Wednesday, August 20, 2014

$2000 Fine vs $100 Compliance Fee

 25 Butterfield Terrace

The last of the housing holdouts paid their dues and the town's rental stock is now 100% in compliance with the new Rental Registration and Permit Bylaw, overwhelmingly passed by Amherst Town Meeting last year.

On Monday Amherst Building Inspector Jon Thompson appeared in Eastern Hampshire District Court before a Clerk Magistrate.  Of the six cases he presented, one was continued to August 29 (Kathleen Maiolatesi), with all the others ended favorably for the town.

Deborah Kruger failed to show up for the hearing, costing her $1,700.  The three parking citations were all upheld and the perps paid $100 each.  And Alpha Tae Gamma (25 Butterfield Terrace) settled before the hearing by agreeing to pay $2,000.

FY15 only started July 1st

Wag The Dog

School Superintendent Maria Geryk, Andy Steinberg, RAWG Chair

Shutesbury, a partner in our Regional Public School School system for over half a century -- but only 4% of that region by population -- is holding firm to their demand that the new pre-K though 12 Regional expansion should include an "on ramp" for their entry somewhere down the road.

Shutesbury representative Elaine Puleo was as clear as ice that it's an absolute deal breaker.  Even facilitator David Singer, after over an hour of sometimes heated discussion, tried to get the committee to agree to it, calling the lack of an on ramp a "show stopper."

Regional Agreement Working Group (3 members each from all four towns)

Why should the other three towns, who make up 96% of the Region care?  Because this new expanded educational Leviathan needs the approval of all four towns to amend the current Regional Agreement (which covers Middle School and High School).

Yes Shutesbury -- even though they do not plan to join the expanded Region -- still has to support it via their Town Meeting, and the three representatives stated unequivocally last night that would not happen without an on ramp. 

The first hour of the meeting was taken up discussing overall "savings" and how they would be distributed.  The first year of transition could cost Amherst (who makes up 88% of the Region) an additional $357,000.

The committee, citing "equity", voted unanimously to place a cap on savings to individual towns and to distribute savings over that cap to the town (Amherst) that faced increases.  Or what Pelham rep Jeff Osborn described as, "Robbing Peter to pay Paul."

The 2nd item of discussion, an "on ramp" for a non-participating town, was far more divisive.

The  participating towns are concerned that the first few years of the new Region is a formative time, although Shutesbury seemed amenable to a "protected period" (three years) where they could not suddenly attempt entry.

But their representative argued strenuously that as long as they are willing to absorb any impacts they should be allowed entry at any time in the more distant future.  Especially since they are already a long-time partner in the current Region. 

Trevor Baptiste, Pelham rep and new Regional School Committee Chair, described it as a "trust issue," likening it to a (hopefully successful) marriage.

 2 Regional School Committee members -- Rick Hood and Lawrence O'Brien -- observed from a safe distance

The motion that almost gained consensus called for a provision in the Regional Agreement to allow the on ramp but with a "protected period" (possible three years), an impact study, and then good faith negotiations to mitigate those impacts.

Amherst rep Alisa Brewer wanted it clear the answer could still be "No", if they fail to mitigate those impacts.

The meeting adjourned at 9:40 PM, with only 1 of 5 agenda items voted on.  Next meeting is scheduled for September 2 (location to be determined) at 6:00 PM.  RAWG wants to make their recommendation to the Amherst Pelham Regional School Committee by the end of September.

And a two-thirds vote of the Regional SC would send the issue to all four Town Meetings to vote on two articles:  The first simply allowing the Regional Agreement to be amended, and the second article calling for an expansion of the current grades 7-12 Region all the way down to pre-Kindergarden through 6th grade.

All four towns have to agree to amend the Regional Agreement, but do not have to agree to join immediately. At this point, within the Regional Assessment Working Group, only Amherst and Pelham seem to be a sure thing. 

Know your reps:

Shining A Light

Shine the light on the story, not yourself

I consider myself an aggressive reporter.  When at the scene of a fire or riot, if I don't get yelled at by police, then I'm doing something wrong.  But whether covering a chaotic outdoor disturbance or a boring indoor zoning board hearing, I always try to stay out of the way.

When using public documents to uncover truths for a story, I try to let the documents speak for themselves.  The hard part is knowing such documents exist and who it is you need to hit with a public documents request.

The events unfolding in Ferguson are -- as Commander Spock would say -- "fascinating".     For many reasons.

As usual, folks are quick to jump to conclusions based on their built up biases.  I'm a BIG fan of public safety (admitting my bias for those of you who may be first timers to this blog)  but an even bigger fan of journalism.

I will, however, never suppress or ignore the truth to protect either of them.  

There's no question Ferguson police could use a refresher course on respecting constitutional rights, and just plain old public relations.  The images of Darth Vader like squads of police armed for Armageddon is not the kind of thing you want presented on the nightly news ... or even that newfangled thing, the Internet.

Reporters want to report, it's kinda their job.  And it's really hard to do that when police keep you corralled up far from the scene of the action.

Police, conversely, want to quell the very action reporters need to report, and it can sometimes be difficult to do when reporters get in the way.  Or worse, their presence serves to incite an already amped-up crowd.

