Editorial Roundup: New England

Rutland Herald. July 14, 2021.

Editorial: Out of reach

A report issued this week shows just how challenging the rental market in Vermont has become. In order to afford a modest two-bedroom apartment at the Fair Market Rent in Vermont, full-time workers need to earn $23.68 an hour, or $49,258 annually, according to Out of Reach — a report released jointly by the National Low Income Housing Coalition and the Vermont Affordable Housing Coalition.

Vermont’s 2021 Housing Wage — the hourly wage a full-time worker must earn to afford a modest, safe rental home without spending more than 30% of their income on housing costs — is truly getting out of reach.

The report covers all states, counties, metropolitan areas, and ZIP codes in the country, highlighting the gap between what renters earn and what it costs to rent. There is no place in the country where minimum wage earners can afford a home at Fair Market Rent without spending more than 30% of their income on housing, it states.

Nationally, one in four renters (10.8 million households) have extremely low incomes, making most market rate apartments out of reach.

According to the report, Vermont has the 16th most expensive housing wage in the nation, and the eighth most expensive housing wage for rural areas. The average Vermont renter earns only $13.83 per hour, which is $9.85 less than the hourly wage needed for a decent place to live. Vermont has the sixth largest affordability gap for renters of any state in the nation (the shortfall between the average renter wage and the two-bedroom housing wage). The report states that our 76,000 renter households are pressed to find affordable places to live.

The report also shows that the average Vermont renter can afford just $719 per month without stretching their budget beyond 30% of their income toward housing costs, but the average statewide two-bedroom rental home has a Fair Market Rent of $1,231 and $979 for a one-bedroom. Vermont’s one-bedroom housing wage is $18.82 per hour.

In addition, the hourly housing wage in the greater metropolitan area of Burlington is $31.31, $7.63 an hour higher than the state average. Rutland County’s hourly housing wage was $17.65; Washington County, $20.88. The lowest hourly housing wage in the state was Essex County at $14.25.

Also of note, someone with a disability living on Supplemental Security Income in Vermont can only afford $254 a month, leaving them $977 short for a two-bedroom rental at Fair Market Rent and $725 short for a one-bedroom rental.

There were extenuating circumstances over the last 16 months, “which has created enormous suffering,” the report notes.

“The public health crisis is not over, but as the country begins to imagine life after COVID, it is imperative that we also address the profound economic fallout for the lowest-income and most marginalized members of our communities. Prior to the pandemic, more than 7.6 million extremely low-income renters were already spending more than half of their limited incomes on housing costs, sacrificing other necessities to do so,” it states. “After a year of job losses, furloughs and limited hours, many of these households will be struggling to an even greater extent than is shown in this report.”

Cindy Reid, chair of the Vermont Affordable Housing Coalition Steering Committee, said in a prepared statement, “(The report) again illustrates that housing costs are far too high for many Vermont households. The pandemic has only intensified the pressures on low- and moderate-income Vermonters, many of whom have lost wages and are facing an extraordinarily tight rental market statewide. The gap between average wages and the cost of housing is simply too high.”

Reid is correct that federal funds for rental assistance and the construction of new housing will help Vermonters in the long-term, and — as a state — we must continue to invest in housing to increase housing availability, and ensure that assistance equitably reaches low-income Vermonters in order to close the affordability gap.

There are certain priorities necessary to make Vermont a place to live, and if we want more people — more families to move here — we have to do better in the housing and rental markets. Otherwise, our long-term viability may always remain just out of reach.

See www.nlihc.org/oor online to read the full 290-page report.

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Boston Globe. July 14, 2021.

Editorial: Glimmers of progress on police reform

Local communities are trying to revamp their approach to public safety.

For all the progress made, at least on paper, by last year’s statewide police reform bill, it remains true that the future of public safety can only be assured at the local level: on how policing works on the streets of every community in this Commonwealth.

And there have been glimmers of that future most recently in Lynn, with its development of a new crisis response team, and in Springfield, where the police chief disbanded its disgraced and discredited narcotics unit in favor of a new Firearms Investigation Unit aimed at getting illegal guns off the streets.

What leaders in both communities are demonstrating is that it’s not so much about “defunding” the police — the rallying cry that followed the 2020 murder of George Floyd by a police officer on the streets of Minneapolis — as it is reinventing policing. It’s about using police more effectively and efficiently and providing additional resources to help departments deal with crises they were never designed to deal with — like people in the throes of a mental health crisis.

Now, admittedly, Springfield didn’t find its road to reform until after a July 2020 Department of Justice report that found “reasonable cause to believe the Narcotics Bureau . . . engages in a pattern or practice of using excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment.” It also found “systemic deficiencies in policies, accountability systems, and training.”

Police Commissioner Cheryl Clapprood, a 40-year veteran of the department who became chief in the midst of that DOJ probe, is now trying to negotiate a settlement with the Justice Department, of which the new investigations unit is no doubt a piece. She has also, during her nearly two years on the job, implemented body-worn cameras for all of Springfield’s nearly 500 officers and created an audit unit to review footage from the cameras.

