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Archive for June, 2008

Mark Twain and Bankruptcy — “It was evening all afternoon”

Posted by whforums on June 30, 2008

I’m going to be honest — I’m no Mark Twain apologist. Over the course of my life I’ve attended conferences on Twain (Twainiacs — that’s a term of endearment), I’ve been to his houses in Hartford and Elmira, I’ve smoked a cigar in his study — he’s been an anchor as I’ve wandered and returned home. But as far as I’m concerned, Twain’s importance in Hartford’s literary history has been wildly overplayed, while Wallace Stevens’, from whom this blog takes its motto, has been underplayed.

But it’s still upsetting to see that the Mark Twain House, like its namesake, finds itself in a dire financial situation. And while the state has said it will provide a grant to keep the museum (and former library) operational, one has to imagine that that’s a short term solution to a long term problem.

So, even though times are tough, my wife and I put our wallets together and ponied up a small donation to the Mark Twain House. We decided that, regardless of how we feel about how the institution got itself into its current financial situation, it’s in that situation now and it needs us — if not now, then 6 months from now. For better or for worse, Twain is an essential figure in Hartford’s history, identity, and, most likely, its future. I know it’s hard for me to look at the Connecticut river without saying to myself “How did Twain see this, and how did he see it as the Mississippi?”

But if you can find ten bucks to throw at the Twain house, I’d also encourage you to throw some money at The Friends and Enemies of Wallace Stevens, who are raising money to install a Wallace Stevens walking tour that commemorates his walk to work each day from Westerly Terrace to The Hartford (scroll halfway down the linked page to find an email address for donations). Along the two mile walk will be each of the thirteen stanzas of Stevens’ poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.”

In fact, while Stevens might have been writing about the “nature of reality” in that poem, I suspect that the poem’s 13th and final stanza may also show that he understands the whole “Twain situation” (how Twain’s ongoing needs are reflected, years later, in the ongoing needs of his home):

“It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.”

Posted in Academicy Stuffs, Hartford Literary Life | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

I’ve Got the Planning and Zoning Commission Blues

Posted by whforums on June 28, 2008

It’s hard times if you’re working on the Planning and Zoning Commission.

According to last week’s West Hartford News, the Town Council doesn’t seem to have its ears all the way open. The PZC told the Council in 2007 that they opposed valet parking, elevated signage and outdoor seating for PF Chang’s, which opens at Westfarms sometime soon (if construction is any indicator). Despite this opposition, the council approved the changes, only removing the contentious point of valet parking.

Fast forward to this month, when the PZC once again opposed elevated signage and outdoor seating changes for another new restaurant, Brio, citing concerns that it would cause the building to look “disjointed in appearance.” The Council’s response? Unanimous approval of the changes. As if that’s not bad enough, one councilman said to Westfarm’s general manager “Aesthetically, we are turning the mall more or less inside out. I hope to see you you and the team back again in the future and continue down that road.” Just don’t expect it to be paved by the Planning and Zoning Commission.

It’s comforting, really, to know we’re listening to each other’s judgment, even that we may put aside our own beliefs about planning and zoning when the people who are paid to understand planning, zoning and their potential impacts, speak. This does give me an idea, though … if we’re going to ignore the Planning and Zoning Commission on issues such as these, maybe we should just axe them from the budget entirely?

Not that I’m feeling particularly cynical at the moment.

Posted in Local Democracy | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

I’d Trade Price Rite for The Elm

Posted by whforums on June 26, 2008

There’s been a lot of buzz lately about Elmwood’s “revival” in media large (like the New York Times) and small (like West Hartford Life — I’d link you there, but their website has no … content). I wonder, though, how much Elmwood is actually being “revived” and how much it needed “revival” in the first place (as an area, it hardly needs(ed) an EMT). It’s not that new condos (are condos the same as neighborhoods? Yes but No) and a couple of grocery stores aren’t good things, it’s just that it makes the “revival” seem much more abstractly corporate than deliberately local. Who’s getting the benefit here — Elmwood, or Stop and Shop? I’m not sure it’s as symbiotic as we might like to think.

It may very well be that I just can’t get over the fact that there’s a Walgreens in The Elm. Yet it’s hard to escape the thought that throughout this development and “revival” we see more and more businesses in the community, but not necessarily more and more businesses of the community.

