Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Parity at the top

Town Manager John Musante

Since School Superintendent Maria Geryk received a raise six months ago bringing her salary to $140,000 after the selection committee removed "interim" from her title, it's no surprise the Select Board set the Town Manager's salary at that same amount. And hey, at least he worked for a full year at the lousy old rate of $127,000.

When Jere Hochman descended from the heavens to run the Amherst schools eight years ago he started at a substantial amount over his predecessor's salary causing then town manager Barry Del Castilho to throw a hissy fit requiring the Select Board to give him a mid-contract $10,000 raise, that even Town Meeting voted against in an advisory resolution.

And when Alberto Rodriguez immigrated here from Florida for his very short reign as Superintendent he too started at 20% over his predecessor--and we saw how well that turned out.

So now we have parity between the two top dogs running our $77 million enterprise. Although not much parity in that division as the Schools account for two-thirds of total town spending, with labor costs accounting for 90% of their budget.

Speaking of which: it's not going to be easy to get the teachers union to accept a zero percent increase in current contract negotiations after these pay hikes for their beloved leaders.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

First thing we do, revive all the lawyers

One of the very few things I like about any of Amherst's fifty some odd boards, committees, commissions or the occasional task force is that they often have on their agenda an open "public comment" period, where the general public can extemporaneously address committee members, ask questions, praise, chastise and generally get things off their chest.

Take for instance the Regional School Committee meeting this evening (a joint Meeting of the Amherst, Pelham and Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committees no less), where a concerned citizen wondered why the Schools would rehire a recently terminated lawyer at $220/hour to handle a complicated case--meaning lots of billable hours--when the current lawyer could handle the extra case for no additional cost?

Good question.

Good Evening,

I am Michael Aronson, Amherst taxpayer.

I was forwarded an email written by Mr. Hood on Monday August 8 expressing his opinion that it was - “less expensive” to hire an outside attorney to litigate a Special Education matter even though the School District has a pre paid contract with an “In House” attorney.

I don’t know where you learned math, Mr. Hood, but I can assure you that the $3000 dollars you pay your in-house lawyer per month is less than that $3000 dollars PLUS the fees for an outside attorney hired to do the same thing.

EVERY MEMBER OF THIS COMMITTEE should be up in arms about the administrative decision to waste precious education dollars in this way.

Mr. Hood, as Chairman of this committee, you should be making very public inquiries into why the decision to hire an outside attorney was made.

Tell us, WHO is responsible for this violation of the public trust and why you consider it acceptable?

Your negligence, and that of the administrator who made this decision is hurting our children and our community.

This is shameful, malfeasance, and terrible policy.

Parents who come to Amherst for their children’s education, and pay handsomely in taxes for the privilege, are appalled at the tremendous waste this kind of decision represents.

Let us be clear, you have failed them.

Thank you for your time.
I of course asked Mr. Aronson (since I was not there) how committee members received his forthright statement. Apparently not very well:

To the School Committee:

Knowing full well that the School committee is fully committed to denying any possibility of error in its judgments, I send to you and all contacts on this list my response to Mr. Rhodes and Ms. Luschen's full throated defense of administrative malfeasance.

Mr. Rhodes and Ms. Luschen argued that Amherst administrators need retain the duplicative legal services of Regina Tate due to her familiarity with existing legal cases. This argument is spurious on a number of grounds.

1) Ms. Tate was removed from her position litigating Special Education in Amherst because a majority of the School Committee found her services deficient. If you want to know the “cause” of her dismissal, ask those who voted to remove her - including Mr. Rhodes.

2) There is evidence that the historic case to which they referred at tonight's meeting was filed on 1 December 2010 - the same day Dupere was hired under a fixed contract. In other words, Tate did not have time to become too familiar with this case. It was filed on the same day she lost the contract to Dupere.

3) Litigants often change attorneys. There is ample precedent for one attorney taking over a case from another in situations far more complicated than those of Special Education. Special Education cases are limited in legal complexity, and are even outside of the normal judicial process. If Amherst wanted their new attorney to be informed about existing cases, they should have hired Tate to brief Dupere on those cases. That type of legal expense would have been unimpeachable. That in which the District now engages is profligate.

The Regional School Committee is entering perilous territory. Any outside observer would characterize such wasteful use of educational resources for unnecessary litigation that you explicitly condone (and defend) as a failure of fiduciary responsibility. Just ask the 9th grader who needs extra help in math, or kids who can't take AP Physics for a lack of a qualified teacher.

We all should ask, is the committee incapable of seeing the truth, are you at all interested in working to improve this district ?

At this time the answer is a resounding "No!" As a body you are rejecting of the facts on the ground.

And our community suffers.

