Support Charter change; write-in campaign underway...

Sal and Chris Carceller have put together a letter of support for the Town Council's proposed revision to the charter to replace the "Tent Meeting" with regular all-day voting. Sal is the citizen who got this all started, their letter makes great sense, and we need to give the Town Council the support they need to move ahead with putting this on the ballot.

Take a minute to download, print, and mail. Do it now. Let's not go through another Tent Meeting. From the Carcellers's site:


Do you want a fair voting process at all times? An informed vote? Anonymous voting? Voting in a booth on a Tuesday? Absentee ballots?

If your answer is YES to these questions, support the proposed charter amendment to change our "tent meeting" process. Click below to view, print and mail a letter to our Town Council in support of the proposed charter change.

Visit their page and download the letter.

Call me Alice...

After discovering that Cory Doctorow was Robert Heinlein and Kathryn Cramer was Greg Benford I just had to find out.

I am:
James Tiptree, Jr. (Alice B. Sheldon)

In the 1970s she was perhaps the most memorable, and one of the most popular, short story writers. Her real life was as fantastic as her fiction.

Which science fiction writer are you?

Swear to ghod I didn't try to game the quiz, but I'm not at all displeased by the result.

SF Editor Cramer sez pull bios from Wikipedia

Kathryn Cramer has enormous street cred in science fiction; she's a writer, an editor on numerous anthologies, and a crossover presence on the Web whose Googlemap mashup made the cover of Nature, so she's no printhead whiner when it comes to Wikipedia. But she does have a bone to pick:

"After a brief experience with Wikipdia, its editors strike me as a pack of officious trolls whose main concern is to make sure that you don't actually know the people you are writing about. The science fiction field doesn't work that way. I know hundreds (maybe over a thousand) science fiction writers, editors, and fans. Many, many of them could be described as my "associates." Am I connected to most members of the professional science fiction community in some way? You bet." — via Kathryn

And she's got a point. Let's take a concrete example, an icon of the sf field, Damon Knight. A driving force in the Golden Age of science fiction, author, editor, founder of SFWA and Clarion, I mean, you just can't overestimate his impact on the field. Here's what he gets in Wikipedia.

What's not there is precisely the kind of insight offered by people who knew Damon. Now the Wikipedia biography guidelines are there for generally good reasons — not everybody [who has a bunch of friends who get hammered on a Saturday night and post a bio] deserves to get one. And Cramer's suggestion, to move the "real" biographies to the Internet Speculative Fiction Database makes sense from the perspective of the field, but it still makes me a bit sad to see such attenuated summaries in Wikipedia.

These are the people whose vision created the world we live in, and, as Cramer persuasively argues, their connectedness to sf fandom is inextricable from their bio. That's one of the things that makes the sf community different than, say, mainstream lit. I know the practical answer is to leave the stubs and link to ISFDB, but that seems to risk of perpetuating the kind of siloed knowledge that Wikis were meant to kill. If only Ted Nelson's "transclusion" were more than just crappy iframes and the dream of XML...

Guestblogger Karen Marlow-McDaid questions ST coverage

This week's Sakonnet Times features a letter by Karen taking them to task for last week's all-singing, all-dancing, all PCC issue. In an interesting note, the headline of the story Karen criticized, "Judge agrees to hear PCC's side" has been changed on the web site to, "Judge lets Portsmouth Concerned Citizens' join the fray." Here's Karen's letter:

On the issue of the Portsmouth schools, your bias is showing. This week's editorial makes the newspaper's position clear. Your headline, "The voters' will undone," is misleading, however. While the will of the 10 percent of voters able to spend more than five hours at the tent meeting may be unraveling, the will of the more than 60 percent of registered voters who voted in November is clearly being carried out. If the tent meeting outcome had represented the will of the people of Portsmouth, the November elections — for both school committee and town council — would have removed those candidates who (in your words) "made no secret of their sympathy for the school budget cause." It is precisely the will of the voters that these people continue to serve, and that they act according to their stated positions in considering a settlement.

