Hearst Connecticut Media. June 23, 2021.

Editorial: Police accountability demands transparency

The powers granted to police in our society are enormous.

They decide, on the spot, who they think is breaking the law. They make decisions every day that have huge implications for their communities. They even have the ability to dispense violence, sometimes lethally.

There’s no question policing can be dangerous. The number of officers who lose their lives on the job is testament to that fact.

But we also should have high standards when it comes to officers’ behavior. Police departments, like anything else, are made up of people, with all their flaws and faults. We know that officers of the law do not always follow the law themselves.

So it’s disheartening to learn, as a Hearst Connecticut Media investigation found, that officers found to have broken protocols rarely face serious punishment. In looking at 1,800 internal charges of alleged officer misconduct at 29 local police departments across the state from 2015 to 2020, clear patterns emerge.

As the investigation found: About three-quarters of charges that led to a finding of misconduct resulted in a verbal warning, reprimand, counseling or order for more training. Only about 1 percent of sustained charges resulted in an officer being fired.

Most officers ended up facing no discipline because investigations could find no evidence of wrongdoing.

As anyone who has had a brush with the legal system knows, a charge is not the same as a conviction. It’s proper that a charge not backed up with evidence should not lead to discipline. But when a large majority of confirmed cases lead to minor punishments, that’s a sign that something is amiss.

Discussions about officer misconduct cases usually focus on instances where force was used. But the records examined in this investigation showed that only a small amount of misconduct cases fit that criteria. Many, though, were potentially serious, including lying, violating conflict of interest standards and larceny.

A common theme in cases both serious and minor is a lack of transparency. Even after requests to produce records were sent to local police departments, the results were often incomplete or vague. For members of the public, it can be impossible to know what has happened in regards to local officers and potential misconduct, since departments themselves decide who finds out what.

With so much authority vested in the hands of officers and departments, more accountability is needed. No one is arguing that every case of alleged misconduct should result in an officer being fired. There’s always good reason for proportionality.

But people need to be informed. The process should be less secretive, and answers should be forthcoming and easily available when an office does face discipline.

This investigation is far from an indictment of all departments or all officers. It’s encouraging that people who break the rules face consequences. But there’s good reason to think that punishments lack consistency, and that something more than a warning is often justified.

The only way to make that happen is to increase transparency. Police should make every effort to open these proceedings to greater scrutiny.

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Portland Press Herald. June 24, 2021.

Editorial: Collins takes wrong side on voting rights

The Maine Republican left no room for compromise as states pass voter-suppression laws.

It was sad to see Maine Sen. Susan Collins on the wrong side of history Tuesday as she joined her Republican colleagues in blocking debate on a sweeping voting rights package.

S.1, or the For the People Act, is not a perfect bill, but it at least offered a chance to slow down voter-suppression efforts in Republican-controlled states, where unsubstantiated claims of election fraud are used to make it harder to vote, especially among African Americans, young adults and others who usually vote for Democrats.

Maine’s junior senator, Angus King, an independent, voted to bring the bill to the floor, but the Democrats could not clear the 60-vote hurdle that was needed. “I am deeply saddened by this outcome; voting rights should be America’s foundation, not a partisan fault line,” he said later.

Collins not only voted for the filibuster, but she also made a floor speech that put her firmly on the side of congressional inaction at a time when democracy is under attack.

She began her remarks by saying that she supports voting rights but not this bill. “In fact, S.1 would take away the rights of people in each of the 50 states to determine which election rules work best for their citizens,” Collins said.

But as she knows, the states do not have an unlimited right to decide which election rules they want to follow.

The Constitution puts limits on states that prevent them from excluding adult citizens from voting based on race or gender. And the Constitution explicitly tells Congress to protect those rights from state interference by passing laws.

You don’t expect to hear a “states’ rights” argument in support of voter suppression from a New Englander known as a moderate. It probably provided ideological cover for Republicans in places like Georgia, where lawmakers have actually scaled back access to the polls for some voters.

In her speech, Collins defended the Georgia law, which adjusts the rules on early and absentee voting in ways that may disproportionately affect residents of urban, Democratic-leaning counties. The law also took power away from local election boards and gave it to the Republican-controlled legislature.

Collins compared aspects of the new Georgia law to more-restrictive rules in other states, including President Biden’s home state of Delaware, which she says has fewer early voting days than Georgia. But that’s the wrong comparison.

Georgia’s law should be judged by whether it makes voting harder in 2022 than it was in 2020 for Georgians – especially for Black Georgians. And both Georgia and Delaware – along with every other state – should have to meet universal standards of ballot access, which can only come from Congress.

Collins chose not to support a compromise proposal put forward by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who had already announced that he would vote against the For the People Act as written. That gave him the leverage to propose a less expansive reform package that eliminated all of the elements in the original bill that Collins listed as objections in her speech.

Still, she did not sign on.

Manchin says he will keep looking for a bipartisan solution, but he can’t have heard anything from Collins on Tuesday to give him hope that Republicans are leaving any room for compromise.

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Boston Globe. June 22, 2021.

