Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A former resident makes a good point, a tourist missed the boat

I wrote about the Ferry announcement debacle here. Former Salem Resident Dave Bilodeau makes a very good point in the comments on that post that I think warrants repeating. Here it is:

Dave Bilodeau said...

As a former resident, I think some of you at times are too close to the situation to appreciate what seems to be some very good things happening in the city. I visit very little these days while I'm in Florida, but when I return there is always something new and good happening, especially in the downtown. The mayor deserves credit of course, but people sometimes overlook the long-time contributions of councilors who make a big difference. I'm speaking of course of Joan Lovely, who in my view has been as good if not better than any member of that body in the past 50 years.

Try not to focus on the day to day trivial dramas going on and be happy you have things like traffic and interest in the ferry. It's a good sign.

To Dave's point, I hope that I've been clear that I very much support the improvements that are being made to Blaney Street. As someone who lives nearby, and walks my dog there daily, improvements that discourage some of the sketchier activities that have been witnessed there is great. The same is true for improvements that make the ferry more attractive to commuters and tourists. Ferry ridership that has increased annually should be celebrated, especially now that their daily arrival won't create a dustbowl for the neighborhood.

My only point here is that the handling of the announcement of the delay was terrible. This was illustrated to me again when a friend and I were walking our dogs on Blaney Street Saturday morning, and we encountered some confused people from New Hampshire. They stopped us and asked what was going on with the ferry. We explained that the season had been delayed due to the construction. They were upset, as they had driven, as they put it, "100 miles to take the boat to Boston for the day." They also said that they had checked the schedule on the ferry website Wednesday night. We explained that the announcement wasn't made until Thursday. They were good sports about it, but were also annoyed at the late announcement. Their spirits were lifted when we told them they'd probably be able to catch a commuter rail train within an hour. It's people like this who are affected by things like this, and may remember Salem as the city that didn't tell them the boat wouldn't be running.

As to traffic, I've long held that a downtown traffic and parking problem is a good problem to have. Ask Peabody if they'd like to have people looking for parking spaces.

I also think Joan Lovely does a great job. She's not caught up with being pro-Driscoll, or anti-Driscoll, as several of her counterparts seem to be. She seems to just be pro-common-sense.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Slurp, slurp goes the Salem News

I see that Tom Dalton of the Salem News is certainly drinking the Kool-Aid.

His article in the snooze today starts as follows: "The monsoon spring has forced the Salem Ferry to postpone the start of the season for two weeks."

The monsoon spring where we've received less than normal rainfall totals? I hope they at least give Mr. Dalton a cookie and a "good boy" for toeing the line and spreading the lie. He goes on to talk about the seemingly endless rain. Other than a three day stretch (5 if you count the weekend days they didn't work) last week, it didn't happen.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Ferry delayed until June 11, city lacks transparency

Well that last post had the shortest shelf life ever.

Apparently the Ferry commuters will have to wait a few more weeks to enjoy the boat trip to Boston. The Salem Ferry has suspended service, with an estimated start date of June 11. Readers of this blog will know that I've told you the pier wouldn't be ready for weeks, at least. It was an aggressive deadline, and the Monday through Friday work has been vigorous. Several times recently it has continued past 7 or 8 at night. They took weekends off, and with the hours they put in I don't think you can really blame them. I do think you can fault the city for a near complete lack of transparency on this. As someone who, if forced to choose between Team Driscoll, and Team Anti-Driscoll, would readily admit to being Team Driscoll about 95% of the time. (I know this really disappoints some of you.) I totally believe in almost all of her vision for Salem. I've voted for her twice, and I'd do so again tomorrow.

That said ... the handling of the Ferry situation leaves a lot to be desired. Mayor Driscoll ran for mayor on a platform of openness, transparency, communication, and professionalism. It would appear that some pieces of that recipe were missing here. Announcing to the commuters who take it every day, and the concierges from Boston who were just in town to sample it, among other things, that the Ferry won't start tommorrow, and waiting until there were 24 hours left to do so, shows a lack of transparency, and a lack of "open communication with residents." Go back and look at the pictures I posted on May 16. It was crystal clear at that point (as well as a few weeks before, at least) that Blaney Street would not be ready for passengers on May 27. The contractors have been telling neighbors who inquired that they were two weeks behind for at least six weeks.

Will the Ferry be a scavenger hunt?

It's 10 AM on May 26th.

This means that the first Salem Ferry trip of the season is scheduled for 21 hours from now, at the Blaney Street pier. Currently, Blaney Street is completely blocked with sewer pipes and gigantic construction equipment. You can't even turn onto the street.

