Reconsidering Fracking: Delaware River Basin Commission


To date, fracking  (high-volume, high-pressure hydraulic fracturing) has been kept at bay in New York State and the Delaware River Basin but the issue is being re-opened:  the “DRBC issued a news release on January 8, 2018 announcing that the period for written comment on proposed regulations regarding hydraulic fracturing activities in the basin has been extended from Feb. 28 to March 30, 2018 and that additional public hearings also have been scheduled in February and March.”

Walk About Water: Callicoon, NY

On Monday April 18, forty or so Upper Delaware River Basin residents met at the Callicoon Youth Center pavilion for a community potluck dinner and to await the arrival of Bess Path, Chef Deanna and Chrys Countryman. The three Walk About Water women had trekked (see the map!) from the Neversink River to the Delaware for 10 heartfelt reasons:


(Many thanks to all who organized the Walk About Water community potluck in Callicoon.  It was a wonderful evening.   And especial thanks to Marci MacLean for offering her photos to Breathing.  This is what loving a place and taking joy in it looked like in our River town on April 18, 2011.)

The Walk About Water  website  announced,  “ON APRIL 17TH THROUGH 23,2011, five women will walk 90 miles from the Neversink Reservoir, NY to Salt Springs State Park, PA. We will carry a hand crafted “AMPHORA” of clean water taken from Buttermilk Falls in the Catskill Mountains to a place where water is endangered. WALK ABOUT WATER is a grassroots initiative to raise awareness of the sacredness of our water and our land. We will send this water around the world to other endangered lands, as a simple act of solidarity.”

On  Monday  April 18,   forty or so Upper Delaware River Basin residents met  at the Callicoon Youth Center pavilion for a community potluck dinner and to await the arrival of Bess PathChef Deanna and Chrys Countryman.  The three  Walk About Water women had trekked (see the map!)  from the Neversink River to the Delaware for 10 heartfelt reasons:

1. Six women from NY and PA, grateful to live in a place of abundant clean water
2. We represent Mothers, Grandmothers, Sisters, and Daughters
3. We are moved to action by the threat of contaminated water from the extraction of fossil fuels.
4.Our concern over the harm that will come to our families and future generations
   prevents us from simply living our lives peacefully and gratefully.
5. We demand that public health and quality of life for future generations take priority in  decisions that affect everyone.
6. To illustrate our concerns we are carrying the most precious substance on the planet -water -90 miles on foot.
7. We do this to bring attention to how precious and vulnerable this essential resource truly is.
8 The need for clean water is something everyone has in common.
9. We seek to make this important point by visibly honoring what we love.
10 We  bring good wishes to all water drinkers and bath takers.
Tears of appreciation, smiles of joy and loud applause greeted the women’s arrival.  Tannis Kowalchuk was already dressed and negotiating hugs while on  stilts.  Greg Swartz explained the many ways he, Tannis and Simon ensure that their organic farm, Willow Wisp,  produces  excellent food with the least possible water.   A welcome fire was lit and we all noshed on a smorgasbord of salads, chili, bread, chicken, appetizers and desserts provided by each and every one of us.
Walk About Water Grassroots Event
Tannis Kowalchuk, performer and artistic director of the NACL Theater, prepares to “walk about water” on stilts. Tannis, her husband Greg Swartz and their son Simon also own the organic Willow Wisp Farm which offers great CSA deals.
Walking About Water down Callicoon, NY's Main Street.
         And then we joined the Walk About Water women for a stroll down Callicoon’s Lower Main Street  and across the bridge to Pennsylvania
        where we paused because it felt so good.
Walk About Water Grassroots Event
Forty or so water enthusiasts cross the Delaware River in the rain. They look a bit like May flowers, don’t you think? In 2010, American Rivers named the Upper Delaware River, “America’s Most Endangered River.”
Walk About Water Grassroots Event
Misty rain and smiling faces on the Callicoon bridge to Pennsylvania.
The next day,  we  received this note  of thanks and the tears flowed all over again:
We are staying the night in one of the most beautiful communities of people we have ever seen, they gave us a party, walked with us from ny to pa,
raised money for us and sent us off with such love that we will take with us on our journey..words cannot express how full our hearts are..
THANK YOU CALLICOON NY,DAMASCUS PA WE SHOULD ALL LIVE THE WAY THEY DO

