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Boys on Tape; Neighboring Towns Seek Voice on Casino Plans; From Romneycare to Obamacare; Is Brown Looking North?; Chinese Chicken; Pasta Amore

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Tuesday, October 08, 2013
photo courtesy of www.hush
Holyoke city councilors Dan Bresnehan (left) and Todd McGee

Boys on Tape

Open mics catch Holyoke city councilors discussing alternatives to Walmart, the perils of garlic and the appeal of pregnant women.

There’s an old adage about the power of the media—never pick a fight with a man who buys ink by the barrel—that probably warrants a 21st-century update: never pick a fight with a man with strong tech skills and a wide social-media network.

That, presumably, is a lesson Holyoke City Councilors Dan Bresnahan and Todd McGee learned recently, after some interesting small talk they engaged in before the start of last week’s Council meeting went viral.

The two old friends were chatting as they waited for the meeting to begin. Unfortunately for—and unbeknownst to—them, the public-access TV microphones were already on.

Even more unfortunate for them: resident James Bickford, an activist and keeper of the website h.u.s.h. (Holyoke Underground Social Humorists), caught the whole thing, then posted both the audio and a transcript on the site (www.hush.fluxmass.org.)

Within hours, the post had been tweeted, retweeted, Facebooked, emailed and otherwise disseminated among politics watchers and newshounds throughout the Valley. Before long, Bresnahan and McGee found themselves issuing public apologies.

The exchange begins with Bresnahan and McGee apparently discussing an item on that night’s agenda seeking a zone change at the Whiting Farms Road parcel where, until recently, Walmart had hoped to build a new store. A few weeks ago, the company dropped that plan, which had been opposed by many residents (including Bickford, a member of a coalition that formed to fight the project):

Bresnahan: I wanna put a Walmart there. And a casino …

McGee: Roll the dice, baby.

Bresnahan: … and a strip club.

Here, Bresnahan takes a moment to offer this disclaimer to McGee: “If you smell garlic, it is me, there is no doubt about it. I am just telling you right now.”

Then the two discuss one of their colleagues, City Councilor Rebecca Lisi, who is pregnant, as she passes by:

Bresnahan: That’s gotta be uncomfortable, the way she’s carrying.

McGee: She’s due today. Today’s her due date.

Bresnahan: I still don’t really see that glow in her face like most pregnant women I’m attracted to. She’s just not doing it for me. But your wife, on the other hand – whoa ho, boy, when she was pregnant! [McGee’s wife is fellow City Councilor and City Clerk candidate Brenna McGee.]

McGee: I’m not gonna lie to you, I was pleasantly surprised. Anyone want a Twizzler?

A few moments later, the councilors’ attention turns to Bickford, who’s in the audience that evening:

Bresnahan: Bickford?

McGee: Yeah.

Bresnahan: I saw him.

McGee: Look at him, man .... How did MassMutual hire that? What the fuck were they thinking?

Bresnahan: Just keep an eye on him when they do the Pledge of Allegiance, because he doesn’t fucking—he sits down. Naw, I’m telling you, he’s a fucking communist.

McGee and Bresnahan released their written apologies to the Springfield Republican, which printed them in full.

McGee’s was the longer and more comprehensive of the two; he apologized to Lisi and her husband and wished their new family “nothing but the very best.” He also apologized to his own wife, calling her his “partner in life and [his] best friend” and avowing his love and respect for her and their own child.

Bresnahan didn’t apologize to Lisi or Brenna McGee specifically; rather, he offered a blanket apology to “my constituents, my colleagues and to anyone who may have construed my very sarcastic comments as true to my beliefs.” He also said that his comments “were not in any way, shape or form meant in malice. It was simply two friends of over 20 years that were raised in Holyoke joking around before City Council business began. It was not meant to be offensive.”

The bulk of Bresnahan’s comments focused on Bickford, whom he accused of making “every effort to disgrace previous and current city councilors at every turn.” He also said he found it “offensive” that Bickford does not recite the Pledge of Allegiance, adding, for good measure: “I doubt that the thousands of American veterans who were and are buried by the American flag would refer to the Pledge of Allegiance as ‘a prayer to an object’ as was stated by Mr. Bickford.”

McGee, too, addressed Bickford in his apology, although not by name. Instead, he referred to the “individual” who released the transcript, accused him of taking the conversation “out of context” and questioned that individual’s “motives.”