Michael Aronson

A new paradigm for golf?

Once again we witness the night and day difference between current town manager, John Musante, and the former town mangler Larry Shaffer--this time concerning something of paramount importance: truth-telling.

Five years ago Leisure Services and Supplemental Education and Shaffer had the audacity to issue a press release heralding that year's golf balance sheet, trumpeting a $7,200 "profit" while ignoring $40,000 in "hidden costs" (employee benefits, insurance, new equipment).

In an interview with the Springfield Republican town manager Larry Shaffer crossed the line by saying Cherry Hill required "no tax support." I even asked him at a follow up public meeting if he was misquoted, and he again reaffirmed the lie.

At last night's Select Board meeting the new Finance Director Sandy Pooler admitted Cherry Hill fell far short of FY2011 projected revenues ($270,000), which almost matched the actual $263,670 total cost of operations, with an intake of only $223,537 as first reported here six weeks ago, or a loss of over $40,000.

Of course he could not help but parrot the old excuse of that darn New England weather, but at least he also admitted the down economy takes a toll on the rich man's game of golf. Maybe now that transparency is the new marching order from Town Hall, citizens will get a true picture of the cost of golf.

And, unlike the scenic vistas aficionados admire, it ain't pretty.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Water under the bridge

The photo grabs you as it seems to explode from the front page of this morning's Daily Hampshire Gazette, clearly illustrating the potential power of water gone wild--more so than a skilled writer could accomplish in 1,000 words.

Kudos to ace photographer Carol Lollis; a raspberry to the editor who approved it.

It's one thing for a photographer to capture an extemporaneous scene involving a person thrust into a dramatic situation through no fault of their own. It's another case entirely when that person is showing off, or risking their life with reckless abandon (for all we know, because he spotted the photojournalist taking pictures.)

Six weeks ago three hikers hopped over a guardrail plastered with danger signs at Yosemite National Park to take dramatic action pictures of a raging waterfall. They got a little to close and cascaded to their deaths.

"Jackass: The Movie", where silly stunts take center stage, has enticed impressionable--usually young--viewers to attempt the same dangerous nonsense at home, in front of a camera, all too often with painful results. When the national press publishes a picture of President Obama smoking a cigarette or riding a bike without a helmet, people rightfully point out what a terrible example that sets.

While the Internet has greatly reduced the gatekeeper role of the mainstream media, a local hometown newspaper like the Daily Hampshire Gazette still has unique power when presenting the news. Hyping risky behavior can easily encourage copy cats who may not be so lucky next time.

And these days, the Gazette can't afford to lose any more readers.

Party House of the Weekend

41 Hobart Lane

While most responsible adults spent Saturday evening preparing for the wrath of Hurricane Irene (which fortunatley never arrived) these bad boys were having an end of the world--or perhaps start of the semester--party. Or maybe, since it was the main leaseholder's 20th birthday, a birthday bash.

The Amherst Police Department is serious about keeping our community safe and comfortable for all citizens--and that includes "quiet enjoyment" of one's most important asset, their homes.

According to police narrative:

"Approximately 50 guests standing outside of number 41. Estimate another 30-40 inside drinking and shouting. Resident identified and issued TBL (town bylaw) for noise. Guests cleared out."

Summons: Patrick Carey
Address: South Boston, MA
Age: 20

What a difference...

"Until the morning comes again
I will remain with you my friend
And we will ride until the sun
Goes to the place where it begun
And we will live to laugh and cry another day"

Sunday, August 28, 2011

High Noon

Town Manager John Musante seated left, Chief Scott Livingstone standing

Methinks Irene is done, not that it seems she ever got started--at least not here in the Happy Valley. No complaints, however, none whatsoever.

So far so good; a few downed trees and limbs but nothing the DPW can't handle. The Town fired up the Emergency Operations Center at the police station (otherwise known as the "community room") with town manager John Musante, police, fire, DPW chiefs and even animal control officer Carol Hepburn huddled together so the decision makers are all in one room with phones/internet/TV, backed up by a generator.

Recent bulletin from the EOC:

Amherst Storm Update 3:00 PM Sunday August 28, 2011

- Heavy rain and winds will diminish this afternoon as the eye of the Tropical Storm passes thru MA to our west.
- Be Alert for downed trees and wires - Winds will gust to 40 mph this evening.
- Temporary Street Closures.
- Cottage Street at corner of Triangle Street (water)
- Pelham Road from Main/South East Streets to Amethyst Brook (water)
- Newell Court (tree).
- Mt. Pleasant Street (tree).
- East Leverett Road from Leverett Road to Teewaddle Road (water)
- To report a downed tree, call Amherst DPW at 259-3050. Be specific with location (i.e. house number).
- WMECO reports 101 Amherst customers without power (1% of Amherst customers).
- To report a power outage, call Western Mass Electric Co. (WMECO) 413-781-4300.

