Thursday, July 30, 2009

Changes at Home

Changes are coming to my very home!  For the past several years, the Housing Authority has been trying to get funding for a new, second elevator for my building.  The original elevator is breaking down.  If a second elevator could not be installed and the original elevator needed to be replaced, the whole building would be uninhabitable, so I was told by the executive director when she came here for a tenant meeting.

I have mixed feelings:  The renovation will take away two of my living room windows. and move two others.  One doesn’t miss natural lighting until one doesn’t have it anymore.

There’s no possibility of stopping this or depriving my neighbors of an elevator, but I think I’ll miss my windows.

I’ll be chronicling this project on Flickr.

Courthouse View is Developing

The framework of the new courthouse is all but complete.  I’d been wondering for a few years just what it would look like from my angle;  the closest neighbors are on the other side of the building, which has gotten the most controversy.

Compare with this view a few years ago:

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Salem Commission on Disablities: Unofficial Minutes for July 21st, 2009

Salem Council On Aging 2009-07-20 011

The July meeting of the Salem Commission on Disabilities came to order at 4:10 PM.  In attendance:  Jack Harris, chair, David Martel, Michael Taylor, Charlie Reardon, co-chair, David Moisan, Jean Harris, Debra Lobsitz and David Tracht.

Andy LaPointe’s mother passed away, so he wasn’t present.  Jean Levesque was not present.

New Business:  Jack Harris:  Agendas will now be posted on the city’s website.

There were two site visits this month:  4 First St., Apt. 702, was the first.  We’d gotten a call from a gentleman about a curb cut.  There is a HP spot with an access aisle, but there’s no curb cut.  Tom St. Pierre came out with us to the site and verified that there was a problem there.  The tenant had tried to get this resolved himself but was unable to.  It seems like a simple fix for the landlord to do.  We will monitor this.

19 Cushing St., in North Salem.   Four trees were planted which encroach on the sidewalk and impede wheelchair travel.  I was sent an email on this which I will forward to Jason Silva.  I visited with Jean Levesque and Rick Rennard and verified the situation there.  The developers were to put brick pavers down at the sidewalk but nothing yet.

People are making us aware of these situations and we work with the developers each time.

Fourth of July:  We [Jack and his family] were there.  Charlie and I had an idea that we put forth with Jason and Ellen [Talkowski].  On the lawn where people sit for the concert, there should be a path set out so that people with wheelchairs and people with carts can pass.  Jason suggested putting in a special section for people in wheelchairs, but I thought this would be a better solution for the crowd in general.

David Martel:  It was a very nice, but very crowded concert.

Jack Harris:  The only downside is, I have two girls in wheelchairs and it was a nightmare getting them out of there.  People were disregarding our presence.  I’m wondering if the Commission can do something to educate people.

David Moisan:  Wise ass suggestion:  Why not use flashlights?  I used mine to shine a clear area in front of me and people followed the light.

Jack Harris:  We did have flashlights!

Jean Harris:  People may not know what the path is for.

Charlie Reardon & David Martel:  It gives them a boundary.  Whether they respect it or not…

Jean Harris:  Volunteers could set this up.

Charlie:  People would appreciate the path since they could go to the restroom [at the National Park Service center] and get something to eat at a vendor without much hassle.

Jack Harris:  I talked to Ellen about the porta-potties;  none of them were the accessible type.  She told me, when the city rents porta-potties, the accessible ones are twice as expensive to rent as regular ones.  The accessible potties “fill up” faster and need more frequent service.

Charlie Reardon:  Haunted Happenings does have these.

Jack Harris:  Yes they do, Ellen does get several to put around the city.  I’m saying to myself, “who’s making the money?”  We have to talk with the rental firms or manufacturers to find out why this is.

David Tracht:  Ellen who?

Dave M. & Jack:  Ellen Talkowski, director of special projects for the city.

David Tracht:  Does Ellen or the city promote itself to disabled people?

Jack:  I don’t know for sure, but I’ve seen more and more disabled people in the streets of Salem.

I talked with Jeff Dugan, one of the deputy directors of the Mass. Office of Disability.  They had a real problem with disability seating at the Hatch Shell;  at the recent July Fourth, the event organizers had a special section for disability seating but were telling people there they couldn’t leave the event until everyone else had gone.

David Martel:  I’d been to several summer concerts at the Hatch Shell and noticed the disabled seating.