Lisi, meanwhile, rejected Bresnahan’s apology in a statement in which she noted that “this is not the first time Bresnahan has lobbed insulting or inappropriate comments at me or my husband,” Damian Cote, who works as Holyoke’s building commissioner.

“The occurrence speaks to Bresnahan’s character, which he clearly exposed to the Holyoke community through his comments,” Lisi said. “He not only owes me and every other mother, or mother-to-be, an apology, but he also owes the Holyoke community at large an apology for the detrimental representation of our city that his actions portray to surrounding communities—especially when there are so many of us working hard every day to create a more positive image of Holyoke.”

Lisi went on to add that she hopes Holyoke voters won’t re-elect Bresnahan to the City Council in November.•


Neighboring Towns Seek Voice on Casino Plans

Last month, West Springfield voters rejected bringing a casino into their town, defeating Hard Rock’s plan to build at the site of the Big E by a 55-to-45-percent split.

Next, West Side residents will have the chance to weigh on MGM’s proposed casino just across the river in Springfield’s South End.

West Springfield’s Town Council voted last week to put a non-binding referendum on the Nov. 5 ballot that will ask, “Do you support the placement of a gaming establishment licensed by the Massachusetts Gaming Commission to be located in the city of Springfield?”

Councilors behind the question say residents deserve to have input on a potential Springfield casino since its effects will reach them, too. In particular, they expressed concern about the amount of mitigation money—$500,000, to be divided among several neighboring communities—offered by MGM.

Residents of Longmeadow also will weigh in on the Springfield plan in a Nov. 5 Town Meeting referendum. That question, backed by casino opponents, calls on the Mass. Gaming Commission not to grant a casino license in Springfield. (The question initially addressed Hard Rock’s West Springfield proposal as well; that issue is now moot, however, after voters there failed to give the plan the required local approval.)

Meanwhile, officials in Monson are concerned about the casino proposal in their neck of the woods: Mohegan Sun’s project in neighboring Palmer. Jeff Fialky, an attorney for the Springfield firm Bacon & Wilson who is representing the town, has written to Mohegan Sun and the Gaming Commission protesting what he describes as the exclusion of town officials from discussions about that plan. “To date, no … meaningful meetings or discussions have occurred despite Monson’s request,” he wrote.

Fialky also objected to the fact that the casino company and the Gaming Commission have met privately with the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission about possible regional effects of a casino—an approach, he wrote, that circumvents individual towns’ ability to address their unique concerns and needs.

“The Town of Monson has well-founded apprehensions regarding the Mohegan Sun project, and fully expects that it will undertake all actions necessary to identify and quantify adverse impacts,” the attorney wrote. “The Town fully expects that Mohegan Sun will devote time and resources necessary to discuss these matters directly with the Town.”• —MT

 

Massachusetts: From Romneycare to Obamacare

On Oct. 1, the first day of registration for insurance under the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, 1,300 consumers in Massachusetts began the process of applying for health insurance. In a state where 97 percent of residents are now covered because of the 2006 state law requiring them to be insured, some will now have to shift to different programs, while others will find it easier to get coverage because of more generous provisions in the federal program.

For example, the state program offered subsidized coverage to residents whose income was up to three times poverty level ($34,370 for an individual, $70,650 for a family of four). The federal program now makes people and families with incomes up to four times the poverty level ($45,960 for an individual, $94,200 for a family of four) eligible for subsidies. For a family of four, nearly $24,000 is a hefty difference.

Some 40,000 people in Massachusetts who previously had not qualified for subsidized coverage are now eligible for it under Obamacare.

And the expansion of Medicaid (MassHealth) in Massachusetts under the Affordable Care Act is expected to extend eligibility for coverage to 45,000 people in the commonwealth who depend for their income on low-wage jobs. At the same time, about 100,000 will be moved into MassHealth from the subsidized Commonwealth Care program.

Also at issue is the question of penalties for those who are not exempt from the individual mandate to purchase insurance, but don’t enroll. This year the state penalty for nonenrollment is up to $106 per month for an individual (there is no penalty for people whose income is 150 percent of poverty level or less). Next year there will be federal penalties, but those who opt out won’t face double penalties; the federal penalty they must pay will be deducted from the state penalty.

The Affordable Care Act requires that everyone who cannot claim an exemption have health insurance coverage by Jan. 1, 2014. In Massachusetts, residents can apply for coverage through the Health Connector that was created when the state launched its own program in 2006: https://www.mahealthconnector.info/portal/site/connector. Health Care for All operates a help line that offers one-on-one assistance in English, Spanish and Portuguese to people trying to choose a plan; call 1-800-272-4232.