Editorial: Remote access to public meetings a post-pandemic must

Distance and disability should not hamper political participation.

As we look back on the hellish year gone by, it’s also time to sort through those changes worth keeping, those things that actually made improvements in our lives.

And those changes don’t begin and end with to-go cocktails — as much fun as they were. One of the best things to come out of the pandemic lockdown was the way most government bodies from Beacon Hill committees to municipal boards and commissions adapted, allowing their own members and members of the public to attend meetings remotely — from the comfort and safety of their homes.

Computer screens became that critical window on the political world that allowed the public to tune in to legislative committee hearings on crucial issues, city council hearings, town meetings. And not merely to tune in, in many of those cases, but also to offer remote testimony. Distance or disability was no longer a factor. Nor was the inability to get a babysitter or reluctance to make the hours-long trek from Pittsfield to Boston.

This boon not merely to convenience but to government transparency must not be lost as this state and its public bodies return to something approaching normal. The Globe editorial board argued just recently that remote meetings should remain an option — but in many cases, the state can go a step further and make some form of remote access an explicit requirement.

Start with Beacon Hill itself. The Legislature, which operates under its own rules unhampered by the Open Meeting Law, has in some ways adapted admirably — providing remote access to committee hearings. In some (but not all) cases, committees have made written testimony publicly available. It would be unfortunate to see that newfound access disappear.

For those entities that are subject to the open meetings law, several bills filed this year — and already given their remote hearing — would keep the best of what Massachusetts residents have come to expect of their other political entities, updating the law to require that certain public bodies continue to provide “adequate, alternative means of public access” and “effective remote access” to meetings long after the state of emergency is lifted. It would also require a way to provide remote “active, real-time participation by members of the public” if that is already a requirement of in-person sessions.

Legislation to extend the ability of public bodies to use remote technology, but not to require it, through April 1, 2022, was signed by the governor last week.

Mindful of the benefits of maintaining an in-person presence, too, the proposed new law would also require that “all meetings of a public body shall be open to the public in a public place that is open and physically accessible to the public, . .” making it clear that once life has returned to normal, so must the business of doing the people’s business in person and in public.

The legislation filed by Representative Denise Garlick and Senator Jason Lewis not only has the support of some 60 of their colleagues but also of a coalition of advocacy groups including the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, the New England First Amendment Coalition and several disability rights groups.

“Last year saw the majority of buildings and venues becoming inaccessible to society at large — and suddenly there was this universal understanding of what inaccessibility meant, whether in the context of a disability or a raging global pandemic,” said Dianna Hu, chairperson of the Boston Center for Independent Living in a statement. “Remote participation is the latest manifestation of universal design — alongside curb cuts, elevators, closed captioning, audiobooks, and other accessibility features that expanded to universal popularity. We now have a remarkable opportunity to not only uphold but to also optimize accessibility, making remote participation a curb cut 2.0 for the modern day and age.”

A remote option can coexist perfectly well with in-person meetings. After all, Zoom — and its remote technology cousins like Facebook Live and YouTube Live — will never be a complete substitute for the real thing, especially for journalists, as Bob Ambrogi, executive director of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, told lawmakers at a hearing earlier this month.

“Yes, they can see them on a Zoom, but no, they cannot walk up to them afterward, engage with them and talk to them and converse with them in that way,” he said.

But “there is no reason to move backwards from this new era of public access,” he added in a statement later.

No reason at all — and every reason to preserve this newfound means of making government more transparent and more accessible.

There was a time when what should be “the people’s business” was too often conducted in smoke-filled rooms. Well, the smoke may have cleared, but the requirements of the Open Meeting Law remain a source of frequent tugging and pulling. Adding a new level of transparency is long overdue. Now it can be a rare pandemic bonus.

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Boston Herald. June 24, 2021.

Editorial: Time for landlords to get the lead out

It’s one thing to get a law on the books, it’s another to get people to comply.

Such is the case with Massachusetts’ 50-year-old Lead Law, which requires removal or control of lead paint in houses where children under the age of 6 live.

For decades, lead paint was the go-to because of its durability, but research in the ’60s and ’70s pointed to lead as an environmental health threat, particularly for children. Those of a certain age may remember the “pica balloon” PSAs, which reminded kids not to pick at peeling paint and eat it.

But with the Lead Law enacted in ’71, and lead-based paint banned in 1978, the problem should be solved.

It isn’t.

Many older buildings still have lead paint, and property owners are still not removing it, the State House News Service reported.

It is, apparently, an open secret, and Rep. David LeBoeuf, D-Worcester, has filed legislation to update the Lead Law to ensure compliance.

His bill would phase in a new mandatory schedule for removing lead paint or other sources of excessive lead regardless of whether a young child lives in the building, starting in communities with significant numbers of lead poisoning cases.

“The challenges related to lead haven’t gone away. Only 10% of housing constructed before 1978 has actually been de-leaded or had a leading inspection,” LeBoeuf said. “One of the more disturbing statistics is that, in 2017, the most recent data we have, 3,555 Massachusetts children met the CDC definition of lead poisoning. This is clearly a public health crisis.”

