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The Old Pro vs. the Kid

Charlie Ryan rescued Springfield from corrupt hacks and frat-boy punks. But is the city healthy enough to replace him with Domenic Sarno?

Comments (13)
Thursday, November 01, 2007
Left: Springfield mayor Charlie Ryan, Right: Challenger Dom Sarno

Charlie Ryan arrives at the corner of Dwight Street Extension and Oswego Street in time to see an excavator take a large bite out of the large, decrepit apartment building that sits on the lot. Dressed in a raincoat and a dark blue baseball cap against the drizzly morning, Ryan parks his car across the street and joins a group of reporters gathered on the sidewalk.

Ryan has called a press conference this October morning to mark the demolition of the building in one of Springfield's most troubled neighborhoods, the once optimistically, now ironically named Hollywood section of the city's South End. The apartment building—a rundown, drug-infested site that City Hall condemned in 2006—is just one of several dozen buildings the city has knocked down since Ryan became mayor, as part of an anti-blight program. But it's offered as a symbol, given its size and troubled history. Its demolition, Ryan says, is an important step toward making the neighborhood cleaner and safer.

Ryan chats amiably with the reporters for a while; conversations pause to turn full attention to the demo when an exterior wall is torn away and a large chunk of roof tumbles down. A TV news camera is set up across the street to capture the full effect. Then, as the rain grows heavier, the group breaks up, the reporters heading to newsrooms or their next event, the mayor to the next stop on what's shaping up to be a busy day.

Heading back to his car, Ryan chuckles at a comment about the glamorous life he leads as Springfield's chief executive. Ryan's tenure as mayor makes for a compelling but hardly glamorous story. He inherited the city at a decidedly low point, and has managed an impressive, if still tenuous, turnaround. Most impressive has been the financial rebound, a hard-won and still incomplete victory achieved through unpopular policy decisions, grim belt-tightening, clashes with labor unions and highly charged political battles.

And—to belabor the symbolism of the Hollywood apartment building a bit more—Ryan has also put considerable effort into trying to rid Springfield of the filth and criminal behavior brought about by years of corruption and negligence within city government. The "glamorous" years of the Albano administration—the soap opera atmosphere of City Hall, the barroom and backroom politicking, the poorly conceived, go-nowhere ideas (a ballpark, a skating rink) that passed for economic development—left the city with a staggering deficit and a string of convictions of corrupt public officials.

Now Springfield is poised to enter a new and equally important phase. If the past several years have been about stemming the city's bleeding—financially, morally, psychically—the next several will be about rebuilding. For the first time in recent memory, the city has a financial cushion, about $17 million in reserve cash. But it also owes close to twice that amount to the state, money borrowed from a no-interest credit line granted during Ryan's first term to help bail out the city. Private capital is beginning to return, but arrangements for much of it are in the early stages, and many investors are still wary of Springfield's dicey reputation. Meanwhile, the Finance Control Board, put in place by the Legislature in 2004 to oversee the city's money, is set to expire in June of 2009, returning to the mayor and City Council the power they lost when the board was created.

Ryan would like to be there to oversee that transition. If he's reelected to a third term on Election Day next week, he'll be the only member of the Control Board to have served during its entire tenure in the city (by law, the board comprises three gubernatorial appointees, the mayor and the sitting City Council president). Seeing the process through from start to finish would provide a crucial level of consistency, Ryan says.

"It's nothing for someone to learn the business on," he says. "This is a complex city, and a complex time we're in."

 

Ryan's comment is clearly pointed at his rival for mayor, City Councilor Dom Sarno. While Sarno has served eight years on the council, Ryan dismisses him as a neophyte who is drawn to the pomp and stature of the mayor's job but lacks the experience and fiscal understanding to manage it. Sarno, meanwhile, pitches himself as having the energy and fresh ideas the city needs as it enters a new era. Whichever man is elected, he'll leave an indelible stamp on the future of the city.

Ryan served as Springfield's mayor once before, for three terms in the early '60s. He describes the City Hall he inherited from the Albano administration in 2004 as a tragedy: "The city government came to a halt. Not a screeching halt; it wasn't moving fast enough. Like an old horse. And they left it by the side of the road."

