Editorials from around New England
Editorials from around New England:
The Burlington Free Press, Feb. 9
The reports of racist incidents targeting black staff members at the Vermont Psychiatric Care Hospital should concern anyone who cares about equity and justice, and the idea that people ought to behave decently toward one another.
No one deserves to be subjected to, as the Vermont Human Rights Commission found, “offensive jokes, slurs, epithets, name calling, insults and put-downs” that were “severe and pervasive enough to create a hostile, offensive and abusive work environment.”
But this also is a story about how a pattern of racism may be difficult to see for those who are not on the receiving end, and how the accumulation of what to some might seem minor incidents can build over months, years or a lifetime to create a hostile environment.
While the case is specific to Ismina Francois, an African-American mental health specialist at the state psychiatric hospital in Berlin, the report includes racist comments and actions suffered by other black hospital staff members over several years.
Also at issue is how supervisors and administrators responded to concerns raised by Francois and others.
In an investigative report dated Jan. 25, the Vermont Human Rights Commission determined “there are reasonable grounds to believe that the Department of Mental Health discriminated against Ismina Francois on the basis of her race and color.”
The mission of the human rights commission, a state agency, is to protect “people from unlawful discrimination in housing, state government employment, and public accommodations.”
The 25-bed Vermont Psychiatric Care Hospital opened in 2014 as a replacement for the state hospital in Waterbury that was forced to close after Tropical Storm.
The Human Rights Commission report states, “The Vermont Psychiatric Care Hospital failed to follow up on several complaints of discrimination and the State failed to see the larger more concerning climate issue at VPCH.”
The state’s Attorney General’s Office in response to the report found “no reasonable grounds to believe that the Department of Mental Health discriminated against Ismina Francois.”
Beyond the question of what laws may have been violated, the report on the psychiatric hospital offers a glimpse of the racially charged current in which many people of color in Vermont are forced to swim.
What may seem like small slights can add up to an oppressive load for the people who are always the target.
The bigger message of the psychiatric hospital case is that we all need to be better at recognizing and calling out racism.
The Concord Monitor, Feb. 9
The people of New Hampshire have a lot of issues competing for their attention these days. There are debates underway about opioid addiction, school vouchers, victims’ rights, rising property taxes, renewable energy, health care, gun control and countless other matters that are important in the day-to-day lives of Granite Staters. Nationally, a polarizing president with a knack for hijacking the news every day has proven to be exhausting for those who like to keep up with current events. One minute the national conversation is about immigration or the federal budget, and then just like that there is coast-to-coast shouting match over national anthem protests or some House committee memo.
Rarely has the news cycle felt more dizzying.
By the time people digest the stories of local, state and national concern, there is very little time for international news, unless it’s about the most recent terror attack, Russian election meddling or saber-rattling from North Korea. A lot of Americans probably are not even aware of what’s happening in Cape Town, South Africa.
After three years of drought, the city of 4 million people on the southern tip of Africa is going to run out of water within months. For now, residents are limited to 13 gallons a day, which Aryn Baker, Time’s Africa bureau chief and Cape Town resident, writes is “enough for a 90-second shower, a half-gallon of drinking water, a sinkful to hand-wash dishes or laundry, one cooked meal, two hand washings, two teeth brushings and one toilet flush.” When “Day Zero” arrives, projected for mid-May, the taps will be turned off. What happens then? The city will set up 200 water collection points where people will be allowed to pick up about 6 gallons per day. City officials planning for the seemingly imminent arrival of Day Zero must also consider risks beyond the water shortage itself, including sanitation failures, disease outbreaks and anarchy as supplies become more and more scarce.
Cape Town and Concord are separated by about 7,700 miles of ocean, and maybe that makes the water crisis too remote to hit home in any meaningful way. But Cape Town’s “once in a millennium” drought should be viewed as a harbinger of events to come. What, for example, will Los Angeles or San Diego look like if their Day Zero ever comes?
