Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Town meeting Nov 1st

Town meeting is tommorrow and there's quite a slate on the warrant - a full 20 items.

Some of the highlights - major additions/changes proposed (corrected not by the new planner, by the PB) in article 15 for landscaping, trees and signage. The changes are intended to make a visual difference for passing motorists - essentially to beautify and improve the look mostly of Rt 12 businesses. There are a lot of good ideas in there, although this is a major change proposal. I'm interested to hear from business owners and residents.

Also the proposal for a new library (Article 5 I think it is). I'm inclined to vote for it simply because the voters need to approve any override anyway and this just authorizes it. $13M is a lot although some will be state money, which is why they are proposing this now. Finance suggests approving this also so they must think it's not extravagant. $13M seems like a lot, but if you look at it over time ... I dunno, I'm leaning to support it but having trouble with the amount I guess.

Another major issue - Recreation developing the Packachoag Meadows area. I think it's about time the town decided what to do with it. Right now you could consider it passive recreation, although it's not even designated to the Rec department - that's part of the warrant. They want to appropriate money to develop it of $1.5M also in there in article 11. I think we need some new fields so I will vote for it. On the other side, I continue to be concerned there are no passive recreation plans in the works or conservation of public land. This land is now by default, although it once was farm land and gifted (correction the town bought it??) to the town 20 years ago or so, so not really conservation.

I'm voting for the kennel (article 9).

I'm interested in the Aquifer and watershed protection overlay district (Article 14) because I want to see if it includes US Res. If not why not? I support its creation in principle.

Article 17 worries me a little because they're essentially saying if the amount of money is under $100K they don't have to account for it fully so long as the BOS allow it. Less accountability is bad in my book. A no vote.

Article 18 approves funds for Eddy Pond Dam. Yes on that from me.

Article 19 and 20 - establishing or accepting new roads. don't we have enough to cover now? I'll have to hear from someone on this or I'm voting against more new roads for the town.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Congratulations Red Sox!

Twice in 4 years proves they're no fluke - what a great season this was!

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Wind power study

I'm really impressed and happy the town is looking into this along with the Mass Technology Collaborative. I think it could make a difference in the utility bills and also really show the town is progressive in this area. The key questions are whether or not we have enough wind at a certain height to make operation feasible.

I'd encourage the town to follow up and hopefully they'll find some renewable alternatives for energy going forward! Not only is it environmentally more responsible, it could be a big savings (even make money some months). Considering the price of electricity has been trending upward the past several years this could be significant.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

More accountability in town government - DPW and TM

One particular incident comes to mind as to what's wrong with our town government. Last year the highway department was on the ballot to request an override for some funds. I happened to be at the meeting for other reasons. But anyway a speech was given to the BOS about it.

One member of the BOS raised a simple question - how will the money be used? Do you have a plan, and how do you know you don't need more (or can live with less)? The answer was that "I am an elected official in this town and I don't have to answer to you". He repeated the question politely but each time that line of reasoning that "well the people elected me and it's my business, I don't have a song and dance up here and a fancy paving plan". Anyway, the override request was denied, thanks in part to this performance.

In the business world, if you ask for money some reasons to justify its expenditure are always required. In fact, they want to know what the return on the investment will be in a particular time frame. Only in a place like government could someone actually think they are above explaining where the dollars are going.

I'm sorry but that reasoning is not good enough. I think the townspeople and BOS deserve better. The charter review committee should remember this - this is exactly the attitude that works against progress and getting things done, and potentially that a reorg of town government could fix. A DPW could potentially do this as well as appointing a town manager with budgetary authority.

I think the people of Auburn deserve better visibility into the workings of the Highway and all departments, since it is their money being spent. Whether we need to form a DPW and town manager to do this, maybe we don't but it's clear we need to be more accountable.

