Wishing the Grinch Away

While good little girls and boys may be wishing for candy canes and sugar plums (which are, of course, really code words for new iPhones5s, Playstation4s and such), many town departments are obviously and publicly dreaming on some numbers of their own this holiday season. These include numbers like 5% budget increases, $200,000 increases in beach lease costs (a 50% increase), and expensive new goodies like Apples (Apple laptops that is) for students and electronic voting thingies for town meeting.

All that, on top of the whopping tax increases already underway to pay for Duxbury’s biggest capital spending spree ever over the past few years, adds up to conditions that will make most of Duxbury’s taxpayers feel not merely like cash-strapped parents working hard to have enough to buy presents for the kids, but struggling to keep up with steep college tuition and living costs as well – which, of course, many Duxbury parents in fact are already doing.

All of which makes this a particularly critical time of testing for René Reed, our new (as of last spring) Duxbury Town Manager. His predecessor, Richard MacDonald, did a very good job keeping a lid on at least the most outrageous demands for lots more money from one department or another. Sure, spending and taxes went up well over 2 1/2 % each year on his watch, but it would have been much worse had MacDonald and Finance Director John Madden not imposed some reasonable discipline on departmental spending requests within the normal annual budget process.

That happy fiscal restraint in town spending did not break down there, but with the choices of voters who rather abruptly, a few years ago, went from “just say no” to “of course, let’s build it and worry about how to pay for it later” in approving the biggest spurt of capital spending Duxbury’s ever seen, piling on loads of new debt to create whopping real estate tax increases for at least the next 20 years.

Perhaps based on the notion that compared to $130 million plus in capital spending an extra $200,000 or so – and maybe another million or two here or there as well – just doesn’t seem like very much, a number of would-be claimants to Duxbury taxpayers’ dollars appear to be lining up for their cut, looking to “get while the getting’s good”, as it were.

Reed has, commendably, at least tried to put the brakes on a little before handing over another $200,000 for Pipingploverville, but it remains to be seen what, if any, long-term effect that will have. The real test will come in the operating and capital budgets that come before town meeting in March. It will be Reed’s first real fiscal test ‘under fire’, and under much tougher conditions than MacDonald faced.

At the end of the day, though, one person can only do so much, even if he is town manager, without firm support and backing from concerned citizens. Those who want to spend money on something or other are always vocal on behalf of their projects and budgets. Those who want to spend your money for you will always try to label you as the grumpy Grinch who stole Christmas if you oppose them.

But the real Grinch is a government that grows faster than the economy, faster than the incomes of its citizens, and faster than the real rate of inflation. That is why it is so very important for those who want to see some reasonable fiscal restraint, those do not want to see their real estate taxes erode their disposable income every year, to make their own voices heard in town hall and on the floor of town meeting. Duxbury’s over-burdened taxpayers need to speak up for fiscal restraint. Will we? Will you?

Electronic Options

Duxbury’s open town meeting is a surviving instance of the species “New England town meeting” with a long, venerable, and honorable history. Like all members of the genus “legislative bodies” it combines robust features that have served well for centuries with some arguably rather archaic aspects that perhaps could be updated without damage to the underlying institution. One of the most interesting of these is the possibility of replacing the current methods for voting at Duxbury town meeting with new, high-tech, electronic options.

The real pioneer in advancing the New England town meeting into the electronic frontier is Alan J. Reiss, an electrical engineer by trade, long-time (since 1988) resident of Wayland, Massachusetts, and former selectman there (2005-2008). Convinced that there had to be a better way to count votes at Wayland’s Town Meeting, Reiss spearheaded an effort to bring electronic voting to Wayland. That resulted, after a trial run, to passage at Wayland’s Town Meeting last year (in April 2012) of a citizen petition article to support funding of electronic voting through 2015.

In his campaign for the adoption of electronic voting in Wayland, Reiss argued that electronic voting “technology solves three of the most important problems which plague modern day New England open town meeting” by enabling votes to be counted fast (in no more than 60 seconds), accurately, and privately. He created a web site (http://electronicvoting.info) to promote the idea, not just in Wayland, but throughout New England.

Although clearly an advocacy site promoting electronic voting, Reiss’s web site is also an excellent resource with extensive information specifically about the options for electronic voting at traditional New England town meetings. It is an exemplary advocacy site in that it emphasizes information, verifiable facts, and reasonable argument over simple cheerleading. It provides detailed information on the technology and its costs. It also offers excellent basic information on the institution of town meeting in Massachusetts – open and representative – with links to additional resources.

