Backlog of complaints? Hit the delete button!

Forty years ago, Italian postal workers faced a backlog of 20 million pieces of mail following a series of strikes. Unlike London, which faced a similar problem and simply took a couple of weeks to eliminate the backlog, the Italians burned some of the letters, sold off others for pulp and dumped others into the river.

photo wwlp

photo wwlp

The city of Boston seems unwittingly to have cleared up its backlog of snow removal problems as the Romans did.

According to The Boston Globe, of 27,000 complaints about problems with snow removal, some 9,000 complaints were closed out, all within two hours on February 12, and complainants received notification that the problems had been resolved.  Yet, when they put on their boots, gloves and storm coats to venture outside, they discovered no action had been taken.  The reason? There was a new storm coming, and the old cases were just checked off as closed.   Oh, wow.

This is a real headache for Mayor Marty Walsh, who acknowledged it was a mistake and shouldn’t have happened. Even though the social media person in his communication department is responding to every tweet that comes in, whatever “system” was in place on February 12 provided a monumental screw-up. Now, 18,000 complaints did get resolved. And I’m sure that the metrics-driven mayor will in time report on the overall picture. By then, both he and we might hope the worst may be over.

The best that can be said about this unfortunate situation is that the Mayor didn’t try to sweep it under the rug, and that’s a good sign for someone committed to “transparency”  and authentic public engagement.

I welcome your comments in the section below.

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Charlie Baker: charm, practicality and reassurance

photo JHB

photo JHB

The question during the 2014 gubernatorial campaign was often “Will the real Charlie Baker please stand up?”  Today, Governor Baker stood before a meeting of the New England Council, the real Charlie Baker, the one I knew from his days in the highest echelons of the Weld and Cellucci administrations.  He is smart, comfortable in his own skin, droll, practical and seemingly quite down to earth.  Call this a honeymoon period. Acknowledge that he has a longstanding relationship with the Council. Even so, for those who were long infatuated with predecessor Deval Patrick’s grace and vision, Baker shows himself well able to fill Patrick’s shoes and more.

That “more” entails  skills at a ground game, a zest for finding out the details and implementing practical, workable solutions.  Things like tackling gridlock by asking that streets get plowed all the way to the curb so buses have a place for passengers to get on and off.  Like using the National Guard to shovel out the 20 miles of Red Line tracks between JFK and Braintree, ensuring that it will be up and running in five or six days, not the 30 days originally announced.  Working collaboratively with the all-Democratic Congressional delegation to get more federal disaster relief. Working successfully with the predominantly Democratic legislature to amend the fy15 budget to accommodate a larger-than-expected state deficit.

Given the political make-up of Massachusetts, Baker has to be post partisan. So far he seems to be, as suggested by his cabinet comprising Republicans, Democrats and Independents in equal amounts.  He claims that, in most cases, he didn’t even know the party designations of his appointees. Maybe. Maybe not.  But he is persuasive in asserting himself to be a “Let’s get stuff done” person.

He is committed to bringing growth in health care costs in line with growth in other parts of the state budget (so they don’t devour other programs) and to bring spending in line with revenues.  He’s also committed to help keep Massachusetts businesses competitive in an era of strong dollar pressures by looking for ways to cut energy costs.  Toward that end, he’d push to expand pipeline capacity along existing rights of way.

Of particular note was his answer to my question about his position on a possible statewide referendum on the Olympics and a proposed legislative push for greater Olympics transparency. He believes in our “robust” referendum process and, over the years, has participated in some past referenda.  “There’s a process in place,” he said, and, if opponents want to pursue it, ” by all means,have at it. It’s what it’s there for, and that’s a good thing,” he said.

On the issue of transparency, his “hope is that the process will be more and more transparent going forward,” through interim refinements of the proposal due September of this year and again in 2016, with the final bid in the fall of 2017. The process is starting now. He is pleased that Boston 2024 will next week start a series of public meetings around the state. He seems confident that, as soon as this coming September, the public will be getting a lot of information on what the event will look like (in terms of venues,)  the nature of the public commitments being requested, especially for infrastructure, and the extent of private funding, which will be significant.

I hope he’s right, but I think his optimism about the process will only be validated under sustained pressure from citizen engagement, and efforts by No Boston Olympics and United Independent Party Chair Evan Falchuk to push the referendum strategy.  Still, it’s reassuring that Baker seems not to have drunk the Koolaid as Mayor Marty Walsh often seems to have done.

There’s much that’s reassuring about Charlie Baker just 43 days into his administration.  Of course, much remains to be done in the next 1288 days of his term. Here’s hoping.

I welcome your comments in the section below.

 

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Will Marty Walsh become another Michael Bilandic?

blizzard 2015Will Marty Walsh become the next Michael Bilandic?  Bilandic was the first Chicago Mayor to try to fill the large shoes left when Mayor-for-life Richard Daley died in 1976. Walsh, of course, replaced our own Mayor-for-Life, Tom Menino and is working to make the job his own.

