Editorial Roundup: New England

Hartford Courant. July 29, 2022.

Editorial: A decision to keep a cannabis business out of Hartford was a mistake

We as adults are legally allowed to possess and use up to 1.5 ounces of cannabis in Connecticut — and that does not even count that we can keep up to 5 ounces of pot in a locked container at home or drive it around in our locked glove compartment or the trunk of our cars.

Yes, the state tells us it’s OK to drive it around (locked up) in our cars.

That of course does not mean all of us are going to do this — in our homes or in our cars. And we certainly don’t want kids doing it.

But this law allowing us to use marijuana has been in effect since July 1, 2021, and it’s not going away. Starting in July 2023, adults in Connecticut can even grow marijuana at home (with limits of up to three mature and three immature plants, cap of 12 per household). Retail sales of cannabis are expected to begin late this year.

The Social Equity Council only recently approved 16 applications for cultivators and forwarded them to the Department of Consumer Protection for background checks. Why is there a social equity element to these laws? The law recognizes the government’s war on drugs disproportionately prosecuted suspects in Black communities and other communities of color.

A lottery also is planned that will pick from 37,294 applications and award 56 licenses for manufacturing, packaging, transporting, delivery, food and beverage and other cannabis business operations.

Yes, 37,294 applications, and that means a whole lot of folks want to get in on this new business in Connecticut.

But not so fast in Hartford.

In the state’s capital city, the first recreational marijuana shop downtown is a no go.

Why? Because the Capital Region Development Authority controls zoning in the Front Street neighborhood.

This news came after lawyers looked at records and drew the conclusion the CRDA has this authority.

But the CRDA contends the proposed cannabis shop was not consistent with the area’s family-focused entertainment, and could impact convention bookings.

It’s not quite clear how families would have necessarily known that the cannabis shop was there.

The plan for this shop had included security inside and outside, checking of IDs to make sure patrons were at least 21, no items visible from the street, no advertising in windows or neon, flashing cannabis leaf signs, only prepackaged products, no odors and no consumption onsite.

It sounds so anonymous that it makes one wonder whether the CRDA was worried customers would stop kids on the street to ask where the shop was.

The developer had actually precluded that though: They expected sales would have been mostly preorders and by appointment.

So, a barely noticeable shop that the city had said met zoning requirements and could boost tourism and foot traffic and encourage entrepreneurial, innovative businesses was nixed.

Derrick C. Gibbs Jr., a partner in the proposed business said he was puzzled by CRDA’s suggestion of alternate locations, such as the new North Crossing development near Dunkin’ Donuts Park. “Very strange that they are saying that Arch Street is family friendly, but next to the Yard Goats stadium, that’s not family friendly?” Gibbs said.

We also are scratching our heads over this one.

Yes, Front Street has restaurants, entertainment venues, apartments and a UConn regional campus.

But we note again that possession of certain small amounts of marijuana is legal now in Connecticut, and the upcoming legal sales will be limited to adults — just like alcohol and cigarettes.

That means cannabis is not for kids but it is for adults who choose to use it. And that means cannabis is no more family unfriendly than alcohol. Both substances come with the need for responsibility.

Hartford needs businesses, and this was a proposal for a legal business.

Amid the burgeoning interest in cannabis in Connecticut, a decision to keep a business out of Hartford was a mistake.

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Hearst Connecticut Media. July 29, 2022.

Editorial: Closing CT wealth gap starts in the classroom

You can’t fault Connecticut’s proclivity for boasting about its academic credentials. We are, after all, home to Yale University in New Haven, which is reliably ranked among the nation’s most prestigious colleges.

But an alternate study suggests that while Connecticut’s colleges are not failing, a few remedial lessons might be in order.

This ranking doesn’t come from the likes of U.S. News & World Report, which reinforces the reputation of elite institutions, but from the Washington, D.C., think tank Third Way.

When it comes to serving low-income students, Third Way graded Connecticut’s colleges as below average. As any student knows, “below average” is not an aspiration.

For a state often labeled as hosting the widest wealth gap in the nation, this is not a sign of progress.

Essentially, the report weighs results over image. To any graduate, what really matters is how their education translates to a thriving career (and likely the ability to climb out of student debt).

