Thursday, March 23, 2006

Controversy in Concord

I was coming around the corner on State St, in Concord, heading down a side street next to the State House. I nearly crashed into a small, scruffy man who had a big cigar stuffed in his face. He was carrying a sign that read, “NO MORE NANNY STATE.” I was surprised, and delighted to find that the libertarians were finally expressing an opinion about the constitutional amendment that would ban recognition of any same sex union in NH. “It’s about time,” I thought to myself. “Libertarians spout off about privacy rights, but never seem to take any action. This is great.”

I was wrong, of course. The House was voting on a bill that would ban smoking in restaurants, and that’s what the anti-nanny staters were up in arms about. The right to kill folks with second hand smoke (in the name of the rights of the individual or business owner) is worth fighting for – but civil rights are not. It’s too bad. They might have broader appeal and credibility if they walked their talk more often, and on more issues.

The NH House did vote for the smoking ban. This controversial vote has a lot of folks up in arms about the rights of the individual and the business owner. The health of workers is always dismissed, as apparently those underpaid restaurant employees have unlimited choices about where they work. So diners and drinkers can choose to go to a non-smoking establishment, and employees can choose to work elsewhere. Heck, let’s go whole hog – and eliminate the board of health. Surely those pesky health inspections to make sure that a kitchen is clean and free of rat droppings are the sort of inconvenience that a business owner shouldn’t be forced to endure. After all – the customer can choose to go elsewhere, where rat feces aren’t a side dish.

NH makes a ton of money peddling death in the form of individual choice. Spare me the rationalizations about junk food and alcohol. Most people do not drink to excess, and alcohol has a positive health benefit for some – that healthy glass of red wine. If someone eats fast food until they die the rest of us won’t die from being exposed to them.
Cigarettes have no redeeming value – it’s a product that when used as directed causes disease and ultimately death. NH has the lowest tobacco taxes in New England. We want to sell you some foul smelling death – it’s one way we fund our state government. We’d rather kill you than tax our own millionaires, thank you very much. Naturally we’d rather you come from out of state to buy, because we don’t want to pay for your exorbitant health care costs as you sicken and die.

I was surprised by this vote. I’ve seen the tobacco lobbyists working the House in the past, with great success. I lived in California when the smoking ban was enacted, and it didn’t hurt business there, and it won’t here. There will be plenty snorts and sighs about the erosion of the rights of the individual. I wish those folks were a little less concerned about smoking, and a little more concerned about the Bush administration eavesdropping on American citizens. That’s a bigger outrage than banning cigarettes. It is a shame that the “ownership society” validates the conservative myth of the rugged individual. We are increasinongly less concerned the greater good, to our societal detriment. The anti-nanny staters can relax; it’s unlikely that this bill will pass the NH Senate. Senate campaigns are hugely expensive, and the tobacco lobby is strong, persuasive, and carries a big checkbook.

The House also voted that CACR34, the proposed amendment to the NH Constitution that would refuse to recognize any same sex union, was inexpedient to legislate, or ITL. The vote was 207 to 125 against tinkering with the state constitution.
This is a huge victory for civil rights and just plain sensible thinking. The amendment was proposed to give right wingers a chance to weigh in on same sex marriage in an election year – and to use it to stir up the basest of their base. As has been said aplenty, using the constitution to deny rights to a minority group is reprehensible.

A lot of grumpy right wingers are unhappy about this vote – because the issue “should be decided by the people.” These are folks who apparently wanted this to be a big, ugly divisive issue in an election year. Given that NH law already prevents same sex marriage, this was an unnecessary bit of theatrical display, and our state representatives voted very sensibly to scuttle it. We the people had plenty of opportunities to lobby our legislators about it. In fact, this vote gives me the opportunity to do something I have never done before – congratulate the entire Carroll County District 1 contingent on their vote. Carolyn Brown, Tom Buco, Gene Chandler, and Howard Dickinson all voted against this bad bill, and so did Harry Merrow in district 3. Representatives Philbrick, McConkey, and Babson voted in favor constitutional amendment. The whole roll call vote is available at the state house website: .
Our district 1 representatives deserve our thanks, so don’t be stingy! A thank you from you is going to mean more to Gene Chandler than one from me, no matter how sincere mine may be.

