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DA’s Nomination Sparks Speculation About 2014 Election; Recycling: New Eyes on Landfills; TED Talks About Shelburne Falls; Amherst Moves Ahead With Rental Permitting Program

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Tuesday, October 01, 2013
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DA’s Nomination Sparks Speculation About 2014 Election

Last week’s news that Hampden District Attorney Mark Mastroianni has been nominated for a federal judgeship wasn’t a big surprise; the DA had acknowledged last summer that he’d applied for the job.

But there are still some elements of mystery in the story—including when Mastroianni might move into the position, and who would step forward to fill his vacant DA position.

Mastroianni was nominated by the White House to serve as judge in the U.S. District Court in Springfield. The position has been open since 2011, when Judge Michael Ponsor reduced his hours by taking semi-retirement. Mastroianni was recommended for the job by Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

Mastroianni also has the backing of Ponsor, who told the Springfield Republican, “I have known and respected him for years, and I am positive that he will do an outstanding job as the new federal judge here.” Springfield lawyer John Pucci, meanwhile, praised the DA for being, like Ponsor, independent-minded. 

Indeed, Mastroianni shook up political expectations when he made his first bid for the seat in 2010 by running as an Independent. A veteran criminal defense attorney who’d begun his career in the Hampden DA’s office, Mastroianni had been a registered Democrat. But he chose to run as an Independent, he told the Advocate at the time, “not because I’m some kind of political rebel, but because I really think the district attorney position has nothing to do with politics, has nothing to do with party affiliation. … If I run as a pure Democrat, I’m married to party politics, I’m married to what their party line is.”

The decision to run as an Independent also allowed Mastroianni to bypass the crowded and contentious Democratic primary field, which included then-state Sen. Stephen Buoniconti and local attorneys Stephen Spelman, Michael Kogut, Brett Vottero and James Goodhines. And while he entered the race as the dark horse candidate, Mastroianni went on to a decisive victory over Buoniconti, the early favorite who imploded during the campaign. 

While Mastroianni is largely well regarded in Western Mass. legal circles, his decision to apply for the judgeship before finishing his first term as DA has inspired some grumbling. He also came under criticism from social justice activists over his office’s handling of the criminal case against Charles Wilhite, a Springfield man found guilty of a 2008 murder. Wilhite had been granted a new trial in 2012, after a key witness against him recanted his testimony. Wilhite’s supporters called for the DA to drop the charges; instead, the office took the case back to court and this time, Wilhite was found not guilty.

News of Mastroianni’s nomination was followed quickly by speculation about who will run for district attorney, with names of some of the unsuccessful candidates from 2010 among those in circulation. Assuming Mastroianni’s nomination is successful, Gov. Deval Patrick is expected to appoint an interim DA until next fall’s election. 

Mastroianni still needs to be approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee and then the full Senate before he can become a judge. And that can be a long process, as Jeffrey Kinder knows all too well. Kinder, a judge in Hampden Superior Court, had been the initial nominee for the federal spot, with the bipartisan backing of then-Sens. Scott Brown and John Kerry. But his nomination process dragged on, and earlier this year, he withdrew his name from consideration.•


Recycling: New Eyes on Landfills

They may be coming soon to a disposal site near you: new state inspectors looking for recyclables that are supposed be banned from landfills. As of this fall, the state Department of Environmental Protection has hired three new fulltime inspectors to make sure that paper, cardboard, cans and glass aren’t being dumped in waste disposal sites.

Their visits to disposal facilities all over the state will be unannounced.

And the state is requiring that operators of large landfills hire third-party inspectors to document loads of waste that contain too much recyclable material, and turn the information over to the DEP.

Recyclables have been officially banned from landfills since 1991, but for years there wasn’t enough manpower to check the flow of waste into disposal sites. Now the DEP is cracking down in order to reduce waste volumes in a state with very few active disposal sites left. By next summer, the amounts of such recyclables allowed in each truckload deposited in a landfill will be cut in half, from 20 percent to 10 percent.

Two developments last year prodded the DEP to hire the new inspectors. One was loud protest, particularly by Toxics Action Center and Clean Water Action Project, over a proposal by the state to lift a moratorium of 23 years’ standing on the building of new solid waste incinerators.

The other was the discovery by the South Hadley Board of Health that dozens of truckloads of paper, wood and plastic had been dumped in a regional landfill in South Hadley.