Water Walkers~

Chef Denna,Chrys Countryman, Bess Path

Guardians~Frank and Francena

WJFF’s Management : Policies, Procedures Questioned


More than a year ago,  I published Breathing’s  first article about a storm brewing at our local public  radio station, WJFF. Since then,  mostly inchoate  rumblings of discontent have leaked  from behind the station’s doors.  The rumblings became decidedly more focused,  however  when WJFF’s  Programming Committee released its proposed changes to the current weekend program schedule.  According to one volunteer,  “…it’s relevant to know that the shows that moved to prime or repeat time slots are all shows  —  exception of one — hosted by Board of Trustees [BOT]  members, spouses of BOT members, PC  [Programming Committee] members or station staff.  This schedule was sent to the [WJFF Volunteer]  listserv as a “done deal,” then came an outcry [and]  PC chairman Brinton said there would be a comment period and the schedule is [now] on hold.”

(January 18th,    Breathing  emailed  Mr. Clark and Mr. Van Benschoten a list of questions and requests, appended at the end of this column.  As of   January 20th, I’ve had no response.  However,  included below  is a forwarded email  I received this evening from the Programming Committee.  It outlines their plan for proceeding.)

**************************************************

Following the Programming Committee’s (PC) release of its proposed new weekend schedule for WJFF,  some of  the station’s volunteers began organizing in earnest.  Among them are those who believe the new schedule was created  to reward “management-friendly” volunteers and to punish those who’ve spoken against management practices.  At the January 17, 2011 Programming Committee meeting,  John Webber displayed graphics which substantiated volunteers’ worries that the Programming Committee used a system of rewards and reprisals to create the new weekend lineup.   Indeed,  when Mr. Webber and other volunteers compared the proposed schedule to the current one,   one volunteer whose program was shortened and moved to a later slot  stated,  “Your graphic’s clear and represents questionable relationships between management and volunteers.”

Volunteer  Jason Dole  asked,  “Why change the programming?”  and other members of the audience echoed him,  “On the basis of what data,  what survey results,  what information did you decide changes should be made?  And what those  changes should be?”

Brinton Baker,  Chair of the PC attempted to clarify his committee’s thinking and procedures,  “We decided to be proactive  and start with the weekend schedule.  We attended some webinars and believed we could improve our lineup.  The webinars with Ginny Berson of  the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB)  underscored three guiding principles:  (1)  the business of public radio is programming; (2)  programming exists to serve the community;  and (3)  programming creates audiences and audience size begins with programming choices.”

PC member Julia Greenberg added,  “The schedule has to be dynamic which means no single  on-air volunteer owns a time slot. Generally, a consensus was reached that  the weekend programming could be better, more dynamic.”

“But,”  asked several audience members,  “how did you decide which shows would be lengthened, which shortened,  which moved to different time slots and which  canceled altogether?”

“We sent out 200 surveys,”  said  Chairperson Baker,  “and received back 100.”

“Who received the surveys?”  asked the audience.

Baker replied,  “We sent surveys to WJFF members who’d donated to the station at least twenty times.”

When the audience was polled,  at least half raised their hands to indicate they’d donated the requisite twenty  times.  Of that number, however,  only three people actually received the survey.   Two  –– of whom one   is a member of WJFF’s Board of Trustees — represented a single household. The third recipient,  Martin Springetti,  is  a new member of  the station’s Community Advisory Board (CAB). As Mr. Springetti  looked around the room,  he  said, “I wish we would survey anyone who’s donated  forty dollars or more.”

A need for clarification was on Padma Dyvine’s mind.  After studying the proposed changes, she said, “It sounds like you’re making  changes to the schedule for the sake of making changes and because you think some volunteers have had shows too long.  On what basis did you decide?”

Although no coherent answer  was forthcoming from the PC members,  Mr. Webber,  who’d compiled the comparative graphics of the old schedule and the proposed changes,  said,  “It looks like favoritism.”

Programming Committee member,  Julia Greenberg,  responded,  “We can’t ignore John’s statistics.  Some structural changes are needed.   We must address potential conflict issues   between on-air volunteers and our committee.”

