Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Encores: We heart even more people!

Published in the Portland Phoenix

We were right. We told you two weeks ago that any list of Portland's Most Influential people was inherently incomplete — and so it was. (See "We Heart These People," February 12.) I asked you to send in names of people you know who should have been included, and several of you did, or mentioned to us on the side that we'd missed someone.

One writer observed that fairly few of our nominees were volunteers, which is indeed a good point. We got one self-nominating note, took a call from a person who found possibly our biggest omission from the list, and even spotted one particular brief, amusing Facebook status update.

Herewith, our attempt to rectify some of our omissions. (And sorry, folks, no double-encores. If we still missed someone, we're sorry, but it'll have to wait until the next time we do a list like that. Send suggestions along anyway, though!)

GRETA BANK | artist | Portraying the undersides of humanity through bold visions, dripping with inspired color
MEREDITH STRANG BURGESS | cancer-detection activist; state representative from Falmouth; owner, Burgess Advertising | Working tirelessly to help others live better lives
KIRSTEN CAPPY | owner, Curious City | Getting creators, readers, and fans of children's books on the same page
KEITH FITZGERALD | owner, Zero Station | Opening his doors to help open others' minds
MAIR HONAN | pastor, Grace-Street Ministry | Non-sectarian ministering to those most in need
MATT JAMES + ALISON PRAY | bakers, Standard Baking | Feeding our need for buying home-baked goodness
BERT JONGERDEN | general manager, Portland Fish Exchange; member, Portland Board of Harbor Commission | Keeping the waterfront working
JULIE MARCHESE | founder, Tri For A Cure race; co-founder, | Getting women on the move toward healthier living
SARAH PARKER-HOLMES | coordinator, USM Center for Sexualities and Gender Diversity | Promoting diversity and open-mindedness on and off-campus
ANITA STEWART | executive & artistic director, Portland Stage Company | Behind the scenes (literally and figuratively) running the city's biggest shows
MICHAEL TOBIN + JEFFREY CARON | artistic directors, Old Port Playhouse | Renewing an old venue with performances, teaching, and verve
VJ FOO | projection artist | Mixing video, music, and audiences to light up dance parties all week long

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Government Reform: Should non-citizens vote?

Published in the Portland Phoenix

We Americans know we don't like taxation without representation in our democracy, but should we allow participation without naturalization? The Portland Charter Commission, tasked with recommending changes big and small to the city's governing document, is discussing just that question, and will likely ask city residents to vote on it in November.

The big question before the commission got going was whether they would seek to create an elected-mayor-with-power position, rather than the ceremonial-figurehead-selected-by-the-councilors position we have now. But, led by Green Independents Ben Chipman and Anna Trevorrow, they've moved past that (answer: yes, and they're also recommending we choose the mayor by instant-runoff voting, a system that will give third parties more clout but may not change the actual electoral outcome) and are on to the question of whether non-citizens should be allowed to vote in Portland's municipal elections.

Before he spoke to the commissioners in a public meeting, Ron Hayduk, a social scientist at the City University of New York, spoke to the Phoenix about what this might mean.

Hayduk reports that in the first part of American history, many places — as many as 40 states and territories — allowed non-citizens to vote. That may sound nice, but those rights came mostly via laws designed to restrict voting rights to property owners, a rule that took years to overturn.

As voting rights expanded, governments hoping to avoid challenges to their existing power (often from poor and immigrant populations who were finding their political voices) introduced other rules, such as poll taxes and literacy tests.

Now a third party finds itself with significant power in Portland, and is moving to open the franchise to non-citizens. Chipman observes that Maine is a leader in encouraging voter participation, allowing same-day voter registration as well as permitting convicted criminals to vote from prison. This would be another way to get more people involved in governing.

"We don't have a problem with too many people voting," he observes. He wants to get people more involved in the community, and to acknowledge the involvement people already have. Chipman observes that an American citizen could move to Portland from Texas the week of the election, know nothing about local issues, and cast a valid ballot — and says it's not fair that people who have lived here for years and been deeply involved in those same issues can't vote at all. "They're stakeholders," he says. (Estimates of Portlanders in this situation range between 4000 and 5000.)

