Area legislators mostly aligned with Hillary Clinton, and against Donald Trump

BOSTON — Western Massachusetts legislators are mostly lining up with Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton — and against Republican frontrunner Donald Trump as the state prepares to vote next week on Super Tuesday.

State Rep. Ellen Story, D-Amherst, said she is “looking for a president who is reasonable and someone who is up for the incredible demands of the job.”

Story added, “I would be pleased with either of the two Democratic (candidates). I do think that Hillary, because she is so much more experienced, has a better chance of beating whoever the Republican nominee is. I will be voting for Hillary on Tuesday.”

On the Republican side, Story said it is “completely appalling … that Donald Trump may win even Massachusetts. It sounds like he might. I just find that hard to believe.”

State Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield, echoed Story, saying, “I’ve been unfortunately surprised by how successful Donald Trump has been.”

Downing added that Trump has used some of “the most extreme or the most vile rhetoric” that modern politics has seen in a long time.

Downing is also among the legislators backing Clinton.

“When you look at the breadth and depth of her experience, it is unrivaled in either party and by any other candidate,” said Downing, whose district includes Chesterfield, Cummington, Goshen, Huntington, Middlefield, Plainfield, Westhampton, Williamsburg and Worthington.

He added that Clinton has a “record of getting results.”

Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg, D-Amherst, and Sen. Eric P. Lesser, D-Longmeadow, whose district includes Belchertown and Granby, also are supporting Clinton.

She has opened six campaign offices throughout the commonwealth, including in Springfield and Holyoke.

‘Schwarzenegger effect’

State Rep. Aaron Vega, a Holyoke Democrat, called the support for Trump “the Schwarzenegger effect.”

“Trump is a reality TV star, so people have this idea that they know him,” Vega said. “(He) uses scare tactics … unfortunately some people buy into that.”

Vega, who has not publicly supported either Democratic candidate, said American voters are becoming increasingly wary of “institutional candidates” resulting from a “general frustration that people have about politics.”

He added, “There’s so much anger and so much anxiety that when someone comes out and touches on those feelings, it really ignites people.”

Vega said while Democratic candidate U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders has held office for decades, he still is seen as “an outsider,” which is one reason for his popularity.

Rep. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington, said he supports Sanders because Clinton cannot be trusted — a result of what he termed her close affiliation with the economic elite and the “establishment political system in America.”

“That is one of Hillary Clinton’s biggest shortcomings,” Kulik said. “People don’t necessarily trust her.”

Kulik said this “trust factor” is not an issue for Sanders who he described as an authentic candidate “who speaks for what he truly believes.”

Kulik’s district includes Chesterfield, Cummington, Goshen, Huntington, Middlefield, Plainfield, Williamsburg, Worthington, Deerfield, Leverett, Shutesbury, Sunderland and Whately.

Sanders has opened campaign offices in Springfield, Charlestown and Worcester.

Reps. Peter V. Kocot, D-Northampton, and John W. Scibak, D-South Hadley, did not respond to requests for comment on who they are supporting for president.

This article was originally published on February 27, 2016.

Lesser backs bill proposing high speed commuter rail line connecting Springfield and Boston

BOSTON — State Sen. Eric P. Lesser believes the time for a high-speed commuter rail line connecting Springfield to Boston is long overdue.

“The time really is now for this issue,” Lesser, D-Longmeadow, told the Joint Committee on Transportation Wednesday. His First Hampden and Hampshire District includes Belchertown and Granby.

With the MGM Springfield casino scheduled to open in 2018, joining the Springfield Innovation Center and the Springfield Central Cultural District, the High Speed Rail Bill is being discussed at a time when “a new start-up economy is taking root” in the western Massachusetts city, Lesser said.

He predicted that a fast train between the major Massachusetts cities would further boost the Pioneer Valley economy.

The bill, introduced in 2015, would require the Massachusetts Department of Transportation to conduct a study of the potential costs and benefits of a high-speed rail, something that Lesser called a “very realistic, very achievable project.”

Lesser told the Statehouse hearing that this study would examine the proposed rail line’s impact on economic development, property values and job prospects, as well as generally how it would “stitch our regions together.”

Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited now is the only regular rail link connecting the Boston to Springfield. The train leaves Boston at noon every day and takes 2¼ hours to get to Springfield, he said.

But the train is delayed about 25 percent of the time, Lesser said. “It’s basically unusable and it’s not a practical option,” he added.

Lesser said that only minor infrastructure improvements would be necessary, the highest cost being the upgrade of tracks to handle the higher speeds.

A MassDOT spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.

Those interested in the impact of this project should “look no further than Worcester,” which has seen improved rail service to Boston, Lesser said.

Joshua Ostroff, partnerships director of Transportation For Massachusetts, a transportation coalition, agreed that improved rail service could be as successful for Springfield as that in Worcester.

