Wednesday, December 19, 2012

What You Missed: Stories From 2012 That Dropped Off Your Radar

Published in the Portland Phoenix, these are my contributions to a piece done together with Deirdre Fulton and Nicholas Schroeder

So damn much went on in 2012, it's no wonder that some stories may have passed people by. You can't have missed all the campaigning (for president, US Senate, and every seat in the State House), the violence (13 mass shootings this year alone, according to the Washington Post), revolutions (across the Arab world), betrayals (by David Petraeus, TomKat, and Robsten Pattinstew), disasters natural (the derecho, Superstorm Sandy) and manmade (the fiscal cliff, the Olympics), and oh-so-much-more. We here at the Portland Phoenix have kept tabs on some other stories — ones you might have heard about briefly (if at all), before they sank back into the surging swamp of America's nonstop non-reflective news cycle. So read on, and catch up with a dozen things you didn't hear on the first round, or (if you did) that you might not have grasped the significance of — until now.
How best to avoid scrutiny for official actions, when pesky notes and emails qualify as public records open to inspection? Simple: Don't make any records. And sure enough, shortly after his 2011 inauguration, Republican Governor Paul LePage stopped taking notes in meetings or otherwise using written or electronic communication. Over the past year, the practice has expanded significantly, to most — if not all — of his department commissioners and other senior staff. (If they're unable to completely avoid creating a paper trail, what is recorded is extremely limited.) As a result, there are precious few records of discussions, proposals, and agreements being made at the highest levels of state government. We are losing accountability now and for all time because these political operatives are circumventing the state's open-government law while pursuing their agenda. Perhaps they're doing things we would all approve of, if we could only learn about them. That is indeed possible — but causes us to wonder what they'd have to hide, then. Less transparency in government is always bad, and barring public access to the thoughts and deeds of those at the very top is nothing short of anti-American.
The Bangor Daily News over the past year has made a real push to become Maine's primary news source. Starting with a foray into Portland in 2010 and 2011 as the Press Herald's position weakened amid uncertainty and bad leadership, the BDN in 2012 went beyond simply adding staff and paying more attention to the southern part of the state. Its online wing,, partnered with major college newspapers around the state, as well as other news outlets (such as the Sun Journal-owned Forecasternewspapers) to aggregate their content online. This even extended to bloggers like Munjoy Hill's Carol McCracken (previously an independent online poster) and politico Mike Tipping, who lost his blog briefly when Down East magazine shut down most of its online-only operations. It's true that the idea of the portal — an all-news online clearinghouse — has been around for nearly two decades. The BDN is localizing the concept — most of its electronic postings are not wire copy or international or national news. With energetic rising star Tony Ronzio coming in to lead the operation, the site is quietly, but importantly, becoming the must-read, go-to place online for Mainers statewide.
When the OccupyMaine encampment was ordered dismantled in Lincoln Park, plenty of people — publicly and privately — predicted a quiet end to the energy and collaboration that had swirled among the tents. But as we have written, including on the occasion of the encampment's one-year anniversary, something far more complex — and far more interesting — has resulted. With headquarters shifted largely to the Meg Perry Center, the Occupiers channeled their energy in new directions. Freed from having to spend time and effort protecting their living quarters, they have tried to spread their message of equality and fairness far and wide. They've taken on major national and international problems, like tar-sands mining, fracking, and Walmart's worker-burdening profit model; they've talked economics, about student debt, foreclosure resistance, and asking — in a punnily named "Soup or PAC?" event — whether our political process really should be as steeped in money as it is. And they've not forgotten the individuals. Alan Porter and Dawn Eve York spent weeks helping the recovery from Superstorm Sandy — including bringing donations from Maine all the way to New York City — while the government, the Red Cross, and the charity-industrial complex struggled to meet survivors' needs. Occupiers and those with similar ideals have worked to protect Congress Square from privatization, to win same-sex couples marriage equality, to promote street artists' First Amendment rights to display their wares on public property, and to stop loading educational expenses on students. A broad-spectrum group effort of grass-roots activism was missing in this city before Occupy revived it, and Portland, Maine, and the world are already the better.