Sunday noon town center peace protest

Geese seem unconcerned

Near miss

Stow the colors

Big Y doesn't look the same without Old Glory

While most people prepare for a hurricane by invading the local grocery store to wipe out supplies of bread, milk, and batteries, the Big Y in Amherst prepared for Irene by taking down their massive American flag to protect it from the wind whipping of a lifetime.

The town of Amherst also took the same precautions, including the UN flag nearest to Town Hall.
Town Hall sans American or UN flag

Friday, August 26, 2011

Batten down the hatches!

Amherst DPW workers prepare for the worst as hellacious Hurricane Irene bears down on the Happy Valley. Scary when you consider "the barn" is already built like a proverbial brick outhouse.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

On Top Of The World

High atop Mt. Washington

Ten years ago today the immediate future could not have been more promising: My martial arts/fitness business of almost twenty years had just completed its best one ever, my time up Mt. Washington was a personal best on this--my tenth consecutive climb--and the cortisone shot in my left hip, administered on June 11, the day domestic terrorist Timothy McVeigh was put to death by lethal injection, seemed to have turned the tide in my debilitating battle with arthritis.

Although Dr. Johnson warned me not to celebrate until after three months had passed. Thus I anxiously looked forward to September 11, hoping it would come quickly and go painlessly.

My Amherst Bulletin monthly column that last Friday in August, published a day before the Mt Washington Road Race, was a patriotic pitch for continuing to fly 29 small American flags in the downtown. As columns go it pretty much wrote itself, as words flow easily when defending true beliefs.

Amherst's Veterans Agent had purchased the commemorative flags that summer with Town Meeting approved tax monies. But, this being Amherst, the usual gang of left-wing zealots were appalled that Amherst would dare to resemble an All American small town right out of a Rockwell illustration, even if only for special occasions.

Town Manager Barry Del Castilho had reacted to the brewing controversy in typical bureaucratic fashion by placing on the Select Board agenda a public discussion for when and how long the flags could fly. After all, the five-member Select Board is in charge of "public ways" and even though the lightpoles acting as flagpoles were privately owned by Western Mass Electric, they were set in town property.

Since the Select Board did not meet around Labor Day the next available night for this routine Amherst drama to play out was September 10, the 'Eve of Destruction'.

That evening, after a spirited two hour discussion, the board decided to keep the flags down and to allow them up on only 6 annual occasions. The next morning, after watching those shimmering towers disappear in an enormous cloud of smoke and debris, a familiar throb returned to my left hip. A double dose of pain on the day I had hoped for no surprises.

UMass professor Jennie Traschen provided the best known sound bite (dubbed the "Ill-timed quote of the century" by the Wall Street Journal) from that still innocent long ago evening in Amherst Town Hall, when real world realities were already bearing down on Ivory Tower illusions: "Actually, what the flag stands for is a symbol of terrorism and death and fear and destruction and repression."

Ten years distant I would edit Ms. Traschen's incendiary words ever so slightly: "Actually, what terrorism stands for is death and fear and destruction and repression." And it requires our constant vigilance.

(Now at age 56 with both hips and one knee fashioned from titanium--the same material as my bike frame--all working together perfectly, I've envisioned ascending Mt Washington one last time before that final fade to black, but not coming close to my 1:32 finish ten years ago. Last weekend, however, at the 39th annual Mt Washington Hill Climb, Ned Overend won the race with an almost record time of 55:03. He did it on his 57th birthday. So who knows, my personal best from a decade ago may yet fall.)

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

A Bright Future for Solar in Amherst?

It will be interesting to watch how UMass deals with NIMBYs this time around--after the Gateway setback--on the solar farm project announced for 15 acres of former farm property just off Valley Lane where neighbors have already circled the wagons to cast shadows over the sun catching project.

Naturally the $10 or $12 million project, which will provide $200,000 in energy savings annually, will be tax exempt if constructed on UMass property, unlike the BlueWave proposal for the old landfill, which will be roughly the same scope but would pay around $175,000 in property taxes annually and provide low cost electricity to the town.

A far brighter deal for Amherst taxpayers.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

A Crushing Experience

Amherst Farm Winery puts its best foot forward to attract attention

Wine connoisseurs who frequent the Amherst Farmers Market can now combine their hobbies by visiting the new Amherst Farm Winery now open at the former site of Season's restaurant, or if you go way back as an Amherst townie, the Rusty Scupper.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Four Star Town Manager

Town Manager John Musante, SB Chair Stephanie O'Keeffe

Tonight the Amherst Select Board gave a sneak peak at the Town Manager's rookie year evaluation and it could not have been much better, garnering "outstanding" check marks for budget related items, high marks for media relations and mostly "commendable"--but no less than "satisfactory"--in his dealing with staff and personnel relations. Chair Stephanie O'Keeffe in her introductory remarks called his overall performance, "stellar."

