Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ category

Hero takes on Great Barrington speeders

June 22, 2015

I love to have heroes, don’t you?

Take Dana Coleman, a teacher and mother and an unlikely agent of change.

The Colemans live on Taconic Avenue — you know, the main road that goes between the Saint James Church and the CVS pharmacy and travels out toward Simon’s Rock and Alford. They have two children aged 8 and 11.

They are keenly aware that what happened in Adams to an 8-year-old boy could just as easily have happened in Great Barrington. That beautiful child was killed and the entire county has been in mourning because each of us knows that there is nothing more precious than the lives of our children.

Dana Coleman is a soft spoken, lovely woman who decided that she just wasn’t going to put up with people driving too fast. Twice she had harrowing conversations with drivers who she signaled to slow down and who took major and unacceptable offense. I’ve been there and done exactly that. It can be very unpleasant.

So Dana and a group of her neighbors decided to organize and reach out to the leaders of town government. They wanted to see changes in the way the town regulates drivers who speed. These people, many of whom moved here for the bucolic life, know that allowing their children to walk and play where there are often no sidewalks is very, very dangerous.

When they thought they had finally had enough, they did what every citizen with life and death concerns ought to do, they acted. They met with the town manager, the police chief and members of the Selectboard.

They collected data and police reports and traffic studies and what they found is truly frightening. They used a soft approach explaining to town officials why they needed to do more. In some cases, they offered to give up some of their land so there could be sidewalks where none existed. But the real problem is the speeders.

I don’t know why some people take out their rage behind the wheel of a car. There’s one guy who drives up Hollenbeck Avenue on the way to Lake Mansfield. He has the look of a wolf as he passes at a rate of speed I would estimate exceeds 50 miles an hour in a 25 mile an hour zone. The other day a whole bunch of neighbors happened to be outside and when the fool came up the street we all yelled at him at the top of our lungs. It didn’t help a bit. Frankly, I think we made his day.

Dana and her gang came up with a plan. They would print up some election-type signs that advised people to “Slow Down, Children Live Here!” Dana went online and asked who wanted a sign and while she paid for the first six, people were only too willing to kick in 20 bucks for their signs.

It occurred to me to ask Dana for a sign that said, “Slow Down, Old People Live Here.” Dana’s daughter Lucy and her friend Rowan Novick made that sign. I offered them money but they wouldn’t take it.

Now the whole neighborhood is getting involved but Dana says that she is fighting for our entire town. She wants changes that will spread out like a hydra on both sides of the river. Suddenly, we are seeing police cruisers in our neighborhoods, positioned in key places to grab speeders. I want a police car on Sumner Street across from my house that will catch the crazy driver. It will only take once.

It’s funny how it works. Dana and all her friends and neighbors are passing around petitions and calling meetings and at least one selectman, Ed Abrahams, is meeting with her group.

Dana is shy and I don’t think she’d like to be singled out but hey, I’m writing this, she isn’t. She’s my hero.

Originally published in the Berkshire Eagle, 6/20/15

Escape from Clinton

June 16, 2015

Everyone has something to say about the two murderers who escaped from the Clinton prison. No matter what the outcome, there are major issues that have been raised here. There has been extraordinary attention paid to a woman who worked as an industrial training supervisor at the prison. If in fact, these not-so-subtle allegations are correct and she did help these miscreants, she will be thrown in the clinker for a very long time. This makes you shake your head and wonder who would be so stupid to think that if she did help these guys that she will probably spend a good deal of the rest of her life behind bars. Her sexual past has already been chronicled in article after article, and while she may have had nothing to do with the escape, she has already paid a significant personal price.

From the first minute that Governor Cuomo appeared at the prison, he made clear his opinion that the escapees had help. Cuomo gave up a major horse race to get to the prison and to retrace the escape route of the convicts. Some of the press people were angry that he used his own photographer and didn’t allow any of the regular press photographers in with him. When he popped his head out of the sewer where the convicts exited the prison there were those who felt that he had overplayed his hand. Some of his detractors suggested it was a “Dukakis moment,” referring of course to then presidential candidate Dukakis’ picture in an Army tank.

