Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Four Stories for These Times...

The US Senate Gets the Rod...

Amid a corruption scandal in which embattled Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich allegedly tried to sell President-Elect Barack Obama's Senate seat, Blagojovich, who remains, for the moment, selected former IL Attorney General Roland Burris. Democrats on the Hill fumed that Blagojevich had the nerve to appoint anybody. Although questions about Burris himself were raised, his only real crime was appearing on stage next to "Blago" when the announcement was made.

The Senate leadership originally promised not to seat Burris; however, facing mushy legal grounds not to and pressure from blacks to seat the African-American Senator-designate, the leadership relented and according to the AP, Burris will be sworn in within the next couple of weeks.

The debate about seating Burris, was unfortunately tinged from the beginning about implications of race. Needless to say, there was some desire on the part of the black community to replace Obama with another African-American. However, at Gov. Blagojevich's announcement, Representative Bobby Rush came forward and when he spoke highlighted the racial elements further. Blagojevich claimed that Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid vetoed a slate of black candidates. The story that the governor tells is almost certainly apocryphal. However, it is possible that Reid may have thought that some of those candidates and others, black and white, would have great difficulty winning a full term when Obama's seat would be up for election in 2010.

The Democrats' decision to end this circus was in no small part due to President-elect Obama's insistence to end the distraction. Although behind the scenes and probably unofficial, Obama's influence must be present. He may be feeling some level of responsibility, resigning his seat too early after the November election. With Blagojevich's arrest impending, he probably did not think the governor would have the chutzpah to actually appoint a successor. It is wrong to blame Obama for any of this, but his role, however unwitting and honest, is present.

Ironically, if there was concern about the electability of whomever replaced Obama, Burris will have a more difficult time than others securing the seat in his own right. The GOP in Illinois will be able to draw a line from a corrupt Democratic governor to the Democratic incumbent. Burris will need to work overtime to fight off 2010's impending onslaught. It will not be because he is black. This is not because Illinois is some racial utopia (it isn't). It will be because somebody somewhere in Illinois was (allegedly) grossly corrupt.

Boston's Beat: Fires in and amongst the Department...

Last Friday, a Fire Truck entering the intersection of Parker Hill Avenue and Huntington Avenue, careened out of control after its brakes failed. As the name implies, Parker Hill is sloped and lacking brakes the fire truck flew through the intersection (luckily with the light), and crashed into an apartment complex. Lt. Kevin Kelley died upon impact. This incident, in the short term, has affected how the department looks into equipment maintenance.

However, in the long-term the tragedy has played into the city's struggle with its Fire Department. Still reeling from the aftereffects of the West Roxbury fire that killed firefighters Paul Cahill and Warren Payne, the city and the Firefighters union remain at an impasse about how to proceed with drug testing after a leaked autopsy report showed the former was legally drunk and the latter had cocaine in his system. Union leadership demands concessions to permit random drug testing. Like that incident, the union brass wants a concession to relieve firefighters of the job of routine maintenance on the fire trucks.

Brake maintenance would not be performed by the firefighters because they are not licenced mechanics, however today's Globe article implies that they do take part in the inspections. Having licensed mechanics perform the inspections might have caught the defects. Still, the union insists on getting something that might have saved one of its own. Like the West Roxbury incident, this issue comes down to both public safety and firefighter safety.

The only way around the impasse on these critical issues would be for the legislature to act either by altering the rules for the City of Boston's relationship with the Fire Department directly or altering collective bargaining rules more generally excluding certain things from negotiation and allowing or mandating municipalities to act unilaterally. Given unions extreme clout, this is very unlikely. However, if incidents like this continue, other municipal unions may back reform out of their own concern for their safety. Should a civilian death be tied to a similar impasse, it will be game over.

Firefighters are indeed heroes and like police and many higher-risk public employees positions deserve representation that can put the pressure on elected officials to give them what them what is fair and well-earned. However, union leaders, often concerned more for their position and career thumb their nose at their members' employers and nobody, neither the city, nor the politicians, nor the people, nor the members, are any better for it.

Canning the Fee Out the Back Door...

Springfield's trash fee may finally be headed for the can. Or is it? The legislature in informal sessions just prior to the new legislature's swearing-in passed Springfield's relief bill. It extends the loan repayment schedule to 15 years instead of five. It also creates a chief financial and administrative officer, who will manage city finances. Although apparently under mayor control, he/she cannot be fired or appointed without approval from the Commonwealth Secretary of Finance and Administration.

Cheryl Coakley-Rivera, however, inserted a number of amendments into the bill to fulfill her own political objectives. One required residency of city employees, subject to collective bargaining. Technically, this was already the law in Springfield, but largely unenforced and usually ignored by the Control Board to get qualified people in high positions. Another called for the trash fee to be repealed by 2011.

Bizarrely, Rep. Coakley-Rivera, a lawyer by profession, made a few mistakes. According to the Republican, she called for the specific FCB order that originally established the fee rescinded. That order had been declared illegal by Judge Constance Sweeney. Once the legal mess had been cleaned up, a new order was issued and that is the enabling force behind the current fee. Additionally, nothing in the law prevents the City Council from reestablishing the fee. However doubtful that may be, it could happen if an effective pay-as-you-throw system is established.

The blogosphere trades rumors about Rep. Coakley-Rivera trying to help City Councilor Jose Tosado run for mayor. The connection seems unclear, however. The Quid Pro Quo would undoubtedly raise eyebrows, but this cannot and will not be known unless Tosado runs for mayor in the next two election cycles.

What is strange, however, is the decision by a legislator, often critical of state-imposed decisions made during the suspension of home rule, would go about using the worst of the creature theory to end it. The creature theory, for those that don't know, says that all municipal governments and activities are creations of the state and therefore ultimately subject to its whim. Moreover her sloppiness in executing her agenda does not reflect well upon a veteran legislator such as herself.

There is a wider point, too. The trash fee, however burdensome and unfair, provides extra money from properties that do not produce much revenue for the city. The point was brought up on the Valley blogosphere, probably by a commenter, and WMassP&I regrets not being able to cite it directly. Some might argue that that is unfair, but residents with higher property tax burdens and the business community might argue that paying a disproportionate of the city's expenses, year after year is also unfair.

Informed at Last...

Governor Deval Patrick, by the power vested in him by the legislature, opted to place the Commonwealth's Backup Data Center at the city's abandoned Tech High School. The site has lain dormant since closing in 1986. A battle of sorts had been raging for the better part of two years between a camp led by Cong. Richard Neal and State Rep Thomas Petrolati D-Ludlow. Petrolati wanted it at STCC's technology park, ostensibly because it would be cheaper than renovating Tech.

However, STCC did not offer the same level of security for the sensitive information that would be stored there. Moreover, the city wanted to renovat--at long last--the eyesore of a property. Petrolati's insistence threatened the project's location in Springfield. Motives became even more suspicious when the legislature gave Gov. Patrick the power to place the project--anywhere in Western Mass's four counties. What places might it have been other than in Springfield?

Luckily this story has a happy ending for Springfield. The money is already available and design will begin immediately. Cong. Neal wanted Tech renovated, not only out nostalgia for the high school that graduated him, but to compliment the new Federal Courthouse. An influx of workers to the area might spur some new development in the area. Hopefully, this will compliment rather than compete with the rest of downtown. Perhaps of most interest will be some redevelopment of some of the housing in the area geared toward court and data center employees and lawyers. One step at a time, however.

*Photo from Relief Bill Signing from Springfield Intruder, Tech photo from Urban Compass
**Additional information from both Springfield stories from articles on both Springfield Intruder and Urban Compass.

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