“How much  influence did the station’s management wield in the process?” asked long-time volunteer and station supporter,  Jonathan Mernit.

“It was a group process,”  responded  Mr. Baker.  “I chaired the meetings and led the discussions.   [Station Manager] Winston Clark and [President of the Board of Trustees (BOT)],  Steve Van Benschoten were present.  And we were aware of the survey results.”

Although there was a general hue and cry that   Community Voices,  Classics for Voice and the station’s  monthly  Open Houseall locally-produced shows —  were missing from the proposed schedule, according  to statements by audience members and letters received from the community-at-large,  the two most contentious changes involved moving   Angela Page’s “Folk Plus” and Jesse Ballew’s  “Jambalaya” from their earlier slots on Saturdays to later and shorter  Sunday times.  Despite their recognition of  Ms. Page’s  stature in the world of Folk music, several representatives of  the entertainment industry expressed worry that the  changes would harm both the shows and their businesses. They referenced  the fact that  Angela and Jesse frequently shine spotlights on musicians scheduled to play  locally.  They believe  a Sunday spotlight  wouldn’t help  our local Saturday evening music  scene.   “Plus,”  said Ms. Page,  “I was told all shows would be reduced to one hour.  That’s not what you’re proposing in the new schedule.  Even though you did cut Folk Plus by fifty percent.”

Leaving the controversy  surrounding her own program behind, Ms. Page stated the PC’s process was deeply flawed.   In a seeming endorsement of  Maureen Neville’s comment that,  “This is a public radio station.  You’ve made the most programming changes in twenty years and the public wasn’t even informed,”  Ms.  Page offered her own concerns about the station’s decision-making  processes:

    • The public is not properly informed of meetings and upcoming policy changes.  “I asked three times that a Public Service Announcement be made about this meeting and there was none!”
    • “Ginny Berson said in her Webinar  that stations,  ‘Must know their target audience.  Must find out who’s listening,’  but your research was poor  and you still haven’t identified a target audience.  You still don’t  know who’s listening.  I gave you  great research sites and you didn’t follow through.”

When Breathing Is Political asked for a list of media where WJFF meetings are advertised,  I was told,  “On-air at WJFF and on our website.”   In September 2010 and again at the January 17, 2011 PC meeting,  Breathing and others suggested  that meeting notices   be sent to all local media.   Chairperson Baker admitted he was at a loss as to how to distribute such notices and Ms.  Greenberg said,  “We’re media!  We can do it!”  (Public Service Announcements  are free and can be submitted online.  ( WJFF Bylaws)

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting  — which  provides much-needed funding to our  small station —  has addressed the gnarly issue of Open Meetings by citing to  Section 396(k)(4) of the Federal Communications Act:

“Funds may not be distributed pursuant to this subsection to the Public Broadcasting Service or National Public Radio (or any successor organization), or to the licensee or permittee of any public broadcast station, unless the governing body of any such organization, any committee of such governing body, or any advisory body of any such organization, holds open meetings preceded by reasonable notice to the public.

In its summary of  what “reasonable compliance” entails, the CPB  requires that the public be apprised of meeting particulars  “at least one week (7 days) in advance of the scheduled date of an open meeting”   and  further  requires that:

1. Notice is placed in the “Legal Notices” or the radio and television schedules section of a local newspaper in general circulation in the station’s coverage area; or, notice is available through a recorded announcement that is accessible on the station’s phone system; or, notice is available through an announcement that is accessible on the station’s Web page; and

2. Notice is communicated by letter, e-mail, fax, phone, or in person to any individuals who have specifically requested to be notified; and

3. The station makes on-air announcements on at least three consecutive days once during each calendar quarter that explain the station’s open meeting policy and provide information about how the public can obtain information regarding specific dates, times, and locations.

According to the CPB,  the rules governing public notice  and access  pertain to all manner of  public meetings whether they be telephonic, via the internet or in-person:  “However, these alternative meeting formats must still meet the other statutory requirements such as providing reasonable notice and allowing the public to attend, which in the case of an alternative meeting format would mean the ability to listen, observe, or participate.”

