Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Facing blowback, Maine gives Jeb Bush's education foundation the cold shoulder

In this week's Maine Sunday Telegram, I report on how the administration of Paul LePage dissolved once-close ties with Jeb Bush's education foundation, which had apparently become a political liability.

Back in 2012, I wrote this investigation of the ties between Bush's Foundation for Excellence in Education, for-profit digital education providers and the Maine Department of Education, which outsourced much of the drafting of Maine's inaugural digital charter school rules and policies. (The two-part investigation won a George Polk Award that year.) We followed up with additional details here and here and here showing the Foundation's central role in the creation of the "grading schools" initiative, the governor's "education summit" and other education reform efforts.

But after Commissioner Steven Bowen left office in the late summer of 2013, emails and other correspondence show, the relationship quick cooled, and future commissioners didn't even join the Foundation's Chiefs for Change group, which Bowen had been an active participant in. Here's an excerpt:

Foundation officials reached out again...offering to “touch base on how we can best support your efforts after grades are made public.” [the department] again turned them down, and rejected the foundation’s subsequent offer to issue a news release in support of the new grades.

“In sharp contrast to last year, we’ve been able to maintain very positive coverage around the rollout of this year’s grades because we haven’t connected it to any larger national reform work,” [the department spokesperson] explained in a May 14 response. “Honestly, I do not think a statement from the foundation would be helpful to us or our messaging here in Maine at this time, however, we really respect the work the foundation is doing and the importance of school grades becoming more widely used across the county (sic).”

After May 2014, correspondence between the foundation and the department quickly dwindled to the receipt of mass mailings and short, infrequent exchanges of policy accomplishments and news releases.

Enjoy the story.



Saturday, August 15, 2015

Has Jack DeCoster, Maine's most infamous businessman, returned?

In yesterday's Portland Press Herald, I have the story of how the Maine egg farms formerly controlled by infamous serial rule-breaker Jack DeCoster have been sold to a company with deep past DeCoster links. Indeed, the owner of Hillandale Farms once ran afoul of Ohio regulators for hiding the fact one of his egg companies was actually controlled by DeCoster, who was reportedly forbidden to run egg operations in that state.

Indeed, Hillandale and DeCoster owned the Iowa egg farms at the center of the infamous 2010 salmonella outbreak that the US Centers for Disease Control estimate sickened 56,000 across the country. Here's an excerpt:

[Hillandale founder] Orland Bethel, whose Iowa egg farm was forced to recall 170 million eggs in 2010, invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination to avoid testifying before Congress about the outbreak. The contaminated farm – doing business as Hillandale Farms of Iowa – bought eggs, young chickens and feed from the DeCosters’ Iowa egg farm and feed plant. DeCoster also was apparently an investor in the Iowa farm. A Hillandale spokesperson told The Wall Street Journal in 2010 that the farm and the DeCosters’ feed entity were “financially affiliated,” which allowed them to avoid state feed inspections. 

I've written about DeCoster a number of times in the past, including an expose in Down East Magazine back in 2011 (when Republican state legislators were pressing to pass a bill to loosen labor regulations at his Maine farms) and this piece for the Press Herald in April, when DeCoster and his son were sentenced to three months in prison for their role in the salmonella scandal.

It's unknown if DeCoster is still an investor in Hillandale, and unclear if he retains ownership of the Maine egg farms, which were acquired three years ago by Land O'Lakes in a ten year lease-to-own deal.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Talking Lobster Coast in Damariscotta, Maine, Aug. 13

Damariscotta, Maine -- in the heart of the Midcoast -- chose Lobster Coast: Rebels, Rusticators, and the Struggle for a Forgotten Frontier as their 2015 Community Read, with nearly 500 people signing up to simultaneously read and discuss the book this summer.

The finale is this Thursday, August 13 at 7pm: my free lecture and Q&A at the Lincoln Theater on Main Street. It's convened by the Skidompha Library just down the street, where I'll be signing books for people after the talk. Here's a write up in the Boothbay Register.

Come by and say hello.

[Update, 8/15/15: Thanks to the some 300 of you who came and filled the Lincoln Theater. Enjoyed meeting many of you, and this marquee:]




Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Too many towns? Lessons on consolidation from the Maritimes


For decades, Mainers have debated whether our "home rule" system of strong, usually tiny municipal government is holding the state back. Here every one of our more than 400 towns is a small republic unto itself, with broad powers that in southern or mid-Atlantic states would lie with counties. The vast majority have such small populations -- often less than 2000, and not infrequently under 1000 -- that they retain the town meeting form of government, a pure form of democracy where the assembled citizens vote directly on measures by a show of hands. But, critics say, perhaps a state of just 1.3 million can't afford such a system; thus calls to merge towns or to confer some of their powers on Maine's counties, which currently have hardly any at all.