David Moisan:  Two new business items.  1)  I read about the MBTA cuts, and the Salem News is treating this like a new, disconnected item even though this has been coming for some time.

For our viewing audience:  The MBTA will discontinue commuter rail after 7 PM weekdays and no service on weekends which is a very big deal as we depend on the tourist traffic and people coming home late.

No bus service out of Lynn on weekends.  Of concern to disabled people is that the 465 and 451 buses would be eliminated.  The RIDE would be eliminated in Peabody and Beverly.  There are big medical complexes in Peabody, Beverly and Danvers;  Lahey Clinic by the Northshore Mall.  Of all my doctors ,only one is in Salem;  everyone else is in Peabody.

The T has a public workshop planned for August 17th, 6 to 8 PM at 120 Washington St. to discuss these cuts.

My other item, also transportation-related, concerns Bridge St.  The 75% design meeting for the Bridge St. reconstruction is also on August 17th, 7 PM at the Carlton School.  I can’t cover both these meetings for TV so if someone can come to the Bridge St. meeting I would appreciate it.

I want to see audible talking signals on Bridge St. just as we have on North St.  The presentation materials will hopefully be online at

Charlie Reardon:  I’ll be at that meeting.  I was at the first meeting for the Marlborough Road reconstruction project, and for the final meeting.  They reassured us there would be access to wheelchairs, but we found poles in the sidewalk blocking access.

David Martel:  Leggs Hill Road YMCA road.  The sidewalks are incomplete.   Jack:   The Salem planning department is on top of things, or so they tell me.

Charlie Reardon:  One cannot go up the hill in the winter in a wheelchair, it’s too steep.

Jack Harris:  There are 90 spaces at that lot.  I’m thrilled that the facility is being used, but it seems to be overflowing.  We are keeping an eye on that as always.

My last new item:  We were to have a guest from Massachusetts MENTOR this month, but he couldn’t attend.  Massachusetts MENTOR is a program that provides specialized support—the Shared Living Program—to severely disabled individuals who need a kind of “foster care”.  I don’t know much about the agency;  they are not only based here but also in many other states.  I’ve passed a letter around to the commissioners.

Mike Taylor:  This program is for those severely disabled people who cannot be completely independent.  It’s a good program.

Jack:  It’s a population we don’t hear much about.  I will try to get them here in September or October.

AAB Update:  I don’t know if this had made the paper, but the St. Jean’s house, the “sober house”, has submitted a new variance request to the AAB.  As I understand it, the court ruled that the owner of the property could no longer be involved with the development of this property.  There’s a new name attached to the variance request;  I talked to Tom St. Pierre and he asked us what to do and I suggested to Tom Watkins and the AAB that there should be a hearing on this.   The AAB did agree with our suggestion of a meeting on the 27th at 1 Ashburton Place in Boston.  We’ll see what happens.  There are some who feel the project should go forward but at the same time it should be compliant under the AAB.

We should have more information very quickly.

Charlie Reardon:  $3 million dollars of stimulus, was put forth recently for disability-related spending and granted to the Salem schools.

Jack Harris:  This is a very wide range, from intervention in regular classrooms all the way up to out-of-district schooling.   People want to compartmentalize one part of special ed against the other.

A lot of money comes from the federal government and not from the city’s school budget.

Remember that every parent can ask for special education.

Charlie Reardon:  Unfortunately for us, Salem’s special ed is regarded as better than a lot of neighboring communities so people come to us.   Jean Levesque has been talking about this for years.

David Martel:  That’s bad when parents from other communities register their children under a false address.

Jack:  There is a committee that’s trying to find out why there are so many Salem students in special ed;  nothing reported yet.  People are also trying to get kids back in the district and reducing the number of out-of-district placements.

On to Old Business.

Jack:  All of you hopefully received the email from David Moisan about the city’s Sunshine Ordinance.  I was very impressed by David’s letter.  I passed this on to Jason Silva and Tom Watkins.

I think this bill needs to go forward and I was talking with some commissioners before the meeting today about how Walter Cronkite was trusted and credible to all.   The sunshine ordinance isn’t just about getting the facts out, it’s about building trust.

There’s another meeting coming up.  Dave, do you know?

