Monday, December 29, 2014

Burlington: platform for preservation and change





















Despite developer pressure and sweetheart deals on a variety of public-private partnerships and plans, real public input and sufficient time to consider all the options should be more than a formality, especially when the stakes are so high. Before rushing to sell or redevelop, inclusive alternatives and long-term impacts need to be more seriously considered.

We can't over-build our way out of problems. We must make the time to explore possibilities that create positive outcomes for all residents.

A Platform for Preservation and Change
Stop fast-track redevelopment 
Set standards for partnerships
Affordable housing * Raise the minimum wage
Keep BT Local * Preserve open spaces
Empower neighborhoods: funding for NPAs
Review police conduct * Legalize marijuana
Prevent bedding of F-35s at the airport

Burlington College: Unless the Mayor and City gets more involved very soon, more than 25 acres of land along the waterfront owned by Burlington College will be sold for the school to survive and intensively developed with commercial-rate housing. Mayor Weinberger claims that any development on this property must balance "conservation, public use, and housing." But the current plan calls for 400 units and little open space. With real city engagement, however, the current offer could be matched by a popular partnership between conservation groups, private investors, the college and the city to combine a small college campus, preservation of public access and open space, and compatible education purposes.

Climate Change: Burlington has seen a local increase of 7% in greenhouse gas emissions in recent years, yet current redevelopment plans will only make the situation worse. Before we give the waterfront a gentrified makeover we need to rethink our infrastructure and transportation system for the 21st century.

Burlington Telecom: In its first 30 years of operation, the Burlington airport received about $100 million in transfers from the general fund. As infrastructure, Burlington Telecom is just as important today and, if we hold onto it, can provide long term benefits to thousands of citizens - but only if we look beyond short-term relief, resist the push to privatize, and protect this invaluable asset for future generations.

Democracy and Participation: One-party rule can be dangerous, especially when it gives the mayor a rubber stamp for whatever he or she wants. In the past Burlington has been known as a place with three viable parties where issues were discussed openly. But recently debate has been sidetracked on climate change, redevelopment and neighborhood concerns. We can do better. We need more democracy, not less.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Reframing Reality: Finding the Words

Part 27 of Prisoners of the Real

If relationships between human beings, not to mention between humanity and nature, are to be transformed so must the language used to describe them. We simply can't expect to change and evolve without more fitting forms of expression.

      Abraham Maslow, who provided the intellectual foundation for what became known as humanistic psychology, understood this dilemma. The archaic language of science couldn't encompass his new view of human nature. How could the subjective and private nature of a peak experience, for example, be adequately discussed in an "objective" or analytical way? The formal, academic style of psychological journals, he realized, was inconsistent with the unconventional and highly personal ideas he was pursuing.
      "Journals, books and conferences," Maslow wrote, "are primarily suitable for the communication and discussion of the rational, the abstract, the logical, the public, the impersonal, the nomothetic, the repeatable, the objective, the unemotional. They thereby assume the very things that we 'personal psychologists' are trying to change."
     Maslow's approach, a 'third force' combining Gestalt theory and health-and-growth psychology, demanded a more personal language, one that acknowledged and respected the inner world. Like many artists and a growing number of scientists, Maslow saw that the worship of facts had become the disease of "enlightened" humanity, and turned to personal testimony in the hope of sharing the fruits of his quest. If a philosophy of science that included experiential knowledge was to be constructed, he concluded, communication would have to candidly express its assumptions.
       "Most of our 'objective' work is simultaneously subjective," he noted near the end of his life. Since the external problems that we usually approach scientifically are often also our internal problems, Maslow believed, our solutions are also self-therapies in the broadest sense.
       Acutely aware of the depersonalizing effects of extreme rationalism – flight from impulse, emotion, and the personal – Maslow traced the cause to the Aristotelian framework. The separation of subject and object discouraged fusion and forbade integration. "Respecting the rational, verbal and logical as the only language of truth," he wrote, "inhibits us in our necessary study of the non-rational, of the poetic, the mystic, the vague, the primary process, the dreamlike."
       Despite his warnings and those of other subsequent critics, however, most discussion and literature in the field of psychology, leadership and organization theory since Maslow has remained impersonal and "objective." But a gradual transformation has been underway in the fields of journalism and fiction writing. Over the last haf century both forms of expression have provided increased space for speculation. In journalism, the process began during the 1960s, just as fiction was drifting away from social realism. The so-called "new journalism" that emerged was a break with the reporting of isolated events. Reporters began to consider society as a whole.
       Adopting techniques of literary realism, journalists developed devices that gave their writings an immediacy and emotional impact missing in "objective" reporting and surrealist fiction. For a time subjectivity returned to reporting under the banners of "advocacy journalism" and the non-fiction novel. According to Tom Wolfe, a move from news reporting to this field led naturally to the discovery "that the basic reporting unit is no longer the datum, the piece of information, but the scene, since most of the sophisticated strategies of prose depend upon scenes." The old rules no longer apply when a journalist takes this leap, said Wolfe, "it is completely a test of his personality."
       Speculative reporters turned from the "objective" concerns for verification, specificity and readability that dominated conventional journalism to the uniqueness of each experience and the writer's own observations and intentions. The presentation ranged from the polemic to the dramatic, as these media pioneers pondered their subjects in various aspects and relations.
       This journalistic revolution didn't significantly alter the way the mainstream press dealt with events. It did, however, subtly expand the range of permissible expression, paralleling trends in documentary film making, where the subjective point of view became a powerful tool, as well as in non-fiction writing. As the 1960s began, few authors dared to bring their personal experiences into the consideration of issues in areas such as politics, sociology, and psychology. Today "testimonial" touches are commonplace. In certain fields, notable pop psychology, they have virtually become a requirement.
       Meanwhile, speculative fiction – an outgrowth of science fiction and fantasy – moved from the margins to the mainstream. The merging of surrealism and sci fi began with writers such as Kurt Vonnegut, Ursula LeGuin, Samuel Delany, Harlan Ellison, Romain Gary and others who explored current and potential realities. Since then speculative fiction has become a highly popular genre, often affirming the view that the arithmetically predictable model of the world is only one of many possibilities.

       Among the most direct early expressions of this view was Colin Wilson's synthesis of H.P. Lovecraft, H.G. Wells and his own theory of evolutionary existentialism in The Mind Parasites. With this breakthrough novel, Wilson attacked both the notion of "objective" reality and the assumption that humans have only a few avenues of interaction with the external world. 
      Wilson's story follows two archeologists who, gradually drawn into research on psychokinesis (PK), discover that throughout human history "mind parasites" have been holding us back. The parasites have infected the best minds on the planet with "a deep feeling of psychological insecurity that made them grasp eagerly at the idea of science as 'purely objective' knowledge." Through the "direct action of mind upon matter," however, humanity begins to fight back:
       “There was immense exhilaration as our minds combined, such a sense of power as I have never known before. All at once, I knew what is meant by the phrase: we are 'members of one another', but in a deeper, realler sense than before. I had a vision of the whole human race in constant telepathic contact, and able to combine their psychic powers in this manner. Man as a 'human' being would cease to exist; the vistas of power would be infinite.
       “Our wills locked like a great searchlight beam, and stabbed out at the moon...It was suddenly as if we were in the middle of the noisiest crowd the world has ever known. The disturbing vibrations from the moon were transmitted directly along the taut cable of force that stretched between us.”
       With the combined will of a group, says Wilson's tale, even the moon can be moved. Ultimately, the beams of psychic energy that the parasites have for so long been directing at the Earth are pointed away into space. PK is also used to shield the Earth from these destructive emanations, and even to push the moon toward the sun, so that its "bodiless inhabitants might once again be free."
       Mixing philosophy, myth and science fantasy, Wilson created a mood of existential realism, the novelist's version of Alfred North Whitehead's speculative philosophy. In Adventures of Ideas, Whitehead explained that such a philosophy "guards our higher intuitions from base alliances by its suggestions of ultimate meanings, disengaged from the facts of current modes of behavior."   