Another potential for improving this accountability is to publish timely information on the web. Most information is out of date. Budget numbers could be published regularly - where are we with the snow removal budget for the year, what is the priority list for paving etc. Right now this information is treated like a privileged guarded secret. At best it's available if you dig through records in the town hall. Other towns are earning awards for their web presence, we should strive for that and I think it would improve the trust among residents.

Some examples of towns in Massachusetts who won this award from the above link:

Communities receiving the 2007 E-Government Award were: Amherst, Andover, Arlington, Ashburnham, Ashland, Barnstable, Becket, Bedford, Bolton, Boston, Boxborough, Brookline, Cambridge, Chelsea, Chelmsford, Concord, Dedham, Douglas, Dudley, Dunstable, Duxbury, Falmouth, Framingham, Franklin, Gloucester, Groton, Harvard, Hingham, Holden, Holliston, Hopkinton, Kingston, Lenox, Lexington, Manchester-by-the-Sea, Maynard, Melrose, Methuen, Nantucket, Newton, Northampton, North Reading, Palmer, Paxton, Peabody, Pelham, Plympton, Provincetown, Salem, Saugus, Scituate, Sharon, Shrewsbury, Somerville, Southampton, Southwick, Spencer, Springfield, Stow, Sudbury, Swampscott, Tewksbury, Uxbridge, Westfield, Westford, Weston, Westport, West Springfield, Weymouth, Winchester, Winthrop, Woburn, and Worcester.

“We are pleased to be able to honor so many towns this year,” said Common Cause executive director Pam Wilmot. “Many communities rose to the challenge and significantly improved their Web sites over the past year.”

Town planner and new bylaw proposals

I was watching the Planning Board last night and was generally impressed with the way our new town planner comports himself. I think the ideas about landscaping, buffering and even signs are just the kind of discussions we need to be having to make some "visual oases" among the Rt 12 clutter.

I haven't studied all the changes to this point but having some direction for the town going forward on these issues is a welcome change.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Sox in October

I've been a fan since '67, Yaz, Impossible Dream (yeah I know - getting old) and ever since. I also played baseball in school, and do so currently for fun in the Boston Baseball league.

It's great that they won the AL East over the hapless Yanks (who are the new baseball playoff losers) and now the pennant. Imagine two WS in the space of 4 seasons? Unbelievable - GO SOX!

A few more sleepless nights I guess, but playoff baseball is the best!

Friday, October 12, 2007

Gore wins Nobel Peace Prize

All I can say is wow. What a year for him - first an Oscar, now this. I've followed his environmentalism since the late 80s and Earth in the Balance days. Most or all of what he's claimed from those days has turned out to be true.

Will there be a Gore/Clinton ticket in 08? The Gore hardcore supporters would say he won once already ;). Time will tell - congratulations to Al Gore on this honor!

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Tackling a salty issue

Anyone notice the readings of sodium in our fine (blech) town water supply have been rising over the years? It's a sensitive topic too if you ask for the readings from the AWD. You usually get some kind of response along the lines of "well it's not even as much as a hotdog". Which is true technically of course because the amount in a hot dog is in the 100s of mg/l whereas the amount in our water is only between 30 and 300.

Wait a minute - 300?! Yeah that's the amount listed for some tests last year. The big problem I have with that is that amount is a base level for any cooking, drinking or water used for washing and bathing (heard of bath salts? ;). So add that to your boiled hot dogs and you have a recipe for high blood pressure soup. Anything beyond about 10 is noticeable in drinking water. Check the sodium levels for most bottled water and you'll find readings in the range of 0 to 5mg/l. The EPA suggests that a level of 20 mg/l is considered healthy. By the way, sodium is included on the CCL (contaminate candidates list) for drinking water, although it's included only as what they call a Research policy. If it were a Regulatory Determination Policy AWD would have to fix this situation. That day may come ....

The common wisdom suggests this is because of road salt. I don't know that we know that for sure though and I would venture a guess there are other sources too. For instance, how about the massive private parking lots along Rt 12? The location of our wells could not be at a worse place for road salt and ice treatment- the junction of Rt12, 290 and 90.

