Sunday, March 29, 2009

Number 775... and the End

So, this is it. After over three years and 775 posts (counting this one), Save Fitchburg is taking it's final bow. There will be no other posts after this one.


If you know me, you know that Save Fitchburg hasn't exactly been my favorite thing for a while. It was frustrating. It was repetitive. It was repetitively frustrating. I never got into it to be called a liar. I never did it for people to think I was trying to be something I wasn't: A guy who cared for and was interested in the city.

Things took a new level when the Pride happened. That was never part of the "business plan." But it was good in that it made Save Fitchburg better. Covering Fitchburg full-time gave me better insight into what was going on, and how to write about what was going on. Leaving the Pride has left a bit more on the outside, which is fine. But it made Save Fitchburg a bit less.

It's no secret that I'm now working in state government (for the record, it wasn't a "political hire." No one from Fitchburg, except for my wife and brother, knew I was even interested in the job until I had given my notice to the folks at the Pride. See, this is kind of stuff I don't want to deal with anymore). Unfortunately, that leads some people to believe that I have a state-run agenda. While that's not the case, there's a saying about even the appearance of a conflict being a conflict.

I enjoyed spouting off about Fitchburg politics. Sometimes I was right, sometimes I was wrong, but I was always thinking about what might be best for the city. I did not enjoy the animosity and the people who didn't like what I wrote and just assumed I had an agenda. See the start of this paragraph for the outline of my "agenda."

After three-plus years, I have no need and no use for the headache anymore. No need to read comments and have to literally get up and walk away because they were so infuriating. No need to have people assume I'm up to something devious. This is a long time coming, and it's certainly time.

That said, Fitchburg isn't "saved." Yelling stupidly about the trash fee isn't the way to save it though. As for me, I'm getting out of blogging and politics, and I'm going to try something different.

If you're on Facebook, please join the group "Fitchburg Now." If you're on Twitter, please follow "fitchburgnow." The goal isn't politics and government. It's following the community. If you're an elected official or a community leader, and you have an event coming up, please use the "Fitchburg Now" group page at Facebook or Twitter through "fitchburgnow" followers to let people know. Afterward, if you have photos or video of a Fitchburg event, please put it on the "Fitchburg Now" group page at Facebook. There's plenty of room for some good online community networking in Fitchburg. I hope "Fitchburg Now" at Facebook and Twitter can help be a part of that.

I'm excited about this new little experiment. I'm not sure it will work with any efficiency, but I'm optimistic that it might. I think there's some untapped potential for the city in Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks. Just try to figure this out together, shall we?

So, this is it. The end. Save Fitchburg is all done. It was, certainly more often than not, a pleasure. I loved writing about the good stuff that happened, and I loved good, honest debate about this issues. I loved writing about the Celtics last year (I know you didn't Svens, and I apologize). But the negatives were truly very painful, and at this point the benefits aren't outweighing the negatives. If you're a Save Fitchburg lover, I'm sorry about that. But let's do something else.

So, let's keep it going. Let everyone (or at least a bunch of people) know what you're up to, and share your successes. Go to Facebook and get into the Fitchburg Now group. Get on Twitter, and follow fitchburgnow. If you want to reach out to me, use this e-mail address:

Thanks for reading, thanks for writing, and thanks for caring. While I'm putting to bed something that was pretty significant and important to me, I'm glad to moving on to something else. Join, me won't you, in supporting Fitchburg Now.




Sunday, March 15, 2009

While We Were Out...

Go away for a week, and a mayoral candidate drops out. Huh.

It's old news by now, but it's worth touching on here. Rachel Rosenfeld dropped out of the mayor's race last week, just a few weeks after getting in. She never got the chance to knock on a door, print a yard sign, or even get signatures on nomination papers.

On her website, Rosenfeld wrote: "The very simple fact is that I do not have the physical stamina required. While I see very clearly the job that needs to be done, I also see very clearly that I do not have the physical resources to push this tremendous boulder up the hill. To make it through a successful campaign and not survive the elected term would leave the city in worse turmoil."