So while it’s great that Yale is second on Forbes’ ranking of American colleges, Third Way put 11 of Connecticut’s 19 institutions in the bottom 40%.

In addition to counting the number of low-income students in a college, the study considered factors such as the salaries of graduates and how long it takes students to pay off loans.

The theme of balance in the classroom has been debated for generations, and remains the subtext of showdowns over affordable housing in many of our communities.

The Third Way study is akin to flipping traditional testing models for high school students. Using different metrics, Yale and Wesleyan were penalized because less than 20% of their student bodies were raised in low-income families. Third Way rewarded points to schools with more economically diverse student populations.

In the alternate Third Way universe, Connecticut’s standout school was Post University in Waterbury, which serves a population of 70% low-income students. Also faring well were Central Connecticut State University in New Britain (38% low-income students) and the University of Connecticut in Storrs (27%).

Connecticut’s bottom schools as graded by Third Way were Sacred Heart University, the University of New Haven and Mitchell College in New London.

Meanwhile, CT Mirror also reported on the latest cost-cutting measures being taken within the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities’ system. This comes at a time when the system is undergoing a merger of operations within its 12 community colleges.

Cutting programs and staff size is unlikely to turn around declining enrollment numbers, which were impacted as many struggling families couldn’t afford tuition bills during the pandemic.

Without the one-time American Rescue Plan Act funding from the state that covered an $18.4 million pay period, several of the schools would be operating at a deficit.

These issues dovetail into lessons of economics, history, political science, social justice and more for Connecticut educators. For other state leaders, it’s a reminder that that wealth gap will never narrow until it happens in our schools.

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Bangor Daily News. August 2, 2022.

Editorial: Court backlogs hurt defendants, victims and taxpayers — and they may violate the Constitution

The backlog of criminal cases in Washington County is so bad that it could take 15 years to resolve it, according to one lawyer’s calculations. Other counties, especially Penobscot, Piscataquis and Waldo, have also seen large increases in the backlog of criminal cases awaiting resolution in court in recent years.

There are a number of reasons for the growing backlog. Courts were closed for months and their operations were restricted because of the COVID pandemic. Maine has a chronic shortage of court-appointed defense attorneys for low-income defendants. There is a shortage of judicial marshals, who are needed to provide security in courtrooms.

And, despite dropping crime rates statewide, many jails in the state are straining under a growing number of inmates who are awaiting trials and other court dates, sometimes for months, even years.

It all adds up to a system that can deprive defendants of their rights to a speedy and fair trial, while also potentially disrupting their lives, jobs and relationships with family members. The system also costs taxpayers increasing sums to keep people in jail for extended periods of time while they await court dates.

Worst of all, the system may run afoul of the state and federal constitutions, something the Maine Supreme Judicial Court is currently considering in a case that is before it.

There is no one solution to this problem, but hiring more court personnel, further revamping the state’s indigent defense system and revising state sentencing rules must be on the table.

Between May 2019 and May 2022, there has been an 83 percent increase in felony cases pending in county courts. The largest increase was in Penobscot County, where the number of pending felony cases jumped from 333 to 986.

Not coincidentally, the Penobscot County Jail has been chronically overcrowded and county officials are considering expansions to the facility in Bangor.

In Washington County, there are 15 homicide cases pending, plus 16 drug cases and seven sex offenses cases pending, and 34 domestic violence, assault or protection order violations ready for trial, according to a memo prepared by Jeffrey Davidson, an attorney in Machias. In these cases, which are part of a longer list of cases pending in the county, victims and defendants are awaiting resolutions that will impact their lives.

“Those of us who practice criminal law as either prosecutors or defense counsel know that

the current backlog is unsustainable,” he wrote. Davidson, who calculated it could take 15 years to clear the country’s backed up cases, offered several suggestions to ease the backlog, including more use of settlement conferences to seek resolution of pending cases.

In Washington County, Superior Court Justice Robert Mullen plans a “trial blitz” to reduce the backlog.

Mullen, chief judge of the state’s superior courts, and another justice will spend the month of October in Machias presiding at jury and jury-waived trials in a concerted effort to resolve criminal cases.

“If it is successful, we can try it in other courthouses,” Mullen told the Bangor Daily News. “The thing that gets cases resolved is a trial date.”