The city was $41 million in the hole—a deficit that was immediately brought to public attention by then-Gov. Mitt Romney's cuts to local aid, but that was exacerbated by years of irresponsible budgeting and questionable fiscal policies. City Hall's economic development efforts were an anemic blend of taxpayer-funded projects and public grant and loan programs that too often funneled money to connected insiders. The city's pension fund was not only seriously underfunded, Ryan says, "it wasn't even on anyone's radar."

Ryan's supporters applaud him for professionalizing City Hall after the excesses of the Albano years, for making city government more efficient and responsive, for addressing bread-and-butter issues that had long been ignored, from pothole-ridden roads to city schools with years of deferred maintenance. The mayor has won the backing of Springfield's corporate leaders and business community (with the notable exception of many bar owners, who complain that Ryan's License Commission has been too strict).

Ryan considers his biggest accomplishment to be "probably the one with the least sex appeal, but the one that's the foundation for everything else: cleaning up the financial mess." Working with the Control Board, Ryan's managed to balance the budget for the past three years, while setting aside reserve funds of more than $17 million. In 2005, the Control Board voted to transfer management of the city's pension fund to a better-performing state pension board, which Ryan says has brought in an additional $50 million over two years.

Earlier this year, Standard and Poor raised Springfield's bond rating from BB—junk status—to BBB, a double upgrade. And Moody's Investors Service, while keeping the city's bond rating at Baa3—its lowest rating—changed its outlook for the city from "negative" to "stable" for the first time since 1990. As reasons for both actions, analysts cited the strong management of the Ryan administration and the Control Board.

Getting Springfield onto more solid financial ground, as anyone who follows the city government knows well, was difficult. "I used to make the speech: If you don't have any money, you can't do anything. And then I had to live that for the first 18 months," says Ryan, who recounts having to turn down worthy funding requests in areas like public safety and schools because the money simply wasn't there.

With the immediate crisis finally under control, the city can now look forward, Ryan says: "By straightening out the financial mess, we put ourselves back in the ball game. Now the job is to sustain it, make it strong enough, and make sure there's a change in the culture."

This next step will take place with an overhauled Control Board. Gov. Deval Patrick has replaced the three Romney-era appointees to the board with three of his own, including a new chairperson: businessman and policy wonk Chris Gabrieli. "It's a totally different era," says Ryan. "To get from insolvency to money in the bank was hard. [The old Control Board] had to make a lot of difficult decisions. You don't have to do that twice."

The new Control Board's charge is to spur economic development in the city—in part, to repay the $32 million Springfield owes from the state loan. (The city faces a 2012 deadline for repayment, although that could be extended.) Expanding the tax base, Ryan says, depends on three things: the integrity of the government, fiscal credibility ("Who wants to invest in a city that's inept?" he asks) and improved public safety (the city has added 40 new cops over the past two years). Investments in the city have been slow, but they are coming, says Ryan, who claims about $400 million in private money is in place or committed.

One strong point in Springfield's favor, Ryan says, is the financial and moral support it's gotten from Patrick.

"For the first time in Lord knows when, the city actually has a state administration that not only is giving some assistance but is aware of who we are, what we are, and our needs," Ryan says. "That's intangible, but it's every bit as powerful as the aid."

As Ryan looks forward to a hoped-for third, and final, term, he acknowledges, "Will we complete everything that has to be done? No, the laundry list is too long. But I would say we've been active in every area I wanted to be. We've moved the ball in so many areas."

 

To Domenic Sarno, the most crucial issue facing Springfield is public safety.

"Everything drives from that agenda," he says. "If people wake up in the morning and they feel they're in a safe, clean environment, they're going to want to stay, so you build residential confidence." From that, he says, springs economic development, as businesses begin to feel Springfield is a safe place to invest.

If he's elected mayor, Sarno adds, he'll keep his finger on the pulse of the business community by visiting a different company each week. "I'll say, 'Hey, what's working, what's wrong, what can we do to help you?'" he says. "I can't give away the store, but you have to be able to work with enticements, incentives. There has to be a give and take."

In his four terms on the City Council, Sarno has made crime and quality of life a defining issue. He worked to toughen up the city's noise and truancy ordinances, and says he cooperated closely with state Rep. Cheryl Coakley-Rivera to crack down on drag racing. Earlier this year, Sarno proposed a program that would allow law enforcement to issue "stay-away orders" banning what he calls hard-core repeat offenders from certain neighborhoods. The plan has gone nowhere, though, after activists and the District Attorney alike questioned its legality.