Why hasn't there been an announcement about where (if?) the Ferry will launch tomorrow? This is a pretty big deal to Ferry commuters. They are a loyal bunch, who look forward to this day starting in November. They are also a closeknit group. Some even do a little wine and cheese party on the boat every Thursday on the return trip.

Maybe the city intends for the start of the Ferry season to be a scavenger hunt? "The boat leaves at 7, can you find it?!" Wouldn't that be fun.

The only thing I can tell you for sure, as I've said for over a month, don't show up at Blaney looking for it.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

It's an epidemic!

Apparently the Joker isn't the only comic book character living in Salem.

It appears that Iceman is living right on North Street, next door to a fire station. Good in case he gets too hot and needs a cooling off.

IceMan's Lair

I guess at least it's not fluorescent lime green like the Joker's house. At the same time, this one actually painted the city street in addition to the curb. Maybe they could follow the newly painted red line and hit those crosswalks the city skipped.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

A personal Blaney Street update

I've written a lot about the progress, and sometimes lack thereof, at the Blaney Street pier. Click here to review.

This is a story of a different manner. I was contacted tonight by one of the direct abutters of the pier. This person is a good friend of mine, who frequently has to come and go multiple times during the day. She, perhaps more than any other person, has had to deal with three months of constant construction within an inch (and sometimes on) her property. Tonight, one of the construction workers on the pier was extremely rude and inappropriate toward her. After she told me about the incident, I asked her to put it in her own words. Here it is.

I pulled in to the White Street lot and was getting out my car with my dog. A construction worker was stepping down off the ledge of my driveway (after having walked across it) and he smiled at me. I didn't smile back. Perhaps I should have, but he was a young guy who was strutting along like he owned the world. Also, I was exhausted from a long day of work, and after waking up to construction and then coming home to construction, and after having multiple construction workers use my private parking lot as their own parking lot/staging area/changing room (without ever bothering to ask any of the residents of our building) I wasn't feeling very smiley. (Editors note: every day for 3 months) When I failed to smile back he said, "Do you have a problem?" and smirked at me. I said, "Well, yes, actually. All of you are parked in my driveway and using it as a staging area." He said, "Well, have you ever had to load a 15-ton [blah blah blah]?" And I said "no". He said, "You know, your attitude sucks. Everyone else here has been really nice but you're a fucking cunt."

 So, apparently having your life turned upside down for 3 months for this project, and I kid you not when I say that the residents of this condo building have construction going on on three sides of them, from 7AM until well into the evening every day, isn't enough insult. Apparently a city-hired contractor believes it's OK to call those taxpayers a "fucking cunt." Is that really what the city thinks of us?

I advised this young woman to contact Kathy Winn of the Planning Department, as well as the mayor's office, but that won't undo the disgusting words flung at her because she dared to betray her frustration with this seemingly unending work.

Monday, May 23, 2011

A bright red line

It appears that the red line to nowhere in particular was repainted within the last few days. I noticed it prominently on Hawthorne Boulevard and North Street this morning. Here's my question. If you're going to have a paint crew out there to do this, why not have them touch up some of the safety painting at the same time? The crosswalk lines at Essex and Hawthorne are almost non-existent at this point. You painted right between them, why not hit them too? Is it that hard to carry two colors with you?

Fresh red, faded white

Is the red line painted by the city, or is it the Salem Chamber of Commerce or Destination Salem (kinda the city) that paints it? This article gives the impression that (most of) the red line/heritage trail is maintained by the city. Aren't the crosswalks way more important than a silly red line to everywhere? I guess we have our answer. The dollar rules.

Salem SegGliders still advertising Blaney location

I grabbed a flyer when I visited the Salem Seggliders location this weekend. I just looked at it a little closer, and noticed that they are still instructing people to report to 10 Blaney Street for their training.

You'll be lonely if you go to 10 Blaney Street for your tour
You'd think they'd at least put stickers on them or something.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Updates! Blaney Street and Segway


I usually try to step away from the keyboard on the weekend, but on my two trips downtown today I came across some important tidbits of information that I wanted to share.

Blaney Street Pier Update: On my first trip, I visited the Common, Cafe Valverde (my favorite downtown coffee), and the Living Green and Renewable Energy fair at Old Town Hall. One of the vendors at the fair was the Salem Ferry. I spoke with the representative from the Ferry, and asked him when the service would start. He informed me that the ferry would start Friday on schedule. I immediately asked him where from. Without missing a beat he responded with "Central Wharf, down behind Capts."