Dave Moisan:  It was a long meeting.  A three hour meeting.  The committee was not expecting the neighborhood associations to show up.  Everybody showed up.  Teasie Goggin showed up.  It was a tough meeting because they had to go through each of the proposed changes.  I did bring up a technical point:  Did the notification of meetings had to be by email?  I just know that sooner or later, someone’s going to ask why the mayor isn’t on Twitter.

Jerry Ryan asked me a question about SATV at the meeting:  Does SATV put City Council meetings on the web?  No, we don’t have the resources.  This has been a sticking point.  Sal [SATV’s Executive Director] and I have been talking about this.

Half of me thinks it’s a great idea.  The other half thinks, why is SATV having to pay for it?  The city’s web host has a video division for hosting government meetings.

Jack Harris:  I had a conversation with Tom Watkins about the agenda.  I asked him:  What is the ability to put our meetings on the website?  Answer:  Not right now;  there’s more cost involved.  I told him:  It’s good to have written minutes up there, but for the blind, it’s not much use.

The Commission has been trying to come up with an alternate solution.  Whether it’s putting more money into Virtual Town Hall [Salem’s provider] or SATV.  Tom told me there’s a committee meeting on this in the near future.  I suggested having a representative from the Commission;  that is not really a suggestion.  We could be in trouble if someone needs audio and we don’t have it.  Dave, how feasible is it?

Dave Moisan:  I am personally conflicted:  I gladly gave my time to the Commission, but I am not getting support from the City.  Someone could ask:  What about archives?  The archives are in my possession but the city needs to take custody of them. 

Jason Silva doesn’t seem to be interested and Cheryl’s department [the City Clerk’s office] is overworked.  I was told an anecdote at the meeting:  Certain meeting minutes are taking 18 months to be completed.  I think the City Clerk’s office is scared of this, with good reason.

Jack Harris:  Why we were not represented at the [website] committee, I’m not sure.  We are ahead of the city in this.  We can’t make the technical decisions for them but we can push them.  I want to let Dave know he had a very good response and I appreciated his letter.

On to Outdoor seating.  I’m passing around a letter Mayor Driscoll wrote to Ken Bonnachi.  Ken was concerned about Tavern in the Square and their proposal to have outdoor seating at Derby & Washington. 

I haven’t seen specific plans about how this is supposed to work.  As some of you may know, there was a concern about their open dining area and whether it allowed flies in.  The restaurant has since taken measures for this.

Charlie Reardon:  Does the restaurant have to pay for using city property?  What happens if someone sues?

David Moisan:  Two restaurants in that chain are in Cambridge.  They pay the city.

Jack Harris:  Also at that restaurant, the steps into the entrance that people have been concerned about have been marked, and they are planning to remove the steps completely.

Our successes are small, but they are real nonetheless.

Jack Harris:  I passed around another letter from Sail Salem.  They tried to get a grant last year but weren’t able to.  This letter goes into the reasons why they didn’t get it. 

Puleo’s Ice Cream:  They moved into the old Comcast office.  There’s no access to wheelchairs from the front.  There may or may not be access from the back entrance, nobody’s checked.

Jack Harris:  They didn’t make major renovations.

David Moisan:  My first thought;  they didn’t tip the requirements [30% cost of renovation requires accessibility to current ADA code.])

Jack Harris:  Sail Salem had their open house recently.  I already know how to sail so…I want to get Andy there!

Jack:  The Peabody St. Playground construction has restarted again after asbestos removal.  This includes the harborwalk the city is building.  Also:  Beverly is redoing their harbor near the bridge.  There is a connection to a similar project in Salem at the foot of the old bridge.

We do not meet in August.

Heritage Days is coming up.  Lots of neat events, including a road race. 

A complaint about the new women’s bathroom at the Willows:  The toilet paper roll is too far away from the toilet.  Can someone volunteer to check this out?

Jean Harris:  Volunteered!

Jack:  Andy and Jean should be back by then.

Next meeting is September 15th, 2009, 4 PM.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Transit for the Disabled Endangered by Cuts

Salem Council On Aging 2009-07-20 016

The Salem News has finally caught on to the service cuts the MBTA proposed a few weeks ago.   This time, they’re focusing on cuts to The RIDE, the T’s paratransit service for people with disabilities.

The T would eliminate van service in Peabody, Beverly, Danvers, Wenham, Topsfield and Middleton.

This affects service to these communities, as well as from, so disabled riders in Salem aren’t in the clear.  Especially since Danvers and Peabody are big shopping, employment and medical areas.

