Recent editorials of regional and national interest from New England’s newspapers:
Lawmakers must think big on utilities
New Haven Register
A month later, with tempers having cooled, it would be easy to assume that everything is back to normal with Connecticut’s electric utilities. Prolonged outages, after all, are rare, and for the most part in this state, the lights turn on with the flip of a switch, as we’ve come to expect.
State legislators, though, do not seem inclined to let the rage of August’s mass power failures following Tropical Storm Isaias subside. And rightly so, since the storm and the subsequent response left thousands of people in the state without power for a week or more. For many, that meant no running water at the peak of the summer.
Just as bad was the lack of responsiveness on the part of the utilities. Not only could residential customers not get answers on when to expect their lights back until days after the storm, but town officials across the state reported a lack of information from utility representatives. Whatever preparations Eversource and United Illuminating have been doing over the past decade, building up the public-facing aspect of their responsiveness was not part of it.
The question, then, becomes what legislators are willing to do to reform the system. Connecticut has some of the highest electric rates in the nation, and though its system is generally reliable, it has repeatedly proven vulnerable to major storms. Maybe there’s no way to avoid that, but legislators owe it to their constituents to get as much information as possible before letting utilities off the hook.
For its part, Eversource, which is responsible for the majority of residential customers in the state, says its response met its state mandate, and that complicating factors such as the coronavirus pandemic are what slowed things down. It could have communicated better, the utility allowed, but “Eversource met the commitments” to its customers, the company said.
Separately, in response to a query about the cost of burying power lines underground, the utility cited a figure of some $67 billion to accomplish the task for the entire state. Such a move would presumably make future failures less likely, since falling trees wouldn’t cut the power, but the cost of tens of thousands of dollars per residential customer could be too much for anyone to stomach.
To start, the state needs its own independent assessment of those costs, not one that depends on the utilities, which are understandably interested in maintaining the status quo. Beyond that, the Legislature is expected to consider a bill in special session this fall that could mandate utilities reimburse customers for a portion of the cost of spoiled food and medicine in future power failures.
It could still go much further.
A notable number of legislators have said they would take on the entire deregulated system of power distribution in the state, where two for-profit companies have geographic monopolies, answering to shareholders while expecting to fulfill a public good. It’s a system that doesn’t make much sense on the best day, less so during a crisis.
Legislators need to look at everything. It’s a complicated system, so a full appraisal may have to wait for a full session next year. But nothing should be off the table.
Gov. Charlie Baker should appoint a new SJC justice from Western Massachusetts
The Republican of Springfield
Today, the state’s Trial Courts will pause in honor of Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants. The courts will be closed to public business as a “day of remembrance” for Gants, who died earlier this week.
It will provide a moment for the courts, the legal community and all in Massachusetts to pay tribute to a jurist who was, as his fellow justices on the state’s highest court said, committed to “fairness, equality under the law and justice for all.”
It was just 10 days ago that the four-year Harvard Law School study, commissioned by Gants, was released. It documented the racial and ethnic disparities in the state’s criminal justice system.
The chief justice called the report “a ‘must read’ for anyone who is committed to understanding the reasons for such disparities and taking action to end them.” It provided an embarkation point for a journey Gants would have passionately and sensitively captained for our state’s court system to work towards eliminating these disparities.
Now, along with the sadness associated with the loss of Gants, far too young at just 65, the state of Massachusetts and Gov. Charlie Baker must confront a pivotal moment in the history of its highest court.
With his appointment powers, Baker now has an unprecedented opportunity to make the Supreme Judicial Court an all-Baker bench. Typically, governors get perhaps two appointments to the high court during their tenure of office. Before Gants’ passing, Baker had already been aware he would need to fill another seat on the court by year’s end with the upcoming retirement of Judge Barbara Lenk, set to depart as she reaches the mandatory retirement age of 70. Applications for her seat were due to the governor a week ago.
We hope as the governor weighs possible nominees to the court that he reflects carefully on the guidance offered up three years ago when, in rapid succession, he had three seats to fill on the court between August 2016 and August 2017. One of the retirees at that time was Judge Francis X. Spina, of Pittsfield.