This is likely to help, but it isn’t the full solution.

“The backlog is ridiculous and is imposing real consequences,” Zach Heiden, chief counsel for the ACLU of Maine, told the BDN editorial board.

For one, it costs taxpayers money to keep defendants in jail as they await court dates. More fundamentally, holding people in jail disrupts their lives and can lead to a loss of a job and connections with family.

Long waits for a trial can also push people toward plea agreements whereby they plead guilty just so they can get out of jail, Heiden said. This is counter to the U.S. value of a presumption of innocence.

Heiden called on law enforcement and district attorneys to think about the backlog when they consider arrests and charges.

Decisions made by people with power – police, prosecutors, judges – are causing the court backlogs, but the consequences are borne by the people with the least power – defendants and their alleged victims, he said.

It is up to those with power to make this a priority and to take more steps to ease the backlog, before the Maine Supreme Court might order them to do so.

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Boston Globe. August 1, 2022.

Editorial: Make remote access to public meetings permanent

Going back to the days when people had to show up to public meetings in person makes local governance less accessible, and, as a result, less democratic.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic first sent millions of Americans to work from home, people found that some things were easier to do remotely than others. Holding team meetings over Zoom? Simple enough. Online schooling? A struggle. Participating in democracy? Easier than ever.

Across the country, people no longer had to clear their evening schedules to schlep all the way to the other end of town if they wanted to attend a public board meeting in their cities, towns, or neighborhoods. So long as they had a computer and Internet access, they could simply Zoom into a public meeting from just about anywhere and listen in on or even partake in debates about, say, a new plan for bike lanes or a housing development in their community. The days of seeing unrepresentative samples of residents at town halls seemed to finally be ending.

But as more and more employers demand a return to the office, some municipalities are trying to make their constituents return to in-person meetings too. There is no doubt that doing so — without keeping an option for residents to attend remotely — would only make those meetings less accessible, and, as a result, less democratic. That’s why hybrid public meetings, where people can attend either in-person or online, should be made permanent.

Early on in the pandemic, Massachusetts changed its Open Meeting Law and lifted its requirement that public meetings be held in person. And residents across the state have since enjoyed the benefits of being able to voice their thoughts to their representatives from the comfort of their own homes. When there was a proposal for a gun store in Newton, for example, more than 500 people showed up to the city council hearing to make their feelings about it known — all over Zoom. That’s good, and important, public participation.

The problem is that the change in the Open Meeting Law was only temporary, and it was most recently set to expire on July 15. And while the Legislature extended it through March of next year, there is still no plan to make hybrid public meetings a permanent fixture of local governance. (The legislation for the new extension did at one point include an amendment that would have required that all municipalities permanently make their public meetings accessible both online and in-person starting April 1, 2023, but that amendment was dropped.)

Some municipalities have resisted the idea of the state mandating hybrid public meetings. And while some of those concerns seem valid, they can easily be addressed. For example, the Massachusetts Municipal Association, a nonprofit lobbying group for cities and towns in the Commonwealth, has cited the costs associated with conducting hybrid meetings as a roadblock to making them permanent. And buying and installing the equipment necessary can indeed come at a steep cost for some jurisdictions — Franklin spent $20,000 to accommodate hybrid meetings; Newton spent $200,000 — but a state currently swimming in cash can and should provide the necessary one-time funds to towns that can’t afford to make the change.

At the end of the day, that would be an investment in democracy. Public meetings have never been entirely accessible to the public, and research has shown that the people who do come to meetings are more likely to be older, male, and homeowners than the general population. Hybrid meetings give governments a chance to change that. Being able to attend a public meeting online would give many people with disabilities, for example, greater access to the democratic process. The same goes for parents of young children, caretakers, people without cars or access to good transit, and many others, including people who work outside the 9-to-5 schedule — that is, disproportionately lower wage workers. Given that the technology exists to hold public meetings online, then there’s really no reason why Massachusetts should not transition to a permanent hybrid system.

For many cities and towns, particularly the smaller ones, making this change in how government work is done will require infrastructural improvements. But what better time could there be for that investment? If Massachusetts wants to govern more democratically — and transparently — in the 21st century, then it’s time to catch up to the Internet age. In 2022, that shouldn’t be that big of an ask.

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