Prithee, sirah, woulds't thou open my can of worms?

Agin yearbook photoPortsmouth High School (PHS) senior Patrick Agin poses for yearbook photo holding a sword, demonstrating his avocation, the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA). PHS Principal Littlefield spikes the picture, making the unfortunate concession that Agin could run it as a paid ad. Portsmouth's own Patriot mascot, depicted in the yearbook, carries a musket. Patrick's mother, Heidi Farrington, calls in the ACLU which, naturally, sues. The yearbook is due to go to press, threatening to hold up delivery to graduating seniors. Unclear what the School Committee or the Superintendent think, because by the time it comes up at a meeting, the suit has been filed and nobody can talk.

You don't truly know what you believe in until two of your values are in conflict. It's taken me a while to think through and craft my response to this miasma. While I'm an unwavering supporter of the Portsmouth Schools, and there is more to this story than has been released in the press — as those in the community with long memories can attest — at the end of the day, Littlefield just missed the bus on this one.

This week, I downloaded and read the PHS handbook, and didn't find a specific regulation on yearbook photos, unless their theory is that the one line about sanctioned activities ("co- curricular activity is considered an extension of the school day and the rules of conduct that apply to the normal school day apply to the activity") triggers their "zero weapons" clause (Policy 5700), an argument which I find tenuous. It seems more like the Principal is on a witch hunt, seeing weapons where there is only historical re-enactment.

As a card-carrying member of the ACLU and EFF, I'm deeply troubled. Additionally, in my a life as an sf fan and writer, I've hung out with many members of the SCA, and I have never, ever, felt threatened. SCA folk are uniformly sensitive to those around them when it comes to weapons. I even took the trouble of contacting the SCA media relations guy, who confirmed that Agin was not breaking any of the organization's weapons rules.

Now timing is everything, and the paranoid among us might wonder: Why here, why now? This is almost a replay of a similar case in Wisconsin involving a rifle and Confederate flag. If one were setting the School Department up for a trainwreck at a critical time when one wanted to peel off left-leaning support, one could hardly imagine a better scenario. Indeed, PCC school board member Doug Wilkey managed to get himself quoted in the AP story. But I have learned to be cautious in imputing malice as an explanation where mere stupidity can suffice. (I think that's called 'Occam's Sledgehammer...')

Bottom line: Littlefield needs to back down. It does a disservice to the people of Portsmouth to have our town dragged through the national press like this. This needs to be resolved. Now.

See the RI ACLU for the filing

Visit Google News for the latest in this sad mess.

Peter Watts's brilliant sf novel "Blindsight" goes CC

Just a couple months after its hardcover debut, this dark, wonderful novel from the mind of Watts is now available via Creative Commons (i.e. free) download. Go read a few pages on his site, download in html/pdf, and enjoy: Blindsight

Full disclosure: I've had the opportunity to workshop with Peter, and I read chunks of this in progress. He brings a professional scientist's brain and a relentlessly realist sensibility to science fiction. This is awesome stuff. Check it out.

SC greenlights Prudence Island School leaseback RFPs

Last night's meeting of the Portsmouth School Committee was the most civil in ages, and not just because Chairperson Wedge announced a renewed adherence to parliamentary procedure and threatened to call the cops if people are disruptive. But that probably helped.

The big item was the Prudence Island School. With just two students currently in this one-room schoolhouse, there have been persistent calls to close the school to save money.

Richard Carpender and the Prudence Island subcommittee reported on the results of their investigation, and while there is not a lot of money to be saved by closing the school (those two students would have to be tuitioned into Bristol, at a cost of $24k) they did some out-of-box thinking and came up with a leaseback approach.

Under the proposal, the Town would transfer the property to one of the several RI historical societies which might be interested, and lease the space back at a pre-determined rate. This would move the maintenance costs out of the school budget, allow for predictable funding, and retain the school as an option in the event there are more kids on the island.

While the School Committee and audience had some questions about the details of the leaseback arrangement (setting a cap on the yearly amount lower than the cost of closing, understanding the total capacity, investigating fire code regs) there was general agreement, and even a note of approval from one of the PCC members in the audience for the subcommittee's work. The SC voted to approve the preparation of RFPs to historical societies, subject to the Town Council's approval.

In tonight's HeaneyWatch™, the Jamester popped into the approval of the SC by-laws with "What happens when a by-law is broken?" Now, I'll admit that I wouldn't have known the answer to that last week, before I started reading Robert's Rules, but shouldn't someone who was already on the Town Council know the answer to that question? Hint: As Doug Wilkie said, you raise a point of order. Faucher added that it can call into question the validity of any action that was taken in contravention of the by-laws. See, for example, RONR (10th ed.), p 106, l. 20-24.

