Thursday, December 12, 2013

Press Releases: Invisible Paywall

Published in the Portland Phoenix

The Lewiston Sun Journal’s online paywall launched last week, and nobody really noticed. It’s a new experiment in both structure and sales-pitch for converting formerly non-paying web readers into customers with open wallets.
Many papers around the country (as big as the New York Times and as small as theEllsworth American) have variations on paywalls, and more are likely coming; the Press Herald’s parent company has said it’s planning one too. As on many sites, Sun Journal readers don’t have to have pay to see every story. That’s good because many of the stories occupying front-page real estate on are freely available elsewhere online, from their actual sources: the Bangor Daily News and the Associated Press.
But the stuff that is behind the paywall bears headlines like this one Monday: “Lewiston Councilors-Elect to Meet Tuesday.” If you think that headline is bad, you haven’t read the 218-word snoozer by Scott Taylor. It’s unclear why anyone would pay to read a tiny daily-news brief.
Fortunately, I didn’t have to. While it is marked with a key icon to show that it’s a “premium article,” non-subscribers can read 10 such stories every 30 days. After that, it costs as little as $2.99 per week.
That doesn’t sound like a bad deal, and it actually isn’t when you factor in the Sun Journal’s creative assembly of a larger package. The weekly newspapers the Sun Journal owns have been pillars in their communities, bolstering the daily; six of those (theNorway Advertiser Democrat, the Bethel Citizen, the Franklin Journal, the Livermore Falls Advertiser, the Rumford Falls Times, and the Rangeley Highlander) are included in the paywall (though not the Forecaster papers, which still have a free site).
In fact, it’s downright cheap: Unlimited online-only access to all the papers costs $2.99 a week. If you want online access only to the Sun Journal, that costs $4.59 a week — which includes your choice of print delivery (every day, weekend, or Sunday-only) as well. The full-price $4.99 a week only comes into play if you want full online access to all the papers, plus Sun Journal delivery, plus one weekly print publication.
Cleverly, there’s no way to get just the weekly papers — nor even just one weekly — as part of an online package. Showing additional attention to detail, a number of the stories on the SJ front page link to weeklies’ stories; someone with the SJ-only deal will quickly get frustrated trying to click through, and will likely up their subscription by 40 cents a week.
The benefit of that is a boost not to the numbers of the SJ’s circulation, which may be in the low 20,000s, and certainly is no higher than 31,000, according to recent self-reported statistics. Rather, it boosts the circulation of the weeklies by giving people access to all six for less than the price of any one. That strengthens the smaller papers’ appeal to advertisers, unless they see through this numbers game.
Speaking of which, there’s a numbers game being played on the public too. The Sun Journal is calling this paywall “membership.” In a November 10 note to readers explaining the upcoming change, executive editor Rex Rhoades spent a good amount of space extolling its virtues and benefits, the first and most prominent of which is financial: “most subscribers will join a membership program offering extra discounts and benefits that will more than cover the cost of your subscription.”
Specifically, subscribers will be entered in monthly drawings for free tickets to various local events: “Portland Sea Dogs, Portland Pirates, Oxford Plains [Speedway], local arts shows, hot air balloon rides, golf, ski, concerts and more” says the online description. They’ll also get “exclusive coupon deals . . . offered by local businesses on a weekly basis.” In boldface comes the real pitch: “The total value of the deals offered . . . will exceed the cost of your membership package.”
Which is the final experiment. The Sun Journal is asking its readers to pay to get the news, and then promising them they’ll get their money back in savings that are only available to paying customers. The quality of those deals — and the frequency with which people actually take them — will determine whether this marketing pitch works. 

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Use your mind: A meditation for newcomers to buying art

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Buying art can be intimidating. It can involve Galleries and Dealers and Other Important People whose Opinions Matter. Or it can just be you (and perhaps a loved one) seeing something you like and buying it. Which is much simpler. But still, it’s an emotional and psychological process with a few important things to think about.
In fact, art buying is — or can be — a lot like meditation. For starters, it’s best to approach it with a relaxed body and mind.
Then you need to throw away all conventions and social norms. Buying art is a very personal thing, and it’s not up to anybody else to decide it for you. Beauty is, as the ancient adage goes, in the eye of the beholder. If you don’t like a piece of art, it doesn’t matter if it’s a piece beloved by The Art World or Culture In General, or even if it’s a masterpiece by Picasso or Calder. Similarly, if you like a piece of art, what it “looks like” or depicts, or what someone else sees in it, doesn’t matter a whit. You need to connect with the art you’re going to buy in some sort of important emotional way. What that is, and what that feels like, is also up to you.
But you should want to look at it every day, forever. Unlike partners or children or pets, it won’t change itself — only your meaning for it can. But just like partners and children and pets, it can represent — and serve as a constant reminder of — a moment, or a feeling, or a belief, that lasts a lifetime. (Fortunately, medical research has shown that viewing art activates parts of the brain called the “reward circuit,” bringing pleasure and encouraging the person to view more art. So the more you look at art, the more you’ll want to look at art. Accompanying this piece are some works I’ve purchased and enjoy looking at daily.)
Next, observe what’s in front of you. This doesn’t necessarily take a long time. It can certainly involve books and online research (see sidebar, “Online Galleries”), but the best way to experience art — whether you’re buying or not — is in person. Portland makes this process extremely easy, and free: On First Fridays, find a few galleries you visit every time, and then mix in a few other new ones each month. Walk in, look around — make sure you put your eyes on every item there — and see what happens. If you like something, look at it longer. If you don’t see anything that just plain grabs you, thank the gallery owner and leave.
Fourth, reflect on yourself. If you’re drawn to a piece of art (sorry for the bad pun), there’s a reason. You don’t have to know or articulate the reason, but you do need to acknowledge it exists, and that its existence is valid and meaningful.
Fifth, let it go. Once you’ve had a good look at a piece of art, from many angles, walk away. Go look at some other art (again, First Friday is fantastic for this). If you find yourself still thinking about that one piece, observe that, and perhaps indulge that feeling’s persistence by going back to take another look. If you don’t want to expend the effort to even do that, then you don’t really want to buy the work, do you?
Making sureNow, just like in meditation, you will at times during your art search come across items that you really feel are important to revisit, to reconsider, to examine. When those arise, and they will, you can move to the second phase of purchasing art: Not actually buying it.
It’s important to do this properly. The initial not-buying-art step happens only in your imagination. Envision yourself without this piece of art. Is anything missing? Is your life less without it? If the answers to those questions are “No” and “No,” then go ahead and don’t actually buy the art.
If, however, you do think that this art truly has something to bring to your life, that this particular work could improve your existence, then you need to take the next step. Which is not (yet) buying the art.
Think about whether this piece is really the ultimate expression of what you’re looking for and feeling. If it is, then buy it (and skip to the “Spending The Money” section below). But if not, you may have found not the work you’ll end up buying, but a clue to locating that piece.
So look at the sticker nearby (or the information sheet, or the exhibit catalog) and note the artist’s name. (Do not look at the price. It doesn’t matter — yet.) Then either find more work by that person, or simply Google them and get in touch. Contacting the artist is actually an important step a lot of art buyers skip, ignore, or don’t even know is possible. But it can be useful for two reasons: You may find, among that
artist’s other pieces, a work you actually like better than the one you’ve spotted; and you’ll meet a person you can start to connect with as human beings.
Artists love knowing who has their art, why the people bought it, and what its meaning is for them. And it’s super-fun to look at a work in your home and know you’ve shaken the hand that created it.
Eventually, following this process, you’ll both meet a lot of artists and find works you want to have in your home. When that moment comes, you’ll know. And then it’s time to open your wallet.
Spending the moneyNow you can look at the price. You’ll have one of two reactions: relief or panic. If it’s relief, then great — you’re all set. Settle up and head home with your new treasure. You needn’t necessarily frame it, but if you do, see the sidebar, “Up Against The Wall?” for a pointer to some help.
If it’s panic, then take a deep breath. If you’re buying directly from an artist, accept that whatever the artist is charging is a fair price for the creativity, effort, time, and energy spent learning the skills, honing the eye, and making the work. So it’s not really kosher to negotiate, though if you’re buying more than one piece in a single transaction, feel free to ask for a small break on the price of the cheapest one. But don’t be disappointed if the answer is no — artists have to eat, too.
If you’re buying from a gallery, a sizeable chunk of the cost — as much as half — is going to the gallery, with the rest going to the artist. It might be tempting to ask for a price break from the gallery portion of the cost. But gallery owners have to pay rent, heat and light their spaces, and hey — it’s only because of the gallery that you found that artist or piece of art, right? That’s worth something, whether you prefer to recognize it or not. And remember, you’re not buying a piece of art to hang on your wall to remind you what an awesome wheeler-and-dealer you are:
You’re buying it because you like it and have an emotional connection to it. Put a price on that, if you want to try.
Once you’ve settled on a final price, it may still be more than you can afford right at this moment. Relax: Artists and gallery owners know what it’s like to be strapped for cash. Ask to pay in installments — even small ones, like $10 a week or $50 a month. Most of them will be more than happy to make arrangements to connect an eager buyer with a wonderful piece of art. While you shouldn’t expect to get the actual piece in your hands until you’re done paying, ask to take a photo (or several, if different angles matter). Get them printed out and hang them in your home — it’ll be a motivating reminder of what you’re in the process of buying, and you’ll get a little bit of the joy the real piece will bring once it’s finally your own.