In a prepared statement, Martin Springetti,  a new member of the Community Advisory Board (CAB),  addressed what some  of WJFF’s volunteers have come to believe is the silencing of the  Advisory Board.  (“Winston”  refers to  Winston Clark,  WJFF’s Station Manager and   “Steve refers to  Steve Van Benschoten,  President of WJFF’s governing body, the  Board of Trustees) :

“One of the great strengths of WJFF is our live locally produced programming. Midmorning on Saturday is prime listening time for many of our supporters. It makes sense to have live locally produced programming at that time rather than syndicated programs that are readily available on other public radio stations.

I am a current member of the all new Community Advisory Board. Last October 5th we had our first and only meeting. The agenda was set by Winston and Steve, the meeting was run by them. The proposed programming changes were never mentioned. I think the station missed a great opportunity to get input from the community before the changes were announced.

Last summer this survey was circulated among some select supporters. It reads: WJFF WEEKEND PROGRAMMING SURVEY.  This shows that programming changes were being considered way before the October CAB meeting. The Community Advisory Board has been left out of the loop. If you were to embrace and engage the CAB instead of trying to marginalize us, you might find that we could be a great asset to the station.

I joined the Community Advisory Board because I want to help and support our station, not to get into arguments about whether we are meeting minimum requirements of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

My question is: Why was the Community Advisory Board not asked for input or in anyway involved in the proposed programming changes?

Although the Programming Committee  said it “regretted”   its exclusion of the CAB from its programming deliberations,  according to  Article IV   of the WJFF Bylaws:

1. The Community Advisory Board (CAB) will implement the requirements for a CAB set out in the relevant CPB  [Corporation for Public Broadcasting]  and FCC  [Federal Communications Commission]regulations. In particular, the primary purpose of the CAB is to advise the BoT [Board of Trustees] on how the corporation serves the educational and cultural needs of its coverage area.

3. The CAB consists of members representing, as far as possible, the diverse needs and interests of the communities served.

And also according to WJFF’s By-Laws (Article V, p. 10),

The [Program]  Committee’s responsibilities include all matters relating to on-air and online programming, including maintaining the quality of existing shows; assessing and overseeing the development of on-air skills of volunteers; assessing and approving new  shows (local and syndicated); scheduling programs; and identifying areas where programming needs strengthening and working to fulfil these needs.

A logical inference can be drawn from the By-Laws  that  the Board of Trustees is  dependent on the Community Advisory Board for advice in meeting  “the educational and cultural needs of its coverage area.”   Equally,  the  PC requires the Advisory Board’s  input  when  “identifying areas where programming needs strengthening and working to fulfil these needs.”

But what  does  the Corporation for Public Broadcasting  (CPB) say concerning the presence, importance and function of  a CAB?   CPB  has listed its compliance standards for public radio stations to follow and warned that CPB  “may not distribute any of its funds to any community-licensed public broadcasting station that does not have an advisory board which meets the requirements of the law.”

In essence, the CPB requires each  public radio station to establish a “community advisory board  that will:

    • be independent of the radio station’s  governing body“;
    • meet at regular intervals;
    • “be reasonably representative of the diverse needs and interests of the communities served by the station;
    • establish and follow its own schedule and agenda, within the scope of the community advisory board’s statutory or delegated authority;
    • review the programming goals established by the station;
    • review the community service provided by the stations;
    • review the impact on the community of the significant policy decisions rendered by the station;  and
    • advise the governing board of the station whether the programming and other significant policies of the station are meeting the specialized educational and cultural needs of the communities served by the station.   The advisory board may make recommendations to the governing board to meet those specialized needs.”

When a couple of audience members supported the PC’s request that  comments  be restricted  to issues of programming,  Barbara Gref addressed the PC,  “Since the CAB was not part of your deliberations,  I suggest you put any decision on hold till you’ve had a chance to meet with the CAB and make sure the CAB is involved.  I hear your regret that they weren’t included but I’d like to see you make it happen.”

When another audience member  said,  “The CAB needs to take responsibility, too,”  a former CAB member retorted,  “The CAB wasn’t even notified of proposed changes.  How could they ask for information they couldn’t possibly know about?”