The town meeting has become (again, your words) "a fraudulent waste of time and money" because it does not represent the will of the voters as a whole. Citizens present last August could have voted to adopt a $0 budget for Portsmouth schools. Instead, they chose an arbitrary budget figure that, as even Larry Fitzmorris said at the 11/28/06 school committee meeting, creates a deficit of "more like half a million" dollars. How fortunate that Caruolo exists to protect our children and our schools from such irresponsibility.

While I respect your right to editorialize, those opinions have no place on the newspaper's front page. I urge readers to compare Jill Rodrigues' article regarding the town's conference with Judge Gilbert Indeglia with coverage provided by the Providence Journal.

Not only did Judge Indeglia refuse the PCC's request to be a party to this lawsuit, he also rejected the cornerstone of their argument, saying that Portsmouth's town charter is "not really unique" in comparison to those of other towns that have had similar predicaments and resolved them through Caruolo. Yet, your front page article reads like a victory celebration for the PCC, or perhaps more accurately, blind acceptance of PCC talking points. The town's position is not mentioned until paragraph 8, on page 4. As if that weren't enough, you then follow up with a second PCC article, this one on their fundraising efforts and attempt to file as a non-profit corporation.

Clearly the town council and school committee need to learn some lessons in public relations from the PCC. But further, the Sakonnet Times needs to confine editorializing to the editorial page.

Karen McDaid

Diebold voting machine opens with picture of key

Princeton University computer security experts confirm that they key to open Diebold voting machines can be easily duplicated, granting access to the sensitive memory card.

How easy is it to make such a key? One enterprising hacker used a couple of blanks from Ace Hardware, a file, and a photo on Diebold's own web site.

"By now it should be clear that Diebold’s AccuVote-TS electronic voting machines have lousy security. Our study last fall showed that malicious software running on the machines can invisibly alter votes, and that this software can be installed in under a minute by inserting a new memory card into the side of the machine. The last line of defense against such attacks is a cheap lock covering the memory card door. Our video shows that the lock can be picked in seconds, and, infamously, it can also be opened with a key that is widely sold for use in hotel minibars and jukeboxes." — via Freedom to Tinker

Can electronic voting get any less secure? [Hat tip to BoingBoing]

Portsmouth Charter Workshoppers Engage on Issues

Tonight, the Portsmouth Town Council and about fifty citizens engaged in lively discussion around a proposed revision to the Charter to convert the Financial Town meeting to a petition and referendum with all-day voting, but the nearly 3-hour meeting produced no final decisions.

Just wanted to get the 5Ws and an H up there, so anyone who wants to punch out can hit the snooze button. It's been a long time since I wrote news copy in J-school, so that's probably not as tight a lede as Wims or Macris or Rodrigues would come up with, but then, none of them were there. My initial gonzo impulse would be something more like:

For nearly three hours tonight, the Larry Fitzmorris Show (already in progress) took center stage at Portsmouth Town Hall, as the self-proclaimed expert "practitioner of the Town Meeting" demonstrated his contention that "Democracy is always decided by those who show up."

But that fails to do justice to the other folks in attendance, who did their best to represent a balanced perspective. Am I biased? Really? Here's how Fitzmorris kicked off:

"I believe the Council has a deep conflict of interest. The Council does not like the [tent meeting] process, and the Council is now involved in truncating that right. We only have a Town meeting, on average, once every 12 years."

(The Edward Tufte part of my brain can't help but remind us all that you can't take the span from 1983 until now, divide by the number of town meetings, and utter anything but patent bullshit.)

Len Katzman reminded Fitzmorris that the Charter revision was initiated by a citizen, Sal Carcellar. "You yourself, Mr. Fitzmorris, have said that you are no fan of the tent meeting. An all-day ballot would be a better process. This does not prevent redress of any budget issues."

The tack Fitzmorris took then was to argue that a petition-referendum process "dilutes opposition to the budget" because it provides a number of different petitions to vote on, and could result in a plurality of votes carrying the status quo. Since there has, historically, only been one group that ever mounted such a petition, this felt like a straw man to several respondents.

"The existing meeting has a stated requirement for public debate," said Fitzmorris. "An election is not a practical venue for debate."

"If we have a petition with actual numbers," Katzman responded, we could have an actual debate. We could tell the public what we would do, what we would have to cut."