The prison, of course, was constructed circa the Civil War and has lots of problems. There has to be constant construction work going on and that may be one of the reasons it was hard to hear the escapees as they used power tools to make their way out. The secure part of the prison has had an excellent record with almost no successful escapes. Nevertheless, we are learning more and more that our prisons often miss the mark when it comes to their correctional potential. In fact, some of the giant prisons in New York have long ago become economic engines which support local economies big time. Since many of the prisoners come from New York City and its environs the placement of prisons near the Canadian border do not make some sense in that they deprive families of the incarcerated opportunities to visit, perhaps lowering morale to the point of desperation leading to what we have just seen.

Since the prison industry is so important to the upstate regions, and since Governor Cuomo has put tremendous pressure on his administration to provide more economic opportunities for the upstate region, it is unlikely that Cuomo will do anything to close the prisons that are still left. In fact, every time the crime rate goes down there is impetus to close these facilities, and that enrages local communities that depend almost entirely on the prison industry.

Two other political controversies are sure to be put into play here. The first is gun control and Governor Cuomo’s “SAFE Act.” If a prisoner were ever to escape and take hostages there is no question that the gun people would say, “See, that might not have happened if people had guns.” It doesn’t make sense, of course, that’s politics and the pro gun people are sure to seize on this escape one way or the other. The second is the death penalty. While I do not support the death penalty on the basis that we have executed innocent people, it would take just one pro death penalty partisan to suggest that if anyone was murdered as a result of this escape that such a thing could not have happened if these two murderers had been put to death.

These two guys will be caught sooner than later and we will all know much more about the way all of this happened. Nevertheless, this whole thing has opened a lot of issues for us all to think about.

Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 6/15/15

Tanglewood a valuable asset to the Berkshires

June 15, 2015

I love the letters to the editor of this newspaper. Even if I don’t agree with the content, they are quite frequently stimulating and well crafted. Research shows that I am not alone in going to the editorial page to read these opinions.

These letters have signatures at the end of them. They are nothing like the hysterical, unsigned rants that Internet trolls post wherever they can — a kind of ugly new graffiti. But what goes around comes around and every so often we will see the same old, same old, no matter how well written the letter.

For example, a letter that recently appeared suggested that Tanglewood doesn’t do its proper share of giving the communities on which it sits more money from their coffers. Their parent company, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, is the absolute hub of the cultural offerings that bring people to the Berkshires every summer. In fact, the Berkshires would not be the Berkshires were it not for Tanglewood. If for some disastrous reason we lost Tanglewood, it would be as if a great Ice Age had descended on the Berkshires.

If we were to lose Tanglewood, I assure you we will have lost our raison d’être for keeping the bad guys out. Several years ago there was a major move to bring a prison to our area. The location was to be very close to Tanglewood. Many of us who did not care to have this institution in our backyard made the argument that its existence would hurt or reputation as a summer destination.

We won that fight because we have been chosen by the BSO to be their summer home. They have been generous to a fault, allowing other nonprofits to use their space. Can you imagine how many businesses would fail if Tanglewood disappeared? All kinds of committees would be established to fill the void. Even then, it would prove impossible.

It isn’t that the Boston Symphony doesn’t have problems. After all classical music is just that, classical. It isn’t for everybody. Those of us who love it and are stimulated by it are in debt to the BSO for what they give to us. WAMC, which I am proud to head, is given the benefit of playing every concert for almost no money at all. We are thankful to both their CEO, Mark Volpe, for all he has done to allow that to happen and to the members of the BSO for their generosity. But as the population ages, the task of getting all of us to go is not an easy one. The number of people employed by the Boston Symphony in the summer is formidable.

Our letter writer makes the point that nonprofits should only serve the poor. She makes the assumption that people should pay for entertainment. In saying so, she forgets all of us who, when we had no money, lay out under the stars, listening to the music and thanking whatever force there is that brought us magical experience.

The idea that government should only help the poor is exactly the reason why we have the schism that exists between the haves and the have-nots. If everyone were to benefit, there is much less likelihood that those with the most would be so unhappy with those who have the least and vice versa.

