Attention, Passengers! Better Communication on T May Be Impossible to Achieve

Friday, October 28, 2016

Late Wednesday afternoon, while my fellow prisoners of the MBTA were smashing their way out of a smoke-filled train at Back Bay station on the Orange Line, I was four stops away at State Street, having flashbacks to the brutal winter of 2014-15, a time when I did not descend into the tube without expecting to be delayed, stranded and ignored.

At about 4:40 p.m. on Wednesday, a motor on a train pulling into Back Bay began filling with smoke due to what the T later described as a “propulsion issue.”  There was a fire of some sort, which, one T official said, “caused a large arc and an explosion.”  The fire “also caused trash to catch fire, creating an exorbitant amount of smoke,” that official said.  (Yes, there’s almost always enough trash on the T tracks to catch fire.) Three people, overcome by smoke, were taken to the hospital.
Boston Magazine had an irreverent account of the episode up on its web site in no time, God bless them. 

“The real story,” the magazine said, “is the footage that emerged from what happened: Panicked passengers scrambling to escape an Orange Line train by smashing through windows and crawling out of them.  One video of the chaos had been retweeted nearly 2,000 times by Thursday morning, and by the early evening had been featured in at least one national news outlet.  ‘This is the picture of Boston we are sending to the world,’ tweeted Steve Koczela, MassINC president.”

I entered State Street station a few minutes after 6:00 p.m. on Wednesday.  Everything seemed ordinary.  My wife and sister-in-law were planning to pick me up at the northern terminus of the Orange Line, Oak Grove station, between 6:45 and 6:50.  We were going from there to Stearns and Hill, a restaurant in Melrose.   State Street to Oak Grove is about an 18-minute trip when the T's at maximum efficiency.  I had a cushion.
Soon there was an announcement over the public address system that, “Due to an earlier emergency at Back Bay station, service on the Orange Line between Haymarket and Jackson Square has been suspended.”  Since I was going the other way, I felt relieved.  About a minute and a half later, the same message was broadcast on the PA.  Ninety seconds after that, we again heard the same message. 

I noticed the platform was filling up around me.  Consulting the flashboard over my left shoulder, where the arrival time of the next train was usually posted, I found nothing but the time of day.  Worry began churning in my stomach.  More people kept arriving.  I was being subsumed by the crowd.  “Let’s hope everyone stays calm,” I thought.
The PA would not stop with the due-to-an-earlier-emergency-at-Bay-Bay-station stuff while never addressing when the northbound train would arrive, or even if another northbound train would show in State Street this evening.  The T was flunking Communications 101. 

I’d been in this movie before.
At 6:29 p.m., a northbound train finally arrived.  Amazingly, it was not too crowded.  Every seat was occupied but there was standing room. 

At the next stop, Haymarket, the waiting crowd was larger than it had been at State Street.  The doors opened and people poured into every square foot of space.  We moved on to North Station, where the crowd was so large people were standing, stopped, on every step of the staircases down to the platforms. 
The doors opened.  Some persons onboard advised their would-be fellow passengers solemnly that there was no room.  The front line of would-be’s pushed forward anyway, with the result that everyone was compressed into a snuggly-tight, submarine-shaped humanity sandwich.  It was a test of our ability to follow the biblical command to love our neighbor.  If forbearance and mutual respect pass for love in such a situation, as I believe they do, everyone on my car passed.

The train pulled into Oak Grove a few minutes after 7:00 o’clock.  It took ten minutes to find my wife and sister-in-law in the dense, confusing, honking mash-up of cars waiting outside the station.  The jam created by scores of frustrated family-chauffeurs-of-the-moment was one of those inevitable byproducts of an emergency in a confined and thronged public space. 
On Thursday, Governor Charlie Baker told WBZ NewsRadio, “The T probably has some issues it needs to pursue with respect to training.”  He said, “There were some protocol issues there (at Back Bay station).  Normally, when there’s an incident like that, the operator is supposed to make an announcement about it, and explain to people what’s going to happen next.  That didn’t happen.”

Shortly thereafter, the president of the Boston Carmen’s Union, James O’Brien, released a statement that had been prepared for him by the union’s big-time Boston media consultant, O’Neill and Associates.  Here it is in full:
“An MBTA operator jumped out of his cab to evacuate riders, manually opening as many doors as he could while faced with the danger posed by an active fire.  We are disturbed that Governor Baker, today, has chosen to publicly blame that operator despite his heroic actions.  The Governor’s blame is nothing more than an attempt to deflect from the real issue: our MBTA trains are falling apart as a result of decades of neglect and lack of investment.  We are thankful the riders, and the operator, are safe.”