From the get-go, her health (she's never been shy about her ailments) has been a question. I asked myself in an e-mail interview. Here, in full, is her response: "It is not an issue for the citizens. Just don't smoke near me. I have never failed in a commitment to family, friends, community or synagogue. I have the personal assistance I need for any mobility issues that may arise, my reasoning and intellect are superb, and I don't plan to invade a foreign country or sign up for any cross country hikes. I have as examples Ted Kennedy, JFK, FDR and a close relative Cordell Hull (who had the same familial disease for most of his lifetime), as well as my own mother and grandfather who dealt with this inconvenience for many years. I have the advantage of knowing both my abilities and my limitations and while my abilities will be an asset to the city, the citizens will not be inconvenience in any way by my limitations. My breathing and mobility issues have taught me the value of persistence, objective and goal setting, patience, and priorities. Similarly my financial issues have brought home priority setting and strict fiscal management."

That was posted on Feb. 19. Less than a month later, she's gone.


Certainly, her health, unfortunately, is an issue. Campaigns take a chunk out of anyone. If health is already an issue, why go through that meat grinder? Perhaps the more she thought about it, the more she thought she couldn't win.

If I had to guess, she quickly decided she didn't need the headache. She took a pretty good beating here, but that was nothing compared to the S&E forum, where she was absolutely obliterated very quickly. There were some things that weren't mentioned here that were aired out rather fully (and in some cases, perhaps inaccurately) elsewhere. It was brutal.

Here's the thing. Whether it was here, on her website, or elsewhere, Rosenfeld had made a name for herself. Some people liked her. They thought she was smart, passionate, and right. Some people didn't like her. They thought she shot from the hip, was condecending, and didn't really have any solutions. Apparently, those that didn't like her really didn't like her.

It will be interesting to see what she does next. Will she go back to being everywhere and anywhere in her opinions? Will she pick up the activity at her website, which traditionally has been a little sporadic in updates? Will she reign herself in after what happened over the last three weeks?

It might seem ridiculous to ask all those questions of a Internet-based commenter who was in the mayor's race for all of three weeks. And if a legitimate challenger to Mayor Lisa Wong doesn't bubble up, the questions are probably moot. But Rosenfeld has shown, if nothing else, she's hell bent on getting Wong out of office. If someone rises up to take on Wong, they'll have a cheerleader/hatchetman in Rosenfeld to rely on in some capacity. It's a good bet right now Wong doesn't have that challenger, but if so, Rosenfeld will play some kind of role in the next election.

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Saturday, March 07, 2009

Bye Week

It's that time of year when Save Fitchburg heads to warmer climes for a week. Whether it's union squabbles, streetlight questions, or more anger about the (seemingly dead) trash fee, you're on your own this week. Won't be posting, and won't be checking comments. Unicow, you've been warned.

Enjoy the week, and I expect all this snow to be gone by the time I get back. Get on that, will you?



Saturday, February 28, 2009

A Slow Trickle in the Dark

The latest dismal financial news: Half the city's steetlights will be out in an effort to save $70,000.

Again, like last night's post, not good news.

I know there are a lot of people who are opposed to switching off the lights, for public safety reasons. Perfectly valid.

Let's do this here though: If you're opposed to a cut, whether it's the streetlights, PD, or somewhere else, that's cool. We all have priorities. But if you're against a cut, you have to realize that the money has to come from somewhere else. Where would you take money from to fund your priority? Or where would you find new money to pay for your priority? It's easy to say you want the streetlights on, but unfortunately we're at the point where you have to figure how to pay for something like that.

So, before you write a two-line rip job, think about it. Where would you get the $70,000 to fix the streetlights? And try to be specific. If you say "school dept.," that's fine, but say where. Two teachers? An adminstrator (one that isn't state mandated)? Maybe, just maybe, there's a good idea out there waiting to be discovered.

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Friday, February 27, 2009

Layoffs? Layoffs?

So, it appears some layoffs in city government are in the cards. Not necessarily good news.