There are many factors that contributed to the crisis in Cape Town beyond the drought, such as outdated water infrastructure, and poor population planning and crisis management. And it’s not like the whole mess came out of nowhere. Baker cited this April 26, 1990, headline in the Cape Times as proof: “City will run out of water ‘in 17 years.’ ” The math may have been off, but the warning was clearly not taken as seriously as it should have been. Now 4 million people find themselves preparing for a worst-case scenario scheduled to arrive on May 11.
Cape Town’s lesson for a world living under the increasing strain of climate change is this: waiting for crises to move from the horizon to the front door before acting is an expensive and potentially catastrophic failure of government.
Sadly, that is too often the way in this short-sighted world, from Concord to Washington, D.C., to Cape Town, South Africa.
The Kennebec Journal, Feb. 9
Maine’s Freedom of Access Act isn’t really a law — it’s more of a suggestion.
While statute says that governments must fulfill requests for public records in a timely manner — so that citizens can be informed in real time of what is being done in their name and on their dime — it just isn’t built to deal with officials who have no interest in keeping the public informed.
If others have exploited this law before, the LePage administration has elevated it to an art form. In the latest example of opaque governance, Gov. Paul LePage’s office has ignored for 11 months requests by the Portland Press Herald for receipts that would show how the governor is spending public money when he travels.
The request appears to have made the rounds. An attorney in the governor’s office made the initial reply, but at some point the request was forwarded to another employee in the office. When reached nine months after the initial request, that employee said he didn’t have access to the governor’s travel records, and referred a reporter to a spokesman for the Department of Administration and Financial Affairs. When contacted later, the spokesman said he had never heard of the request.
Meanwhile, Maine State Police, which conducts security for the governor when he travels, fulfilled a similar request in 22 days.
Such flouting of the open records law is nothing new for the administration, which has regularly attempted to subvert the open records law in how they communicate internally, and how they process requests for information.
Maine law makes that easy — it says only that requests should be fulfilled within a “reasonable” time, without defining what that means, or providing much in the way of recourse short of a lawsuit.
Such a long and costly process, however, undercuts the intent of the open records law, which is meant to allow citizens to track public actions while they are happening. The media and others should be able to confirm information offered by the governor when he gives it without context or attribution during his “town halls” or radio appearances. They should be able to see who he is meeting with and why. They should be able to tell how he is spending public money.
Not next year, not in six months, but now, as it is occurring.
It is that sort of information, provided by Maine State Police, that shows LePage spent thousands of dollars at hotels connected to President Donald Trump, raising questions about whether the president is inappropriately mixing government and his personal business.
A records request also allowed the Kennebec Journal to detail how a failed fire sprinkler system at a grade school went unheeded for almost six years.
Officials who respect open government would make public information as public as possible. They would place some of it online automatically as a matter of course. The rest they would turn over when asked, “in a reasonable time,” as state law says.
Those who don’t, though, need hard deadlines and strict penalties. They need more than a law that assumes everyone will act in the public interest.
Cape Cod Times, Feb. 4
Perhaps it’s because we are exhausted from fighting Cape Wind for so long, perhaps we are tired of the specious arguments against appropriately sited offshore wind, or perhaps we are frustrated by the small minority of people who would delay or even stop a project that benefits the common good.
Whatever the reason, we are not going to oppose Vineyard Wind’s proposal to run its offshore wind cables through Lewis Bay.
Vineyard Wind, one of three wind energy developers seeking to build large wind farms 15-25 miles offshore, wants to connect cables from its wind farm to an electric substation off Oak Street in Barnstable. Developers prefer that the cables be buried 6 to 7 feet below the seafloor and routed through Lewis Bay and Yarmouth before reaching the Barnstable substation.
Yet several West Yarmouth residents who live near Lewis Bay are protesting the plans. The complaints range from the alleged disruption of scallop dredging to water degradation and potential leaks from transformer fluids at the substation.
“Lewis Bay boasts a combination of recreational boating, beaches, swimming, fishing, and both commercial and recreational shellfishing with channel access to Nantucket Sound for ferries and commercial fishing vessels,” wrote one of those opposed. “Ocean currents, channel dredging and increased ferry traffic already contribute to the rapid filling-in of Lewis Bay, limit navigable water and impact marine life.”