One of the most interesting aspects of Reiss’s approach is that unlike some, who would prefer simply to toss out the traditional town meeting entirely and replace it with something more streamlined – but that further distances citizens from the process of government – Reiss clearly sees electronic voting as a means to strengthen the institution of the New England town meeting by making it easier and more convenient for more citizens to be more involved in their local government by providing them with a more efficient and more effective way to do it.

It is clearly due, in large part, to Reiss’s efforts that a growing number of Massachusetts towns are adopting or are at least considering adopting electronic voting options for town meeting. These currently include, in addition to Wayland: Arlington, Amherst, Framingham, Hingham, Lexington, Westborough, and Westwood – and now, of course, Duxbury as well. Reiss’s fact-based carefully reasoned advocacy of electronic voting may prove to be a significant factor in ensuring the ongoing survival of what has become an endangered species: the New England open town meeting.

This is not to say that Duxbury ought automatically and uncritically to adopt electronic voting at town meeting. But we surely ought to give it a fair hearing and to consider seriously the proposal that will likely be brought forward to Duxbury’s 2014 Annual Town Meeting in March. Interested voters can get a great head start by taking a good look at Reiss’s web site to learn more about it now. Check it out!

Open Doublespeak

George Orwell’s dystopian book “Nineteen Eighty-Four” (published in 1949) portrays a repressive dictatorial society in which thought and language are deliberately distorted to mean the opposite of what they should mean. Although not directly used in the book, the word “doublespeak” is generally acknowledged to have originated as a variant on the related term “doublethink” – which is used in the book. It refers to “language that deliberately disguises, distorts, or reverses the meaning of words” according to the Wikipedia article on it.

As we noted two weeks ago, the Great and General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (a.k.a. the Mass. Legislature) has clearly mastered the art of doublespeak, passing a “freedom of information” act providing numerous ways for state and local government to frustrate citizen attempts to obtain information and an “open meeting law” that offers numerous ways to obscure or conceal what goes on in meetings while impeding effective action by citizen volunteer boards and committees.

The doublespeak absurdity of the so-called “freedom of information” laws is so egregious that the Legislature has recently felt compelled to make at least a pretense of attempting to reform it – though with no actual reform thus far. The situation with the recently revised and purportedly reformed and improved “open meeting” law is, however, even worse.

The Massachusetts Open Meeting Law is, in large part, a doublespeak con game. It make a great show of formal requirements for posting and holding meetings while ensuring that, unless someone goes to the trouble of recording it, what actually goes on during a meeting will largely be erased from view by way of selectively kept sanitized minutes. This can readily be verified by anyone who cares to compare the recordings of any meeting of, say, the Duxbury Board of Selectmen with the minutes of that meeting.

By far the worst doublespeak aspect of the so-called Open Meeting Law, however, is the policy of the Office of Open Government within the Office of the Attorney General of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts that forbids discussion by email among a quorum of a public body. The result is to ensure that any discussions outside the actual meeting will remain concealed entirely from public view while making the work of the board or committee more difficult, less effective, less efficient and less open.

A far better approach would be freely to permit discussion of matters before a public body via email between actual physical meetings subject to the requirements that 1) all such emails must be sent to the entire membership of the body; 2) copies must also be provided to a keeper of record (for example, the Office of the Town Clerk in the case of a town); 3) that such copies be immediately available to any citizen who requests them (or, even better, that citizens have the right to be included on the email circulation list for the body upon their request); 4) that copies of all such emails must be included as part of the minutes of the next physical meeting of the body; and 5) that no other communications among any members of the body, whether a quorum or not, shall be permitted between meetings except via such emails.

This would ensure that deliberations of public bodies would be far more open, more publicly accessible, and more fully and accurately recorded than they are now. It would make the operation of citizen volunteer boards and committees far more efficient and effective, as well as more open. Our elected representatives to the Legislature should see to it that such a policy is implemented promptly. Do you think?

Four Computer Scams

Providing computer and networking support, one of one’s most common tasks is to help out folks who have been victimized by some sort of computer scam. Over the past year four specific computer scams have hit multiple home and business users in and around Duxbury. If you use computers at home or at work, you need to be aware of these scams and to take care to avoid them.

The first and one of the worst is the fake Microsoft support call scam. You get a phone call, typically from a call center in India, claiming to be from Microsoft tech support, saying problems have been detected on your computer; that is it running slowly because of a virus infection; and offering to fix it for you, initially seemingly for free. What follows is a sophisticated social engineering manipulation aimed first to con you into downloading and installing some software and, later, to provide a credit card number to pay for ongoing ‘warranty’ support for several hundred dollars.