A couple of things:

I still think the union settlements last year were a good thing. Yes, I know, that was a lot of money. But at the end of the day, retroactive raises were off the table. Take the raises that were given out, and add a couple hundred grand. Happy now? Plain and simple, spending some money on raises saved at least as much on the retros. Long-term vision, people. That said, I still don't under stand the department head raises (sorry, department heads). That doesn't make as much long-term sense, unless you want to argue morale and keeping people on board. But...

I like Joe Solomito's work, and I'm not trying to pick on him here (although he did bring it up). But it might be time to stop thinking about back taxes as a way to fix some of this problem. Clearly, that money won't be easy to get. Why not target it for the rainy day fund, and then money that you budgeted for stabilization can be redirected when tax money comes in? First, it's one-time revenue, so you can't build a budget on it. Second, it's just not coming enough to be reliable. Go ahead, argue the city isn't pursuing hard enough, but what aren't they doing that they should be?

Here might be the most interesting thing about this long-term: What will the unions do? Will they make concessions to save members, or will the long-timers throw the young'uns overboard? You go to some other spots and see city employees argue for layoffs. Will there be a universal movement on that, or will different unions do it differently? Will there be furloughs?

Someone said four-day weeks should be instituted at City Hall. The Pride editorialized for that last year. It should be done.

* * * * *

Two more things: I'm befuddled by the Mylott situation. I really like the guy personally, and I think his political skills would make him a good city councilor. And then I look at his track as mayor. It will be very interesting to see how his summer and fall goes. Veeerrrrry interesting.

Part of my "sticking around" plan includes a monthly column in the Fitchburg Pride. The first one is in the paper this week. Check it out, won't you? And yes, I'll ask the editor to keep my face off the cover from now on. I'd steal Shaq's twitter term of "sugly," but it's more "ugly" than "s."

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Monday, February 23, 2009

No One. No Way.

One thing that was reinforced by Rachel Rosenfeld's mayoral announcement last week: The top suspects for the job aren't interested.

As first reported in the Fitchburg Pride over a month ago, the names that kept coming up as potential challengers -- Joel Kaddy, Dean Tran, Marcus DiNatale -- are taking a pass. Rosenfeld said she asked them to run, and they declined.


Well, here's a few possible factors:

First, maybe Lisa Wong isn't doing that bad of a job. No matter what you thought in 2007, the top issue was the city's finances (although Ted DeSalvatore would disagree, but no one believed him then. Or now). Both Wong and Tom Donnelly ran on a platform of fixing the city's finances.

Just over a year into her term, and maybe she hasn't done so bad. Library fans are screaming right now. Fair enough. But the overall picture is better than it was a year ago. There's $1 million in the stabilization fund. The city hasn't laid off dozens of workers. The city is making do, even though there's less money and fixed costs are increasing.

Wong detractors don't want to hear it, and that's fine. But if you were running for mayor, what would have done differently. Differently that wouldn't piss off a whole bunch of people. For example: if you restore the library's $800,000, where do you take the $800,000 from elsewhere?

Wong has made plenty of missteps: She's been shaky handling delicate personnel issues, she's sticking to a trash fee plan that seems DOA, and she's done just cutting in various departments to get everyone upset with her. But if you're running for mayor, are there enough holes there?

Second, and relatedly, has she done enough wrong to lose 2,000 votes? She won in 2007 by winning about 75 percent of 8,000 votes. To knock her off, you need to get about one-third of the people who voted for her change their minds. Can you do that? That's tough math to run on.

Third, who wants the job right now? Wong had to cut $1 million this year, and $4 million next year. She's getting slaughtered for it. She asks for more money, and she gets double slaughtered for it. If you're watching this, aren't you thinking, "I'm not doing this. Especially for $60,000." Love for the city only goes so far. Consider Tran. He's got a family, a good job, and enough headaches on the council. Is all that garbage enough to quit your job, lose family time, and get pounded on a daily basis? Who wants to go through that? And if you think I'm crazy, as Rosenfeld how it's gone for her over the last week. My last post was, um, highly cynical of her candidacy, and I didn't even come close to treading on issues or with a tone that you'd see elsewhere (I"m looking at you, S&E commenting forums). Who needs it right now?