Legal immigrants typically take between eight and 10 years to earn citizenship, if they decide to. "Many of our immigrants are refugees" with legal status, Trevorrow says, who have kids in the public schools and pay property, income, and sales taxes yet at present lack a voice in how that money is spent — at least for the period before they become citizens. Some, for whom renouncing another citizenship would mean loss of property or ability to visit relatives abroad, never become US citizens and never have a voice in how their new home is governed.

It's not without controversy. Apart from the question of whether such a move is legal without action from the state Legislature (a bill to allow just this option to all Maine municipalities failed last session), America's historical cultural wariness toward people from other countries is also at play. (It's ironic, Hayduk notes, in "this nation of immigrants," but "it's an old periodic conflict" in which we must "talk about what divides us" as well as things we have in common.)

And while seven immigrants asked the commissioners to allow it, several commissioners appear wary of letting non-citizens vote, suggesting that if they want to have a voice, they become US citizens. "Immigrants want this to happen," Trevorrow says. But since citizens get to choose whether it does, the real question is whether Americans want this to happen.

What Promise? Dept.: Baldacci, Dems raise broad-based taxes

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Despite numerous repeated claims that he and his party will not raise "broad-based taxes" while attempting to solve Maine's decade-old budget disaster, Democratic governor John Baldacci and legislative Democrats have done exactly that, and are now expanding those efforts by increasing an additional tax that hits many Mainers.

Baldacci's typical methods for balancing the budget have involved drastic spending cuts, increasing fees for government services, and shifting money within state coffers. He has regularly promised not to raise taxes paid by most Mainers. But rather than cut roughly $6 million in state spending (such as in corporate subsidies, or Baldacci's favorite targets, health and education funds) or increase other revenues (by, say, taxing the wealthy slightly more), Baldacci and his party are doing what they promised not to: Nearly all Maine homeowners will see increased property taxes in the 2010-2011 fiscal year because of state policies.

The governor has repeatedly in the past, and again this year, pushed lawmakers to slash millions of dollars in state support for local school systems, forcing towns to raise their own taxes. Baldacci elegantly sidesteps the blame for that, saying those tax-increase decisions are made locally — ignoring the fact that local officials wouldn't need to raise taxes if the Baldacci's administration met its legal obligations for education funding. That's not new.

What is new this year is a reduction in the so-called "homestead exemption," through which roughly 315,000 Maine residents get a break on their local property taxes, courtesy of the state treasury (for owner-occupied homes only, and not for second homes or those owned by out-of-state residents), in an effort to reduce local governments' reliance on property taxes to fund services.

When the exemption was introduced in 1998, the state paid the local property tax on $7000 of a home's assessed value (so a person owning a home worth $100,000 would pay tax on $93,000). In 2003 and 2005, the Legislature increased the amount, such that last year the exemption was $13,000 (a $100,000 home would be taxed on $87,000).

But last year in a little-noticed revision to the budget, Baldacci and his party's majority in the Legislature reduced the exemption to $10,000 (meaning a home worth $100,000 would be taxed on $90,000), starting with tax payments due this August.

Baldacci's spokesman, David Farmer, says the governor's proposal was to reduce the exemption by 10 percent, to $11,700, but the taxation committee went with the lower $10,000 figure, in part in an attempt to reduce the severity of cuts to other programs, such as the state's "circuit-breaker" program (which provides state rebates to people whose property taxes are higher than a certain percentage of their income).

Farmer says it's not a broken promise: "It's not a broad-based tax. It's a reimbursement to municipalities." He's sort of right: the state pays towns half of the amount they would receive from taxpayers if there were no exemption. (The other half is just absorbed by the towns, which may have to raise property tax rates slightly to cover the difference; Farmer notes that "it's not just a benefit to the state," because there will be less of a difference for towns to make up.)

But remember that the point of the program was to lessen upward pressure on property taxes, not to give towns more money. Based on last year's tax rate, the change could cost Portland residents $53.22, city spokeswoman Nicole Clegg says. And the state will save roughly $6 million in the bargain, according to Dave Ledew of Maine Revenue Services. Less money in taxpayers' pockets and more money in the state treasury? Sounds like a tax to us.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

We heart these people: Meet Portland's most influential

Published in the Portland Phoenix (an introduction and my segments of a larger piece, which can be found here and on subsequent pages)

We all know Portland is a busy, exciting place to live. It takes a lot of people's amazing energy to keep it going, though. Who's doing the moving and the shaking?

