Thursday, May 28, 2015

Tough choices, Brunswick Sausage, and Clap-Traporama

(Note: we’ve been having some ‘technical difficulties’ for a few days, which we’ve now determined are due to some sort of squabble between google and Microsoft, competing masters of the digital universe.  Please bare with us as we attempt to flesh out the details.)
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We’re pretty sure that in prior posts over the years, we’ve commented on the “tough decisions” and/or “tough choices” lamentations we hear from our elected officials before they predictably raise taxes, rather than do anything that requires courage… in making a tough decision or a tough choice to do otherwise.  By controlling spending, for example.  Or issuing budget bogies before the next preparation cycle begins.

We’ve always believed the reason such choices and/or decisions are labeled ‘tough’ is because these elected officials lack any firmly held principles and convictions to provide a guiding framework when faced with leadership challenges about budgetary decisions.  It’s the old saw about “if you don’t know what you stand for….”  Giving in to special interests is always the preferred option, and let’s face it….ever so much easier. 

And popular.  Seemingly.  As if that’s the appropriate measure of responsible governance.
Look stressed, comment on how hard a time you’ve had reaching your decision, and then go ahead.  Use words like “I really had no choice.”  Congratulate yourself for surviving the loneliness of leadership.
Courage?  Hell, that’s for namby-pamby’s who can’t ‘imagine our future’ without ever increasing spending and tax burdens.
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On a related note, we’ve often referred to Brunswick Sausage (BS), a thinly veiled euphemism for the natural consequence of allowing bulls to roam freely all around us.

We find ourselves now faced with the confluence of both concepts.

What do we mean?  Frankly speaking, we lack ‘firmly held principles’ to choose which recent examples of BS are most worthy of our disdain.  Complicating matters is the fact that Brunswick Sausage, abbreviated BS, has a common interpretation insufficient to current circumstances.

Which is why the term “clap-trap” comes to mind. Clap-trap is rhetorical pompost well beyond BS; it’s an insult to the common sense, and even more, the common decency of the citizenry.  Some BS is laughable; clap-trap, in our conception, is anything but.

(BTW, if you’ve forgotten what ‘pompost’ is, it’s a term we coined that combines pomposity with compost.  If that doesn’t click for you, perhaps it will by the time you finish this post, or when you’ve had a chance to sleep on it.)

So – why are we here?  Because of two subject areas that made news in recent weeks:

A)  Articles and citations regarding the proposed Brunswick Municipal budget for the coming fiscal year, which is a virtual certainty to get approved tonight by our leaders on the town council, no doubt with appropriate drama, but no doubt as to the outcome.
B) Articles and citations following the Amtrak derailment just north of Philadelphia on May 12.  We refer to statements by the reporters, but more specifically, those by Patsy Quinn, ED of NNEPRA, operator of the Downeaster, and Wayne Davis, the founder and Chairman of TrainRiders Northeast (TRNE), the organization that we’ve demonstrated lobbies on behalf of NNEPRA.


Let’s get to the first of our points referenced in the title: ”tough choices.”  We find ourselves, in the face of what we’ve read, utterly lacking in guiding principles to choose whether item A or item B is the more egregious example of blatant disregard for the citizenry, utter incompetence in addressing the subject matter at hand, and buffoonish attempts to pull the wool over our eyes while trying to convince us the speaker is worthy of our trust.

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We confess we’ve yet to seek out a consultant, complete with appropriate ‘facilitator’ skills, who could help us ‘draw out from our inner consciousness’ what those guiding principles should be.  But we don’t have access to the oppem sisters to fund such efforts for us.  (Moppem, Soppem, and Foppem, in case you forgot.)
Now let’s move on to the clap-trappery.  For lack of any better idea, we’ll alternate looking at examples of the offending specimens.  Let’s begin with this one:

