more discussion with his art — including two pieces entitled “Turkishness.” One of them shows two skeletons, a mother and a child, in a dark environment alone. The other shows three figures in fezzes, one holding a chain leading to the neck of a skeleton lying at their feet.

“To insult Turkishness is illegal in Turkey,” Koharian says, by way of explaining the pieces’ names.

Some of the works are his own illustrations of survivors’ tales he has read in online archives or at the Armenian Library and Museum of America in Watertown, Massachusetts. Others are his own responses to what he has seen and heard and read on the subject. And many of the works that will be on display are not related to the Armenian genocide at all, but nevertheless depict what he calls “atrocities” — such as environmental destruction.

But beyond the depth of feeling in his conversation about the topic, and in his art, is his chilling choice of an artist statement. Quoting Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, it reads: “Our strength lies in our intensive attacks and our barbarity . . . After all, who today remembers the genocide of the Armenians?”

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Legislate by Deed, Not by Breed: Breed-specific legislation and policies pose challenges to dog owners

Published in Downeast Dog News

As the city of Denver reassesses its 20-year-old ban on Pit Bull-type breeds, and begins to question its longstanding official assumption that all dogs of that type are hazardous to people, it’s worth remembering that some dogs are strong and may require particular skills to handle them better. But any dog, even a toy chihuahua, has the potential to be dangerous.

The opposite also holds true—any dog has the potential to be harmless and friendly.

In fact, the heart of the American Kennel Club’s guideline is “Legislate by deed, not by breed.” Rather than restricting certain types of dogs, this approach suggests examining each dog’s behavior individually and responding appropriately. While this may sound like common sense to a responsible dog owner, when motivated by fear and misconception, policy making organizations such as city councils, insurance companies or landlords often turn to breed bans.

Maine law does not specify breeds and even goes so far as to prevent cities and towns from enacting breed bans. It “took months” to devise that legislation, according to Heather Jackson, a dog owner and insurance agent from Augusta, who helped work on the bill more than a decade ago.

Authorities are allowed to deem a dog “dangerous,” and even seek a court order to euthanize it, if it seriously injures or kills a person, but exempts dogs defending their owners’ property, including vehicles, and farm dogs defending livestock. (See sidebar on page 10.)

Apparently, the law has worked pretty well. “No one has really wanted to mess with it since,” said Jackson. And the complaints that have come in have largely been handled without new legislation. One small change to the law was proposed in the most recent legislative session. It would have allowed authorities to classify a dog as “dangerous,” and even euthanize it, if it attacked not just people but domestic animals. The bill died in committee.

“I think we’re in pretty good shape here,” said Ken Marden of Whitefield, a former AKC president, who acts as an advisor to the Federation of Maine Dog Clubs, an umbrella organization for many dog-related interest groups in the state. However, the public perception of dangerous breeds and dangerous dogs, and how it plays out beyond government regulation, is not in such good shape.

“It can be a real problem” for dog owners to get insurance, said David Favre, a professor at Michigan State University School of Law and editor-in-chief of animallaw.info, a Web site that catalogues animal-related laws from around the country. Often, insurers are concerned with breeds, and not whether a dog is trained to defend territory or to cuddle with a newborn.

Some towns around the country require additional coverage for people who have dogs that have been classified as dangerous or that are specific breeds. But that doesn’t mean insurance companies will offer coverage, or that people will be able to afford it if it is available.

And some insurance companies will cancel their policies rather than insure particular types of dogs. “You have people losing insurance just because they have a Pit [Bull],” Favre said.

The AKC Web site does offer links to insurance companies that are not breed-specific, and Jackson said that her insurance company, State Farm, will even offer umbrella liability coverage for dogs with certain bite histories, although owners should be prepared to pay extra for it. Some states have laws preventing insurance companies from canceling insurance for homeowners on the basis of the breed of their dog. Maine considered that in 2005, but it failed.

