Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Three Items

Three things we're noting today:

First, check out a new blog that focuses on Central Massachusetts (mostly Fitchburg) transportation. There some nice insight on the whys and therefores of stop signs and other items. Interestingly, the blog notes last week's stop-sign furor was as much politics as transportation logistics. It sort of comes back to our point that council politics and time can be better served on other issues.

Second, the Sentinel reports today on the goal to create full-day kindergarten. There's some concern about closing down the dedicated kindergarten and pre-school centers, but the idea of full-day kindergarten is one the city should strive to acheive. We'll admit that this proposal would mesh nicely with our oldest hitting kindergarten, and we'll also admit that we're not sure we'd want her in full-day or part-day. But we'd like the option.

Most importantly, we're pretty sure there are families in Fitchburg who don't end every day with a bedtime book, and those kids need more of a running start out of kindergarten. Giving those kids a chance to get a full day of learning and interacting with other kids is an important part of the educational puzzle. It appears as if a lot of the issues revolving around this are political (the Sentinel's headline says it all). It's up to the school administration to make this enticing as possible to everyone involved. But, we're encouraged to see a plan being formulated to get full-day kindergarten in place.

Third (and finally), the story in today's Sentinel regarding Harper's Furniture and the long list of folks who have inquired about purchasing the building. We're glad to hear a building like this is getting some attention, but here's our concern:

On a lark, we checked the Assessor's Office database to see how much the property is worth. According to the records, it's at $330,000 (and was sold in 1998 for $225,000). We're shocked by how little the property is worth, in comparison to say, our home. That's a big building with potential commercial and residential use and the city assesses it at less than $90,000 more than my house. To me, it means one of three things: The city has way overvalued my home, it has way undervalued this property, or downtown property just isn't worth very much.

We wouldn't be surprised if it was the first, would be displeased if it was the second, and are afraid the third is the real answer.


Monday, February 27, 2006

The Fall of City Hall

Something everyone seems to agree on: City Hall is a mess, and there isn't enough money to fix it. At least according to the Sentinel and Enterprise.

City Hall is an old building with a lot of problems (some would say both physically and metaphorically), and there appears to be no solution to all the problems (some would say both physically and metaphorically). It's drafty, worn out, and needs a ton of money to be fixed.

We love old City Halls. They can bring a sense of dignity and class to city government, even when city government is struggling to supply both to the community.

Here's our idea: Sell City Hall and let the buyer turn it into condos. We can hear the cries of opposition, but this is a way to preserve the dignified facade of City Hall -- certainly a highlight of downtown -- and also generate some activity in that area of town by bringing in condo buyers.

Also, it supplies cash to build a new City Hall. A gleaming, shiny new City Hall that will proclaim the era of a New Fitchburg. A creative, vibrant innovative Fitchburg.

If the current City Hall is a connection to the "good old days" and a reminder of Fitchburg's greatness, a new City Hall can be the harbinger of the city's return to glory.


Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Sentinel on Cronin

The Sentinel checks in on the chief's council appearance last night. Simply, he wants more cops on the street, and we think it should be a priority.

Note at the bottom of the Sentinel story the second big issue of the night: A stop sign at an intersection. How that became important, we do not know. How it was divisive enough to earn a 7-4 vote, we really do not know.


Two from the Telegram

OK, we hinted at it yesterday, but after today's Telegram we're saying outright. Save Fitchburg broke the story on Stephen DiNatale creating a campaign committee. Maybe it's just coincidence that we posted yesterday and the story hit the paper today, but we're willing to bet they got it from us.

It was solid enough that the Telegram followed it up in today's paper. As a former reporter, we're just puffing with pride today at getting a tiny little scoop. As a newbie blogger, we'll make the cliched lament of not getting credit from the mainstream media. We don't really expect the Telegram to give us credit, so we'll give it to ourselves. Good for us and all that.

In more important business, the Telegram also follows the police chief's appearance at the City Council last night, where he points to statistics showing Fitchburg is far safer than it was in 1997. The spin follows last week's shooting of an 18-year-old. We'll let the chief's presentation speak for itself and see if any commentators have anything to say about it. We're guessing they will.


Tuesday, February 21, 2006

DiNatale Takes the First Step

According to the on-line shop at the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance, Stephen DiNatale has created a campaign committee. We presume it's for a run for state representative this fall.

According to OCPF, DiNatale created the committee on Jan. 18, with Joseph Selomito signed on as treasurer. That's over three weeks before Emile Goguen announced he was not running for re-election this fall.