A far cry from his predecessor Larry Shaffer, who suddenly retired last year under the cover of an Executive Session on the very night his evaluations were to go public. Those evaluation forms, since they were never presented in a public meeting and had to do with job performance, then became immune to a pubic documents request.

Perhaps the only discordant note would have come from Committee on Homelessness Chair Hwei-Ling Greeney, the only spectator in the audience, who came to the meeting wondering if the evaluation her committee submitted would become public. It did not.

The Committee on Homelessness is in a pitched battle for survival with the Select Board/Town Manager as town officials wish to terminate the committee over its zealous advocacy for the homeless.

Safe bet their evaluation of the Town Manager sang a starkly different song.

What price public documents?

Shawn Williams, Assistant Director
Public Records Division
McCormack Building, Room 1719
One Ashburton Place
Boston, MA 02108


Dear Mr. Williams,

First off, my sincere condolences on the loss of Director Alan Cote. He was a true champion of keeping records open and available to the general public, a thankless and--unfortunately in Massachusetts--never ending job.

I'm aware your office seldom refers matters to the Attorney General for further action these days, but I'm requesting you do exactly that with the case of the Amherst Schools obstinately defying your order to produce 13 settlement agreements with public employees costing Amherst taxpayers $200,000 over the past five years.

As I understand it only two options now exist for overcoming this willful roadblock: referring the matter to the AG by your office for enforcement of your original order, or I can bring the matter to Superior Court such as the Boston Globe has done with an almost identical case.

Unfortunately option #2 will cost me $275 plus the additional cost as an Amherst taxpayer when the schools use attorney Regina Tate at $220/hour to defend their case.

It seems the Amherst Schools are using South Hadley as an example for doing the public's business: as secretly as possible. Please, do not allow them to be rewarded for this unethical pattern of behavior.

Sincerely Yours,

Larry Kelley
596 South Pleasant St
Amherst, Ma 01002
413 256-0491

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The week that was: Swedish babies to 9/11

Caroline Degel, looking like a Swedish mother

UPDATE: (Saturday morning)

So low and behold the Daily Hampshire Gazette managed an exclusive interview with the beleaguered Swedish mother in the midst of her 15 minutes of infamy, who states her time in Bueno y Sano only amounted to four minutes, not ten; and her boy is actually two years old, not one.

Since the police report only gave her surname, "Degel," the intrepid Gazette actually had to do some leg work--or these days--more like finger work on a keyboard to track her down.

The article itself reaffirms my initial reaction that the RP ("reporting person"), although in this case apparently a group of people, overreacted by calling 911 rather than seeking out the parent or simply waiting an extra minute or two for her to return.

Branding her a "bad mother" and following up with "people like you shouldn't have children" also reaffirms my initial thought that they were those ubiquitous Amherst know-it-all's who probably do not have children of their own.

If my now 4- year-old was awakened too early in her nap cycle back when she was 2, there was Hell to pay.

I also found it a tad tacky for the newspaper to simultaneously use this overblown incident in their weekly "Gazette News Quiz" appearing on the highly visible break page:

A Swedish woman caused quite a stir in Amherst earlier this week when she left what on the sidewalk for a few minutes?

(a) Photos of her marriage to Tiger Woods
(b) Five pounds of Swedish meatballs (which are illegal in Amherst)
(c) A miniature daschund
(d) Her 1-year-old son

Notice even the "correct answer" is incorrect, and they misspelled dachshund. I guess since the exclusive interview was done only on Friday, the News Quiz editor did not have enough time for checking copy.

A Swedish publication scoops the Gazette with interview of an obviously pissed off husband/dad.

Original post: (Thursday evening)

For a weekly newspaper the greatest gift is time. When the presses do not run until Wednesday afternoon you have time to check and recheck copy for news that happened over the weekend or even timelier events occurring at the beginning of the week; an extra margin of time to ponder the perfect headline and dwell even harder about where to position the story.

Because in news, as with selling real estate, location matters.

So I waited with anticipation early this morning for the weekly Amherst Bulletin to see how they would handle the non story that sparked national and international attention: Amherst's abandoned--but only for ten minutes-- Swedish baby story.

The Daily Hampshire Gazette placed it on Tuesday's front page under a foreboding headline: "State to look into report of baby left in stroller."