“If you let us marry each other, we will stop marrying you.” Jason Stuart – gay comedian

This column should appear in the March 24 edition of the Conway Daily Sun, though one can never be sure.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

A Hive of Glass

Jackson is a nice little town. Colleagues from around the country are amazed when I tell them I live in a town with a two room schoolhouse. Jackson has a long history of hospitality. In the 1800’s, Jackson provided lodging for visitors to the area. There were hotels, boarding houses, and cottages. Families would come by train and spend the entire summer here. World War II put an end to those summers, and some of the grand hotels were boarded up for decades afterward. When I was a child visiting the area, Gray’s Inn and the Wentworth were quietly moldering. A fire claimed Gray’s Inn, but the Wentworth was mercifully restored. We are small, we are quaint, and many of our historic buildings are still standing, well used, and lovely. We want to keep that, and rightly so.

The unrestrained (and unsightly) growth and sprawl in Conway is spreading north, which is a matter of concern for those of us living north of the once scenic vista. A good master plan and good zoning regulations are important. Having no zoning can lead to disaster, as we’ve seen in Tamworth. This year the Jackson Planning Board has proposed the addition of something called “performance zoning,” which would be applied only to the “business overlay district,” which is essentially the area from the Bartlett town line north to the intersection of 16 and 16A, including the business “loop.” Performance zoning is being touted as being the kind of flexible regulation that would help us preserve the integrity and rural character of our town. Performance zoning sets two types of criteria for a project, absolute and relative. There are 10 absolute criteria that a project would have to meet, and 22 relative criteria. The relative criteria are judged on a point basis, and the points are scored: positive, negative, or neutral. The relative criteria seem to have been cut and pasted from some other town’s zoning regs. Points are awarded or subtracted for building sidewalks. (Psst – we have those already). Points are awarded or subtracted for of street parking behind or beside a building. (Pssst – restaurants need to have parking right out in front where it’s visible.) Clearly these criteria were not designed specifically for Jackson. Clearly this isn’t so flexible, either.

The new regulations would apply to commercial use developments, cluster single family developments, multi-family residential developments, and multi-family buildings in excess of two dwelling units, in the village overlay district. It’s curious that the planning board would encourage residential development in the commercial zone. Every town needs a center, if there is to be community. Norman Rockwell painted quaint little towns, and in those paintings there are businesses; barber shops, diners, and stores. Those hotel rooms bring folks to town that spend money in the restaurants and shops, and go home, without becoming a tax burden. The businesses, in turn, donate gift certificates and other services for fundraisers and charities. They also provide employment and a gathering place for folks in town to meet and chat. As time goes on, and climate change affects our area even more, having small, one of a kind businesses in the loop can only be an asset to the town.

The “development” of downtown Jackson should be done with the utmost care. Unfortunately, the performance zoning regulations we’ll be voting on next week are not the tools we need. Other NH towns have performance zoning in place, but they are in urban areas – like Bow. The Jackson Planning Board is not elected. They are appointed by the selectmen. No one has oversight over them. There are no checks and balances in place. Under the proposed zoning changes, a project would go to the planning board for approval. If it is not approved, there would be no appeals process. An appeal would go straight to superior court. So, a property owner in the loop would be paying double in an appeals process – paying for his/her own lawyer, while paying taxes going to the town lawyer. This only applies to businesses in the loop. Businesses outside of the “overlay district” would be paying the same taxes and allowed greater flexibility for development or projects on their property. Conceivably, the Wildcat Tavern could be denied a permit to build the same woodshed that would be permitted at the Christmas Farm Inn. This is not only unneighborly, it’s downright discriminatory.