DiNatale is the only candidate of the "Big Three" -- including himself, Mayor Dan Mylott and former Mayor Mary Whitney -- to create a campaign committee so far. Those who create a committee must file monthly reports if and when they bring in donations or make expenditures. There was no January report for DiNatale, which means either the system is a bit behind (it happens) or DiNatale didn't bring in any cash (a strong, strong possibility).

Clearly, it looks like DiNatale is eager to move. While this gives him no real advantage, it does make him the first to really step into the role of candidate. We'll be interested to see when other folks take the step to more formally become a candidate.


Friday, February 17, 2006

A Wrapup

A few followups on this week's hot topics...

The shooting issue clearly hit a cord around the Fitchburg blog community. In some ways, politicizing this issue would work. If someone turned it into their big issue, and railed on it non-stop, every week (like on a Tuesday night, perhaps...), and made sure the appropriate followup was made.

PD's don't like to give out their staffing and patrol patterns, it tips off the bad guys and all that, but I'm confident that it's safe to say the department can redeploy some resources in the bad areas. Hey, here's an idea, corrdinate an all-out effort in one small area on a Friday night. It doesn't have to necessarily lead to 50 arrests, but it regularly (like a couple of times a week) and you start making gang business hard to do.

We blew some electronic space on the commuter rail issue this week, and since then things haven't gone well on the Boston-to-Fitchburg rail. There was a big delay on Wednesday when a Shirley man was killed by a train, but that obviously doesn't go into the MBCR's loss column.

This morning, however, is a different story.

Save Fitchburg got up an hour early today to catch the first train in order to get a headstart on the long weekend. Save Fitchburg got to work 30 minutes later than usual. How can the first train of the day have mechanical problems? Doesn't anybody check this stuff at the last run of the day before or real early in the morning. By South Acton, the first train of the day was picking up passengers for the two following that. Ridiculous. Information was at a crawl (the message boards when we pulled into Lincoln said the train was 10-15 minutes late. At that point it was almost an hour).

Certainly, things happen, but today was a joke in terms of shuffling things around and getting people into the city in a timely manner. You'd think they'd have a plan for these things. To make matters worse, Save Fitchburg was probably the last person on the train to actually show a pass or ticket. An hour-and-a-half late, and we still had to pay. Brutal.

Finally, some good feedback on the question of what questions should be asked of state rep candidates (feel free to hit the comments sections for all the details). One we really liked was the income tax rate question about lowering from the current rate to 5 percent.

While our liberal tendencies don't mind the minor bump, we don't like the fact that the tax rate was supposed to rolled back years ago, and the current rate is in direct conflict with the will of the voters, who approved the move to 5 percent in a statewide vote. Essentially, we want someone who's not going to listen to the will of the people, and not make boneheaded, greedy moves because leadership says so.


Thursday, February 16, 2006

Yesterday's Shooting

As most folks in Fitchburg probably already know, an 18-year-old was shot in broad daylight in the middle of the street.

The Sentinel and Enterprise bobbles along in its story for awhile before getting to the inevitable possible connection to gang activity on the part of the victim (click here. Lengthy sidenote: Back in our journalistic days our stuff was in the Sentinel from time to time. End disclosure. Now, it's obvious to assume a gang connection when an 18-year-old is shot in the middle of the day. The gang stuff is buried in the story. Additionally, this morning the story was second fiddle to the U.S. Olympic hockey team. Someone smartened up this afternoon and put the shooting story first, but man).

All this is positively dripping red meat for the folks who feel Fitchburg isn't safe (if you look around the comments, you'll see some earlier reaction). While we'll throw in a "let's see what happens" caveat, we'll say this for now:

Enough appears to be enough. It might be time for someone to take a tough stand. Someone needs to stand up and say Fitchburg is done putting up with this. Someone should demand resources, police officers, whatever, be targeted to eliminating gangs in the city. Or make the gangs so miserable they don't have time to shoot people.

In places like Boston, the over-reaction includes gang forces sweeping the city streets. In places like Lowell, the city manager rolls out city inspectors to fine the hell out of the two- and three-family houses these gangs use to live and operate in. The owners eventually get the hint and clear out the problems.

We're not the ones who can make these changes happen, we can only demand that someone in authority take up the cause. We'd like to see a full-out effort on these gangs. Police know the story, they need the green light and the resources to make it happen. We'd like to see city inspectors nail every trash infraction, abandoned car, sagging porch, leaky faucet, whatever. It's time to not just say "we're winning the fight," but to go out and win it.

