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September 24, 2009

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The Chestnut Hill Local
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Less is not always more

This week, the Chestnut Hill Community Association will consider a proposal by its Budget and Finance Committee to, in the wording in this week’s agenda (see page 2) enact “Fundamental Measures to Safeguard the Solvency and Future of Our Local.”

The proposal will set requirements for the Local to, over three years, aggressively pay back $82,698.11 in loans (as of Aug. 31) and begin to sock away $125,000 for a “rainy day” reserve. These payments add up to thousands of dollars a month.

To meet that schedule, the Local’s managers would need to cut spending by approximately 15 percent.

New associate publisher Larry Hochberger has already enacted steep cuts in spending – he’s trimmed commissions and cut staff in production – to produce a great deal of savings. Faced with the same task, I can’t help but see catastrophe.

Based on our current budget line of $219,000, I’d have to find $32,850.

In order to achieve that kind of saving, without laying off one of four full-time staffers, I’d have to eliminate major portions of the paper. Tom Utescher’s sports reporting could be sacrificed for some $9,000 in savings. Local Life could be cut to realize another $20,000.

Can we make any of these cuts without a noticeable decrease in quality? I don’t think so. I believe that any cuts in editorial – whether in personnel or in freelance spending — would certainly lessen quality and likely have a negative impact on circulation and revenue.

It is my belief that the Local should “tighten its belt,” particularly when the goal of doing so is to pay down debt over a prescribed time period and establish a cash reserve to help it get through short-term rough patches. But such a plan should consider every avenue available to maintain quality.

Over the last 10 years, despite inflation and rising costs, the Local has not increased editorial spending. In fact, it spends less now than it did in 1999, even though overall revenue has remained flat.

In 1999 the Local’s entire editorial department spent $246,281. This year we are set to spend $219,000. That’s approximately a 12 percent decline in spending over that time period.

In 1999 the Local, under Marie Jones’ editorial leadership, spent more than $50,000 on outside articles. That’s 20 percent more than our current, budgeted limit of $30,000 – a reduction of 40 percent.

This already has had an effect on the richness of our coverage, from sports to neighborhood news. The Local doesn’t have the resources it once did. If anything, it should spend more.

Studies show that persistent cuts in newsroom expenses can be directly tied to shrinking circulation and revenue, and that newsroom investment has the opposite effect. In her study “Uphill or Downhill? Locating your Firm on Profit Function,” Esther Thorson, a professor of journalism at the University of Missouri, described this correlation in a study of five years of data from the Inland Press Association, a membership organization of some 300 newspapers, daily and weekly:

Investments in news quality not only impact subscription sales directly, but also advertising revenues via subscriptions indirectly.  This result is especially true for smaller circulation newspapers whose newsrooms and editorial departments tend to be understaffed and overworked. Consequently, our answer to the question “Is good news quality good business?” is a resounding “Yes.”

If the board believes it can afford to reduce staff and/or spending, lose circulation and then reinvest once the business is stronger, it is mistaken. Such a tactic would most likely do further harm to the Local’s ability to generate revenue, and further cuts would be deemed necessary.

The product would never rebound. This has been the pattern of newspapers everywhere, from the Los Angeles Times to the Philadelphia Inquirer. Papers have found short-term profit by cutting costs, but when such cuts impact the product’s quality, circulation and revenues suffer.

The Local has already made a significant investment by hiring an associate publisher who has done much not only to organize the Local’s operation, but also to make substantial cutbacks in spending across the board. He also has ideas for new revenue, some that have already been realized and others that are currently underway.

In this business, it is amazing what you can do with little, but less in this case is not always more. It is my hope that that the goals of the Budget and Finance Committee can be met creatively, not by simple, impulsive cuts that will – without a doubt – further diminish the Local and continue to push the paper down a road to certain extinction.

Pete Mazzaccaro

 

Commentary: New zoning for college would remove community control

We attended the presentation of the Chestnut Hill College master plan last night and are very concerned that the Chestnut Hill Community Association have a full airing of issues that will affect our end of Chestnut Hill.