Some excerpts, with comments; in summary, any hopes we had for a “Thompson era” of change in School Department operations have been sent to the dead letter file.  You know the old saying: “despair springs eternal in the human breast.”
In April, Superintendent of Schools Paul Perzanoski told the School Board that he had been advised by Town Manager John Eldridge to cut $750,000 from the nearly $37 million school budget.  Perzanoski said the town manager had arrived at that number based on conversations with councilors.
But the board chose not to make the full cut. It passed a $36.5 million budget on April 29, representing a $400,000 reduction from the original budget. Some board members criticized the size of the council's request, with one board member calling the cuts "a disservice to the kids."
Any board member familiar with the history of school budget growth, and the fact that this proposal increases spending by nearly $1 million over last year, in making such a statement demonstrates a complete absence of coherent thought.
The budget as proposed represents a 2.3 percent increase over this year's spending, and would require a $1.1 million appropriation from the town.
"I appreciate the tone you came here with tonight," Councilor John Richardson said.
Care to be more specific, JP?
Councilor Kathy Wilson said she had adjusted her opinion to some degree on the school budget after the superintendent's presentation. "But it (still) sounds different than it reads," she said. "I just want to remind you we've taken huge hits ... and it's going to be tough."
“Huge hits,” Councilor Wilson?  Are you kidding?  That statement flies directly in the face of facts on the record.  Perhaps you should recuse yourself from these discussions if you can’t grasp the basics.
Councilor John Perreault addressed some of the comments made about the town manager's budget request at School Board meetings.
"You asked after last year's meeting for direction beforehand," he said. "Despite some School Board members chastising (Eldridge) ... I commend him for doing what he was asked."
Thanks, Councilor Perreault, but if you weren’t already written off by the schoolies, you sure as hell have been now.  (We can’t help but wonder how the conversation at your dinner table went the following night.)
School Board member Chris McCarthy acknowledged he had been "quite vocal" about his dissatisfaction. But that was for "how the School Board budget gets to the people of Brunswick" in general, he said, and not intended as a personal attack.
Care to explain what the heck that’s supposed to mean??
At the end of his budget presentation, Perzanoski proposed an idea for constructing a five-year financial plan with the town.
He asked that the council and School Board allow the town manager and superintendent to research economic trends and develop a long-term financial plan for school funding.
Bring it on, folks.  Let’s see the projection of how much you want to increase spending over the next five years, and how much it will increase property taxes.
"This process should be more known and more positive for all of us," he said. "We cannot continue a process that results in a negative experience overall for the community and public officials."
Richardson said Perzanoski's proposal made "all the sense in the world."
"I don't see any other way forward, other than working more closely together," he said.
Need we provide a finer example of clap-trappery?  Do you ‘get it’ now?
Part of the unity Monday night was found in a shared frustration with reduced school and municipal aid from the state.
Perzanoski noted that since 2008, the School Department has lost $4.3 million of state assistance. The loss was compounded by declining enrollment after the closing of the Brunswick Naval Air Station and the 2008 recession, he said.

He acknowledged the town has also lost more than $1 million in aid from cuts to the state revenue sharing program. Perzanoski and councilors agreed on the result: an increased financial burden shouldered by town taxpayers.
In case these officials, and you readers, have not noticed, spending plans are one thing, and revenue sources to pay for it are another.  What they are telling you in the above words, whether they realize it or not, is that they’d be spending at least $5 million more a year than the proposed budget if fiscal reality had not interceded.
"It's almost as if the community has gone through the stages of grief," Perzanoski said. "And now we're finally coming out saying this has happened to us, and what are we going to do about it."
State Rep. Mattie Daughtry, D-Brunswick, also spoke at the meeting, to "apologize" for the cuts to state funding.
"You guys don't hear that enough about what the state is putting you through," she said. "We are not holding up our end of the bargain."
Oh, please!!!
After the meeting, Daughtry said she agreed "100 percent" with the sentiment that taxpayers are carrying an unfair burden. She said most of the blame could be placed on Gov. Paul LePage's proposed budget, but that there's been a "long pattern of not funding schools."

This year, Brunswick schools will receive $9.8 million in general purpose aid from the state, which is more than $100,000 less than last year.