Rebuilding trust with the community is a long-term strategy, but disbanding a unit caught abusing its authority is certainly a start.

In Lynn, city officials have been working during the past year with the Lynn Racial Justice Coalition on a series of possible policing reforms — including a recently announced plan to allocate $500,000 for a new unarmed crisis response team called ALERT (for All Lynn Emergency Response Team). The pilot program is scheduled to kick off by the start of next year.

The Cambridge City Council also recently approved a plan to create a “holistic‌ ‌emergency alternative response ‌team” to deal with mental health crises, although the Cambridge Police Department has for a number of years had its own officers trained through a partnership with NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) Massachusetts.

Whether teams are dispatched in lieu of or at the side of police officers remains an issue without an immediate solution.

What isn’t in question is that, nationally, police spend about 20 percent of their time responding to mental health calls, according to a 2017 study by the Treatment Advocacy Center. It’s also true that about a quarter of those fatally shot by police every year are people in a mental health crisis, according to an August 2020 study by the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors.

Denver has added more social workers and mental health professionals to its police teams. Chicago and St. Louis are also going with a team approach in pilot programs.

Boston can trace its own BEST (Boston Emergency Services Team) program back to 2011. But its five or so counselors were hardly a match for the estimated 9,600 calls the Boston Police Department received in 2019 involving an “emotionally disturbed person.” That didn’t, by the way, include actual specific mental health or substance abuse calls (which often go directly to EMS).

The Walsh administration’s 2021 budget allocated $2 million more to fund 15 additional crisis responder positions — using what turned out to be a totally fictitious “cut” in police overtime spending. That was last September in the wake of the George Floyd protests. A police spokesman told the Globe that so far 10 licensed clinical social workers have been hired for the program.

This year’s budget, passed under Acting Mayor Kim Janey, promises “a transformative investment in alternative policing,” including $1.75 million to the city’s Office of Health and Human Services “to study models of alternative policing around the country, make a recommendation as to the best path for the City of Boston, and begin training.”

A skeptical ACLU of Massachusetts called the proposal “vague” and not an “acceptable alternative” to actual reinvesting of police budgets.

But retrofitting traditional policing to meet the problems of a new age will never be easy. It will be accomplished in fits and starts. The encouraging thing is that it has indeed begun.

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Portland Press Herald. July 15, 2021.

Editorial: Gov. Mills’ veto won’t end public power debate

Fed-up consumers will still likely get the last word on the future ownership of Maine’s electric grid.

Maine’s two investor-owned utilities got what they wanted Tuesday, when Gov. Mills vetoed a bill that would have opened the door to their takeover by a consumer-owned power company.

But the way that Central Maine Power and Versant Power won this round should not leave them feeling very secure.

The bill, L.D. 1708, which had been passed by the House and Senate, would have asked Maine voters in a referendum whether they wanted to force CMP and Versant to sell their assets to a new nonprofit entity and run the electric grid for public benefit.

But the veto may offer only a temporary reprieve, since the bill’s backers are confident that they can get the signatures needed to bring the question to the voters anyway. That does not give the companies much time to prove that they can improve their performance before fed-up Maine consumers go to the polls. Regulators will also have to act quickly if they are going to show that they can protect the public interest before the public weighs in.

A telling part of Mills’ veto message is that her objections to the legislation were more technical than substantive. She criticized the speed of the legislative process but made no attempt to defend the companies’ performance.

Citing poor service, high prices and a failure to adapt to the expansion of solar power, Mills used terms that could be easily put to use in campaign ads in support of a public takeover.

“The performance of our investor-owned utilities in recent years has been abysmal,” she wrote. “We are well beyond the point of debating whether our utilities can do better. They can and they must.”

And what if they don’t do better? The governor addressed that, too.

She noted that Maine law gives the Public Utilities Commission the power to sanction the companies for poor performance. She pointed out that it can even find them “unfit to provide safe, adequate and reliable service at rates that are just and reasonable” and revoke their monopoly franchise.

That this bill reached Mills’ desk should be a wake-up call for the PUC as much as it is for the companies the commission regulates. Many consumers do not believe that their interests are adequately protected by the regulators – that’s why so many of their representatives in the Legislature voted to take a step as consequential as a public takeover of private companies.

CMP is a small piece of a global corporation headquartered in Spain that delivers energy to 100 million people worldwide. Versant is one branch of a large company wholly owned by the city of Calgary, Alberta. The Maine PUC is the only entity that is expected to put the interests of Maine families and businesses first, but the regulators have allowed CMP and Versant to deliver some of the nation’s worst service at some of its highest prices.

Mills’ veto may not be enough to keep the question of who should own the electric grid off the ballot in 2022, but it should put the utilities and the PUC on notice.

If the companies and their regulators can’t demonstrate that they are capable of improving the performance that Mills describes as “abysmal,” this week’s victory will be short lived.

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Hearst Connecticut Media. July 15, 2021.

Editorial: Public needs to know about problematic officers

According to state law and accepted practices, the problems outlined this week in a Hearst Connecticut Media investigation into problematic police officers shouldn’t happen.