Yeah. It’s probably just that I miss The Elm …

Posted in Abstract Babble, Elmwood, Nostlagia | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

The Recipe for a Successful Referendum

Posted by whforums on June 24, 2008

I was poking around in the tubes when I came across this article — “Why Do School Budget Referenda Fail?” (link to a free, full download of the article is at the bottom of the linked page). Its research scope is only the New York State Public schools (the chief researcher is from Cornell), but the findings are still pretty compelling. If you don’t feel like reading 21 pages of academic hoo-haw (sp.?), here are some highlights:

“Two previous studies found that an increase in elderly voters was associated with no change or a reduction in educational spending per student, however when the elderly and the school age population came from different racial groups, both found that an increase in the fraction of elderly voters was associated with lower educational spending per student” (page 5).

and …

“… the estimate implies that defeat (sic.) a budget referendum in one year increases the probability that this will occur in the next year by 7.8 percentage points. Thus, budget referendum do have a narcotic effect (author’s emphasis), in the sense that they increase the chance that a district’s voters will defeat the budget proposal in a subsequent year” (page 18).

and …

“Voters in school districts whose board members have longer terms have a lower probability of rejecting budget proposals” (page 20 — this runs counter the the final claim in the abstract — after reading the paper, the f inal claim in the abstract seems to have been inverted).

So … take one part shifting racial identity of town, one part recent referendum success, add a pinch of short term limits and … sound like any place you know?

Anyway, “Yes,” don’t despair …

“For those districts that held second votes on the same or a revised budget, the probability of passage the second time was 58%” (page 12).

Posted in Academicy Stuffs, Budget, Local Democracy | Tagged: , , | 6 Comments »

Your Ideas Are Scissors. Go Ahead. Cut.

Posted by whforums on June 22, 2008

I’d like to keep this simple, because, as I’ve said before, it seems that too often throughout this “budget season,” rhetoric has overwhelmed content. So here’s what I’d like to know:

Since cuts to the budget need to be made, what do you think those cuts should be? Specifically — do you think West Hartford needs two senior centers? Should pools be open for a shorter summer season? Students are currently eligible for a bus if they’re a mile away from a school — should we change that distance to a mile and a half? Start with the parking meters (or “fancy curriculum”) if you must, but a substantive conversation about real cuts might better serve the community.

Anyway, it’s your budget. So, go ahead. Cut it.

Posted in Budget, Local Democracy | Tagged: , , | 5 Comments »

What Does a Defeated Budget Mean?

Posted by whforums on June 19, 2008

So, the budget, in incarnation number one, is somewhat convincingly dead.

After about eleven thousand people found it in themselves to vote (and that’s weaksauce, West Hartford), we’re left with the question of relevance. Obviously, the practical ramification is clear — the Town Council will go back to the budget, make cuts (real or superficial), and make vague threats about the impact of a second referendum on town services (you do want your leaves picked up, don’t you?). The “No” people will then be left with a difficult decision as to whether to demand a second referendum. Last year the “No” vote backed down, and this year, they have even less of a mandate, having lost approximately seven percent from their 2007 margin of victory.

So what does a defeated budget mean? What does it tell us about our town? If last November’s election is any indication, it means nothing about the future makeup of the Town Council — West Hartford voted solidly for the same people — and the same party — despite the ’07 referendum. And it likely doesn’t mean much about what the budget will ultimately look like … the odds that this council will produce a budget that does not reflect a tax increase are slimmer than the odds of the sun burning out.

So, here’s what I see. There are about 7000 people in this town who are pissed off — many disenchanted republicans (about 4,000 if we take a cue from the November election numbers) and some independents alongside some crossover democrats. And if there’s a second referendum, many of those same 7000 are likely to hit the polls again (they’re pissed off and voting — not weaksauce).

So, these questions to bicker over through the weekend:

  • “No” voters — at what point would you become a “Yes” voter? What is the basis for an acceptable budget?
  • “Yes” voters — do you believe the Council should make anything beyond superficial adjustments? Should they stand up to the 11% of the population that voted “No” and stand by a budget they crafted?
  • And everyone in between … if there’s a second referendum, will you vote? Or will you continue to be weaksauce?