One woman in Beverly is already affected by lack of van service.  Lois Gallo is a clinical social worker at Cummings Center.   She has The RIDE in Beverly, but wants to move to Ipswich.  Ipswich, as the result of a decision made years ago, is not in the MBTA system but is served by CATA (Cape Ann Transportation Authority).  CATA does not run van service to Ipswich.

I would note that under the proposed cuts, Ms. Gallo would not have van service at all.

Without the MBTA to run vans, service would either come from chair car services, which are very expensive for individuals, or from communities that run their own service for the elderly, as Salem, Peabody and surrounding communities do.

Governing Magazine recently ran an article, “The Costliest Ride” about paratransit services.

In Sioux Falls, South Dakota, a city of just over 150,000 people, almost half of the annual public transit budget doesn’t go for buses, or trolleys, or any newfangled light-rail system. It goes for vans—to provide mobility to disabled people who can’t use the regular vehicles. These riders receive curbside service outside their homes, and are dropped off at their destination of choice, at a cost to Sioux Falls of $25.61 per trip. Every sizable city has some version of this program. It’s called paratransit.

And it’s a piece of the public transportation puzzle that’s often forgotten—by everyone except transit agencies and those who depend on the service. The agencies can’t ignore paratransit because they’re legally obliged to provide it under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. But it’s hugely expensive. Sioux Falls’ cost per trip is actually lower than most—a one-way ride for a single disabled person costs more than $30 in many places. While most big cities don’t spend as much proportionately as Sioux Falls, it’s common for a transit agency to devote 10 percent or more of its operating budget to paratransit. And the fares normally cover less than 10 percent of the costs.

It’s a necessary service, but a very expensive one for cities and towns to provide.  This is why I’ve been so insistent that our new senior center be on a bus line and accessible to public transit, whether was at the old St. Joseph’s Church or at the Boston St. site.  Despite our best intentions, it’s an expensive service.  When I went to the Council on Aging earlier this afternoon to take the picture that leads this blog, all five of their vans were parked.  I can only assume we can’t afford to keep them moving at all times, what with drivers, gas and the many other expenses that come with a vehicle fleet.

If the MBTA takes themselves out of the picture due to budget cuts, the cities and towns could not possibly pick up the slack, and our vans won’t be running any more often than they do now..

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Testimony on Salem’s Sunshine Ordinance

As I mentioned in an earlier post, Jerry Ryan asked me to describe what, if anything, SATV has done to bring City Council meetings online.  My response is in the video.

Videos in Massachusetts: No Kids Allowed?

The Salem News alerts us to a bill recently filed by a state senator that could keep images like the one I took of the 2007 Haunted Happenings Parade above, off this website and virtually anywhere else.

Quoting the News:

You'll see that reality reflected in the pages of The Salem News. Open the paper any day of the week and you'll see photos of local kids — playing sports, taking part in school plays or community projects, or having fun.

It's something you'll find in most community newspapers, but a nanny-state law being pushed by a Newton senator would effectively end all that.

A bill filed by Sen. Cynthia Creem would make it illegal for newspapers, TV stations, Web sites or anyone else for that matter to show images of identified kids under 18 without the express written consent of a parent or guardian. If they do happen to show such an image, they face stiff civil penalties.

As the News points out, it’s a bad idea with a lot of unpleasant and expensive implications.

SATV could not broadcast the Haunted Happenings Parade, which features many of Salem’s schoolchildren plus innumerable numbers of kids and parents who throng the sidewalks along the route in their costumes.

With the demise of the Heritage Days Parade, this is virtually the only large celebration in Salem that is done for its citizens, and its children.  SATV’s webcast is watched by expat Salemmites and Halloween celebrants worldwide.

Not only that, the hosts of the telecast often point out interesting costumes and ask small children who they’re dressing up as and what do they think of the parade.  People watch the reruns afterwards and say, “Hey, Melissa, I saw you on TV!”

When I took that picture above, I was in a trolley on the route with my friend Leo Jodoin.  I had no idea who those kids were or even where their parents were.

No way could I have posted that image if the proposed law were in effect and no way could SATV have broadcast the event.

I couldn’t have taken this picture, either:

I’m not a bit sorry for this one;  it was a great shot!  It portrays my favorite statue in Salem, and the girl sitting on Samantha’s broom with her gives it, and Salem, real exuberance and energy.