He also informed me that while the city had promised all along that Blaney Street would be ready on time, he's now been told that it will be at least two or three more weeks. Judging by the pictures I've shared, and what I saw from outside the fence last night, I'd bet on three. Maybe more. He wasn't happy at the late notice that they were given that the pier won't actually be ready.

I tweeted this news earlier today, and the mayor responded. " The contractor is doing his best to meet the schedule, but we r working on a "Plan B" in the likely event the site is not ready"

Let me repeat that, "the likely event the site is not ready"

I've asked the mayor and her aide several times recently about this, and they've both been steadfast that the work would be majorly completed by the start of the ferry season. This was true as recently as two days ago. It's good to see that there has been a plan B, because it was obvious to all but the most idealistic optimist that May 27th wasn't happening. Some previous Salem mayors wouldn't have had a plan B, and we'd really be a mess. Now, commuters used to the easy parking at Blaney St. will be inconvenienced, but many of those who walk to the ferry, and tourists from Boston, will actually have an easier walk for the short term. Of course, there could have been a little more transparency about the likelihood that a short term switch in location would be necessary.

As of 5PM this Saturday, no work was done on Blaney Street today. This makes me question the contract and whether or not there were any non-performance/late delivery penalties. I'm guessing there must not have been. I don't claim to be an expert on government RFPs. It's possible that they frequently aren't used, but it would have been wise with the absolute deadline on this project to have found a way to include one.

I'm glad the improvements to Blaney St. are being made. The dust kicked up in the summer from the dirt parking lot was terrible. It also was frequently used for boozing, drugging, selling, and sexing. Any dog owner in the area has at least one story of unbelievable things they've seen or found. My favorite was the couple having sex inside the open air trolley info booth. There was also the Blaney Street version of the Montauk monster.

Salem SegGliders update: My second trip downtown today was primarily for a haircut, followed by a burrito. Between the two, I stopped into the former West Coast Video location that we discussed as the new home of Salem SegGliders. I spoke with the office manager there, and asked her about the Segways. They don't actually have any yet, but she said they are coming in next week. More interesting to me, and not previously discussed anywhere else I've seen, was what they actually do have on site both for sale and for rent. This business is renting and selling rechargeable electric bicycles that have a top speed of 30-35 miles per hour. A full charge lasts 3 hours. They can be purchased for $1695 -$1895, or rented for an hour, a half-day or a full-day unguided. Some even fold in half. Does anyone else see the possibility of pedestrian and tourist injuries here? Currently these are the ONLY products that this business is offering. All I can say is, make sure you're looking both ways before crossing the street, even if it's a one way. You never know where one of these silent assassins might come from. Bets on how long before one of them has an accident on a sidewalk? If Segways (top speed 12.5 MPH) need special permitting, shouldn't these?

UPDATE: I went back and checked out the manufacturer and model number of the bike. You can see it below.

EZ Pedaler T300

I looked up this model, and it appears that the person I spoke with may have been exaggerating the top speed. According to the web site, this bike has a maximum speed of 20 MPH. I read a review of the bike which suggested that on downhills, or while using the motor and pedaling it was possible to exceed that speed, and the 20 MPH speed listed was specific to the electric motor alone. Apparently in most of the US, an electric bike need not be registered or insured if the speed limit doesn't exceed 20 MPH. So I'm sure the stated speed limit on these is a coincidence, right? Either way, these still sound like a much more dangerous proposition than a Segway.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Stupid, stupid idea

I wrote a while ago about my happiness at the installation of a stop light at Derby/Hawthorne/Congress, because, after all, it's all your fault. I still think a stoplight there is necessary, but may have to withdraw my endorsement of this project because of this:

A terrible idea!

In the last few days, no turn on red signs have been added to these lights in at least three of the four directions. I'm not sure about Derby Street coming from Pickering Wharf, but the three other entrances to this intersection all sport the signs. Simply, they aren't necessary, and will cause large backups. Plenty of traffic comes down Hawthorne Boulevard and turns right onto Derby. It's a simple turn, with good visibility, including of the crosswalk. Forcing them to wait when it's safe to turn will back traffic up to the hotel. The traffic on Derby street coming from the wharf area is frequently minimal, so a right turn on red here poses little risk. Traffic coming from Congress Street also has good visibility, so a right on red there makes sense as well.

If you look at the two other stop lights farther down Derby Street, both are arguably busier intersections, with more lanes of traffic, and as many or more pedestrians. Neither spot sports right on red prohibitions. The Derby @ Washington intersection should be a candidate for such a restriction long before the one we've actually hung them at.

Please note, I'm not one of the people who yells and screams that every new traffic pattern will create chaos. I welcomed the bypass road, I didn't cry that the sky would fall when North Street was reconfigured at Bridge. I'm not one of "those" people. In this one case, I'm warning you now that it's a mistake to not allow right on red in this spot.