Up against the wall?How to display your new treasureA new book co-written by a Portland author will help you make the most of your new piece of art. How to Hang a Picture: And Other Essential Lessons for the Stylish Home (St. Martin’s Griffin, $19.99) is just the sort of really useful, not-too-precious how-to book that can actually help make your home’s decor better even before you open it. A beautiful volume with really fascinating illustrations, How to Hang a Picture could be a coffee-table book as much as a handyman’s manual.
Written by Brooklyn-based writer and illustrator Jay Sacher and Portland-based graphic designer Suzanne LaGasa, it teaches the basics of hanging artwork, and moves beyond into the finer points of selection of framing and matting, lighting placement, and how to deal with various wall types (whether drywall or cement or something else).
With clear statements of principle like “Centering your art at eye level is a key component to a well-planned wall” and elegant images showing what the words mean, you’ll be ready to show off your artwork in the best possible way.
Online galleriesTo get a sense of your tastes and a range of styles, check out this selection of online art galleries.Museum (the Museum of Modern Art in New York City) (the Smithsonian Institution)
Groups of artists who sell direct from

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Off world-class surfing beach, Kiwi protesters in small boats confront a Texas oil giant

Published in GlobalPost

New Zealand's government sides with Anadarko, legislating a protest-free zone around its rig.

PORTLAND, Maine — Located in the South Pacific, hundreds of miles from its nearest neighbor, New Zealand has a long history of peaceful protest — particularly at sea. And the country’s Bill of Rights guarantees freedom of speech and peaceful assembly.
But earlier this year, multinational oil companies convinced lawmakers to restrict seaborne demonstrators who oppose oil drilling surrounding the island nation.
This week, the law is likely to get its first big test as the two sides approach direct confrontation.
A six-boat “Oil Free Seas Flotilla,” is sailing to stop deep-sea drilling 120 miles off some of New Zealand’s most iconic surfing beaches, Piha and Raglan. On Nov. 16 the vessels arrived at the site where Texas oil giant Anadarko was about to sink an exploratory well into the ocean floor 5,000 feet below the surface of the Tasman Sea.
The drilling ship Noble Bob Douglas arrived three days later and immediately declared, via radio, that the controversial new law applied, requiring the boats to stay 500 meters (1,640 feet) away from the drill rig. The flotilla responded that its boats would not comply. It has regularly radioed the Noble Bob Douglas with requests to leave New Zealand waters.
The oil-friendly law is opposed by figures as prominent as former Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer, a legal scholar, as an unlawful limit on the rights of free navigation and free speech. 
It also defies historical precedent in enviro-friendly New Zealand, which once sent its navy to protect protesters at sea.
In the late 19th century, long before Mahatma Gandhi wielded nonviolence against Britain, native Maori people at Parihaka sent dancing children to face English soldiers attempting colonization.
In the 1970s and 1980s, private boats crossed the South Pacific to protest nuclear testing inFrench Polynesia. Closer to home, vessels blockaded Auckland Harbor against nuclear-powered US Navy ships.
This time around, leading the anti-drilling flotilla is the Vega, a 38-foot vessel that pioneered seaborne nuclear-testing protests and helped make New Zealand a nuclear-free nation. Vega is co-captained by the head of Greenpeace New Zealand, Bunny McDiarmid. Each boat in the flotilla is flying a white Parihaka pennant representing “peace, justice, resistance, and solidarity,” according to an accompanying letter from community elders.
The controversial law that Anadarko has invoked to repel the flotilla was hurriedly passed by the New Zealand Parliament after significant, and secretive, lobbying of government ministers by the oil industry. Allowing boarding and takeover of private boats by police, it is seen as a response by the conservative government to protests against a 2011 offshore expedition byBrazilian oil giant Petrobras, which soon thereafter scrapped all its New Zealand drilling plans.
Since the radio warning, the 38-foot-long Vega has stayed about 800 to 1,000 feet from the 756-foot Noble Bob Douglas. At times, according to Anadarko New Zealand manager Alan Seay, they have been within 330 feet of each other. The Vega is operating primarily under sail. To remain that close, it must tack about every eight minutes, according to Anna Horne, a flotilla spokeswoman who has sailed on the Vega to protest nukes.
According to Prime Minister John Key, drilling began early Tuesday morning, Nov. 26. Nonetheless, the Vega has remained within the exclusion zone.
Steve Abel, a Greenpeace New Zealand campaigner, says there has not been any sign of any authorities, nor any word from them. During the Petrobras protest two years ago, police arrived aboard navy vessels.
The protesters object to the environmental danger. New Zealand’s current ocean-drilling industry operates in very shallow waters. The deepest is about 400 feet. The country’s three small spill-response boats are not ready for operations beyond sight of land, they contend. “We are woefully underprepared,” Abel said.
Seay admits that the rig’s safety procedures have not yet been made public. That is to happen “shortly,” he said, noting that there is an “enormous amount of design and planning work that goes in up front to ensure that we have a safe and incident-free operation.”
The risk may be statistically low, but if a spill or blowout occurs, the damage will be “catastrophic,” Abel said, covering the entire west coast of the North Island within weeks,according to models of the spill. It would threaten tourism, fishing, and agriculture — all vital sectors of the New Zealand economy.
Abel also noted that the Deepwater Horizon blowout in 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico was also in roughly 5,000 feet of water — and that Anadarko was involved in that disaster, ultimately paying $4 billion as part of the legal settlements of that cleanup. “It’s the same company, the same depth,” Abel said. Anadarko is one of the world’s largest publicly traded oil and gas exploration corporations.
Sharing those concerns, more than 5,000 protesters thronged the western beaches of New Zealand on Nov. 23. The demonstrations included a significant Maori presence. In fact, the Tainui tribe may issue a legal trespass notice to the Noble Bob Douglas, which is in their traditional fishing waters.
“In many ways, [the Maori] hold the last line,” said Horne, noting not only their moral and cultural tradition of “kaitiakitanga,” or guardianship, but also their legal rights to many natural resources under the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi, which shares sovereignty between the Crown and the Maori.
The 70-day drilling project was slated to begin Monday, but unspecified technical problems caused delays. Anadarko will leave enforcement of the exclusion zone to New Zealand authorities. Seay said “we respect the right to protest but ask in return that protesters respect our right to carry on our business free of interference.”
But the protesters have no desire for the oil giant to operate unobstructed.
New Zealand could be oil-free, and even the world’s first carbon-neutral nation, Abel said. The country already is home to the world’s biggest geothermal plant, Ngatamariki in the central North Island. It also has a strong forestry industry, whose byproducts could be used in place of petroleum derivatives, Abel said. “For us it’s not a hard ask” to get off fossil fuels.
In fact, Abel noted drily, “None of this oil, if it’s found, will ever land in New Zealand — unless there’s a spill.”
Jeff Inglis is managing editor of the Portland Phoenix. During the past 15 years, he has traveled extensively in New Zealand.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Balancing Rights: Council protects clinic patients, invites lawsuit

