Sunday, October 7, 2007

The Regional Task Force (of Nature!)

This past Wednesday I attended the meeting of the Regional Task Force on Casino Impacts at the Lakeville library, disappointed but not surprised to, once again, be the only resident of Bridgewater, a town of 27,000 people, in attendance.

I guess our representative to the Task Force, Bridgewater Selectman Mark Oliari, once again, had something better to do. Not venturing out much these days - possibly to avoid a run-in with the roaming packs of torch and pitchfork wielding ex-employees of the library.

To be fair to Mr. Oliari, the representative from East Bridgewater, a town of 14,000 was also a no-show. But still, Bridgewater is an abutter. And there were reps at the meeting from Kingston, Plymouth and Pembroke, taking the matter as seriously as it should be.

If Mr. Oliari and the East Bridgewater rep only knew that Senator Marc R. Pacheco (D – Foxwoods) would be in attendance at the meeting! How exciting! A chance for a free and open discourse with the state rep for most of the Task Force’s towns.

I was joined at the meeting by fellow CasinoFacts friends and board members from Middleboro, Plympton and Lakeville,

As the meeting settled down, an unexpected visitor arrived – Ruth Geoffroy, Middleboro Town Planner – and raised her hand. Nancy Yeatts, Lakeville selectwoman and Task Force chair, avoided eye contact and continued with the meeting.

That’s when Ruth made her first mistake. When her hand was ignored, she spoke out of turn, again and again, and asked that Middleboro be allowed to join the Task Force.

Don’t interrupt Nancy. Don’t ever interrupt Nancy.

I’m not going to lie. It felt a little good to see the gavel on the other foot… eh, in the other hand, for a change. I hoped Ruth would understand that it wasn’t personal. She was just the unfortunate messenger from Middleboro. And actually there wasn’t even a gavel.

(I wondered briefly why the Middleboro Board of Selectmen didn’t send one of their own before it dawned on me that they are, under contractual obligation, forbidden from speaking with any honesty about a casino.)

With Ruth thoroughly, if not brutally cautioned and left to sit quietly in the front row cauterizing the nub of what had been her left arm, Nancy asked the Task Force members to introduce themselves.

Along with all the towns (except Bridgewater and East Bridgewater, of course) was a rep from SRPEDD, and someone from the Old Colony something-or-other I didn’t quite make out because he was mumbling. If anyone knows, please enlighten me.

As I looked across at the table, it was with no small amount of personal satisfaction that I recognized, along with Ms. Lakeville, selectmen from Plympton, Carver and Halifax. These were the towns I’d personally spoken to, hoping to alert them to the true consequences of a proposed casino in our region.

And, while my part in speaking to those towns, was very very small - just a few words, really - the opportunity do it at all meant quite a bit more to me than many of you might realize.

How many meetings in Middleboro, how many hours did I quietly log in that town, through Spring and Summer, as the sole non-resident? I’d written editorials and created blogs and held signs, but to simply have the opportunity to share what I’d learned, as a fellow neighbor, with the concerned citizens of other towns, well - it was like taking a burden off my own worried shoulders, and watching with quiet gratitude as they willingly hoisted it onto their own. To have my neighboring towns recognize that we shared this, that we were all in this together, and to come together, is worth more than I can say – particularly in the face of my own town’s lack of involvement.

Senator Pacheo was introduced. He insisted he could not stay long, then spent an hour and a half letting the Task Force know that Massachusetts is broke and cannot be fixed without a big fat hypodermic full of gambling revenue.

He’s been in office 20 years now and has seen this debate come and go. But now, more than ever, we need the money.

I realized, with depressing clarity that I’d actually voted for Mr. Pacheco in his very first election back when I was living in East Taunton. And not just him, but also, while living in Plymouth, for Therese Murray. Two people who sounded really smart at the time. Now it’s obvious that their sight is so short they can’t see a life for our region beyond the flashing lights of a slot machine. Slide this lesson into the ‘live and learn’ column.

Suddenly, I notice a police officer standing at the back of the room. Do state senators always travel with police presence, I wondered.

Back at the front of the room, Mr. Pacheco revealed that he enjoys his excursions to Foxwoods. Once there, he is greeted by name, slapped on the back and shaken by the hand by numerous South Shore constituents. Constituents he, no doubt, recognizes by their dollar value. Not only to his campaign fund, but to his thinking, revenue which could stay in the region.