Unrelated note: Looks like there is a newly open restaurant visible in the picture above. Anyone know anything about Scratch Kitchen?

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Admin: KIKS is changing: new layout

I've changed the look and feel of the blog a little bit.

Have no fear, the content will remain the same. I made the change for a few reasons:

  1. It was impossible to widen the body section using the old theme. This caused some real problems with things like pictures, especially. You've probably noticed that they sometimes ran to (or over) the edge.
  2. I was bored with the old theme. It's been the same for the entire time I've written this thing.
  3. Change is good! Embrace it!

I promise, the snark and brutal honesty will stay the same. As always, comments are not moderated. Disagree with me? Let's talk about it.

Is there a big story I should be talking about, but am not? Shoot me an e-mail. If I have an opinion I'll share. I've also published letters to the editor several times, always protecting your anonymity if requested.

What's coming up? At some point I'll write about the power plant. I have a few thoughts that I haven't heard out in the marketplace of ideas to date. I'll also tackle the Lowe's/Home Depot situation. 40B is on my mind. So is the Salem Transfer Station. Why haven't I written about any of these yet? Well, the power plant issue is still new. The others require a lot of research and grounding. Believe it or not, whether you can tell or not, I usually only write about big issues when I've consumed as much info as I can get my hands on. If I'm wrong, I've still based my opinion on  a lot of info. Even when you can't imagine that's the case.

An update to the Segway situation

As we discussed yesterday, there is a second company looking to bring Segway tours to Salem. Today, former Salem Patch reporter John Zorabedian sheds some more light on the situation.

As we noted yesterday, there seems to be some friction between Salem Seggliders and the city. The story today would confirm this. One of the Seggliders employees even went as far as accusing to city of playing favorites. A battle may be brewing.

As we also told you yesterday, the company had been advertising that their location would be 10 Blaney Street. Yes, their Yelp page still lists this as their address. The Patch piece also confirms this, and illuminates the fact that their may be some city opposition to this. At a minimum, though it has been advertised, it hasn't been approved. It sounds like they won't be able to operate their without a fight. Having reviewed the blueprints for the rebuilt pier, I have to say that they shouldn't allow them to teach people how to ride these things on the pier. Every inch of width of this space is being put to use to the point that the former pedestrian walkway, outside of the parking spaces, is being moved to the center section of the pier, passing directly behind the parking spaces on the water side. Beware walking, and beware backing out of those spaces. Having people zooming around learning how to ride Segways, which travel as fast as 12.5 MPH is not a good idea at all. Take a look at the setup below. (Click on it if you need to blow it up) If we put the pedestrians in the middle, because we needed the full width for parking, do you really think there is room to let Segway beginners zip around? Note that the wide section to the bottom left will remain gravel. The paving starts about where the pedestrian walkway enters from the left, and continues right about across that line.

Green is parking, red is the walkway

As a resident of the area, I won't tell you what I think of the "Approximate location of future pay station" notations on the map.

I took a peak at the West Coast Video location last night. While there has definitely been activity there in the last few days, it doesn't exactly look ready to start bringing customers in. Also, where will they teach people to ride these at that location? I stand by my opinion from yesterday that it appears that there may be some real kinks for these people to work out to really be up and running.

A RELATED NOTE: I was saddened to hear that John Zorabedian won't be writing for Salem Patch anymore. His pieces have been some of their best real news reporting. I fear that I may have been right when I predicted that Patch news coverage might soon suffer from a change in direction from the very top of the organization. I've noticed in the last week or so, an increase in fluffy pieces (they even ran a press release as a news story) and "photo essays." I'm hoping they'll prove me wrong, with a meaty article on the meeting between the school committee and city council committee of the whole last night on school construction budgeting. Simply, there's too much news in Salem for one reporter to cover.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

What's the deal with the second Segway co?

Update: I should add that on their Facebook page, Boston Gliders posted the Patch article and wrote:

Well we only wrote the law, and have had tour guides and approvals in place since last November?

If the did "write the law" doesn't that raise a whole different set of problems and questions? If they've had their approvals, why doesn't the city clerk know that?

One of the "deals" available on Groupon today is a discounted two-hour Segway tour of Salem with Salem Seggliders. I have to say, I'm not sure I'd invest in this, for a few reasons.

1. Last I heard, and it was just two weeks ago, there was one Segway company properly permitted to be offering tours in Salem, and it's not these guys. The city clerk was quite clear that Witch City Segway was the only permitted operator.

