Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Preparing for Summer

Either the weather has finally gotten to me or I just need some time off from work (which, thankfully, I'll be getting next week) but I found myself unjustifiably but genuinely angry at my children's justifiable excitement over the end of school and summer vacation. I know that I'm just jealous that they can revel in a hedonistic lack of responsibility and scheduling, but I'm also suffering from the feeling that my own summer, what little there is, is being washed away by the constant rain. I mean, the days are already getting shorter.

Yesterday was the last day of school and when everyone woke up in my house, I told the kids that the superintendent had added one more week to the school year, because she decided the kids didn't learn enough. Neither one of my children believed me for an instant. They're clearly on to me. I'll admit that it was a half-hearted attempt, but I failed at ruining even a moment of their vacation. I'll have to console myself with the knowledge that I'll have plenty of opportunities to try again over the next few months.

In the meantime, I've decided to embrace as much of the crappy summer as we've got left (a bad attitude to have before July 4th, I know).

In that frame of mind, we've played some baseball.

We've visited the bears in Easthampton.

And we've hit some golf balls.

We also ran in the second annual Northampton Mile race at the high school. Owen finished last, but he' already set his sights on next year when he will make sure to go to the bathroom before the race instead of during the race and not finish last.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

A Very Special Day, Update II

I'm the sweaty guy in the blue shirt hoisting a beer to celebrate the successful passing of a proposition override vote. I've never seen so many people so happy to have their taxes go up.

I may be indulging in hindsight, but during the day yesterday I had growing feelings that the election wouldn't be as close as it was in 2004 and that the YES votes would carry the day quite easily. I began to sense this yesterday afternoon as I drove to my sign holding spot at the intersection of North Maple and Main Streets in Florence and didn't see anyone holding any no signs at Smith Voke or at the intersection near the Academy of Music. And when I got to my spot, I found only a fellow yes sign holders and no sign of any no signs. I could chalk this up to a lack of organization and resources on the the part of the no people, but I think it also had to do with the general sense in Northampton that we needed an Override. And that showed in the enthusiasm and dedication of everyone who volunteered for the Yes campaign, including the woman who joined me with her daughter just because she wanted to hold a sign for a little bit longer yesterday.

And then there was the woman who was walking in Florence who thanked me for holding the sign, saying that she'd woken up and forgotten that the election was yesterday. She then told me that she'd voted yes. I also heard from one guy visiting from Alabama who wanted to know what the sign was all about. I explained to him how Proposition 2 1/2 worked, and he told me that in Alabama, there are no local property taxes. The towns raise money through a sales tax that goes on top of the state sales tax. This means that in some towns, you could be paying as much as 9.5% sales tax, and that includes clothing. And I thought Massachusetts' system was messed up.

As a testament to how high-tech the Yes campaign was, at Paradise City Tavern, where everyone gathered to hear the results, someone had hooked up a laptop to the big screen TV and projected a spreadsheet that had each ward and precinct broken out. As the results came in via cell phone, they were posted on the spreadsheet for everyone to see. Veteran poll watchers told me after seeing just a few wards' results that the override would pass, and they were, of course, right.

After that, it was time to celebrate not just the fact that the override had passed, but the fact that a dedicated group of people had achieved something important for the city they all love.

I only had two regrets as I went home last night. One was that we didn't ask for enough in the override. And the other is that if we don't do something to fix the situation on a much larger scale, we're going to be right back where we are now in a few years.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Very Special Day, Update I

I went to Serio's to pick up a sandwich for lunch. I work in Easthampton and could have easily picked up something there, but I wasn't getting enough Override news through email and over the Internet, so I figured I'd drive through Northampton to see what I could see.

As I waited to make my order, I made small talk with a local salesman who commented that he'd heard me on Bill Dwight's show. I said that didn't really surprise me, since he worked for the radio station. He said that someone asked him about the override, even though he didn't live in Northampton and admittedly didn't know a lot about it. Nevertheless, he said he told the person to vote for it, because either way, the government is going to get your money.

A fatalistic attitude, to be sure, and one that wouldn't really fit nicely onto a lawn sign.

A Very Special Day

I got back from the Y this morning and found my six-year-old on my computer. When he saw me, he told me that it was a very special day. I asked him why it was a special day and he pointed to the date on the computer screen. "It's six sixteen. It's Vote Yes Day," he said.

And here I thought lawn signs weren't that effective.

So, after I showered and had breakfast, I took him to the polls to vote with me. While there wasn't as big a crowd at my polling place as there was in November, I could still sense electricity in the air, a combination of tension, excitement, and uncertainty about the final outcome.

Once inside, we reviewed our ballot carefully.