So what is it that makes people make the kind of mistake evidenced by our letter writer? Is it hubris? Is it misplaced anger? I don’t know but I want to beg our writer to reconsider her words.

The truth is, we are great beneficiaries of having this wonderful resource in our laps. To put it mildly, the loss of this institution would be a disaster. I thank our letter writer for her efforts but I assure her that she is dead wrong.

Originally published in the Berkshire Eagle, 6/13/15

What is Cuomo’s problem?

June 9, 2015

A new batch of political opinion polls is out and they all spell really bad news for the political class in Albany and particularly for Governor Andrew Cuomo. As they say in the fishing business, Cuomo’s numbers are sinking fast. Also like the fishing business, everything is beginning to stink. People don’t really follow politics all that much. They do, however, get the idea about how things are going. Cuomo came into town riding on a white horse, saying that he was going to clean things up. One thing is for sure, he has not done that. In fact, the case could be made that he has worsened the situation. Now, however, he is beginning to go after all of his perceived enemies, which seems to be everyone, big time. We are all asking, “What is his problem?”

When you pick a fight with the well-liked state Comptroller, Tom DiNapoli, people want to know why you are doing that. Now he is once again going after state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman asking state workers to evaluate Schneiderman’s work. This is what we used to call “trying to pick a fight” in the old days. It would be fun and appropriate if Schneiderman and DiNapoli asked all the people in their departments to evaluate the governor.

Considering Cuomo’s low polls in a stratified sample of New York state voters, the results of polling state workers would have to be pretty bad for Cuomo. His problem, of course, seems to be that he gets angry and fires way before he sees the whites of his frenemies’ eyes. His list of perceived enemies keeps growing. Among them is Mayor Bill de Blasio who has plenty of problems of his own. Poor de Blasio must be walking around with his head held between his hands as if he had a fierce toothache. There are those who believe that the poor guy really thought that he and Andrew were best friends. It turns out that Cuomo has turned his cannon around on de Blasio and loaded it with lethal metal fragments. Maybe this is because Cuomo thought he was on the way to the presidency and that de Blasio, with his populist appeal, would get in the way of this country’s highest political prize. Maybe because Andrew just believes that everyone who isn’t him is untrustworthy and a natural political enemy. There are some wild animals that are like that.

Some animals in the forest can coexist and some cannot. When a politician eschews alliances and considers everyone an enemy, he does so at his own risk. When the other political players are frightened by political bullies, they band together in a defensive posture. Witness DiNapoli and Schneiderman.

It doesn’t stop with politicians. Cuomo is known and respected up to now as a take-no-prisoners tough guy, but his political antennae seem corrupted. His picking on the teachers of New York state is dumber than dumb. It appears that he fell in with a crowd of rich potential funders who are always yelling about “educational reform.” Maybe he wanted their money and he became a fierce charter school advocate and then adopted positions which then threatened the hell out of the teachers who are underpaid and overworked. Their tenure is one of the few things they do have going for them, and however Cuomo meant it, the teachers saw him as looking to evaluate them with an eye toward firing them. These are usually people who want nothing to do with Albany politics, but they sure got a wakeup call. I talk to them all the time and they are angrier than I have ever seen them.

Even on subjects like “fracking,” which the liberal community took on wholesale and which the governor has now said “no” to, no one trusts him because it sure seemed like he was hardly against the idea for a lot of years. When you add up the Moreland Act Commission missteps and his fight picking, you see a guy who had better start re-evaluating the way he does things.

Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 6/8/15

Fate of Main Street turning lane shrouded in mystery

June 8, 2015

Great Barrington continues to grow. The town that the Smithsonian called the “Best Small Town in America” is exactly that.

We all know that each town and city in the Berkshires has its own character and Great Barrington certainly is the hub of the Southern Berkshires. It charges a lot of taxes. On the other hand, we have fantastic restaurants, a fine hospital, an excellent fire department and a large police department, which could be doing better work slowing down traffic on the way to Lake Mansfield.

We are just emerging from a total reconstruction of Main Street. All the merchants with whom I have been speaking are marveling at the courtesy and professionalism of the people who are doing the building. That’s the good news.

