Thursday, April 30, 2009

Maine: Will legislators stop destruction of campaign finance disclosures?

It was Augusta to the rescue, or so it seemed.

Maine state legislators had a chance to fix a troubling shortcoming in Maine's clean elections policies earlier this month. As I report in my column in the forthcoming issue of Working Waterfront, key lawmakers refused to do so, apparently because they didn't understand what's at stake.

As regular readers are painfully aware, in January I discovered that Portland, Bangor, and other large Maine towns and cities have been destroying the campaign finance disclosures of candidates for local office, sometimes as soon as two years after an election. This makes it impossible to trace the relationship between money (e.g. property developers) and politicians (e.g. the officials who judge development proposals) over time.

As you'll read, legislators serving on the state and local government committee will have a final chance to fix the problem sometime next month. [UPDATE: 5/7/2009]

Meanwhile, I've posted copies of the surviving campaign finance disclosures for Portland on my own website, since Maine's largest city is unable to do so themselves. (I have also put out a blanket request for copies of disclosures for election cycles prior to 2006.)

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Global pandemic: what cities should (have) do(ne)

This morning, a officials in Texas confirmed the first death from the "swine flu" outside of Mexico, where the H1N1 virus strain has killed 159. France is seeking a ban on all flights between the European Union and Mexico to contain what health officials fear could become a global pandemic.

What's the worst that could happen? In 2006, I investigated what a "bad case" scenario might look like for Trust, the magazine of the Pew Charitable Trusts, which has been supporting efforts to help local governments prepare for such a situation. As the article shows, in a serious H1N1 event, every city or rural county will pretty much be on its own. They'd best have thought through what to do ahead of time -- things like securing the hospitals from desperate, overflow crowds and making sure police and firemen have the right respirators to be able to help others -- if they're to respond adequately.

What would successful planning look like? The article describes how Manchester, New Hampshire -- site of a serious anthrax outbreak fifty years ago -- has planned for the worst.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Maine: Port City Life magazine sold

In the January issue of Port City Life, I wrote about the Maine newspaper industry, including the plight of Maine's largest newspaper chain, the Blethen Maine Newspapers, whose parent company had been negotiating to sell for months. Nearly four months later, the Seattle Times Company still hasn't closed the deal to sell its Maine newspapers, including what was once the state's newspaper of record, the Portland Press-Herald.

Ironically, it's
Port City Life that's just been sold.

On Friday, the Portland-based monthly announced it had just been acquired by the
publishers of Maine Home+Design magazine, Kevin Thomas and Susan Kelley, who intend "to reposition the magazine" with a "major relaunch" this September. Port City Life publisher and editor Laurie Hyndman will stay on as managing editor.

If, like me, you've been hoping somebody would step into the growing vacuum at the center of Maine's media landscape -- a place for substantive discussion of what's really happening in this state -- you're probably going to be disappointed by the new
Port City Life.

In a press release announcing the takeover, Thomas writes that in future the magazine will aim to "capture the beauty and excitement of living here" by highlighting Maine's "vital urbane culture [which]
transcends some of the typical stereotypes of this state."

The magazine," the press release states, "will focus on the people, places, and ideas that remind Mainers why they choose to live here. "

Good luck: that's already a
very crowded marketplace.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Lobster Coast Talk: Camden, Maine, April 28

For all of you in Midcoast Maine, I'm giving a talk on the Past, Present, and Future of Coastal Maine at the Camden Public Library on April 28 at 6:30pm. The event is co-hosted by the Penobscot Marine Museum.

The talk is largely based on my book, The Lobster Coast: Rebels, Rusticators, and the Struggle for a Forgotten Frontier (Viking: 2004), a New England bestseller that some have been so kind as to call the "owner's manual to the Maine coast." Actually, that was my dad, but he's right. (And I also like his idea of passing it out to incoming visitors at the York tool booths on Interstate 95.)

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Antarctica: my story on the Explorer sinking investigation

For those following polar cruise ship tourism, my piece on the investigation into the sinking of the cruise ship MS Explorer is now up at The Christian Science Monitor. There's audio as well.

The Canadian-owned ship sank in Antarctica's Bransfield Strait in November, 2007. As I reported at the time, the initial explanations didn't add up.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Ocean Policy: Gulf of Maine Ocean Observing system withers

The Gulf of Maine Ocean Observing System, a network of ocean-monitoring buoys, saves lives and money while increasing our understanding of marine ecology, commercial fish species, and has been recognized as a model for similar systems around the world. Such systems have the endorsement of both the Pew Commission on the Oceans and President Bush's US. Commission on Ocean Policy. Best of all, it costs only a couple million dollars a year, about the same as a single Bradley Fighting Vehicle.