See "An Inconvenient Truth" this Saturday

Al Gore and have teamed up to spread the word on climate change with viewing parties this Saturday.

If you haven't seen the film, or if you'd like to connect with like-minded folks for a fun evening of greenhouse horror, you can locate and sign up for a party here:

(Do I hear the Oscar® buzz starting?)

Well, uh, at least the Pledge of Allegiance wasn't contentious...

Whoo-eee. Just got back from the first official meeting of the newly seated Town Council, and the agenda was thick with high-profile issues, the majority of which were kicked a bit further down the road into workshops (for which I have a suggestion up my sleeve).

In a delightful bit of seasonal fun, the Fire Department Santa, who drives around all the streets in town, ho-ho-hoing and giving out candy canes, paid a visit just as the meeting was kicking off. That was the last bipartisan moment of the night.

You know you're off to a rocky start when the Council can't agree on appointing new members to the Tree Commission. And that was just a table-setter.

Bob Gilstein reminded the new Council that the question of a Wastewater Management District vs. a bond issue for sewering the (North End of) town had been studied to death, and with the DEM now breathing down the town's neck, it was time for a decision. Council President Canario thought the recent letter from DEM was an attempt to "strongarm the town into sewers."

Bob Drake, one of my neighbors here in Island Park, gave a forceful and articulate overview of missed opportunities over the past years, and urged the council to answer the right question: "How do we resolve the pollution, as opposed to how do we get the DEM to go away." The last thing you want, he said, is to implement a WMD, force IP residents to upgrade their septics (at a cost of >$15K) and then discover a couple of years down the road they need to pay again for sewering.

Canario rightly suggested that with two new members, there needed to be another workshop to bring everyone up to speed; that will be scheduled for January.

(In the meantime, why not start the discussion over at a new community site Mark Katzman and I have been noodling with -- a blog/forum site for Portsmouth. Not ready for prime time yet, but if you're reading this (and you know who you are), go take a peek: Thoughts, suggestions, participation most welcome.)

Charter change
Following the Tent Meeting last August, there was widespread dissatisfaction with the Financial Town Meeting, and Councilor Len Katzman proposed asking the Town Solicitor to draft some language that would preserve direct democratic input on the budget, but take it out of the Tent and make it a real vote.

And then (if you can forgive the partisan spin) the efforts began to run out the clock. First, the "independent" on the Council, Karen Gleason, proposed amending the language to be "automatically invoke a vote any time the Town Council budget exceeds the state cap." (When I pointed out to her during recess that this would not address a systematic effort by a future Council to underfund the schools, she replied, "Well, they'd have Caruolo." "Uh...and you'd really want their only recourse to be Caruolo?" I asked.)

Larry Fitzmorris said he was "uncomfortable with the Council amending the Charter," until the Town Solicitor read him the authorizing passage (Section 8, Article 13) of the Constitution of the State of Rhode Island.

Huck Little suggested that we really ought to add the question of why the Town Council has a vice-president to the referendum.

Then Pete McIntyre had the bright idea of adding the sewer/WMD decision to any referendum.

(Get the picture? Add enough crap to push the thing past the '08 budget cycle.)

Salvatore Carcellar, a citizen who had proposed the Charter change in the first place, got up and did a great job at showing what was really at issue:

  1. Everyone did not get a vote at the Tent Meeting, including our people in the Armed Forces, for which "we should be ashamed."
  2. The voting process was not anonymous, dividing neighbor from neighbor
  3. The process wasn't informed -- there was no way of understanding what was at issue, or what impact the proposed cuts would have. "There was only one informed decision that could have been made -- to leave it alone."

Where it all came out was another workshop, to be held January 27th, at which former Charter Commission members and the public will have at the language of a revision. (Already started a forum topic to discuss this one too...)

Solicitor Kevin Gavin urged the Council, since they had not concluded their discussion, to pass it back into Executive Session. James Seveney made the modest proposal that, given the timeframe, it might be prudent to at least schedule a workshop with the School Committee to explore common ground, and man, you would have thought he was proposing that they microwave Mother Theresa.

Larry Fitzmorris reiterated his position that the Town Council lacks the authority to make any changes in the budget, so if they were planning on a meeting with the School Committee to think about any stipulated agreement, they better think again. Town Solicitor Gavin reminded him that state law saw things differently.

In an interesting aside that probably shouldn't have been aired in open session, Karen Gleason said that she didn't want to schedule a meeting "until they hire a legal team and get some legal advice." That leads one to think that the "independent" as well as the Republican/PCC bloc on the council is going to fight to have Gavin recuse himself because he has children in the schools, and run up the town legal bill by hiring lawyers, an additional fee they can lay at the feet of the School Committee.

