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Dobelle: A Flash in the Sky, a Crash on the Ground; Legalized Pot in 2016?; Bill to Help Holyoke Move Beyond Coal Plant; Hadley Solar Project

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Tuesday, November 19, 2013
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Evan Dobelle

Dobelle: A Flash in the Sky, a Crash on the Ground

Evan Dobelle has retired from his post as president of Westfield State University. But as of now, his retirement has not written an end either to the suit he filed against the school’s board of trustees, its attorneys and state higher education commissioner Richard Freeland, or to two state investigations of his alleged reckless spending of tens of thousands of dollars in WSU funds (“Westfield State Torn Apart Over Dobelle’s Spending,” October 22, 2013).

(Freeland became a defendant in the suit because he publicly called Dobelle’s spending “seemingly excessive and indulgent.” He also suspended $2 million in state funds that were to have gone for a new science building for the school.)

Dobelle, a UMass-Amherst grad with a degree in public administration from Harvard, has had an exceptionally mixed career. He rose from being mayor of Pittsfield to serving as White House Chief of Protocol with the rank of ambassador under President Jimmy Carter, whom he met when Carter was campaigning in Pittsfield.

Dobelle turned to academics and headed several colleges, including Trinity College in Hartford, where, according to some who recall his tenure there, he showed decided talent for administration and community outreach. Among his accomplishments, for example, was a $112 million development project in the neighborhood where Trinity is located that transformed a rundown bus terminal into the site of four public schools and a Boys and Girls Club. Trinity itself blossomed with new buildings and programs, but within a few years after Dobelle’s departure found itself with heavy debts dating from his time in office.

In 2001, Dobelle became president of the University of Hawaii. His tenure there ended three years later with an ironic foreshadowing of his final days at Westfield State: he spent university money improperly, according to other UH officials; was challenged; sued the school; and left with a $1.6 million settlement and other perks.

At Westfield State, Dobelle presided over the school’s transition from state college to state university in 2010. He did it in the grand manner, spending, for example, $10,000 on tickets to Tanglewood as treats for potential donors; laying out $978 for a group lunch in Stockbridge, at the Red Lion Inn; and paying $8,000 for a four-night billet at a hotel in Bangkok. He claimed later that upgrading the school necessitated travel and social activities in the U.S. and abroad in order to recruit foreign students and new donors. (Dobelle said that he paid back money he used for purely personal expenses for himself and his family.)

Also during his tenure in Westfield, in a style reminiscent of his time at Trinity, Dobelle went for community outreach in a big way, reeling in Gloria Steinem and other celebrities for a speakers’ series with free admission that brought in crowds but left the Westfield State Foundation with a bill for half a million dollars in two years (2009 and 2010).

And records show that during the years Dobelle served as president, Westfield State was the least successful of all the commonwealth’s former state colleges in building its endowment.

Dobelle resigned last week amid expressions of relief from students and others who said the school needed a new start. He had received an annual salary of $240,920, and will likely be eligible for a pension of $90,000 a year. He was placed on paid leave after receiving a no-confidence vote from the school’s faculty and staff on October 16, and sued immediately afterward, claiming that the trustees had violated his contract by putting him on leave, even with pay. Even as he was forming plans to sue, however, he was trying to drive a deal that would allow him to resign and then return as a tenured faculty member after a paid sabbatical. The trustees would not agree.

As Dobelle presses on with his litigation against Westfield State, the Massachusetts Inspector General and Attorney General continue to scrutinize his spending and focus on whether he obtained any money for personal or travel expenses by misrepresentation, in which case he could be forced to pay damages to the state. Meanwhile, his lawyer is billing Westfield State for the legal services he has furnished Dobelle until now on the grounds that the school’s bylaws require it to pay legal expenses for its officers. The Advocate was unable to reach Dobelle for comment.•

 

Who Wants to Be a Pot Clinic Finalist?

On Nov. 21, Massachusetts will take a giant step toward what may be a revolution in the treatment of painful illnesses when the final round of applications from parties wishing to set up medical marijuana dispensaries reaches the state Department of Public Health. After the DPH vets these applications, licenses for 35 dispensaries will be granted Jan. 31. The law provides for a minimum of one and a maximum of five in each county.

In the Valley, 21 applications—five each in Hampshire and Franklin counties and 11 in Hampden County—passed the first stage of the process and were approved by the DPH in September. One in Hampshire and one in Franklin County, including one from Bay State Alternative Health Care (not related to Baystate Health Systems), was rejected by the state. The financial bar is set high for prospective licensees, who must have $500,000 in liquid capital and must pass background checks, including criminal checks.