Published in the Portland Phoenix

On Monday evening, the Portland City Council voted unanimously to create the state’s first limited-speech buffer zone around a reproductive health-care facility, for the purpose of protecting patients at the Planned Parenthood of Northern New England clinic at 443 Congress Street from intimidation by anti-abortion protesters. The ordinance includes a last-minute amendment allowing it to take effect immediately.
The decision invites a legal challenge, such as those that have been brought against other states’ and towns’ buffer zones; a case before the US Supreme Court’s current session will test a very similar Massachusetts law.
Abortion opponents began demonstrating outside the PPNNE clinic last fall, after its move downtown from a Forest Avenue location that was never a site of significant or sustained protests. The new space’s improved access for patients also brought expanded publicity for people who oppose abortion rights, despite the fact that most of the clinic’s patients are not seeking abortions but other services such as birth-control medication, cervical-cancer screenings, and blood tests.
According to written testimony submitted to the council, patients have frequently felt intimidated when attempting to enter the clinic, but they also understand the underlying conflict, between the rights of the protesters to express themselves freely on public sidewalks, and the rights of the patients to have unfettered (and private) access to health-care services.
A woman identified as Jo described her experience entering the clinic on March 22: “I firmly believe in free speech and the free flow of ideas. This crosses the line with vile photos of aborted fetuses and scripture being chanted. The sidewalk is like walking a gauntlet [sic]. This poses an intentionally threatening and intimidating environment, encroaching on my life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.”
Maine law already prevents protesters from blocking a patient’s path to the door of a clinic, bans threats made toward clinic staff or patients (including by telephone), and outlaws excessive noise aimed at disturbing the occupants of a clinic or health-care facility. PPNNE has hired a Portland police officer to patrol the sidewalk nearby, to help enforce those laws, but problems remain. The buffer zone was proposed as a way to balance the competing rights, keeping protesters away from the entrances to the PPNNE clinic without forcing them so far away that their message would be utterly unable to reach its intended audience.
Decades of strife around Massachusetts reproductive-health clinics led to the 2000 passage of a statewide so-called “floating buffer,” requiring protesters to keep six feet away from patients and staff who are within 18 feet of the clinic entrance. Other states have similar laws; Colorado’s offers broader safety: an eight-foot “floating buffer” within 100 feet of clinic doors.
But a 2007 revision in Massachusetts exchanged the distance-from-people rule for one imposing a “hard” 35-foot buffer around clinic entrances — saying that protesters had to stay that far from clinic doorways and driveways, regardless of their distance from patients and staff.
The Portland ordinance imposes a hard buffer of 39 feet (expanded from an originally proposed 35 feet to prevent small gaps in coverage); effectively, the whole sidewalk around the PPNNE building will be off-limits to protesters, as well as short distances on the sidewalks of Elm and Congress streets beyond the extent of the PPNNE building.
Both supporters and opponents of the hard buffer law say its difference from a floating one is significant. Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley has argued that harassment and intimidation happened despite the previous floating buffer, which was also hard to measure and therefore enforce. (Most people do not want to bring a yardstick to their doctor’s appointments.) Protesters say their desire to simply give information to women approaching the clinics would be made too difficult by the hard buffers.
Another key element of the Massachusetts law, which is also included in Portland’s ordinance, is a specific provision protecting employees or volunteers at the clinic who seek to escort patients to or from the facility.
As described by Stephen Wermeil of SCOTUSblog, buffer-zone opponents claim this “allows viewpoint discrimination: advocates for abortion services may speak within the buffer zone, but anti-abortion protesters may not.” Massachusetts’s response, Wermeil writes, is that the provision “is part of the public safety rationale for the law, so that clinic workers may help women approaching clinics navigate their way past the protesters.”
Protesters suing Massachusetts also argue that the law is too narrow because it does not impact other health-care facilities, and that at three specific clinics in Massachusetts the specific locations have problems that prevent them from presenting their information to patients.
The 1st US Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the Massachusetts law in January; its ruling also applies in Maine. And while the US Supreme Court upheld Colorado’s “floating” buffer-zone law in 2000, the Court is now considering the challenge to Massachusetts’s different restriction; some briefs were filed last week, oral arguments are slated for early 2014, and a decision is expected by the early summer.
Abortion-rights supporters are worried that the addition of Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justice Samuel Alito to the Court in the intervening years will tip the balance toward the protesters. If that is the case, Portland councilors were warned by city staff while considering the proposal, the local ordinance would likely be challenged and struck down as well.

Seeking high ground: Rising sea levels may affect future development

Published in the Portland Phoenix; sidebar to a larger feature by Deirdre Fulton on development in the Bayside area of Portland