We doubt the laying of cables will adversely affect boating, beaches or swimming, but if state and federal regulators find that it could contribute to the filling-in of Lewis Bay, then they should require the company to dredge the area before they bury the cables. As for shellfishing, the developers should work with the local fleet to identify potential scallop beds and then work to avoid them. In other words, none of the concerns raised so far are insurmountable.
Some of the arguments against are laughable, such as electric cables may cause cancer in humans and harm marine life. So we can tolerate electric cables in the air above us, but not cables buried 6 or 7 feet in the ocean floor?
As for concerns about the potential for the contamination of drinking water if there is a leak of transformer fluids at the substation, the developer has said the company would build a system to handle any spills as part of the upgrades that would be needed at the substation.
Now let’s weigh the benefits of the wind farm to the larger community. The wind farm, which would consist of an array of turbines spaced at least eight-tenths of a mile apart south of Martha’s Vineyard, has the potential to generate up to 800 megawatts of power. That could bring power to more than 400,000 homes and businesses across the state.
Vineyard Wind is among three companies vying for state contracts to sell offshore wind power to utilities in Massachusetts. The other two projects — Bay State Wind and Revolution Wind — include plans to bring cables onshore in Somerset at the former Brayton Point coal plant. The off-Cape plant has been sold by Dynegy Inc. to Commercial Development Company Inc., which has plans to develop the property with offshore wind energy in mind. All three projects would be located 15 to 25 miles off the coast. The projects are expected to generate hundreds of jobs and boost economic development across the region.
During the state’s environmental review process, the public and other regulators provide comment on a rough sketch of a project and its effects. Vineyard Wind outlined its case in an environmental notification form, which was submitted in December. The deadline to comment on the environmental notification form is Jan. 30.
The project has already received input from numerous stakeholders over the past half-decade, including local, state and federal governments; tribes; environmentalists; and working groups from a number of fisheries.
Keep in mind that all three projects would be built in an area that’s been identified by state and federal regulators as being appropriate for offshore wind.
The sooner construction begins on these offshore wind farms, the sooner we all benefit from clean power.
The Day, Feb. 7
In his last formal address to the General Assembly, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy delivered a progressive anti-Trump manifesto that sought to move away from the topic that has dominated the discourse in Hartford for much of his two terms in office — the state’s continuing fiscal problems.
It was a reminder that Malloy is a skilled politician. His approval ratings are abysmal, no doubt, a product of having expended every bit of his political capital in trying to balance state finances weighed down by the underfunded pension obligations and mountains of debt that preceded his entry into office more than seven years ago.
At various points his policy proposals to try to restore fiscal stability have alienated taxpayers and businesses by way of big tax increases, state labor unions by repeated demands for concessions, and liberals due to reductions in social spending commitments.
But in delivering his address Wednesday, Malloy, setting aside finances, outlined how the core principles of the Democratic Party in Connecticut could prove appealing for a large segment of the electorate eager to send a message of disgust with President Donald Trump and his Republican Party.
On point after point — the treatment of immigrants, gun control, tolerance of dissent, health care, the environment, access to voting — Malloy contrasted the priorities of Connecticut, and by extension the Democratic Party that has controlled the state, with the priorities of Trump and the Republican Congress.
“We’ve been driven by Connecticut fairness,” said Malloy, who made fairness the theme of his address.
In so doing, the departing Democrat laid the groundwork for the choice he feels his party should present to voters in 2018 — Trump or us.
“We can stop the tides of prejudice and hate from washing away our progress and drowning our ideals,” he added near the speech’s conclusion. Malloy did not have to mention who was producing the “tides” he referenced.
Normally, the purpose of the even-year gubernatorial address is to outline the staid details of readjusting the second year of the state’s two-year budget plan. Malloy signaled he was up to something when, instead of waiting, he had presented the fiscal bad news two days earlier. He called then to boost cigarette, hotel, and real estate conveyance taxes; close a sales tax exemption for over-the-counter medications; reduce state aid to many municipalities and make other cuts, as the state again confronts projected deficits for this fiscal year and beyond.