We started with a simple question: Who are the people without whom Portland would be the poorer? But that's not the only criterion. Who is making Portland, and Maine, great for all of us to live, work, and play in today, and even better for tomorrow? Who is spending their time and energy really contributing deeply, in a way we should all notice and appreciate (even if they're too modest — and busy — to seek that publicity themselves)?

We thought about this ourselves and talked about it (quietly) around town. One person we consulted put it perfectly when rephrasing what we had asked her: "Who do I look up to and admire the hell out of?"

Perhaps the best thing, though, is that this list (which we split into categories largely for logistical reasons — many of these people cross the artificial lines we created) could also have been called "Portland's Most Humble," given many of the responses we got after telling people they made the list. "Aw, shucks, thanks," read one e-mail. "Can't be that elite if I'm in it," wrote another PMIer. "Did you mean to send this to me?" and "Are you sure you've got the right person?" were also common responses — even from people with very prominent community roles. But we suspect that most of the people felt like the person who wrote "I'm embarrassed and very, very pleased."

And yes, we know we missed some people — any list like this will never be complete — so if this list is missing you (or someone you know), please let us know.

Even if you've never met RABBI AKIVA HERZFELD, when you call to introduce yourself, you might be invited to a Portland Pirates hockey game with the BlackBerry-toting leader of Portland's oldest orthodox Jewish community, Congregation Shaarey Tphiloh.

It's that sort of cognitive dissonance that makes him particularly well suited to be here now. While Herzfeld speaks about his elders, Jewish tradition, and the history of his people with deep respect and feeling — not least because his grandparents fled from the Nazis with his infant father — his eyes are clearly looking ahead, not backward. His congregation, he says with a smile, are "traditional, more than orthodox," perhaps "a little bit more liberal" than their fellow believers in larger cities, such as the Staten Island, New York, community where he grew up.

He works to connect the generations — allowing older members of his congregation to continue in aspects of Jewish life they have long found meaningful, while also reaching out to young people — as in his annual college-student get-together at Shaarey Tphiloh, when he invites Jewish students from colleges around Maine and New England to spend a weekend at the synagogue (and attend a hockey game with other congregation members, young and old).

Beyond his own community, Herzfeld is making a name for himself in the civic life of greater Portland. When Shaarey Tphiloh was vandalized by people who painted swastikas on the sign outside the building, he got in touch with a wide range of people — obviously the police, but also community organizations, and other religious groups — and held a rally to condemn hate as a way of responding to the incident. He's also willing to stop and chat when he sees people looking quizzically at his yarmulke, or is approached on the street to talk about Israel or Judaism. And he just gave an invocation at the NAACP breakfast for Martin Luther King Day.

"We try to be involved in every issue" where Jewish perspective can deepen people's understanding, he says. He has written and spoken publicly about issues that may seem far afield from traditional Jewish rabbinical studies, such as the problems with solitary confinement in Maine's prison system and security in the post-9/11 world.

"Jewish tradition and Jewish values have a lot to offer for people in Maine," he says, noting that one of the security issues he discussed was a report that an airplane passenger had become alarmed upon seeing a fellow passenger — a devout Jew, as it turned out — preparing for prayer by putting on tefillin, small boxes containing tiny copies of the Torah that are strapped to the arms and head during worship.

As governments and societies struggle with how to accommodate with such important and ancient traditions in the modern world, it's vital to remember that many people live those traditions daily. Into that conversation, Herzfeld injects a reasonable voice, not to mention a listening ear and an open mind. "I think our state has a lot to learn from diverse opinions," he says.

It's kind of by accident that PHILIP RHINELANDER, owner of XPress Copy, has come by his influence. Once a musician and music teacher in Vermont, he relocated to Maine more than 30 years ago to open a copy shop on the advice (and the financial backing) of a friend.