As developers, residents, and city officials plan the future of Bayside, they’ll have to wrestle with some very difficult questions. A sense of the flavor of those discussions was on display at the Portland Society for Architecture “Waterfront Visions 2050” community workshop, held a couple weeks back at SPACE Gallery.
The first several minutes were spent defining common terms, such as what the phrase “100-year storm” means. (Confusing but true: It’s not a storm that happens every 100 years, but rather a storm that has a one percent chance of occurring in any given year. They can happen in back-to-back years, or with far more than 100 years between them.)
The basics are hard enough in a room of 50 people paying close attention; when dealing with public policy, it’s important to ensure the wider public is accurately informed, which also means ensuring journalists covering the process understand variations in terminology.
For example, maps and scientific disciplines discuss sea level in different terms, such as  measuring distance above the normal high-tide line or calculating a mean sea level that equals out tides and waves. So when one person talks about sea level rising four or five feet, another might need to translate that to as many as nine or 10 feet, depending on how each is measuring the changing water level.
But even after that is sorted out, it’s not enough to think about just the parcel of land being developed. In some cases, high ground may seem safe enough to build on, but a look at the surrounding land will reveal that new shopping center will one day be on an island with no road access.
And when multiple interconnected and interrelated properties are under consideration, owners’ differences can cause tension. One small group at the PSA event seemed focused on what to do about the piers on Commercial Street — raise them, protect them, convert them to floating platforms? — while another group simply moved their projected waterfront back far enough to surrender some property to the ocean. But that would mean consigning the piers to the deep, something the other group didn’t even discuss.
Of course, expense is a problem. Developers have to determine how much they’re willing to invest in a property — which, in places near sea level, means calculating how much it costs to raise the street levels, or how much profit can be squeezed from a development in the few remaining years or decades before it’s underwater . Public officials have to figure out what’s cost-effective to use taxpayer dollars for. (See “How Wet Will Portland Get?” by Jeff Inglis, October 4.)
Also making discussions challenging is the fact that some waterfront land is contaminated (or just plain made of trash used to fill in wetlands 150 years ago both on Commercial Street and the area around Back Cove) — if that land is submerged, the contaminants may leak out into the global seas.
And beyond that is a whole host of state and federal regulations about what can be built, with what restrictions, near the shoreline.
Even if an individual project seems straightforward (and they rarely do!), each new proposal will stir up these and other important questions, as we determine how to adapt to our changing planet.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Press Releases: Getting spun

Published in the Portland Phoenix

News is far more than just what government officials say. That’s hard enough for many of Maine’s daily papers to remember on a good day, much less late on a sleepy post-Halloween Sunday production night. Which is when 2nd District Democratic Congressman Mike Michaud, who is running for governor in the 2014 election, submitted an opinion piece to the Bangor Daily News and the Portland Press Herald declaring that he is gay.
The sequence of subsequent events shows not only how good Michaud and his team are at co-opting the news cycle, but also how vulnerable Maine’s mainstream media is to a professional operation.
The reaction was almost exclusively political — talking about the significance of Maine’s first openly gay member of Congress, the historic nature of the nation’s first openly gay gubernatorial candidate, whether the move would help or hurt Michaud in fundraising and voter support, commentary from pundits about whether anyone cared about Michaud’s sexuality anyway, reaction from lunch-counter occupants that gayness doesn’t matter to them (because of course they’d tell a reporter if it did), and so on. (For a deeper analysis of the politics of Michaud’s move, see Al Diamon’s column on this page.)
Of course, some of this was unavoidable: According to Press Herald reporter Steve Mistler’s story on the revelation, “Michaud’s campaign did not take questions about his announcement or its timing . . . Terms of the embargo also prohibited reporters from seeking reaction until after 12:01 am Monday. The campaign required that the newspapers agree to the terms in advance, while refusing to disclose the topic of the column until Sunday.” With little advance notice, and agreement not to make any follow-up calls until the middle of the night, reporters were completely hamstrung.
Even in the days that followed, though, two important things were missing, both of which were no doubt just as Michaud hoped. First, even a short couple of years ago, any politician’s announcement of gayness would have merited a reporter’s phone call to Michael Heath, Maine’s loony-tunes rabid-knee-jerk gay-hater-in-chief of the state’s fringe commentariat. But times have changed in Maine’s media environment. Despite looking closely at all the reporting on the matter, I didn’t detect any attempts to find someone who might be morally opposed to Michaud’s self-identified sexual orientation. Avoiding intolerant demonization is commendable, of course, though no less noteworthy for being positive.
The other thing missing was any sense of Michaud’s humanity, or any recognition of the fact that coming out in 2013 is still an emotionally fraught process — even if the person doing the coming out is younger than Michaud’s 58 years, and even if the audience is someone more likely to be accommodating than that man’s septuagenarian Catholic mother. Sure, there were a couple of videos letting him speak his mind, but he didn’t take those opportunities to speak about himself as a person. (A November 12 Press Heraldpiece about the challenges of coming out didn’t even interview Michaud.)
The congressman/would-be governor specifically diverted any attention of that nature by asking rhetorically “Why does it matter?” and then moving right on to his policies and his legislative record. The reason it matters, of course, is not that being gay is anything bad or to be ashamed of. It matters because the process of coming out can be life-altering. It matters because voters want to elect people, not politicians.
Michaud has glossed over his own narrative, going so far as to claim that he’s “the same person today that I was last week, last year, and the year before.”
But that’s actually hard to believe. Coming to terms with one’s own sexuality and sexual orientation, and then telling family members (and the public!) is not simple or minor — particularly for someone who has spent decades in the closet and who, during that time, voted against multiple gay-rights proposals.
This is not a call for reporters to dig into Michaud’s sexual history or personal life — but it’s worth asking Michaud if he has learned anything from this process that might affect his views on certain public policies. So far, his grip on the media narrative has prevented even that basic question from arising. 

Friday, October 18, 2013

Teaching police about trans people: Maine departments lack policies but have ready examples

Published in Out In Maine

 It’s easy for police officers to become defensive when asked about the rules governing their interactions with members of the public. That’s exactly the tack John Rogers took. He’s the director of the Maine Criminal Justice Academy, which trains all law-enforcement officers at the local, county, and state levels in Maine, and when contacted by Out In Maine, was adamant that his organization trains officers to interact with transgender individuals exactly as they do with all other people.

“We train people to treat everybody the way they would like to be treated . . . Everybody should be treated equally.” He refused to even consider the idea that there should be any policies or guidelines for handling any individuals differently or ensuring that a group’s concerns be addressed. “It doesn’t matter to us.”

But another statement he made suggested he might, in fact, be in need of sensitivity training, even if he doesn’t know it: “I’m 57 years old and I don’t know if I’ve ever even seen a transgender person.”

That’s exactly the reasoning behind the Boston Police Department’s transgender policy, which took effect in June after years of development, research, and legal review.

“It’s trying to educate officers,” says Javier Pagan, a BPD office who also serves as his department’s liaison with the city’s LGBT communities. While all officers and policies strive to be respectful of individuals and their rights, it’s not safe to assume that everyone knows what respect looks like to certain people.

For example, Pagan says, the BPD has a policy about dealing with prisoners — with rules that apply to all interactions with people in police custody. But that policy also has a subsection about dealing with female prisoners, and another about juvenile prisoners, to ensure that the specific concerns of women and children — who represent a smaller population within the criminal-justice system — are considered and addressed by police.

Along the same lines, the BPD policy on transgender people acknowledges that some Boston officers might have fewer opportunities to interact with this demographic (while others might have many more, depending on where in the city they work).

The policy codifies things like what name to use for a transgender person, if their legal name differs from the one they use in daily life. Similarly, it specifies that officers should use the pronouns that refer to the person’s self-expressed gender identity, and even goes so far as to allow for ambiguity: “If officers are uncertain about which pronouns are appropriate, then officers will respectfully ask the individual.”

These practices are, of course, common sense, and even second nature, within the LGBT and allied communities, but not in law enforcement — yet.

“It’s not easy to change a culture,” says Pagan. As society changes, and as laws change, Pagan notes, it’s important for police practices to keep up. He notes that these practices and policies also protect police officers and agencies against claims of discrimination or prejudice.

Still early for Maine
Most Maine police departments have yet to even look toward making changes to promote transgender sensitivity. As Maine police academy head Rogers made clear, new officers are not taught anything specific about transgender issues and individuals.