If elected, Sarno says he would hire as many as 40 new police officers. Sarno says he's not completely comfortable with a proposal floated by the Control Board to use the roughly $20 million that remains from the state loan for economic development. But if that money is tapped, he says, it should be used to hire more cops, which would spur economic development. While the loan is a one-time source of income, Sarno says, "if business and residential confidence builds, you're going to generate money into the city coffers" to pay for the new officers long term.

Sarno bristles at Ryan's comments that he lacks the experience to be mayor. "He had come after me with some mudslinging on my experience," Sarno says. "What experience did he have when he walked into the mayor's office in 1962?" (Ryan, who was 33 when first elected mayor, was a practicing attorney and had chaired the committee that changed Springfield's form of government to its present strong-mayor structure.)

At 44, Sarno says, "I come with 20 years of committed public service." After graduating from Westfield State College, he got a job as a city housing inspector, then as an aide to Mayor Mary Hurley, whom he knew through family friends. Hurley was mayor during the late-'80s fiscal crisis and working there, Sarno says, he learned about budget management under tough times.

After leaving City Hall, Sarno was employed by the Hampden County Workers' Assistance Program before going to work for District Attorney Bill Bennett, whom Sarno calls "a very dear, dear friend."

"For years, he kept saying, 'Come work for me; come work for me,'" Sarno recounts. "I said, 'Bill, I'm not an attorney.' He said, 'No, I want you to create a new program. I'm sick and tired of these young people that we're losing. ... I want you to deal with the borderline, hard-core juvenile probations. I want you to mentor them. I want you to set up community service sites with some meaningful purpose to turn these kids' lives around.'"

Sarno went on to hold several jobs in the DA's office, including coordinating the transfer of fugitives caught in Springfield and serving as a liaison between the Police Department and District Court. "I sort of became Bill's Mr. Fix-it," he says. Sarno is now director of the South End Community Center where, he says, he works to help troubled kids before it's too late. "We're there to save the kids," he says proudly.

Sarno speaks passionately about his belief in public service. "I'm old school," he says. "Constituent services is huge to me—huge. Whether you're calling me on a pothole or a multi-million dollar business deal, I'll always return the phone call. I'll come to your house. [You] can come to the [community] center—coffee's always fresh. Everybody loves Folger's," he jokes.

Off the record, some of Sarno's fellow pols roll their eyes and question the sincerity of his ingratiating style; one jokes that if Sarno finds out your Uncle Harry had a case of impetigo, he'll rush to send you a condolence card. But Sarno's style clearly connects with voters, who've made him the top vote-getter in several Council elections.

Sarno brushes off the jabs. "It was always a great feeling to me when you're able to genuinely help someone out, or a cause. That's what keeps you going," he says.

After four years in the mayor's office, Ryan has accumulated his share of critics and enemies. City unions have clashed with the Control Board over contract negotiations; this election season, Ryan has been dogged by the police supervisors' union—the only one still without a contract—which has staged informational pickets at various events. The City Council, meanwhile, has taken shots at the Control Board and administration over numerous issues, including the hiring of high-salaried staffers to beef up the city's financial and economic development teams.

Residents, meanwhile, have balked at a $90-a-year trash fee imposed by the Control Board. The board says the fee is necessary to cover costs; critics complain that they already pay for trash pickup through property taxes. Coakley-Rivera—a one-time Ryan supporter who's since broken with the mayor—led a lawsuit against the fee, which was temporarily delayed by the court but is now in place.

A few months after the trash fee lawsuit, Coakley-Rivera accused Ryan's chief of staff, Michele Webber, of making racist and other offensive comments (including referring to a Muslim as a "towel head" and saying she was skipping the Puerto Rican Day celebration because she was afraid she'd catch AIDS there). Webber denied the charges but resigned. In response, Ryan announced plans to develop a new city diversity policy, including sensitivity training for employees.

In the midst of that process, eight city employees—including several working on the policy—filed a complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, claiming they'd lost pay and promotions because of their race. "Some workers were unhappy with the decisions of their supervisors. That happens," Ryan says of the case. "It will work its way through MCAD and come to a hearing," he adds, noting that he was not named in the complaint.