 


Sonja Hedlund, host of Ballads and Banjos, told the Programming Committee,  “At the first meeting,  you asked if we had ideas for changes and I said then that two hours is too long for a show.  And I disagree with the advice you got from the Webinar.  I do my  program to organize this community!  I think  you  should be asking,  ‘What shows are we missing?’  instead of  sitting back  and waiting for someone to  come forward with ideas.  By reducing the two hour shows,  you can make more room for new programs.  More youth programs.  We’ve heard over and over again that we need more local news and it’s not on the schedule.”

An underwriter in the audience  said,  “I’m upset that hosts weren’t given the consideration they deserve.”  And an eighteen-year supporter of the station chimed in,  “The car I donated to the station?  I wouldn’t have done it if I’d known this was going on.  When I complained to someone  about things happening at the station  — I won’t mention the person’s name —   I was told,  ‘You’ll learn to love the changes.’  I  felt dismissed after eighteen years of donating!”

BREATHING’S OPINION

WJFF’s management,  on-air volunteers,  PC and CAB members (both former and current) are at odds over  some pretty hefty fundaments  of democracy:

    • The right to broach lawful opinions without fear of retaliation
    • A fair, open and inclusive decision-making process
    • A community’s participation in the workings of its public media
    • Equal access to programming opportunities by  the diverse communities within the station’s coverage area

But as the January 17th meeting wore on, I began to wonder about something not nearly so highfalutin’:  incompetence.

    • How is it that Programming Committee members weren’t aware that meetings must be properly announced?
    • How is it that the PC didn’t know how to distribute Public Service Announcements of their meetings?
    • How is it  that the PC didn’t know that the Advisory Board must be permitted to advise?
    • How is that the listener comment line was “dis-established?”
    • How is it that no coherent response was on offer when the PC was asked,  “Why did you inaugurate these  programming changes?  On what research did you base your decisions?”
    • How is that only three audience members at the January 17th meeting  received the bungled survey?
    • How is it  that neither the Board of Trustees nor the Programming Committee anticipated that their un-researched proposals  would cause a brouhaha? (Especially in light of  Committee Member  Greenberg’s  agreement  that  the schedule should be reviewed for  conflicts of interests?)
    • And how is it that neither the BoT nor the Programming Committee identified the station’s target audience before proposing program  changes?

There are reports  from current and former volunteers that an uneasy  —  some say hostile  — atmosphere is growing at the station.  Rumors abound of volunteers being told by management,  “You need the station more than we need you,”  and  “Don’t talk about our dirty laundry on the listserv.”  Many of our longest-serving volunteers have said in an open meeting that favoritism and retaliation were at the root of the new scheduling proposal.  There have been managerial decisions  that resulted in  apparent breaches of  law.  Is there  potential for  those actions  to  jeopardize the station’s CPB funding?  Only the CPB can say for certain,   but managerial decisions  vis a vis the  CPB-mandated CAB have raised serious questions of community representation and inclusiveness.

I’ve emailed  Steve Van Benschoten (President of the Board of Trustees) and   Station Manager, Winston Clark asking for,  among other things,   manuals used by  the station to train its volunteers and board members.  I’ve also asked how many volunteers and/or employees have left the station  in the past two years and in the previous five.   And of those who’ve left,  I’ve asked  how many complained about or cited  to  either   management or the atmosphere at the station.  I’ve also asked  who received the 200 surveys and how recipients were chosen.

My original article about WJFF provided some history of the station and a very partial record of  its troubles a year ago.   I talked about  the enormous  community effort that gave birth twenty-plus years ago to,  “The Best Little Radio Station by a Dam Site!”  Crucial to that endeavor  were community  leaders like Chuck and Andrea Henley-Heyn.  For me, the most surreal moment during the Programming Committee meeting came when Andrea suggested ideas for improving station structures and processes and the Chair of the Programming Committee asked her who she was.