It won't happen overnight, but it has to happen over a series of days and nights, so kids aren't shot in the streets anymore.


Wednesday, February 15, 2006

5 Questions

Someday, when the snow melts and the field is set and candidates start making the rounds, we expect to see someone running for state rep on our doorstep looking for our vote.

It's one of the things we like best campaign season: When candidates come knocking on our doors, invariably with a flyer or letter, and chat for a minute or two. Imagine our dismay when only two City Council hopefuls (Jay Cruz and Dean Tran) stopped by last fall. If you're thinking about running this fall and want to make a good impression, make sure we see you in the neighborhood. We like that.

Anyway, we like to be prepared when we meet these folks. Here's our quick stab at Five Questions We Want to Ask (And Have Answered). Feel free to add your own, or provide answers (especially if you're running).

1. Grade the current relationship between Fitchburg and state government. Let's say the grade is below A-plus. What are going to do to make it better?
2. My kids will enter school in the next three years. Sending them to elementary school in Fitchburg doesn't bother me, but the thought of public middle school and beyond leaves me less than confident. What can you do to change my mind in the next 8-10 years?
3. What's the top priority for downtown Fitchburg? What can you bring new to the table for downtown?
4. How will you operate on Beacon Hill? Will you be independent? How much of your lead will come from leadership? Who do you know in the State House?
5. What's the biggest non-local issue the state faces? What's your position on it?


Monday, February 13, 2006

The Slow Train to (and from) Fitchburg

Certainly throughout this fall's state rep election and whatever other political campaigning that goes on, people will talk about using the commuter rail to help revitalize downtown.

For once, this is an issue we're something of an expert on. We take the train from Fitchburg to Boston at least three times a week, sometimes the entire week.

The train is definitely an enhancement for Fitchburg, but there are so many issues that come along with improving service that it is something that can't be written off with a quick, "it has to be faster."

First, we need convincing the train will draw riders. We get to the station at about 6:30 and get back at about 7 at night. There's maybe 50 cars in the garage, and no tangible sign that commuters fill it up in between. It's a big garage, with certainly big plans to be full some day, but it's not happening now. There are plenty of studies that show commuter rail service is a help to outlying communities, but a hard look needs to be taken at the impact it would have on Fitchburg.

The one thing the train has going for it is cost. As "2ndson" noted, it's $6 one-way. That's pretty cheap. What's the limit? Would $8 one-way lose riders? Maybe. $10? Definitely. As the MBTA in general struggles financially, higher fares may be in the offing.

More importantly is the long ride. The "express" takes 1:20. That's a long time on a train, especially when half is pretty crowded. It's marginally cheaper to ride the train depending on your parking situation, and about the same amount of time at rush hour. The car is far more comfortable, however, something the train can never overcome.

The grand goal is to make the train ride from Fitchburg an hour. That would be very, very nice. But how realistic is that? Fitchburg doesn't have the ridership to fill up a train, so other station stops would be necessary. T officials could probably fashion a schedule that maximizes both ridership and time, but for an hour ride? Very, very difficult. Especially with only one track (really, there's only track) around Littleton and Acton.

Most importantly, the T should take a look at its current schedule. The morning "express" leaves Fitchburg at 6:40 and gets to Boston at 8. That means pretty much anyone on that train can be at their desk by 8:30-8:45. That's a well-timed train. The evening "express," however, leaves at 4:40. That's an unrealistic time for a large majority of people. Why not make the "express" at 5:20, which is a very full train. Sure, that time is tough for a lot of people (we leave the desk at 5 on the dot to run to make it), but it's better than 4:40.

Somehow, the T needs to figure out a way to make the train faster and more convenient, while not raising prices too high. That's a tall order. To think the train can be a major catalyst for downtown Fitchburg is also a tall order. Train service is necessary and valuable for Fitchburg and its residents, but to consider it a key part of downtown's future may be a stretch.


Saturday, February 11, 2006

Let the Games Begin!

Oh yeah, it's time to get all political.

Emile Goguen officially announced yesterday the very unsurprising news that he's not running for state rep this fall. The only surprise is that someone wasn't angling for the throne even if he did run. If there was ever a display of the power of incumbancy, this was it.

Anyway, let the name-dropping, the will-he/she-or-won't-he/she, the "he/she's terrible" "he/she's great" and all the other names begin.