       Our discussions cannot be restricted solely to evidence provided by the five senses, Whitehead explained, or by acts of conscious introspective analysis. The sources of evidence must include also language, social institutions and action, fused together through a language that interprets the other two.
       The evidence of language is delivered through the meaning of words, the grammatical forms, and other meanings miraculously revealed in great literature. These insights, said Whitehead, provide us with new meanings, linguistic expressions for meanings as yet unexpressed, a triumph of dramatic intuition over temperamental skepticism. In Whitehead's view, as long as the imperfect nature of language is recognized, it can be a convivial tool rather than a master. In particular, speculative expression can reestablish the human circuit of instinct and intelligence, asserting that inherent flashes of spontaneity are valuable parts of human wisdom.
       Or, as Whitehead put it, in judging the rise, culmination and decay of social institutions, "we have to estimate the types of instinct, of intelligence, and of wisdom which have cooperated with natural forces to develop the story. The folly of intelligent people, the clear-headed and narrow-visioned, has precipitated many catastrophes."

Next: Glimpses of Uncertainty


To read other chapters, go to Prisoners of the Real: An Odyssey

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Back to the Seventies: Leaving Burlington College

The original name -- Vermont Institute of Community Involvement -- was unusual for a college, and a little misleading – especially if you assume involvement means a deep engagement with local politics. What VICI founder Steward LaCasce had in mind was more modest and much more practical, the use of local venues – libraries, galleries, public buildings, other schools and so on – as meeting spaces for its classes. Involvement was primarily a matter of location for what was called “a school without walls.”

After four years VICI - which later changed that unwieldy name to Burlington College (BC) -- had about 100 students, 15 faculty members, and an annual budget of around $200,000. In addition to using existing community spaces for classes rather than focusing on "bricks and mortar," it allowed students to design their own academic experience, and used qualitative, written evaluations rather than grades to assess performance.

Author as
Vanguard Press Editor, 1980
In 1976, however, enrollment in the school’s associate degree program dropped for the first time. LaCasce, a professor of literature who had launched VICI with a group of friends in 1972, attributed the financial troubles to a decrease in the number of veterans enrolling and a delay in degree-granting privileges for its new B.A. program.

Faced with a growing deficit, he told the board of trustees in February 1977 that either staff salaries needed to be cut or the school might be forced to close. VICI survived that early brush with insolvency and won full accreditation in 1982. Over the next decades it became Burlington College, bought property on North Avenue to accommodate a growing staff and provide some in-house classroom space, and doubled the student body. In 2011 it moved to much larger campus on land purchased from the Catholic Diocese for $10 million. Today the college is fighting for survival.

At first the admissions strategy was to attract what were then called “non-traditional” learners, a catch-all for anyone not between 18 and 22 or who wanted an alternative to conventional academic restrictions. About a third of the first students were young Vietnam era vets. Others were single parents and “adult learners,” people returning to school after a break.

At the 1976 annual meeting the previous October, I'd joined the board of trustees as one of two elected faculty members. There were also two student board members. After approving a series of bylaws amendments, we voted to have the chair set up a special committee to evaluate the president’s performance, since he was coming to the end of a five-year term.

Shortly after that, I was elected to the executive committee, which led to an unusual assignment. I was tasked to complete a system analysis of the college’s administrative structure and processes, in line with other bylaws changes being considered and, especially, the concern that the school might face budget cuts in the near future. As part of my due diligence I reviewed documents, observed meetings, and conducted interviews with the staff.

The result was a report, issued in early January, concluding that the administration was divided, morale was low, and the president was viewed as mistrustful and isolated. The problems had been brewing, but this put them on paper. My concern, mentioned at the end of a summary, was that “organizational health may soon be jeopardized.”

A month later, as Lou Colasanti became the school’s first recipient of a bachelor of arts degree, LaCasce responded with an analysis of his own during a “special meeting” of the trustees. He acknowledged an atmosphere he described with words like “conflict,” “demoralization” and “confusion.” But his main point was that fewer vets were applying and the associate degree program had been neglected in favor of the new psychology and self-designed B.A. programs.

The result was a serious, survival-threatening situation. As LaCasce outlined it to the board of trustees in his Feb. 5 report, there were three choices:

1. Cut all staff salaries by 10 percent, but increase a half-time institutional services position to full time to improve morale. That would mean more work over the next months to balance the budget;

2. Eliminate almost all staff positions, with the president and a few others taking on more work. This would be even more demoralizing, he admitted, and would require that the board of trustees begin fundraising; or

3.Close the college on June 30, 1977.

But not only that. Unless the school was going to close LaCasce wanted “the authority to suspend the current College committee structure until the Spring Meeting of the Board.” It was a bold move to quiet criticism of his performance and quell discontent among faculty and students.

Two days later he asked me into his office and explained that I was being fired – for three reasons. First, during the previous week I had participated in a student meeting that he considered disruptive. Second, I had said at a meeting that I was willing to accept a reduced salary due to the budget problems. This undermined other staff members, he explained. And third, unity was necessary and other staff members didn’t trust me.

Afterward, I asked around and learned that his decision had been unilateral. No member of the staff or board had requested my dismissal. In fact, the core staff objected since, in the long term, if he could do this any of them might be next. As it worked out, several more soon left.

Over the next few days a petition circulated and a community meeting was arranged. The idea was to combine my firing with some proactive ideas, including a fundraising project and more student involvement in recruitment, curriculum and development. In the meantime, LaCasce sent me two letters. The first was an official, immediate dismissal, although it ended with this:

“I’m extremely sorry that things have worked out this way, and I believe that many of your ideas will, in time, be incorporated as part of VICI.” I can't say that the prediction was true.

The second letter was dated Feb. 10, the day before a community meeting at which we would both appear. “Many of your friends and students have asked me for specific details to support my decision,” he wrote. “I have said that I thought you could not work constructively within VICI this spring to help us reorganize the College and reach the goals that our trustees set at their February 5th meeting.”

He was willing to attend, however, and said he would be more specific in public. When he did appear nothing much more was revealed. The real motivation for such an abrupt dismissal, I’ve concluded, was most likely a course I had added to my load — Systems and Change — and its long-term group project, to conduct a deeper analysis of the school.

I could have sued and did confer with a lawyer. But what was the point? To win a few thousand dollars after years of legal sparring and potentially deeper bitterness. That felt like the optimistic forecast. No, I still loved the idea of the school. It seemed better for now to let it go.

A few weeks later I turned 30. As a birthday present I decided to give myself a vacation, the first in years and also the first outside North America. (The destination was Haiti but that’s another story.) In less than two years I was editing a new weekly newspaper called The Vermont Vanguard Press, and also back teaching at the college.
. . . and the story continues...

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Campus Lost: Burlington College & the Church

Anatomy of an Untimely Sale

UPDATE: Exclusive Radio Interview with the new BC President

Outside BC's main building
In spring 2011, when Burlington College gathered to honor the 34 members of its graduating class at a new campus, then-President Jane Sanders acknowledged that the only man who could have brokered such a land deal with the Roman Catholic Diocese was real estate mogul Antonio Pomerleau.

A prominent local Catholic, Pomerleau had been a prime target of Bernie Sanders’ attacks when he first became Burlington mayor. But at the graduation ceremonies decades later, Jane Sanders revised that assessment. "He understands relationships," she said, "not just ‘who you know,’ but an understanding that leads to a reputation, and to trust.”

Due to more than two dozen lawsuits, the Catholic Diocese was in a spot, on the hook for $17.65 million in settlements. The property initially went on the market for $12.5 million. Although the $10 million asking price was presented as a bargain, not everyone was impressed. According to Erick Hoekstra, a local developer, the city may have overvalued the property. Even if 200 housing units were someday built on the land -- not far from the Farrell plan -- a more realistic price was probably $5 million to $7 million.

The school's leaders evidently hoped that better facilities, more majors and a larger land base would make BC dramatically more attractive to students -- and their parents. But the solution was also a marked departure from the school’s original intent – academic freedom, self-designed studies and community involvement rather than a traditional "bricks and mortar" emphasis.

Almost immediately, the $10 million purchase, along with a commitment to more than $3 million in renovations, put the college under serious financial, management and academic pressure.

Four years and three presidents later, serious questions remain.  For example, why did the board believe that Sanders' enrollment goal -- 500 students within five years -- was reasonable? It was double the highest figure in the school’s history. For decades, enrollment fluctuated between 100 and 250. To double enrollment in five years, it would have to increase by 12 percent or more every year, way beyond the national average or the school’s track record.