She said that outside an overhaul of the tax code, she does not see significant relief coming for municipalities and public schools.
Excuse us, Rep. Daughtry, but where do you think state revenue comes from?  The tooth fairy?
Dana Bateman, of Franklin Street, said as a parent she has noticed the loss of state funding in Brunswick's public schools.
"Each year, the part of (my kids') experience that's different correlates with cuts in state revenue sharing," she said. She cited the loss of a new math curriculum, favorite teachers being laid off, and the remaining staff "running from duty to duty" to shoulder the increased responsibility.
"The local level is doing the best they can, but the state environment has really been devastating," Bateman said.
Ms. Bateman provides a prime example of the intellectual drivel that passes for meaningful budgetary 'dialogue.'  The local school experience is determined by budgets, not by how the budgets are funded.  We’re spending nearly ten million more than we were a decade ago, with roughly a thousand less students, and you’re complaining?
Yet even with a more united effort between the schools and town, there's no guarantee the proposed budget will pass the council untouched.
Yeah, right.
"When the rubber meets the road in a tough budget year ... I'd like to see respect for competing needs," Councilor Suzan Wilson said.
Sure you would.
"This is moved with great regret," board member James Grant said. 
Regret for what?
The next item is this one:
Again, some excerpts, with comments:
The leader of a train advocacy group in Maine said an accident like the fatal crash in Philadelphia on Tuesday night is unlikely on the Amtrak Downeaster because engineers on the service between Brunswick and Boston are vigilant about not exceeding the line’s 79 mph speed limit.
Wayne Davis, chairman of TrainRiders/Northeast, said Wednesday night that the Downeaster can go up to 125 mph, but the current track configuration can not safely accommodate speeds higher than 79 mph, and only in certain sections.
Does Davis understand what an idiotic statement this is under the circumstances?  “Vigilant about not exceeding the line’s 79 mph speed limit?”  What does that have to do with the price of rhubarb?  Without physical restraints, what does a ‘speed limit’ mean?  Are drivers in Maine ‘vigilant about not exceeding the’ state’s 70 mph speed limit?  Was the driver of the derailed train NOT vigilant about the 50 mph speed limit?  Did the track configuration not permit him to run the train at faster than 100 mph?  Whether it was safe or not?
The train that crashed in Philadelphia, killing at least seven people and injuring more than 200, had been going 106 mph before it went off the rails on a curve where the speed limit is 50 mph.
Davis wouldn’t speculate on why the engineer in Philadelphia was traveling more than twice the speed limit, but said Downeaster engineers are keenly aware of the 79 mph rule and know where they must go slower.
“An engineer is not about to mess with federal law,” he said. “No one in their right mind would exceed the (79 mph) speed limit.”
Keen awareness?  Must go slower?  Speed limits?  Not about to mess with federal law?  No one in their right mind?  This is supposed to convince us it could not happen here, even though the Downeaster can go up to 125 mph?

Is Davis serious about this line of rhetoric?  Does he know what clap-trap is?  Just what gives him any more credibility in trying to explain away parallel concerns for the Downeaster?  Especially since the condition of tracks North of Boston are probably worse than they were in the Philadelphia corridor?
All Amtrak engineers are monitored by GPS tracking systems, according to Patricia Quinn, executive director of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, which contracts with Amtrak to operate the Downeaster.
“Keeping to the required speed limits is something that is strictly monitored and enforced,” Quinn said Wednesday night. “They take these regulations and rules very seriously. There are many checks and balances.”
She wasn’t aware of any Downeaster engineers being cited for speed violations.
Does anyone doubt that a college computer science student, armed with commercially available GPS technology ($100 dollars or so), and a laptop computer, could create an ‘app’ to manage a train’s maximum speed, including compliance with all applicable speed limits and slow orders, no matter how wild and crazy the engineer was feeling at any given moment?  Or whether he was busy texting, or taking a call, or otherwise zoned out?

Does anyone think there is a credible excuse for not having installed GoPro video cameras in locomotive cabs years ago, at a cost in the range of $1,000 dollars?
Despite Tuesday’s tragic crash, Davis remains convinced in the safety and efficiency of rail travel and would someday like to see the Downeaster be authorized to travel up to 110 mph. He believes that, with the proper upgrades, running faster trains between Brunswick, Portland and Boston would increase ridership.
“All it would take is for Congress to allocate the money,” Davis said, acknowledging that the rail line would have to undergo major improvements, such as a new signaling system and track upgrades. “It’s our goal to someday raise the Amtrak Downeaster speed to 110 mph. Time is money to people.”
By making the trip from Portland to Boston much quicker – it now takes the Downeaster about 2 hours, 25 minutes – more people would take the train, Davis said. The 110 mph speed could reduce the trip to two hours. An express going that speed and making two stops would arrive in just over an hour, Davis said.
What, pray tell, qualifies Davis to make such judgments?  Aside from the fact that magically, all it would take is Foppem?
TrainRiders/Northeast is a nonprofit that was formed in 1989 to bring modern and efficient passenger rail service to Northern New England.
Quinn is skeptical that the funds needed to upgrade the Portland to Boston rail line to allow higher speeds will become available in the near future.
“Modern and efficient?”  Is anyone paying attention here?  How can we take him, or his friend that runs NNEPRA seriously under the circumstances?