That the Lead Law requires lead paint removal in buildings where children under 6 reside has provided a loophole for property owners who don’t want to incur the expense of de-leading. Teresa Decker, a Worcester resident with a young son, spoke during a Virtual Housing Fair Wednesday about her search for an apartment in 2016.

Decker had a Section 8 voucher and because of her child, she had to be notified of any lead risks under state law.

“Landlords would just tell me ‘I don’t have a lead certificate and I’m not willing to obtain one.’ ”

Meris Bergquist, executive director of the Massachusetts Fair Housing Center, said more than 3,000 Bay State children are afflicted with lead poisoning each year, and they are often exposed to lead paint in older households.

She said that according to the Department of Public Health, Massachusetts has 1.8 million dwellings that still have not been made lead-safe for children in the decades since enactment of the state’s Lead Law.

“Lead poisoning, as I’m sure most of you know, is a devastating childhood disease, and the tragedy of lead poisoning is that it’s completely avoidable,” Bergquist said. “These (bills) would get us to the point where we reduce about 88% of childhood lead poisoning.”

That this legislation is needed 50 years after the initial law was passed is unconscionable — especially as non-compliance has contributed to lead poisoning in children. This should have been dealt with in the decades since the Lead Law was enacted.

Yes, de-leading can be expensive, but the state offers financial help to property owners through tax credits, grants and loans.

Here’s hoping LeBoeuf’s legislation gets the green light — and it’s a shame that it’s necessary.

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Rutland Herald. June 19, 2021.

Editorial: Change in the air

You could feel the change this week. In the days following Gov. Phil Scott’s announcement he was lifting many COVID restrictions, people seemed both relieved and eager to push forward as normally as possible into summer.

It was also good news that the economy and the job market are rebounding steadily from the pandemic recession. However, the number of Americans applying for unemployment benefits rose last week for the first time since April despite widespread evidence that jobs are available.

The Labor Department said this week that jobless claims rose 37,000 from the week before to 412,000. As the job market has strengthened, the number of weekly applications for unemployment aid has fallen for most of the year. The number of jobless claims generally reflects the pace of layoffs.

Here in Vermont, based on the most recent data, the seasonally-adjusted unemployment rate remained the same at 2.9% in April. The comparable United States rate in April was 6.1%, which was an increase of one-tenth of one percentage point from the revised March estimate.

There are plenty of jobs out there. The Help Wanted signs seem to be all around. And it seemed that progress was being made.

Employers are posting job openings faster than applicants can fill them. In April, they advertised a record 9.3 million job openings, up a sharp 12% from the number in March.

The rapid rollout of vaccines has brought the number of new confirmed COVID-19 cases down to an average of just over 12,000, from around 250,000 a day in early January.

Across the US, weekly applications for unemployment aid had dropped for six straight weeks, and economists had expected another dip last week. Still, the report showed the four-week average of claims, which smooths out week-to-week ups and downs, fell by 8,000 last week to 395,000 — the lowest four-week average since the pandemic slammed the economy in March 2020.

For jobless claims to rise slightly “should not be cause for concern yet,’’ AnnElizabeth Konkel, economist at the Indeed Hiring Lab told The Associated Press. “The big picture is that while we are not back to a ‘normal’ level yet of initial claims, they are no longer astronomically high.’’

A year ago, nearly 1.5 million people had applied for unemployment benefits in one week.

With vaccinations up and more consumers venturing out to spend — on restaurant meals, airline fares, movie tickets and store purchases — the economy is rapidly recovering from the recession. All that renewed spending has fueled customer demand and led many companies to seek new workers, often at higher wages, and avoid layoffs.

As we have noted in various articles in recent days, the speed of the rebound from the recession has caught many businesses off guard and touched off a scramble to hire. In May, employers added a less-than-expected 559,000 jobs, evidence that many companies are struggling to find enough workers as the economy recovers faster than expected.

Fortunately, with the COVID restrictions being lifted here in Vermont and elsewhere (especially in neighboring states that are also seeing strong vaccination numbers), the shift will continue and the economy will start to move.

At least that is the hope.

Many economists expect hiring to catch up with demand in the coming months, especially as federal unemployment aid programs end and more people pursue jobs. They note that the economy still has 7.6 million fewer jobs than it did before the pandemic struck.

Though initial jobless claims have tumbled since early January, when they exceeded 900,000 in a single week, they remain high by historical standards. Before the pandemic paralyzed the economy in March 2020, unemployment applications were running at about 220,000 a week.

In this week’s jobless report, the government said a total of 3.5 million Americans were continuing to collect traditional state unemployment benefits in the week ending June 5, up by just 1,000 from the week before.

No question, the pandemic has taken its toll. Just a week ago, 130 organizations that work with Vermont’s most vulnerable communities urged a methodical restart to accommodate all people. Many Americans are contending with health and child care issues related to COVID-19 and with career uncertainty after the recession wiped out many jobs for good.

We should feel good about the steps that have been taken, and the move back to normal. But there is still plenty of work to be done.

END