That officers facing discipline keep turning up in new jobs in spite of strictures against the practice shows that the current system isn’t working.

According to state statutes, any officer who leaves a position, either by resigning or retiring, during an internal investigation for “malfeasance or serious misconduct” is not to be hired by another department unless that officer was later exonerated. This also applies if the officer was fired for the conduct in question.

At the same time, police departments must complete a background check for new hires, which includes past disciplinary reports for any applicant who previously worked as an officer. Any offenses that would disqualify that applicant from being hired are supposed to be discovered in this process.

Officials said the current process is effective. “We have to disclose any adverse information,” said Danbury Police Chief Patrick Ridenhour, president of the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association. “You can’t say ‘No, you are not getting their files.’ I don’t think you see that in Connecticut like in other places.”

And yet the Hearst Connecticut investigation shows otherwise.

Though no overall numbers are available because no entity keeps track of such figures, cases of officers accused of heinous acts resigning in the face of an investigation only to turn up at a different job in a different town are distressingly common. It’s an all-too-easy means of escaping accountability, and one that puts the public in danger.

Much of the trouble rises from ambiguous language in state laws. “Malfeasance or serious misconduct,” which is supposed to stand in the way of officers in trouble getting a new position, can be defined in many ways, and when someone resigns early in an investigation it can forestall the fact-finding process. That leaves questions unanswered and makes the job of the next department that much harder.

To their credit, state lawmakers have taken action to tighten some holes in the process, including by more clearly defining words like “malfeasance” and “serious.” Some of this is the result of the police accountability law passed last summer in the wake of widespread protests, in Connecticut and across America, against police misconduct. The law included tougher standards for hiring officers.

Officers accused of misconduct, or course, have rights of their own, and an accusation is far from a finding of guilt. A charge that is not verified should not be enough to keep someone from finding a job.

And Connecticut is far from alone in dealing with this problem. A recent study found hundreds of Florida officers had been fired from previous police jobs, and Pennsylvania recently announced the launch of a statewide police misconduct database in an effort to stop the hiring of problematic officers at different departments.

This state could consider a similar approach. It wouldn’t solve all problems, which sometimes cross state lines, but more accountability is called for. Everyone has a right to know that officers who are invested with so much power and responsibility over the public’s lives are the best people for the job.

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Bangor Daily News. July 16, 2021.

Editorial: Welcome to Maine, unless you’re an extremist

Maine is often thought of as a fairly moderate place. In the 2020 election, for example, the state voted for Democrat Joe Biden in the presidential race and for Republican Susan Collins in the U.S. Senate race. That built on a tradition of electing politically moderate, even “non-ideological” leaders.

Why, then, does a middle-of-the-road state seem to be a popular destination for extremists lately?

On the Fourth of July weekend, 11 heavily armed individuals had an hours-long standoff on a highway in Massachusetts. Details are still emerging but, we’ve since learned they were part of a militia group called Rise of the Moors. As BDN reporter Lia Russell explained, the group “shares some beliefs with both the sovereign citizen movement and Moorish Science, a religion that advocates for both Black nationalism and some tenets of the Nation of Islam.” The Moorish Science Temple of America has denounced Rise of the Moors.

Members of the militia group say they were on their way to Maine, specifically to the Bangor area, where they were “going to train.” And according to police in Massachusetts, these individuals “don’t recognize our laws.”

In statements and on their website, the group has pushed back against some attempts to describe and define them.

“We are not anti-government. We are not anti-police, we are not sovereign citizens, we’re not Black identity extremists,” said one member, as reported by USA Today. “As specified multiple times to the police that we are abiding by the peaceful journey laws of the United States.”

But actions speak louder than words. They were driving vehicles with unregistered Maine plates. The charges against them include illegal possession of firearms, illegal possession of large-capacity firearms, improperly storing firearms, providing false information to police, conspiracy to improperly stow firearms and wearing body armor during the commission of a felony.

This alarming and developing story followed reporting that a neo-Nazi and his followers on a far-right social media platform have been looking to relocate to Maine in hopes of forming a white ethnostate.

We can’t echo enough that Maine needs to welcome people from different places, with different backgrounds and different beliefs. But “The Way Life Should Be” should not involve hateful ideology or a refusal to recognize the laws of the society we all live in.

In 2019, then-newly inaugurated Gov. Janet Mills added a sign on the Maine turnpike just after the New Hampshire border that reads “Maine welcome home.” We appreciate the inclusive message. But there are some things that Maine should not be home to. This is not indoctrination-land. Sovereign citizens and supremacists alike should Diri-go-somewhere else.

To be fair, Maine is no stranger to the sovereign citizen movement, or to racism. But we should denounce these forces and certainly don’t need to become home to any more of them.

It is important to note that the Rise of the Moors members have ultimately been held in Massachusetts because of their actions, not their beliefs. We’re in no way suggesting people should be detained or denied entry to Maine because their beliefs are considered extreme. We’re talking about pushing back against these ideologies, not prohibiting them.

Recognizing America’s laws and the humanity of others should be pretty low bars. Maybe that’s just us, but we don’t think that’s a particularly extreme thing to say.

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