As you know, we spent our career in the Defense Industry, where constant criticisms about $400 hammers and $800 toilet seats were the norm.  Trust us; we can tell you how those came about, if you’re willing to spend the time it takes to have a cup of coffee with us.

Knowing what we learned over the years, we still can’t come close to understanding or explaining the sheer incompetence on display in these circumstances.  Except to declare that world class clap-trappery is the norm and the expectation.  And even worse, is accepted and tolerated.
Back to town matters.  Lookee here:
The article begins this way:
The fate of $60 million in proposed spending may hinge on whether members of a divided Brunswick Town Council feel it’s appropriate to spend $10,000 in taxpayer dollars on a program that benefits the hungry.
During a Tuesday workshop, the council debated whether to abandon a policy against funding social service agencies in place since 2007 in order to provide funding to the Mid Coast Hunger Prevention Program.
Do you get this?  The council is ‘deliberating’ on a $60 FREAKING MILLION BUDGET, but is stumbling over a $10,000 hunger prevention item????

In the past, it’s been JHS band funding, or JV tiddly winks funding as a red herring.  What’s next?  Whether or not to wash school buses once a month or quarterly?  Or whether to refuel police cruisers when they reach the half a tank level, or wait until they have only a quarter of a tank left?

Are we really supposed to take these officials and their discussions seriously, and grant them respect?
Do they have even a shred of self-awareness?  Not to mention self-respect?
Several councilors said their objections were based on the fact that the finance committee has not discussed changing that policy.
“We haven’t really vetted them,” said Councilor Dan Harris. “I have no idea what their salaries are for their staff. … We have an obligation to know where that money’s going.”
Councilor Kathy Wilson suggested money ought to be taken from the school budget in order to fund MCHPP, while adding that students, school staff and supporters haven’t done enough to raise money to offset the cost of Brunswick High School’s graduation.
She had to bring graduation costs up; great idea!  We remember gripes from students in past years about how much proms cost, and how it was unrealistic to expect them to pay for a grand graduation ceremony as well.  You see, taxpayers should be paying for the proms, and whatever they want in the way of graduation accommodations to boot.  Here’s another case where we say “talk to the hand, because the face ain’t listening.”

You drive cars to school, you have all the latest electronic toys, the fanciest clothes, and love those $4 sports drinks and foo-foo coffee concoctions.  But you can’t deal with prom expenses and the like?  Cry us a river.
“I’m not comfortable in just throwing money at them,” said Councilor David Watson. “I’ve heard their meals are fine but everything else is candy. I just want to know whether this is going to go to a good cause.”
“It almost seems absurd we’re going to argue over 10,000 bucks,” said Harris, “but I’m going to argue anyway.”
Self-awareness?  Self-respect?  Our questions answer themselves.
Respect for the citizenry?  We refer you to our discourse above on clap-trappery and pompost.
For our last example of responsible, competent management of the public trust, we take you here:
Once more, excerpts and comments:
A safety system that could have prevented the deadly Amtrak derailment in Philadelphia on Tuesday is not installed on Amtrak’s Downeaster service route because it doesn’t meet a traffic threshold.
The technology, called “positive train control,” is already in place on large sections of the Northeast Corridor, and work is underway in other sections to meet a December 2015 deadline set by Congress in 2008 in response to a head-on train collision that killed 25 people near Los Angeles.
But there are no plans to install the system in Maine and New Hampshire because the number of passenger trains on the line falls below the mandated minimum, according to Patricia Quinn, executive director of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority.
She said installing positive train control here would cost tens of millions of dollars.
“It’s extremely expensive,” she said.
See prior comments about our experience in the Defense Industry.  See reference manuals on common sense and credibility.  See USPS operating manuals.  See comments above about college computer science students.