It’s unfortunate that the proposed changes have been done so hastily. Local business owners were not involved in the discussion, or the writing. In fact, in the narrative, property owners on the loop are referred to as “an imminent threat.” That kind of divisive language isn’t going to help maintain the sense of community Jackson has always enjoyed. The haste is based on fear of “people from away” building big ugly things. There was a rumor that a downtown property might be sold, and developed as a hotel. Instead of making that a positive thing, the selectmen and planners chose to go on the defensive. Wal-Mart can’t build in Jackson. Neither can a big hotel chain. Jackson has no town septic, and has some stringent limits on what goes into the soil. That provides a huge measure of protection. Bow adopted performance zoning when they put in town water and septic.

A single family mcmansion could be built in the overlay district, without having to apply to the performance zoning guidelines. A huge tacky pink stucco structure, looking completely alien to the village – larger than life and twice as ugly– and as a single family dwelling, it would not be prevented. In fact there isn’t anything in the zoning as it’s written that addresses how a building looks, or how it is landscaped. Regulations stipulating look, superior construction materials, energy efficiency, and landscaping would make sense. What the planning board has given Jackson voters, with the endorsement of the selectmen, does not make sense.

We have a choice. We can move forward in haste and get something that discriminates against some property owners, something that isn’t specific to our town, something that creates divisiveness and discord – and we can try to change it afterward. Or we can vote NO on performance zoning, and begin the process again, this time with input from business owners and other interested folks. We can create a plan that is specific to downtown Jackson, one that builds community and fosters goodwill. Hardly a difficult choice, is it? See you at the polls.

A village is a hive of glass, where nothing unobserved can pass.” Charles H. Spurgeon

From the March 10, 2006 Conway Daily Sun. Get out and vote, fellow Jacksonites!

Contrived Hysteria

Thanks to an ever-changing schedule, and a few days in bed with a truly evil cold, I’ve been able to catch more of the winter Olympics than usual this year. I grew up in a family of skiers, and the winter games were far more important to us than the summer ones. During the downhill this year, I heard the name Jean Claude Killy invoked a few times, and remembered the Killy slalom skis my father got a deal on one year. They were 220’s – a length that seems preposterous in the world of equipment we have today. The footage of the Alps in Italy has been gorgeous, and seeing actual snow on the ground was nice too. In Jackson, we have no cross country skiers on the golf course this week, only disappointing patches of brown. It’s bad for the local economy, and the general morale. I look forward to the day when the US begins to take global climate change seriously.

I couldn’t stay in bed forever, as attractive as that may have seemed early in the week. The real world beckoned (in the form of my boss) and propelled me back to the wonderful world of the NH legislature.

Last week in Concord, a state rep told me that the legislature has a record number of bills to deal with this year, more than they’ve ever had before. That’s particularly unusual in the non-budget years, when the load is usually a little lighter to make room for the campaigning that needs to be done every two years. Despite this unusual burden, Police Chief Garret Chamberlain of New Ipswich was invited to address the legislature this week, to discuss his experiences with undocumented immigrants. Chamberlain is the vigilante chief who is making a name for himself by attempting to become a one-man immigration department in NH. Chamberlain is much beloved on white nationalist web sites, where they speak reverently of his desire to send brown skinned people “back where they belong.” Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo, who hopes to ride a very white horse to the White House, came to NH to give him an award a while back.
There are a number of bills this year that deal with immigration issues. A handful of legislators from the Hudson area seem to feel that jailing undocumented immigrants merely for being here, and requiring police and DMV clerks to become offshoots of the INS is a good use of NH resources. Despite the contrived hysteria around immigration, only seven legislators turned out to hear Chamberlain speak. He told the assembled few that “anyone who enters the US illegally is a direct threat to the national security of the US.” Chamberlain also told the few that NH is home to anywhere from 8,000 to 20,000 undocumented immigrants. The Police Chief of New Ipswich isn’t afraid to engage in hyperbole, it seems. The Pew Hispanic Institute estimates that there may be as many as 4,800 undocumented people in NH – the lowest percentage of any state.
There is certainly a need to examine our federal immigration policies, in a calm, reasoned, and respectful way. Unfortunately, it looks as if the GOP is going to use immigration as a wedge issue in the 2006 and 2008 campaigns. They can’t boast of success in Iraq, they’re mired in controversy and corruption, and they’ve created record deficits. The Medicare prescription drug program is a disaster, the much-touted economic recovery isn’t really happening, more Americans are losing health insurance and good paying jobs are disappearing. The answer seems to be to campaign against same sex marriage, choice, and immigration – or bigotry, misogyny, and racism. Not an attractive package, but it may be all they’ve got.
That only seven legislators turned out to listen to Chamberlain is a good sign. Hopefully our NH legislature will choose to deal with the bills before them calmly, rationally, and without racial prejudice. There are a number of groups nationally who are signing on to the White Ribbon Campaign, where they promise to have a sane national dialogue about immigration. You can see who has signed on at