Prior to the purchase enrollment was actually on the decline. Between 2001 and 2008, it dropped by about 40 percent, down to 156. It has risen since, again reaching somewhere around 200 students. But there is dispute about the figures --for example, how many are full-time. -- and no sign of a surge ahead. With the loss of all but about 7 acres out of 33, building enrollment becomes more challenging.

Yet, with new leadership and a concerted effort by local stakeholders, this valuable institution may yet continue to serve as an affordable education alternative -- a community-based college, and incorporate its original mission in a vision for the future -- a college that is more than its walls, for free-spirited, engaged, sometimes "non-traditional" students.

For more on BC's past and present:
Radiator Interview

Monday, December 8, 2014

DONS OF TIME: Make the Jump, Buy the Book

"A fast-paced sci-fi thriller featuring 
time travel to Victorian England."

Sept. 27, 2013
Greg Guma’s latest novel stars Tonio Wolfe, who discovers that his company, TELPORT, can use “Remote Viewing” to open wormholes to the past. After his co-workers Danny and Angel let him use the technology to search for Jack the Ripper, Tonio travels to Victorian England and tracks the killer while falling in love with radical leader Annie Besant. Meanwhile, Tonio tries to keep the knowledge of Remote Viewing from his father, ruthless Serbian mob boss Shelley, who owns and wants to exploit TELPORT for commercial use. 

The novel tracks the growth of Tonio’s political consciousness, from apathetic Mafia scion to committed opponent of institutional injustice, thanks to the influence of Annie and Tonio’s college friend Harry, a member of Occupy Wall Street. The scenes in Victorian England have an impressive amount of historical detail and include conversations among historical figures such as the playwright George Bernard Shaw and populist leader Ignatius Donnelly. Many of the novel’s subplots knit together, with Tonio’s quest to discover the true identity of Jack the Ripper mirroring his relationship with his father and his discovery of repressed memories from childhood. 

While the novel raises questions about government surveillance, it disappointingly doesn’t follow up on the implications, with the government acting as a sort of deus ex machina to help Tonio. Still, fans of historical fiction and sci-fi should enjoy this novel. It’s not deep, but it’s well-researched and entertaining, and even readers familiar with the Victorian era will learn about some interesting characters along the way.

Well-constructed, action-flooded sci-fi set in a realistic historical world.

NOW AVAILABLE AT AMAZON.COM
& Fomite Press * www.FomitePress.com

From the mouths of Dons

Peter Lynch, DoD/DARCAP –  "Everything we know is open to revision."

Annie Besant – "What we need is a movement of love and self-sacrifice, inspiring us to give rather than take."

Athena Metsova Wolfe – "Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good."

Helena Blavatrsky – "What writes history is the power of ideas. And every moment offers the potential to write something new."

Ignatius Donnelly – "There is a battle underway in the world, between intelligence and concentrated ignorance."

Danny Webster, TELPORT inventor, on obeying Time Commandments – "Things tend to get worse when you screw around with the past."

George Bernard Shaw to Tonio Wolfe – “Humanity has a dark side, a shadow self, an impulse toward destruction and evil."

Gianni Wolfe – ”God may not play dice with the universe, but if he won't roll somebody better step up.”

Truthsquad Collective – "We've done the digging; the next step is up to you. Nothing is inevitable."

Tonio Wolfe – “I don’t know all the details. I’m more like the canary in the coalmine or a chimp in some capsule shot into space.”

Find out their secrets and more....


REMOTE VIEWING IS HERE...
"Wherever you look there you are"

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Re-Imagining Burlington: Mayoral Election Update

Nine Reasons to Replace the Mayor
(order subject to change)

9. Fair Wages -- It's been mostly empty promises on enforcing a livable wage. And discussion of a higher local miminum wage? Forget it. Mayor Weinberger didn't even object to exempting business outlets at the airport from the city’s livable-wage ordinance.

8. F-35s - Weinberger has actively supported basing the F-35 fighter bomber at the city-owned airport from the start. It’s an environmental assault that will make some people’s homes unlivable.

7. Marijuana Legalization -- He has remained silent and non-committal, even after voters said yes overwhelmingly to a nonbinding referendum to regulate and tax pot sales.

6. Police Conduct -- He refused to encourage an independent review of police conduct after the rubber-round shooting of protesters and has ignored complaints about profiling and the use of force.

5. Privatization - On the Moran Plant and Burlington Telecom, Weinberger has refused to pledge that public assets will remain publicly owned.

4. Gun Control -- There has been no effective follow-up on a city council resolution calling for a Burlington ban on assault rifles and high-capacity ammo clips.

3. Fiscal Stability -- The Stability Bonds that the mayor pushed through may turn out to be a poor deal. Taxpayers will pay big in the short term on the promise of paying less down the road.

2. Democracy and Participation -- One-party rule can be dangerous. It gives the mayor a rubber stamp for whatever he wants. In the past Burlington has been known as a place with three strong parties where political issues were discussed openly. But debate has been recently sidetracked on climate change, redevelopment and neighborhood concerns. We need more democracy, not less.

1. Priorities -- Too many residents struggle to find and keep affordable housing and jobs that pay a livable wage, but the mayor's top priority appears to be commercial development. He wants to give the city an extreme makeover. But that does make some sense. He's a developer, after all, and business interests have a strong voice in his administration. As a result, deals are being fast-tracked without meaningful public input. 

Now it's your turn...


Thanks to everyone who has provided advice, support and feedback about my possible run for Burlington mayor. From people like Ann Taylor, whose civil disobedience on the bike path was a poignant wake up call, and Matt Cropp, whose insights on neighborhoods helped clarify how a challenge on the issues could work, to passionate protesters, artists, students, teachers, parents, and many others turning out these days for marches and meetings, I've learned much and renewed my hope for the future. In person, on the phone, and through dozens of online chats, public and private, I've heard about promising ideas, determined efforts, and needed initiatives -- sometimes in the face of limited resources or looming deadlines.

Despite the current pressure for "speedy" action on a variety of public-private partnerships and plans -- to rebuild the "town center" mall, gentrify south end studio spaces, bring condos and a hotel to the shore of the waterfront, develop most of the land around Burlington College, privatize Burlington Telecom, and sell Farrington's Mobil Home Park for commercial development, to mention the obvious -- real public input and time to consider all options should be more than a formality, especially when the stakes are so high. Before rushing to sell or redevelop, inclusive alternatives and long-term impacts need to be more seriously considered. We can't over-build our way out of problems. We must make the time to explore possibilities that create positive outcomes for all residents.

That said, I haven't attracted sufficient support yet to begin a campaign at this time. Although many people encouraged me to run, others want just a Progressive Party candidate or have different, non-electoral priorities. My work with community groups and projects will, of course, continue. I'll also speak up -- about local issues like housing, affordability and gentrification, global problems like economic inequality, racial injustice and climate change, the lessons of history and the choices ahead.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Re-Imagining Burlington: on the air, on the record

Here is a post-Thanksgiving phone interview on Burlington and the mayoral race: 30 minutes on the air -- political parties, Progressive mistakes, Mayor Weinberger's priorities, redevelopment choices, affordability, climate change, keeping BT as a public utility, and protecting open government at a time of rapid change. Aired 11/28, 11:30 a.m. on The Howie Rose Variety Show, WOMM-FM, 105.9 in Burlington and live streaming. 




Statement on the future of Burlington Telecom, presented at the 11/17 City Council meeting: Good evening. I've lived in Burlington for about 40 years and am currently a member of the BT Cable Advisory Council. The plan for BT to become an enterprise with a commission sounds like common sense. But in my view, as it stands the current proposal for sale would reduce, not enhance, the prospects for recouping most of the $17 million spent to date. In fact, Burlington could end up with very little --  no public stake or influence and about the same amount of money as the current managers.

What will the city get? No more that 25 percent of what has been invested, it appears, probably much less. To get all of the money back BT would have to be sold again for something like $70 million, which is, let's say, unlikely.

In short, the current plan won't help the city recoup most of its investment -- unless there are clear criteria for a future owner or partner. Otherwise, a public asset with great potential for future growth will become totally private.

I think we can improve on the current proposal. How? By establishing ownership standards and putting more administration support behind what is already in motion -- the development of a non-profit entity to buy BT. Not only is this the way to insure long term local control, it's also more likely to help repay the city.... Because a non-profit or a coop can use future revenues to pay back Burlington rather than generating profits for an outside owner.