Obviously, the attention now turns to setting the lineup. Of particular interest to us: Is Dan Mylott in or out, and if he's in, will he promise not to hold two jobs at the same time? Quite honestly, we hope he's in just to have that question needed to be answered.

Anyway, good times ahead, full of questions about the future of Fitchburg and whether or not it gets the shaft from Beacon Hill.


Friday, February 03, 2006

A Few Thoughts

Responses to a few thought-provoking comments (see yesterday's post for it all) over the last day:

--Dan Mylott as mayor and state representative is not a good idea. In fact, if Mylott were to announce his intention to run for representative, he would have to promise to drop out of City Hall if he won. Or we would be seriously upset.

Two reasons: First, for Fitchburg to be properly service, those jobs need to be full-time gigs. What happens when Fitchburg is in a crisis on the same day as a big vote at the State House? Who wins then? Second, those are arguably the most powerful positions in Fitchburg. One person shouldn't have both. It's not good for the city.

--We agree with the sentiment that the mayor position should be better paid. If you want a high-quality person in a full-time job, give that person a salary that justifies the expectations.

We are very intrigued by the thought of reshaping city government to a manager-council format. It works in a number of larger cities and does all but guarantee the selection of a professional manager ("all but" is code for "as long as the council picks a good manager). It would necessitate a lengthy study and citywide vote. It's a hard process to undertake, but perhaps it should at least be considered. We'd need to see a study before we got on board, but someone should start taking a look at it.

--Bob Antonioni's a big boy and can take care of himself, but those comments from Dean Tran don't make him look very good in Fitchburg. We e-mailed Antonioni three months ago, and got nothing but an automated reply. We may try again soon just to test responsiveness. We'll keep you posted.

--Yesterday's post generated seven comments in short time, probably a record for this fledgling site. The potential of a shakeup at the top clearly gets the political juices flowing. Tasty.


Thursday, February 02, 2006

A Key Year

Suddenly, it looks like there will be an excellent opportunity this year for Fitchburg residents to remake its power structure, with the possiblity of long-term effects on the city.

It appears more and more like Rep. Emile Goguen is stepping down -- with an announcement perhaps in the next week or so. Not only does it provide an opportunity to reshape the city's State House representation, it will also likely lead to a big change at City Hall.

While Goguen enjoys strong popularity in Fitchburg -- if he does run this fall is there any doubt of his winning? -- he's seen differently on Beacon Hill. He is not part of the inner circle of power brokers, and he does not carry weight with the power brokers. His influence is minimal. For a city that needs a strong voice at the State House, Goguen does not provide it.

So, Fitchburg gets the opportunity to find that strong voice. In the perfect world, our candidate is on the younger side, full of energy and enthusiasm, smart as hell, and ready and willing to play ball at the State House and quickly find a meaningful role in the Legislature. As the city tries to "improve ties" to the State House (or, figure out a way to get some financial help on everything from the budget to Route 12 and a downtown connector), this is a key opportunity to find someone to help.

However, this goes potentially beyond the State House and effects City Hall. Mayor Dan Mylott is expected to throw his hat in the ring for Goguen's seat. If he wins, that suddenly leaves Fitchburg looking for a mayor, the most important job in city government. Again, we like young, dynamic, energized. Someone who will carry the Fitchburg banner anywhere, any time, any place.

Is Mylott the right guy for the job? We've written in the past that we question the influence a minority-party representative who has spent much of the last year belittling the Legislature. However, he has unquestionably strong support in the city (despite the general on-line view of the guy) and has an understanding of how the city works and what its needs are (again, despite the general on-line view of the guy).

Mylott doesn't have to give up the Mayor's Office to run, and can stay if he loses a state rep race, but wouldn't that really be a referendum on Mylott's 2007 chances? If he can't win what's essentially a citywide election for state rep, how could he come back a year later and be re-elected mayor? Wouldn't potential '07 mayoral candidates be emboldened by a Mylott loss this year?

The point: If Goguen doesn't run again, and Mylott runs for state rep, it pretty much means Fitchburg is electing a new rep and new mayor in the next two years (Mylott supports can feel free to make their arguments for Mylott losing in '06 and winning in '07 comments below).

It all gets started in the next few days, when Goguen makes his expected announcement. What looked like a down year in local electoral politics (no local elections, Goguen and Antonioni slam-dunks for re-election) suddenly has the prospect of not only being fun, but a major crossroads for Fitchburg.