Fourth, take all of the issue above, and drop everything else for the next 10 months. Go knock on thousands of doors, beg for roughly $1,000 a week, and spend every waking moment wondering how to pull this off. Good grief.

So, it's no wonder there's minimal talk for mayor candidates right now. Is there a more unappealing job in Fitchburg right now?

* * * * *

Perhaps more on this at a later date, but as I write this we're watching Andre Ravenelle's budget presentation right now. Between his enthusiasm, intelligence, and suprises like he subs in a classroom once a month, this guy is very, very good. Why do I worry he's going to bolt soon?

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Thursday, February 19, 2009

About Rachel Rosenfeld

Two parts to what is probably going to be a giant post. First, a Q&A with Rachel Rosenfeld (that's "Really Rachel" in these parts) via e-mail. Nothing changed in questions or answers. I'll admit it's not comprehensive, but it touches on background, a few issues, and gets the ball rolling. Second, a few of my thoughts on her announced candidacy for mayor.

Part 1:

Why are you running for mayor?
I love Fitchburg. I sincerely believe I can lead the city in the direction the citizens of Fitchburg would like to see the city go.

What made you decide to dedicate 10 months on a campaign and an election?
If not me, who? If not now, when?

How long had you been considering running?
Many years, Jason.

What's your message? What are the important things that you think you're going to be talking about?
Respect. Teamwork. Bringing the city government - processes, technology, methodology into the 21st century. Sound fiscal management. Public safety. Healthcare. Community. Resurrecting Fitchburg. Unitil, energy and technology. Elderly, disabled, families, children - people as the priority. Accountability. True transparency. Consolidation, coordination, cooperation.

You've certainly been critical of the incumbent. How much of that will be part of your campaign?
Critique and compare. We have differing opinions of how best to serve the citizen-taxpayers of Fitchburg. The voters will see a marked difference between us based upon her record and my platform.

Have you ever run for public office before? If so, where and when? How'd it go?
Ran for planning board many years ago in Shirley against an incumbent townie. Spent no money, didn't campaign. Got nailed to the wall. And got my message across.
Helped to organize and was the co-chair of the Northern Healthcare Coalition, the grassroots group from 12 cities and towns that fought the closure of Burbank Hospital during the Bean administration. We preserved an urgent care center at the Burbank Hospital and ALS ambulance service in Fitchburg. First time in history that DPH ever
issued an order of conditions on the closure of a hospital. Hence my undying loyalty to Emile Goguen who poured himself heart and soul into it while his late wife Connie was undergoing chemotherapy.

What's your organization looking like? How many volunteers or staffers do you think you have now? How many do you want as the campaign gears up?
Volunteer recruitment isn't underway but all are welcome. Folks can email me. isn't a big secret.

How much money do you expect to raise?
As little as possible to run a campaign on a shoestring - the same way I live, the way I mean to manage the city - do the maximum with the minimum.

There's a couple of schools of thought on door-knocking: That it's very valuable, that it's merely window-dressing. How do you feel about it? When do you think you'll start knocking on doors?
To be decided.

You've been pretty open about your health issues. Do you think you're healthy enough to serve a two-year term and be available 24/7 as the job seems to dictate?
It is not an issue for the citizens. Just don't smoke near me. I have never failed in a commitment to family, friends, community or synagogue. I have the personal assistance I need for any mobility issues that may arise, my reasoning and intellect are superb, and I
don't plan to invade a foreign country or sign up for any cross country hikes. I have as examples Ted Kennedy, JFK, FDR and a close relative Cordell Hull (who had the same familial disease for most of his lifetime), as well as my own mother and grandfather who dealt with this inconvenience for many years. I have the advantage of knowing both my abilities and my limitations and while my abilities will be an asset to the city, the citizens will not be inconvenience in any way by my limitations. My breathing and mobility issues have taught me the value of persistence, objective and goal setting, patience, and priorities. Similarly my financial issues have brought home priority setting and strict fiscal management.