But I was pleased to see the non story, although still appearing on the front page, relegated to a tiny corner, bottom right, well below the fold. Lousy placement. And the almost as important headline was changed to something far less foreboding: "Cultural differences lead to trouble in Amherst."

God knows Amherst practices cultural sensitivity. Take for example the top story they did chose to place in the prized, above the fold, lead position: "A small but devoted Muslim congregation gathers in Amherst." And later in the lengthy article disclose the group would take part in an interfaith march in Amherst on the fast approaching 10th anniversary of 9/11.

Well I'm glad they found something, umm, non controversial to bump the Swedish baby caper?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Slow news day?

Bueno y Sano: downtown Amherst, contiguous with parking garage, near busy construction site

UPDATE (Wednesday morning): This non story hit Reuters national wire early Monday evening and a few hours ago went international via a Swedish publication. Probably will not enhance Amherst as a destination spot for Scandinavian tourism.
So my friends in the bricks-and-mortar media were all over the (alleged) abandoned baby incident over the past 24 hours, with the Daily Hampshire Gazette leading the charge, splashing it on the front page--even highlighting it further with washed out color over the entire four columns.

To recap: A mother from Sweden goes into a busy take out restaurant in busy downtown Amherst around 2:00 PM on Friday to order food while leaving her baby boy snugly wrapped in a carriage the Swedes refer to as a "pram," just outside the establishment--but well within view via a window(s).

A Good Samaritan passerby calls police from his cell phone to report a baby in a carriage without parents in sight. APD responds, finds the child healthy and happy; but as a "mandated" authority, they report the mother to Department of Children and Families via a 51A .

The mother casually responds that it's a common practice in Sweden (even in the dead of winter), and she was watching periodically through the window. Since DCF has no enforcement authority anyway, chances are they will issue a letter outlining how things are done here in America and that will be the end of it.

The recent terrorist mass murder in Norway--many of the victims young adults--is still vivid in our minds, and since most Americans mix up Sweden and Norway anyway, why not go all tabloid over a non story concerning child safety that questions the rearing habits of Swedish mothers?

Maybe because next time the media goes ballistic on a far more deserving child abuse story, readers will be a tad less prone to pay attention.

Seen any wolves lately?

Springfield Republican also reported

Monday, August 15, 2011

Rainy Days & Mondays

I'll be the roundabout (test pilot)

Bad enough when one driver gets confused and tries to use a roundabout still under construction, even worse when the car behind him follows along for the ride.

According to Amherst Police (around 1:00 PM Saturday): "Two vehicles got onto the rotary that is under construction--most likely westbound off Bay Road--and as they exited they nearly caused an accident with the reporting party. One elderly gentleman in a Cadillac. No description of second vehicle."

Let's hope upon completion (sometime next year) the state installs a plethora of signage to mitigate confusion.

Call in the Cavalry

Alan Cote, Supervisor of Records
Office of the Secretary of the Commonwealth
McCormack Building, Room 1719
One Ashburton Place
Boston, MA 02108

Dear Mr. Cote,

I am requesting further assistance from the Public Records Division concerning my previous public documents request of the Amherst Schools for employee settlement agreements over the past five years with a value greater than $5,000.

In a 7/20/2011 letter to the Amherst schools your office, responding to my 4/7/11 appeal request, found in my favor saying, "The school has failed to show that the responsive separation agreements include personal information sufficient enough to withhold the agreements in their entirety under Exemption (C)."

On 8/2/2011 I met with Amherst School Superintendent Maria Geryk and Human Resources Director Kathy Mazur to pick up the documents. The Amherst officials, however, refused to provide any of the 13 settlement agreements, offering instead a "summary" with no names, job titles, dates or any other information besides the total amount of each individual settlement (document attached).

Could your office please issue another administrative order clarifying for the schools how to properly comply with your original order to provide the settlement agreements in question? As always, thank you for working to maintain transparency within our government.

Larry Kelley
596 South Pleasant St.
Amherst, Ma 01002

Settlement Agreement Summary

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Gateway is Gone

The Gateway Corridor Project, born September 1, 2010, died Wednesday August 4, just shy of age one, after contracting an all too typical case of NIMBYism.

The ambitious Gateway was conceived out of an optimistic, rare partnership between Amherst and UMass, as an urban renewal project with a mixed-used commercial development of high end student housing, commercial retail, and office space, a signature building or two plus significant green space, to revitalize the corridor connecting downtown Amherst with our flagship University.

The Amherst Redevelopment Authority adopted the infant and acted as nursemaid.

But the generational pessimism ingrained in the nearby neighborhood by seasonal waves of rowdy students, combined with overly inclusive public officials who allowed self interested "stakeholders" to hijack the public process, inflicted a heavy toll.