“Sen. Lesser was on target when he talked about Worcester’s experience and how that region has been revitalized by more regular service and better facilities with Worcester’s Union Station,” he said after the hearing.

Union Station in Springfield is being renovated.

“To leverage the investment that is being made by state and federal government in Springfield’s Union Station really requires much more than one train a day to and from Boston,” Ostroff said.

This bill was co-sponsored by western Massachusetts legislators, including Sen. Benjamin Downing, D-Pittsfield, and Reps. John Scibak, D-South Hadley, Ellen Story, D-Amherst, and Peter V. Kocot, D-Northampton.

This article was originally published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette on February 24, 2016.

Broken elevators make residents prisoners in their own homes

Lilla Sproul, an 80-year-old great grandmother, has lived in the same fifth-floor apartment at 2205 Davidson Ave. in The Bronx for almost 40 years. Now she can never leave, a prisoner of the building’s dangerous and broken elevators.

“I’m sick with arthritis. I hardly can move. The elevator is needed,” she said. “I have to go to the doctor.”

The six-story property has racked up 58 unresolved elevator violations, making it the worst of the city’s elevator offenders, as identified by the Buildings Department based on violations, complaints, field inspections and maintenance reports.

More than half of the elevators identified as top offenders are out of service. At least two haven’t worked for more than 10 years.

Vanessa Rae, 20, who lives on the top floor of the Davidson building, said the elevator once dropped to the basement with another resident inside. She has gotten stuck many times, and has had to wrench the door open to escape.

“Maybe it’s good that it doesn’t work” now, she said.

While the building’s owner, a woman named Bert Mandeville, could not be reached, her husband acknowledged that the elevator is a “big problem.” He blamed the mistreatment on a legal battle with the building’s managing agent, who he says is collecting rent but not paying any bills and not making repairs. He said the issue is currently in court.

But Sproul thinks the city should do more if the landlord is unwilling or unable.

“They should bring in some tougher laws or something,” the retired home attendant said. “[The city] and the landlord . . . should get together.”

On New Year’s Eve, Stephen Hewett-Brown was crushed to death in an elevator known by residents as a “death trap” at 131 Broome St. on the Lower East Side. That building has five unresolved elevator violations issued since 2014, including one issued the day after the fatal horror, according to DOB records.

A Lower East Side building, 129 Ridge St., continues to be one of the city’s worst elevator offenders, with 50 unresolved violations. The elevator has not worked in more than 14 years.

“I’ve lived here for 30 years and it hasn’t worked,” said one resident at 657 Crotona Park North, in the Tremont area of The Bronx.

It had been so long since the elevator last worked that its door is bolted shut and painted over, with only the word “elevator” written in sharpie to indicate where it had once been.

The building has 42 unresolved elevator violations, including one that dates back to 1988, according to Buildings Department records.

At the end of 2015, there were 28 buildings in the city with five or more Class-1 violations, those considered immediately hazardous, DOB records show.

“A new law that takes effect this summer will provide the city with enhanced enforcement tools to help fix longstanding elevator problems,” an agency spokesperson said.

State Sen. Benjamin Downing in final year cites opioid epidemic, changing demographics as key issues

BOSTON — After almost 10 years in office, state Sen. Benjamin B. Downing has checked many items off an impressive to-do list.

The Pittsfield Democrat has worked to increase the amount of solar energy in the state by more than 500 percent, and supported efforts to rebuild college campuses.

But Downing, who will be leaving his post come January, says other important issues remain, from demographic divisions in the state’s population to the spreading opioid epidemic.

“If we do nothing over the next few years, our population (in the Berkshire, Hampshire, Franklin, and Hampden district) will be older, it will be smaller and it will be poorer, and that is all at a time when the state is actually getting younger,” he said.

Downing’s 52-community district — the largest geographically in the state — includes Chesterfield, Cummington, Goshen, Huntington, Middlefield, Plainfield, Westhampton, Williamsburg and Worthington in Hampshire County.

Adam Hinds, a Pittsfield Democrat, is the only announced candidate for the Senate seat. Hinds is executive director of the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition.

Downing’s successor will need to confront the demographic problem of western Massachusetts while working to eliminate it, he said. To do so, the next senator will need both short-term solutions to deal with the trends and a long-term fix to “change the trajectory.”

These changes impact the state budget and, in turn, the economy, as companies are faced with employment recruiting challenges, as school enrollments decline and as social services have less capacity to meet a greater need, Downing said.

The heroin and opioid crisis has been growing in recent years, and was a focal point of Gov. Charlie Baker’s state of the state address Jan. 21 and his proposed budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

The epidemic is also evident in the western Massachusetts region, where Downing said the policy solutions might be different from those in the greater Boston area.

Data released by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health in January indicates that the victims of almost 1,000 of the 9,035 unintentional opioid overdose deaths in Massachusetts from 2000 to 2014 were from Downing’s district.