What's not being stressed is that BT's financial picture has improved substantially in recent years. In September, for example, its revenues were $637,000, with a surplus of $74,000 before the debt payment. And let's not forget why this network was created in the first place -- for long term economic development and to create real competition and choice.

This is still a very young asset -- less than a decade old. In its first 30 years of operation, the Burlington airport received about $100 million in transfers from the general fund.* As infrastructure, BT is just as important today and, if we hold onto it, it can provide long term benefits, better service and more choices for businesses and thousands of residents - but only if we look beyond short-term relief, resist the push to privatize, and preserve this invaluable public asset for future generations.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Burlington's Future and the Race for Mayor

Last week a tree became the latest casualty of redevelopment, ostensibly to make way for a widened bike path but actually to ready the area for a future hotel on the shore -- something that was unthinkable just a few years ago.


"Greg is a very original thinker, a sharp analyst, and a walking archive of Burlington political history... he is raising critical points that need to be addressed if our city is to avoid becoming simply a corporate brand that is unaffordable and exclusive. He's organizing a meeting on Dec. 2nd to expand the discussion." -- Ben Dangl, editor, Toward Freedom

On Dec. 2 at 7 p.m., a meeting in Burlington has been scheduled to discuss strategies for the upcoming March 3 elections and issues like waterfront redevelopment, the sale of Burlington Telecom, re-empowering the Neighborhood Planning Assemblies (NPAs) with funding and hiring control, legalizing marijuana and raising the local minimum wage, reducing greenhouse gas emissions by rethinking transportation, establishing an independent arts commission, divesting from fossil fuel companies (an issue the City Council has declined to place on the March ballot), and establishing a study commission to look for solutions to the housing crisis and how to make Burlington a more affordable place to live. 

Although Steve Goodkind has announced that he will run for mayor, at this point it's not yet clear how or whether he will address most of these questions -- or even whether he will run as a Progressive after three decades of work under Progressive mayors. For more on the Dec. 2 meeting, see the Facebook event page, "What About Burlington?"

One of the reasons for the meeting is to decide whether there should and can be a serious, substantive challenge to Mayor Weinberger, campaigning on the issues, concerns and grassroots agenda emerging locally. To that end, several people have encouraged me to enter the race and I'm giving it serious consideration. 

The announcement that Steve will run does alter the dynamic a bit. In my view, he was a competent DPW director. But he was also an integral part of a discredited leadership and cannot duck answering for its mistakes. There's also a big difference between being a competent bureaucrat and a political leader. We saw that play out with Bob Kiss as mayor. At this point, Steve's positions on most current issues are unknown and he has declined to reveal them, while mine are clear. That said, his entry does complicate the decision on whether to run. 

In short, the question I am now considering is whether to proceed anyway or, as I did 35 years ago when Bernie Sanders and I were both organizing mayoral campaigns, step aside for someone else. I'll be listening, watching closely, and thinking it over between now and Dec. 2. In the meantime, I have asked my current supporters to spread the word, invite others, and let me know what they think. If the prevailing sentiment is that Steve is the right person and the only challenger needed, I need to hear why. The responses, along with discussion on Dec. 2, will be a significant factor in my choice. This will tell me, for example, whether there is sufficient enthusiasm and support to create an effective campaign on the issues that really matter.

This is an important moment for Burlington. In the next few years, decisions will be made that could transform the community for generations. If I do run, my goal will not be just to win, but to challenge complacency, provincialism, gentrification and the current redevelopment push, and to open up debate on crucial choices facing the city we love. What I find out in the next two weeks will determine whether that happens. I look forward to hearing what Burlington residents have to say and how they feel about a real independent voice in the race. 

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Queen City Report: From China to the Waterfront

My latest on-air discussion: Obama in China - bowing to our new overlords, the climate deal and Republican magical thinking.... Showdown in Ferguson - are we looking at a race war?...  Low turnout and voter fatigue - but no recount in Vermont... State lawmakers look at marijuana legalization - and Governor Shumlin backs the idea... Burlington - a tree goes down to make way for a waterfront hotel, plus the city's upcoming elections. Recorded on 11/14. The dialogue with DJ Matt begins at 23 minutes and runs about an hour. Enjoy.



Monday, November 10, 2014

Learning to Love Ebola and Stop Worrying

Just before the last elections I dropped in at The Radiator, Burlington's LP FM radio station, for an extended chat with Anchor Matt, part of The Howie Rose Show team. The talk begins around 23 minutes in. We covered the political waterfront, from Ebola, Isis and other fear factors to Vermont's one-party ways, how Rockefeller died, and the dangers of whistleblowing. Plus a personal vignette. Thanks to Howie and associates for the use of the mike. (Our conversation runs two hours, but somehow it works?!)

Friday, July 11, 2014

The Power of NO: Thoughts on a Road Not Taken

These remarks by Greg Guma for a February 8, 2012 talk at the University of Vermont, explore the evolution of a segment for "Freedom and Unity: The Vermont Movie," which premieres on Vermont PBS Plus, a new HD broadcast service offering alternative programming and content from regional producers. The six-part documentary airs Monday – Saturday, July 14-19, at 8 p.m, revealing Vermont as you’ve never seen it! For more about The Vermont Movie, or to order a DVD copy, visit thevermontmovie.com. Vermont PBS Plus is available statewide over the air and through most cable providers.

The UVM talk, presented with Frank Bryan and Bruce S. Post, discussed The Road Not Taken: The Green Mountain Parkway Decision as a 'Tipping Point' in the History of Northern New England.” 

Bryan, the John G. McCullough Professor of Political Science at UVM, was the main speaker. He presented findings related to his study of Vermont's rejection (by a popular referendum) of a New Deal proposal to build a "skyline drive-like" highway along the Green Mountains from Massachusetts to Canada.  The seminar was presented as part of a series sponsored by the Center for Research on Vermont. Greg joined Post, former Director of Planning for the late Vermont Governor Richard A. Snelling, in providing commentary, context, and lessons that apply to current issues of development and wilderness.

Here are Greg's thoughts on the Parkway and its defeat:

As a journalist and story teller I am interested in much more than facts and events. I’m looking for underlying themes, dynamic tensions, the motivations of key figures in the drama, and the overall context of the story. In this case, like many people, I had heard just hints about some fight over a huge road during the Depression, and that it was ultimately rejected.  It was a comforting but ambiguous nugget of information.

But when Nora Jacobson began working on The Vermont Movie, Robin Lloyd and I decided to revisit the Parkway fight, find out what happened, and attempt to dramatize it for the film. The trick would be to tell a complex story in five to ten minutes. My approach was to capture the times through a series of recreations, almost like a 1930s newsreel.

The research brought me to James Paddock Taylor, an ideal figure to represent the forces behind the road, Director of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce at the time, but more important also a founder of the Green Mountain Club, a strong believer in outdoor activity, in both physical and spiritual development. Yet Taylor saw the Green Mountains themselves as, in some respects, a barrier to needed change.

Twenty years before pushing the parkway, at a talk in Boston, he described Vermont’s mountains as both a blessing and a hindrance. “They have fostered local conservatism and narrowness of interest,” he said, as well as “an excess of individuality.”

Here was someone who saw himself and his projects as progressive, an optimist who wanted to create a more connected, less insular society. He viewed development on Vermont’s mountains as a way to open the minds of his fellow residents, basically to introduce the state to the modern world. For Taylor the Green Mountain Parkway was a progressive initiative that would spur the improvement and beautification of others roads and, more profoundly, encourage a “new state of mind,” what he called a modern and national outlook.

Progressive Visions

It’s fascinating to explore the evolving concept of progressiveness in Vermont. There had already been a Progressive era, which became influential in Burlington during the time of Mayor James Burke. There would be others – in the 1960s during the Hoff adminstration, and more recently, with Bernie Sanders and a Progressive Party. Each has had a distinct image, program and approach.

Taylor was trying to use the landscape as a tool to promote a popular 20th century vision of progress. He often tooled around the state in a Ford, calling it his “chariot of freedom.” Before showing why the Parkway didn’t happen on film, I felt that we needed to illustrate why many smart and influential people thought it was a positive and progressive idea. Thus, the first scene we developed has Taylor trying to sell his vision to a sympathetic Burlington Free Press reporter as they fly over the state. 