We confirmed that we wanted to vote YES and connected the appropriate arrows. Then we went and checked out. The poll workers were kind enough to ask for Owen's name as well as mine. The only disappointment in the whole process was that they weren't giving out "I Voted" stickers at this election.

As we drove away from Smith Voke, I saw two sign holders, one holding a YES sign and one holding a no sign, having an animated discussion in the designated sign holders section. It struck me as somewhat inappropriate, because chances are that the person you're arguing with (it did look like an argument), who's holding a sign and all, has already voted and you're probably not going to change their mind. I hope this isn't a harbinger of things to come today.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Radio, Radio

On Friday I went on Bill Dwight's show to talk about tomorrow's override vote. I appeared with Northampton City Council President Jim Dostal and you can listen to the show here if you'd like.

I've met Jim Dostal once or twice and have certainly never appeared on the radio with him before. We met again in the waiting area outside of the WHMP studio and strategized for only a couple of minutes before it was time to go on air.

Jim spoke from a numbers and City government perspective; I spoke from the perspective of a regular guy who researched it and came to the conclusion that the override is the way to go. I think that Bill did a good job of asking each of us questions that allowed us to speak from our respective positions. I think it was a good appearance, though I'm not so sure how much good it will do in the grand scheme of the Override.

I'll admit that I'm suffering from a bit of campaign fatigue. I'm looking forward to post-election time, when I can open my email and not see messages from people looking for me to help out with this or that. On the flip side, one of the advantages I've had in being so involved with the campaign is that I've had a set of discrete tasks to focus on that has allowed me to not focus on what it will mean to me personally if the override doesn't pass. And I'm not talking just about the $150 or so that my taxes will increase, but the affect the cuts will have on my children's education. Former classmates of mine have posted class pictures from elementary school on Facebook and I've been surprised at how large the class sizes were back then, and that was with one teacher and no aides. Of course, we were all much better students back then than what you'd find in elementary schools today, right?

But it's not just about the obvious things that can be seen, like larger class sizes, fewer extracurriculars, fewer police on the streets, but also the unseen stuff. I mean, how frustrating must it be to a city employee that the people in the community place so little value on your job that they're going to make sure that you don't get a raise and have to work harder because those around you have gotten laid off, and that's the good news? It's got to wear people down. And then there's the ultimate impact this will have on the overall desirability of Northampton as a place to live. People don't want to live in a place with declining schools and city services. And this isn't something that will immediately appear on Wednesday should the override vote not pass; it will seep in slowly but appreciably over time.

But a lot of people don't want to hear about that. They see it as a black and white issue: it's not the right time to ask them to pay more in taxes. Of course, they don't offer when a good time to ask for more in taxes might be, which leads me to think that there is never a good time because they'll never agree to it.

And that's where the challenge is. Without any campaigning, if you asked people in Northampton to approve an override, most people will say no. History shows us that the voters here don't approve general overrides. So tomorrow we'll find out if hard times and a well-run campaign can overcome a longstanding bias against general tax increases.

Friday, June 12, 2009

On the Radio

I'll be on Bill Dwight's radio show this morning to discuss the upcoming Proposition 2 1/2 Override vote in Northampton.

This will be the fourth time that I've been on Bill's show, but for some reason, I'm much more nervous about this appearance than about any of my previous ones.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

What Would Mr. Pink Do?

In Quentin Taratino's movie Reservoir Dogs, one of the erstwhile (love that word!) jewelry store thieves, objects to putting money in to cover the tip for a waitress. He objects on moral grounds, and won't do it, he says, just because society says he should. The other thieves try to convince him that he's wrong, but he remains firm in his convictions, until the boss makes him throw in his dollar.

Lately I find I have this scene running through my head whenever I think about the upcoming override campaign.

As the override campaign heads towards a conclusion, one way or the other, on June 16th, six days from today, the tension in the air is becoming more palpable. At least it seems that way to me, maybe because I'm too close to the Vote Yes campaign.

I've spent time over the past few weeks calling people to ask which way they're going to vote and get the word out about what's at stake in next week's vote. I've also attended City Council meetings and watched them on television, as well as other forums held throughout the city. I can attest to the fact that there's a lot of anger out there. There's so much anger out there that I've even heard people criticize the Vote Yes side for how their lawn signs look, that they look too happy.

But I've also noticed that a lot of the anger seems to be based not on the override per se, but on other things: the poor economy, dislike of the Mayor and her policies, the BID, the landfill, pretty signs. And what people are doing is sharpening their pencils (I know you don't use pencils, but you get the picture) in anticipation of voting no for the override because the override vote is simply something they can say no to.