But wait! Didn’t we understand? He’s the champion of surrounding communities! He tells us a healthy cut of the gambling revenue will be divvied up by the state and sprinkled like manna from heaven to us - because he has a plan.

He has recognized four categories of need stemming from a casino or two or three or four in the region:

Contiguous – meaning abutting communities like Bridgewater, Halifax and Plympton et al.

Exclusivity – meaning communities which already have some sort of claim to gambling revenue (which can only mean the Raynham dog track)

But For’s – communities which, for example, depend on bingo nights etc. to help fund local organization like cub scouts, churches, you get the idea…

And another category which I didn’t hear because I couldn’t get the image of a butt with a big number 4 being burned into it with a branding iron, out of my head.

I wonder idly if Senator Pacheco had used the word ‘contiguous’ rather than ‘abutting’ for the first category in an attempt to avoid an excessive amount of big butts.

(It's been a long week.)

One of the first things Pacheco did that night, the currently popular strategy of the pro-casino lobby, is to insist the impetus is on the towns to find ways, if not to become dependant on gambling, to solve the fiscal crises facing the region. Want to complain? Come up with an alternative. Pacheco claims a desire for ‘a dialogue’ with the towns on this, yet it becomes clear that this dialogue will one-way. His way.

Through the course of the evening, I come to realize that Senator Pacheco doesn’t drink the Kool-Aid. He is the Kool-Aid.

John, from Plympton, whispers that the police officer in the back of the room was summoned by Nancy Yeatts in response to Ruth's repeated attempts to inject herself into the Task Force.

Well, I thought, that’s a bit harsh. To be honest, having once been gaveled by my own selectman, my heart went out to Ruth. She knows her job in and out, is always there at the meetings and, except for having a blood-Kool-Aid level of about 1.6 and a voice which could put Ambien out of business, she’s always seemed perfectly nice. No reason, I thought, to call in the gendarmes.

Or is it?

Nancy Yeatts saw, as I did, the events transpire over the summer in Middleboro. She’s heard about chest-thumping flying monkeys in orange shirts and executive limos, and she knows that Middleboro voters approved a casino agreement because they were convinced they had no choice. Thanks to CasinoFacts she knows that, instead of studying real casino impacts, the town listened only to the Tribe and a tribe of lawyers. And she watched the whole damn thing go down quicker than a Josh Beckett fastball. Then, she got a great big load of Adam Bond at the first Task Force meeting. Nancy Yeatts has a town - and now - an entire region to protect, and God help anyone from Middleboro who tries strong-arm their way onto her table.

That cop wasn’t for Ruth. He was a big flashing neon casino-sized ‘Keep Out’ sign for Middleboro.

Haven’t you done enough, already?

Something that was becoming clear as I listen to Senator Pacheco speak, is that he really doesn’t quite understand the scope of this project. He, like many people I’ve spoken to and heard from, view giant casino resorts from the lens of contemporary perspective. They drive there, play there, have a good time and come back. They don’t see what was there before, what was lost, and the damage done to the region beyond a casino’s front gate. But we must.

The Senator goes on to repeatedly compare the Connecticut gambling casinos, and what the impact of a similar project (or two or three or four) in our region might be like, to another mall, or a Great Woods, or a Gillette Stadium.

A that moment, my friends and I from CasinoFacts shared with each other a similar expression. We were all thinking the same thing; A Foxwoods-like resort casino is in no way, shape or form comparable to any of these things. Think more... a mall, a Great Woods, a Gillette Stadium, two or three Las Vegas Casinos, a Water Whiz, and every club on Landsdowne Street (if they were open for business and sold free drinks 24/7) – within 5 miles of residential neighborhoods, and about 50 public schools. Not to mention on the direct evacuation route for the Plymouth Nuclear Power Plant. Something more on those lines.

The longer Senator Pacheco continues to speak, the deeper I spiral into my own small personal depression.

I love my town. I love this whole region. And I’ve always loved the state of Massachusetts in a more-than-heart-felt way that it’s hard to explain. To me, it’s always felt like a privilege to have been born and raised here – here in this intellect- rich, politically charged, historically significant, rurally and coastally beautiful, gambling-free, drive-too-fast, talk-too-funny, do-the-right-thing, sort of a state.

I’ve traveled across this country, met people from everywhere and still, no other place could inspire me in the way Massachusetts does. You can keep your OC, your Manhattan, your Hamptons, your 90210. As far as I’m concerned, the world’s best zip code is 02324.