When the reporter mentions that many folks don’t like the idea of the feds taking over 50,000 acres, Taylor snaps, “That’s just ignorant. What do they want, to stay isolated, separate?”

“Some people do,” says the reporter. “Or they’re for keeping the wilderness. Or, say we oughta be spending on roads and bridges.” It was more than five years after the 1927 flood and many roads still weren’t repaired. In the scene the reporter also mentions federal control and the idea of a national park cutting the state in half.

“Then explain it to them, son,” Taylor snaps. “This isn’t about spoiling anything, or some national take over. It’s about optimism, a modern state of mind. Getting out of the mountain mindset …and joining the world.” There it was: an aggressively progressive, but ultimately misguided vision, and hubris, a common problem among leaders.

Fighting Words

As a journalist, I was also interested in the role of the media. The Burlington Free Press actively promoted the Parkway. In March 1935, a year before the referendum, a Free Press editorial said saucily, “If our Washington Santa Claus wants to send us up ten millions to build a road over the side of our old Green Mountains, let’s graciously accept it and put the boys to work.”

Almost reflexively, The Rutland Herald, which already opposed Roosevelt’s New Deal, became a leading voice of opposition. Parkways supporters saw the newspaper as a vehicle for propaganda and disinformation. I went through the Herald archives and found two things – intense coverage and a clear editorial decision to provide a platform for opponents. In other words, the paper legitimized a critique of the progressive vision that was being promoted by the state’s political establishment.

We found articles with headlines like UNSPOILED VERMONT… GASH ON THE MOUNTAINSIDE… ELIMINATION OF THE WOODLANDS… TOLL GATES AT EVERY CROSSROAD… and PROCTOR FEARS PARKWAY WOULD STRANGLE BUSINESS. The last was a detailed critique by Mortimer Proctor, with sections on the charm of wilderness areas, state sovereignty and the danger of centralized government.

Here are a few statements that appeared in the Herald at the time:

“The parkway would take tourists out of the valleys, where we can sell things to them, into the hills, where we can’t…”--1935 editorial

“Vermont cannot afford to borrow half a million dollars or more…”

“A wilderness area now rich in game will be spoiled for hikes, sportsmen, horseback riders…”
“The State will be split in half, into East Vermont and West Vermont, with a wide strip of U.S. territory in the middle…”

Basically, a business-oriented vision of progress was running into what was, in some respects, a conservative, some even verging on isolationist backlash. For the film, we tried to dramatize these complex dynamics by creating archetypal constituents – a farmer, a naturalist, a merchant – and having a reporter solicit their views. 

Seeking the Larger Context

Almost 80 years after the fact, the Parkway’s defeat in a Town Meeting day referendum still feels important and, I believe, can resonate for anyone struggling against federal or state overreach.  When you have worked on long-shot activist campaigns, a success like this one – which can reasonably be interpreted as a “people’s victory” over centralized authority – is quite inspiring. It feels like a righteous battle between state power vs. people power, a defiant and successful revolt against conventional thinking. 

The view does change somewhat when you look at what else was happening in Vermont at the time. Beyond the media dynamics, there was the Great Depression, high unemployment and industrial cutbacks. New Deal programs were attempting to prime the pump with public investments. But in Vermont there was considerable resistance to Roosevelt and his policies.

There were also major strikes – most notably the Granite Workers in 1933 and the Vermont Marble strike in the fall of 1935, the same period that the Green Mountain Parkway was being hotly debated.  In November, the Herald did some red-baiting, saying that “communist influence” might be to blame for the Marble strike. On Thanksgiving a thousand strikers, with their families, marched through downtown Proctor in the rain. In December they were clashing with hired thugs.

A year later, a bill outlawing sit-down strikes passed in the legislature. Vermont was the first state to do this. George Aiken, who ran for governor against the New Deal in 1936, signed it in April 1937, although he wasn’t happy and worked to mend fences with labor over time.

In the midst of this deeply polarized period, after three years of establishment Parkway promotion and heated debate, the legislature finally took up the Green Mountain Parkway Act on December 14, 1935. The idea was to give the National Park Service jurisdiction over the land and appropriate the matching funds.  Supporters pointed to 12,000 men on relief. They said that allocating $500,000 in state money to get $18 million in federal funds was a pretty great deal.  They accused Parkway opponents of attempting to confuse people.

One legislator put it this way: “They say the land used will become alien territory. Now, that’s a red herring if ever I saw one. You know, the opposition is acting like a good criminal lawyer. And you know what they do: trot out fake issues to keep the jury’s attention off the main point.”

Opponents argued that the Parkway would lead to higher taxes or more debt, and called it a dangerous pipe dream that would never be completed.  One lawmaker made his case by arguing that Vermonters have always been essentially conservative and fiercely independent. “So I ask you,” he said, “why shouldn’t this be the Vermont of today? The people of Vermont are sending out an SOS. Heed it, I beg you, and let the people decide.”

In the end, the Parkway was referred back to local communities for a March 3, 1936 referendum.  The decision was both a way of passing off a hot political potato and a necessary deferral to local sentiment.  Considering Vermont’s participatory democratic traditions, you might wonder why this hasn’t happened more often.

Officially, the choice offered to voters was between two start dates – immediately or five years in the future. But most people understood that it was really now or probably never. Majorities in northern counties – Chittenden, Franklin, Grand Isle, Lamoille, Washington – like the idea. But statewide the vote was 43,176, those who preferred to think about it later – or not at all – to 31,101 who wanted to move ahead fast.

The opposition had successfully appealed to core values like independence, resistance to outside control, frugality and distrust. Taylor felt the outcome also pointed to a “mysterious psychology” that was limiting the state. In his view, people who opposed the Parkway opposed progress itself.  They wanted to remain “different.” He saw this as a long-term disadvantage and was determined to make Vermont more like the rest of the country.

At the core of the opposition was suspicion of government, along with concern about state’s rights. People weren’t talking directly about the environmental impacts. But they did say that the road “just didn’t fit,” that such an enormous project would turn the ridgeline into alien territory. “It’s like asking for a scar, saying we want to cut up this beautiful place,” one person told the newspaper.

For many it was about scale. The Parkway was just too damn big.

History Lost and Found

Was the decision enlightened or selfish, provincial or progressive, conservative or radical? The dynamics remains difficult to categorize to this day.

For me, it is a reminder – that categories like progressive and conservative can be inadequate and even distracting at time. And also that even when such a project is unpopular and ill-conceived, it can be hard to kill. It reminds me of the Connector road proposed from the Interstate to downtown in Burlington – still being discussed after more than 40 years. They also call that a Parkway, a pleasant image for a road, better than a highway or even a freeway.  

The National Park Service was still recommending the Green Mountain Parkway as part of an Appalachian Parkway system in 1960. That’s the power of obsolete thinking, a relentless force behind many bad decisions.

A final thought. People ask why such an iconic incident isn’t more widely known and celebrated?  First of all, it was embarrassing to the political establishment. The editors at the Free Press certainly didn’t have any motivation to spread the word, and as the years passed, Taylor’s type of progressiveness gained considerable traction.

History is written by the winners, as they say, and the Parkway story – so inspiring to many people now – was a defeat for the powers-that-were. Why would they recount a story that promotes the dangerous idea that if you don’t like some mega-project you can organize effectively to stop it?

When I moved to Vermont in 1968 and began writing for the Bennington Banner, I would occasionally approach Vermont Life, the state’s house organ, with a story idea. What about a feature on all the newcomers to the state, or on the communes being formed? The pictures could be great. The answer was usually blunt: This isn’t the image we want to project.

These days, given the considerable state pride about how Vermont differs from other places – and sometimes takes the lead – state government and contemporary media tend to downplay the type of conservative, almost isolationist thinking that played a considerable role in the Parkway debate and has influenced other aspects of Vermont history. 

Today Vermont would be unlikely to reject federal assistance, especially during an economic crisis – the type of Tea Party, anti-government attitude that led Florida to reject stimulus funds. In contrast, one of the top Vermont stories last year was how quickly Vermont bounced back from Hurricane Irene and subsequent flooding, an success made possible by federal aid and active cooperation between all levels of government.