Posted in Budget, Local Democracy | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

West Hartford Referendum Results Quasi-Live Blog

Posted by whforums on June 17, 2008

We’ll be doing a quasi-live blog (updating numbers as they come in) for referendum results tonight, if you’d like to speak your mind, spew your anger, or just watch the numbers roll by (all numbers via WHC TV) …

Absentee Ballots (Unofficial)

No 149
Yes 69
(not a rousing start for the “Yes” vote)

Two Districts Reporting

No 515
Yes 353

11 of 20 Districts Reporting

No 3920
Yes 2325

(a much closer vote than I’d anticipated — “Yes” was much better organized this year)

All Districts Reporting (“Unofficial”)

No 7074
Yes 3700

Initial reaction — it’s much easier to get people to oppose a budget than it is to get people to support it — and compared to last year’s vote of 7893- 2939, it’s going to be hard to argue that “No” has gained any traction¬† …

Posted in Budget, Live Blog | Tagged: , , | 4 Comments »

“Celebrate! West Hartford,” Democracy and Budgets

Posted by whforums on June 16, 2008

Checked out “Celebrate” this weekend and I was struck by the non-profit booths — how the “Yes” people were directly beside the “No” people and also directly beside the registrar of voters. It was really a nice metaphor for our democracy — citizens hawking lawn signs and information about their causes — but situated in such a way, beside the registrar, that they were no more important than the idea of democracy itself — the spirit of democracy. My concern, though, is that our local democracy doesn’t expand much beyond that metaphor or spirit — that as citizens (and citizen-councilpeople) we’re fundamentally not talking to one another, listening to one another, or engaging and examining each other’s ideas in any sort of meaningful way (that all is spam and noise, and the other side of the argument inadmissible). I might be describing my own limited experience, but our conversations too often don’t seem to go much beyond our lawns.

But I also was left with a more grounded, lingering question — who on earth pays for “Celebrate! West Hartford”? I assumed it was paid for by sponsors, but to what degree? How much does the town kick in? So I did some poking around and found this report (it’s a PDF — only click if you want to download it!) from Leisure Services in 2006 that says on page 44 (emphasis mine):

“This event has usually generated a profit. This is largely due to the fact that the majority of the revenue is received in advance of the weekend, in the form of sponsorships from local businesses and individuals, and expenses are budgeted according to the available funds. Since it is an outdoor event, there is a relationship between the weather and attendance. As attendance increases, so does the profit …”

Budgeting expenses according to available funds and still having money left over? This seems startlingly reasonable. And while I think it’s difficult — if not impossible — for a local government to do this in an era of widespread inflation, I would also appreciate a more transparent, line-item budget (if there is one, please, someone link me there) that would allow those critical of our current tax situation to argue for real cuts. This type of conversation might even help make more real that visible metaphor from “Celebrate!” — “Yes” and “No” speaking beyond rhetoric and ideology in a critical dialog that reflects the best interests of this place and time we share.

Posted in Abstract Babble, Budget, Local Democracy | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

West Hartford Budget Referendum Is Tuesday

Posted by whforums on June 14, 2008

So. Here we go again.

The West Hartford budget is up for a referendum vote (maybe we can make this an annual holiday) on Tuesday, 6/17. The WHTA (the people who want you to vote “No”) are determined to remind you of a running 36% tax increase over the past five years, while West Hartford FIRST (the people who want you to vote “Yes”) are determined to remind you that the town has a moderate per pupil expenditure rate. Meanwhile, town council relations are at least superficially contentious and actual budget information remains either unreadable (for most of us) or clunky. Just to top everything off, the Board of Education decided, two weeks before the vote, to refund $500,000 to the town. Depending on your point of view, I suppose we could decide that that’s:

1. Good reason to vote “No” and to cut next year’s education budget
2. Good reason to vote “Yes,” assuming we’ll get refunded every year by the board’s “new methodology”
3. A strangely timed “refund.”

Before we enter the voting booth, we all ask ourselves questions — “How will I vote? Why? Am I informed about both sides of the argument, or do I only know the rhetoric?” I haven’t yet decided how I’ll cast my vote — and, for my own selfish engagement in my democracy, would like to hear from those of you who have a compelling argument to make for one side or the other.

There’s another lurking question here, too — both WHTA and FIRST seem pretty media savvy, what with their fairly rocking lawn signs and slick mailings and newspaper ads. So how can their websites be so mutually craptastic?

Yes, I teed that up for you, so go ahead.

Posted in Budget, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , | 8 Comments »