In recent years the college has proven to be a difficult neighbor in holding multiple out-of-doors rock concerts that continue far into the night and can be heard through our two foot thick stone walls, interfering with our enjoyment and  use of our own property. Instead of attempting to work with us, the college claims a right to break the city’s noise ordinance and has ignored neighbors’ complaints.

We have also had the loss of significant portions of our own property across the Wissahickon from the college because of their short-sighted infilling of the ox-bow lake of the Wissahickon for their present parking and tennis courts. This infill with thousands of truck-loads of highway debris has pinched the creek and forced it onto the opposite bank impacting all of the upstream properties, which are subject to significant flooding. This has caused the loss of major trees along the banks and destroyed the neighbors’ use of the rear sections of their property.

To date, the college has gone through the motions of engaging the community while providing two days-notice of a meeting for local neighbors, in the week before Labor Day when only one of the immediately affected households was available. Their meeting on   Sept. 14 was held out of Philadelphia and again was sparsely attended with some immediate neighbors stating that they had never been notified by the college of any of their projected changes.

With the college’s long-term abuse of its neighborhood as background, the Chestnut Hill Community Association should not give the college free rein in its massive enlargement of its campus from roughly 700 students and staff a few years ago to over 4,000 projected students, faculty and staff. This will result in more population than exists in most of Chestnut Hill and will change its character in ways that should be discussed.

This extraordinary growth will bring the college and the lack of policing of its community into conflict with a broader section of our neighborhood and will inevitably damage the north end of Chestnut Hill. Instead of being seen as a valuable residential neighborhood it will be seen as the site of a college whose values are at odds with its community.

The role of the Community Association should be to facilitate discussion and exploration of issues. The present zoning classifications of R-1 and R-2 in which the college is situated are appropriate to this community of private single-family homes.

The college’s goal of creating an Institutional Development District will shield it from much of the usual community review. Past experience with the University of Pennsylvania’s Institutional Development District shows the ease with which this zoning classification can be abused by reducing or eliminating community input.

The plans presented show a mega-structure that will, in fact, be some 10 stories in height — two stories of garage, five occupied stories and gable roofs above occupying the entire side of the Sugar Loaf hill — a building larger than any in Chestnut Hill. It will run along the side of the hill and will come down the slope almost to the Germantown Avenue bridge. The core of the building is a multi-level garage that will be made available to other neighboring institutions and will further add to the traffic and scale issues.

The college masterplan at present shows only footprint and location but gives no clear understanding of massing, scale — or for that matter — purpose and number of people occupying separate structures. In their presentation only one section drawing gives any real idea of the height and size that will dwarf every building in the vicinity, including their present campus. There are no street level views, and the views presume tree cover of summer and autumn — when most of the academic year is winter — when the lack of leaves will reveal the vast size of this enterprise.

Nor is there any clear evidence of how phasing will be organized. In an area of the community already severely impacted by traffic that often blocks Germantown Avenue from Bells Mill Road to Northwestern Avenue, the college is proposing to add some 600 parking spaces that will inevitably serve as a draw for more cars.

The college will also be adding performing arts facilities, sports facilities and the like, which will bring crowds and, if experience with other colleges is a guide, noise. The college has indicated that it will build the garage first — and can offer its use to neighboring institutions. This will exacerbate the impact of the growth of three neighboring institutions on their community.

The college has shown no alternate plans while obfuscating the actual scale of the proposed buildings. Given their past pattern of abuse the community should be leery of giving the college the free rein that an institutional development district implies.

At present the college does not meet the initial test of an Institutional Development District that its property be owned by a single entity. Therefore there should be no option for the Community Association to support this proposal and it should request that the college remain in its R-1 and R-2 zoning and continue to use the variance process that will bring it before the community as it proposes to build new facilities.

The result of an IDD will be to shift most of the discussions about growth and specific facilities from our community to City Council, which has proven susceptible to political strong-arming as the debate over casinos demonstrates.

Finally, we would note that the college should be required to set up a communication system that will, in fact, notify neighbors in a timely fashion — with adequate notice. A simple search of the Board of Revision of Taxes Web site would give all of the neighbors’ names for notification.