Inspiring stories, especially those that don’t fit into a convenient political narrative, are often winnowed out of the “official” story. If we’re not paying close attention, we can lose important parts of our history – even in a digital age. 

But the only thing guaranteed is change, and changing conditions – in our time struggles over federal authority, health care, Vermont Yankee and other state-federal conflicts -- along with the work of essential thinkers like Frank Bryan, can help us to reclaim and better understand our past. 

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Rewriting History with Noble Lies

Attempting to explain why governments so often pursue policies contrary to their own interests, historian Barbara Tuchman provided four basic reasons, often acting in combination: tyranny, excessive ambition, incompetence, and folly.

Looking specifically at the Vietnam War, she noted that although those who designed and implemented that debacle understood the obstacles and dangers, they insisted on "staying the course" due to a combination of overreaction, illusions of omnipotence, and a shortage of reflective thought -- the inability to balance the possible gain against the harm being done both in Vietnam and at home. She categorized these as forms of folly, an explanation more generous than many people apply to most US administrations.

Although the ingredients are largely the same - exaggerating the "national security" imperatives at work, assuming that the world's "only remaining Superpower" can't possibly lose, and refusing to consider that an invasion could spark resistance, potentially on a scale that is impossible to contain -- describing the Iraq War as pure folly is far too simple.

The first alternative explanation, advanced largely by elected accomplices eager to save face, was incompetence. The war began due to a "massive intelligence failure," they argued, pointing to years of so-called evidence that Saddam Hussein's regime posed a serious, although perhaps not imminent, threat to Iraq's neighbors and the West. But even such semi-critics, both liberal and conservative, endorsed the idea that the United States should pursue "regime change." In other words, they assumed the right and the power to transform a country, to replace its power structure and "democratize" it. Clearly, a delusion of grandeur.

As the decade wound down, most people in the United States began to see through the re-writing on the wall and appeared to think their leaders had been deluded, somewhat incompetent, or both. Others claim what could be defined as folly.

What remains is a heated debate over whether this actually explains the situation, or if darker forces are at work. In short, was it just a terrible mistake, or did the Bush administration consciously mislead the country? If the latter, the issue becomes whether its actions meet the definition of tyranny.

Sensitive to the danger, Pres. George Bush used a Veterans Day speech in 2005 to respond to his critics, charging that it is "deeply irresponsible to rewrite the history of how that war began." His version, at that point, was that removing Hussein from power had "strong bipartisan support" and that no one pressured the intelligence community to alter its apparently erroneous judgments. But this is already an historical rewrite.

What Congress authorized was the use of force, if necessary, to ensure that Iraq either give up its weapons of mass destruction, or prove it didn't have any. Although it is disingenuous for Democrats like Hillary Clinton to claim that they didn't know Bush's true aim, the fact is that their votes voiced a potentially different outcome. It is also clear that the information Congress received was not complete, but rather scrubbed of doubts, warnings, and qualifications.

So, what is the real history of that war? It begins long before Congress voted, even before the 9/11 attacks so often used since then to justify an open-ended "war on terror." In September 2000, prior to Bush's installation in the White House, Dick Cheney commissioned a strategy paper by the Project for a New American Century. This telling document asserted that "the need for a substantial American force presence in the Persian Gulf transcends the issue of the regime of Saddam Hussein." It also pointed out that the public would not agree to a war unless there were a "catastrophic and catalyzing event -like a new Pearl Harbor."

During the 2000 campaign, Bush and Cheney presented a very different agenda, criticizing the idea of nation-building and, in Cheney's word, any moves suggesting that "we were an imperialist power." As soon as the new Pearl Harbor presented itself, however, the entire administration united behind a series of arguments favoring war, all of which were eventually proven false. By the way, things like bringing democracy to Iraq, transforming the Middle East, and permanently installing U.S. forces were not on that list.

Were lies told? Frankly, the Bush administration cared not, since many of the war's architects were admirers of philosopher Leo Strauss, a great believer in the usefulness of lies in politics. Secrecy and deception, a veritable culture of lies, are necessary, he argued, to protect "the wise" -- those with a natural right to rule -- from the vulgar masses, who would otherwise be ungovernable and rise up against them. He calls such tactics "noble lies," the grease of aggressively nationalistic politics.

"Because mankind is intrinsically wicked, he has to be governed," Strauss once wrote. "Such governance can only be established, however, when men are united -- and they can only be united against other people."

This neatly explains not only why and how the nation was misled into war, but also why the administration continues to aggressively attack its critics and defend the war. Lying is more than an occasional option for such leaders, it is essential, as is an endless supply of enemies, both abroad and at home.

Originally written in 2005 for Vermont Guardian, Toward Freedom,The Baltimore Chronicle and other outlets.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Legend That Lost Its Way: How Pacifica Split

In January 1960, Harold Winkler, Pacifica Radio’s president and KPFA station manager, received an unusual phone call from New York. A former political science professor at the University of California, Winkler had resigned in protest over a required loyalty oath for faculty members. He was also independently wealthy. On the other end of the line was Louis Schweitzer, a Russian-born millionaire, radio station owner, and also a president – in his case president of the Peter Schweitzer Division of Kimberly-Clark. He knew about Pacifica and had a radical proposition.
     A few years before, the eccentric radio enthusiast had bought a station for $34,000, subsequently offering New York City the latest music and some intelligent programs. But he found the choice between losing money on quality and making a profit by going more commercial personally frustrating and philosophically untenable. To his dismay, the station’s greatest success had come during a New York newspaper strike. “That was not what I wanted at all,” he told Winkler. “I saw that if the station ever succeeded, it would be a failure."
     So, he asked, did Pacifica want it?
     For a decade, KPFA in Berkeley had been the only listener-sponsored radio station in the country. But after planning for four years and raising $200,000, the Pacifica Foundation had recently launched a second station – KPFK in Los Angeles – an independent operation with its own board, station manager, and local base of supporters. Now, without paying anything, it could own a completely equipped FM station in the Big Apple, smack dab in the middle of the FM dial. It was a no-brainer.
     The station that ultimately became WBAI began lower on the dial in 1941 as WABF, a commercial station, but moved to the 99.5 frequency in 1948. In the early 1950s it was off the air for two years, but came back in 1955 with call letters that reflected the name of its current owner, Broadcast Associates, Inc. By the time Schweitzer made his donation, it was worth about $200,000.
      With KPFK and WBAI, Pacifica expanded from a single station into a network reaching three major metropolitan areas with a potential audience of sixty million people. But along with growth came challenges for which the organization was largely unprepared.
     Driving into New York City in February 2006, on the first leg of my orientation tour as Pacifica Executive Director, I thought about WBAI’s past. It was once one of the most innovative stations in broadcast history, winning awards for its civil rights coverage and helping to define the counterculture. In 1965, it sent the first American reporter, Chris Koch, to cover the war from North Vietnam. Combining resources with the other Pacifica stations, it broadcast live anti-war teach-ins. At a time when even the underground press wasn’t receptive to feminism, it put Nanette Rainone’s groundbreaking show “CR” on the air. When Columbia students seized the campus in 1968, it covered the occupation uninterrupted.
     There was also Bob Fass’s “Radio Unnameable,” a weekend collage of music, poetry and talk, radio’s version of the underground press. Identifying with the counterculture and anti-war movement, Fass took his mike out to demonstrations and invited movement leaders into the studio to discuss their plans. He ran the show like a telephone switchboard, connecting people and getting them involved. He broke the mold and invented something new – freeform radio.
With a transmitter at the Empire State Building, a signal that reached far beyond the city limits and a roster of on-air voices second to none, the station’s influence was profound in its day. But now it was at war with itself. It was like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, said programmer Ibrahim Gonzales, “complete with endless debates over the right of return, over who held the rights to a time slot.” As managers and hosts came at one another with lawsuits, purges, and fights over race and ideology, its audience was drifting away.
    In 2005, amidst charges of mismanagement, favoritism, and partisan games, Station Manager Don Rojas had resigned. Business manager Indra Hardat was placed temporarily in charge as the local board searched for a permanent replacement. Nine months later, when I started my cross-country trip, she was still on the job. But the real power was in the hands of Program Director Bernard White.
    Like many key players, Bernard had been with Pacifica for decades, Raised in Harlem, he studied at Queens College and held a variety of jobs, including New York school teacher, before turning to radio journalism in 1978. For several years he shared the mike weekday mornings with Amy Goodman on “Wake Up Call,” then became WBAI’s Interim Program Director in 1999 after the untimely death of Samori Marksman, a beloved and cosmopolitan Pan-Africanist. The following year, in a controversial move, General Manager Valerie Van Isler chose him for permanent PD over Utrice Lead, a flamboyant Trinidad native. By year’s end, however, Bernard was fired, a casualty of Pacifica’s “Christmas Coup.” Central management and the National Board had taken over the station, changed the locks, fired Van Isler, installed Leid as interim GM, and given a list of “banned” employees to the security guards.
     Bernard and two dozen others who were fired during the “hijack” period, as it was labeled by those organizing against the people in charge, returned to WBAI in 2002. But his tenure as program director since then had been stormy. Bernard had solid backing from the Justice and Unity Coalition, the strongest faction on the local board, which considered him a determined anti-racist who put “activist” voices on the air. Amy Goodman thought of him as a comrade and friend. To his opponents, however, he was a Tammany Hall-style demagogue who abused his position, dismissed popular hosts like investigative journalist Robert Knight and health guru Gary Null, commandeered the airwaves to criticize his opponents, and frequently played the “race card” himself. Basically, they blamed him for the station’s listener and financial decline.
     Whatever the reasons, station membership had dropped by 20 percent since the previous year, according to industry and management figures. On-air fund drives ran longer and longer, and brought in less money per day.