According to this article today in the Globe, Andover is dealing with this same issue trying to relocate a salt storage shed. Salt levels have risen to unhealthful levels during a short time.

it found that the level of sodium more than doubled between 1998 and 2003, from 32 parts per million to 70 parts per million - more than three times the EPA's recommended maximum level for human consumption.

Though sodium is not as dangerous as some compounds on the federal government's list of drinking water contaminants, high levels of the element in tap water are a health concern.

The EPA notes that a high level of salt intake may be associated with hypertension. On its website, the EPA states that it needs to update its guidance level for sodium and that it believes the level is probably too low. In a related consumer advisory, the agency reports that "sodium levels in drinking water from most public water systems are unlikely to be a significant contribution to adverse health effects."

We've had our issues with this in Auburn for at least 30 years. Something should be done about it. Think of the expense people go through, many who I know, to buy bottled water for drinking. Even the corrosive effects of the salty water on bridges, cars, pipes and the like.

We need to work on this I think. According to MassHighway, there is a low salt area in Oxford, which has a "town gap" in Auburn. Maybe this needs to be expanded. This is a health issue for anyone on a restricted sodium diet, really the whole town and we need to hold to task the water district, highway departments and others dumping salt that ends up in our drinking water.

Here's an overview from EPA on the issue. It's a clear case of pitting the rights of travellers over the rights of residents yet again in Auburn. So we want to enable clear roads for people passing through (or spending money at the businesses in town), even if that means residents all end up with hypertension? I don't think so - we can do better ....

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Public vs private schools

Interesting new study on private vs public education. For those parents of means, this becomes an issue at some point - are my local public schools doing a good enough job educating students or should I consider paying (twice) for a private school for my kids?

Prevailing wisdom is that of course the more expensive private schools, thanks to advantages in income, enjoy an inherent advantage over public schools. They often boast of smaller classes, more individualized attention, instruction and curriculum and higher test scores.

Apparently, other factors, such as parental involvement, have a higher impact.

In trying to determine whether the type of high school attended by a student made a difference academically, the new study tried to separate out the effects of income; earlier eighth-grade test scores; parental expectations; whether parents discuss school with their children and whether parents participate in school activities.

When all these factors were accounted for, the only kind of private schools that had a positive impact on student achievement were Catholic schools run by holy orders such as the Jesuits. Such schools have more autonomy from the church than most Catholic schools, which are typically run by a diocese and are overseen by a superintendent in the local bishop's office.

Also this from the study center's president

"People commonly believe private schools are just inherently better," Jennings said. "We're forgetting that families are key to how well kids do. Maybe we ought to start to spend more time on families."

So maybe it's really the family that matters vs public and private. The parents that care enough to be looking at school choice are more involved hence the better results ... food for thought.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Charter review meeting tonight

Subjects like should we have a town manager, establishment of a DPW, reorganizing the town etc. are the types of things to look at with a charter review.

What's working in our town government and what isn't?

Come and be heard, be involved in the process, or stop complaining! ;)

Thursday, October 4, 2007

MCAS results out for Spring 07

Taking a look at things, Auburn's mostly "in the middle" of performance for towns in the state.

From 06 to 07 scores of 10th grade students did decline by a little. But we have a new high school, and you would think it would rise since the kids were in the "improved" building. So maybe the building itself doesn't have as much affect on test scores as other factors like curriculum, teachers etc ... hmm. Well we have tangible numbers to try and improve and this should give folks some fodder for discussion in the ongoing strategy meetings at the HS.

Auburn High School
% Advanced % Proficient % Needs
% Warning/
10th English 12 58 24 5 154 188 of 337
10th Math 45 24 23 8 154 177 of 337

Auburn High School
% Advanced % Proficient % Needs
% Warning/
10th English 16 53 26 5 142 209 of 341
10th Math 40 26 30 4 141 216 of 341