It often targets older people who are not comfortable with computers, but it can hit anyone. It is sometimes followed up with further attempts to scam the victim by offering a refund but asking for bank information in order, purportedly, directly to deposit the refund in your bank account. But the real aim is to suck money out of your account. Microsoft never makes any such phone calls. Neither does any other reputable vendor. If you get such a call, you can be sure it is a scam. Don’t fall for it.

The second is equally vicious. It is a false pop-up that appears, usually, while you are browsing the web. It claims to be from CyberCrime@FBI.gov (or something similar), asserting that illegal activity has been detected on your computer, saying it has been locked up, and directing you to a site to pay a ‘fine’ in order to unlock your computer. It will often originate from a gambling or porn site that has been set up deliberately to work this scam, though not always.

In fact, the initial infection is a rather thin layer of malicious software that has exploited some security flaw in your web browser, is really more annoying than crippling, and can at this stage be fairly easily removed. If you fall for the scam, though, not only will you end up paying the scammers their bogus ‘fine’, but your computer will likely be infected with some very serious malicious software that allows the scammers to access and control it at will – and that can be extremely difficult to remove.

The third is similar, but involves a pop-up claiming that malicious software or other problems have been detected on your computer and offering to fix it. It purports to be from Microsoft or some legitimate anti-virus security software vendor. It is not. Fall for this one and the results are similar to the FBI ‘fine’ scam (and its variants). Not only will your pockets be picked via your credit card to pay for bogus security or utility software, but truly malicious software will likely be installed on your computer as well.

The fourth is on the border of illegal scam and legitimate but dubious business practice. It involves shady operations that pay Google or other search engines for prominent placement when you search for some software or services. You want to download software from Microsoft, say, or search for jobs, or find recipes, but the results at the top of the page are actually links to a web page that, in addition to teasing you with whatever you are really looking for, snookers you into allowing it to install software you do not want, that aims to sell you something or other, and that will often be outright malicious.

Good Internet security software and legitimate operating system and software updates offer some protection, but avoiding computer scams requires wary common sense as well. Be skeptical about anything or anyone that ‘volunteers’ out of nowhere to ‘fix’ some purported problem on your computer. If it smells fishy, it probably is. If you do get infected, get help promptly, from a reliable source. Ignoring malicious software on your computer exposes you to identity theft, financial loss, and worse. Don’t get scammed! Get smart!

Appealing Options?

Duxbury’s handling of the 2008/2009 contract for the management of the North Hill Golf Course and the lawsuit resulting from the attempt to award the contract to anyone but Johnson Golf (which was, in fact, the only qualified bidder based on the criteria of Duxbury’s request for proposals) has left much to be desired. To call the handling of the bid and of the case “mismanagement” surely qualifies as an understatement – at best.

Nonetheless, the recent decision of the Duxbury Board of Selectmen to appeal the judgment and order of the trial court to pay Johnson Golf Management $840,000 in lost profits, interest, and penalties (to be paid by Duxbury’s taxpayers), though surely risky, is not necessarily wrong.

It will certainly result in Duxbury’s taxpayers paying tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars to the firm of Duxbury’s Town Counsel (Anderson & Kreiger). It will, if unsuccessful, result in Duxbury’s taxpayers paying even tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars more in additional interest to Johnson Golf. But successful, it could reduce and perhaps even eliminate the requirement that Duxbury’s taxpayers pay the $840,000 awarded to Johnson Golf by the jury and trial court.

That is not because Duxbury acted properly in the first place. The trial record, findings of fact by the jury, and judgment of the court leave no room for doubt that Duxbury’s conduct in handling the bid award and the lawsuit was reprehensible and clearly violated the law. Nevertheless, Duxbury does still have some chance to “beat the rap” in the case on what is, essentially, a technicality.

The jury found that Duxbury violated the law, but they did so ambiguously in finding that while Duxbury violated the procurement laws (MGL Ch. 30b) it was not done “in bad faith” (whatever that means – the words of the law are ill-defined) but also another section of the law concerned with consumer protection (MGL Ch. 93a). The monetary award to Johnson Golf Management was made under the latter. That’s where Duxbury has a chance to “slip the noose” and not pay the award.

The trick lies in the doctrine of “sovereign immunity”, the notion that government entities can do stuff that private entities would otherwise be penalized for and get away with it. If that argument sticks, Duxbury is off the hook, despite its misconduct. If it doesn’t, the cost to Duxbury’s taxpayers will be even more than the attorney’s fees already paid and the $840,000 already owed. If the appeal works, the BOS will have saved us some money. If it does not they will have cost us tens or perhaps even hundreds of thousands of dollars more. Did they made the right choice? What do you think?

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