You've talked in the past about how the Mayor's Office is too powerful. How would you work as mayor to reduce the office's power. Would you push for a charter commission to change from mayor to manager?
The last thing I want is to be "Lady Rachel" or "Queen Rachel" and our archaic strong mayor weak council government is set up for just such a scenario. It's modeled on the old English Lord Mayor - Privy Council model that has not been in use in England for a very long time. The reason given for not having pursued charter review and revision has always been that it's too hard, complicated, confusing, time consuming. I have the time and the doggedness to see it through, or at least make a heck of a good start during a term in office.
In addition, the very setup causes unnecessary conflict in the city. There is no reason a mayor and a city council should find themselves in an adversarial position if all have the best interests of the taxpayers at heart. Our current system is practically a bloodsport and it needs to be realigned so that there is a truly balanced balance of power, and equalization, with management responsible to the board of directors, i.e. city council. Sounds like I lean toward a city manager form of government - I've seen it work well and I know there have been issues elsewhere. That's why one person doesn't make that decision.
I want to see a more democratic (little d) form of government in Fitchburg where people feel they have a voice beyond biannual elections. Otherwise they become frustrated and angry. And unlike sausage being made, I believe people DO want to see the process and be involved in how things are done.
Lots of interaction between the mayor and the citizens, open forums, "mayor's open house" if invited to rotate at ward meetings, stay in touch with the people. I see the mayor's role as much more hands on with the people day to day, "mayor at large" with executive responsibilities.

The city is facing a $4 million deficit next year. How do you fill that gap?
One dollar at a time. Seriously. $4M is less than 5% of recent city budgets. You tell me you can't cut 5% out of your household budget and still preserve "vital services" at home.

How do you slow the rapid increases in health care?
What was promised during the 2007 mayoral campaign and never done. Sorry, that's a criticism. In addition to the not-yet-dead horse we've been beating for the past several years, there are additional options that may coincide with bringing healthcare access back to the city.

Would you favor layoffs?
Let's stop giving out raises like candy first. There may be alternatives to people losing their jobs through a well thought out, well planned reorganization program, reduction of hours of hourly workers without losing healthcare and full time benefits, a carefully crafted attrition program.

What departments would you target first?
I would never "target" a department or an individual. I don't believe in people as targets.
I will, however, target inefficiencies. The rationale "we might get sued" won't work. City vehicles are not for commuting. Period.
I would assess the mayor's office first. With computers there's no need for someone else to type my letters. Assistant to the mayor is an essential position (not a chief of staff). Administrative assistant could most likely be shared with another department. As those are two positions each mayor personally fills, I might choose not to fill the Admin Asst position.

Part 2:

So, what to think?

At the outset, you probably fall into one of two camps: "Go, Rachel. Wong needs to go." Or, "Rachel? Really? Isn't she that crazy Internet woman?"

It's no secret Rachel and I have had a, um, combative past. You can flip through the countless comments and catch the highlights. I'll be honest. I'm highly skeptical of her candidacy. Here's why:

First, she's lacking on some organizational basics. Volunteers are welcome, but I don't get the sense there's been a real effort to put together a campaign and organize. Legend has it that Marcus DiNatale has the best voter database and organization in the city through working for himself and his father. If that's true, Wong might have the second best. There are reams of information -- active voter lists, probable voter identification, organizing standouts, blah, blah, blah -- that someone has to do to pull off a well-run campaign. And "to be determined" is an answer on door-knocking that needs to be substantially improved.

Then there's the money. "Shoestring" sounds good, but rarely competes in a high-money race. The 2007 race was around $30,000 in the preliminary. I'm sure both Donnelly and Wong were in the $40,000 by the time it was all said and done. How do you compete with the mailers and the organization? The scrappy underdog only goes so far. Ask Ron Dionne.