Last week, SB316 cleared the NH senate. This bill calls for hospitals to supply interpreters for persons not fluent in English, upon request. It makes sense – a person who isn’t able to converse fluently with a doctor might have to make a number of costly visits before they receive the care they need. That would be a relatively good outcome. A person who could not make himself understood could die from the lack of proper treatment. Spending a few bucks on an interpreter versed in medical language could save thousands in medical costs. This is a chance for the legislature to mandate paying for the ounce of prevention instead of the pound of cure.

This week, HB1492 was heard by the NH House Judiciary committee. This bill would give “immunity from liability to pharmacists who refuse to dispense an emergency contraceptive pill.” The mind boggles at the concept of offering liability protection to people who refuse to do their jobs. It is the job of a pharmacist to dispense medication as directed by physicians. It is not their job to impose their beliefs on the female population.
This bill, if passed, would provide a very slippery slope for other forms of medication that pharmacists might feel “morally” opposed to, including drugs for HIV treatment, anti-depressants, and psychiatric medication. If a pharmacist has such strong beliefs that they cannot fill prescriptions, it is time for them to move on to a new career.

We are truly blessed in NH to have incredible access to our state legislators. They have listed phone numbers. They are always willing to hear our thoughts on legislation, or our concerns. Other states aren’t this fortunate. I was recently called to task by a solon that was unhappy with the way I was portraying legislators. Many of our 400 legislators are people whose names you will never hear, people who work darned hard for that princely sum of $100 that they earn annually. We should all (including me) give them credit for their service, far more often than we do.

“I want you to know that at dinner that evening I gave special thanks for you and the many other wonderful Americans who work with me in the struggle to secure our nation's borders, and the struggle to preserve our national identity, against the tide of illegal immigrants flooding the United States." Tom Tancredo in a letter to his Team America PAC

Published in the February 23, 2006 Conway Daily Sun.
(clearly I was a little behind)

The Single Digit Peace Sign

I want to be on time, but I often fail. So, I was a little late, heading across the street to hear the testimony on CACR-34, the proposed constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage. As I reached the State House I could see that something was missing. The crowd of anti-gay activists, waving ugly signs was absent. Maybe the cold renders their vitriol glands sluggish, and they hibernate for the winter. Whatever the reason, it was nice not to see them.

There were nearly 300 people in Representatives Hall to testify, listen, and offer support to one side or the other. Everyone was behaving like grown ups. There was no wailing or gnashing of teeth. This time the testimony had a different flavor, because folks were there to discuss a potential amendment to the NH constitution. A constitutional amendment is serious business, and that was reflected in most of the testimony.

The news coverage of the hearing was more than a little one-sided. Every report I heard mentioned that there were many ministers present – but then played news clips from anti-gay ministers. No one reported the numerous ministers (and at least one rabbi) who spoke against the amendment. That included NHPR. So much for the on-going myth of the “liberal” media.