Among Ryan's most recent headaches: the news that Police Commissioner Ed Flynn, after 19 months heading the SPD, was a finalist for the police chief job in Milwaukee. This news did little to further endear Flynn to city cops who already resented his having been hired over local candidates; an anonymous 30-page report circulating throughout the city slams Flynn's management of the SPD, criticizes the process by which he was hired and calls Ryan, a strong Flynn supporter, "corrupt."

If familiarity breeds contempt for an incumbent, that contempt creates opportunity for a challenger. While Sarno, employing a popular campaign line, insists he's not running against Ryan, but rather for the job of mayor, he has tried to exploit the mayor's missteps and embarrassments to his advantage.

Sarno—who had earlier called for the city to replace School Superintendent Joe Burke, who has interviewed for several other jobs in recent years—has also called for Flynn to resign, saying his interest in the Milwaukee job indicates he's not committed to Springfield. (Bad idea, retorts Ryan, who says if the Control Board asks Flynn to resign, it would owe him a year's pay—$155,000—in severance.) And after the MCAD complaint was filed, Sarno called for an investigation by the U.S. Justice Department of what he described as a "disturbing pattern" in the Ryan administration.

Sarno also says that he will rescind the trash fee if elected. While he doesn't know yet where he'll make up the $4 million the city collects annually through the fee, he says that in a municipal budget of a half-billion dollars, he's sure he can find it. "I don't believe it's fair residents should be taxed twice with a trash fee," he says. "What's next—they're going to start charging for having your snow plowed?"

Like any challenger, Sarno bears the burden of having to convince voters that the incumbent isn't doing a good job, and that he can do better. That's been tough for Sarno; while many city councilors with mayoral aspirations have used their position to knock around the sitting mayor, Sarno, until recently, has had little complaint against Ryan. Indeed, Sarno, who was president of the Council when the Control Board was created, sat on that board with Ryan and talks of "working shoulder to shoulder" with the mayor on fixing the city's finances (a description that doesn't jibe with Ryan's comments about Sarno's lack of experience and ability).

Sarno describes himself as an everyman candidate. He speaks proudly of his immigrant parents' work ethic—his father is a barber, his mother a seamstress—and of working an overnight shift laying floor tile while in college. At the South End Community Center, he says, his job ranges from managing budgets to fixing leaky toilets.

"I'm just like [the typical resident]," Sarno says. "I'm middle class. I struggle every week to pay the bills. My kids are in the school system. I go through the same things. We can relate, whether black, white, green or red. They know they can pick up the phone and call Domenic and he's going to get back to you. And it might be [something] miniscule or miscellaneous to you and I, but to them, it's important."

Sarno says he would to continue that hands-on approach as mayor. "I think people would like to touch and feel and access the mayor," he says. "If I have the honor and privilege of being mayor, I'm not going to change. ... If Mrs. DeMaio comes down to see me with an issue in the South End, or Mrs. O'Leary in Hungry Hill needs something—you have to go the extra yard."

To some observers, Sarno's focus on constituent services, while perhaps admirable, indicates a failure to grasp the big-picture responsibilities that come with the mayor's job. "I don't think they have any idea how complicated this is," Ryan says of the Sarno campaign. "They see it like electing a class president."

Veteran City Councilor Tim Rooke backs Ryan, citing the mayor's experience and accomplishments. "I think Dom is well-liked throughout the city. I think if you're going to be in a leadership position, you have to be a little more decisive. I think he needs a few more years to [work on] that," he says.

Rooke points to a number of controversial issues in recent years—school building cost overruns; the effort to remove former Police Chief Paula Meara from civil service protection after a consultant's report damning her job performance; Rooke's own campaign to have the Council subpoena financial records at the troubled Mass. Career Development Institute—in which Sarno (and, Rooke points out for fairness' sake, other councilors) failed to speak up or take the right position.

Indeed, critics say that Sarno's record on the Council is thin, that for all his willingness to field phone calls and hold community meetings, he's avoided taking on tough fights or unpopular decisions. In particular, he has to answer the question of why he (like the majority of his colleagues) passed Albano's insupportable budgets year after year. In Ryan's words, Sarno was "asleep at the switch," contributing to the city's near-collapse.