Last week, at the eleventh hour of the second stage of the process, evidence surfaced that federal law against marijuana is having a chilling effect here even though Massachusetts law now permits the dispensaries. In Hampshire County, Susan Stubbs, CEO of ServiceNet and head of Farm House Compassionate Care, told the local press that Farm House may withdraw its application because the Massachusetts law that enables marijuana dispensaries seems to be in conflict with federal law, which still bans marijuana, and it’s not clear that people who establish dispensaries here would be immune from federal penalties. Farm House had applied to establish a dispensary in Hampshire County and another in Hampden County.

The hopeful licensees in the Valley come from a wide range of professional interests, from social services, like ServiceNet, to agriculture, retail and even law. One group still in the running is Debilitating Medical Condition Treatment Centers Inc., which includes Herbie Flores, head of a cluster of Hampden County social service agencies, and former state Senate minority leader Brian P. Lees. Former Hampden County district attorney William Bennett is the company’s lawyer. A license would give Flores, who as president of the New England Farm Workers’ Council is a key figure in the redevelopment of the Paramount Theater and has business interests in other Springfield properties, a virtual empire.

Organizations that will operate medical dispensaries must grow their own marijuana in secure, lockable spaces with closed camera surveillance. The marijuana they grow must be pesticide-free and organic, and must meet standards for potency.

The law that enabled marijuana dispensaries in Massachusetts prohibits towns from refusing to host them, but towns can enact moratoriums that delay the siting of the dispensaries until the towns develop siting criteria. As prospective dispensary operators have been moving through the licensing process, almost one-third of Massachusetts towns have instituted temporary moratoriums. In the Valley, those towns include Springfield, Westfield, Ludlow, Longmeadow, East Longmeadow, Palmer, Hampden, Wilbraham, Hadley, Hatfield, Chester, Williamsburg, Whately and Erving. The moratoriums are heating up competition for spaces in the towns, such as Northampton and Deerfield, where dispensaries can be sited without delays.• —SK

 

Legalized Pot in 2016?

On the heels of the legalization of medical marijuana in the state, drug policy reformers have turned their attention to their next goal: the full legalization of pot, including for recreational use.

Earlier this month, a group called Bay State Repeal announced a campaign to have a legalization question before voters on the 2016 ballot. While the specifics of the ballot question are yet to be determined, the group is aiming for a straightforward bill that avoids onerous levels of regulation and associated costs, Bill Downing, a committee member and treasurer of the Mass. Cannabis Reform Coalition, told the Advocate.

Downing suggested that marijuana could be regulated in the same way other retail and agricultural products are, without the need to establish a separate, complex regulatory system. “We don’t want to reinvent the wheel here,” he said. “What we don’t want to see is the state creating new bureaucracy. We don’t want to see the state having a reason to need to recoup a lot of expenses from either cannabis consumers or cannabis producers.” That’s what happened with the medical-marijuana law, Downing continued, pointing, for example, to the fees charged to patients and dispensary owners and the security provisions required at dispensaries.

In recent years, a bill, drafted by Northampton attorney and reform activist Dick Evans, has been filed with the state Legislature that would legalize pot, with its sale taxed and regulated by the state similarly to the way alcohol sales are. (The bill has never come to a vote.) It’s too early to say if Bay State Repeal’s ballot question would involve a tax on marijuana sales, Downing said. “But if we’re keeping to the KISS [keep it simple, stupid] principle, there are not a lot of reasons we can see why the state needs to have its fingers in the sale of cannabis,” he said.

With almost three years to go before the 2016 election, Bay State Repeal has lots of time to fine tune its ballot question, which it plans to do with the aid of non-binding public policy questions in the 2014 ballot—for instance, determining whether voters would be more likely to support 18 or 21 years as the age at which a person could legally buy marijuana.

The Massachusetts activists are also looking at the precedent set in Colorado and Washington state, where voters legalized recreational marijuana last year—but not necessarily as models to follow, Downing said. “Those states’ [laws] are the kinds of examples of the kinds of traps we’re trying to avoid here,” he said. For instance, while Downing likes that the Colorado law allows people to grow their own cannabis plants, he objects to a cap that limits the number of plants to six per person. “That’s still thinking in the old-fashioned way,” he said. “It’s still thinking in the ‘reefer madness’ way”—that marijuana is a dangerous plant that needs to be tightly controlled.

The Washington law, meanwhile, does not allow any home growing—a provision, Downing said, that ends up supporting a black market for marijuana. “If we’re serious about marijuana reform, one of the biggest goals should be to destroy the black market,” which is “taking money out of the legitimate above-ground economy,” he said. That’s especially problematic, he continued, when the marijuana bought on the black market comes not from a local farmer but from, say, Mexico. “That’s really bad. That’s going into the hands of international syndicate criminals. Those are probably just about the most evil people in the whole wide world.”

