Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Gubernatorial scorecard: Storm clouds

Published in the Portland Phoenix

We just weathered a storm that hit harder elsewhere than it did in Maine. Along a similar line, we're finding that the Tea Party-style allegations of government waste, welfare fraud, and excessive regulation are not quite as severe here as critics claim; whether they're more real in other places remains to be seen. In any case, here are the storms facing Governor Paul LePage in our eighth Gubernatorial Scorecard, in which we score LePage on political savvy, and on whether what he's trying to do is good policy. Note the running total.
ABSENT STORM | LePage recently hosted a delegation of officials from northwestern Russia, calling international exchange "mutually beneficial." He's right, but it's hard to envision a Democratic governor engaging in the same effort without allegations of cavorting with communists (the Russians' actual politics notwithstanding).
POLITICS • Shows LePage has total control over the extreme right-wing in Maine | 10/10
POLICY • Inclusive, culturally sensitive, historically conscious. Who'd'a thunk it? | 10/10
AID STORM | Even before Hurricane Irene made landfall farther south on the East Coast last week, LePage issued an emergency declaration, which allowed state agencies to use their money and personnel to help wherever it might be needed. That's what government is for, after all. But this is a man who wants all individuals to stand up for themselves, and who wants to cut state spending?
POLITICS • Shows LePage has total control over all of his political allies, not just the extremists | 8/10
POLICY • Obviously the right thing to do, unless you're on the (political) right | 10/10
BUDGET STORM | The latest LePage attack on government spending is called "zero-based budgeting," in which every state program is allegedly reviewed as if it were being proposed for the first time, and put through a rigorous cost-benefit analysis. Maybe it's new to Augusta, but towns claim to do this all the time.
POLITICS • Shifts blame for future budget cuts away from the governor | 10/10
POLICY • Remains to be seen whether cold analysis trumps political rhetoric | 5/10
WELFARE STORM | The administration has made a lot of noise about fighting welfare fraud, including announcing prosecutions and incarcerations, and proposing hiring more investigators to ferret out more abuse. But when a partisan activist released a carefully edited video purporting to show fraud, LePage backpedaled and said state staff simply need better training.
POLITICS • Clever effort to have it both ways: demonize waste, but protect those who are supposed to prevent it | 7/10
POLICY • If welfare fraud is too complex for partisan games, why play them himself? | 2/10
REGULATION STORM | LePage is now requiring all state agencies to run new and proposed rules past his office for vetting based on their impact on "job growth or creation." Given that many government rules restrict business practices for the sake of public interest (see: no dumping dioxin in rivers), this risks handing businesses license to trample the rest of us.
POLITICS • Government rules are a popular scapegoat | 8/10
POLICY • State agencies serve the public, not businesses. Balancing interests will be vital, and difficult. | 5/10
This month's total | Politics 43/50 | Policy 32/50 | Last month: Politics 43/50 | Policy 22/50 | Overall: Politics 274/400 | Policy 173/400

Marijuana Watch: Green light for Maine’s biggest dispensary company

Published in the Portland Phoenix

It'll be a while before Portlanders with doctor's orders for medical marijuana have a local dispensary, but Northeast Patients Group may open its first facility in Thomaston in the next couple of weeks.
NPG, which holds four of Maine's first eight dispensary licenses, is still embroiled in a legal battle with Berkeley Patients Group, its original financing partner (see "Keep Patients Waiting," by Deirdre Fulton, July 22) — a fight that now involves not just the original lawsuit, claiming breach of contract and other problems, but a countersuit seeking lots of money NPG claims BPG should have paid out but never did.
But NPG cleared a major hurdle resulting from its rift, getting state approval last week for its revised financing deal, backed now by former NBA player Cuttino Mobley and the California-based Farmacy Institute for Wellness.
A letter from Catherine Cobb, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services official in charge of medical-marijuana licensing, said the new deal was substantially similar to the previous arrangement with BPG, which had won state approval. Cobb noted that there was potential concern over NPG's ability to funnel "excessive profits" to the Farmacy Institute through paid consultants' fees, but said NPG's list of fees allayed those worries.
Where the Portland dispensary will go — and when it will open — remain to be seen, though NPG says it's shooting for October. Complicating issues abound (see "Smoke Local," by Deirdre Fulton, February 18 and "Where to Put the Pot," by Kegan Zema, June 11, 2010, for examples of economic and logistical concerns), and the Portland City Council has yet to weigh in.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Press Releases: Declare yourself