2. Check out their website. Not a single Salem picture on it.

3. Check out their address. I mean, which one? Their website used to list 10 Blaney Street as their address. It's now been changed to 76 Lafayette Street. 10 Blaney? That's the Salem Ferry terminal trailer. 76 Lafayette? Howling Wolf and an as of yesterday empty former video store are all that can be found. Their Yelp page lists the 10 Blaney Street address still.

4. Speaking of their Yelp page, which lists 10 Blaney Street, they used to have an announcement up on that page inviting everyone to their grand opening celebration on May 1. I hope you didn't try to go. All you'd have found was a chained up construction site.

5. I just called them, and tried to make a reservation for this week, you know, since they opened on May 1 (without permits?), according to the Yelp page. The Patch article stated that tours would start on May 15. I was informed that no tours were available until next week. I also asked what their location was. After about a minute of hemming and hawing I got the 76 Lafayette Street address.

I'm not saying that these guys aren't legit. I am saying that based on some of the things I've seen and read at this point, I wouldn't buy the Groupon before I saw them up and running. Maybe they've straightened out the licensing issues. Maybe the address issues are just start up pains. If it were me, I'd take a wait and see approach before booking my ride.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Joker lives in Salem?!

Several residents of the Derby Street neighborhood inform me that they have discovered the secret lair of the Joker, right here in Salem. For proof, they've offered the following picture.

This photo doesn't do the fluorescent
nature of this paint justice.

Apparently, neighbors of this particular residence have an annual pool guessing what terribly garish color will appear each year. They tell me that last year was a fluorescent pinkish orange color. They also state that if the bumper of your car hangs even a centimeter over the invisible plane rising from the edge of this paint that the residents of this property will call the Salem Police Department, dragging them away from much more important issues, to come write a ticket. How do they catch these parking scofflaws who dare to park 3 feet and 11 inches from their driveway? Apparently they have a surveillance camera mounted on the outside of their house, directly above the city-owned sidewalk and street. It's quite the invasion of their neighbors privacy. This curb is about halfway between Derby and Essex Streets on one of the cross streets, and can actually be seen from both Derby and Essex Streets. Complaints to police officers and city officials about this annual ugly defacement of public property have been ignored.

Don't anyone tell Dolores Jordan. She may try to go sandblast this away herself.

Apparently the visual assault doesn't end there. This is one of "those" properties. You know, the ones with about 5 different signs, and a pink flamingo? Well, I guess there's no pink flamingo, but there are several signs of the "Here lies the last dog who pooped in my yard" variety.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Blaney Street Pier Update

The Salem Ferry is supposed to resume service on Friday, May 27, from the far end of the Blaney Street Pier. I'm here to tell you that there is no way that the work on the pier will be finished in time for that. The city says they are on schedule to be open, though there may be some small finish work left over. I would bet money right now that in about a week we'll hear that they aren't going to make it due to the weather. I'm telling you that if the weather were pristine they wouldn't make it. The weather will, however, provide a nice excuse. Don't get me wrong, they've generally worked hard, included late into the evening several nights. However, the only people I ever saw working on the weekends were the subcontractors who did the actual seawall, and they've been gone for a while. I took a peak at the progress today, and I think the pictures mostly speak for themselves.

The muddy entrance to the pier site, clearly ready for paving

Former underground pipes

All of those pipes have to end up under ground

Test the damn parks redux!

I wrote a week ago about the need for the city to test soil samples from the parks in Salem in the wake of the issues found at Furlong and McGrath Parks. Today, the Salem News is reporting that Gonyea Park, a small playground at the end of Northey St, will be closed temporarily, you guessed it, to clean up contaminated soil. In this case, the culprits are the ever-present lead, and arsenic. Don't eat the dirt kids! What I found both confusing and disturbing about this article is that, as I read it, the problem with this park has been known for nine years? How is it that we've allowed people to continue to use it? The article states:

The finding was reported to the state Department of Environmental Protection in 2002. The EPA then tested samples from Gonyea Park and nearby homes.

How did we not close the park when it was determined to be contaminated? According to the sign at the park, it was founded in 1997. Why wasn't it tested when the playground was built? We knew lead was prevalent, and bad for you, by then.

Gonyea Park

You can see pictures of the park on Salem Patch here.

So let me say it again. Seeing now 3 of our 30-ish parks turn up with contamination issues, it's a terrible sin to not invest the small amount of money necessary to test the soil in the remaining parks. Failure to do so displays a disregard for the health and safety of our park users, especially the children. Mayor Driscoll, do it for the kids! Don't go down in history as the mayor who wouldn't assess the safety of our parks.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Peter Noyes at it again?