"The first five employees were all musicians," he recalls, and he and they had "always felt the pinch of the nonprofits, of the musicians, of the arts groups." In the early years, XPress Copy helped them out by interrupting larger corporate jobs to do small reproduction pieces for art students and the like, making them feel taken care of. Rhinelander confesses to not seeing the benefit of this for a little while, but "within a few years, those art students were office managers" and making decisions about where their companies would get copies, enlargements, and other printing jobs done.

In the '80s, Rhinelander's growing firm gave people credit on their accounts for bringing in paper to be recycled, and even trademarked CleanPrint, an ammonia-free method for making blueprints.

And he always gave discounts to non-profits and arts groups. But it wasn't until the early 2000s that some friends and he hit upon the concept that has made XPress Copy's reputation in the arts and entertainment community around town. Bulk discounts are a given in reproduction, but what if they stopped viewing each organization as an individual? They adopted the idea that "if you're a non-profit, you're part of the biggest customer in Maine" and started giving even bigger discounts.

The program has grown — it has an official name (XPress Non-profit Program) and even a targeted-marketing brochure — and is now a sizeable percentage of the company's business, as well as a significant money-saver for countless non-profits and artists. It's now even serving sports booster clubs, an organization of Mayflower descendants, and pretty much any group that is "doing some good for people."

It's a clever arrangement, business-wise, because Rhinelander has structured the price sustainably: the discount is not so low that XPress Copy loses money — it's just enough to give a small profit that means he can keep expanding the service without worrying about hurting the company. Rather, as Rhinelander notes, "we've found our niche." Some of his most recent additions to the business have been inspired by asking — and answering — the question, "What do the non-profits really need?"

And it has been crucial for business overall, because, of course, pretty much everyone — including, importantly, people who make corporate copying decisions — is somehow involved in an organization that qualifies, whether as the parent of a kid who plays on a team, or a church, or some other community group. The discount gets them in Rhinelander's door, but the service and quality, he hopes, brings them back, with corporate accounts in tow.

The husband-and-wife team of TRISTAN GALLAGHER and MICHELLE SOULIERE could qualify for this category solely on the basis of creating amazing business names: "Fun Box Monster Emporium" and "Green Hand Bookshop" are not stores in JK Rowling or Roald Dahl books, but rather places exploring, from different angles, the fun, fantastic, pulpy, popular side of literacy.

Gallagher, drummer for Covered in Bees and frontman of Man-Witch, and co-founder of the We Hate T-shirts screen-printing company, also has five unpublished books (including illustrated books), some based on his Sam and Timmy zine.

Souliere, who used to work at the Portland Public Library and the University of Southern Maine, runs the Strange Maine blog and Gazette, and has a Strange Maine book in the works, too. She also runs a blog for her bookshop, and somehow manages to find time to work on the Portland Art Horde and any number of other projects she dreams up.

She reports that much of what she and Gallagher do comes from sentences that start with, "Wouldn't it be cool if . . ." and finish with some crazy scheme. For some of those plans, "it just happens."

Gallagher's latest project, the Fun Box Monster Emporium pop-culture trinket shop, has its beginnings in what he calls a "destructively stifling job" that he left to start the screen-printing company in some extra space in their apartment. But then they moved to a much smaller apartment.

"I had to find a place to put the stuff," Gallagher says wryly. He reinvigorated an old eBay business selling toys — which he had also stored around the place but had to relocate when they moved. Inspired by the crazy collective shops like the East Village's Toy Tokyo and Love Saves The Day (which recently moved to Pennsylvania), Gallagher decided to open a store like that here.

Like her husband's business, which shares space with Coast City Comics and lets each side benefit from the other's traffic, Souliere's effort, the Green Hand Bookshop, also pairs up with a complementary endeavor: Loren Coleman's International Cryptozoology Museum (which explains the giant Bigfoot figure in the front window of the store).

Her next idea is to hold events at the shop that are less directly related to books than typical bookstore events, such as a get-together where people use nice pens and nice paper to hand-write letters, encouraging people to focus on the written word.

And after that? Almost anything for Portland's busiest dreamers — who have a knack for turning their crazy concepts into reality. "We've just always been astonished by people being bored," Souliere says with a laugh.