Published in the Portland Phoenix

The 8000-plus-word play-by-play of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, written by freelancer Nicholas Schmidle and published in the New Yorker recently, is a fascinating read, with lots of juicy details (example: the plan was always to kill bin Laden, not capture him) delivered in the rapid-fire pace of a military thriller novel.
It has spawned a large set of after-the-fact writings too, speculating about how Schmidle got the information and how reliable it really is, given the bombshell revelation that Schmidle's account, written from the perspective of the Navy Seals who conducted the mission, was based on secondhand interviews and not a single interview with a Seal who participated in the raid.
Russ Baker of WhoWhatWhy, in a column republished on Salon, laid out the most detailed critique, noting contradictions in previous accounts by government officials (including President Obama's counterterrorism adviser, John O. Brennan, who was quoted by name in the New Yorker piece), questions about the lack of supporting evidence for the account, and shortcomings of logic within the piece itself that call its veracity into question.
New Yorker editor David Remnick has defended the piece, saying the sources are known to company executives and were fact-checked according to the magazine's standards.
The episode shows that we are in a new media-consumption environment, in which it is not just conspiracy theorists and backwoods kooks who are concerned about being manipulated by the media. The general public is rightly worried about both motivations and national security, and the only cure is transparency — a feature sorely lacking in that article.
Accusations have already flown about whether Schmidle (and the New Yorker, by extension) is being used by government officials, either to cheerlead for Obama's handling of the fight against terrorism, or to whitewash a mission muddied by legal and moral quandaries.
But over the weekend, another important issue became clear to me, during an extensive conversation with a friend's father. A long-retired captain in the US Navy, who worked both aboard ship and in the Pentagon, this man is a perceptive thinker with a lot of political and media savvy.
He had a large number of concerns about the reporter's role, and the New Yorker's, in publishing material that at least at one time was classified, and may still be. His concern along this line extended to pieces in other media that identified the attackers as a special-operations force called DevGru (formerly known as Seal Team 6), and went so far as to identify the town where many of those fighters live. He suggested, as have many others, that perhaps the Taliban's shooting down of a US special-operations helicopter, killing as many as 25 members of DevGru, may have been planned as revenge specifically because the unit was publicly identified.
I dove in, defending press freedom, arguing in favor of publication of government secrets, the better to monitor our democracy with.
As our conversation deepened, it emerged that he had fewer concerns about the reporting the New York Times had done on the Bush administration's warrantless-wiretapping program, which top White House staffers objected to on the grounds that any publicity at all would endanger national security.
What made the difference? The Times included in that package information about the government's objections, as well as the Times management's assessment of those concerns, and details of the action the paper took (withholding some details that editors agreed were dangerous to make public).
That type of straight talking was what was missing from the New Yorker's bin Laden raid piece.
It turns out that transparency isn't just for the government; if journalists want to be trusted by the public, we should take similar steps as those we propose public servants take.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Stonewalling - AG’s office: ‘If I had it, I wouldn’t give it to you’

Published in the Portland Phoenix

For someone whose government job is to handle media inquiries, Brenda Kielty, special assistant to and spokeswoman for Maine Attorney General William Schneider (a Republican), sure says some strange things on the record.
For example, when I was asking her how much taxpayer money the AG's office spent prosecuting fraud cases in Maine's welfare system, she told me her agency doesn't track attorneys' work by time spent on specific cases. When I asked why this government organization didn't use an extremely common business practice (private-sector attorneys bill in fractions of an hour as small as six minutes), she told me she was no longer going to help me.
And the information I had asked for? "Even if I did have it, I wouldn't give it to you," she said. "Because right now I don't like your tone." (It was quite obvious that it wasn't my calm tone she was objecting to, but rather the content of my questioning.)
I'd been taking notes through our conversation and double-checking things she said to me to make sure I got them right. So I wrote those two startling lines down and then read them back to her. "Excuse me, that's not a quote," she said, saying she would not cooperate with my inquiry into public expenditures "if you're going to be threatening to be putting my every word in print."
As I said, very strange for a person whose assigned job is to speak to the media. For his part, Schneider did not return calls seeking comment. As for the actual information we were seeking, we'll keep asking.

Gubernatorial scorecard: Break time

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Summer's here, and everybody needs a break. Even Governor Paul LePage seems to be taking a holiday from the hard work of keeping his mouth shut in public. What a relief for him to finally be able to relax, wag his chin, flap his lips, and score those wonderful headlines again! Herewith, our seventh Gubernatorial Scorecard, in which we score LePage on political savvy, and on whether what he's trying to do is good policy. Note the running total.