Pedophile hysteria—which has undoubtedly spurred Ms. Creem to file her bill—has made me think of an old meme I heard when I was growing up.

In this meme, African explorers would go in the jungle, find tribesmen, take out their cameras, and get themselves speared. 

It seemed, according to the myth, that the tribesmen were afraid of the camera:  It would steal their souls.

That’s no myth.

That is our fear.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Outside Dining and Sidewalk Access

 Tavern in the Square

Tavern in the Square, the new restaurant that opened on the site of the old Salem News, wants to have outdoor dining at the corner of New Derby & Washington St. near the bus stop. 

This draws our interest at the Commission on Disabilities, since we are concerned about sidewalk access and what we call “path of travel”.

We’ll notice this come October.

I have no position on whether Tavern in the Square should be permitted outside seating, but I’ve been concerned about other outside seating.  Most notably, Rockafellas takes up a good chunk of Washington St., and I have had trouble getting by there in crowds.

Another serious bottleneck in the past has been Cilantro, which at one time had a seating area on Liberty St. (the “Haunted Alley”) which was virtually impassable anytime in October.  (The seating is no longer there.)

The Front Street Coffeehouse has a small seating area;  unfortunately, Front St. has a small sidewalk.

Tavern in the Square was already mentioned at one of our meetings.  Jack Harris heard from one person who claimed their entrance was poorly lit and marked for the visually impaired.  I’ll probably have lunch there sometime to see, or not see, for myself.

No doubt we’ll be bringing this up at the next meeting.

More on Salem’s Transparency

Salem City Hall plaque

Last night, as I mentioned before, there was a meeting of the City Council’s Subcommittee on Ordinances, Licenses and Legal Affairs, on their proposed changes to Salem’s Sunshine Ordinance.

I was at the meeting, but instead of the long speech in defense of transparency I’d expected to make, I was reminded of just how hard it is to expose the city’s proceedings to the public, both for the logistics and for the constant balancing that has to be done between all the interests involved. 

During the meeting, the subject of SATV came up, and I was asked what SATV was doing to make public meetings available on line (not just over the air.)

The unfortunate answer:  We aren’t doing it right now.  We haven’t been able to get the money and the resources together.

Few realize just how expensive it is to provide storage and bandwidth for meetings.  The questions come in a flood:  How many meetings?  How many years of meetings?  Which meetings?  Low-res or high-res?  Bitrate?  How many people would watch?  How do we get a transcript?  Do we store audio, too? 

The IT staff of SATV is one person.  The IT staff of the city (Joanne Rust’s) department is four, or was when I worked there over 25 years ago.

OK, that means we buy a service.  Last year, Mrs. Rust herself came to SATV with a idea of using the city’s web provider, Virtual Town Hall, LLC.  I liked the idea but it didn’t go anywhere at the time.  Budget concerns.


I’ve recorded meetings of the Salem Commission on Disabilities for 10 years.  That much I’ve said, on numerous occasions.  But I’ve not told the blog exactly how I do it.  This is how a meeting goes for me, in addition to the normal business I have as a commission member.

I take out the camera, a personal hard drive, audio mixer, microphone, and our Firestore, a device that records to a hard drive from a camera, and setup at SATV’s conference room, where we meet.  Fortunately, it’s only down the hall.

I run over to Dunk’s to get a coffee, start the Firestore recording and we begin a meeting which is usually 90 minutes long, most months.  (If we have a guest, it can be 2 hours.)

Then I pack up.  I take the Firestore and my hard drive over to one of our Macs and prepare the meeting for air.  The video is edited only to add titles and a graphic and to remove extraneous video I might have before and after the meeting itself.  (Andy LaPointe wanted us to have theme music for our meetings.  And we do.)

During the production process, there are numerous waits for the video to be encoded or graphics to be completed, so it can take some time.  After waiting, the video is burned to a DVD and also transferred to SATV’s video server through our internal network.  At the same time, I make an MP3 copy of the meeting audio.

That process takes me at least two hours and sometimes three.

When I get home, I’m not done.  I volunteered to do the minutes.  I don’t have fun doing it, due to my hearing impairment, but I volunteered or it wouldn’t get done.  I use DVD playing software on my PC and transcribe it to my blog, posting an unofficial copy.  A copy is saved to Word and forwarded to Andy LaPointe, who reviews it and sends it to Tom Watkins, who posts it on

That can be a three or four hour process, which I never do the night of the meeting;  it’s too much, especially if I want to do it right.  I try to get the minutes out 5-7 days after the meeting.