There was a one-sentence post-script, titled “Background,” to that statement.  It said: “Many years ago, MBTA trains had two operators per train.  In a situation like this, one operator could have kept passengers informed while the other worked to manually open the doors.”
I hope that doesn’t mean the Carmen’s Union will resist new training and new rules on handling emergencies.  Management is to blame for poor or non-existent training and rules, but labor is ultimately responsible for protecting the lives and safety of train and bus patrons.

If this situation can’t be improved, I’d be in favor of issuing large ball peen hammers to every T rider until every failure-prone rust-bucket on the Orange Line is replaced with one of those state-of-the-art cars now under construction at the China Railway Rolling Stock Corporation's new factory in Springfield.  Riders could take hammers from racks upon entering stations and return them to racks when exiting their destination stations.  Next time there’s propulsion-issue-related chaos in the underground, I want a fighting chance.



Those Confining DiMasi Are Challenged to Make a Better Case for His Freedom

Friday, October 21, 2016

I’m hoping the U.S. Bureau of Prisons (BOP) does a bang-up job on the homework assignment it’s been given by Judge Mark Wolf in the matter of freeing Sal DiMasi, former Speaker of the Massachusetts House.

Sal’s been in prison for more than four and half years.  He should have been paroled two years ago, if not earlier.
On Oct. 13, the BOP filed a motion in the federal district court in Boston to grant DiMasi a “compassionate release” due to his age, 71, and poor health.  According to the motion, DiMasi suffers from “cancer of the tongue and prostate, atrial fibrillation, hyperlipidemia, esophageal stenosis, esophageal reflux, acid reflux, and musculoskeletal pain.”

Four days later, Judge Wolf responded to the motion with an eight-page memorandum and order. In 2011, Wolf had presided at DiMasi’s trial and given him an eight-year prison term after the jury found him guilty.
I was glad to see, when I read the memorandum/order, that Wolf had not expressed opposition to the release of DiMasi, but rather wanted more information and evidence from the BOP in support of its position that it was time to release him.

“…the government has provided the court only unverified statements,” Wolf wrote, “but not any evidence, regarding DiMasi’s medical history in prison, current medical condition, prognosis, or ability to function in prison.” (NOTE: The underlining of “evidence” is Wolf’s work, not mine.)
Wolf added, “The government has also failed to provide the court with evidence concerning other matters that the court is required to consider in deciding whether a motion filed pursuant to Section 3582 (c) (A) (i) [of the United States Code] is meritorious.” Those other matters are: the history and characteristics of the defendant, particularly his current medical condition and his experience in prison; the need to avoid unwarranted sentence disparities, and the need to promote respect for the law.

“The court must have evidence, and a complete explanation,” Wolf wrote, “to understand and evaluate the grounds for the Motion,” before declaring: “Neither has yet been presented.”
Wolf concluded with an order to the BOP to file with the federal court by next Thursday, Oct. 27, “one or more affidavits and a memorandum in support of the Motion, which addresses, among other things, the issues discussed in this Memorandum.”   He also indicated that he would accept from DiMasi’s legal team “one or more affidavits and a memorandum in support of the Motion,” should it choose to produce such materials.

The news coverage of this latest development in the DiMasi case zeroed in on two paragraphs in Wolf’s memorandum/order, wherein the judge cited the small number of federal prisoners who have been released on compassionate grounds, and raised the question -- emphasizing that it “is only a question” -- of whether the BOP director’s decision to seek DiMasi’s release “was influenced by DiMasi’s former status” as a House Speaker “and the stature of some who may be advocating for his release.”  
Wolf wrote, “The Motion does not provide argument, let alone evidence, concerning how often, if ever, motions for compassionate release are filed on behalf of persons similarly situated to DiMasi.  This question is important to whether a reduction of sentence would reasonably be viewed as a form of unwarranted disparity based on power or privilege, which could injure respect for the law, a relevant Section 3553(a) factor the court is required to consider.”

When I heard Wolf had filed an eight-page document in response to the BOP motion, I reacted emotionally against it.  DiMasi is a broken man.  He made a big mistake, taking bribes from a software vendor doing business with the state, and he’s paid a big price.  He has lost his reputation, his monetary assets, his pension, his license to practice law, his health and his freedom.  Fifty-six months is a very long time to be locked up.  No doubt he has aged at least 112 months during that time.  “What a nitpicker this Wolf is!” I thought.  “Does he have even an ounce of compassion in his bones?”
When I actually read Judge Wolf's memorandum and order, however, I found it to be well-reasoned, well-written and airtight in its logic.  I was also impressed by his sincere concern that the process “promote respect for the law.”  All the greatness of the United States (yes, Donald, we ARE great) rests on our system of laws, how well we uphold it, and how much we respect it.