We look forward to a constructive discussion with the community association and the college which should not be short-circuited by approval of this plan.

Editor’s note: The college’s master plan calls for a combined total of just more than 3,000 students and faculty as opposed to Mr. Thomas’ assertion of 4,000. Also, the tallest structures on the Sugarloaf site measure seven stories not ten as is stated above.

 

 

Commentary: Settlement with Remus raises questions

Walter, since I was allowed only 300 words in my letter “Opening the Checkbook,” it was merely fish bait, which you obligingly took, hook, line and sinker. Now I’m being afforded more space because of your lengthy critique.

First I would like to present the facts, which are indisputable, then with all due respect, I would like to present you with questions to which I hope you will respond while refraining from your usual verbosity.

Indisputable Facts

You allowed $3,500 to be given to Rob Remus at the end of the Aug. 27 board meeting, even though it was conspicuously absent from the agenda. This could have been tabled until it was included in the agenda so that members of the community could have weighed in on giving away $3,500.

The settlement was based upon a claim that arose from opinion pieces  printed in the Local in January 2009 that addressed the CHCA board’s firing of former Local staffer, Jimmy Pack Jr., one month after a confrontation between Pack and Remus occurred in front of the Chestnut Hill Library after a board meeting.

No defamation of character claim was filed against the Local per the civil docket of Rob Remus.

The CHCA board voted to settle a claim not filed but threatened to be filed by Rob Remus.

The board voted, based on the recommendation of the Executive Committee, to pay Rob Remus $3,500, which Sullivan confirmed was used to pay down the $4,600 lawyer’s fee associated with the claim.

A letter dated Jan. 10, 2009, from Mark Jakubik of the Jakubik law firm, addressed to Dina Hitchcock, vice president of operations at the time, stated, “Mr. Remus had no desire whatsoever to engage in costly litigation over this matter. Mr. Remus is nonetheless intent on protecting his good name and reputation by whatever means necessary.”

Questions

By giving Mr. Remus $3,500 how is his reputation being salvaged?

If you or the board had been made aware of the financial position of the potential plaintiff in pursuing a speculative claim, would you have been so quick to award him $3,500?

How do you justify a $4,600 invoice from the plaintiff’s attorney with no evidence of a claim being filed? Have you and the board seen an itemized invoice?

Now that a precedent has been established, how will  you and the board deal with a potential lawsuit from Jimmy Pack Jr. and possibly  others? If your current settlement is a “no brainer” (your quote), will you settle with the others or proceed with a “long and costly court battle” (your quote)?

Don’t you think Mr. Remus’ speculative claim threatening to sue the Local and receiving the settlement of $3,500 should have prompted a call for his resignation from the board instead of appointing him to the Budget and Finance Committee?

Do you feel the Oversight Committee, which you and your wife voted to disband — 16 to disband and 14 not to disband — would have prevented this circus?

Observation

In the past 2 1/2 years, more than a dozen board members have resigned, many of them prominent Philadelphians. Actions of fiscal irresponsibility, such as what is being debated here, may have caused these people to resign out of frustration. Since you are now the president of this organization, maybe you or the Local can poll these people to find out exactly why they have resigned. Perhaps the members of this community would be interested!

 

Commentary: Ladies and gentlemen of the jury…

In my years of chronicling the actions of the Chestnut Hill Community Association’s board of directors in these pages, I have rarely read a response from them, nor have I ever been threatened with a libel suit. Why? My words were defamatory. My prose was vitriolic. My tone was accusatory. Why have I been left out of the threat parade that has enriched one board member recently?

The answer is twofold. First, I get my facts straight. And secondly, when they do respond, they present no facts at all. In Walter Sullivan’s response last week to my letter of two weeks ago, we get ample proof of the latter.

Walter wrote about his past as an attorney, yet he makes some mistakes in his response that make me wonder. Walter disputes my claim that the board disregarded its rules, but neglects to quote those rules.