This is what one poster had to say in Masslive's Northampton forum:

In the midst of a historic economic downturn, we are facing unprecedented increases in our burden of taxes, fees, and tolls over which we have zero control: Sales tax, gas tax, meals tax, hotel tax, alcohol tax, turnpike tolls, professional license fees, water and sewer taxes, trash fees. We've had to swallow all of these because they are beyond our control. But, thanks to Prop 2 1/2, we citizens do have control over our property tax. Enough is enough. Don't miss this opportunity to say NO, not now, it's just too much at the worst time imaginable for people struggling to make ends meet, feed their kids, avoid foreclosure, and hang onto their jobs. Vote NO Override June 16.

An unfortunate side effect of this thinking is that people begin to think ill of those who hold opposing views. Of course, this isn't a local issue, but a national one that has become worse over time, when debate has been boiled down to bumper stickers and shouting television and radio commentators and giving ground in a discussion is seen as weakness.

When I drive around town and see those Vote No signs, I can't help but notice that they don't have a date on them, that they seem to be always ready for action so that no matter what the issue is, the answer is the same: NO.

I know I shouldn't think that way, and I hope that my awareness of the flaws in my thinking are at least a step in the right direction.

But if I can take one thing away from this election, it's that this vote isn't about winning and losing, it's about people caring enough about their community to enter the debate. And that has to be a good thing, right? Even if I think that Mr. Pink would vote No?

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Breaking the Morning Calm

I look forward to Saturday mornings when the weather is nice because it means that I can get up early and go for a run. Since I live so close to the bike path, I usually make that a central part of my route. I like running on the bike path because it's relatively flat, there are no cars (except at the intersections), and because it's surrounded in many places by trees that are full of leaves this time of year, it gives me the sense that I've left any stresses behind. Another bonus is that the bike path is usually empty of both foot and bike traffic before 7 a.m. on Saturdays, though on two recent consecutive Saturday I did run into legendary blogger Tommy Devine.

So, the bike path puts me in a state of reverie, if I'm lucky, and I imagine that few people I do see when I'm running--usually people out with their dogs--like the path for the same reason that I do, because it's quiet and peaceful. And with this in mind, I try not to be too intrusive. I'll smile and maybe say "good morning," but I give them a wide berth and let them continue on with their own morning meditations.

This morning I was nearing the end of my run, feeling good and healthy and oh-so superior to all of those other people who were still in bed (I blame that feeling on the endorphines), when I happened upon a woman walking her two dogs. I prepared myself for my usual, non-intrusive greeting when a bug flew into my mouth. I didn't stop running, but the hacking and spitting I had to do to expel the offending insect was loud enough to have both dogs and the woman looking at me funny.

I felt bad, but what could I do? Running in nature like that does have its downsides.

So, for what it's worth, I apologize.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Override Blues

I've always admired people who can stand up in front of a crowd. But I'm not so sure about that any more.

Let me try that again: I've always admired people who can stand up in front of a crowd and articulately outline their views, but I realized the other night after attending the Override Forum at Bridge STreet School that what has to go hand-in-hand with a sensibility of how one's words play to the crowd. That didn't always happen when various people in the 50-odd person crowd stood up to talk to the Mayor and others assembled on stage.

One woman ignored the moderator's plea that comments be kept brief in order to rail against the federal government's wasteful behavior with regards to the wars in Iraq and Pakistan. That's where we should be focusing our ire, she said: on the federal government. It seemed incredibly unlikely to me that the federal government would be ending those two wars and sending some money our way by the time the next fiscal year starts.

To his credit, the moderator broke in to ask if she did, indeed, have a question. She did not.

I don't want to say that she broke the dam, but I blame her for giving others the courage to stand up and bloviate for a while themselves. This included a World War II veteran who told us how much he paid for his house in 1948 and how much the city thinks it's worth now. He didn't have a question either, but I say that anyone who's served in World War II can stand up and say anything they want.

The capper, though, was the man who stood up and spoke for a while and then, when prompted for a question, addressed the audience and asked if anyone had every smoked pot.

"Yes, but I didn't inhale," one person said.

"I never exhaled," said a guy next to me.

But I understand that sometimes people need to vent. And the country's economic crisis, and the ugly budget shortfall Northampton currently faces, are certainly legitimate reasons to vent. And I suppose it's my own fault for going to these things and expecting other than what I find. Isn't that the definition of insanity?

With less than two weeks to go before the Override vote, I fear that more insanity might be on the horizon. The other day I saw that someone's Vote Yes sign had been torn apart on their front lawn, and I've heard that other signs have met a similar fate. I've heard from people who say that they've been yelled at by neighbors who opposed the signs on their lawns. In times of crisis, it's no surprise that people put themselves first and protect what they have. But in times of crisis, I think it's more important for people to come together. Unfortunately, I don't see that happening.