May the BOP overwhelm His Honor with the quality of what it hands the court on Thursday.



They Had an Election on Slots in Revere and Most Voters Said, Why Bother?

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The gambling industry tacticians who wore the clothes of the Revere Jobs and Education Committee got their heads handed to them yesterday in a special municipal election.

This was a small-turnout event that wasn’t even close to being close. 
Of the 4,549 residents of the Beach City who voted, 2,970 were against the idea of having a slots parlor on the site of an old trailer park near Suffolk Downs, while 1,574 were for it, and 5 left the question blank. 

Even for an election in my hometown, the blanks were a quirky product.
There was only one question, one item on the ballot, having to do with a slots parlor.  Five individuals schlepped to the polls, signed in, got a ballot, did nothing with it when they went behind the curtain, slipped it into the box, and walked out the door.  Ohhhh-K.

Up till now, I always thought of blanking as something you did when there were multiple candidates and/or referendum questions on the ballot.  I blank guys I’m not enamored of, incumbents, as a way of signaling it’s time for them extend their career horizons to the private sector.  It’s an easy message to send when you’re at the polling place on other business.  One has to be zealously neutral to go and vote solely to show you don’t care one way or the other.
The putative Revere slots parlor was defeated by a margin of 65.29% to 34.6%, but the most interesting percentage emanating from the election had to do with turnout.  There are 27,781 registered voters in Revere.  The 4,549 voters who participated in the special slots election represent slightly over 16% of that total, meaning the election result can be framed as follows:  

Eighty-four out of 100 Revere voters don’t give a poop if an unidentified group of investors builds a major gambling venue in their city or not.   
Recall that the head of the Revere Jobs and Education Committee, Eugene McCain, who moved only recently from Thailand to Revere to serve as point man for more gambling by slots machines in Massachusetts, has declined, as recently as Monday in the Boston Globe, to release the names of those investors.

Revere Mayor Brian Arrigo described McCain’s offering as a “fly-by-night ‘proposal’ ” and denounced the Revere Jobs and Education Committee as a “shoddy, previously unheard-of enterprise.”  (The mayor actually put quote marks around proposal whenever he wrote about it.)
The hopes of McCain/Revere Jobs and Education Committee that a victory in the Revere special election would improve the odds that voters statewide would approve Question 1 on the Nov. 8 ballot – a question advanced by the related Horse Racing Jobs and Education Committee –were dashed to pieces yesterday.

A delighted Arrigo intends to keep a bright bulb burning over those shards. 
Arrigo told WGBH news last night: “What’s exciting is that we have now taken out of their arsenal the talking point that Revere wants this, because we don’t.  It’s clear that we don’t.  And I look forward to telling everyone from now until November 8 that the city of Revere does not want this.”

McCain/Revere Jobs and Education Committee/Unknown Investors spent a considerable sum, a sum not yet definitively known, on the effort to force the city, via an initiative petition, to hold a special election on its slots parlor proposal before the upcoming state election and on the accompanying promotional campaign. In one news story last week (or thereabouts), it was reported that they had expended around $400,000 in Revere.
In the gambling industry, which sees Massachusetts as an especially lucrative market -- and especially so for slots machines because Massachusetts has a larger-than-average elderly population and the elderly love their slots -- that is not really a lot to spend on development.  Steve Wynn spent upwards of $300 million chasing the eastern Massachusetts casino license with his Everett casino plan.  That would have all been wasted if the Mass. Gaming Commission, back in September of 2014, had selected the other bidder, Mohegan Sun at Suffolk Downs. 




Mayor's Fight vs Slots Parlor Gets Decided Tomorrow in Revere Special Election

Monday, October 17, 2016

To force the City of Revere to hold a special election solely on the question of building a slots parlor in the community, the wholesomely named Revere Jobs and Education Committee had to collect the signatures of at least 4,808 certified local voters.  This it had no trouble doing.

The committee, of course, had the dough to hire as many signature gatherers as were needed to fill up those petition forms.  This was no movement driven by volunteers with a few hours for a cause every other Saturday. It was a campaign with a capital "C," as run by well compensated professionals from the persuasion industry.
Not having witnessed them in action, I don’t know if the signature gatherers told their prospects, the good people of Revere, that the election would cost the city, and hence its taxpayers, in the vicinity of $50,000.  I kind of doubt it.