Allow me:

“Conflict of Interest Policy; Article II, Definitions Financial Interest, 2.b. A compensation arrangement with the Organization or with any entity or individual with which the Organization has a transaction or arrangement.

Compensation includes direct and indirect remuneration as well as gifts or favors that are not insubstantial (more than $150)”

That Walter argues the rule without quoting the rule makes me think that quoting the rule would not help Walter win the argument. Quoting the law at issue, not referencing it or paraphrasing it is something attorneys are supposed to do.

Walter agrees that ads for the Positively Chestnut Hill slate of board candidates were placed in the Local, but says, “I don’t know who paid for them or how much they cost.” He also throws around that wonderfully lawyer-like word “allegedly” in reference to Richard Snowden’s connection to the purchase.

This makes me think that Walter doesn’t read the Local or have a telephone. The Local reported the source of the ad buy in its Sept. 3 issue.

The cost of the ad buy can be confirmed by anyone who wants to know. You call the ad department, as I did, anonymously, and ask how much that size and number of ads would cost, as I did. The ad cost exceeds the CHCA’s conflict-of-interest limit many times over. Each Positively candidate benefited equally from the ads. Snowden purchased the ads. Each Positively board member is therefore in conflict of interest on any Bowman-Snowden issue.

Walter has neglected to assemble evidence to support his argument because the evidence does not do so. Evidence is the most important ingredient in proving a lawyer’s case.

His case at this point, based on a rule he does not quote, with evidence he does not assemble, then turns to hyperbole that does not relate to my letter.

But Walter’s most embarrassing statement is his admission of a mistake he made in a meeting and saying it does not matter if he didn’t follow the rules because no one objected, and that it was a harmless error. Besides, as he says, the construction approved (Snowden’s) was, “needed and beautifully conceived.”

This is where I question Walter’s – and the board’s – concept of rules. You don’t disregard them because you all agree to disregard them, or because something is beautiful, or because you were ignorant about the rules or about those who broke them. Because when you wrote those rules, and approved them, you have already agreed to follow them.

Walter has forgotten almost everything he was taught in law school, and the board has forgotten everything it learned in social studies. But don’t worry – I’ll keep reminding them.  

This is why they don’t usually respond to me. But if anyone knows how I can get them to sue me and not the Local, I welcome your suggestions. A courtroom climax is a personal favorite.

 

Be careful what you wish for


The “Philosophy” Part

Change is the order of life.  We’ve all heard that said over and over again.

Change in our work lives, for sure. Ask your friend who was laid off last week or your other friend whose workload was just doubled. And yes, there are, I hope including you, some winners, too.  Temporarily. Change is really busting out all over. And not just in June. In every month, every day.

Now for myself, I have often clamored for change.  When it comes to public policy, I have been an unabashed liberal. At 71, I am every bit as much a liberal as I was as a kid. At age 10, in 1948, I thrilled to the clarion call by Minneapolis Mayor Hubert H. Humphrey for a strong civil rights plank that drove the Dixiecrat schism. At 14, I was energized by the eloquence of Adlai Stevenson and first worked in his campaign for President.  I have worked every year since in campaigns and for causes whenever I perceived them as representing progressive change.  You may agree with my judgments or not.  That is not the point here.

What is the point here is that I am by conviction and instinct not a conservative.

But I often wonder if we need as well the conservative instinct? 

What About Change Here In Our Neighborhood?

But what about change here in this Chestnut Hill community where we live? Where perhaps you took on that scary mortgage because you fell in love with the place pretty much the way it was? 

There is always a tension between preserving what we have and love, and change. 

The Civil War Museum Right Here In Chestnut Hill.  Not.

There is a young man named Greg Welsh whose mind never stops running. He is filled with ideas. Pretty good ideas.

He runs a good restaurant here. And he also happens to be president of the CHBA. He devotes a lot of time to that job and his fertile mind is always working night and day, awake or asleep, generating ideas for Chestnut Hill.

This past July, he learned through the grapevine that the wonderful Civil War Museum downtown had to close and put into storage its thousands of artifacts — portraits, busts, photographs, manuscripts, weapons and everything else. They needed a home. He envisioned an even better home than they had — one with virtual reality exhibits of scenes of great debates, of great battles, of Lincoln at the Gettysburg Address.