The Maine State Police does not have a policy either in force or even in development, according to spokesman Steve McCausland.

The Maine Chiefs of Police Association, which develops model policies often adopted verbatim across the state, has no such policy regarding transgender people, according to Robert Schwartz, the group’s executive director and a former South Portland police chief.

“I would not be surprised if at some point we were to develop a model policy . . . but nothing has brought it to the forefront” to date, Schwartz says.

Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck says that while his agency lacks a written policy along the lines of Boston’s, “The rule has always been, if you refer to yourself as a male or a female, then that’s what we do in response.” He notes that the department does have an LGBT community liaison, Officer Alissa Poisson, and recognizes that “the city of Portland is an incredibly diverse place.”

Ian Grady, a spokesman for EqualityMaine, says the city’s inclusive and sensitive practices are “a great role model for other towns and cities in Maine,” and says the LGBT-rights group hasn’t heard of any problems arising in Maine law enforcement.

Starting in corrections
A more significant concern than on-the-street police encounters with transgender people is raised by Penobscot County Sheriff Glenn Ross, who notes that while officers on patrol may have to question or search transgender people, bigger challenges arise when incarcerating them.

At the Penobscot County Jail, “it’s a policy that is developing.” Transgender inmates are not common there, but they do arrive from time to time. “We involve our medical department early on and appoint appropriate-sex officers to do pat-down searches,” Ross says, noting that it may involve two different officers patting down different areas of an inmate’s body.

“Not all of the rules are clearly defined,” Ross notes. Litigation still occurs, and much has not yet been decided either by policy or in court.

Where to house an inmate is determined in part by the medical staff, who may evaluate a person’s progress through a transition between genders, but also includes considering the gender self-identification of the inmate in question.

Ross’s staff works from a policy developed in Cumberland County, which has been in effect since 2009, according to Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce. Departments as far afield as Chicago, Denver, and San Francisco have used the county’s policy as a starting point for their own work.

Cumberland County’s policy includes an evaluation of an individual’s case by medical and security staff, who determine whether a transgender person will be housed with men or with women.

“We really pay particular attention to how they identify,” Joyce says. “It’s trying to balance the rights of the individual and the rights of the individuals they might be in a pod with.” While at any given time almost all inmates are in some need of mental-health care, Joyce’s policy also dictates transgender inmates’ access to medications and other treatments: The jail will provide those only if the person began those procedures before being incarcerated. If they decide to start a transition after arriving at the jail, the policy is to make the person wait until release to continue.

Joyce says some of his staff were reluctant or unconvinced at first, and needed training before being comfortable dealing with transgender inmates, but he knows it’s an important step. Observing that transgender people are a vulnerable population even before encountering police, he says, “We want to not make things worse.”

He says issues of transgender rights are ”becoming more and more prevalent” — recently Time magazine called him to talk about the situation with incarcerating Chelsea Manning, the male-to-female transgender person who, as US Army Private Bradley Manning, was convicted of releasing classified documents to the public. “You can’t duck it,” he says. So the question becomes, “How can you make it as respectable and responsible as possible and respect security and everybody’s rights?”

Promising learning opportunities
There’s a very good starting point to answering that question, which has been developed right here in Maine, though it’s available to police officers nationwide.

It’s an online training class for law-enforcement officers entitled “Awareness of Transgender Issues,” and it was put together by one of Maine’s top cops: Noel March, the US Marshal for the District of Maine. He’s a former Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office chief deputy and former UMaine-Orono police chief who developed the online course while earning his master of arts degree in peace and reconciliation from UMaine.

“Hate crimes has been at the forefront of my interest for many years,” March says. He’s also a family friend of the Maineses, the state’s — possibly even the country’s — best-known family with a transgender member. They’ve been highlighted in reporting in the Portland Phoenix, the Boston Globe, and elsewhere.

When considering what he could contribute to the law-enforcement community during his studies, he thought about training possibilities. (Like many certified professionals, police officers have to do a certain amount of continuing education to keep their certifications current.) “I found that there was nothing relating to people who identified as transgender as victims, or witnesses, or complainants, or as coworkers,” March says.

In collaboration with Wayne Maines and a Maine-based security-training company led by Paul Plaisted, March put together the 40-minute course, even narrating it himself. “It really educated me,” he admits.

“Many members of the transgender community lack the comfort to interact with law enforcement,” March says, often because of issues not shared by gay, lesbian, or bisexual people. For example, if a driver is stopped for speeding, their driver’s license may show a different name, gender, and appearance than the person behind the wheel exhibits.

March says officers should do their jobs, determining the correct identity of the person in question, but shouldn’t “be so narrow-minded as to think that this person is someone who’s wearing a disguise. This may be a genuine case of someone in a transition.”

The online course covers basics of transgender terminology and etiquette as well as more specific issues of recognizing the potential for transgender people to be targets of violence, and working to protect them. It makes regular reminders of police officers’ sense of justice, equality, fair play, and duty to help people in need or in danger.

And that’s what March sees in his efforts to encourage police to improve their sensitivity to transgender people: “We need to understand the people who we encounter in our role as police officers.” 

Whence from victory? EqualityMaine looks at the next five years

Published in Out In Maine

Having secured marriage equality last year and bade farewell to longtime executive director Betsy Smith in September, the state’s oldest and largest LGBT political advocacy organization is at a point of serious transition. Smith, who had been active with EqualityMaine for more than two decades and led it since 2002, left the organization at a high point in its existence and in her career. The group’s staff and budget grew significantly during that time, and won important legal and legislative battles, including protecting LGBT Mainers from discrimination, establishing domestic-partnership rights, and winning on marriage twice (once in Augusta and the second time statewide), Smith has also left EQME with a five-year strategic plan, a set of projects the organization has already begun to tackle.

After years of primary attention on marriage, EQME staffers spent the months following last November’s victory thinking about the future. They interviewed dozens of people, got 700 responses to an online survey, and conducted multiple focus groups to determine what to accomplish next, says Ali Vander Zanden, the group’s political director and interim executive director. “People understand that we’re not done yet,” she says.

While there’s a lot yet to get going, Vander Zanden says those next steps are “starting to take shape.”

Moving forward, EQME will focus on four key demographics: young people, rural residents, elderly Mainers, and transgender people. The basic goal is clear: “We’re going to take the legal victories that we’ve won, and we’re putting those into people’s daily lives,” she says.

Starting young
A 2011 survey by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) found that “the vast majority of LGBT students in Maine regularly heard homophobic remarks, sexist remarks, and negative remarks about gender expression.” Specifically, 97 percent of students heard other students use the word “gay” negatively; 87 percent heard homophobic remarks (such as “fag” or “dyke”) regularly. The survey has a nine-point margin of error, but even with that caveat, the numbers are startling.

The survey goes on: “3 in 10 were physically harassed (e.g., pushed or shoved) based on their sexual orientation and 1 in 10 was physically assaulted (e.g. punched, kicked or injured
with a weapon) based on the way they expressed their gender.

And a great many students never reported those incidents: 46 percent never told school staff (of those who did, only 44 percent “said that reporting resulted in effective intervention by staff”) and even more — 58 percent — never told a family member.

The survey shows young LGBTQ Mainers are “living their lives in fear,” Vander Zanden says. (It’s worth noting here that while many nationwide polls suggest improving tolerance and understanding for LGBTQ people among young Americans, those polls most often involve people who are 18 and older; many school bullies are younger than that.)