Answer, Mr.  Baker:  “Andrea is the  volunteer who has continued over the years  since Maris’ passing  to create a loving home for her  Calendar at WJFF.  And according to your own  WJFF website, ‘…has been a member of WJFF since before it went on air…'”

And finally,  the on-air fund drives  aren’t fun anymore;  just a few well-scripted voices with all the juice squeezed out.  (Even as  controlling as WAMC’s Alan Shartock is rumored to be,  his fund drives are frequently  exercises in giddy chaos.)   Until this moment,  I haven’t  referred to an elephant in the room:  one of our most successful Station Managers,  Christine Ahern.  She and  fund drives were chocolate sauce on ice cream.  How many times did we listen, mouths agape  during a gaff-filled morning late in the fund drive?  And the laughter!  It was like listening to children play.   Nevertheless, I was often  reminded that she knew every inch and corner of the station and the rules that regulated it.  But more, she was a deft manager of people and knew not only the communities in WJFF’s coverage area but much of their history.  Under her ten years of leadership,  the station grew in range, volunteerism  and loyal listeners.  Perhaps she spoiled us.  She was on a mission to make WJFF and its community a watchword in Public Radio.   Perhaps it’s foolish to expect one person to do what Christine did.  Perhaps the fair thing would be to divide the position of Station Manager into its parts.

Perhaps We, The Public should be regular attendees at Board of Trustee and Committee meetings.

At the very least,  the sense of fun, family,  and service to the community-at-large must be restored.

***************************

Emailed to WJFF’s President of the Board of Trustees  and  its Station Manager:

Dear Steve,  Winston and John:

In preparing to publish an editorial about recent events at WJFF,  these questions sprang to mind:

1. How many volunteers and/or employees have left the station in the past 2 years?  Of those, how many complained about or cited to  either management or the atmosphere at the station?

2. How many volunteers and/or employees  left the station in the previous 5 years?  Of those,

how many complained about or cited to  either  management or the atmosphere at the station?

3. Does WJFF have a training manual for new volunteers?

4. Does WJFF have  a training manual for new board members?  (All and any of the boards)

5. What training is provided to new board members?

6. Does  training of new board members include FCC, CPB and station rules and regulations concerning the new members’  functions on the board?  Does it include information concerning Open Meeting legislation?

7.   Does WJFF maintain a  record of complaints made by volunteers against WJFF management.

8. Does WJFF maintain a record of  its  response to any such complaints by volunteers or employees.

9. Does WJFF have a written policy concerning the advertisement/announcement of its  public meetings?

10. When was the last time WJFF sent announcements of  its  public meetings to media venues other than WJFF?

11. On what bases were  the former members of the CAB not asked to continue their service to the station?

12. On what bases were the former  members of the CAB replaced by new members?

13. Who participated in the “disbanding” of the former CAB and its replacement by new members?

14. How was the public notified that a new CAB was being engendered?

15. Through what means was the public asked for its input in establishing the new CAB?

I plan to publish the editorial in the next few days and am asking you to make available:

digital copies of any such training manuals and your  volunteer training schedule.

a copy of the survey that was reportedly sent to members who’ve donated at least 20 times.

a record substantiating that 200 surveys were sent

substantiation that WJFF has a record of members who’ve donated 20 times.

WJFF’s policy on informing the public of upcoming & public meetings

As a member of your WJFF signal area,  I have lots of question concerning recent events at the station.  I am asking these questions in order to write as balanced an editorial as possible.   As always,  once  the editorial is published, I will send you the link and you will have every opportunity to comment or even write an opposing & unedited piece.

Thanks much,

Liz Bucar

International Workers’ Day; Immigration Reform; Gas Drilling Industrialization


May 1st  was International Workers’ Day.  Some call it   “The Real Labor Day.”

In 1886,  the American Federation of Labor (AFL)  called on workers to strike any business that refused to abide by an 8-hour  workday.   According to Howard Zinn’s  A People’s History of the United States, (1995, p. 264)  on May 1,  1886,

350,000 workers in 11,562 establishments all over the country went out on strike.  In Chicago, 40,000 struck and 45,000 were granted a shorter working day to prevent them from striking.  Every railroad in Chicago stopped running and most of the industries in Chicago were paralyzed.  The stockyards were closed down.”

In 1880,  The United States’ population was approximately 50 million and  Chicago’s   was 500,000. According to the 1880 Census Compendium Part II,  there were   2.8 million  men, women and children working in the nation’s 254,000  manufacturing  facilities.  Using  Zinn’s figures then,  approximately 13% of US workers  went out on strike  May 1, 1886.

Imagine if,  in 2009,  13% of  the US’  140 million “documented”  workers had struck for  universal health care  and a living wage.   Go ahead.  Imagine  18 million  workers thronging the  streets, hand-in-hand, to advocate  for themselves, their children and the future of this nation.