“We’ve seen a real surge … in deaths related to overdoses,” he said. “There is a great deal more that needs to get done and that’s something that doesn’t just impact this district.”

Demanding district

Downing’s district is demanding given its size and distance from Boston. The district is “the rural region of an urban and growing” state, Downing said.

Rep. Stephen D. Kulik, D-Worthington, who shares 13 of the towns in the Senate district, said that despite the regional diversity and the variety of issues covered, Downing has set a standard that must be met by his successor.

State Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg, D-Amherst, said in a prepared statement, “Sen. Downing has been a progressive leader in the Senate and has made a real difference for working families in Massachusetts. We will miss his voice in the Senate, but we know he will bring the same energy, intellect, and passion … to his future endeavors.”

Downing previously worked as senior adviser to former U.S. Rep. John W. Olver, D-Amherst, and served on the staffs of U.S. Rep. Richard E. Neal, D-Springfield, and former U.S. Rep. William Delahunt, D-Quincy.

When first elected to the Senate at age 25, Downing vowed to keep the seat for no more than 10 years. Downing believes that the system works better “when you have talented people coming in and out from different backgrounds, different points of view, who had different personal experiences.”

Downing has held more than 80 coffee-and-conversation meetings in his district, and his efforts are praised by community leaders.

John McVeigh, a member of the Huntington Select Board, said Downing is an effective senator in a state that often functions with the idea that “the buck stops at Worcester.”

“Ben brought a voice to western Massachusetts and was heard and was well-respected,” McVeigh said. “He never really shied away from anything.”

Richard Wagner, chairman of the Worthington Select Board, said he hopes that Downing’s successor will have the same commitment to rural and regional issues. Western Massachusetts communities “need strong voices in Boston in order for our issues to be heard and understood,” Wagner said.

This article was originally published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette on February 6, 2016.

State Senate unanimously approves bill reforming public records law

BOSTON — The state Senate Thursday unanimously approved a bill updating Massachusetts’ 40-year-old public records law, setting up negotiations with the House, which passed a different version in November.

The Senate bill would move the public records law “into the 21st century,” Sen. Karen E. Spilka, D-Ashland, chairwoman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, said during Thursday’s session. The bill passed on a 35-0 vote.

Spilka said the Senate bill would make the public records requirements “simpler, clearer and fairer.” She added, “No more will governments be able to sit on straightforward requests without responding.”

The current law, established in 1973, requires that agencies respond to requests within 10 days, and charge only the cost of reproducing the requested records.

But critics have complained that the 1973 law is too vague, does not address current issues and is rarely enforced.

“Because these are public records, the public has a right to them,” Spilka said.

The House and Senate bills address many of the same issues, but, in some cases, with different approaches. The differences must now be worked out in a conference committee with members of both branches.

Both would require each state and local agency to designate someone responsible for handling public requests, but would not require that the agency hire someone new for the job.

The bills would also encourage agencies to share public records electronically, and limit the amount that an agency can charge for a request.

Both bills also address potential legal action when records requests are wrongfully denied or handled. The Senate bill calls for reimbursing all legal fees “reasonably” incurred if it is determined that the agency improperly handled the request.

The House bill would require that complaints be referred to a superior court to determine whether the request was wrongfully denied. If the judge decides in their favor, complainants would be reimbursed for all legal costs incurred and would have all records request fees waived.

Rep. Peter V. Kocot, D-Northampton, chief sponsor of the House bill, said the existing law “provides little or no process, provides no impetus for keepers of public records to comply with requests … and does not recognize the transformative nature of the advances in media and technology since 1973.”

The House bill, approved unanimously in November, would extend the amount of time that an agency has to complete a request from the current 10 days to 60 days, and would allow 75 days for municipalities, as long as they provide a reason and a fee estimate.

The Senate bill would mandate that requests be met within 15 days. Agencies would then be able to request their deadline be extended to 30 days, or 60 days at most, if they provide notice of at least 10 days from their original request.

The Senate bill would also require agencies to waive the processing fee if their custodian of records does not respond to the request within 10 days. The fee would also be eliminated should the request not be met within the preliminary 15-day limit.

Some municipal officials say the Senate bill would put too much burden on their communities.

Geoffrey Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, said the Senate bill adopts a “one-size-fits-all” standard, imposing burdens on small communities, such as those in western Massachusetts, that often do not have the same resources as large state agencies.

“The legislation needs to have flexibility, and time lines and a structure that’s broad enough so that the work can be incorporated in …(with) the other public responsibilities and obligations that cities and towns have,” Beckwith said.

Both bills would exclude the governor’s office, Legislature and judiciary from the public records law.

Kocot said their inclusion would pose a risk of sensitive information being released unintentionally.

Instead, Kocot said, the House bill would establish a special commission, with members appointed by the governor and the Legislature to “look more closely at this.”

This article was published by the Daily Hampshire Gazette on February 5, 2016.