In Vermont, applications are taken at https://portal.healthconnect.vermont.gov/VTHBELand/welcome.action. Individual assistance is available in the Brattleboro area through the Blueprint for Health Team at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital, (802) 257-8814, 17 Belmont Avenue, Brattleboro, Vt. 05301.•

 

Is Brown Looking North?

Scott Brown didn’t have a whole lot to say when Republican reporter Shira Schoenberg called him up one day last week.

Schoenberg was calling the former Massachusetts senator and one-time GOP It Boy to ask him about the news that he’s selling his house in Wrentham. (If you’re interested, the asking price for the 3,020-square-foot, four-bedroom home is $559,900.)

Brown declined to discuss the decision. “I’m a private citizen now, and it’s personal,” he told Schoenberg before hanging up.

Surely, though, by now Brown is used to such close scrutiny of his every move—especially those moves that might be read as giving credence to mounting rumors that he plans to run for the Senate once again, but this time as a resident of New Hampshire. Brown’s fans and Democratic foes alike have been closely monitoring his every public appearance in that state (and there have been quite a few of late), looking for signals that Brown, who was elected to the Senate from Massachusetts in 2010 and then lost the seat to Elizabeth Warren in 2012, is ready to get back into the game.

The idea that Brown might move north to run for the Senate is not especially far fetched. For one thing, he already owns a second home in New Hampshire. And, more important, the moderate, populist appeal that helped him deliver that stunning 2010 upset to Democrat Martha Coakley, the presumed heir to the Senate seat vacated by the death of Ted Kennedy, would likely play well with much of the New Hampshire electorate.

Brown’s presumed New Hampshire rival, Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen, is certainly taking the threat of a Brown candidacy seriously—and taking the opportunity to beef up her campaign war chest. Late last month, Shaheen sent an email to supporters noting Brown’s frequent visits to her state and warning, “We cannot afford to underestimate him. Just like he did in his 2012 race against Elizabeth Warren, Brown would bring tens of millions in support from Wall Street and Tea Party billionaires.

“We can be certain Karl Rove and Brown’s other advisers are going to watch our quarterly fundraising totals closely—they’ll do anything to take control of the Senate. We have to show we’re ready for whatever they throw our way,” continued the note, which asked for campaign contributions “to help us make sure we’re ready to overcome attacks from Brown and right-wing Super PACs.”

Shaheen’s message was forwarded by Warren’s chief of staff, Mindy Myers, to supporters of the Massachusetts senator, with a note reading, “Believe it or not, our old friend Scott Brown is considering a move north to New Hampshire to run against Senator Shaheen in 2014. ... Let’s show Scott Brown: If he decides to run against Jeanne Shaheen, we’ll be there once again to stop him.”

The Mass. GOP promptly filed an ethics complaint, alleging that Myers had violated campaign finance laws by sending out the fund-raising email on government time, from “what appears to be a government office.” Warren’s office said the message had been sent by a private vendor, without the use of government resources.

A few days later, at a New Hampshire fundraiser (for other candidates), Brown didn’t address whether he plans to run for office there but did tell reporters that Shaheen’s employing his name as a potential threat to raise money was “shameful” and that she should have been devoting her time instead to “addressing the government shutdown problem.”

Of course, there are other reasons an ambitious pol might start showing up in New Hampshire—and in Iowa, where Brown has also made some recent appearances. Certainly, his visits to those key states on the presidential campaign trail have stirred up speculation that Brown might have his eye on a higher office than senator.• —MT

 

The USDA’s Dangerous New Food Safety Game: Chinese Chicken

In the Valley, the movement to expand the range of products grown locally developed largely in response to the idea that sooner or later the price of energy would cut off food supplies from the West and Midwest, or make food transported for such long distances prohibitively expensive.

But other issues continue to furnish that movement additional justification. Contaminated food scares are one. Another is information about how fertilizer runoffs from large vegetable farms, and manure from meat farms, are poisoning large bodies of water.

Another is potential water shortages in other parts of the country; the High Plains Aquifer, for example, which feeds crops in eight Midwestern states, will lose 70 percent of its water within 50 years if water use isn’t reduced, according to a Kansas State University study.