PRAYER BREAK | LePage issued a proclamation saying August 6 was a "Day of Prayer," and then promptly denied it was related to Texas governor Rick Perry's call for a "National Day of Prayer and Fasting" on the same day. Perry's move has generated controversy for being closely tied to the American Family Association, a conservative evangelical Christian group. Maine GOP lawmakers are circulating a letter of support, saying "the struggles we face as a state are often beyond the power of government to solve," and calling on God's aid.
POLITICS • It's an easy pander to his base, and an easy dodge to distance himself from the like-minded Perry | 8/10 POLICY • For a party that campaigned on fixing government, this sounds like "islam" — the Arabic word for "surrender" | 1/10
CRITICISM BREAK | When Marine Resources Commissioner Norman Olsen, generally a reasonable guy, resigned, he issued a damning statement accusing LePage of boot-licking special-interest groups and having a secret agenda kept even from his cabinet members. The press leapt on that, and on LePage's dismissive response was quick, concise, and atypically vengeless. But quietly, he undermined Olsen by giving a GOP operative evidence to the contrary, and later issuing that operative's resulting blog post as an official press release.
POLITICS • He ousted a qualified cabinet member, then quietly wrecked the guy's rep | 8/10 POLICY • Politics aside, third competent cabinet member to exit | 5/10
URBAN BREAK | In Olsen's allegations was a claim that LePage refused to cooperate with Portland leaders because Maine's largest city voted against him last year. LePage met with city mayor Nick Mavodones to assure him that the business engine of the state was never far from gubernatorial thoughts, but made no apology, real promises, or statements of substance.
POLITICS • Pissing off people who already hate him? A big win in the Other Maine | 8/10 POLICY • Stupid threats, especially when retracted, weaken an already struggling leader | 3/10
MEDIA BREAK | Before the meeting with Mavodones, LePage swung wildly at his favorite piƱata — the media. Singling out State House insider Mal Leary (of Capitol News Service) for rare praise, the gov claimed that the press didn't publish his side of the Olsen mess, and specifically accused MaineToday reporter Rebekah Metzler of having "never written an honest thing since I've been governor."
POLITICS • It's an old, tiresome canard for most of us, but it works for his anti-media supporters who also hate Portland | 9/10 POLICY • Is he done shooting the messenger yet? | 3/10
SCHOOL BREAK | LePage has proposed extending Maine high schools to five years, after which students would graduate with a standard diploma and an associate's degree or equivalent college credit. How much it would cost Maine taxpayers remains to be seen, but it could boost educational and income levels in our state, which is nationally low in both areas.
POLITICS • A social program couched in economic-development terms — very slick | 10/10 POLICY • An idea with real potential to put Maine among the nation's leaders | 10/10
This month's total | Politics 43/50 | Policy 22/50 | Last month: Politics 40/50 | Policy 13/50 | Overall: Politics 231/350 | Policy 141/350

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Offshoring: Calling MaineToday in Honduras

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Maine's largest daily-newspaper group has outsourced its circulation customer-service work to Honduras, letting five Maine-based employees go, reassigning another, and allowing one to retire early.

The workers, some of whom were part-time, were paid at rates that for full-time workers were between $445 and $542 per week, depending on their seniority, according to Kathy Munroe, administrative officer for the Portland Newspaper Guild, the union that represents most of the paper's non-management employees.
A call to the circulation number posted on the websites of MaineToday Media, the corporate owner of the Portland Press Herald, Maine Sunday Telegram, Morning Sentinel, and Kennebec Journal newspapers reached a customer-service representative who confirmed he was in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. He was very cordial, even spelling the city's name for me. Another rep there told me there are 14 people there who cover around-the-clock hours solely waiting for calls from MaineToday clients. When asked about his hours and wages, he referred questions to the MaineToday human-resources department in Portland, which referred questions to owner/editor/publisher Richard Connor. Through his assistant, Connor declined to comment.
San Pedro Sula has several call centers, which appear to be based in its high-tech Altia Business Park, where online marketing materials boast about large numbers of English speakers (including numerous English-language schools) as well as high-reliability phone and Internet connectivity to the United States.
The move follows a consolidation within the MaineToday papers that shifted all circulation handling to South Portland, from locations in Augusta and Waterville. Though there have been other intra-company consolidations and transfers, this is the first outsourcing at the company that Munroe is aware of. "I take it personally when I hear about outsourcing," Munroe says. "We're hurting for jobs right here."
She says the company followed the provisions of the union contract, so there will not be a grievance from her organization related to the outsourcing, but "I'm hoping that there's a clamoring from subscribers."