Of course, she notes that not every kid is a perpetrator, but a few is enough — and often bystanders don’t step in to halt the abuse. Vander Zanden also observes that at least some of the kids bullying others are likely to be victims themselves, in other circumstances; they’re just passing along the behavior they’ve received. “Those children don’t know sometimes the harm that they’re doing,” she says.

The target of EQME’s efforts in this area include its longstanding support of school civil-rights teams, where young people can show leadership in a safe environment. There’s also a new element, of working more directly with school employees.

“We have this new anti-bullying law” in Maine, Vander Zanden says, which strengthens protections for students suffering bullying, and requires schools to train staff to prevent it, and actively address it when it happens. So EQME will be training school teachers and staff about LGBTQ bullying specifically, in a way that coordinates with other training sessions on bullying in general. Vander Zanden says the organization wants to ensure that schools have resources and know-how to follow the new law.

Beyond the cities
Organizing support for rural Mainers who identify as LGBTQ is another major initiative, which will build on the statewide marriage-equality victory in 2012.

In that effort, marriage supporters held as many as 250,000 personal conversations with friends, family members, and neighbors about the issues. As we’d all hope, what those conversations showed is that “people want to do the right thing,” Vander Zanden says, especially once they’ve made a personal connection. But also unsurprisingly, “there are a lot of people who have never thought about this from the perspective of an LGBTQ person.”

Vander Zanden, who grew up in Southwest Harbor and started her work with EQME as a rural organizer, acknowledges that the live-and-let-live ethos of New England rural life may lead some people to either ignore or be quiet about their support for LGBTQ neighbors, simply out of respect for their privacy, or a wish not to draw attention to something the LGBTQ individuals themselves may not be highlighting.

But that can still lead to situations where an LGBTQ relationship isn’t publicly acknowledged, such as a conversation at a local store in which a straight ally doesn’t ask about a lesbian friend’s partner in public. Vander Zanden says that can lead to the LGBTQ person feeling unsupported
in the community.

Nevertheless, “we’ve seen that people’s attitudes are changing,” she says, attributing that in part to the personal conversations aspect of the marriage campaign. Another effort, particularly in rural areas, has involved approaching community members and asking them to put their names in newspaper ads as public declarations of support for LGBT rights (and marriage equality in particular). Hundreds, even thousands, of rural Mainers have taken part.

She says the effects are measurable. In 2009, marriage equality lost 73 percent to 27 percent in Aroostook County, for example. In 2012, the citizen’s initiative did better; it still lost, but the margin was better: 66 percent to 33 percent.

Vander Zanden calls that “encouraging supporters to come out as supporters,” and describes it as “just good old community organizing.” The group will expand its push in this direction with a new position just created for rural organizing.

An aging population
Maine is the state with the oldest average age in the nation (42.7 years old, according 2010 Census figures), and LGBTQ people face some common aging issues, as well as a fair number of quandaries straight elders don’t.

They still have to sort out choices about retirement communities, assisted-living facilities, and finding new or additional health-care providers to address changing health conditions. But at every turn, LGBTQ elders have to navigate the coming-out process all over again. One concern Vander Zanden highlights is about home health-care workers who might not be supportive of their patients’ LGBTQ identities. To get the care they need and still feel safe in their own homes, “some people are actually having to choose to go back into the closet,” Vander Zanden says.

Another aspect of helping aging LGBTQ Mainers involves ensuring that health workers are asking the right questions and doing the right screenings — as when dealing with HIV-positive people, who are now living much longer (as long as 30 to 50 years post-diagnosis, with aggressive therapy, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).

In fact, CDC projects that by 2015 “more than half of all HIV-infected Americans will be over 50 years old.” The organization also notes that 17 percent of new HIV diagnoses are in people 50 and older.

(Also working to address these issues is a Maine chapter of Services and Advocates for GLBT Elders, which was founded earlier this year; see “When I’m Sixty-Four,” by Deirdre Fulton, Summer 2013.)

Still working: transgender rights
Transgender issues remind us all that “we haven’t won everything there is to win,” Vander Zanden says. For example, many insurance plans don’t cover medical services related to people’s self-identification as transgender. Some private employers do carry insurance that offers surgery, hormones, and gender-identity mental-health counseling, but it’s not required by law.

EQME will help people understand what rights transgender people have under Maine law, as well as training trans allies (in connection with Maine Trans Net; see “Trans Explosion” by Lisa Bunker, Fall 2013). “We all need to become better allies,” Vander Zanden says.

In that vein, EqualityMaine will continue to support the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which will at some point come under consideration by the full US Senate, having been approved 15-7 by the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions back in July. This proposed law specifically includes protection for trans people as well as gays, lesbians, and bisexuals, from being fired (or not hired in the first place) simply for their gender identity or sexual orientation. And it will fight for LGBTQ interests in Augusta, including fighting a proposal by state Senator David Burns, a Whiting Republican, that would dramatically expand people’s, and companies’, ability to discriminate or otherwise exempt themselves from many state laws, simply by claiming the law violates their freedom to
practice religion.

In the short term, Vander Zanden will lead the organization and the search for its new executive director, expected to be hired in January — just in time for EQME’s 30th anniversary. Even that many decades in, and with as much progress as LGBTQ Mainers have seen, there’s more to do. “We’re still having the conversation about what’s next,” Vander Zanden says.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Press releases: Marginalized mainstream

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Amid a weeks-long deluge of pontification and punditry in newspapers every day and around the clock on dozens of TV channels, who would have thought that the key to the shutdown dilemma would be a five-minute video of procedural business on the floor of the US House of Representatives? Or that it would be posted not by a major media outlet — nor even a minor one — but by an obscure congressman from Maryland, Democrat Chris Van Hollen?
The clip in question, from October 12, along with a three-minute C-SPAN clip of a late-night House Rules Committee meeting on September 30, are crucial to understanding exactly how the Republican majority in the House of Representatives has subverted our democratic process.
The clips show that at the very last minute — between 10:45 pm September 30 and 1:15 am October 1 — the Republicans rigged the rules of the game to prevent ordinary members of the House from making progress on a budget resolution, without which the government will remain closed.
The original rules let any House member decide that a stalemate had been reached when determining how to amend a proposed bill, and allowed that member to force a vote on the bill without any amendments. In other words, it provides a means for a representative to compel his or her colleagues to vote up or down on the main question at hand, with no changes. This is relevant here because the Senate has passed what is being called a “clean” budget resolution, and the House Republicans are demanding it be amended to defund the Affordable Care Act before coming to a vote. The videos show that Republicans changed the rules to prevent any member from forcing a vote without amendments, and restricted that power to arch-conservative majority leader Eric Cantor, a tea partier from Virginia.
This move didn’t come to light through deep reporting or anonymous tipsters leaking information to the media. Instead, Van Hollen posted a video (of his exchange on the House floor illuminating this new rule) to YouTube. As one observer noted, it already has half again as many views as Van Hollen has constituents living in his district.
Until now, the mainstream media have seemed devoted to presenting the shutdown as a bipartisan mess. On September 30, a headline in the Washington Post blared: “In shutdown blame game, Democrats and Republicans united: It’s the other side’s fault.” On October 15 , the perspective remained unchanged: “Senate leaders’ talks on shutdown, debt limit stall as sides await market’s reaction,” read a Post headline.
Observers like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have been pointing out that these are misleading: In fact, of course, the government shutdown was a strategy employed by radical right-wingers who have always wanted to shrink government down so small that Grover Norquist could, as he famously said, “drown it in a bathtub.”
Coverage like Stewart’s and Colbert’s (as well as by alternative media around the nation), and now viral viewing of a few moments of Congressional technicalities, has led the American public to reject the mainstream-media view that everyone is to blame. On October 9, the Post ran a story with this headline: “AP-GfK Poll: Republicans get most blame for shutdown but no one’s a hero.” While there’s still a misdirection at the end, it’s clear that despite mainstream waffling, Americans are finding out what’s really going on.
Now it’s clear the Republicans haven’t taken hostages, but have rigged the rules of the game so a distinct and marginalized minority are in control of the entire legislative mechanism of this country. Will the mainstream media follow the truth, and the course set by its audience, or will the dinosaurs fall ever closer to extinction and irrelevance, for lack of courage to be honest?
Another thing they’re missing While the shutdown’s effects on US Antarctic Program operations and science have made some headlines, there’s an important connection that hasn’t: A great deal of government-funded research in the Antarctic and elsewhere studies the Earth’s changing climate. Huge gaps are about to appear in decades-long data collections, making scientific conclusions vulnerable to political assault. “They don’t have all the data,” climate-change-denier politicians will cry, ignoring that they themselves ensured that flaw by preventing spending on research. The aftereffects of this shutdown will echo for decades in scientific circles. Of course, this won’t bug people who think Jesus hung out with dinosaurs. But it should scare hell out of the rest of us. 

