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Willie's Off-Brand Web Journal: October 10-November 2, 2007

Wednesday, October 10, 2007:

I haven't mentioned it lately, but I've been spending a lot of time working as the studio assistant at Maine AIRS, the local SAP radio station for the blind. (I've told you about it before; we read stories from local newspapers so blind people can hear in-depth community stories rather than being stuck with impersonal wire reports or gory action news.) Besides reading on the air, I'm an all-purpose helper for Les, the station manager. I help wrangle the volunteer readers, program the pre-recorded portions of the broadcast, print out copies of the dailies that don't send us hard copies, etc. It's only 16 hours a week, but it's satisfying work with an important service, so that makes me feel less irredeemable.

While volunteers read live, I often wind up in our auxiliary studio, recording episodes of Here's What We Think. That's a daily feature that compiles local papers' editorials, columns, and letters to the editor, and it allows us to keep the opinion pieces more-or-less in one slot. I get to scour the previous week's acquisitions, pick out all the liberal commentaries that I personally agree with, and then spend a half hour spouting my pinko views in other people's words. It's cleansing, and Les doesn't mind the way I cherry-pick my pieces so long as I don't hammer a single point too much or get overly pointed or sarcastic with my inflection. Other readers do the same thing, so our weekly programming achieves a lumpy sort of balance.

The process of locating the editorials I want to read, though, is frequently even more fun, because I get to flip through a bunch of teensy community publications, which are endlessly fascinating. The police logs, for instance, are fonts of straight-faced hilarity, documenting the concerns of busybodies statewide as they call the cops to report unleashed dogs interrupting softball games or motorcycles they suspect might not be properly registered.

This activity has also instilled in me an appreciation for the outsider art gallery that is the "letters to the editor" section, as it is the exclusive province of utter nutbars, be they from the far right, the far left, or interesting shantytowns nowhere near the political spectrum the rest of us occupy. As far back as elementary school, I remember being taught that letters to the editor were not only the duty of the informed, literate American but an effective catalyst for social change. In practice, however, letters to the editor are more an outlet for histrionic attention hounds and cranky tattletales than a forum for any sort of reasoned debate or counterpoint.

Well, that's a bit of hyperbole, obviously, but it's difficult not to get that impression at times. Such as when five paragraphs are devoted to complaining about the service at a local restaurant, when each week sees the continuation of a serialized argument in which feuding neighbors publicly and repeatedly suggest the other move away, or when someone decides that the pages of the dinky Castine Patriot are the logical place to entreat the nation's Democratic Senators to stop knuckling under to the threat of a Republican filibuster. Or when the author is clearly bananas, as in this verbatim excerpt from a letter published in the Aroostook Republican and Journal: "We, as Americans 'believe in good vs. evil.' Not a fairy tale topic but one of true existence in our lives. They say by statistics many Americans still believe in the Bible. (Ooh did I say something wrong? Will I be sued?) We as a nation, under God, should be at arms not with our trivial bickerings, our dividing politics breeding hate and blindness, and global warming (was man responsible for the Earth warming after the Ice age?) but with one sure common enemy- human chipping."

Beyond curious people-watching, though, skimming roughly 20 of these publications on a weekly basis has led me to honestly admire the "local control" model of government on which Maine communities pride themselves. There's a lot of direct citizen participation in municipal activities and decisions, and that same stubborn, distinctively New England attitude that leads certain people to think that no issue of the Houlton Pioneer Times would be complete without their unsolicited input manifests itself in a far more productive way at town meetings and other authentically democratic traditions. It's been especially interesting to follow towns' informed and vocal reactions to our governor's unpopular consolidation of the state's 290 school districts (a vastly bloated number, in my view, that illustrates what happens when local control is allowed to move from "hands-on" to "grabby") and his proposal to consolidate Maine's county jails. I think that level of involvement is amazing. 

That's not to say there aren't some popcorn-ready tales of cuckoo in the straight news sections as well, of course.

The story I've been most closely following in the past month or so comes from The Wiscasset Newspaper. Wiscasset is a town that's sort of between Augusta and Portland, as far as I can tell. It was economically devastated in 1997, when the Maine Yankee nuclear power plant ceased operation, leaving behind a bunch of waste and unused land. Twin River Energy Corporation, a subsidiary of Stamford's disgustingly punctuated National RE/sources, now wants to build an environmentally indefensible "gasification plant" on that land. (Evidently, that's a fancypants name for a combination refinery and coal power plant.)

Before the project can go forward, however, the citizens of Wiscasset have to approve a change to a zoning ordinance, raising the building height limit from 60 feet to 230 feet. Though Twin River had provided no satisfactory answers to questions such as where they plan to get the ten million gallons of water needed each day to power the plant (and the information they did provide was far from believable, such as the claim that the plant will be able to manufacture electricity for two cents per kilowatt), the town's board of selectmen was so enamored of the idea that they tentatively announced their intention to have the town vote on the zoning change in November.

In September, Wiscasset held a town meeting to discuss the project. This article dispassionately makes clear that the attendees were overwhelmingly against the measure's inclusion on November's ballot- either because they're against the project as a whole or because they want more time to make an informed decision- and the scarce proponents included one woman who seemed to think the plant is predestined. ("'I believe the town should go forward with this,' she said. 'If it is meant to be, it will happen.'") Furthermore, the headline itself- "Question: Does the Whole Project Hinge On This Vote? Answer: Yes"- makes it clear that the measure to reword the height ordinance will be the last chance the townspeople themselves have to put a stop to this project if that's what they choose. 

Nevertheless, the next issue of The Wiscasset Newspaper trumpeted, "Plant vote going on Nov. ballot." The selectmen, by a vote of three to one (with one member of the board having left the meeting before the vote), pushed it on through because, well, they could. An editorial in that same issue stated, "Selectman Bill Curtis said the selectmen want to let the developers know that people support it before they spend money on a feasibility study. Chairman Duane Goud said he wants to know what people think in November."

So Duane Goud thinks the best way to get a bead on his town's attitude toward the plant is to rush through a binding referendum rather than, say, taking an informal poll. Bill Curtis, on the other hand, wants to send Twin River the message, "Land sakes! Don't burden yourselves with a costly study to answer questions about your ill-defined project before we vote for it!" This really stuck in my craw.

It's not like there's anything novel or surprising about a municipal governing body behaving like the foolish power junkies they most likely are. (The Troy City Council, back in Michigan, evidently got into a lengthy pissing match with Hooters that sounds like it was fabulously entertaining. Thankfully, my dad was kind enough to keep me abreast- get it?- of the funniest details.) I just found it disillusioning that even Maine, with its prized level of citizen involvement, isn't free from elected officials who have no compunction about fucking over their constituents at the behest of industry. If my crash course in Maine self-governance has taught me nothing else, though, it's that we're pretty pigheaded up here. So my hope is that the folks in Wiscasset will vote this rephrased ordinance down on principle.

I really do love election season.

CURRENT MUSIC: The self-titled album by Volcano, I'm Still Excited!!
CURRENT MOOD:
Impatient and annoyed that Radiohead hasn't yet sent me my In Rainbows download password. What's the world coming to when my three dollars doesn't buy instantaneous service?
CURRENT FUTILE QUEST:
To find an online copy of the Odds' "Heterosexual Man" video. (Seems Broadway Video had it scrubbed from YouTube. Why would they own the copyright to that clip just because the Kids in the Hall are in it?)
TIME:
10:25 a.m.

Doot? | |

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