Gateway supporters were so concerned about negotiating the Town Meeting gauntlet--where a two thirds vote is required for zoning changes--that they watered down the project immensely, thus alienating a major player.

On August 4th UMass rescinded the offer to transfer ownership of Frat Row, the Gateway's crown jewel, a two-acre swath of open land dubbed a critical "catalyst" by ARA consultant Gianni Longo. The prime piece of property that ignited the very idea of a "Gateway."

With its heart and soul gutted the grand idea is gone. Now, Gateway belongs to the ages.


Todd Diacon, UMass deputy chancellor (center). During the intensive design charrette he was seated at the only table of ten that came up with a "minimalist" plan for Frat Row: keeping it wide open and green. They called it, "King Philip Street Park."

Saturday, August 13, 2011

A Special Run

From law enforcement rookies to top brass, and a few civilians
Lt. Robert O'Connor, Chief Scott Livingstone

While the distance from the Amherst Police Station to the finish line at the UMass Southwest towers quadrangle may have been only three miles, the resounding good cheer generated could have echoed from sea to shining sea.

About 30 runners participated in the Massachusetts Law Enforcement Torch Run for Special Olympics this evening sponsored by the Amherst Police Department. The workout culminated with a rousing reception at the finish line by the athletes who benefit from the money raised (suggested donation per runner was $15) as they let out a resounding cheer when the entourage--all wearing distinctive black t shirts--arrived and the Flame of Hope met the cauldron, sending up a whoosh of orange flames.

Let the games begin!

Amherst's Twin Towers

Boltwood Place, downtown Amherst

Although Boltwood Place will be a single five-story building on completion, this morning it resembled an iconic place, now but a memory.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

And the sign says

Groff Park Pavilion

Coincidentally enough the Leisure Services and Supplemental Education Commission (folks outside the People's Republic would call it "Recreation Department") last night discussed 24 new "No Smoking" signs for the playing fields and playgrounds around town, 12 going up this year and 12 the next.

But you have to wonder if those signs will be any more effective than this "No alcoholic beverages allowed sign" at Groff Park pavilion?

The Amherst Board of Health had considered a total smoking ban on all town owned land--including the Town Common--but pressure from local business owners and the Chamber of Commerce, college students (mostly UMass), and perhaps ardent libertarians caused them to back down to just banning the foul habit around playing fields and playgrounds.

In 1999 the Amherst Board of Health spearheaded a smoking ban in the workplace that included bars. The volatile episode became known as "The Smoking Ban in Bars War." The Board of Health won as the bars rendered an unconditional surrender; today smoke free environments are as routine as cell phone reception.

And now that environment extends to the outdoors, mostly.

A simple act of kindness

With the anniversary of that dark day but a month away, and the recent catastrophic loss of 30 American soldiers ardently doing their job still fresh in our memory, please consider a donation to assist two men who have already paid their dues but now find the government lacking when it comes to repaying them for their service.

Do it out of compassion, Christian moral values or plain old self interest. Because when the guardians start to fall, who is left to protect us all?

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Into the Belly of the Beast

Senator Scott Brown: dressed for a hike

Senator Scott Brown came a calling this hot afternoon, picking one of the highest locations in Amherst, the top of The Notch state run visitors center, as his stage .

The Senator was supposed to talk about the economy and tourism, but he was immediately set upon by demonstrators so he and his entourage crossed over Rt. 116 and headed up the steep slippery incline to Bare Mountain, the nearest peak to the visitors center--but still a good workout.

Yes, I managed to shake his hand, although I forgot to take off my bike gloves. I had taken the long route to get there from my house which is normally a three mile ride but going the long way to avoid the Atkins Corner construction was 12 miles with a sprint up the, thankfully easier, south side of The Notch.

I arrived a minute or two after 2:00 PM but had little to worry about as the Senator was about 20 minutes late in arriving. When he did appear I was still sweating and as he shook my hand he complimented my American flag bike shorts and mentioned that he just did the Pan Mass Bike Challenge (with Lance Armstrong.)

It was then the demonstrators started to get (verbally) pushy.

A republican Senator in the People's Republic of Amherst is about as rare as a white whale; and this one in particular strikes me as a tad more formidable than Moby Dick.

A few fans and lots of media showed up

Political Welcome Wagon

The opposition was organized

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Jones Library has a new Director

Sharon Sharry, director of the Greenfield Public Library is now the Director of the Jones Library, an iconic downtown Amherst institution. Surviving a first round 3-3 deadlock vote against the only other candidate, Christopher Lindquist, director of the Westfield Athenaeum, Ms. Sharry won a unanimous 6-0 vote in the second balloting.