Nonetheless, the idea of at least looking at a meeting with the School Committee seemed to have enough support, and they'll get back to them prior to tomorrow night's meeting.

Also, I can't resist, another installment in the continuing saga of Jamie Heaney. After the Economic Development Committee presented their report, of which one major victory was securing access to a low-interest 2.6m bond opportunity for wind turbines, potentially sited at the Middle and High schools, Heaney got up and said, "You should involve the school committee." The members of the EDC sort of looked at each other for a moment before saying something like, 'we've been talking to them for months.' As if they were going to have a major proposal for locating a giant freaking turbine on school property and not talk to the committee?

But I digress.

Warning: Severe geeekiness. No really...

sandwichOkay, I know I've really exceeded my geek quotient when Karen comes downstairs, looks at the thing I'm chuckling over, and shakes her head in total, blank disbelief. "And this is funny...why?" Shrug. "If you're a Linux admin..."

Via XKCD (Want it on a T-shirt?)

Linc sinks Bolton; pisses off Bush

The questionably qualified recess appointment to the UN finally gave up the ghost, unable to advance from committee, largely at the hands of our own Lincoln Chafee. Even following his loss in November, Linc stuck to his principles and resisted the Administration's last-minute effort to ram Bolton through. Listen:

"I have long believed that the go-it-alone philosophy that has driven this administration’s approach to international relations has damaged our leadership position in the world. Mr. Bolton did not demonstrate the kind of collaborative approach that I believe will be called for if we are to restore the United States’ position as the strongest country in a peaceful world," Chafee said.

"This would be an appropriate time to choose a nominee who has a proven ability to work with both sides of the political aisle, a history of building strong international relationships and a reputation of respect for the institution of the United Nations."

Bush issued a statement today condemning Republicans, like Chafee, who opposed Bolton.

"They chose to obstruct his confirmation, even though he enjoys majority support in the Senate, and even though their tactics will disrupt our diplomatic work at a sensitive and important time," Bush said. "This stubborn obstructionism ill serves our country."
--Via Projo

Get that? You call for someone with "proven ability," "history," and "reputation," and the President calls you obstructionist.

I sincerely hope we get the chance to vote for Chafee again. He is not a "politician," but rather in the best tradition of "servant leader."

Portsmouth Caruolo suit filed

Just hit the ProJo newsblog. In a delicious synchronicity, the total of the B&E deficit plus the other expenses turned out to be $1.1 million. That made me laugh out loud. I bet Fitzmorris will pop an artery. They're going to get it all back, Larry. Prepare to cough up $180 in taxes. Have a nice day.

The requested funds include an estimated deficit in ordinary expenses of $770,167, as well as $125,000 to pay for an efficiency audit of the school system and a little more than $200,000 for legal fees connected with the lawsuit.
-- Via ProJo

Gore's smart, gutsy GQ interview

The whole interview is well worth reading, but there is a wonderful gem that captures the fire that Gore has shown in his stump speeches since his "defeat" in 2000. Responding to a question about the Bush administration [read: Bush, personally] ignoring the series of warnings about Usama bin Laden in the summer of 2001:

"And you know, I’m even reluctant to talk about it in these terms because it’s so easy for people to hear this or read this as sort of cheap political game-playing. I understand how it could sound that way. [Practically screaming now] But dammit, whatever happened to the concept of accountability for catastrophic failure? This administration has been by far the most incompetent, inept, and with more moral cowardice, and obsequiousness to their wealthy contributors, and obliviousness to the public interest of any administration in modern history, and probably in the entire history of the country!"
—From GQ Magazine

Sigh. RFK in 68, Gore in 2000. There are a couple of much happier alternate universes out there, somewhere...

PCC leader admits budget cuts too deep

"Top Chef" was a re-run last night, so Karen indulged my preoccupation with cable access and watched Monday's School Committee meeting again. And she caught something I missed: In Larry Fitzmorris's summary speech right before the Caruolo vote, where he's warning the SC not to usurp the electors, he talks about the deficit of "770K, which I think is more like half a million."

"Did he just say that?" Asked Karen. "He just admitted that they cut too much."

Yes, in the way that off-hand comments can inadvertently reveal the truth, Fitzmorris, by apparently agreeing that there was a 500K deficit was tacitly admitting that the PCC cuts at the Tent Meeting went too far.

Now I'm sure that Fitzmorris will deny that's what he meant, but here's the guy who said "The Tent Meeting was not the place to compromise" admitting that his proposed cuts are directly responsible for a 500K budget deficit.

If the PCC wants to talk about accountability, I can tell them where to start.