On Wednesday, in focusing often on women — whom polls show rejecting Trump and Republicans policies in large numbers — Malloy received some of his loudest applause.
He called upon Connecticut to pass a bill that preserves the most vital elements of the Affordable Care Act, including the individual mandate, eliminated by the Republican Congress.
“Let’s make it clear that in Connecticut, health care is a fundamental right,” said Malloy. “We can pass a law that assures that, irrespective of what happens in Washington, birth control for Connecticut women will remain cost free.”
Indeed, given the undermining of the federal health care law, Connecticut will have to go it alone to assure access to care for its citizens. Connecticut Republicans will have to choose if they are on board.
Malloy also railed against the continuing wage gender gap, with women in Connecticut earning on average 82 cents for every dollar that a man makes. He called for salaries based on qualifications, experience and job demands — not an employee’s prior compensation — as one way to close the gap.
But his call for “a bill that helps make sure every person in Connecticut receives equal pay for equal work” raises concerns. The cause is a good one. But in trying to form a regulatory structure to assure it, the state could endanger job creation.
In contrast to President Trump, who avoided the topic in his State of Union Address, Malloy noted his support for “the legions of courageous women across our nation who have come forward to share their stories of sexual harassment.”
Malloy did not provide details, but his call to explore ways to make workplaces safe from sexual harassment, and provide protection for those who speak out and identify it, deserve bipartisan support.
The governor urged the legislature to send a constitutional amendment to the voters that would allow early voting and said his administration would research a vote-by-mail system. This newspaper has long advocated making voting more accessible and criticized Republican efforts, in other states, to put up barriers to voting.
Ironic that a departing governor has set the stage for the state’s 2018 election. It must involve a debate on fiscal policy, but also about our greater ideals in this age of Trump.
Providence Journal, Feb. 6
Rhode Island has been justly held up as a model for overhauling its state pension system to head off a fiscal crisis that would have battered taxpayers and wiped out government services
But as significant as the overhaul was, it did not put the state’s taxpayers on easy street.
The pension system for state employees and teachers still has an unfunded liability of $5.3 billion — a big improvement from where it would be if not for the 2011 overhaul, but not where it has to be.
And that plan is not the only pension fund in Rhode Island that bears watching. Also underfunded and leaving people with hefty tax bills are many of the locally managed pension plans that exist in 24 Rhode Island cities and towns.
A few of those local plans, such as Middletown’s and Jamestown’s, are in good or even great shape. But many are so drastically underfunded that they make the state system look like a picture of health.
In West Warwick, a plan for town employees is only about 20 percent funded, with an unfunded liability of more than $120 million. In Coventry, a police pension plan is just 15 percent funded, with an unfunded liability of more than $62 million. In Johnston, a now-closed plan for police officers is about 20 percent funded, with an unfunded liability of more than $64 million.
The largest local plan, in Providence, has a staggering unfunded liability of about $985 million — yes, nearly $1 billion — and is only about 25 percent funded.
Last year, state General Treasurer Seth Magaziner asked lawmakers to introduce a bill that would have paved the way for those locally managed plans to join other local plans that are part of the state-run Municipal Employees Retirement System. With few exceptions, the state system has a better record on investment returns and offers significant economies of scale in managing costs.
To make that transition easier, Mr. Magaziner’s bill would have allowed cities and towns that move their plans into the state system make changes gradually. For instance, they could have stayed with longer amortization periods, which help to reduce the annual cost to taxpayers.
But the bill, like many that should pass, was “held for further study” — the death knell for legislation that doesn’t have the support of the House speaker and Senate president. Let’s hope it is taken more seriously if introduced this year.
After all, ignoring the problem doesn’t make it go away.
Over the long haul, moving struggling local pension plans into the state system makes sense.
The change would lead to better investment returns and reduced management costs. Moreover, once a local plan is in the state system, the city or town would be required to make the annual payments that are needed to keep the plan healthy. There is no such requirement for the locally managed plans, which explains how many got into trouble in the first place.
It is a safe bet that local politicians would have been much more cautious about approving generous benefits if the costs were going to hit taxpayers in the near future, rather than years later, when someone else would have to pay for the mess.