After the unsettling episode last year where a renegade wing of the Jones Library Trustees, a sort of evaluation inquisition, drove out 30 year Director Bonnie Isman, lets hope the new director can maintain cordial terms with the Board of Trustees--especially now that Carol Gray has returned from a one year stay in Egypt.

Somebody appreciates my timeliness

Legal Shuffle

According to the Regional School Committee 9/22/10 minutes, "By a vote of five to four, the committee voted to hire Dupere and Dupere to provide the district’s legal representation for Special Education services."

On 11/30/10 a concerned parent asked the Regional School Committee why Gini Tate was still serving as Special Education counsel for the region: "Mr. Rhodes explained that the School Committee had to negotiate an agreement with the new Special Education attorney, which then had to be ratified by each School Committee. As a result, the contract with the new firm does not begin until December 1, 2010." Of course that was the very next day--or so you would think.

Meanwhile in another part of the space time continuum, on 11/13/10 to be exact--three weeks after the school committee vote to--effectively fire attorney Tate as Special Education counsel, a parent filed suit against the Amherst school district.

Dupere and Dupere started on December 1st at a fixed, all-you-can-litigate, annual cost of $36,000. The first official response to the parent filing suit from Attorney Tate's office concerning the case is dated--you guessed it--December 1st. Pretty quick response for an attorney, eh?

So, rather than having Dupere handle the matter at no additional cost to the taxpayers, the schools--in violation of a School Committee vote--hire attorney Tate, at $220/hour fee plus four hour round trip travel time from her office in Quincy.

The parent who filed suit on November 13 withdrew the action, then refiled on April 4, 2011, using a different legal approach thus providing yet another technical reason Dupere should be handling the case at no additional taxpayer cost.

I asked Regional School Committee chair Rick Hood for an explanation and received this curious response:

"There were three cases carried over from the transition between Dupere and MHLT (Attorney Tate). Two of the cases have reached conclusion and/or are awaiting the BSEA to issue their decision. The third case was a re-filing of a case where MHLT (Attorney Tate) had already worked extensively on it during the FY11 school year prior to Dupere being appointed the new SE attorney. Probably this is the case you are referring to.

Where MHLT was already deeply involved in a case it was thought best (and less expensive) to keep MHLT on it."

Less expensive? You can tell Mr. Hood has an extensive background with yachting! How could Attorney Tate have "worked extensively" or have been "deeply involved" on a case that was originally filed on November 13 with her initial response dated December 1, only two-and-a-half weeks later?

Obviously attorney Tate became a comfortable fixture in the Good Ol' Girls Network now controlling the schools, and since taxpayers unknowingly cover the tab, she's darn well going to stay--no matter the additional expense.

But how do you put a price on trust?


To: amherstac
Cc: Maria Geryk ; Kathy Mazur ; Mary Wallace
Sent: Fri, Aug 5, 2011 11:22 am

Good Morning, Mr. Kelley:
I'm happy to provide the information you requested. The hourly rate for services provided by Murphy, Hesse, Toomey and Lehane (Ms. Tate's firm) is $220.00. The School Committee vote to hire Dupere and Dupere for the districts' Special Education services and Murphy, Hesse, Toomey and Lehane for the districts' general counsel was taken on September 22, 2010. I've attached the minutes for your convenience.

Debbie Westmoreland
Administrative Assistant to the Superintendent

You would think that somebody on this Cc list knew all too well that Ms. Tate was still involved in a Special Education case, and could have clarified this response.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

The cost of doing business?

We have already learned recently that the Amherst schools spent $200,000 in "settlements" with former employees over the past five years (not counting costly unemployment benefits); but with our municipal education machine being such a large local employer, maybe not such a bad batting average.

And maybe in the long run those settlements saved money or helped maintain the integrity of the system, as the women in charge would argue. In fact, they maintain it's usually a combination of both those rationals and that argument would probably be applied to any and all "legal expenses."

How unfortunate that a system designed to educate all our children spends tax dollars on litigation...but a necessary evil, perhaps.

After all, the Amherst schools account for over two-thirds of the entire town budget, or $49 million last year between elementary and regional high school.

Still, do they have to spend so much?

Legal Expenditures

Amherst-Pelham Regional School District:

FY09 FY10 FY11

School Committee 15,802 17,330 32,315
Human Resources (personnel) 5,123 5,714 6,446
Special Education - MHT&L 49,443 27,315 41,911

70,368 50,359 80,672
Amherst Public Schools:

FY09 FY10 FY11

School Committee 9,728 24,763 25,077
Human Resources (personnel) 8,255 5,464 5,854
Special Education - MHT&L 17,112 3,733 14,729

35,095 33,960 45,660


8/4/2011 9:48 AM

Could I please get Attorney Tate's current hourly rate and total amount paid in FY10 and FY11 by the School District?