If recent polls are any indication, Bay State Repeal has reason to be optimistic about its campaign. According to a national Gallup poll released last month, 58 percent of respondents said they support legalizing marijuana, up from 50 percent in 2011. Democrats (65 percent) and Independents (62 percent) were much more likely to support the idea than Republicans (35 percent).

In Massachusetts, the medical marijuana question passed last year with the approval of 63 percent of voters. Four years earlier, 65 percent of Massachusetts voters supported decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of pot.•

 

Bill Would Help Holyoke Move Beyond Coal Plant

The state Legislature held a hearing last week on a bill that would help communities that host coal-burning power plants once those plants close—a list that environmentalists hope will include Holyoke before long.

Earlier this year, GDF Suez, owner of the Mount Tom power plant, applied to ISO New England, which oversees the region’s electric market, to halt power production in 2016. While the company has declined to outline its long-term plans, many observers see the move as the first step toward shuttering the 53-year-old plant, which has long been criticized as a major pollutant.

Of the other coal plants in the state, the Brayton Point Power Station in Somerset is due to be retired in 2017, while the Salem Harbor Station plant is slated to close next year. That leaves Mount Tom the sole coal plant in the state without a retirement date.

The bill, filed by state Rep Lori Ehrlich (D-Marblehead), calls for the elimination of coal-generated power by 2020, with the state Department of Energy Resources adopting a plan for replacing the energy produced in those plants with “clean energy alternatives.” The DER would also set up a fund to provide transitional support for plant employees and the economic development support for the communities affected by their closures, including the loss of property taxes paid by plant owners. Plant operators would pay into the fund a “community transitioning fee” based on the amount of carbon dioxide their plants generate.

The bill’s co-sponsors include state Reps. Peter Kocot (D-Northampton), Denise Andrews (D-Orange), John Scibak (D-South Hadley), Ellen Story (D-Amherst), Stephen Kulik (D-Worthington), Paul Mark (D-Peru) and Aaron Vega (D-Holyoke).

Members of the coalition group Coal Free Massachusetts were among those testifying before the legislative Joint Committee on Telecommunication, Utilities and Energy last week. The group included Carlos Rodriguez, a Holyoke resident and member of the community group Neighbor to Neighbor, who said in a prepared statement that he joined the campaign in part because of the time he’s spent in the emergency room with his wife, who suffers from asthma. The last time the couple was there, he said, he conducted an informal survey and found that of the 18 people waiting for care, 10 were there for treatment for asthma-related problems. “The coal plant had its function years ago, but coal is no longer feasible nor healthy for our communities,” he said.• —MT

 

Hadley Solar Project Moves Forward

 

The electricity that helps power the town of Hadley is about to become a bit greener and a bit cheaper.

Earlier this fall, the town of Hadley entered into a partnership with Hampshire Solar, a program provided by the Hampshire Council of Governments, and Nexamp, a Massachusetts-based company, to build a series of solar panels to help meet the town’s energy needs. These panels will be placed on Allard’s Farm, located on Mill Valley Road, and are expected to come online in January. Last month the town approved a designation of commercial use for the Allard property, and at press time construction was expected to begin any day.

A small town without major power-guzzling industries, Hadley nevertheless has a few large users, town administrator David Nixon told the Daily Collegian. Besides the town’s own schools and wastewater treatment plant, UMass’s Mullins Center is located in Hadley, just over the line from Amherst, and is a heavy user.

The project is expected to save the town approximately $25,000 per year, or half a million dollars over the next 20 years.

Nexamp has completed similar projects in towns across Massachusetts, including installations on the roofs of four public schools in Acton. According to the website for Acton Public Schools, that series of panels has provided “5 percent of the district’s electricity with an annual savings of roughly $32,000, and a reduction in 300,000 pounds of CO2 emissions per year.”

The Hadley project will generate 3 megawatts of power, adding to the 347 megawatts of solar energy already produced in Massachusetts; 324 of the 347 megawatts come from projects installed since 2010.

 

Talk About a Not-So-Fresh Feeling...

They’re referred to by the euphemism “intimate products” for a reason: tampons, maxi pads, douches and all manner of gauzily described “feminine hygiene” products end up in an awfully sensitive part of a woman’s body. And that should be the cause of grave concern, according to a new report released by a coalition of environmental and public health organizations.