Until Spina’s departure, there had been at least one member of the court from Western Massachusetts for the past 100 years, and at one time there were two members.
As Baker reviewed candidates then, he also was urged by U.S. Rep. Richard E. Neal, D-Springfield, 19 Western Massachusetts legislators, the presidents of the region’s four bar associations and the clerks of four superior courts to have geographical diversity on the court. Then newly-elected Governor’s Councilor Mary Hurley also lobbied the governor on the topic and made it among her missions for the future.
That June, when Baker announced the last of those three appointments, elevating Appeals Court Chief Justice Scott J. Kafker, of Swampscott, the governor, when asked about the regional diversity issue, said, “Obviously we’ll continue to take our obligation and our responsibility to ensure that the court remains diverse both geographically and in terms of ethnicity and point of view as a key element of our decision-making process going forward.”
Lenk’s retirement will leave a court composed of five members hailing from east of Worcester County and having largely practiced in Greater Boston. There will also be only one person of color, Kimberly S. Budd, who does, by familial relationships, have ties to Western Massachusetts. She is the daughter of Springfield native and former U.S. Attorney Wayne A. Budd.
The argument for regional diversity is not one to be taken lightly. We continue to be a state of two distinct regions, with vastly different challenges and economies. Both the governor and the attorney general maintain Western Massachusetts offices, demonstrating how this region is considered a distinct area of the state with its own issues and concerns. Both the Supreme Judicial and Appeals courts have administrative and other duties in which regional concerns are regularly addressed and the two courts with some regularity convene sessions in Western Massachusetts.
We strongly urge Governor Baker to address the need for as much diversity on the state’s highest court as possible, not just diversity of gender and color, but also regional diversity. The time is long overdue for the appointment of a justice from Western Massachusetts.
Holocaust studies should be required in Maine schools
It’s been 75 years since Allied troops liberated the Nazi concentration camps of Europe, and the world faced the crimes against humanity that have come to be known as the Holocaust.
Those who survived pledged to tell their stories as long as they lived. Their slogan was “Never again.”
But now few of these witnesses are still living, and their absence shows in a recent 50-state survey of young adults’ knowledge of the Holocaust, conducted by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany.
In Maine, 68 percent of those surveyed couldn’t meet all three minimum standards of Holocaust education: having “definitely heard” of the Holocaust; being able to name at least one concentration camp or ghetto; and knowing that 6 million Jews had been killed.
Maybe even more troubling than Maine’s 32 percent score on the test of Holocaust knowledge is that it makes us a national leader in this area. Maine placed fourth among the 50 states, trailing the leader, Wisconsin, which had a score of 42. These results show that memories of the Nazi genocide are disappearing along with its survivors, and it could become completely forgotten if we don’t do something about it.
In Maine, L.D. 1050, a bill that would require schools to teach African American history and genocide, including the Holocaust, passed the House and Senate and sits on the Appropriations Committee table to see if will be funded. This survey clearly shows that it should.
For one thing, the bill calls for only $9,000 in spending so the Maine Department of Education can conduct meetings with educators to help them develop curricula. School districts will be able to access programs from the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine at no cost. Even in a revenue crunch, this is something the state can afford.
But more importantly, all members of our society should have a working understanding of the Holocaust. As the survivors told us, prejudiced attitudes led to acts of discrimination. Racist rhetoric led to racist policies and, eventually, to genocide. People need to know that Hitler did not start with Auschwitz. Studying the Holocaust demands that you take prejudice of any kind seriously.
And these events present students with one of history’s great moral questions. When the German people saw what was happening, why didn’t they stop it? Why were there so few dissidents who tried?
Students of Holocaust literature have to ask themselves, what would I have done if I had been there? Am I the kind of person who would let my neighbors be murdered because I was too afraid to do anything?
Thinking about these questions prepares us to act when we are needed. It’s what the survivors mean when they say, “Never again.”