Bilandic’s first challenges were negotiating the shoals of some labor disputes. Yesterday’s headlines here at home screamed how last year’s police and fire contracts’ 7.5 percent increase is the largest in the city’s history.  Bilandic also had to deal with social unrest among Puerto Ricans in Chicago when an FALN terrorist bomb exploded in Chicago City Hall. Walsh has been focused on improving relations between Hub police and communities of color.

But the death knell  for Bilandic was the Chicago Blizzard of 1979, which dropped nearly 20 inches of snow on the Windy City.   With eight inches already on the ground that January, the city couldn’t get the streets plowed. Tracks froze on the public transit system, and bus alternatives to the trains couldn’t handle the crowds, whose commutes in sub zero temperatures became hours-long torture. Snow removal never caught up, and much of the snow stayed there till early spring.  Trash collection failed. The city mismanaged its response, and the mayor took the blame.

The Chicago Transit Authority’s problems were, like the T’s, years in the making. But the local media and the public faulted Bilandic.   He faced the voters the next month and all those commuters who had stood in the cold waiting for public transportation that didn’t work were only too eager to voice their frustration at the polls. Bilandic lost the Democratic primary in February to Jane Byrne,  a colleague from the  Daley administration whom Bilandic had fired. She went on to become mayor.

The analogy  is imperfect. The storms here have been bigger. Chicago is not the capital of Illinois, but in Massachusetts the capital and largest city are one and the same. And, unlike Chicago, the T is not just a city authority so we’re looking to newbie Governor Charlie Baker to fix that part of the problem.

But a mayor, whether in  Chicago or Boston,  for better or worse, owns the streets and sidewalks, and here  local residents and employers are paying the price for Marty Walsh’s failures. Saturday’s Boston Globe editorial laid out how Minneapolis and Montreal, both of which get more snow than Boston, remove their snow with dispatch.  Marty Walsh should take note, and come out with a plan to revise and improve snow removal here.

Unlike Michael Bilandic, Walsh has time to recover. He doesn’t face the voters for another couple of  years, at which time the major issue could be how city priorities and spending may have gotten skewed chasing after the Olympics.

I welcome your comments in the section below.

 

 

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Bob Simon – the very best

Bob SimonBob Simon was the kind of journalist whom Brian Williams could only dream of being.  There was no finer writer or story teller, no more courageous correspondent, no better example of the highest achievements of reporting, than Simon, described by so many in the last few days as a giant of broadcast journalism. In today’s world of multiple platforms, you can drop the “broadcast” modifier. He was a giant of journalism.

He covered all the wars and conflicts of our generation – Vietnam, Northern Ireland, Sarajevo, Grenada, Somalia, the Middle East and more.  Captured by Iraqis in 1991,  he endured six weeks of torture in captivity.  More than just moving from one war zone to another, he reported on other issues (racism, ebola, for example) and uncovered the smaller stories that reflected humanity and nobility where they’d seem least likely to be found.  One of my favorites was of a group of poor villagers in the Congo who learned to make and play classical instruments and formed a symphony, expressing the deepest emotional values and aspirations of Beethoven’s Ninth.

Throughout his career, Simon’s demeanor was elegant; his language, painterly. CBS colleague Robert Hartman, in reflecting on what distinguished Simon from so many other broadcast journalists, noted that Simon was one who “always put the story above the teller.”  He made it look easy, as if the stories were telling themselves. It was, of course, not easy, but he raised his professional skills to an art form. And he almost always had an impact.

In the past, Simon himself talked about life’s ironies, and he might have wondered aloud at the circumstances of his own death. Given all he had survived putting his life on the line pursuing the story regardless of personal risk, the manner of his death – in the Manhattan crash of a town car in which he was a passenger- is sadly mundane. He would, I am sure, be able to find some universal truth in this hideous tragedy.  Those who admired this gifted man can only feel pain and loss.

I welcome your comments in the section below.

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T troubles from the can kicked down the road

photo WCVB

photo WCVB

In Mumbai, train service was once so slow passengers rioted and burned train stations.  In Bangkok, a one-way commute can take four hours.  Manila’s public transport relies on Jeepneys, modeled on WW II jeeps and hazardous to passenger comfort and safety.  But the performance of the MBTA of late shows Greater Boston has the best Third World transit system that money can buy. In fact, yesterday it didn’t run at all. Today it has returned to limping.

Governor Charlie Baker may be losing his patience with T General Manager Beverly Scott. She has been at the post for just a couple of years, while T problems are decades old. I remember covering its financial troubles back when now retired, 30-year Congressman Barney Frank was a young state rep arguing for a budgetary solution.