So he went into action, enlisted the interest and support of some people including some from our Chestnut Hill Historical Society, and reached out to propose Chestnut Hill as home for this museum. 

Now as you have probably gathered, just because you heard nothing further about this, it didn’t work out. The museum was looking for more than just a great place. It was looking for a place that would right away offer significant financial resources.  I guess that we could have put those together. But in the meantime, another community, thankfully here in our state, came forward with presumably those resources.

That’s OK.  Not every good idea will come to fruition.  You know that from your own lives.  You explore one idea, you try another, you give another a shot, and some or even just one will work out. This was a really good idea.  Greg and those he enlisted deserve a great deal of credit.  And let’s be clear, I was all for it.

But let’s just use this example as a test case for the subject of change.

Suppose that the museum headquartered here had brought here an average of 1,000 people a day? Suppose 3,000 a day on the weekend? 

For restaurants and taverns it would have been a very big gain, which translates into gain for us all.  Maybe it would also have been the engine for even more delightful eateries that could fill in now vacant storefronts.  Maybe it would have been the engine for new businesses filling in more of those vacant storefronts.

Sure, there would have been more traffic on our streets. It might have taken you a couple minutes more to get where you wanted to go. 

No matter that there would somehow have been ample parking spaces at the Museum, some people coming there would have parked on our streets, on our side streets and maybe in front of your house.

So maybe, just maybe, change, even beneficial change, is never painless. 

You balance all this out.  You come up with your opinion on whether and to what extent a change is good. Maybe no change is all good.

Headquarters Of The United Nations Right Next Door In Andorra?

Did you know that back in late 1946 we here were probably the leading candidate for the headquarters of the United Nations? That was until John D. Rockefeller, Jr. bought the six block area along the East River between 42 and 48th Streets and made the offer to give it to the UN for its permanent hone, an offer hard to refuse.

But imagine if the UN was in Andorra. I would love to get on my battery operated scooter to ride less than two miles to the UN. I’d be there often for pretty much every meeting open to the public.  I’d maneuver to get passes as often as I could.

But I’m assuming that everything else here would be pretty much as it is now — that all the lovely shops would be the same.  That our Avenue would be the same. That somehow we here would have been able to resist all the pressures for change here. 

Would you love to have the United Nations right here in the Cradle of Liberty?  My heart says yes.  Right here, less than two miles away down what is now Bells Mills Road?  It seems wonderful to me. 

But at what price to the Chestnut Hill I love and do want essentially to preserve?

Yes, face it, change is the order of life and is rarely painless.

We work through those issues all the time.  The LUPZ, the Aesthetics Committee, the DRC, the Board, etc., etc.

But how much change?  How much pain?

 

A hundred columns of jeer on the wall, a hundred columns of jeer


Preamble:

Forgive me if I ramble today. I’m still not sure how to mark the publication of my 100th column. I need to clear my brain of that voice that’s always saying “So what?” to me. My fellow Local columnists, Jim Harris and Mike Todd have probably written many more than 100 columns. So have Michael Caruso, Clark Groome, Patricia Stokes and Paula Riley, to name a few of many others. Len Lear’s numbers must be out of sight. And they’re not crowing. They just keep rolling along.

Nevertheless, they are they and I am I, and I’m entitled to enjoy the fruits of my labor. 

Besides, I always welcome an opportunity to step back and wonder what I’ve been up to. I’m a firm believer, with Marshall McLuhan, that we can only see our lives through the rearview mirror. We cannot know where we are or where we’re going, only where we’ve been.

This weekend I went through the past three years’ issues of the Local, looking to organize my pieces into file folders. What a mentally rattling experience that was. Listening to your own voice played back at you might rank just below waterboarding as a means of convincing a man he’s in the wrong line of work.

“You’ll feel better as soon as you actually start writing your next column,” my wife said, “You always get this way when you’re facing a deadline.”

I decided to remember how I came to start writing for the Local.

How I, etc.