I wrote on this topic a few months ago in the Maine Sunday Telegram, and in the process became interested in the experiences of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, Canadian provinces very similar to Maine in physical size, population size, economics, environment, and culture. Both provinces have worked to consolidate municipal government -- "amalgamation" is the word Canadians use -- for decades, but with mixed success. In Nova Scotia, counties have generally assumed powers of towns that find they are no longer viable, while in New Brunswick there was a campaign to force towns to merge.

How did it all turn out? While in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick earlier this summer, I looked for lessons for Maine. What I learned is in this piece in this week's Maine Sunday Telegram. Here's an excerpt:

“Most of the arguments about efficiency don’t really pan out,” says James McDavid of the School of Public Administration at the University of Victoria, British Columbia, who studies municipal mergers. “You might get some efficiencies if you talk about amalgamating infrastructure like roads, sewer and water, but the argument falls off the rails when you’re dealing with functions involving human beings interacting with residents.” That’s because wages and benefits usually rise after a merger, especially when unionized police, fire or public works departments are involved.

Enjoy the piece.

[Update, 8/12/15: The Portland Press Herald editorial department came out with this editorial based on the piece.]

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Charges dropped against Passamaquoddy elder who tried to recall tribal leadership

In Friday's Portland Press Herald I had an update on the story of the Passamaquoddy elder and tribal councilor who organized recall petitions against a chief and vice chief and was led away in handcuffs.

Last week, I wrote about the story of Mary Creighton, 72, who organized the recall, only to be arrested and recalled herself. The situation was illustrative of the legal vacuum that exists in regards to "internal tribal matters" like elections, so long as the Maine tribe lacks a constitution.

The new development: the county district attorney has dropped charges of aggravated forgery (allegedly involving recall petition signatures). Here's an excerpt:

Creighton’s attorney, Steve Smith of Lipman and Katz, said prosecutors dismissed the case because their witnesses were not cooperating. “We are pleased that the Washington County prosecutors have seen the justice in dropping what is purely a political case against Ms. Creighton,” Smith said. “It’s safe to say there is no enthusiasm for this case.”
Creighton has no way of challenging her recall, which she said wasn't conducted properly, but she says she intends to sue tribal leaders for defamation. Pleasant Point Chief Fred Moore declined to comment.

For more background on the Passamaquoddy, consider reading "Unsettled," the Press Herald series that ran last summer, and which is also available as an ebook.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

VOA, Texas Monthly, New Orleans Times-Picayune, others on American Nations

American Nations continues to benefit from its second freak virality incident on the Internet, which first manifested itself a week and a half ago at the Washington Post and last week via Business Insider's much circulated articles.

Earlier this week I was interviewed by Voice of America for their "All Things America" blog; that article posted late yesterday. Here's a teaser:

As people move around, one might assume the country would become more homogenous, but Woodard says the opposite occurs, with Americans becoming more polarized as they move to regions they identify with
“That means, in essence, that we are self-sorting,” he said. “That when somebody has an opportunity to move…people tend to be moving to places where they feel more at home, where they are surrounded by like-minded individuals. That ends up with a self-sorting effect that ends up reinforcing the differences between these regional cultures.”
Woodard expects the characteristics of these cultures to remain fundamentally constant over the next century, a key reason he aspires to make more Americans aware of their forgotten past.
Meanwhile, Minnesota Public Radio picked up on the Business Insider piece, emphasizing the great gulf between the two "superpowers", Yankeedom and the Deep South. Meanwhile the Bakersfield Californian named American Nations as one of the ten things their readers needed to know, and the New Orleans Times-Picayune flagged it in regards to what it says about New France, and provoking lots of comments. (For the record, New Orleans itself is shared between New France and the Deep South (and probably the Spanish Caribbean as well, if I ever got into that.))