Second, I'll call this the DeSalvatore factor. It's not quite what the Unicow posted today, but similar. As the campaign went on in '07, DeSalvatore started pulling his punches. He spent the first part of the year firing from the hip, and then when it got late, he got cautious. People were scratching their heads, and it came across as a bad performance in debates.

What does Rachel do? She created the "Queen Lisa" tag for crying out loud. Is she going to stop name-calling and play it a bit more safely? For my money, she seems a little tame in some of the questions above. If you doubt that, hit the comments. It's all relative. She's been raging for the better part of a year. Does she keep her foot on the pedal, or ease off? I'm not sure either is really a winning play. She might be stuck here.

Third, let's try to probe the thoughts of Rachel here. Does she really want to be mayor, or does she want a larger soapbox to hammer Wong, her archenemy? While the S&E pointed to her blog today as her launching pad, I'm arrogant enough to guess old SF does much better business, and that this is really where she made her bones. While I love old SF, let's be honest here, it's a limited audience. What's really her goal? Is she in it to win it, or hammer at Wong for the next eight to 10 months?

Similarly, is she a stalking horse for someone? She clearly makes the rounds, talking to councilors and other city movers-and-shakers. Is she going to throw bombs and clear the path for another candidate? If I didn't know any better, I'd bet on Tran considering his remarks in the paper today. But that's too cynical, I think. But weirder things have happened in politics.

Fourth, Rachel at some point is going to have answer to a lot of things she has said on her blog and in other spaces in the last two or three years. Some of it would cause people to take pause. I'd love to say I'm going to do it, but the thought of rolling through thousands of comments makes me want to cry. It's a long campaign, I guess I have time.

Fifth, she needs to prove she can play well with others. Right or wrong (and this goes back to me running through comments), most folks feel like she was pro-Ted, and bailed. And then she was pro-Wong and bailed. Personally, I know the feeling. Some days I'm an honest, dedicated guy, somedays I'm jerk blow-in.

Being mayor means playing well with others. You need to massage the unions, work with the council, keep the department heads motivated and working, and be the public face of the city, not only at home, but with regional and state officials. Who knows how she'd roll, but her history here would be Exhibit A of not really playing well with others.

Sixth, being mayor is hard, and there's a lot to learn. I don't expect her to know it all yet. But even for a Day One candidate, a question about a $4M budget gap deserves more than a three-line answer.

Seventh, she's gotta shift into some facts. Consider her answer on health care costs. The first part says nothing has been done. Not true. Wong brought in new coverage last summer that was cheaper than an old plan. So, there's that factual error. This also goes to the paragraph above. Making health care cheaper is a horribly complicated thing that include giant companies and many unions throughout city government. There's no sense of the magnitude of that task in her answer.

On this issue, she pulled for the S&E her quote about Wong not understanding how to live on a shoestring budget. Maybe she does, maybe she doesn't. But (as discussed here in the past) Wong's parents are first-generation immigrants who opened up a restaurant in Cambridge. Generally, restaurant owners aren't rolling in dough. During the last campaign, Wong talked about working in the restaurant as a kid. Yes, she went to BU and she's traveled a good chunk of the world, but I'm guessing she and her parents weren't commuting from Wellesley to the family restaurant, if you know what I mean. Does Rosenfeld have the Wong family W2s from the 1980s? Most of Wong's backstory points to a family working hard to get by and do what they could for their kids. So when Rosenfeld fires away like that, you either believe the hype, or question its validity. She can't afford to have people questioning her validity on anything.

Look, she's got a lot of time to answer these questions. She's a known entity from her spirited blog comments and posts at her site. But what's she really like? I've never met her in person, so I don't really know. Her announcement has certainly raised eyebrows, and it certainly plays well with the anti-Wong crowd. But is that crowd currently at 50 percent-plus-1? And if it is, will they all rally around her? It's unique for a new candidate (and by new, I mean never running before) to be this polarizing. How she runs, what she says, and how she says it will make for an interesting campaign, that's for sure.

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