In some people's minds, the Steve Susco incident at City Council, the graffiti and the missing lawn signs are seen as frightening signs of the fraying of civility in our community. And God knows there are good reasons for fears in this regard, particularly on the national scene. Is there some kind of link between skinheads (Bardsley being bald) and Bardsley's campaign? I would tend to doubt it. And Susco has never been an organization man. He was raising hell about city government when I was city councilor nearly twenty years ago. And it is my experience that every year we have elections, someone's political signs get pulled down. They are great targets of opportunity for fun-loving late night adventurers. So we should take a deep breath and calm down.
Thursday, September 24, 2009
"or 88," said Captain Patenaude of the Northampton Police to me this morning. Responding to rumors fed by a story in the Hampshire Gazette, I called him to ask if the second instance of graffiti they reported was outside the Mayor's campaign office at Old School Commons. He told me that the graffiti was on the glass wall outside the offices of Northampton Physical Associates, which does nothing more controversial than helping people work out. Lida is a major donor to the Higgins campaign, and wondered if the graffiti and the disappearance of her Higgins sign could be related. "Does it stop at annoying, or is there more to come?" she was quoted as saying.
Sunday, September 13, 2009
Fighting the landfill expansion
is not going to be easy.
I was at Stop & Shop collecting signatures for the drive to put the question about the landfill on the ballot. It was a chilly morning, and drizzle was fogging up my glasses. Most people were friendly and receptive to signing onto this venture, but some were not. I remember this one man in particular rushing for the door that accused me of being “aggressive” when I never said a word to him. It’s just that I was there with a clipboard, and I was obviously going to try to slow him down by talking to him.
There are a lot of people who don’t want to think about the landfill and the questions that putting a new one into the Glendale Road area raises. They yearn to keep the good old days when the bags were a buck, and the city ran it quietly and efficiently, and the cash coming in helped support many departments. There’s a lot of festering anger against the neighbor who kept calling to complain about the landfill. Northampton has served for many years as a kind of surrogate mother. Pay us and we will take your trash. We shushed the neighbors when they complained about the trucks roaring by, day after day. Lurking behind the scenes are many big-time carters who make big money off our landfill. We haven’t heard from them yet, but we will.
On August 31, there was a column in the Times by Paul Krugman entitled “Missing Richard Nixon”. The column really wasn’t about missing Nixon, it was about missing an earlier time when lobbyists weren’t so entrenched in Washington, and rational talk about health care was possible. Ditto for our town and the landfill issue. City councilors are drafting their own question for the ballot. It purports to talk for the opposition, but doesn’t do a very good job. It proffers straw men with weak-kneed arguments. Now the planning department wants to do away with the need of a city to have a permit. You and I need one for all kinds of minor improvements, but the city makes the rules, and the rules seem to change as the needs of administrators dictate.
I have been involved in two local efforts that went down to defeat: putting two non-binding questions on the ballot about the future of Hospital Hill, and fighting the rezoning of the land around Smith College as an educational overlay district. The questions about the state hospital project went down to a 60/40 defeat after paid ads supported by Mass Development and principals in the redevelopment effort flooded the city, and the Gazette and the radio station editorialized against it. The Smith College expansion? The planning department pulled some shenanigans and petitions were invalidated, why I forget.
Powerful forces are working for this new landfill, and they really won’t show their hand until the weeks before the election, when the airwaves and the papers will be flooded with editorials and paid ads. The landfill benefits many entrenched interests. There are the firms that use the landfill, and the surrounding communities that depend on it. There is the DPW itself, whose director draws a significant part of his salary from the landfill.
It’s the site, I think, that continues to be the major problem. When they bought the land in 1988 this area of the city was relatively empty. The town has grown up around it. Back in the eighties there weren’t any fancy homes on Park Hill road, which was dirt for much of its length. It’s become, today, a monster of a non-conforming use on the king of flag lots encompassing hundreds of acres behind the back yards of many homes. Today’s entry is an alleyway between two modest ranch houses. First one landfill was here, then another, and now there will be another. They decided to expand here because it was next door, and it was for sale. Like the original dump, it will be built on a sand and gravel base. The entire burden will be on the technology working as designed. If you get a tear in the plastic liner or the clay layer that has been trucked in decays or cracks, the leachate and chemicals will be off traveling toward the water supply. 60 mil plastic can tear, and has torn in the past. Ten or fifteen minutes Googling this technology turned up warnings from specialists about the potentially very short effective life of our technologies compared to the long life of the bad stuff that we put in our landfills.
There are potential sites here in Northampton that would make a much better place to put a dump. Off Easthampton road, around Searles’ auto recycling yard, there is 18 feet of clay under the ground. Deep clay put there by Mother Nature, not a thin trucked-in layer, is the best defense against seepage. Their junkyard has been in operation a long time, and to my knowledge there never has been any problems with contamination.
The political strength and the deep pockets of this group dictates why it’s hard to look at this issue dispassionately. They know that the public can be manipulated, and because they can be manipulated, they will try. Lobbying works, public relations works, money works just splendidly to push the electorate and its representatives around. The Mayor won the last referendum issue by encouraging people to throw lots of money into it. MassDevelopment and other people ran big ads almost every day. This time the city has hired Stantec to do public education about the issue. Stantec will probably be first in line to do the engineering for the landfill. The group has put two influential members of the DPW on the city council, they have a joint DPW/City Council committee that is writing an alternative question to put on the ballot: they won’t have to come out on a cold rainy morning to get signatures for their measure. They hired attorney Mike Pill to intimidate councilors who represent the neighborhood. They have the Mayor and her machine, they will have the Gazette, who will probably editorialize fiercely for the landfill, and fight against the “red herring talk” about the aquifer. Money talks, and advertisers have a lot of power.
We need to educate people on this issue. Ultimately, it’s a moral question; it’s a public health question. It comes down to the immorality of Northampton opting for yesterday’s strategies, for the cheap and easy and risky, rather than adopt tougher long term answers to reduce our waste stream, restrict who uses the existing landfill in its final years, and tell the commercial carting people to go elsewhere. If the existing landfill just serves Northampton in its last years, it will last us long enough to come up with alternatives. The first thing we should do is to gradually raise the per price of bags up from a buck to some figure that has some realistic relationship to how much it costs the city to dispose of it.