Sarno places the blame on the Albano financial team and the Department of Revenue, which, he notes, certified each of the mayor's budgets, despite the fact that spending was based on a higher percentage of tax revenue than the city was actually taking in. "You can make the unfortunate analogy of the Iraq war," Sarno says. "You go on the information that's given you by people who are in authority and the officials at that time, that's put in black and white on paper. That's how you have to base your judgment."

Sarno also blames the local aid cuts made by Romney in early 2003. "[The] cuts from Romney were devastating," he says. "That didn't happen because of the mismanagement of the City Council." (For the record, Romney's cuts cost Springfield about $4 million that fiscal year—a significant amount, but hardly enough to be the sole cause of the layoffs of 300 city employees that followed, and an amount that could have been absorbed if the city had shored up financial reserves, as communities like Holyoke and Chicopee were able to do.)

Criticisms notwithstanding, Sarno insists he's got the vision and energy to lead Springfield. "I think you're going to see in my campaign some analogies toward when Deval Patrick ran," he says. "Nobody gave Deval Patrick a shot in hell of winning. If people run me down as an underdog, that's fine. You're going to see people now that are looking to the transition, new vision, accessibility, accountability."

 

Charlie Ryan did not run against Mike Albano in 2003. Halfway through his fifth term, Albano announced he wouldn't seek re-election, leaving an open seat.

But Ryan did run, to great effect, against the dubious legacy of corruption and mismanagement that characterized the Albano administration. Even critics concede that Ryan has an impeccable reputation, one that worked to his advantage with voters tired of the FBI raids and general shenanigans of Albano's City Hall. As part of his campaign, Ryan promised to restore integrity to Springfield's city government. "We're going to say goodbye to the fakers and the influence peddlers," he promised at a campaign rally. "I want the privilege of escorting them down the street and out of town."

Ryan's strait-laced reputation has placed him in sharp relief against the challengers he has faced. In 2003, his rival for the mayor's seat was then-state Sen. Linda Melconian, who counted among her advisors Frankie Keough, then head of Friends of the Homeless, who'd earlier resigned from the City Council after a tax evasion conviction. Ryan's 2005 opponent, School Committee member Tommy Ashe, meanwhile, was surrounded by a number of the Albano crew and was particularly tight with Keough. In late 2005, the Springfield Republican reported that Keough had hosted a campaign recruitment meeting for Melconian at his shelter office; among the attendees were Ashe and local mobster Adolfo "Big Al" Bruno. Keough is now in federal prison after pleading guilty to stealing from the shelter, extorting from contractors, perjury and witness tampering. Bruno was shot to death on a Springfield street shortly after the 2003 election.

Sarno's campaign, too, comes with a resident bogeyman: Charlie Kingston. Kingston, a former city tax collector, was convicted of filing false tax returns in 1994; he was granted a new trial in 1999 and the following year pleaded guilty to misdemeanor tax charges. Kingston—whose name was caught up in, among other controversies, the city's no-bid contract in the 1980s with an insurance consultant for whom Kingston worked—has continued to be a key political fundraiser and consultant. He ran Albano's victorious campaign in 2001 against then-state Rep. Paul Caron. After Sarno's campaign kickoff event earlier this year, political types were abuzz over the prominent role played by Kingston, who stood at the door greeting Sarno's supporters. (As one local pol put it, having Kingston involved in his campaign raises questions about Sarno's judgment; having him play such a public role was "just dumb.")

Sarno is unapologetic, if not exactly illuminating, about Kingston's role in his campaign. Asked in an interview about the consultant, Sarno told the Advocate, "I'll look you straight in the eye with Charlie Kingston. Charlie Kingston is a family friend that goes back with my father 55 years, and, yes, he is a supporter. As simple as that."

Do you feel comfortable having him so involved in your campaign, the Advocate asked. "I'm looking you straight in the eye: he's been a family friend going back with my father 55 years," Sarno replied. "I'm not going to—yes, he's a supporter."

Sarno added: "I stand on my own two feet. .... I get advice and things from all different people from all walks of life, and I try to weigh the pros and the cons, and I make the decision. [If] I feel comfortable with something, know I can hang my hat with why I voted this way, then I'm going to do that. I'm not going to run and hide from a dear family friend of 55 years through my father."