It sounds like there is dishonesty afoot across the harbor in Marblehead, and of course, Rockmore (serial poop, sewage, oil/fuel dumper)owner Peter Noyes is in the middle of it. Shocking, I know.

Mr. Noyes' corporation's misdeeds can be reviewed here and here (poop/sewage dumping) or here for oil/fuel fouling. I wrote about him previously here, and went into several of those issues, as well as his age-based and ethnicity-based discrimination, and his failure to follow court orders. (Let me add that it warms the area where my heart should be that that particular post has been viewed by at least hundreds of people who have landed on it because they've searched Google for Mr. Noyes by name. It still happens daily at least.)

So you get what I mean, when I say that it's shocking that he's at the center of of dishonesty. There's a bit of a history.

Mr. Noyes is proposing to rebuild a seawall on an island that he doesn't own, supposedly out of the goodness of his heart. At least, that was the original story that he told back in early April. That, and maybe he'll randomly store a couple of boats out there, but nothing to see here, just going to restore a little sea wall. Note the last two paragraphs in that article.

The Conservation Commission, hearing of this "public service" being offered by Peter Noyes, decided to take a trip out to the island for a site visit. "Shockingly," they found that the scope of the work being contemplated on the island was much more than they were led to believe. Peter Noyes, not being entirely truthful? I know that I'm shocked by this. Apparently the intention is to clearcut the island, build new seawalls, and build a permanent driveway up onto the island. Sounds expensive. I'm sure it's worth it to store the twelve boats that Noyes claims may end up there. Worth it. Right?

When the owner of a company that allegedly illegally flouted environmental regulations for over a decade by pumping human waste into our coastal waters comes before a Conservation Commission asking for permission to do something, but I promise I'll do it in the most low impact way possible, should you take his word for it? Hell no! Peter Noyes was quoted here as saying “Will common sense ever prevail in any of this?” Let's hope so! The Conservation Commission in Marblehead needs to consider his history, and his willfull ignoring of the court's order in his discrimination case, and say "no, we don't trust you. Sorry." Is that prejudicial? Sure. Earned? You bet!

Why is this on a Salem blog? We share a coastline with Marblehead, and what happens on that coastline affects our coastline. Or haven't you heard all of the Marblehead/Lori Ehrlich caterwauling about our power plant?

Friday, May 13, 2011

Down goes O'Keefe (City council 5/12/11)

A few weeks ago I wrote about councilor O'Keefe getting caught on mic dissing the Salem News before a city council meeting. This week, during the meeting, O'Keefe was the victim of the dissing. Councilor Pelletier, perhaps miffed that a few minutes earlier he had been forced to stand and repeat himself by O'Keefe as president, was heard muttering "Yeah, get him off of there" when O'Keefe asked council president Jerry Ryan if he wanted to retake the presidency. Check out the video for yourself. You can both see and hear Pelletier deliver the dis.

Guys, your mics are on!

Otherwise, this was a fairly boring council meeting. The highlights? Councilor Sosnowski telling one of the utilities that they can bury a conduit on Bridge Street, but if they don't do it before the final paving they'll do it over his dead body after that, in so many words.

Paul Prevey apparently hates Y summer camp kids, as he voted to deny them a lease at Camp Naumkeag for their summer camp. To be fair to Prevey, this was a last minute pitch, that would normally go through committee, but due to the late date was passed without going to committee. I thought councilor Ronan would vote no at first, but his issues with the lease language were addressed via an amendment proposed by councilor Sargent. Could this cause an issue like the one with the City Hall Annex lease? Possibly, but that seems highly unlikely, as the language that was added simply clarified the understanding that the rep from the YMCA had already, unlike the annex fiasco where they tried to change the lease terms by amendment, without permission from the landlord. Prevey was the only one to vote against the amended language.

Joan Lovely was absent. Probably engaged in turf wars over that orange chain she's blocking the end of her street with. Weren't the cops called on her husband about that a few years ago? Strange that it's back. Wonder if there was ever a legal resolution to Mr. Lovely trying to steal a public right of way. Anyone know?

The chain that blocks the public way at the end of Story St.

In the best piece of legislation and good government I've ever heard come before city council, John Ronan  proposed an ordinance that would require a specific vote for any tax increase to pass. He explained that under the current system, by passing the budget annually the council in fact raises the property tax burden by 2.5% every year, without actually ever voting on the tax increase specifically. His legislation would require a specific, role call vote to institute such an increase, rather than allowing it to be just assumed into existence through the budget planning process. Kudos to councilor Ronan. I want to move to his ward. I encourage all of you to write or call your ward councilor, as well as all of the at-large councilors and encourage them to support this proposal. It has been referred to the committee on Ordinances, Licenses, and Legal Affairs for consideration. Let's hope our councilors don't act in a cowardly manner and allow it to die there.