Now there’s another good reason to buy a locally grown product from someone you can talk to about how it’s raised. The product in question is chicken. The U.S. Department of Agriculture quietly announced late in August that it would allow Chinese companies to export American-grown chicken that’s made into cooked products in China—chicken soup, chicken nuggets—back to the U.S. without labeling. Some food safety advocates believe it’s only a matter of time until uncooked chicken from China will be allowed into American grocery stores.

“There’s irony here in that here we have local farms growing incredibly delicious, tasty, safe low-energy-intensive chicken for consumption, and yet what we have is a national policy change that will enable chicken to be processed abroad and return to the U.S., traveling thousands of miles, because workers in China are not paid as much,” said Phil Korman, executive director of CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture).

CISA has monitored and assisted the movement to expand the number of food products grown in Western Massachusetts and sold directly to consumers through farmers’ markets and farm shares [“Local Heroes,” August 28, 2013].

Food safety advocates have vowed to fight the new rule about Chinese chicken because of lower food safety standards in China. For years Americans have heard about food-related disasters there; the litany includes rice contaminated with heavy metals, soybeans laced with carcinogens, exploding watermelons, and toxically contaminated vinegar. In the U.S., contaminated Chinese ingredients in pet food killed thousands of dogs and cats in 2007, and last year salmonella in jerky treats killed pets.

Chicken has other problems that don’t originate in China. It spends a lot of time in what’s known informally as “fecal soup” in American packing plants that process hundreds of thousands of birds per day. In those plants, feces from the intestines of slaughtered birds contaminates the water they’re soaked in, as well as counters and tools.

The growing meat industry in the Valley, which produces chicken as well as beef, pork and lamb, offers consumers here another choice. The Valley not only has farmers who raise animals for meat, but slaughtering facilities, including a mobile poultry processing unit operated by the New England Small Farm Institute in Belchertown. A list of farms that offer meat and meat shares can be found at http://www.buylocalfood.org/buy-local/find-local/csa-farm-listing/.• —SK

 

Pasta Amore

It cannot be said for certain that Guido Barilla enjoys the music of Frank Sinatra. What is apparent, however, is that his recent comment about his desire to use only straight families in his company’s commercials has become a major ingredient in the simmering worldwide dialogue concerning love and marriage.

In a recent interview with an Italian radio station, Barilla, the CEO of the fourth-generation family-owned pasta company, said he “would never make a [commercial] with a homosexual family,” the Italian news agency ANSA reports. “Not out of a lack of respect but because I do not see it like they do. (My idea of) family is a classic family where the woman has a fundamental role.”

Not surprisingly, a sizable pasta-eating demographic took exception to the news that Barilla prefers his noodling straight, as both members and allies of the LGBTQ community called for a boycott of the company’s blue-boxed pasta.

Several petitions were posted to Change.org, including one by Linda Ferraro, whose son, Rich Ferraro, is communications president for the LGBTQ advocacy group GLAAD. At press time, Ferraro’s petition asking Stop and Shop to “stop carrying anti-gay pasta” had received 9,000 signatures from supporters.

Additionally, an open letter asking for Barilla’s apology was posted at Change.org by Nobel Prize-winning Italian actor Daniel Fo, who had at one time appeared in a Barilla ad. That petition has garnered 52,000 signatures, reports USA Today.

Quick to jump into the open marketplace opportunity, competing pasta company Buitoni offered its support for gay and lesbians by posting the slogan “Pasta for all” on its Facebook page. And Bertolli, which in 2009 ran a television commercial featuring two men sharing a pasta dinner and bottle of wine while cuddling together on the couch, added the phrase “Love and pasta for all” to its progressive marketing efforts.

The Advocate (the magazine of “gay news, LGBT rights, politics, entertainment”) published a list of “Six Scrumptious Pro-Gay Pastas,” including not only Bertolli and Buitoni, but Kraft Macaroni and Cheese as well (which gets a perfect score of 100 on the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index, which tracks company benefits for LGBT employees, the Advocate reports).

Rather than doubling down on his comments amid the increasing backlash, Guido Barilla decided to issue an apology.

“Through my entire life I have always respected every person I’ve met, including gays and their families, without distinction,” Barilla says in a video posted at his company’s website (www.barillagroup.com). “I’ve heard the countless reactions around the world to my words, which have depressed and saddened me. It is clear that I have a lot to learn about the lively debate concerning the evolution of the family.”

It is not clear what specific lesson Barilla is speaking of, but maybe Barilla, Bertolli and Buitoni are all reacting to the sound of money, and are married, first and foremost, to their market share.•

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