What exactly is Kingston's role in the campaign, the Advocate asked. Is he a consultant? "He's a supporter," Sarno answered. "I have a lot of good people on board." His campaign, Sarno added, is a lot like Patrick's 2006 gubernatorial run: "real grassroots."

A recent Springfield Republican article suggests another, less inspiring element in Sarno's campaign. In an Oct. 14 article comparing the two candidates' fundraising, reporter Stephanie Barry outlined an uncomfortable list of Sarno contributors, including two convicted felons: Michael Cimmino, a Longmeadow man who pleaded guilty in 2004 for his role in an illegal video poker ring (which was run by Cimmino's father-in-law, Albert "Baba" Scibelli, whom prosecutors have described as one-time head of the local arm of the Genovese crime family); and Anna Santaniello, also of Longmeadow, who has two convictions for her role in an illegal gambling and loan-sharking ring also connected to the mob.

Contacted by Barry about the donations, Sarno initially said, "I feel comfortable with the people who have donated. ... I have nothing to hide, and I resent if anyone is questioning my honesty and integrity."

A few days before the article ran, however, Sarno issued a not-quite-preemptive-enough press release saying he'd "been made aware of some donations that came to his campaign from sources he did not believe were appropriate to accept." Sarno announced he was returning five donations, totaling $350, that he'd accepted from Cimmino from 2005 to 2007, and two donations, totaling $200, he'd accepted from Santaniello last year.

The press release did not address a number of other intriguing names on his donor list, including Irene Arillotta, mother of Anthony Arillotta, who's been described by law enforcement as head of the local mob since Bruno's death, and is currently imprisoned after gambling convictions; Laura Gramse, wife of accused loan shark Albert Calvanese, who pleaded guilty earlier this year to assaulting a debtor; Italo Santaniello, who pleaded guilty in 1989 to gaming charges connected to Al Bruno; and Michael Bergdoll, currently in prison for real estate fraud.

Ryan—whose donor list is populated by businesspeople, lawyers, retirees and his family and Forest Park neighbors—declined to comment on Sarno's contributors in Barry's story. But, he noted in an interview with the Advocate, the "fakers and influence peddlers" remain a threat to the city. "They're still around," he said. "They're not in my administration. But boy, do they want it back. They consider they've been wronged. This was like their fiefdom."

And Ryan dismisses Albano's recent attempts to write off the numerous federal corruption convictions as overblown tax cases driven by a retaliatory FBI. "It was probably about as serious a corruption in any city in Massachusetts that I've seen in my lifetime," Ryan says. "It was serious, and it was destructive to the city of Springfield."

Springfield has been given a new lease on life, Ryan says, and it's important not to blow it. "It's a wonderful city," he says. "If we can keep our focus and have another strong two years and be able to turn it over to a very strong, qualified new leader, then we can be sure Springfield will be a strong community once again. But there are a few 'ifs' in there. We can't afford to go back, even in part. We're still struggling. We still haven't won back the respect of the entire viewing audience. That's not our fault. It's the fault of those who did so much damage."

—mturner@valleyadvocate.com

Comments (13)
Post a Comment
Dang, that was a long article! Good one, though ;-)
Posted by Bill D. on 11.1.07 at 17:42
What a good read--your grasp of the cast of characters is impressive. I hope every voter in Springfield reads this!
Posted by Hayley on 11.6.07 at 4:46
Unforunately the fakers and influence peddlers are now back in Springfield. God help us for the next two years. The new mayor played the "crime threat" like the Bush administration has played the "terror threat". That and a measly $90 a year. Enjoy your retirement, Charlie. You tried your best and we were too stupid to keep you here.
Posted by Cathy on 11.6.07 at 17:51
GOOD NEWS
Posted by kraloyun on 5.31.08 at 1:30
nice article
Posted by kral oyun on 5.31.08 at 1:31
Thanksss
Posted by Sohbet on 4.10.09 at 14:22
thanks
Posted by mirc on 4.30.09 at 14:44
thanks
Posted by sohbet on 5.3.09 at 3:32
thanks a lot
Posted by sohbet on 5.5.09 at 4:47
thanks
Posted by sohbet on 5.5.09 at 4:48
thanks
Posted by edencity.de on 5.18.09 at 10:14
tenks
Posted by cet on 6.10.09 at 9:22
tenks
Posted by netlog on 6.10.09 at 9:23
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