The proposed amendment is the redundant cherry on top of the 2 laws NH already has in place. One forbids same sex marriage. The other states that NH won’t recognize same sex marriages or civil unions from other states. One might think those laws would be all that we needed to deny our gay brothers and sisters equal rights. One would be failing to consider the fact that this is an election year – and this whole amendment was cooked up as a platform for bigoted legislators to bellow from. It will also provide a lot of opportunities for the rest of us to fight with our neighbors. We don’t have enough unpleasantness, apparently, to satisfy some members of the legislature. We need a big, expensive fight that will create a lot of divisiveness.

No matter how anyone feels about same sex marriage, using the NH Constitution as a way of punishing a minority group is wrong. The constitution has traditionally clarified, or enhanced the rights of NH residents. To use it for the purposes of denying rights would be a mistake. It also goes against the whole NH “live free or die” philosophy. Most NH residents are not window-peeping perverts obsessed with the sex lives of others. We’re far more interested in what kind of folks our neighbors are, not what they do behind closed doors. Call your legislators and urge them to vote against this nasty bit of business.

This past Wednesday, President Bush spoke at a NH Business and Industry Association luncheon in Manchester. He was in town to talk to the NH BIA about his budget cuts; tax breaks for millionaires, and of course, to cheer about the booming economy. It is booming, for the wealthiest one percent. On a very cold day, a hundred people gathered across the street to protest the president. I spoke with several people who had never participated in a protest before – average folks who just felt compelled to be there. A lot of people were concerned about health care, and nervous about having no insurance. Some college students voiced concerns about the cuts to the low interest student loan programs – cuts that will add over $2000 to their debt load. The cuts in the recently passed budget reconciliation package were frightening enough, but the cuts proposed for 2007 are terrifying to many who were there. Somehow cutting food programs for seniors, in order to give the Pentagon even more money didn’t seem to reflect the values of those present outside the Radisson Center on Wednesday.

One young man asked me if I thought that standing around outside with signs was accomplishing anything. My answer was yes. It is worthwhile to stand up and be counted, now and again. The majority of those driving by honked, cheered, and waved. The protestors were a symbol of hope for them. As they drove by, they knew they weren’t alone – the way that one can often feel living in this red state. And for those who angrily drove by waving the single digit peace sign – we were providing a public service by giving them someone else to hate. To be a symbol of both hope and hatred can be oddly satisfying. Some days, that’s enough reason to go outside and hold up a sign.

“The notion that a radical is one who hates his country is naive and usually idiotic. He is, more likely, one who likes his country more than the rest of us, and is thus more disturbed than the rest of us when he sees it debauched. He is not a bad citizen turning to crime; he is a good citizen driven to despair.” H.L. Mencken

This was published in the February 10, 2006 Conway Daily Sun.

Correcting Corrections

Driving around the state gives me a chance to catch up on the news. Last week I heard a number of stories – some good and some bad- about New Hampshire. One of the disturbing stories concerned the abuse of prisoners and prison employees. In the past 6 years, NH has paid out more than $700,000 to settle lawsuits or honor jury awards in at least 8 cases alleging rape and sexual harassment. Most disturbing was the fact that a 2002 state audit warned prison officials that they needed to “drastically” improve the way they treated sexual misconduct, or the lawsuits and complaints would continue.

One case involved a $140,000 settlement in the case of a female inmate who was raped by a corrections officer at the women’s prison in Goffstown. She was serving a 30 day sentence for DWI. The other cases involved employees alleging harassment or assault on the job. In one case, the family of a former corrections officer was awarded $99,000, after he committed suicide. Before he died, he’d filed a lawsuit alleging he had become suicidal after being sexually assaulted by his supervisor.