Sal Carcellar got up to speak to the process. "I love the idea of being able to challenge the budget." But, he said, the Tent was undemocratic: non anonymous, not everybody got to vote. "To assert that we have an inclusive process is fiction. This proposal is not perfect, but better. We will turn out more voters with this process than with the tent. I'll put money on that with anyone who wants to bet."

Added Kathy Baker, "I challenge the PCC to say what this is truncating. I've been a voter since I was 18 years old, and I resent the fact that I was not able to exercise my democratic right. I have no idea why the PCC objects to opening this up to more voters."

There was some technical discussion about the RI legalities that box the process. In terms of timing, because the RI State budget is rarely fixed before mid-June, there is a tight timeframe to accomplish a special election without running into candidacy filings in the spring, or general elections in the Fall (and a definite need to resolve a budget so that tax bills can go out.)

Also much discussed was the so-called "Paiva Weed" tax caps, which limit the amount of tax increases by a decreasing percentage, starting with 5.5% next year. That number, it was pointed out, is inclusive of growth. That is, if your growth is 2%, then your tax rate caps at 3.5% "You're going to be in a whole different tax regime," warned Town Administrator Bob Driscoll.

Alan Shers found that particularly troubling, and urged action at the state level. "The issue is that we need more money. Under this law, if we grow, we don't get a benefit. That doesn't make business sense. I'm a member of the redevelopment committee, and we are trying to create tax-positive property. If that's not going to benefit us, what are we doing?"

Karen Gleason kept trying to get her proposal — which was, coincidentally, remarkably similar to one also proposed by Larry Fitzmorris — on the table. After a brief recess, the group picked that one up.

Gleason started by reaming the town solicitor, Kevin Gavin, who had not prepared her version. "I'm terribly disappointed in you." But she described a process of tent meeting, which she is committed to retaining, plus an automatic special election if the approved budget exceeds the state cap.

The Fitzmorris version, of course, went further. Based on the Mass Prop 2.5, it triggers a special election with only one question, up or down on the budget, with a down vote reducing it automatically to the maximum Paiva Weed rate.

Carcellar spoke to this proposal. Since it's based on the tax cap, it "protects not the taxpayer, but rather against the growth of government. What if the DEM put a moratorium on new building until we put in sewers and we had to redistribute that tax burden from undeveloped properties? Or if Carnegie Abbey comes on line and blows the cap? This is not like MA Prop 2.5 which doesn't stifle the real growth of townships."

Fitzmorris got to the nut of the matter: "The purpose of this provision in the charter is an opportunity to limit taxes." [Damn, I should have had that in my lede.]

I got up to point out the item in Fitzmorris's last graf that said no town or school officials would have authority to change, appeal, or alter the results of the election. "Is this specifically meant to preclude a so-called Caruolo action?" [I got hissed before I made it to the podium; wow, I thought, they care enough to hate me. Sweet.]

"Do you think it would make sense to have the Council overriding the process?" said Fitzmorris.

"Are you suggesting we put something in the Charter," said Jim Seveney, "which intends to override state law? Not two months ago, we on this Council took an oath to uphold State law."

Fitsmorris muttered about the state legislature making the laws, and moved on to his other proposal, recall of elected officials.

"No sir, it's not part of this agenda," said Seveney.

"If we truncate the Town meeting, you guys get more power, and the recall is a check."

"We're not going to deal with it tonight," Seveney was firm. It was not included in the agenda, and therefore was out of order. Two nights in a row, Larry was on the wrong end of Robert's Rules.

I haven't even mentioned the delaying tactics invoked by several PCC supporters who want to gear up a full Charter Revision Committee. It's clear that this was only the first round in what promises to be a protracted and painful saga.

School Committee hears gym woes; Carpender counters PCC

Tonight's Portsmouth School Committee meeting started on a great note: the parent volunteers and students in our Hathaway elementary "Journey Through Books" did a presentation on the program. Diane Myers, one of the volunteers, explained the process: kids get a booklet with blank pages, each led off by a different genre, that they fill up with 100 pages of books that they read or their family reads with them. Once a week, they meet with a volunteer at the school and talk about what they've read, making that reading-retelling connection. Ms. Myers's daughter, Erin, showed off the five ribbons she'd won for completing Journey every year since kindergarten. Then, a group of kids from the program went around the room, showing off their books, and explaining it to the Committee and the audience.