As former John Hancock CEO David D’Alessandro, author of a largely ignored 2009 review of the T, reminded listeners yesterday on WGBH radio, it is the legislature that has been kicking the can down the road.  We are now witnessing the outcome of documented long-term neglect, where craven solons lack the backbone to raise the taxes and fees necessary to achieve a functional public transit system.  Yesterday, asked whether Beverly Scott has to be fired, D’Allesandro said, “You could have Warren Buffett in that job, and it wouldn’t make a difference.”

Now it will take  an estimated $6 billion to catch up on deferred maintenance, including the myriad electrical problems, switching snafus, broken heating systems and fires we’ve seen of late. Regrettably (now there’s an understatement), the T’s debt service is almost as large as the revenues it brings in from fares. This is clearly unsustainable. Other potential revenue sources are suggested, including raising the gas tax, installing electronic tolls on major highways, and further reforming the overly generous T pension system. After voters rejected a simple gas tax escalator law, will our reps have the courage to go back to the drawing board?

Money isn’t the only issue.  Today’s Boston Herald  notes that a million federal dollars came to the T several years ago to create a maintenance data base, but that is still not yet operational.  Hello?  Where was the Patrick administration’s needed sense of urgency?

Some fault the so-called Pacheco law that bars private companies from competing for most public contracts. I am no fan of the Pacheco law because I think it fails to hold down costs. But the T’s computer rail service was contracted out to the French Keolis company. And, according to a study by the Pioneer Institute, our commuter rail service is worse than ever, among the worst in the country for on-time performance.

Will Scott’s head have to roll?  She’s a feisty lady, and projects the knowledge and toughness it will take to drag the T out of the mess it is in.  I don’t know enough about her management skills to join the call for a firing.  But any replacement would face the very same monumental problems.   Charlie Baker and she will be sitting down tomorrow (for the first time!) to see if they can work together to figure out a solution.

Are T fixes in the proposed Olympic-related budget?  Repairs are not Olympic priorities. Surely the T’s immediate priorities must not get caught up in Boston2024!  As No Boston Olympics reminds us,  Olympics advocates, to keep costs down, say the bid “doesn’t need significant transit investment.”

Commutergeddon is not merely an intolerable inconvenience; it’s a drag on the whole economy. We need action now.  Voters should let their legislators know that they’re expected to stop kicking that can once and for all. If voters aren’t willing to do so, they should just stop complaining about the miserable service.

 

I welcome your thoughts in the section below.

 

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Brian Williams and narcissistic journalism

Getty Images

Getty Images

That shame came to NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams only recently is probably the most surprising news of all.  He is the ultimate expression of the celebrity newsperson, overpaid, overdressed, overexposed, over-inclined to be an entertainer all the while asserting a claim to be a top notch reporter. As the NY Times’  Maureen Dowd wrote, “THIS was a bomb that had been ticking for a while.”

Williams was apparently known for overstating his bio.   Dowd and others are rightly puzzled why someone already at the top of his particular game would have such a compulsive need to fashion himself into a swashbuckling Hemingway figure.  It takes a healthy dose of narcissism for a reporter to have to make himself part of the story instead of just reporting on it.  But Williams’ tendency to embellish is apparently of long standing.

Nearly 40 years ago, he talked about how a thief had drawn a gun on him in Red Bank, New Jersey when he was selling Christmas trees out of a truck.  He retold the story several times, including in Esquire Magazine in 2005, but local residents, knowing the safety of the neighborhood, doubt it every happened. In 2011, USA Today  Williams spoke of rescuing a puppy from a burning house, which in 2005 in Esquire became two puppies.  Questions have also been raised about his reconstruction of his experience covering Hurricane Katrina.

So now he’s brought down (or substantially diminished) by the revelation that his accounts of having been shot down in a helicopter in Iraq in 2003 are false. He was in a helicopter arriving an hour after the helicopter that was hit by an RPG (rocket propelled grenade).  He went on the air last Wednesday to apologize for conflating the events.  His statement fell flat, as did his weekend announcement that he would take himself off the daily broadcast for several days.  Meanwhile, NBC tries to figure out what to do.

David Carr, writing in the NY Times, says this isn’t a fireable offense because his embellishments “were not a fundamental part of his primary responsibilities.”  I disagree.  Despite the low standing in which the media in general are held today, integrity is still the coin of the realm in the presentation of the news.  How can viewers look at Brian Williams and have confidence in what he is saying? We are no longer surprised when politicians “misremember” certain events, Hillary Clinton and George W. Bush, among others coming to mind. But we don’t want that in our journalists, the ones we expect to blow the whistle when politicians do it.

Those calling for him to be fired  have to be careful of a certain schadenfreude effect, wherein hard-working folks substantially lower on the pay scale take pleasure in the downfall of a celebrity, particularly one like Brian Williams known in his circles for being pompous.  Plus, at one time or another, we may have all embellished to create a memorable yarn out of a merely good story. It may be part of human nature.