I owned and operated a used-and-rare-book store in Chestnut Hill for 11 years. In my fifth year, the year 2000, I figured out how I could keep the shop open and yet write nearly full time: constrict the “Open Shop” hours down to Friday and Saturday, 11 to 4. Other than that, I used the shop as an office and wrote two “novels” only a mother (and myself) could love, and a memoir.

I’d draw the curtain, turn out the lights, and work with the light that came from the street. Occasionally someone would rattle the door, or knock insistently, but I’d just keep hammering at the keyboard.

Sometimes I’d hear the person on the other side of the door say, “How’s he expect to get ahead when he’s never here?” I just kept typing away. Somehow, I made enough money to keep paying the rent.

For a long while, I wanted to write a book column for the Local, but I didn’t want to be accused of using the newspaper to further my own business, so I let it go.

Then, in 2006, I read a mention in the Local of a new blog concerning Chestnut Hill matters, called the Chestnut Hill Notebook (chnotebook.blogspot.com). I went online and read a few sample pages, including an open invitation to community members to write about matters of local interest.

I thought, “Well, here’s my chance.” Maybe I can write some personal essays that are good enough to get some “clips” (i.e., clip out your own writing from a publication and use it as a sample to show an editor of another publication in order to get an assignment from her or him).

I wrote to the unnamed editor of the chnotebook. That person turned out to be the well-known and respected journalist and editor, John Lombardi.

He wrote back, saying he liked some of my ideas. In fact, responding to one long, fervid e-mail I’d written, he suggested I should shape up that exchange itself and submit it. Thus, my first “The Enemies of Reading” piece: a story/diatribe about the obnoxious presence of televisions in waiting rooms, based mostly on a recent experience with Wills Eye Hospital when my son had emergency retina surgery. A second “Enemies” piece, “Trapped in a Bookshop,” soon followed.

I felt really lucky to have emerged into the world of modern personal essay writing at the encouragement of John Lombardi. His journalistic experience was impressive, his writing skills sharp, and his nose for a story legendary. He was also helpfully critical and wonderfully encouraging as an editor.

I’d still be writing for him — if he’d have me — were it not for two things. First, for a lot of reasons, John gave up the editorship of the Notebook after the “Second Opinion Caucus” (which he’d promoted heavily) won a majority in the 2006 CHCA board election. Second, only his tolerance for what he considered good writing had allowed me to stick around as long as I did.

I’d unwittingly wandered into the equivalent of the Spanish Civil War, carrying posies onto the battlefield, when I’d started writing for the Notebook. I spent several hours this morning reading the first few years’ posts to that blog. They accurately chronicle the terribly divisive issues that still rankle our community, not the least of which is the CHCA’s various ways of trying to control this newspaper. The notebook still appears online at its original address.

On his way out the door of the editor’s “office,” John told me I’d been like “Jesse James” to the blog — I’d used it to get my clips, but had added nothing to the community political discussion. The comment stung at the time, but I now understand that he was right. I must say, however, that if I had it to do over again, I’d do it the same way. I didn’t help the cause, not directly, but I’d left two good pieces behind.

Four months later, my lease at the bookshop — after ten years — was not renewed. I went to the Local to ask if they’d be interested in doing a feature story about the shop’s closing. Pete Mazzaccaro was now editor. He thought the story was newsworthy. (It appeared as “Last of rare bookshops closes its doors,” Oct. 5, 2006, available at Chestnuthilllocal.com archives.)             When we were parting from that meeting, Pete said, “I saw those two pieces you did for The Notebook.”

“You did?”

“Yes, I liked them both. Very well written.”

This was the moment I’d been waiting for. I told Pete that I’d long wanted to write for the Local and that I had a column idea based on publicly declaring that I wanted to try to read 100 books in 2007. I’d write about my progress as I went along, and I’d emphasize all the things that get between us and our good intentions to read and think and learn and grow in our society — an idea that became “Enemies of Reading.”

Pete said he liked the idea and that we should talk about it again as the new year approached.

Two years, nine months, and 100 columns later, I thank you all for your kind words and encouragement.

 



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