Friday, October 11, 2013

How wet will we get? Portland plans for action in the face of rising seas and bigger storms

Published in the Portland Phoenix

By the turn of the next century, most of the areas of Portland that were filled in during the 1800s to create more land downtown will be either underwater or regularly flooded during storms. We need to figure out what to do about that.
It doesn’t matter whether you think humans are or aren’t causing climate change. It doesn’t even matter if you are unsure whether climate change is happening at all. What counts is this: “We’re all going to get wet.”
That’s the frank assessment from Sam Merrill, who until last week was a professor at the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service. The same conclusion is clear from a wide range of reports over many years, including the latest update from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released on Monday, which predicts sea levels will rise somewhere between 10 and 32 inches by 2100. And don’t forget about storm surges.
Merrill has worked for several years in partnership with private companies and federal research support, learning how best to help people adapt to the changing environment they find themselves in. That included a preliminary look at how much flooding Portland’s Back Cove might see in the future, which led to various meetings among Bayside residents, property owners, and businesspeople to discuss what might be done in response.
His company, Catalysis Adaptation Partners, puts that research into practice, and will present a report next month on what Portlanders can expect on the Commercial Street side of the peninsula in 2050 and 2100, to kickstart a Portland Society for Architecture community-wide conversation about what actions public and private entities might take to avert, avoid, or at least minimize disaster.
Merrill has left the university to devote himself to doing similar work worldwide, combining science with what might be called “civic psychotherapy,” supporting local communities as they develop solutions to the problems they face as a result of rising sea levels and increasingly powerful storms.
He’s already helping planners at Boston’s Logan Airport and in Florida, and even in Minnesota, which is struggling with extreme weather events that wash out bridges along the shore of Lake Superior. The local governments in London and in Santos, Brazil (just outside Sao Paulo)*, have brought Catalysis in to help them develop plans to avoid getting so wet in the future.
Big changes, bigger questionsIn 2007, Merrill realized that the debate around climate change had been subsumed by two excesses: data and fear. We knew a whole lot about how bad things are likely to get, but had very little idea what would be the best approach to minimize the harm and damage.
The prospects are pretty terrifying. If all the ice on the planet melted, sea level would rise 216 feet, according to the US Geological Survey, as quoted in National Geographic magazine’s September issue. In Portland, that would leave about six feet of the very top of the Portland Observatory above the water.
That can’t happen overnight, or even, experts expect, terribly quickly — it might take thousands of years. The US Army Corps of Engineers suggests planners expect five feet of sea-level rise by 2100. That’s also the upper end of most official state and local estimates, which are usually based on the readings from the official tide gauge on the Maine State Pier. It’s enough to put Portland’s waterfront roughly back at Fore Street, which is where it was before Commercial Street was built on fill in the middle of the
19th century.
Faced with that level of change, what should we do? Is a seawall the right answer? How big should it be, and where? What about building a new school, or moving a sewage-treatment plant? The dollar amounts for these things are always in the millions, if not the billions. Nobody wants to spend that much money and find out years from now it was too much — or too little, or the right amount but in the wrong place.
“We don’t need more data. We need more conversations,” Merrill says. (See sidebar, “Reports, And More Reports,” for a sampling of some of the data that’s been out there for years.)
Setting up the conversationIt’s important to have something concrete to talk about, though. That’s where Merrill’s method comes in. It is built on mathematical formulas developed by Paul Kirshen, a civil-engineering professor at the University of New Hampshire, coupled with three-dimensional imagery and modeling assembled by Hallowell-based Blue Marble Geographics.
The software is free to download and use, though it requires a certain level of familiarity with Geographic Information Systems data management, as well as access to property records and elevation data in certain specific formats. While hard to assemble on your own at home, it’s well within the range of most municipal planning-department staffers.
Relatively new data with extremely fine detail about elevations is key, says Blue Marble president Patrick Cunningham: “Five centimeters is the difference between (safety and) flooding the town.”
People can quickly identify the places where risk is highest (notice how fast you processed the information in the accompanying map of the Portland peninsula, below), and where it’s low or absent.
This clears people’s fear of the unknown, Merrill says, and turns it into civic engagement to address what are now clearly identifiable problems.
People can see what will happen if no action is taken in the face of sea-level rise and storm surge, as well as what will happen if certain specific actions are taken, allowing city leaders and average residents to compare a set of options for the future. Is a seawall better in one place, or should one area be allowed to flood to save another area that’s more important for some reason?
Merrill says it’s “really putting people in the driver’s seat and helping them evaluate their own risk tolerance.”
What he brings is not only the expertise to construct a strong set of models of various conditions, but also experience facilitating the conversations that must necessarily follow.
He finds, often, that people “are fed up with all the planning and never getting to implementation.” But the decision to pull the trigger is difficult.
“People don’t want scientists telling them what to do,” Merrill admits. “We’re not pushing anything. We don’t come in with any solutions or tell people what they should do. . . . They decide what they want to do.”
The community identifies how to measure value, whether in property assessments, or number of jobs, or natural resources, or any number of other attributes. They also pick what to prepare for — what range of sea-level rise, how big a storm surge — and possible options for protection — erecting a seawall, raising a building’s foundation, or even relocating a key building.
Then Catalysis runs the numbers and returns with maps and tables showing the likely outcomes: How much damage will be done in a single major storm under certain conditions, and the total damage done over the course of a century of sea-level rise and increasingly powerful storms. Most importantly, the report also includes pricing estimates for the protective actions, so people can make a cost-benefit analysis.
Dampening the Port City“The local tidal data has shown that sea level is rising,” Merrill notes. And people remember storms, like the Patriots’ Day storm in 2007 and the Mother’s Day storm the following year.
It’s useful to look at storm data beyond just predicting future storm damage: Three to four feet of storm surge now is the equivalent of what will be normal after that much sea-level rise in coming decades.
Some areas of Portland have already taken steps to adapt, says Bill Needelman, a senior planner for the city. Whole Foods is elevated above its surroundings, and the Intermed building on Marginal Way has a floor that’s above the street level.
“The city has been very forward-thinking in trying to solve drainage problems in Bayside,” observes JT Lockman, Catalysis’s vice-president of environmental planning. But still, during the highest local tides, sea water comes up the storm drain near Whole Foods and forms a salty puddle, even on sunny days, Lockman says.
Commercial Street, too, has seen some flooding at very high tides even without bad weather — and during some storms, many workers and residents recall seeing water spout out of runoff drains, flooding downtown streets and intersections.