But there are some puzzling pieces of the reconstruction. When you are driving south on Main Street just before you get to Taconic Avenue and the CVS on the far side of the street, there has always been a right turn lane that takes you up the hill and enables the through traffic to flow.

When the whole reconstruction project was commencing, there seemed to be a difference of opinion as to whether or not that right hand turn lane would remain. Different people told me different things. For all of you who live in North County or the Pittsfield area, you might say, “So what? No big deal.” In fact, it is a big deal because the absence of a right turning lane will leave southbound traffic on Route 7 in a state of FUBAR (Fouled up beyond all recognition) or something like that.

I recently asked one selectman whether or not we would have that crucial right turn lane and was told that the fight over the lane had been lost and we would not have that delicious right to bypass the long line of waiting cars.

But I recently met up with the town manager at the great white dinner, sponsored to support the merchants of Great Barrington in their time of reconstruction need, and asked her the same question. She gave me a different answer, to wit, that the right turn lane would be preserved. On the way home the other night it sure looked like the third lane had disappeared and that whatever space there formerly was is gone.

So, someone has it wrong. I hope it’s the selectman but somehow, I get the feeling that all those people who live on Great Barrington’s Hill or who are trying to get to Lake Mansfield are going to have to live with a bad situation.

It’s a little thing like this that gives engineers, planners and government officials a bad reputation.

On another Great Barrington local issue, there is a plan to basically demolish the old Searles Middle School, preserve the footprint and build a 95 room luxury hotel and conference center in the middle of the town.

This is a win-win for the Great Barrington. It will be good for the town merchants, including our myriad restaurants and shops. Unfortunately, it may contradict a town bylaw limiting the number of rooms a hotel can have.

The proposed owners of the property, Vijay and Crystal Mahida, are up to the task and have hired one of the town’s most accomplished and connected lawyers to help make it happen.

It should be pointed out that the lawyer’s father is the town moderator and an important town honcho. What we do not need is a monstrosity that does not reflect the historic nature of the town.

One can only expect that there will be those who do not want to see this sensible improvement happen because such people always emerge to fight almost anything based on the philosophical notion that “We object because we can.”

It would be nice if just for once something was easy.

Schneiderman strikes back

June 2, 2015

Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is positioning himself to be Governor Schneiderman. If Andrew decides not to seek a third term (his polling numbers are way down), Schneiderman wants to be Johnny on the Spot. He wants to be the logical next governor. His relationship with Governor Cuomo is reported to be quite shaky.

Cuomo has a fierce “take-no-prisoners” reputation and it’s gutsy of Schneiderman, an ambitious but more naturally timid soul, to take him on. Schneiderman has a lot going for him. Additionally, recent history tells us that New Yorkers have been electing their attorneys general to the top job. That list includes names like Spitzer and Cuomo, himself.

Ironically, the voters like the attorney general not only because he has statewide name recognition but because they see him as a crime fighter. While the AG’s Office was historically more of a civil law place, recent attorneys general like Cuomo and Spitzer have tried hard to make the work of that office sound like they are crime fighters. Hey, if that’s what people want, that’s what they are going to get.

Nothing gets the attention of New Yorkers like corruption. Every time they turn around, someone is being hauled out of the Legislature and off to the pokey. So, one and one make two. If you want to be governor, you have to promise to clean up Albany. Funny thing about that — Andrew Cuomo made that pledge and ended up with a lot of egg on his face. He even appointed a Moreland Act Commission to root out corruption in the Legislature. Remember how he did that? He asked Attorney General Schneiderman to deputize each member of the commission as an Assistant Attorney General. That was because Cuomo couldn’t have his executive commission investigate the Legislature but the Attorney General could root out crime in any branch of government.

Then the unthinkable happened. For some mysterious or not so mysterious reason, Cuomo disbanded his corruption investigating Moreland Act Commission, saying that he formed it and he could disband it. You will all remember that the whole thing stunk like old fish and Cuomo is still paying the price. While the story was that Cuomo had to disband the commission in order to trade for what turned out to be a very bad ethics package from Legislature, there were other more nefarious rumors that circulated including the fact that the Moreland Commission actors were going after some folks who had given money to the governor himself.