But, as you can read in my "Talk of Maine" piece in the May 2009 issue of Down East Magazine, the system is collapsing for lack of federal support. Five of eleven buoys have already been pulled from the water - possibly permanently, as Congress dithers on funding the national system and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration diverts limited resources to create new systems in other parts of the country.

Unfortunately the piece isn't available online (at this writing the April issue is still on the website), but New Englanders will find it at their local magazine stand. (For background, I reported on the ocean observing systems' troubles two years ago in the Christian Science Monitor.)

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Best Portland Author 2009

An update from the Department of Vulgar Self Promotion: the readers of the Portland Phoenix, my home city's alternative weekly newspaper, have named me Best Portland Author in the paper's Best of '09 competition.

Other winners in this year's competition include: Portland's Buy Local campaign (Best Non-Profit, Best Local Cause), Pat's Meat Market (Best Butcher), Strange Maine (BestBlog), Portland Food Map (Best Food Blog), Yosaku (Best Sushi), and Longfellow Books (Best Bookstore).

My heartfelt thanks to fans of The Republic of Pirates, The Lobster Coast, and Ocean's End for their support. Also be sure to check out my worthy co-nominees -- Ron Currie, Phillip Hoose, Lewis Robinson, and Jan Watson -- who've helped make our little city a literary hub.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Antarctica: Sinking of the MS Explorer update

In late 2007, I reported on the sinking of the cruise ship M/S Explorer off the coast of Antarctica for The Christian Science Monitor, with a follow up on how the facts as they had been presented did not add up. Since then we've been waiting for the government of Liberia -- where the Canadian-owned vessel was flagged -- to release the results of their investigation.

Sunday the London Independent reported on the leaked contents of that report, which apparently suggest that the Explorer's captain was responsible for plowing into what one passenger called a "wall of ice." The leak comes at an uncomfortable time for the Antarctic cruise ship industry, as it comes in the midst of a major annual meeting of the parties to the Antarctica Treaty, who are considering tighter restrictions on cruise ships there.

I saw the M/S Explorer in Greenland a few months before her final voyage. The vessel I was on at the time -- while covering the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople's efforts to draw attention to climate change -- also suffered a serious accident in Antarctica later that season.

I visited the Antarctic for six weeks in 1998 while writing my first book, Ocean's End: Travels Through Endangered Seas, and happened to pass through the straits in which the Explorer went down. As you'd expect, it's a cold and forbidding, not the sort of place you'd want to face in an open lifeboat.

Photograph (c) 2008 Colin S Woodard.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Maine State Pier: Pricing the Options

If you live in or near Portland, Maine, you may be interested in participating in tomorrow's public workshops on the future of the city-owned Maine State Pier, an issue that has dominated local politics and waterfront planning for the past three years.

You also may want to read my new piece at The Bollard, which discusses the challenges you will face in comparing potential costs and benefits of various repair scenarios. These include the city's failure to price non-development repair scenarios (e.g., the use as a ship berth and waterfront park) alongside development ones (which presume the construction of a hotel or office tower on the northern half of the pier), as well as the explicit discouragement of discussion of the future of the adjacent Ocean Gateway Terminal.

After reading, you may wish to consult the following documents: the 24-page public process planning memo (with the city's cost estimates for various development scenarios) and the August 2006 memos related to Appledore Marine Engineering's repair estimates.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Maine: update on campaign finance disclosure mess

As I reported in January, Maine towns and cities have been destroying campaign finance disclosures in as little as two years after an election on the advice of state officials. The destruction of these documents makes it impossible to trace relationships between donors and elected officials over time, which is the entire point of having them.

In response, State Senator Justin Alfond has submitted a bill that would remedy the situation by extending existing rules and procedures used for county and state candidates to municipal ones (in towns and cities with at least 15,000 residents.) As a result, responsibility for retaining the documents (forever) would be transferred from the Maine State Archives (which recommended their premature destruction) to the state ethics commission.

A public hearing on the measure is to be held at 9:30 this morning at the Cross Office Building in Augusta. [UPDATE: 5/7/2009]

The head of the ethics commission, Jonathan Wayne, told me the plan was feasible, so long as his office received a little additional manpower assistance around election time.

In the meantime, I've posted copies of the surviving campaign finance disclosures for Portland on my own website, since the city is unwilling or unable to do so themselves. Thus far, nobody has responded to my blanket request for copies of disclosures for election cycles prior to 2006.