What Lockman has found is that on the Maine coast, where the tidal range can be 10 or 11 feet, “if an event is short and it comes at low tide, it’s really no big deal.” But if it’s a storm that lasts for days, or arrives when tides are running above normal, or with high onshore winds, the toll can rise rapidly.
His preliminary results are just being reviewed for final tweaking before release to the public, but “our results are pretty much the same” as 2011 projections from Clean Air Cool Planet, which themselves resemble a 2009 UMass projection for the Casco Bay Estuary Partnership.
“What we hope to do is help the architects really get the conversation started,” Lockman says. Some options include whether the city should require buildings to be elevated, or give grants to property owners to raise their buildings. There is, after all, a cost to adaptation — and a cost if we don’t adapt.
“It’s a fancy calculator,” says Merrill. The real key is humans: “Going in and running those meetings is not for the faint of heart.” (See sidebar, “The Kingston Example.”)
Even when the data used in the models comes from major past disasters, Lockman notes that people often see the maps as best-case scenarios: “A lot of people have looked at the predictions and said, ‘We actually think reality will be worse than this.’”
That turns quickly into the fact that nobody can afford to deal with the risks themselves. Some people want help from the government, while others think government spending is already too high.
This leads to a community discussion among different values — not just about the role of government, but about whether taking action to protect a significant historic site might damage a nearby wetland (or vice-versa), Merrill says.
And that’s where the Portland Society for Architecture comes in. Back in May 2011 the PSA held its first community-wide conversations about sea-level rise, including talking about Back Cove, says Executive Director Carole Merrill (who is no relation to Catalysis’s Sam).
Building on the high level of interest in that process, the PSA hired Catalysis to look at what will happen if the ocean rises two feet by 2050 and four feet by 2100, as well as what storms may come our way.
 “We want to present the opportunities and challenges,” she says, which will start with Lockman’s presentation on November 7 at the city’s Ocean Gateway Terminal, followed by a talk by Susannah Drake, a New York City architect working on new designs in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. The following morning, SPACE Gallery will host a series of roundtable discussions to consider options for different areas of the waterfront. A few days before, on November 1, SPACE will open a two-month show of maps showing “progressive inundation by rising waters over time” in Portland.
As those conversations evolve, policymakers will be listening carefully, says the planning department’s Needelman. “It’s a difficult conversation, as Hurricane Sandy has shown down south, with real consequences. It warrants a broad community conversation before we establish the policies.”
The PSA discussion will “help establish common understandings of where the risk is, and the language of adaptation,” he says.
Looking statewideUnfortunately, Portland is doing this work mostly alone. Other towns around the state are doing similar work, but they’re not coordinating as much as they could be. This was predicted in a 2011 report from Clean Air Cool Planet: “Attention to climate preparedness in Maine has been present at the state level . . . However, there is concern that shifts in policy positions will negatively influence climate change adaptation efforts.”
Sure enough, the coastal adaptation plan the Maine Department of Environmental Protection submitted to the legislature in 2010 has been removed from the state’s website.
That report said the state “should develop a standardized set of criteria for assessing coastal communities and infrastructure for response and resilience to likely climate impacts, including a mechanism for evaluating vulnerability . . . (that) should be used to guide investments in infrastructure repair, protection, and land conservation and restoration.” Earlier this year, Republican Governor Paul LePage vetoed a bill to do exactly that, saying it wasn’t necessary.
But certain initiatives continue. Merrill is in fact working with the Maine Department of Transportation to evaluate options for bridge repairs and replacements. He’s examining alternative bridge designs — options with costs varying by millions of dollars — to see where those expenses will be most valuable. “It’s about fiscal efficiency,” Merrill says.
It’s because of that penny-pinching instinct that Merrill has high hopes for his approach, even if state leadership is missing. He’s not the only one who found demand for Catalysis-like services to be high: A Maine Sea Grant and UMaine Cooperative Extension report found in the summer of 2011 that “coastal property owners want to take action, but don’t know which strategies are most effective.” The options were laid out in an 85-page booklet comprehensively compiling the possible actions (including a wide range of protection options for beaches, sea bluffs, and coastal wetlands),  with little direction on how to sort through the possibilities, or what to do if your neighbor had already started some sort of adaptation work next door.
And there are even more possibilities down the road, Merrill says, modeling other potential disasters, such as fire or drought — anything that can be simulated mathematically. As Merrill sardonically puts it, he’s working hard at “helping society figure out how to get out of harm’s way in the least bloody manner.” 
*Clarification: This story has been updated to reflect the name of the Brazilian town where Catalysis is working.
The Kingston exampleKingston, New York, is a city of about 25,000 people 90 miles north along the Hudson River from New York City. In 2011, the city was flooded from massive downpours in Hurricane Irene. Then in 2012, Hurricane Sandy hit, driving water levels up (the Hudson is tidal for another 60-plus miles upriver) and knocking out the local sewage-treatment plant.
Gregg Swanzey, the city’s director of economic development and strategic partnerships, says that led the mayor in December 2012 to create a large task force to help the town prepare for the uncertain future. That included hiring Catalysis Adaptation Partners to model the future and help with the community discussions. As Catalysis’s Sam Merrill points out, the cash-strapped federal and state governments can’t be counted on to do prevention, or even rescue. Towns and cities have to take this into their own hands.
“We have to have the hard conversations. It’s better than not if we’re all going to get wet,” Merrill says.
Most residents, Swanzey says, had one of two responses: “Don’t talk about it, or put a big wall up.” But seawalls aren’t often the real answer in waterfront communities. They might block water from entering commercial areas, but they also block people’s access to the water. Waterfront property owners, whether residential, commercial, or industrial, have large investments whose value is tied to water access.
During a series of meetings in the community, people were able to talk about ways they might prepare for more water, including seeking innovative building designs, such as those that can withstand flooding, or that float. Swanzey himself is in charge of seeking grants to help the city plan for moving the sewage plant, as well as other aspects of adaptation.
“People tend to look at what we have now and they want to protect what we have now,” Swanzey says, but notes it’s important to look at other alternatives that might be more workable solutions.
Reports, and more reportsThe data is out there, and has been for years. But the conversations about what needs to be done next are not happening. Here are just some of the Maine-related documents that have been prepared by government, academic, and advocacy organizations in the past four years alone.
Maine’s Climate Future: An Initial Assessment | University of Maine | February 2009 (revised April 2009)
Climate Change and Transportation in Maine | Maine Department of Transportation | October 2009
Climate Change in the Casco Bay Watershed | Casco Bay Estuary Partnership | December 2009
People and Nature Adapting to a Changing Climate: Charting Maine’s Course (Part 1Part 2 ) | Maine Department of Environmental Protection | February 2010
COAST in Action: 2012 Projects from Maine and New Hampshire | New England Environmental Finance Center | July 2012