Sometimes, however, if a tenant can get insurance, that may not be enough. Carlton Winslow, vice president of the Maine Apartment Owners and Managers Association, said that landlords run into insurance problems, too.

“The insurance companies have gotten tougher” over the last 10 years, according to Winslow. They may restrict landlords from renting to tenants with dogs (or specific breeds of dogs) or tenants who smoke. Even apartments with working fireplaces are now harder and more expensive to insure for landlords.

And then there are the landlord’s own policies. Winslow, for example, rents to dog owners only at his single-family properties and not in multi-unit housing. “In a house, the tenant is pretty much responsible for everything,” he said. Multi-family buildings have common areas, and neighbors are placed closer to each other, so there’s more opportunity for problems.

Plus, “some people take great care of their pets and other people do not,” said Winslow, a former dog owner. And housing-fairness laws make it hard to make decisions on a case-by-case basis without risking legal threats.

Other businesses, of course, can’t get by if they restrict dogs too tightly. Robin Bennett, a Virginia-based consultant for off-leash dog daycares and dog daycare section chair of the Pet Care Services Association, which rates daycares and kennels nationwide, said that daycares and kennels have to be more discerning, but they are prepared to make the necessary distinctions, because they are animal professionals, unlike insurance employees and landlords.

“Sociability,” a term Bennett uses to describe how much a dog expresses interest in humans or other dogs, is something that dog professionals look for. Bennett suggests that owners and trainers be aware of dogs’ warning signals, such as growling, that may signal stress, which can escalate to something more serious. Mostly, look for a dog that will engage with others, and has manners when greeting other dogs. Like many dog pros, Bennett is not a “big proponent of breed bans.”

Screenings for kennels can be less rigorous than those for playgroups, simply because kennels where dogs don’t mix just have to be sure its staff can handle a dog. A playgroup, because dogs mix more freely, requires a more careful screening, according to Bennett. But even then, it’s rarely “good dog, bad dog,” she said; rather it’s “good moment, bad moment.”

Unfortunately, that’s not how many in the public perceive things, which is where lawmakers get caught up in the idea of breed bans. Favre said that there is no evidence to show that any of these kinds of laws, whether breed-specific or not, have actually reduced dog bites.

In fact, Denver’s dog-bite numbers “are not down,” despite the draconian law there, according to Marcy Setter, owner and founder of Understanda-Bull in Massachusetts, who added that most bites in Denver are from German Shepherds, which are not covered in the city’s breed ban.

All the research shows “it’s an owner issue, it’s not a breed issue,” Setter said. “No specific breed is any more dangerous than any other.” Citing an average of 21 dog-bite fatalities annually in the United States, Setter said that there are many other more serious causes of widespread injury, such as walking down the street, and driving. She also said that while parents of newborns often are sent home from the hospital with piles and piles of material detailing how to keep the baby safe, there is almost never any information on dog safety, whether there is a dog in the home or not.

And that may, in the end, be a key issue. “Without understanding basic canine behavior, people immediately think ‘these dogs are aggressive,’” Setter said.

Definition of a “Dangerous Dog” under Maine Law
“Dangerous dog,” under Maine Law, means a dog that bites an individual or a domesticated animal that is not trespassing on the dog owner’s or keeper’s premises at the time of the bite, or a dog that causes a reasonable and prudent person who is not on the dog owner’s or keeper’s premises and is acting in a reasonable and nonaggressive manner to fear imminent bodily injury by assaulting or threatening to assault that individual or individual’s domestic animal.

“Dangerous dog” does not include a dog certified by the state and used for law enforcement use. “Dangerous dog” does not include a dog that bites or threatens to assault an individual who is on the dog owner’s or keeper’s premises if the dog has no prior history of assault and was provoked by the individual immediately prior to the bite or threatened assault.

For the purposes of this definition, “dog owner’s or keeper’s premises” means the residence or residences, including buildings and land and motor vehicles, belonging to the owner or keeper of the dog.