My husband’s immigrant grandfather was a fabrics peddler on the New York-to-Boston route during the early part of the last century.  He brought his family up on the anecdote of a competitor who, having only cotton fabrics, told an early morning customer seeking wool that the material he was offering was 20 percent wool.  In the course of the day, his pitch became 50 percent wool, then 80, then 100. The competitor grew indignant if his assertion was challenged. When my husband and his two brothers were growing up and occasionally  prone to exaggeration, their mother would warn the boys, “don’t 100 percent wool it.”

We live in a culture in which, to paraphrase from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence,  “When truth and legend conflict, print the legend.”  In other words, don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story.

The point is that colorful lore doesn’t always equate to truth.  Our news deliverers should present the unvarnished truth,  even if  prosaic and lacking in entertainment value.

Perhaps Brian Williams came to believe his own lore, to the point that minor embellishment slid into outright lies. Whatever his blind spot, his personal neurosis or insecurity, it’s a problem that shouldn’t reside in the anchor desk of a news organization.  NBC needs to acknowledge that, scrap its in-house investigation and engage an independent investigator to deal with Brian Williams, just as CBS dealt with Dan Rather after the latter’s running a fabricated story on George W.’s military service. NBC needs to stand tall, or become irrelevant.

I welcome your comments in the section below.

 

 

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Chris Christie, Rand Paul support parents with heads in sand

Chris ChristieCalifornia  is sometimes thought of as la-la land, so it shouldn’t surprise us that it is  the epicenter of the irrational parental movement against immunization.  The shocking map of the resulting outbreak of measles, a disease virtually eradicated by 2000 thanks to vaccination, dramatizes the horror.  Last year there were more than 600 cases in the United States.  But, in January alone, there were 102 cases, more than 90 in California from right-wing Orange County to left-wing Marin.  Apparently unvaccinated international visitors to Disney World have made it a breeding ground for contagion.

Campaigning for governor in 2011,  New Jersey candidate Chris Christie, revealed an environmental cleanup plan to Don Imus,  and likened immunizations to toxins we put into our environment. Using a now widely discredited study, he went on to say that New Jersey’s highest-in-the-nation autism rate was linked to vaccination.  In making a tough choice between public health and the rights  of parents who believe that vaccinations cause autism, he came down on the side of parental choice.    “Let them be heard.” Give them a “seat at the table.”  Again yesterday, Christie said parents should have choice in the matter. Libertarian Senator Rand Paul shares his position.

Both have come close to saying that vaccinations may be a good idea but that parents, in weighing the decision, should opt for vaccinations of their own volition not in response to a government requirement. So, if parents choose not to vaccinate their children based on misinformation or undiluted idiocy, and that decision threatens others, so be it?

Christie certainly understands the public health implications of contagion.  Last October, he quarantined (in conditions that approximated arrest) a woman exposed to ebola and directed 21 days of isolation for travelers returning from several African nations even if they were symptomless. Christie’s policy last fall was widely deemed to be an over-reaction.  When it comes to vaccination for measles, he’s definitely in the under reaction category.

Measles is no laughing matter. As this morning’s Boston Globe editorial pointed out, the germs are airborne and can last for two hours after being sneezed or coughed into the air.  Those who get the disease can suffer encephalitis, pneumonia, blindness, and deafness. Encephalitis can be deadly.  Why would any parent not take steps to avoid that?  As a NY Times editorial pointed out, ninety percent of those not immune will get sick upon exposure to the virus, and they, in turn, will infect others. I think that inaction at this level is a form of child abuse.

Not to vaccinate your own child is bad enough. But when your refusal to inoculate causes harm to others, such gross negligence is a public health menace and should be actionable.

So, how to address the lunacy behind the no vaccination movement?  For one thing, all public school systems should require children have all their shots in order to enter school. Medical facilities can screen to keep sick children who aren’t inoculated out of their waiting rooms.  Have we reached the point that families taking their children to public places should have to show their vaccination records, as one does in crossing national borders?

For half a century, groups of people have opposed fluoridation of the water supply, notwithstanding that two generations since the introduction of fluoride have had healthier teeth with far fewer cavities.  Opponents were certain fluoridation was part of a communist conspiracy. You can laugh at the anti-fluoride zealots. If someone refuses fluoridation, there’s no impact on the health of the general public. Refusing immunization for contagious diseases is no laughing matter.

As The Wall St. Journal editorialized, in praising President Obama’s forthright message favoring immunization requirements and in criticizing Chris Christie’s pandering on this issue, “The real public health problem isn’t a lack of parental choice but a lack of common sense about vaccines, and politicians should do more to promote the latter.”

I welcome your comments in the section below.

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