Somewhere in the fray, Texas Monthly's John Nova Lomax posted this fun article which uses American Nations and Spotify data to explain why various Texas musical genres succeed in being popular in certain areas outside of the Lone Star State. I greatly enjoyed it. An excerpt:

In a way, the Spotify lists lend credence to reporter and author Colin Woodard’s eleven nations of North America map, in which four distinct cultures converge within Texas. Spotify did not provide data for Woodard’s “Midlands” strip of Texas – the northernmost counties of the Panhandle – but his “El Norte,” which he calls “the oldest, and most linguistically different, nation in the Americas” is exemplified by Spotify’s Spanglish El Paso chart, one of the most unusual in the United States.
And he kind of shares my own long-held observation that the Deep South doesn’t really end until you get to Brookshire on I-10, which is where real Texas finally begins. Music tastes bear this out. For example, even if Houston rappers aren’t specifically well-received in Louisiana or the Deep South in terms of style, the lists of both Humble and Houston in East Texas have a bit more in common with Baton Rouge and Memphis than they do with, say, San Antonio or even Dallas. Both of the East Texas population centers show far more of a taste for various African-American music styles (mostly hip-hop, but also blues and zydeco) than places west of the Brazos and north of College Station, where country takes over. Houston’s western suburb of Katy is more akin to Lubbock than it is to Humble.
- See more at: http://www.texasmonthly.com/the-daily-post/mapping-the-popularity-of-texas-artists-outside-of-texas/#sthash.M25X54nA.dpuf 
In a way, the Spotify lists lend credence to reporter and author Colin Woodard’s eleven nations of North America map....He kind of shares my own long-held observation that the Deep South doesn’t really end until you get to Brookshire on I-10, which is where real Texas finally begins. Music tastes bear this out. For example, even if Houston rappers aren’t specifically well-received in Louisiana or the Deep South in terms of style, the lists of both Humble and Houston in East Texas have a bit more in common with Baton Rouge and Memphis than they do with, say, San Antonio or even Dallas. Both of the East Texas population centers show far more of a taste for various African-American music styles (mostly hip-hop, but also blues and zydeco) than places west of the Brazos and north of College Station, where country takes over. Houston’s western suburb of Katy is more akin to Lubbock than it is to Humble.
I also did Fox News Radio's John Gibson Show, but I don't think the segment's online, so you should have been listening!

Thanks to all the new readers who've reached out this past week. Enjoy the book and look out for the sequel.
In a way, the Spotify lists lend credence to reporter and author Colin Woodard’s eleven nations of North America map, in which four distinct cultures converge within Texas. Spotify did not provide data for Woodard’s “Midlands” strip of Texas – the northernmost counties of the Panhandle – but his “El Norte,” which he calls “the oldest, and most linguistically different, nation in the Americas” is exemplified by Spotify’s Spanglish El Paso chart, one of the most unusual in the United States.
And he kind of shares my own long-held observation that the Deep South doesn’t really end until you get to Brookshire on I-10, which is where real Texas finally begins. Music tastes bear this out. For example, even if Houston rappers aren’t specifically well-received in Louisiana or the Deep South in terms of style, the lists of both Humble and Houston in East Texas have a bit more in common with Baton Rouge and Memphis than they do with, say, San Antonio or even Dallas. Both of the East Texas population centers show far more of a taste for various African-American music styles (mostly hip-hop, but also blues and zydeco) than places west of the Brazos and north of College Station, where country takes over. Houston’s western suburb of Katy is more akin to Lubbock than it is to Humble.
- See more at: http://www.texasmonthly.com/the-daily-post/mapping-the-popularity-of-texas-artists-outside-of-texas/#sthash.M25X54nA.dpuf

Monday, August 3, 2015

Is this the future of clamming?

In this week's Maine Sunday Telegram, I write about an experimental, commercial-scale, owner operated clam farm intended to empower clam diggers and save an allegedly imperiled resource. Some diggers and clam scientists love it, others fear it, and with the future of the commons at stake, everyone has a strong opinion.

Here's a taste:

Behold Maine’s first commercial-scale soft-shell clam farm, an experimental project that aims to test whether a single owner-operated farm can earn a worthwhile return for clam diggers who heretofore relied exclusively on the whims of nature to earn a living from the seafloor. If it works, it could revolutionize Maine’s second most valuable fishery, enhance the livelihoods of diggers and stop the assault of the green crabs in their tracks.

But the project has been contentious here in Georgetown, a coastal community 6 miles south of Bath, where some clam diggers fear that self-employed clam diggers like Warner and themselves will eventually be pushed out by corporate growers if the succulent mollusks are farmed rather than gathered in the wild.
I also got to do something I haven't in a while: do a photo shoot. The scenic environment in Georgetown, Maine made it easy.



Photo credit/copyright: Colin Woodard.