As they fade into history, it’s important that we keep the survivors’ testimony alive. Maine should not delay in requiring the study in our schools of the evil that is genocide.
Support For Police
The Caledonian Record
During a brief visit last week, we heard St. Johnsbury Police Chief Tim Page mention that it’s a difficult time to be a law enforcement officer.
He stopped by to drop off video from Officer George Johnson’s body camera of a tragic accident in which a dog lost its life (more on that in one moment).
We didn’t like the fact that we learned about the dog shooting via the dog owner. It was information the STJPD had a statutory obligation to report to the public. They didn’t mention anything about it until we asked them.
But forgiving that issue for a moment, Chief Page’s comment got us thinking about the police we have in the NEK and recent headlines featuring their work.
In one recent incident, Capt. Jason Gray encountered an alleged 17-year-old drug dealer from Boston who had a replica 9MM BB gun pistol and a lot of drugs in his possession at the time of his arrest. It was a BB gun, but looked perfectly real. We can’t help but think the weapon could very well of gotten the kid shot in other places.
Then we watched Johnson’s body camera footage from a recent tragedy. Officer Johnson is walking through the woods on the way to questioning a person of interest in an investigation. Suddenly a pit bull comes flying out of nowhere. Within a split second the aggressive animal attacks and appears to lunge at Johnson. The officer had a fraction of a moment to react before the dog was on him. Appropriately, Johnson used that nano-second to draw his service revolver and neutralize the threat with a single shot.
Immediately afterward, you can hear the emotion in his voice as he apologizes endlessly to the dog’s owner, shares his own affection for dogs, and finally helps the owner bury the pit bull. It was an awful situation in which Johnson did exactly the right thing; to a tragic ending. Then he showed tremendous compassion to the guy who just lost his dog.
Then we thought about local protests against police brutality in June when we watched our police come out of their St. Johnsbury station, calmly engage with protesters and take a knee in solidarity with them. To do so, they took a break from their investigation of a public death downtown on the same morning. We saw the same thing the day before in Littleton and Lyndon, and those moments struck us as a dramatic contrast to the violent exchanges we’ve watched in other parts of the country.
About an hour into the otherwise peaceful St. Johnsbury gathering, police detained a person who allegedly wouldn’t clear Main Street for traffic. Other protesters attempted to impede that arrest and were also taken into custody. In the resulting fracas, Carmen Turnbaugh tumbled down the stairway in front of the police station as St. Johnsbury Police Lt. Mark Bickford cleared a path to the entrance.
In video captured by Jeremy Baldauf, we see Turnbaugh clearly interfering with law enforcement. And then we see what happens when a rugged, strong police officer has to move a much smaller person. It was an unfortunate moment that detracted from an otherwise uplifting series of events.
Baldauf’s video generated a lot of impassioned commentary. On one side you had critics calling for Bickford’s head over clear evidence of police brutality - at a protest against police brutality of all things!!! The other side pointed out that Turnbaugh was breaking the law and what would you have police do when surrounded and under attack?!!
As the intelligentsia took to Facebook to work through that dilemma, Turnbaugh and Bickford took it upon themselves to refocus everyone’s attention on what really matters. The pair met that weekend at the St. Johnsbury Welcome Center; apologized to each other for their roles in the incident; and agreed that the message of the protest should not be lost in conflict. They said they each “stand together with mutual respect.”
Town Manager Chad Whitehead commended Turnbaugh for her courage and conviction, and Bickford for his understanding and dedication to the community.
And the Governor took notice.
“I thought that was just a great moment for us and a teaching moment for us. I think we can all learn something from it,” said Governor Phil Scott. “I believe that law enforcement, again, did what they could under the circumstance and the individual, the young woman, as well stepped up and saw that there was a broader good that could be developed in the aftermath. I thought it was a great moment, a great teaching moment.”
We agreed with Governor and thought about how lucky we are in the NEK to have such good people serving in local and state law enforcement. We had the same thought as we watched the tragic video of Officer Johnson’s harrowing encounter and his grace, dignity and humanity in the aftermath.