UMPD firing pellets into the crowd (burning sugar) 10/31/13

At all the disturbances I've covered involving rowdy students both on and off the UMass campus, I have never yet seen a TV news camera not cause a volatile reaction from the crowd.  And yes, when police don their riot gear, that too incites the crowd.

So what we now have in Ferguson is the worst combination of the two.

If police had been more forthcoming with the facts from the very beginning, the cycle of violence would never have gotten out of hand.  Mainstream media also took too long to awaken to the story, but now it's become a circus where reporters outnumber protesters.

"Sunlight is said to be  the best of disinfectants."  Perhaps why all the mayhem seems to occur after dark.

Monday, August 18, 2014


 AFD Ladder 1 pouring water on Southpoint Building #97

Town Manager John Musante told the Select Board this evening that through a coordinated effort of the town, Red Cross and a variety of social service agencies, all the tenants displaced by the Southpoint Apartment fire last week have found housing either elsewhere in the Southpoint complex or in other off site housing. 

Building #97 will require extensive repairs from the direct damage of fire and indirect water and smoke damage.  Two of the other three buildings were habitable on Friday. 

New Sheriff In Town

Trevor Baptiste (new Regional School Committee Chair), Kathleen Traphagan (new Vice Chair)

After garnering only 3 votes for Amherst Pelham Regional School Committee temporary Chair at the contentious 6/24 meeting, losing out to Lawrence O'Brien who received twice that, Trevor Baptiste bounced back in a BIG way at the follow up (official) meeting last week winning five votes, to O'Brien's three.

Two members who had voted for O'Brien over Baptiste at the 6/24 meeting -- Kathleen Traphagan (Amherst rep) and Steve Sullivan (Shutesbury rep) -- had changed their minds, and this time voted for Baptiste (Pelham rep).

And Sarah Dolven (Leverett rep) also had supported O'Brien for temporary Chair but at the meeting last week nominated and voted for Dan Robb (Pelham rep),  who only received that one vote.

At the the 6/24 meeting Trevor Baptiste was nominated for Chair by Amilcar Shabazz but only after Rick Hood had turned down Mr. Shabazz's attempted nomination, saying two years in that position was more than enough.

In both the 6/24 and most recent 8/14 election Mr. Hood supported Lawrence O'Brien for Chair.

While making the nomination this time around Shabazz pointed out that elevating the only other black member of the Regional School Committee to Chair would send a message to the community about the importance of diversity on such an important committee. 

Fair enough.  Symbols are important things.

After the first few days of escalating civil unrest in the embattled town of Ferguson, Missouri the Governor placed in command Ron Johnson, a black state police captain, and it seemed to calm hostilities ... ever so briefly.

Amherst Regional Public Schools start in two short weeks.  It's going to take a lot more than feel good symbolism to counter the past year of simmering discontent.

As Vice Chair, Trevor Baptiste called the "illegal" 7/15 meeting to countermand a memo sharply critical of Amilcar Shabazz (on far left)

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Ferguson Comes To Amherst

Amilcar Shabazz (center rear)

Organized by nationally known race relations guru Amilcar Shabazz and the local branch of the NAACP, the Amherst edition of the "National Day of Solidarity Actions: Justice for Mike Brown" attracted 75-100 demonstrators of every age, color, and gender to the heart of downtown Amherst. 

The protest was of course peaceful


Friday, August 15, 2014

To Sprinkle Or Not To Sprinkle?

Engine 2 (the quint) on scene Southpoint fire 5:15ish

Unlike the tragic Rolling Green fire (1/21/13) that took the life of Jake Hoffman, a 21-year-old UMass senior, the rebuilding of Southpoint Apartments is a tad more complicated when it comes to the sprinkler system requirement.

 Rolling Green fatal fire (photo by Stephanie Jernigan

Since Southpoint was originally built way back in 1968 they are "grandfathered," but new codes will now come to bear with the relevant three being: "Would otherwise require sprinklers" (Yes); "Sufficient water pressure available in the area" (Yes); and "Work area exceeds 50% of the building" (No).

 Connecting walls are not considered "true fire walls"

And it takes only one "No" to nix the requirement for lifesaving sprinklers.

Southpoint designates the four contiguous structures as separate buildings:  Building #99, #97, #95 and #93 -- but the walls they share are not considered "true fire walls," therefore all four buildings are considered just one really BIG building.

Fire started in kitchen (pot left on stove)

Thus the work on #97 where the fire started, even though it's the entirety of the building, is only 25% of the total square footage.

 A jigsaw of four buildings, but considered one

State law, however, gives extraordinary authority to a fire chief, so Chief Nelson can simply order them to install sprinklers as part of the renovation, as he did with Rolling Green Apartments (and they were self insured so it cost them a few bucks).

According to Chief Nelson, "Before we decide we'll have to see what the owners plan to do with the damaged property.  As a general statement, with few exceptions, we always lean toward sprinkler use in occupancies."

Southpoint building #97 5:35 PM

Interestingly the building owners could appeal that to the state (who usually sides with a Chief), but the State Fire Marshal does not even have to convene a hearing for such an appeal. 

Considering how understaffed AFD is, every bit of built-in fire protection installed in occupied major structures is a plus.  And sprinklers are a HUGE plus.

Making the nightly news