Congratulations to Dr. Martin, all the parent volunteers, and the wonderful staff at Hathaway (including Joan Mouradjian, the excellent librarian) for making this all happen. (Okay, so it's Jack's school. I'm very proud of the great work they do there.)

The rest of the agenda wasn't nearly so pleasant. Jack Callahan, a citizen with long-time involvement in the recently completed gym, brought the committee's attention to issues with the HVAC system, which is apparently malfunctioning, with temperature control issues that didn't come to light until recent temps plummeted.

"This could have been avoided if testing and balancing had been done at the end of construction," said Callahan.

Larry Fitzmorris tried to make this the Committee's fault. "I have considerable experience in high technology integration systems. The system has not been integrated; someone failed to do their job. You made too many payments here. You have no lever against them. I was concerned about this all along. The school committee needs to answer for this."

The committee decided to schedule a meeting with the architect, contractor, and HVAC subcontractor next week, and to suspend payment until issues are resolved.

They moved on to subcommittee reports, usually a less contentious area, but Dick Carpender had other things in mind. "Since the election," said Carpender, "I've tried not to go after every point. But silence can sometimes be perceived as agreement. Some of the ads and articles run by the PCC are misleading. They said that the school committee has made no effort to decrease their budget. Not true. B&E said there was 300K in cuts, and those cuts were made. The other thing — an article that said the lawyer for the PCC said that the filing of Caruolo was a subterfuge to increase the base before the tax caps. I have no problem with the PCC's position in the lawsuit, but those comments to me are saying that there isn't any deficit, and that the school committee and B&E are not telling the truth. And that is not serving this community well. I talked to someone from the PCC two weeks ago, and they said that the School Committee was the one dividing the town. I'm not going to say who's dividing the town, but we need to move forward without being accusatory."

Oh, man, it was tasty. And the best part, when Fitzmorris bulled his way up to the microphone and began, "Madam chair.."

"I'm not going to take public comment at this time," said Chair Sylvia Wedge.[Sorry, Larry. This was a report containing only information; see RONR (10th ed.), p.507, l. 28-30]

Fitmorris huffed and blustered at the mike for a minute. "I should have the opportunity to respond."

"We're not going to do that tonight," said Wedge. This gave Jaime Heaney an opportunity for tonight's HeaneyWatch™ quote "As a member of the Finance Subcommittee, those remarks don't represent the Finance Subcommittee."

"I know," said Wedge. "That was a report containing Mr. Carpender's opinion."

I saw Fitzmorris talking up the NDN reporter as the meeting broke up, talking about gym numbers. Guess they want to have a spare bone to gnaw in case Caruolo goes badly for them.

PCC legal wrangling at Town Council

Waiting in the lobby before last night's Portsmouth Town Council meeting, I kept looking at the agenda and wondering WTF was pulling so many PCC regulars. Was it the agenda item on video cameras on East/West Main road to address the pedestrian deaths in the past 18 months? The request to schedule a workshop on waste water issues that the DEM has been been breathing down our necks about?

No, of course not.

They were there to pick at Caruolo, and Karen Gleason and Peter McIntyre launched into grandstanding mode, attacking the process and Town Solicitor Kevin Gavin.

"I wanted to discuss these issues in open session," complained Gleason, "but the School Committee attorney recommended executive session. There has been no meaningful discussion on a compromise settlement. We asked for a reasonable.."

Vice-President Jim Seveney, sitting in for the vacationing Dennis Canario, cut her off. "Let's stick to the status. We're on the edge of our agreement." [In executive session, both the TC and SC had decided to keep discussions of negotiations private.]

McIntyre read from a newspaper account of last week's hearing and said to town solicitor Kevin Gavin, "The judge asked, 'is the Council in favor of education' and you replied, 'Most are in favor of education.' Well I support education, but there has to be a limit to what we pay. Which one of us on the council is not in favor of education?"

Gavin replied that he was misquoted, but McIntyre wouldn't back down.

"Will we have the opportunity to be witnesses in this case?" he said to Gavin.

Gavin cautiously replied that they were not, in fact, at a litigation stage, that they hadn't developed a strategy, and that in American courtrooms, you don't just call people at random, but rather to get specific evidence in. "You're a party," said Gavin, "I don't know if you're a witness."