So, tomorrow, we shall see in Revere an election where voters are to be asked just one question.   In essence that question is:
Do you want the company that secures a possible state license for a second slots parlor in Massachusetts to be the one that wants to build it on a site of at least four acres and including lands fronting on both Revere Beach Parkway/Winthrop Parkway and Pratt Court?  

The folks bankrolling the Revere Jobs and Education Committee happen to have under agreement a property that fits that description exactly, the old Lee Trailer Park, near the Suffolk Downs racetrack.
Revere election officials have written the following summary of the ballot question:

“A YES VOTE requires that any future slot parlor license awarded in the City of Revere must be located on a site that is at least four acres in size and fronts Revere Beach Parkway/Winthrop Parkway and Pratt Court.  No slot parlor license is currently available from the state, but the measure would be possible if there is a change in state law or if a license from an existing operation is returned to the state.
“A NO VOTE subjects any possible future location of a slot parlor in Revere to the City’s zoning ordinance, rather than requiring that the location be on a site that fronts Revere Beach Parkway/Winthrop Parkway and Pratt Court.”

If the Revere Jobs and Education Committee wins tomorrow’s referendum, the people it is working with will be able to circumvent the local zoning process in the event that: (a) voters statewide approve Question 1 on the Nov. 8 ballot, which would allow the Massachusetts Gaming Commission to issue one additional slots parlor license, and (b) those people apply for and are granted that additional license.
[A victory for a slots parlor in the Revere election tomorrow and a victory for Question 1 on Nov. 8 will not guarantee that there will be a second Massachusetts slots parlor, nor that that second parlor will be in Revere.  We're still in the warm-up phase here.]

The main reason the Revere Jobs and Education Committee engineered the Oct. 18 special election was to give a boost to Question 1 on Nov. 8, the idea being that, if Revere voters support its particular plan for a slots parlor near Suffolk Downs, voters across Massachusetts will be more disposed to voting Yes on 1 because they will reason that, if the people in the community where the slots parlor is most likely to go want it there, who am I to stand in their way?
The mayor of Revere, Brian Arrigo, and a host of other local elected officials, are dead set against the project to replace the trailer park with a large hotel containing a slots parlor. They fought hard against the petition drive to put the issue before local voters.

“The fly-by-night ‘proposal’ to build a slot parlor on Revere Beach Parkway would not be beneficial to the city, and in fact could undermine the progress Revere has made toward reinventing its image,” Arrigo has said.
Arrigo has netted this out right. Revere is well positioned to grow economically and does not need a slots parlor in order to, as he describes it, “build a sustainable local economy; strengthen its tight-knit neighborhoods; and provide top-notch, efficient city services.”

This doesn’t mean Arrigo et al. will be able to stop the Revere Jobs and Education Committee in tomorrow’s special election.  There’s a real good chance, I'd say, that Revere voters will approve the question, meaning an out-of-town political operation -- as many have done before them -- will have skillfully exploited the state’s initiative petition process, a mechanism added to the Massachusetts constitution in 1918 to give citizens a direct route to enact new laws. 
It was a marriage made in heaven when that political operation met a local electorate made comfortable with the idea of casino gambling by the multi-year (unsuccessful) effort to bring a casino to Suffolk Downs.  Ironically, the ownership of Suffolk Downs has come out strongly against a slots parlor at the old Lee Trailer Park. 

Oh, What Schemes of Glory This Business of Gambling Gives Birth To

Friday, October 7, 2016

Article 48, an amendment to the Massachusetts constitution adopted in 1918, states that “the people reserve to themselves the popular initiative, which is the power of a specified number of voters to submit constitutional amendments and laws to the people for approval or rejection…”

For many months now, a real estate developer with deep pockets has used the popular initiative to advance a plan to build a hotel and slots parlor on the site of an old trailer park in the City of Revere, not far from Suffolk Downs, the almost defunct horse racetrack that straddles the border of Revere and East Boston.  In doing so, he has thwarted the wishes of many city leaders, starting with the city’s young and idealistic first-term mayor, Brian Arrigo.
When Massachusetts voters go to the polls on Tuesday, Nov. 8, they’ll be asked to make a decision on this developer’s handiwork, Question #1, a proposed law that would allow the state Gaming Commission to issue one additional slots parlor license.