“Women are told [these products] are necessary for personal hygiene, a ‘fresher feeling,’ or ‘greater confidence,’ and the companies marketing these products imply that this improved cleanliness will promote good health and increase sex appeal,” wrote Alexandra Scranton of Women’s Voices for the Earth, which conducted the study, called “Chem Fatale: Potential Health Effects of Toxic Chemicals in Feminine Care Products.”

But, Scranton continued, “A closer look at the impacts of these products, and the chemicals they contain, tell a much different story. Products intended for use on or in an incredibly absorbent part of a woman’s body are marketed and sold with little to no data assuring the ingredients they contain are safe.”

The report addresses the potentially dangerous components commonly used in feminine products, including bleaching agents, chemical fragrances and dyes, parabens and other hormone-disrupting chemicals. These substances are connected to a range of health concerns, among them, cancer, allergic reactions and reproductive disorders. (The full report can be found at www.womensvoices.org.)

The chemicals pose a particular risk, the report says, because vaginal and vulval tissue are more permeable than the skin elsewhere on the body and therefore are especially vulnerable to absorbing potential toxins. And, the report adds, douches, feminine wipes and sprays and similar products are considered medically unnecessary; indeed, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends that women avoid douches, scented tampons and pads and products such as sprays and powders.

Women’s Voices for the Earth released the report with the Alliance for a Healthy Tomorrow, a group that includes Clean Water Action. Elizabeth Saunders, director of Clean Water Action of Massachusetts, told the Advocate that part of the problem is the lack of regulation of these products. Feminine wipes and cleansers, for instance, are classified as cosmetics and therefore fall under the jurisdiction of neither the Food and Drug Administration nor the Environmental Protection Agency. Tampons and pads, meanwhile, are considered medical devices, and their makers do not have to disclose their ingredients.

“These products are unregulated, as are way too many products,” Saunders said. And while there has been increased public demand in recent years for better regulation of certain consumer items, such as baby bottles and other kids’ products, these women’s products have received little if any attention—in part, Saunders suggested, due to a societal discomfort: “Things like anti-itch creams and douches are not really part of polite conversation.” One motivation behind the “Chem Fatale” report, Saunders said, “was to break the silence around this category.”

The report also revealed that certain women are more at risk than others: for instance, douching is a more common practice among women of lower socioeconomic status, and more common among Latina and African-American women than white women. Women of color are also more likely to use wipes, sprays and powders than white women. Why these products are more popular with some groups than others warrants additional research, Saunders said. But regardless of the causes, “that means that this is a major environmental justice issue,” she said.

In conjunction with the report, Women’s Voices for the Earth has launched a consumer campaign to demand more government regulation of feminine-care products. The effort focuses specifically on Proctor & Gamble, a giant in the field, calling on the company to disclose the components used in its products and to eliminate toxins. (The Advocate contacted Proctor & Gamble for comment but at deadline had received no response.)

In Massachusetts, the Alliance for a Healthy Tomorrow is working to pass a bill, called the Healthy Families and Business Act, that would require manufacturers to replace harmful ingredients with safer ones when possible, and includes financial and technical support to help companies make those substitutions. That bill is now before the Senate Ways and Means Committee.• —MT

 

Supreme Court Refuses to Reinstate Oklahoma Abortion Law

The Supreme Court has declined to hear a case involving an Oklahoma law that provoked controversy about the meaning of informed consent for women seeking abortions. The law required women to undergo vaginal probes in order to look at ultrasound images of their fetuses while listening to detailed descriptions of them before having abortions.

Supporters of the law said it was consistent with a 1992 Supreme Court decision which, while affirming women’s right to abortions, stated that the need for informed consent was consistent with that right. Opponents argued that it went beyond a reasonable interpretation of informed consent by subjecting a woman to an “invasive medical procedure” in order to listen to a “state-scripted narrative.”

The law was struck down last December by the Oklahoma Supreme Court. The U.S. Supreme Court has refused to hear the case, which means that the state Supreme Court decision stands.

Megan Amundson, a spokeswoman for NARAL Massachusetts, said the Supreme Court decision was “great for Oklahoma,” but declined to express broader satisfaction about the Court’s action. “I don’t know,” she said, “that they’re not willing to take [the issue] up down the road in a different context.”

Just days earlier, the Supreme Court refused to hear a case involving another Oklahoma law banning the use of the drug RU-486, which induces abortion. The court’s refusal means that a state court decision overruling the ban on the medication stands.

Still waiting its turn to be heard by the Supreme Court is a case involving a challenge to the Massachusetts law prohibiting anti-abortion activists from standing closer than 35 feet to the entrances and driveways of clinics that provide pregnancy termination services (“Abortion Clinic Buffer Law on SCOTUS Docket,” October 15, 2013).• —SK

 

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