The DVD’s are stored at my house and the audio files are stored on a server I maintain at home. 

Yes, you heard me right.

The physical DVD’s should be stored at City Hall or wherever is deemed safe (Joanne Rust would know).  But I’ve been doing this as a personal project for the 10 years and have had minimal city support other than what the Commission gives me.

Fortunately, the costs of recording video have dramatically dropped so that it costs me very little.

I’ve avoided asking for budget items out of the Commission’s budget because it is very small and what we do get often needs to be put to use for more important uses (such as Andy needing a piece of Braille equipment to conduct his business as a member.)

This is the story of the city’s transparency effort writ small.  The City Clerk’s office runs behind on minutes (18 months behind on some meetings) because they are short of staff.  We should not be surprised that the subcommittee wanted to lengthen the deadline for submitting minutes.

“Work more with Less”, people say.  “Union hacks!” say others.  But if you haven’t got the people or the money—remember, government is bad, starve it!—little wonder that the city can’t meet the terms of the ordinance it now has.

From the tone of last night, I thought the city was trying to keep up with the Internet (I’m surprised no one’s asked the mayor to be on Twitter!) but falling behind for lack of people and money. 

Web 2.0 does not write itself and this great transparent world promised to us will not happen.  It may take time, people and that scary prospect, money, to fulfill itself. 

MBTA Cuts and Fare Hikes

455W at North St

As many of us expected, the MBTA has proposed a 20% fare hike in return for not cutting service.  Otherwise, the MBTA will drastically reduce service to Salem and elsewhere.  I’ve been dreading this possibility for some time. 

From the MBTA’s booklet, and No Free Transfer, the details for Salem.

Bus Service:  These routes would be eliminated:

  • 451 Salem-North Beverly
  • 459 Salem-Downtown Crossing
  • 465 Salem-Liberty Tree Mall (and all routes in and out of Peabody)

These routes would be changed:

  • 450 Salem-Haymarket via Western Ave.
  • 455 Salem-Haymarket via Loring Ave.

No details were given.  (My guess:  Service cut back to Wonderland, as on the weekends, but with increased waits for a bus.)

Bus service would be reduced after 8:00 on weekends.  Service from Lynn garage (where Salem routes originate) would be discontinued on weekends, implying no service.

Private bus service subsidies would be eliminated:

  • Beverly
  • Peabody (shuttle service to Centennial Park from Salem)

Commuter Rail:

  • No service after 7:00 PM weekdays
  • No service at all on weekends

Commuter Boat service will be eliminated.  No details how this would affect the Salem Ferry’s new commuter pass program.


  • Beverly and Peabody would no longer have RIDE service.

It should be an understatement to say this would be very bad for Salem.  If we accept the cuts, where would it stop?  The Driscoll administration (and I) wants a new Salem Depot.  If we lose most of our service, where would the justification come from for this (so far) $30 million project?

I’m particularly upset (though not surprised) over the prospect of losing the 465.  It has been a bus route for decades, having been run by the Eastern Mass. Street Railway, Michaud Bus, ABC bus and the MBTA.  It’s how seniors without cars get to the senior center in Peabody, and how they would get to Salem’s proposed senior center.

Several of my physicians are in the medical offices behind the Northshore Mall.  I and others would have no way to get to them without a car!  I can hear people say, “well, you shouldn’t be out shopping anyway!” since the route has served both shopping malls in Peabody, but doctor appointments, well…

In the past, the T has never cancelled a fare hike.  It came several years ago when the T introduced its CharlieCard, and I’m not expecting anything different.

All of the outrage over fares is too familiar.  As is my cynicism over people who tell T riders to pay their own way while they clamor for road projects on the state’s dime.  Gas tax?  Nope.

It’s not true, as some think, that “the poor” or those on “fixed incomes” get a break on fares.  Some people with disabilities can get a discount, as can seniors.  But virtually everyone else who cannot afford a car pays the full rate.

Public hearings and “workshops” are set.  One is in Salem:

Monday, August 17
City Hall Annex, Room 313
120 Washington Street, 3rd floor
6:00-8:00 PM

The main public hearing is in Boston:

Thursday, August 27
State Transportation Building
10 Park Plaza
5:30-7:30 PM

Specific details on the fare hikes. 