Portland's police chief, JAMES CRAIG, arrived last May and wasted no time in telling us the often-unpleasant truths about life and crime in the Forest City. A transplant from Los Angeles with years of experience dealing with gang violence, drug-related crime, and people who can't get proper mental-health services, he has publicly announced that these and other problems exist in Portland, and asked for help dealing with them. That move removed the scales from many Portlanders' eyes and outright demanded that we look those and other challenges directly in the face.

But he's no "Media Mike" Chitwood — he's far less inflammatory, and much more thoughtful, than the last chief many Portlanders remember (the two in the interim were quiet, if not silent) — and he's not even close to declaring his efforts a success. "I'm optimistic," Craig will admit, but he knows there is a lot of ground yet to cover. He has more ideas, seemingly all the time, to help achieve these solutions, and, for a man whose career has been spent wearing a gun and carrying handcuffs, almost none of them involve arresting people or creating new laws. Rather, they're about drawing different groups of people — including immigrants and students, two groups that have traditionally had difficult dealings with the police — into discussions and activities with the police, sharing time together.

It is true that he has brought aspects of big-city policing to our small burg. Having seen how well Tasers can help defuse situations with distraught people, he introduced them, complete with a trial run and among the strictest guidelines in the country. It was not a slam-dunk proposal, but his moderate approach — including his insistence that no officer would carry a Taser without special training — quieted many potential critics long enough for the officers to demonstrate that they would not Taser people willy-nilly, as we might have feared from watching trigger-happy cops on television.

Craig brought in CompStat, a computerized tracking system that shows when and where crimes occur, and meetings at which he and other department leaders regularly review the information. It helps him decide where to allot resources, and gives the senior lead officers in each neighborhood (also a Craig idea) a real leg up in spotting trouble and stopping it before it gets out of hand.

He has announced that this year the department will focus on gangs, graffiti, and drugs, linking them not only to each other but to street robberies and car and home burglaries that dramatically increase people's fear of crime.

Which gets at the question that seems to be on Craig's mind all the time: Having assured himself that the department is working hard at keeping people safe, he wonders whether the public perception is changing: "Do people feel safer?" If not, he suggests, then the police have to work all the harder.

Look for upcoming efforts including expanding the Police Athletic League to non-sports activities for kids and teens (including possible a late-night cybercafe during the summer), and a play by Portland officers about relations between them and community members — inspired by a similar play put on for Craig and others by Portland High School students.

Press Releases: Protecting liberty

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Newspapers need to be stronger watchdogs about government attempts to intrude on individual rights.
Let's look at how five local newspapers (the three weeklies covering the city, and the two Portland-based dailies) covered a recent civil-liberties debate.

The South Portland Police Department purchased a car-mounted system that can take digital images of every license plate it passes (whether the cars are parked or moving) and compare them to an electronic database, immediately alerting officers if a nearby vehicle has been reported stolen or otherwise involved in a crime. The system will store all the images — not just those it alerts on — in a searchable electronic database for up to 30 days.

Proponents say the technology will help make people safer, by helping cops identify wanted cars instantaneously, and by allowing them to search through past records to find vehicles that were not flagged in real time, but are later being sought for some reason.

Opponents (including Democratic senator Dennis Damon of Hancock County, who has introduced a bill that would outlaw use of the system) say this kind of monitoring, and especially the storage of the data collected, amounts to excessive government surveillance, mostly of innocent citizens.

Most of the papers had the same basic information, but reading them all revealed useful information that reading any one would have failed to provide.

The CURRENT offered the most substantive coverage, including lengthy interviews with parties on all sides, and even sending a reporter to ride with police to observe the system — with a bonus for getting the cops to scan her license plate as a demonstration of what personal information would and would not be recorded or accessible to police. Nevertheless, the piece downplayed the police's desire to keep data on innocent drivers.

The PORTLAND DAILY SUN distilled the question most clearly and simply: whether the technology simply allows police to improve performance of a routine task, or whether it amounts to a massive new surveillance program. The paper also, in a quote, pointed out that people give massive amounts of personal information to corporations (such as Facebook), but did not note that they do so willingly, and that those corporations don't have the power to lock you up, as cops do.

The PORTLAND PRESS HERALD put out the first story on the issue, and explained it clearly, noting importantly — and exclusively, as it turned out — that the police want access to more data on cars and drivers, to expand their ability to do real-time searches.