Then there are the constructive possibilities of resource recovery. Lynne Pledger of Clean Water Action, who advocates not just for recyling but re-use, sees a world of potential in the retrieval of the recyled material that now ends up in landfills. “Enforcing waste bans could bring about a sea change in recycling, with tons of paper, cardboard and plastics going into new products instead of being burned or buried,” she said when the new landfill inspection policy was announced.

The crackdown on recyclables in landfills is part of a DEP program that aims to reduce the state’s volumes of solid waste by 2050 to 20 percent of what they were in 1990. The state’s recycling program offers Valley communities another good reason to recycle: remuneration for the glass, metal, paper and other recyclables they send to the Materials Recyling Facility in Springfield based on the prices the various commodities bring on the market. In fiscal year 2012-2013, for example, Longmeadow got $48,874.11 for material it sent to the MRF; Holyoke, $44,880.86; Agawam $42,964.09; Greenfield, $39,627.32; and Northampton, $33,136.42.•

 

TED Talks About Shelburne Falls

Stacy Kontrabecki organized her first “TEDx” conference last year because she was eager to bring the TED conference phenomenon to her hometown of Shelburne Falls.

“Also,” she said, “I just wanted to throw a party and have all these cool people show up.”

TED, for those readers who’ve never ventured on to the Internet, is a series of international conferences and events organized by the nonprofit Sapling Foundation, whose motto is “ideas worth spreading.” Since 1984, the group has hosted conferences and events, where experts from various fields—science, public policy, entertainment, business—give talks in their area of expertise. While TED stands for “technology, entertainment, design,” over the years the range of material covered has expanded to cover art, education, psychology and other topics, with talks that resemble engaging storytelling more than dry academic lectures. For the past several years, talks from various TED events have been available for free on-line viewing at www.TED.com.

The TEDx concept goes one step further, allowing nonprofit organizations and individuals to organize TED events on the local level. This fall will see TEDx events in Springfield and Amherst, as well as an event Kontrabecki is organizing—or “curating,” in TEDspeak—at Shelburne Falls’ Memorial Hall on the weekend of Oct. 12 and 13.

Kontrabecki put together her first TEDx event last November. That event included a range of speakers, from fair-trade activist Dean Cycon, CEO of the Orange-based Dean’s Beans Organic Coffee Co., to June Millington, founder of the Institute for the Musical Arts, a school of rock for girls and women in Goshen.

While this year’s event will have a unifying theme—“A Sense of Place”—it will feature a diverse group of speakers, among them Sienna Wildfield, founder of the on-line community Hilltown Families, Adam Hinds, a Buckland native who works as a political adviser at the United Nations, Carlos Uriona, an actor and puppeteer with Ashfield’s Double Edge Theater, glass artist Josh Simpson of Shelburne Falls and singer Michelle Chamuel of Amherst, who earlier this year came in second place on The Voice.

Kontrabecki, who works as a forester, sees TEDx as an opportunity for members of her community to learn about and from each other. “Why I love this place is not just the rural beauty, the closeness to urban areas and culture. It’s also about how this place is built up and how people socialize,” she said. “I want to get together with my neighbors and talk about important things—not just view these interesting videos on line but come together to talk about things. It’s great to watch these videos, but where’s the social action afterward?”

Indeed, while the talks are at the center of the Shelburne Falls event (and they will, like all TED talks, be recorded for later viewing), Kontrabecki and her fellow organizers have also put together pre- and post-conference “adventures,” where participants can connect while exploring the region; options include several guided hikes, a botanical tour of the Bridge of Flowers and tours of the Ashfield Stone and Lamson and Goodnow cutlery factories. And, Kontrabecki points out, participants ought not miss the Ashfield Fall Festival, which takes place that same weekend.

For more information on the event, go to www.TEDxShelburneFalls.com. For information on other events coming up in the region, go to www.ted.com/tedx.• —MT

 

WSU Must Rein In President’s Spending

Westfield State University president Evan Dobelle recently had to answer to the university’s board of trustees for spending lavishly on trips to Europe and Asia with WSU credit cards (“Westfield State Spending Spree,” September 26, 2013), and he hasn’t had an easy time of it since then. Because Westfield State is a public university, the state Commissioner of Higher Education and Inspector General have been looking at the numbers, and their reaction is highly critical of Dobelle.