UPDATE:  Disabled riders are already affected.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Fighting for Transparency in Salem: Revising the “Sunshine Ordinance”

City Hall Desks

Tomorrow night, July 9th, there will be a special meeting of the Salem City Council Sunshine Ordinance subcommittee to discuss proposed changes to Salem’s “sunshine ordinance” laws.

Quoting Maggie Lemelin Towne, Administrative Coordinator, Alliance of Salem Neighborhood Associations in today’s News:

The Sunshine Ordinance, as approved by the City Council in September 2005, requires the city to post meeting schedules, meeting agendas, legal notices, bids, RFPs, RFQs and all city reports and filings made by the city. Additionally, it provides a facility for citizens to sign up to receive automatic e-mail notifications of scheduled meetings, with agendas, for all governing bodies, and requires the posting of meeting minutes within nine days of the meeting. These components have provided the City of Salem with transparency in government, a modern sensibility to our open meeting laws and easy access for all citizens to be engaged and involved in the governmental process.

Recently, significant changes have been proposed to the ordinance, including removing the e-mail subscription service for meeting agendas, changing the requirement for meeting minutes from 9 days to 47 days, and eliminating the requirement to post city contracts and required legal reports.

I have philosophical differences with Salem’s neighborhood associations, but I have to stand with them on this point.  I’ve been standing for transparency ever since I began filming meetings of the Commission on Disabilities nearly 10 years ago.  This is what I told my colleagues in email last week and this is what I hope to say at the Council tomorrow night:

Next Thursday there is an important meeting of the Council that I would like you to attend.

You may have seen a letter in the Salem News last week “Let Sun Shine on Salem City Hall” [an earlier letter on the same topic] and you may have seen my comment to that letter online.

Ever since I began videotaping Commission meetings 10 years ago, I’ve come to believe very much in openness.  Except for those times we have to maintain someone’s privacy, we have done our business in full view of the people of Salem.  This openness has made us one of the most effective Commissions on Disabilities in the state.

It wasn’t always like that. 

I believe we are far ahead of the rest of city government.  I want us to set the example for openness, but I also want to do all I can to encourage the other boards and commissions in the City to open up their business as much as they can.

It’s not easy to ask for.  Indeed, I’ve had trouble taping meetings for my personal blog just a few months ago.  Not everyone in government sees the importance of this.  Even our state senator doesn’t understand it.  We love Senator Berry very much and consider him a proud member of our disability community, but if you’ve been following the news about our state’s new ethic laws, he closed meetings to the public not because they were sensitive or under executive session, but just because of “tradition”.

There seems to be too much of that “tradition” going along.  I remember years ago when SATV first got cameras in City Hall and Lynn refused to put cameras in their city hall because “there was no air conditioning there!”  It didn’t take a cynic to read between the lines and realize the cameras were not in Lynn also “for tradition’s sake.”

But for every time a public meeting is not covered, people complain about conspiracies;  sometimes SATV has technical problems and people accuse them of colluding with Mayor Driscoll or other officials to hide the tapes;  there is no such thing; we have no secret tapes.  The only way people can really trust government is to be as open as we can possibly be.

This has downsides;  sometimes we in our great familiarity in our meetings, forget that.  Other times we need to be very respectful of our citizens’ privacy and the understanding that not everyone with a disability can “come out”.  Chairpersons everywhere in the city have to balance what they put out in public and what is done privately in the course of their business.  They must balance transparency regulations against their ability to meet them.  I won’t say it’s easy and we have struggled with these issues in our own commission. 

We live in a time when it’s fashionable and even required to deeply resent and hate our government.  We hear from many who would want government to do nothing and just go away.   People don’t trust our government: Salem, Massachusetts, or the US, and there is not a thing we can do about it just by saying up and down that “we’re honest, we don’t lie and we don’t cheat, trust us!”

We have to show our hand.  People need to see the routine, mundane and even boring things we do to run the City.  They need to see what we see.  And if they see something they don’t like, I want them to be able to call us out, not to resort to talk radio or the comments section of the local newspaper. 

But they can only see that when they can see us.  Openness and transparency are the only ways we can get back our legitimacy and get the trust of the citizens of Salem, just as they put trust in our Commission.