The SOUTH PORTLAND SENTRY offered anemic coverage, quoting five people and a Web site. The story was published a week later than its competitors' versions, and omitted important facts that had been previously reported and that could be easily verified (such as the fact that a lawmaker the paper quoted supporting the system had initially co-sponsored the bill to outlaw it).

The SOUTHERN FORECASTER, despite being third to press (after the PPH and the Current), broke the news that Democratic senator Larry Bliss, who lives in South Portland and represents part of the city, had originally co-sponsored the bill banning the use of the system, but had seen a demonstration and reversed his position. However, it failed to capitalize on that scoop, allowing Bliss to explain his change of heart with vague platitudes rather than specific things he saw during the demo. ("I think people will be safer," the paper quotes him as saying, without detailing what he learned that changed his mind 180 degrees.)

Time to step up the skepticism, people.

(Two disclosures: I live in South Portland. And from 2001 to 2005, I worked for the Current, whose ownership remains the same but whose editorial staff is entirely different than when I was there.)

Not a modest proposal: The US Supreme Court has saved us from financial ruin

Published in the Portland Phoenix

There has been powerful criticism of the recent US Supreme Court ruling that corporations are truly people, and deserve all the rights people have, including the right to spend as much as they wish to support or oppose candidates in elections. But we should stop this sniping and thank the justices for their guidance: They have offered us a way out of this financial disaster we are in, with state spending plummeting, taxes rising, and an increasing federal debt load. Here's how it works:

-According to the recent Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission ruling, corporations are people.

-People can be charged with crimes. Let's use murder as an example.

-Corporation-people can be charged with murder (and not just negligence or wrongful death).

-When people are convicted of murder, they are typically imprisoned. (Though sometimes they're put to death, and other times involuntarily committed to mental institutions.)

-When a corporation-person is convicted of murder (it's only a matter of time before a smart prosecutor uses the bizarre logic of the Citizens United ruling to accomplish this) it will launch a new sub-specialty in the practice of law: Arguing about how to imprison a corporation. We can hardly lock up every employee, so who do you choose? The CEO? The board of directors?

-This is where we can learn from the Supreme Court's Citizens United logic: People have the right to speak without restriction from the government, and money equals speech, so corporation-people can spend unlimited amounts of money to directly influence elections.

-Following this argument, money equals freedom, so we should not bother arguing about whom to lock up when a corporation-person is convicted, but simply fine the company an amount appropriate for the crime committed.

-And now let's do as the Supreme Court did one more time, and take this logical progression to its logical conclusion, no matter how ridiculous it might sound: If corporation-people can pay fines in lieu of imprisonment, there's no reason people-people shouldn't be able to.

This presents us with the glorious situation that will extract us and our governments from this horrendous financial disaster. Not only can we abolish the prison system, which costs billions in taxpayer dollars every year (with little actual rehabilitation to show for it), but we can use the new revenue from all these criminals' fines to cover all sorts of wonderful programs, like schools, roads, and police officers.

Thanks, justices! Who would have thought that among all the people in Washington and around the country wringing their hands about the state of the economy, that you would turn out to be the geniuses who showed us the way?

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Show Your Work: Nickelodeon to screen local flicks

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Eddy Bolz, a projectionist at the Nickelodeon Cinemas, wants local filmmakers to send him their feature-length movies for possible showing on the big screen.

He's shown a couple — David Camlin's documentary about the 48-Hour Music Festival, and Allen Baldwin's Up Up Down Down — and gotten good response, so now he reports the Nick's management have given him the green light to solicit more.

It won't be a regularly scheduled feature — "every two months roughly," Bolz reports — likely a double-showing on a Thursday evening, in the Nick's largest theater, which holds 220 people.

David Scott, whose family owns the Nickelodeon and affiliated cinemas around New England, says the company has in the past shared box-office proceeds with the filmmakers (or, as with last weekend's Maine African Film Festival screening of a movie about Haiti to benefit earthquake relief, donated all the money to charities).

We'll keep you posted as the films are scheduled. In the meantime, drop them off or mail them to Bolz at the Nickelodeon, 1 Temple Street, Portland ME 04101.