But, as I watch Senator Pacheco perform his pro-casino Macarena at the front of the room, and the empty seat which should have been occupied by my own absentee selectman that evening, and think of the exuberant and uncompromising pro-casino stance taken by Ms. Murray, not to mention Treasurer Cahill, and Governor Patrick, and and my state rep, David L. Flynn (D – Slots) - I suddenly realize how completely and truly unrepresented I am.

So lately, it's been sort of like watching the love of your life turn into a real jerk.

I look, with envy, at the leadership enjoyed by fellow my CasinoFacts co-directors in attendance. Carl, who's fortunate to live in a town where a person like Nancy Yeatts is on the Board of Selectmen. John, whose towns stands, almost to a man, against the casino. And Iron Mike, from Middleboro, the town which, while it's government courted the casino, it's citizens founded CasinoFacts.

Is it any wonder I have a blog? Or write editorials? Or hold a sign? Or have the world’s largest no-casino sign on my front lawn. I am anti-casino. Hear me roar. The more you try to contain the voice of the public in a democracy, the more it seeps out the sides and leaves a nasty stain on your shirt. In the end, you can’t ignore it.

I wake from my reverie when Mr. Pacheco loudly proclaims that he gets more calls to his office from pro-casino constituents. He expects us to be surprised, but we're not. Perhaps I could fax the Senator my chart detailing the make-up of this majority, compiled from empirical data gathered in the field. He claims that, sure, this force is only marginally louder, but it’s still louder.

(Must be the Butt-Force. )

The Senator takes questions. And my faith is renewed. The well-spoken rep from Plymouth trumps the Senator by stating that in his 37 years in politics he’s seen this happen more than once.

"It’s a very old song being played once again," with the state sort of promising tax relief to cities and towns but making no concrete promises. "This is a very quick fix at the state level" but "the buck truly does stop in local communities," he said. "We're at the end of the trail.

The Senator claims someone at that very table, who’ll he’ll leave nameless, called him that week looking for aid, but before he could finish his sentence, brave little Berkley spoke up to announce that she wasn’t embarrassed if he used her town as an example or not.

Carver, West Bridgewater, Pembroke and Halifax all politely rebuke the Senator’s claims that there is no other road to travel than the one lined with casinos.

You're not going to find the South Shore's family jewels at the State House - because they're right here in this room.

Lacking the support he no doubt expected, the Senator finally lays all his cards on the table by proclaiming that there is nothing, nothing that can not be mitigated with enough money.

The room is quiet. We’ve come to an impasse.

Perhaps, long ago, before he set out on his long and glorious career, the Senator once understood what is still obvious to everyone else in the room: Money can’t buy you love. And these representatives from around the table, love their towns, and love what their towns are all about. And you can tell that they're disappointed, some to the point of disgust, at the Senators attitude.

But then, not everyone has an appetite for Kool-Aid.

Finally, after not being able to stay, and yet never seeming to be able to leave, the Senator packs up his Blackberry, and makes an exit.

Ruth Geoffroy bounds up and follows the Senator out the door.

While she is out of the room Nancy calls for the Task Force to vote whether or not to include Middleboro in the Task force.

The result: A unanimous, unapologetic and resounding NO!

Returning to the room, Ruth asks to be recognized and makes another plea for Middleboro. She has no idea that her presence here is like having the person who burnt down the apartment building with their unattended cigarette, demand to be allowed into the tenants association.

When she gets the news, she flees the room to catch up with the Senator.

Meanwhile, with Middleboro and the Senator gone, the group can finally get down to discussing the real issues, and with luck, some real solutions. To my relief, and utter delight, the Senator’s efforts to downplay the impacts of a casino, seemed only to invigorate and galvanize the Task Force.

Well, we’ll just have to do it without him.

I look at my watch. Thanks to Senator Pacheco, I was already an hour late for the sitter. As much as I hated to leave now that the Task Force was getting to work, I had no choice.

But I could tell they were going to be just fine.

On my way out, I passed the Senator, alone and checking his Blackberry, on the library sidewalk. It’s my chance, I knew, to talk to him one-on-one, to tell him all I knew, to try and change his mind.

Instead, I kept walking to my car. It was late. The sitter was probably sitting in her car with the engine on. And I didn't have a jack hammer handy to get through to him. Besides, I was still suffering from butt force trauma to the head.

I think I’ll just give him a call.

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