Pirates of the Turks & Caicos: Part 2

My piece on the ongoing political crisis in the Turks & Caicos is now up at The Christian Science Monitor. Following the interim report of official corruption investigators, the prime minister resigned last month and the United Kingdom announced it intended to suspend the constitution and restore direct rule of the overseas territory.

At hearings earlier this year, investigators heard testimony suggesting what they later called "systemic venality" and "political amorality." Some highlights are in my Monitor piece, but if you've got time on your hands and want to read for yourself, all the transcripts from the Commission on Inquiry are available online.

The former Prime Minister, Michael Misick, declined to speak with me, but his friend (and Turks & Caicos Washington lobbyist) Jeffrey Watson did. You can read his salient remarks in the piece. (Watson surfaced during testimony about the private jets Mr. Misick had used, one of which turned out to be leased from a firm controlled by Mr. Watson.)

Some additional information for politicos: During our interview Watson initially denied that he was a registered lobbyist for the Turks & Caicos, despite having filed this form with Congress. He also suggested he did not have to file a lobbyist's disclosure form under the Department of Justice's Foreign Agents Registration Act on the grounds that the British Overseas Territory has no control over its foreign policy. He said he did not know why many other lobbying firms - including this one - had filed disclosures with FARA for their work for the government of Turks & Caicos.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure

My colleague Matthew Algeo has an OpEd in this morning's New York Times on the vacation Harry and Bess Truman took the summer after he left the White House, which is also the topic of his newly-released book, Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure: The True Story of a Great American Road Trip.

It's a fascinating story because the Trumans' lives were so ordinary. In 1953 ex-presidents didn't have Secret Service protection or even pensions. And because Truman refused to sully the office by accepting lucrative speaking gigs or business offers -- imagine that today! -- he and Bess lived by very humble means. They stayed with friends or roadside motels, ate at local diners and tried to simply return to lives as ordinary citizens. It didn't entirely work.

Public Radio listeners in the U.S. may remember hearing Matthew on-air when he was a reporter for Marketplace; Mainers know him as the longtime host of Maine Public Radio's Maine Things Considered. (He now lives in Rome.)

My wife snapped up Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure as soon as it arrived in the mail and reports it is a joy to read. From the passages she's read aloud to me -- and her frequent outbursts of laughter -- I'm very much looking forward to my turn.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Boston Globe could close next month

The carnage in the newspaper industry continues unabated, and the next casualty may be New England's newspaper of record, The Boston Globe.

The struggling New York Times Company announced yesterday that it will close the venerable Globe unless its unions make $20 million in concessions. Union leaders said they were told the Boston paper would be shuttered if they failed to meet the Times' demands within 30 days.

In terms of newsgathering and, frankly, the safeguarding of democracy, the loss of the Globe would represent an staggering loss to the region. The news suggests that the New York Times itself is fighting for its life, as (former Portland Press Herald editor) Lou Ureneck told the Globe.

Earlier this week, the Chicago Sun-Times' parent company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Of the two newspapers I write for most regularly, one (The Christian Science Monitor) went web-only last week and the other (The San Francisco Chronicle) is facing the possibility of extinction. This winter two more papers founded in the 19th century, the Rocky Mountain News and Seattle Post-Intelligencer, ceased to exist. And, of course, here in Maine our primary newspaper chain remains on death's door.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Portland, Maine: America's "most livable city"

Eat your heart out Bethesda, Maryland and Stamford, Connecticut: has named my home city of Portland, Maine as America's Most Livable City. That's right: #1. Take that.

Truth be told, Forbes didn't really pick Portland -- or any other city -- per se. Their list was really of the Most Livable US Census Metropolitan Statistical Areas. That's why "Portland" (population: 65,000) is said to have 513,000 residents, or nearly half the population of the entire state. Indeed, the Portland MSA includes all of Cumberland, York, and Sagadahoc County, an area larger than the state of Delaware and which comprises more than fifty municipalities from Bath to Kittery and as far north as Bridgton.

They also didn't spend much time investigating their #1 city. In the main story, the writer started at Gritty's and, well, never got out the door. (Those Forbes guys....)

On a less upbeat note: I've just learned that one of our city's best bookstores, Books etc on Exchange Street, will close its doors in June. Books etc has been at that location since1972 and, with the recent closure of Amaryllis and Movies on Exchange, its departure marks the end of an era for Portland's main shopping drag.

Other Maine independent bookstores to bite the dust this year include Bookland (in Brunswick and Rockland) and Somesville's Port in a Storm, one of my favorite book tour venues. Books etc's Falmouth location lives on (for now), as does our Now Undisputed Best Bookstore, Longellow Books on Monument Square. That's the best in the MSA, by the way!