Part One of Pacifica Radio: A Listening Tour

  • Next: Facing the Factions

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Pacifica Radio’s Progressive Meltdown Continues

The Pacifica Foundation, a community radio network that includes WBAI-FM in New York, has dismissed its executive director, the latest tumultuous step for an organization that has been plagued by financial problems and acrimonious turnover among its management.

Summer Reese, who was named executive director in November after doing the job on an interim basis for more than a year, was fired by Pacifica’s national board on Thursday. In a brief statement on Friday, the board confirmed the move and thanked Ms. Reese “for her service to date,” but gave no explanation.

Ms. Reese’s dismissal is the latest in a series of changes in recent years that have destabilized Pacifica and its five stations. In August, WBAI, which operates a powerful signal at 99.5 FM but is millions of dollars in debt, laid off 19 of its 29 employees, including the entire news staff. The station, which is supported almost entirely by listener donations, has since been through two program directors and struggled publicly with its fund-raising.
- New York Times, March 18, 2014

"According to a media release Monday morning, Reese and a small group of supporters removed a padlock installed at Pacifica’s offices the previous day and “informed staffers that business would continue as usual.” (Tracy) Rosenberg claims the firing was illegal because of the three-year contract held by Reese, adding that she has “no doubt” that the board was planning to fire Reese for political reasons.
- Paul DeRienzo
The forces currently aligned with Summer Reese, including Gary Null, and with Bernard White, Lydia Brazon and Dan Siegel were already engaged in a long-term struggle by the time I arrived in January 2006. Many of the players still remain the same, and "takeover" rumors are currently being circulated by both factions. 

Contract issues were also involved in my departure, although I ultimately chose to leave rather than extend what was becoming a stalemate. Essentially the same leadership that retook control of the PNB and dismissed Reese urged my early departure and the selection of Nicole Sawaya (without interviewing any other candidates). Not a great transition, as it turned out, and entirely avoidable.

That said, no one faction is exclusively responsible for the network's decline. But snap dismissals are no better than bolt cutters in solving Pacifica's real problem - a crippling deficit of trust. In light of recent developments, I thought these 2010 reflections might be relevant...

A lot has happened since I left my job as Pacifica Radio’s Executive Director at the end of 2007. Almost a decade after she was abruptly fired former KPFA General Manager Nicole Sawaya returned as my replacement with enthusiastic support from the Board and community – but resigned twice over the next year. As the network approached its 60th anniversary it faced the most serious organizational and financial crisis in years. On-air fund drives, which bring in over 80 percent of the network’s income, weren’t meeting their goals, most stations had meager cash reserves, and WBAI was a half a million behind its target and mired in an internal power struggle that had been building for several years.

According to Casey Peters, Pacifica’s National Election Supervisor in 2007, a “vacuum of power” developed after my departure. “With obvious instability at the top,” he wrote in his final report, “the election campaigns descended into chaos.” When he tried to meet with Sawaya to discuss the process, she declined and told him “she opposed Pacifica Bylaws provisions for elected boards.”

The problems intensified further when Sawaya resigned and corporate counsel Dan Siegel stepped in. “He applied intimidation regarding the still-pending certification of KPFA results,” Peters claimed, “telling me that I would be fired if I did not do so promptly. The problem was that criteria for certification had not been met due to irregularities in the campaign.” Peters came to believe that Siegel was attempting to control the outcome of the vote. On March 13, 2008, as Peters was about to fly to New York for the WBAI vote count he received a message from Chief Financial Officer Lonnie Hicks. The word was that Siegel didn’t want him counting votes in New York. Furthermore, he was being fired.

A few days later, according to Peters’ account, Siegel entered his home without notice and startled his wife. “His intent was to confiscate election equipment and materials,” Peters wrote. “Siegel had apparently been drinking, and sat in a rented SUV flashing his headlights into our bedroom. Marilyn called the police to stop the harassment. We seriously considered pressing trespass and assault charges, but felt any publicity about the incident would not look good for the Pacifica Foundation.” Nevertheless, after the elections a lawsuit was filed by one faction at WBAI against the network and its representatives.

In Spring 2008, a fight over financial control between Hicks and Sawaya, who had been wooed back after her first resignation, resulted in a Board decision to give her the right to directly supervise the national financial staff, something I’d sought without success. Unfortunately, after a three month absence she faced a rapidly worsening picture. Frustrated by a costly organizational structure that often blocked change, she openly called it “unsustainable.”

One of her first big decisions, made with Hicks’ agreement, was to cut the budget for Free Speech Radio News by 25 percent. What seemed to shock some people wasn’t so much the cutback (about $11,000 per month) but the fact that it was done without prior discussion. Sawaya explained that the financial crunch required strong and immediate action. The Board decided to let it stand.

The next surprises came in July, just as budgets for the next fiscal year were being developed. The National Board had voted to convene in person that month, but the national office didn’t follow up and the meeting had to be cancelled. Afterward, without explanation, Hicks disappeared from work. No announcement was issued, but news leaked out that he was on “paid leave to deal with family matters.” Later, rumors circulated that an investigation of his activities was being pursued – and also that he might sue. Sawaya meanwhile assumed responsibility for budget development, pushing for staff reductions and other budget cuts.

In the end, she left first, while Hicks returned to work in late 2008. He was ultimately terminated in early 2009, and replaced by an old nemesis, former National Finance Committee Chair LaVarn Williams. As predicted, he filed a lawsuit, alleging that he was dismissed because he was African American and a whistleblower. Clearly, Hicks had a sense of irony, considering his frequent warnings about escalating legal costs, the fact that a majority of Pacifica's National Board and staff – including his replacement – were people of color, and that he fought as hard as anyone to hold back information from the board and membership when he was in control.

Sawaya announced her second resignation in early August 2008, but asked those who knew not to say anything for a month. At meetings, she meanwhile tried to convince the Board and National Finance Committee that Pacifica should act like a network and “centralize” various functions, especially accounting and reporting. Directors listened but nothing changed.

As the national political conventions approached she turned her attention to Pacifica’s coverage. A radio journalist, Sawaya considered it a high priority. Still, people were surprised by her decision to leave the national office and personally cover the presidential race at a time when the main management issue was resolving its financial crisis. What they didn’t know was that she had already resigned.

Before she left for Denver, another confrontation intensified the situation. A volunteer programmer, allegedly “banned” from KPFA in Berkeley, showed up unexpectedly. The General Manager wasn’t around, but the Business Manager felt that something needed to be done. Calling the National Office next door, she asked for advice from the new Human Resources Director, Dominga Estrada, who advised her to call the police. According to witnesses, when the cops arrived excessive force was used. Sawaya was there and attempted to block videotaping of the event.

This deepened the existing divide at the station. Management defended its decision but said it wasn’t responsible for the overreaction of the police. Dozens of volunteers, and some on the staff, saw it as another example of a management out of step with Pacifica’s values and mission. A letter of no confidence in GM Lemlem Rijio was signed by dozens of people.