And for clarification: was she terminated from handling school district SPED cases as of December 2010?

Larry K

To: amherstac
Cc: Maria Geryk ; Kathy Mazur ; Mary Wallace
Sent: Fri, Aug 5, 2011 11:22 am

Good Morning, Mr. Kelley:
I'm happy to provide the information you requested. The hourly rate for services provided by Murphy, Hesse, Toomey and Lehane (Ms. Tate's firm) is $220.00. The School Committee vote to hire Dupere and Dupere for the districts' Special Education services and Murphy, Hesse, Toomey and Lehane for the districts' general counsel was taken on September 22, 2010. I've attached the minutes for your convenience.

Debbie Westmoreland
Administrative Assistant to the Superintendent

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Gateway shuffle

Former Frat Row, forever UMass

The Gateway Project, so named because it hopes to transform the main entryway to UMass while seamlessly connecting our largest employer to downtown Amherst, inched forward this evening...but once again demonstrated the changing nature of the project.

Deputy Chancellor Todd Diacon told the Amherst Redevelopment Authority, "We wholeheartedly support the Gateway Project." He also confirmed UMass funding for a traffic study in the Gateway corridor as part of their ongoing Master Plan.

Town Manager John Musante testified the town will sponsor warrant articles for the fall Town Meeting to hire consultants for a marketing study and to map out zoning changes required if the Gateway "vision," now endorsed by both the ARA and UMass, is to become a reality.

Zoning is a key factor which requires a two-thirds vote of Amherst Town Meeting. Since that body will deliberate spending tens of thousands on additional consultants for the Gateway project in November, the majority vote required will be a bellwether of how well the zoning vote--a higher hurdle--will fare.

Diacon also admitted, however, that his office would not advocate for the transfer of Frat Row, a 1.8 acre prime swath of land deemed a "catalyst" by the Gateway Vision consultant, to either the town or the ARA--although he stated UMass would landscape the wide open property and that they had no plans for building construction over the next five years.

UMass purchased the property, formerly home to five rowdy frat houses, for $2.5 million. Originally the Gateway Project commenced when UMass offered to donate the land for a private sector mixed use project but one providing significant housing. After a chorus of complaints from immediate neighbors fearing a resurrection of Frat Row, the housing aspect was significantly altered.

If Town Meeting approves the zoning change, individual private developers will have to undertake the task of transformation, with a form-based zoning code for guidance and a "vision" as inspiration.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

My Meet-and-Greet with Maria

So no, Attorney Regina Tate was not present for our mid-afternoon pow-wow yesterday in the Superintendent's office...well, at least not in a physical sense. But her spiritual presence was overpowering.

Under additional $220/hour advice from Attorney Tate, the schools defied the official ruling of the state Public Records Division by continuing to withhold the (13) employee settlement agreements.

What little they did give me indicates payouts of almost $200,000 over the past five years.

Settlement Agreement Summary Click link

Monday, August 1, 2011

And the band played on

For the first time in 34 years the UMass Marching Band--the "Power and Class of New England"--will take to the field without George N. Parks. The songs may remain, but the spirit will never be the same.

The Minuteman Band Association is hosting an all day inaugural golf extravaganza at the Hickory Ridge Golf Course on Friday, August 5 with all proceeds to benefit the George N. Parks Memorial Scholarship Award.


From: Kathy Mazur
Sent: Fri, Jul 29, 2011 2:07 pm
Subject: Tuesday

Hi Larry - Can you please meet with Maria and me at 3 pm next Tuesday? I expect to have the settlement information ready at that time, and Maria and I would like to be able to answer any questions you might have, as well as have an opportunity for us to provide some context for the settlements. Thanks, Kathy

I feel a bit like the petulant school child sent to the principal's office for discipline, or what the Chinese government refers to as "retraining." Stimulates not-so-fond memories from St. Michael's Catholic school in Northampton, where the first line of offense was a brief stay in the cramped cloakroom.

Of course the ironic thing about the Amherst Schools trying to keep these settlement agreements with public employees secret is that by taking flawed legal advice from Attorney Tate and resisting my initial public documents request they have only attracted additional attention to the matter.

Furthermore, had I not published the formal finding from the Public Documents Division spelling out the Schools' mistake, a reader would not have seen the opportunity to forward me documentation regarding the other recent incident where the Schools, acting on bad legal advice, withheld the resume of the "interim" Director of Special Education, thereby earning yet another reprimand from state officials.

Rather than spend taxpayer money on bad legal advice, perhaps the Schools--a $50 million enterprise--should hire an entry level Public Relations advisor to spin positive stories and prevent recurrence of these embarrassing
faux pas.