After state officials had deliberated about $12,000 in hotel charges from Bangkok, $20,069 for staff and students to regale themselves at President Obama’s 2008 inaugural, and other indulgences on the university’s dime, the IG wrote John Flynn III, chairman of the WSU Board of Trustees:

• “President Dobelle and others used credit cards for personal expenditures, in violation of WSU policy;

• “Westfield State Foundation, Inc. (“Foundation”) funds were used indiscriminately with little or no consideration for the mission or financial viability of the Foundation;

and

• “Various expenses identified in the Report appear to be in violation of WSU’s standard of ‘reasonable and not excessive’ for business-related expenses.”

The IG also wrote that Dobelle’s claims about the positive results of the travel that gave rise to the expenditures included some misleading information. For example, according to the IG, Dobelle said that WSU had recruited 123 “international” students “from over 50 countries” for the current school year, but most of those students were actually Massachusetts residents who paid in-state tuition, though they were of foreign origin.

The IG has given strict orders to WSU to monitor Dobelle’s spending.

From 2001 to 2004, Dobelle served as president of the University of Hawaii, and left there under a cloud because of extravagant spending. At both institutions, however, Dobelle has defenders as well as detractors. At Westfield State, some trustees and some students have stated that they felt that the school gained not only in endowment but in scope and sophistication from Dobelle’s work. “We used to be a sleepy little school; now we’re like a private university, Tracey Pinto, WSU class of 1985, told the Springfield Republican.

Dobelle, who holds bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees from UMass-Amherst, was Chief of Protocol to the White House during the administration of President Jimmy Carter.• —SK

 

Amherst Moves Ahead With Rental Permitting Program

Officials in Amherst, where the rental market is red-hot because of a large student presence, are dead serious about the new Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods program. The program requires for the first time that rental units be registered and have permits, and that tenants be informed of the responsibility of their landlords to keep properties up to code. It goes into effect Jan. 1, 2014.

Under the program, landlords must answer questions about their properties and certify that they meet codes. If violations occur and repairs are not made, the town will have a right to charge a fine and, in extreme cases, suspend or revoke the owner’s permit to rent the unit or units in question. Over the last few years, more and more houses in town have been purchased by people who have turned them into rental properties. The program will require absentee landlords—owners living in the Boston area, for example—to have a local employee to keep an eye on the units.

During the summer, Building Commissioner Robert Morra marshalled assessors’ records and other sources to inventory the number of units in town. Morra found 1,570 property owners in possession of a total of 5,265 rental units, from well-maintained town house apartments in large complexes to one-family houses sliced and diced into lodgings. That’s more than the town can inspect on a routine basis, but Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods should help focus more attention on safety concerns than they have received in the past.

One example: “Fire escapes are very, very concerning to me,” Morra said. “The code requires that a fire escape be inspected every five years. Amherst has not had that program. We are definitely starting this program, and this will grow as years ago by and Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods keeps going.”

The next step, he said, will be to set the permitting fee and decide whether it should be assessed per unit or per property. In the end, it will be the selectboard that determines the fee, not Morra’s office, and Morra said he doesn’t care how the payment is assessed. “All I’m worried about,” he said, “is that it supports my program.”• —SK

 

Walking Against AIDS

 

For over 15 years, the AIDS Foundation of Western Massachusetts has held its annual Walk/5k Run and Festival to raise support for the Springfield-based organization and those it serves. This year’s event, however, is being held later in the year than usual in the hope of enticing more college-aged participants.

“Since half of all new HIV infections in the United States occur in people under 25 years old and younger,” AFWM Executive Director Jessica R. Crevier explains in a press release, “this is an important demographic … to connect with.”

There are over 50,000 new cases of HIV infection reported in the U.S. each year, according to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control), with almost 15,000 deaths every year attributed to AIDS-related illnesses.

The CDC ranked Massachusetts tenth highest out of all 50 states for reported AIDS cases in 2005. Four years later, in 2009 alone, more than 30,000 Bay Staters were infected with HIV.

“As of December 31, 2009, there were 1,929 individuals living with HIV/AIDS in Hampden and Hampshire counties,” reads AFWM’s website (www.aidsfoundationwm.org). “This includes 1,118 in the city of Springfield alone.”

This year’s 5k for AFWM will begin downtown, at Riverfront Park. “The new venue will create more visibility for … our mission,” continues Crevier. “We are eager to raise awareness by walking through the streets of the North End, where so many people that we support reside.”

After the walk/run, there will be a festival with live music and a free barbecue lunch. Confidential HIV testing will be offered at no cost to all members of the community. See www.aidsfoundationwm.org for details.•

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