Soon afterward HR director Estrada left for a new job elsewhere and the National Board began to openly discuss what was called a “national office collapse.” The term actually referred to one of several options for how to address the overall problems. One alternative was to struggle on as is, a decision that would create a large budget deficit. Another was to cut some national positions and the salaries of others. The third and most radical option was to lay off almost everyone, retaining only enough staff to pay the bills and keep governance and the national office functioning.

The Board also had to decide what to do about the leadership vacuum. Some hoped to quickly recruit a new Executive Director. But the process would take months, and proposals to re-expand the CFO’s authority and apply strict performance standards to managers were likely to get in the way.

Even if a new chief executive could be found – and the Board overcame its divisions – there were elephants in the room. Pacifica’s leaders were far from agreement on how to resolve its financial crisis, and, even more difficult, restructure its programming and management to reverse the long-term decline in listenership and income.

By early 2009, as blogs and discussion forums speculated about receivership, bankruptcy, and breaking up the network, the balance of power shifted again. In New York and on the national board, the controversial Justice and Unity Coalition lost control. A new national chair, Grace Aaron of Los Angeles, stepped in as Interim ED. As the crisis deepened, she took dramatic action.

WBAI was facing eviction. It was $128,000 behind on the rent for its Wall Street office and studio space by April, and owed another $75,000 in back payments for its coveted transmitter atop the Empire State Building. It was losing at least $500,000 a year, required repeated short-term bailouts, and owed the national office almost $1 million in back payments for central services. WBAI had weathered storms and struggles before. But this time the troubles not only could bring down the station but also threaten the future of Pacifica itself.

To reduce the rent, Tony Riddle, the station’s fifth General Manager in seven years, renegotiated a long-term lease with Silverstein Properties – without getting Aaron’s approval. Under the new terms, WBAI had to pay $60,000 in May, another $75,000 in June, and $45,000 by July 25. If the station or Pacifica missed a payment, the consequence would be immediate eviction. It turned out to be one of Riddle’s last acts as GM.

In early May, Aaron removed him, but created a new “at home” job for Riddle as National Development Director. It was apparently a consolation prize for not making a stink. The new CFO, LaVarn Williams, was appointed Acting GM of the station. Almost immediately, Program Director Bernard White was removed. Aaron had already ordered the locks changed on the transmitter site. While some WBAI boosters cheered the changes as long overdue, others took to the streets, decrying a racist world view among opportunistic liberals.

In June, Aaron removed another GM, Ron Pinchback of WPFW in Washington, DC. The station had also lost listeners and fallen short on fundraising in recent years. Yet critics saw racial motives: like White and Hicks, Pinchback was African-American, suggesting to some that the changes were really a purge of top Black managers. The fact that most replacements were also Black was overlooked.

“WBAI was predominantly white in the 1960s and 1970s,” noted JUC leader Lederer. “And there has always been a rear guard of white listeners and programmers who want to go back.” JUC members and other Bernard White backers threatened to boycott and possibly sue unless this latest “national coup” was reversed. The station’s “race” war wasn’t over yet.

When Amy Goodman expressed “dismay” about White’s removal in a letter to Pacifica management, Williams replied that he and previous GMs were responsible for a “failure model” that jeopardized both “your program and the whole foundation.” Despite the popularity of Democracy Now!, Amy’s influence had become limited over the years, mainly governed by a mutually lucrative contract to air the show and assist with fundraising. Thus, barring a successful lawsuit, which could take years to resolve, or an LSB election that returned the JUC to power, Bernard White had seen his final days at Pacifica.

By 2010, Pacifica finally settled on a new Executive Director, Florida feminist radio host Arlene Engelhardt. The intensity of conflict was down a bit, but revenues from on-air fundraising continued to decline. KPFA’s GM Rijio was forced out and only KPFT in Houston had permanent management.

Upset about staff cutbacks, Kellia Ramares, long-time journalist and board operator at KPFA, delivered her own swan song at a Pacifica National Board meeting in July. After more than a decade with the network, including an arrest in the newsroom during the bad old “hijack” days, she announced that she was leaving. “Pacifica hires an election supervisor while they cannot keep a news tech at quarter-time hours?” she asked rhetorically. “Is this the business of elections or radio? To those who say that I should not criticize this expenditure, because ‘we must democratize Pacifica,’ I quote Confucius: “You cannot teach philosophy to a hungry man.”

The critique went deeper still. In an article for the Atlantic Free Press, Ramares added, “I now question the entire alleged movement that calls itself progressive.” She urged others similarly disillusioned to ask whether “progressivism is a philosophy that helps its adherents live healthy, secure, decent lives in the material world of today, or is it just pie-in-the-sky propaganda that institutions such as Pacifica use to get well-meaning people to give it money.”

Acknowledging that all media were taking an economic hit, she nevertheless had concluded that “citizen journalism, available across the political spectrum, but a special darling of the left because of its free speech nature and alleged purity of purpose, is destroying the ability of journalists to make a living. Paid journalists can’t compete with free. Is it progressive to expect, or even to demand, to receive free work in a society that demands that we pay for our food, clothing, housing and health care? Is it progressive to give donations to an institution for its infrastructure, but not to care about whether the workers in that institution can pay their bills?”

“Can we do well while we do good,” she concluded, “or is progressivism just a fancy name we give our struggle and poverty in order to make our marginalization seem noble?”

When rumors fly through Planet Pacifica or attacks get especially nasty, people often blame provocateurs and charge that the government is out to get radio’s voice of the people. There is some basis for this suspicion. The FBI had Pacifica in its sights as early as 1958, and took a special interest in 1962 when former Special Agent Jack Levine gave KPFA an interview. Levine exposed the Bureau as a threat to democracy and a tool of J. Edgar Hoover, its vain and obsessed director. According to Mathew Lasar, who reviewed Freedom of Information Act files, the Bureau poked, prodded, and harassed the organization for years, even planting agents disguised as private citizens.

In recent times, however, charges of counter-intelligence operations directed against the organization have been speculative at best, and occasionally excursions into free-range paranoia. As Executive Director, I was frequently asked to investigate such suspicions but found no solid evidence of a government operation. And even if a disinformation campaign was being pursued, it would be overkill. The Pacifica community is capable of destabilizing itself without a federal assist. Outside forces aren’t responsible for the bylaws or listener activist distrust of staff, the slow response to the digital age, disputes about the mission, programming gridlock, financial decline, or misbehavior by board members and volunteers.

Part of the problem is the version of democracy put in place in 2002. At this point, the five stations had about a million regular listeners (declining since then). Of this total, about 10 percent make financial or volunteer contributions, qualifying them to participate in local elections. Of that total, little more than 10 percent actually return ballots in the elections. In recent years it has sometimes been difficult to reach that bylaw-mandated threshold.

Due to instant runoff voting, it takes at most about 300 votes for someone to be elected to a station board. In other words, Local Station Board members draw their right to govern from less than one percent of the listeners. And in order to win, candidates often resort to negative appeals, especially charges that the process is corrupt and Pacifica isn’t democratic enough. In general, the elections have tended to perpetuate an atmosphere of confrontation and suspicion.

Board meetings also pose problems. They frequently feature rude outbursts and other disrespectful behavior. Roberts Rules are often abused, becoming weapons of obstruction rather than tools to promote rational discussion. Members use e-mails to spread rumors and promote debates of marginal relevance. In many cases, factional alliances manipulate the rules. Productivity suffers and questionable behavior opens the organization to legal liability. All this has had the effect of alienating potential supporters or future board members.

Touring the stations back in 2006, I repeatedly asked whether Pacifica was trying to operate a radio network or create a government. The reason was that it looked like the latter. Some even wanted quasi-judicial bodies – like the Committee to Investigate Allegations of Racism and Sexism formed in 2006 – and the equivalent of a Freedom of Information Act, as if Pacific was a National Security State. Anyone who questioned the “bold experiment” was considered out of step, possibly even a reactionary.

More than three years after I left, despite financial crisis, major staff turnover and a forceful exercise of executive power, progress remains elusive. Change is in the air, but the outcome is uncertain. Another round of contentious Board elections is underway, and whatever the results, they will likely either slow down the pace or again alter the direction.