Councilor Sosnowski made a motion to form a committee to meet and discuss the city purchasing Salem Harbor Station, converting it to a gas fired plant, and connecting to the LNG pipeline that passes underwater about a mile off the coast. It may have been the silliest idea I've heard at council. His premise is that the city could finance the purchase, finance the LNG connection, finance the retrofitting of the plant, employ the employees, and turn a bigger profit as an electricity provider after paying all the debt service than we currently reap in taxes. The concept is a little insane. Sosnowski looks at the 150 or so employees and says, well, we can add them to the payroll no problem. It's not just them. The city should get into this highly, hyper-regulated field with no expertise? Seriously? How many off-site employees support this plant? How many lawyers are on the payroll off-site to deal with the regulated energy markets? I frequently think that Councilor Sosnowski has no clue. This concept proved it. Councilor McCarthy, who chairs Administration and Finance, practically said so when he agreed to accept it into his committee, but made clear that he'd be leaving it there for a good while. There is already a reuse committee in town. Dominion operates 4 other power plants in the state. How much are they going to charge someone to buy the plant if they are going to become competition? The plant is assessed at over 27 million dollars. Make them an offer, but please not with our money. Please watch this on the replay, and pay attention to how simple he makes it sound to purchase this plant, hook it up to an underwater pipe, and let the cash roll in. It was comical.

In contrast, it appears that the reuse group is taking a grounded, measured, realistic approach to that dilemma, which I'll write more about in the next few days. Lots to consider there.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Sense prevails

I wrote previously about School Committee member James Fleming's request to rename the Witchcraft Heights Elementary School after former City Councilor Leonard O'Leary. I've been critical of Fleming for this move, as well as his frequent absences, but tonight I give him credit. Perhaps because he read the tealeaves, perhaps because no action was taken in committee, perhaps because the public sentiment was so strong, but tonight Fleming moved to remove his renaming motion for Witchcraft Heights. Kudos to Mr. Fleming for doing the right thing.

Immediately after, he moved to name the new athletic field at that school after Mr. O'Leary, and moved that a portrait of Councilor O'Leary be hung in the lobby of that school. Some will say that Fleming caved here. I prefer to say that he listened to the very valid reasons why people didn't want to change the name of the school, and a good compromise was reached. Renaming the field isn't a done deal, it needs multiple approvals, but it sounds like there is a strong consensus for the move. See the video below. (Ignore the crying baby, and no, that's not a Fleming joke.)

Test the damn parks!

In the past year, Salem has tested soil at two of its parks. They've both come up contaminated and been closed. Last June, Furlong Park, along the North River, was found to be contaminated with lead and other chemicals and has been fenced off ever since. Just this past week testing was performed at McGrath Park, and the lower fields there have now been closed as well. The culprits this time, lead again, and cadmium, which can cause chronic kidney disease, even at low exposure levels, and can even be fatal. It sound like Furlong Park may reopen in the next month or so, ending its closure at about a year. The prognosis for McGrath is less clear, as the problem has just been discovered and it will likely be a long time before those fields are reopened.

My question is this. Why aren't we testing most or all of our parks at this point? Doug Bollen said last week that there were no plans to test any of the other parks. This Salem Patch piece confirms, right from the mayor's mouth, that no other parks will be tested. This seems like a foolhardy choice, when two parks on opposite sides of the city have both been found to be contaminated with lead. The city claims that it would be too expensive, but that's a little hard to swallow when sending 300k to this consultant, or 900k to that one doesn't cause the city to bat an eyelash. How much can 30 soil sample tests cost? I thought I'd look. It appears that soil sample testing can be done at UMass Amherst for as little as $9 per sample, or $270 for all of the remaining parks. I'm sure the city could raise that money if it wanted to. Heck, I'm offering to cover a third of it right now! That's right, get a soil sample from each park and I'll pay for 10 of the $9 tests. Who is with me?

At that point, "we can't afford to test" sounds like a really, really lame excuse. Isn't it much more likely that the truth is closer to "we can't afford to know?" I asked the mayor, along with my Twitter buddy @LizPW why we wouldn't test, but she didn't answer. (To be fair, frequently she does.) If it truly is that we don't want to know, that's really shameful, and won't help anyone's conscience if a kid gets sick from our parks. If the $270 is really too much to swallow, take my $90, look at the prior uses of the parks, and test the ten that are most likely to have contamination issues. Clearly some have much higher likelihoods of problems based on those past uses. The teachers unions frequently like to tell us that "it's for the children" when they have their hands out. This time, it really is. Make sure our kids are safe in our parks. Who wouldn't support that?