Such clap-trappery simply doesn’t pass the straight-faced test, the smell test, or any other measure you wish to subject it to.  Is OPEGA listening?
The technology is designed to prevent the human errors behind about 40 percent of train accidents. It’s a complex system that combines wireless radio, global positioning system signals, track sensors and computers to give engineers and train dispatchers real-time information about train speed and location. The system will stop or slow a train if it’s not being operated properly.
The Downeaster trains are overseen by dispatchers who work in the Pan Am Railways control room in Billerica, Massachusetts. Pan Am operates freight trains on the Downeaster route between Brunswick and Plaistow, New Hampshire, on the Massachusetts border.
The 2008 law mandates that the system be installed on lines when they are used by both freight trains and passenger trains that make more than 12 trips daily.
The Downeaster currently operates 10 trips a day, which means it can offer two more daily drips before it would be required to install a positive train control system, Quinn said.
Spare us, please.  We’re not sure we can take any more.
The Amtrak train involved in the crash in Philadelphia that killed eight people and injured about 200 was traveling at more than 100 mph, twice the speed limit, as it entered a sharp curve where it derailed, according to federal officials.
Positive train control was installed on the tracks where the accident occurred in Philadelphia, but it had not been turned on because further testing was needed, Amtrak President Joseph Boardman told The Associated Press on Thursday.
Amtrak has spent $110.7 million since 2008 to install the technology along much of its Northeast Corridor line, including stretches from Boston to New Haven, Connecticut, and sections in New Jersey and Maryland. But railroads have long said the 2015 deadline was unrealistic, and in March, the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee approved a bill that would give them until 2020 to install the technology, and another two years after that if they need more time.
The system likely would have prevented the accident by forcing the train to stay below the speed limit, National Transportation Safety Board member Robert Sumwalt told reporters on Wednesday.
The Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority, which owns the tracks the Downeaster operates on in Massachusetts, intends to install the system there to comply with the law, Quinn said. That’s because those tracks also carry MBTA commuter trains and exceed the 12-trip daily threshold in the law.
Calling Wayne Davis, Chairman of TRNE.  Didn’t you tell us this simply couldn’t happen on the Downeaster runs because of diligent behavior by those running the train?  If so, how could it have happened on the Philadelphia to NYC run?  Or don’t they hold their engineers down there to the same standards as the Downeaster?
Pan Am Railways and Amtrak have other safety measures in place on the line in Maine and New Hampshire, Quinn said. Engineers must press a button every 30 seconds to demonstrate they are alert, she said, and dispatchers can determine a train’s speed at any time by tracking its GPS signal. Amtrak managers also conduct random compliance checks to make sure engineers are following speed limits and other rules.
Moreover, the maximum speed for the Downeaster service is 79 mph and the Amtrak locomotives on the line are equipped with “over-speed technology” that prevents the trains from exceeding the speed limit by more than a few miles an hour, Quinn said.
There have been no personal injury accidents on the Downeaster service since it started 13 years ago, she said, except for incidents involving trespassers and motor vehicles that have ignored warning signals.
“Tragic things do happen,” Quinn said. “What happened is a tremendous mishap and a tragedy. But I have a lot of confidence in Amtrak’s and Pan Am’s safety protocols.”
Well, finally, something profound and reliable to make us feel better.  A button you have to press every 30 seconds to prove you’re alert and coherent.  And the ability to determine a train’s speed, though it didn’t seem to matter in Philadelphia.

Can anyone read the foregoing and argue that the Downeaster is in good hands?  Notwithstanding their inability to even come close to meeting established schedules?

As a local wag asked us as the news broke, when can we expect to hear that the Philly problem was caused by the lack of an MLF?  Possible answer: as soon as Quinn and Davis read this post and can find a camera/reporter to take that explanation and run with it.
Well, fun seekers, this has been a long hard slog, and we’re spent.  So we’re going to close out this post and sign off without our usual insouciance.  Or even a modest dose of outsouciance.

Our supply is running low after the technical challenges of recent days, and the incredibly discouraging exhibitions discussed above.

Fortunately, we can look forward to tomorrow’s news, in which we’ll read about the “incredibly tough decisions” our town council made when they approved the budget before them.  Here’s a wild guess: one extreme is unanimous approval.  The other is a 7-1 vote for approval, with Johnny Protocols absent due to an ‘out of town commitment.’

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At the very least, though, we hope we’ve given the distaff members of the local carriage set some new tea leaves and crumpets for thought.  We want so very much to have their respect and approval, as you can probably tell. 

We won’t be the least bit surprised, though, if we’ve lost yours with this epic.

Oh...and please forgive the unusual formatting; it's a consequence of the difficulties we mentioned at the top of the post.

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