Last week, a new claim was filed against former Sgt. Douglas Tower, accusing Tower of sexually assaulting 3 women at the Shea Farm halfway house in Concord. The week before Tower was arrested on charges that he raped 4 female inmates. That’s a total of 7 charges against Tower so far – and authorities say there may be additional charges. Tower says that women at Shea Farm flirted with him, and dressed provocatively. His lawyer argued that these allegations are made by felons, and therefore unreliable. One woman said Tower raped her in his office, after signing papers granting her a visit with her children, telling her “she owed him one,” and she better not say anything or she’d get sent back to the women’s prison. He also told her that investigators hadn’t believed a female corrections officer who accused him of inappropriate behavior, so if they didn’t believe an officer, they were not going to believe an inmate.

It’s an old story, unfortunately. As long as there have been prisons there have been abusers. Some gravitate to the work, and some are changed by the situation. In prison, corrections officer have complete power over inmates. That kind of power, combined with the dehumanization of prisoners can lead to ugly behavior.

In 1971 an experiment was done at Stanford University, by Professor Phillip Zimbardo. Zimbardo ran an ad asking for volunteers for a study that would last 2 weeks, and paid $15 a day. Over 70 men answered the ad. After interviews and psychological tests, the two dozen most average and healthy men were chosen. They were randomly assigned to be guards or prisoners. The prisoners were “arrested” at their homes, booked at a real jail, then blindfolded and taken to a makeshift prison in the basement of Jordan Hall at Stanford.
Those assigned to be guards were given uniforms, and told that they were not to use violence, but their job was to maintain control of the prison. On the second day of the experiment, the prisoners staged a rebellion. After it was successfully quelled by the guards, according to Zimbardo, “they steadily increased their coercive aggression tactics, humiliation, and dehumanization of the prisoners. Staff had to frequently remind the guards to refrain from such tactics.” The worst instances occurred in the middle of the night when the guards thought no one was watching. Prisoners were forced to clean out toilet bowls with their bare hands or act out degrading scenarios. (Naked human pyramids anyone?)
The experiment came to a halt on the fifth day, when Christina Maslach came in. Maslach had just received her doctorate in psychology, and was dating Zimbardo. She had agreed to do subject interviews. When she saw “guards” leading prisoners with paper bags over their heads to the bathrooms, she was horrified. She told Zimbardo that what they were doing was wrong – and he eventually agreed that he and all of the others had been corrupted by the experiment. Maslach’s career led her into researching the process of dehumanization, how people responsible for the care and treatment of others can come to view them as objects. It surely didn’t take long in the Stanford experiment.
The first “prisoner” released from the experiment went on to become a prison psychologist. Zimbardo studies the social psychology of madness in groups and cults. He has mixed feelings about the ethics of his experiment. He’s also disappointed that the study didn’t bring about the kind of changes he’d hoped for in prisons. If anything, US prisons have become even less humane in the last 25 years.

Without clear guidelines, careful supervision, and ongoing training and education, corrections officers can come to regard their charges as objects deserving of degradation and humiliation. They can revel in their own power over those entrusted to their care. The 2002 audit done in NH revealed that sexual harassment investigators received little training and took longer than average to respond to complaints; the record keeping was extremely poor and made tracking complaints nearly impossible; and that inmate prison manuals did not sufficiently explain how inmates could make reports or complaints. The employee manual prohibited sex with other employees, but not with inmates.

This is an ugly situation, and one that the NH Corrections Dept. must clean up at once. It’s time to get out the big broom and sweep out the predators and deviates that may still be working in NH prisons. It’s long past time to question the concept of having male corrections officers in female prisons. It’s time to make policy and personnel changes. It’s time for all of this to see the light of day. We are as sick as our secrets.
A day or so after I first heard this story, I heard another – that an additional 500 beds need to be added to the NH state prison system. We should all be asking what, exactly we are building, and why.

“Evil is knowing better, but willingly doing worse.” Phillip Zimbardo

This ran on January 27, 2006 in the Conway Daily Sun.