Next, McIntryre drilled Gavin on his experience in Caruolo cases. "Do you consider yourself an expert? Are you an expert?"

Gavin responded calmly. "The attorneys are not the experts." He described the Caruolo process, from a legal perspective, as being straightforward — presenting evidence from expert accountants. "It's expert-driven," he said, but did not require particular expertise from counsel.

Repeating the lie from her letter to the editor in last week's Sakonnet Times, ("As yet the Town Council has not appointed an attorney to defend the town,") Kathy Melvin got up to complain that the "lack of appointment of legal counsel" was sending a "muddled message" to the town.

"We have engaged a litigator," said Len Katzman, referring to Kevin Gavin.

I finally got up and reminded the Council that Caruolo hearings are public, and urged them to go listen first-hand to what was said, rather than relying on second-hand newspaper accounts.

After the Caruolo discussion, the crowd thinned out noticeably, and I thought the fun was over for the evening, but there was a land mine under agenda item 9. "Request permission to hold a tax sale." Turns out that a resident, who is in litigation appealing their assessment, was there to complain to the Council. "My assessment skyrocketed," they said, "my house is less than 1,000 square feet, on a 5,000 sq. ft. lot, and I have a $600,000 assessment. This is the start of taking my house."

Both Town Admin Bob Driscoll and Kevin Gavin reminded the Council that collecting property taxes is a state law, and that they only present this item to the TC as a courtesy.

But Larry Fitzmorris, smelling an issue, got up to skewer the Council. "Do you know what properties will be in the sale?"

Driscoll pointed out that between now and June 19, most people settle up, enter into arrangements, or find legal means to forestall, so, no, there was no list.

Fitzmorris got indignant. "So am I correct that members of the Council are voting on the tax sale without knowing what properties you are voting to sell?"

Yeah, imagine that. It's almost like the PCC voting to cut the school budget without any idea of what line items they were voting to slash.

Monday catblogging: Welcome Curi

Curi, Jan 22, 2007Welcome Curiosity, Curi for short, the newest member of our family, just two months old.

Jack really wanted to get a "tiger kitten," and we've been missing the late Prid E. Vicious who died last Fall.

We picked him up last Thursday from the wonderful Potter League in Middletown, and are slowly introducing him to Kuro.

He's Jack's kitten, so he takes care of everything ("Except the poop, which Daddy's in charge of," he reminds me.)

Town Charter review meeting Wednesday Jan 24 -- BE THERE

The town of Portsmouth has an opportunity to reform the "Tent Meeting" system which has resulted in our school's financial crisis; this Wednesday, the Town Council will hear citizen input on proposals to turn the process into regular full-day voting.

If you're reading this blog, you know what I think of the current system. Ten percent of the town's electors made an uninformed decision to slash blindly at the School budget, putting us 700k in the hole. We need to be sure this doesn't happen again. The SOS, an apparent majority of the Town Council, and every citizen I've talked to says that change is needed.

90% of life is just showing up. Let's be there. 7 pm, Town Hall.

From a recent SOS e-mail:
On Wednesday, January 24th, there will be a public workshop on the proposed amendment to the town charter to do away with tent meetings. In a nutshell, the proposal is to require specific language on any future petition for a modification to the budget approved by the town council, and that a special election would be used instead of a tent meeting as a means of approving the modification or modifications. It is a simple modification of the charter, affecting only a few sentences.

The PCC has already acted to delay any such action, obviously to take advantage of potential future tent meetings, by proposing a full blown charter review committee among other things. The PCC, and some of the Town Council, will argue for adding all sorts of other un-related and semi-related charter amendments as a means of delay. They will argue that the town "shouldn't rush into anything, should take it's time so that everybody can be heard". The PCC and it's supporters will be present in force at this meeting.

Save Our Schools strongly urges all citizens to show up at this workshop and make themselves heard.

What's proposed:
Read the proposed Charter revisions

BTW...Don't worry, it's linked directly to the content frame (frame?!?) on the Town site, bypassing the godawful home page. Why anyone has to load up a Java menu just to blink at you in 2007 is beyond me -- now THAT'S something I would be happy to circulate a petition to eliminate...