Eric Schneiderman had a huge stake in the commission, and when Cuomo disbanded the group, Schneiderman only had a few perfunctory comments. So it’s not surprising that he has now called for yet another very public try on ethics reform. He needs to get ahead of this issue. To reform things, he wants to prohibit legislators from accepting any outside employment because that is one of the most corruptive parts of our political system. You go to a lawyer who is also a senator and you figure that, like chicken soup, it can’t hurt to have him or her representing you. So you put a prohibition on major outside employment, just like the United States Congress did. Of course, that doesn’t preclude all other potential avenues of corruption, like getting your son or daughter a job, for example. It also means that a bunch of people who already have a lot of money won’t have to scrounge but it is still a good idea. Schneiderman also wants a longer, four-year term, presumably so that legislators don’t have to spend all their time raising money to run for re-election. Yes, but that removes the choices even further away from the people.

Schneiderman is doing the right thing but my bet is that he will have to contend with a very angry Andrew.

Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 6/1/15

Targeting second-home owners is ill advised

June 1, 2015

Is Great Barrington about to become The People’s Republic of Great Barrington?

All hell is breaking loose in the best small town in America. Michael Wise has come up with a plan that would raise taxes on the rich and specifically, on out-of-towners and second-home owners who have, for their part, become alarmed and are now part of the debate on this issue.

The second-home people insist that they are a crucial part of the economy. They pay for many of the town services while making few demands on the town since, among other issues, their kids don’t use the schools.

There is also a question of fairness. We know that second-home owners in the Berkshires don’t usually vote here and they believe, I suspect correctly, that they are being singled out because they have no say in the way the town works.

What’s more, there is an onerous “personal property tax” that second-homers have to pay. When I was a weekender I hated that and I think it would be hypocritical to think anything has changed. Our restaurants, our businesses and frankly, the very values of our homes have been affected by the presence of these folks. To make pariahs out of them is just plain stupid and unwise. It is time for each of us to practice the golden rule and put ourselves in their place.

This is a very serious issue. It is true that at least one selectman ran and won based on his pledge to implement the Wise plan. If three of the five Selectmen raise their hands and vote for the tax-the-out-of-towners plan, it will be a done deal.

Wait just a minute! Isn’t this a major reallocation of resources? We just had a town meeting in which we discussed ad nauseam whether to buy a piece of equipment. You mean to tell me that this whole unwise Wise plan will be decided at an ill-attended Selectboard meeting?

At the very least, there ought to be a special town meeting on this matter ensuring a robust discussion. This smells a lot like a silly and dangerous idea to ensure personal political popularity. Just sayin’.

Should those who don’t pay their taxes have their property sold at tax lien auctions?

Taxes are high or higher, depending on where you live. Sometimes you really get your money’s worth. Sometimes, when the bureaucracy gets too large, you are treated with indifference. Sometimes the town manager returns your call.

Nevertheless, people should pay their taxes. Sometimes, people don’t pay because they can’t. Sometimes people don’t pay because they won’t.

I am sure that everyone who is on the delinquent list gets notified that they are in arrears. So for the rest of us who do pay taxes, it makes a certain amount of sense that those who do not are held accountable. If someone owns a home and can’t pay the taxes, it might be a good idea to sell the home or the property.

When Pittsfield recently held a tax lien auction, the money from delinquents came pouring in. That makes sense. That’s why taxing authorities often announce tax amnesties. People know that the town or city isn’t kidding.

In some small towns the tax persons are not as active as they could be. Of course, it’s all about the services that are offered. Fire departments are very important. Alford has a terrific volunteer fire department. They contract with the state police for a part-time presence.

Hollenbeck Avenue in Great Barrington apparently doubles as the local speedway. People are so afraid for their kids that they have put up signs advising that children live in the houses that line the street. So how come we don’t see police picking up the speeders? When people receive value for their taxes, it’s easier for them to pay up. Just sayin’.

Originally published in the Berkshire Eagle, 5/30/15


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