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Superintendent Cameron moving on, out

Dr. Cameron's snazzy ties will be missed

Though he keeps refusing to confirm it, and won't return phone calls seeking comment, it appears that Salem Schools Superintendent Dr. William Cameron is returning to the western part of the state to take a superintendent job out there in a district with less than half the students of Salem's, probably with fewer headaches. It will likely make his family life easier, and may even help him add to his high 3 pension years. He originally came to us from western Mass (Pittsfield), where he was an assistant superintendent.

Dr. Cameron signed a three year contract less than a year ago. In doing so, he increased his salary by roughly 13%, and got himself a 2% annual raise each following year. A few questions come to mind.

1. What happened to a three year contract equaling 3 years of work?

2. Are there any penalties for Dr. Cameron failing to honor the contract? Does he forfeit unused rollover sick or vacation time, or does he get them as a bonus when he goes back west? Any other financial penalties?

3. Could the city have walked away as easily as Dr. Cameron if they decided they wanted to end the relationship less than a year into the contract? Somehow I'm betting not.

3. When the new contract was signed, school committee member Kevin Carr said the following, "It's good to know Dr. Cameron will be here the next three years at least." Does he feel stupid today?

4 According to Salem Patch, committee member James Fleming stated that Dr. Cameron has handled this honorably. Really? He's either failing to honor his contract, or his contract was terribly written to provide Dr. Cameron with plenty of protection, and the city with little to none. The honorable thing to do would be to honor his contract.

I don't doubt that Dr. Cameron has very good reasons for wanting to move back to the western part of the state. I don't begrudge him that at all. It also seems like he's done a decent job here, and will be missed. I do think that the city needs to consider what just happened, as well as what it costs to execute a superintendent search, and what it costs to negotiate, review, and execute an employment contract for a job like this. When negotiating the next contract, they need to remember that their job isn't to protect the financial interests of the candidate, but to do so for the taxpayer. Clearly, if Dr. Cameron is able to walk away this easily so early in this deal, those interests weren't protected enough.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Salem Patch heading down the toilet?

I've been very clear that I believe that Salem Patch has provided a very valuable service since they came to down. You can argue that they've provided better local news coverage than either local print paper. They've been on top of City Council happenings, School Committee meetings, and events like the Washington Square Fire. How do they do this? A staff of freelancers under the direction of Local Editor Aubry Bracco. They are up against full time reporters, and often beat them to press with important news. I'd argue that they might be a little more impartial than our friends publishing from Beverly, where the publisher is rumored to be best buds with the mayor of Salem.

But might that all change? This past week, editor Aubry Bracco published this. Salem Patch will be making room for bloggers on the site. That sounds OK, right? Why not add some more voices? The question, though, is whether or not the goal is to "add" voices, or if it's to replace the paid freelancers providing solid news coverage with unpaid bloggers. (No, Aubry hasn't hit me up to write a blog yet. Hint to Aubry, my email address is to the right ----->.) I hope that this isn't the truth, but signs point to this being the new direction. It would be unfortunate, as the news value, which is where Salem Patch has a ton of value as far as I'm concerned, would be lost. Why do I think this is the plan? A few weeks ago I read this article. Arianna Huffington was intending to go against the Huffington Post model and add more PAID full-time reporters, and reduce freelance spend. Sounded great to me. More news! The North Shore would have to warrant at least one, if not more, full time reporter. (I've enjoyed John Zorabedian's work, even if he can't figure out who I am. My wife says I have a twitter crush on him. No, he doesn't know I'm writing this post.)

Unfortunately, I think that this has changed, and from the sound of it the "free content" Huffington Post model may be coming to Patch. Read this article. Then read this one.  The second one sounds more spot on to me. Less freelancers, more free writers. More keeping revenues at corporate. Sounds like a duplication of the HuffPo model, where most content doesn't cost AOL a dime. My favorite sentence was this, "It’s very important that Patch bloggers are not paid — in order to maintain their independence, according to New Lenox Patch editor Michael Sewall." LOL! If the bloggers aren't assigned any stories, and write what they want, how is their independence in question? Nice justification for millionaires asking for free work.

My big problem is that Patch has a ton of value as a news source. I'd hate to see them gut it, but it sounds like where they're heading, especially with slashed freelance budgets. Too bad, Patch. You coulda been great, at least in Salem. Please keep providing strong news content, and I won't even complain that you haven't asked me to write. (BTW, how vanilla will these blogs be?)