Because the developer, Eugene McCain, is following a particular game plan, he crafted the initiative with as many specific details as possible. The proposed location of the one, additional slots parlor, Question 1 says, “shall be at least 4 acres large, and shall be adjacent to, and within 1500 feet of, a race track, including the track, grounds, paddocks, barns, auditorium, amphitheater and/or bleachers, if any, where a horse racing meeting may be physically held, which race track shall have hosted a horse racing meeting, provided that said location is not separated from said race track by a highway or railway.”
Trying to keep the initiative off the November ballot, a group of ten citizens filed a lawsuit, arguing that the siting of a gambling facility is a local matter and that voters statewide ought not to have a say in it.  The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled against those citizens in June.  Gambling, the court noted, is regulated by the state and “is plainly an issue of statewide concern.” 

The seemingly prescriptive wording of the petition did not trouble the court. 
The citizen-plaintiffs, wrote Chief Justice Ralph Gants, “have not demonstrated why a developer could not create a new entertainment complex that meets these specifications at any one of many possible locations across the Commonwealth where horse races have been held or could be conducted, and then proceed to apply for the new slots parlor license.”

According to the office of the Massachusetts Secretary of State, the popular initiative was authored by Mr. McCain as the leader of a group called the “Horse Racing Jobs and Education Committee,” with an address listed as 353 Broadway, Revere.  Ballot materials indicate that the committee maintains a web site at:

Under the “About” section on this web site, there is a short text, which states, in part, that Question #1 “is an initiative, which if successful, would create hundreds of new jobs and add tens of millions of dollars to Massachusetts’ budget every year…On November 8th, the people of the Commonwealth will have the opportunity to vote Yes to better funding for our children’s schools…Say Yes to Jobs, Say Yes to 1.”
Among the items on the web site is a guest column by Mr. Cain in the Revere Journal headlined “Working with City Officials on Developing Hotel and Gaming Facility.” 

Mr. McCain wrote, “Our goal is to ensure that the City of Revere is not passed over again for a gaming facility…We know that the people of Revere want this, but we also know that we need to keep them more informed.  We are committed to becoming part of Revere.”
In a credit line at the bottom of the column, Mr. McCain is identified as “Chairman of the Revere Jobs and Education Committee,” a smaller sibling to the “Horse Racing Jobs and Education Committee,” it would appear.  (The committee has “Horse Racing Jobs” in its title because part of the revenue from the hoped-for slots parlor would go to a Horse Racing Development Fund, in accordance with the 2011 law allowing casino gambling in the Commonwealth.)

Through a successful petition drive, the Revere Jobs and Education Committee is forcing the city to hold a special municipal election solely on the question of whether a slots parlor should be built in the community.  The minimum cost of the special election, which is now scheduled for Tuesday, Oct. 18, has been estimated at $50,000.
Seeking to avoid that expense, local officials wanted to fold the local slots parlor plebiscite into the Nov. 8 election, but the Revere Jobs and Education Committee/Eugene McCain held firm to the wording and intent of the petition, i.e., to have the local question decided sometime before Oct. 26.

The Committee/McCain obviously hopes that, if a majority of Revere voters vote yes on the proposal in October, voters throughout Massachusetts will be more likely to approve Question 1 in November. 
As Peter Ubertaccio, a college professor widely recognized as an expert on the gambling industry, put it, “The point they (Committee/McCain) will make is that, if Revere wants a slots parlor, why should voters outside the city deny them.  Voters can say, ‘Hey, it’s not my town.’ ” [Boston Globe, 9-12-16]   

To bring about a special election, the Revere Jobs and Education Committee had to collect the signatures of at least 4,808 certified local voters.  That task paled in comparison to the one faced by the Horse Racing Jobs and Education Committee: to get Question 1 on the Nov. 8 ballot, it needed the signatures of 75,542 certified voters from across Massachusetts, a figure equal to 3.5% of those who voted in the last gubernatorial election.
Unless you have a legion of dedicated and energetic volunteers at your disposal, as some non-profits do, you cannot collect that volume of signatures without paid signature-gatherers working weeks at a time in the field

The Boston Globe has reviewed the campaign spending reports filed by the Horse Racing Jobs and Education Committee with the state.  On Sept. 12, it reported that the committee had spent “about $285,000 on the slots campaign as of February, the date of the most recently filed campaign spending report.”
In 1918, who could have foreseen the professionalization of the initiative petition process? 

Ninety-eight years later, we can see all too clearly that a legally guaranteed option of direct democracy is like many good things designed for a noble purpose.  It can be twisted out of its original shape fairly easily. In the reshaping, it can become a tool of surprising effect in our free enterprise system.