In 1983,  the year my oldest son was born, we were in the middle of another “economic downturn.”  A gallon of gas cost $1.25,  a Dodge Ram truck cost $5700 and the average monthly rent was  $335.  Cleaning toilets and pushing a lawnmower earned me $10 an hour.  (When I saved enough to buy my father’s old riding mower, I was able to ask $15 an hour for larger properties.)

Seventeen years later, after the boom times of the 1990’s,  most of us freelance “domestic workers”  could make  $15-20 an hour.  Around that same time, our counterparts in New York City were  being paid  in the $25-30 range.

In July  2009 — the costs of most everything having doubled since 1983 —   the US  minimum wage was raised to $7.25 per hour.

This past May 1st,  I worked and was glad for it  though I know  Grandma and Grandpa were  rolling in their graves.  (May 1st was the date my family eschewed labor for history;  the day we  remembered  Samuel Gompers,  the AFL  and the perfidy of  police officers who helped  smother labor’s demands for living wages, humane working conditions and  equal pay regardless of  gender and race.)

On May 1, 2010,  I informed a prospective employer  that “I’d have to charge $20 an hour to clean his house”  and cited to the round-trip  travel time, cost of products, gas,  fuel oil, rent, etc.

The weighty pause on the other end of the phone and the aghast rejoinder took me by surprise,  “We won’t pay that.  We don’t pay more than $15 an hour in the City.”

“That’s interesting,”  said I.  “A few years ago,  the going rate for housekeepers in the City was nearer $25-30 an hour.”

“Not anymore,”  came the smug-sounding reply.

There are times when my naivete is unforgivable.

I asked another  “City dweller” — a member of a  white collar union  and gas drilling opponent —   what the going rate for domestic services  is in her neighborhood.  “Ten dollars an hour,”  she answered.  “But that’s because we have so many ‘illegals.'”

“‘Illegals?  You mean ‘undocumented workers?'”

She shrugged.

So for those of you who oppose gas drilling and own homes  in the City as well as in our rural Pennsylvania and New York communities, remember this simple action + action = results equation:

When you pay less than subsistence wages to  the “undocumented human”  who has to buy groceries and pay rent  in Manhattan,  Brooklyn or Long Island,

YOU  DRIVE DOWN  the wages of the person struggling  beside you in Callicoon, Milanville and Honesdale and

YOU ENSURE MORE WORKERS  WILL SIGN LEASES IN HOPES OF WINNING THE  GAS LOTTERY.

When I raised this issue of wage depression with friends who live both rurally and in the City,  I was told their  ability to share the wealth is constrained  by their loss of retirement funds;  that their “disposable” income has been drastically reduced  by cutbacks in their businesses and occupations.

I understand.  My bank account plunged right beside yours and Sullivan County’s  real unemployment figure is nearer 20% than the officially cited  10.9%

So given that we’re all in  greatly reduced circumstances,  here’s my deal:  I’ll reduce my housekeeping charges by $5  to $15 an hour if you’ll promise to increase my counterpart’s  wage in the City to a  $15 cash rate.

If you can still afford to hire domestic help, for your own sake,  pay them a living wage.  Otherwise, whose disposable income will  keep you in business?

I saved money during the 1983 downturn.  I paid the hospital and obstetrician  cash for their services.

The son born to me in 1983  was admitted to the New York State Bar last week.  If he was born today,  I doubt he’d ever see the inside of a law school.

Breathing is Political because our personal political, economic and social decisions influence the growth of a child in our neighbor’s womb.  A child’s life depends, in large part,  on the health of the mother and on  the parents’  ability to provide nutritious meals, books, ideas, a secure home and a realistic dream for the future.

For all workers, the breadth of that dream and its attainability  depend on you and me  caring about equitable treatment for all.  It does NOT depend on any one of us short-changing another simply because we can.

As for union workers who de-value the work and lives  of others’,  as I write this,  America’s teachers’ unions are the new target of labor reforms.  If the rest of us are busy scrabbling for each spare nickle,  when will we have leisure to come to your defense?

Sullivan County Legislator David Sager vs. “Goliath” John Bonacic?


Before   Sullivan County Legislator,  Dr. David Sager,  (District 1)  took the podium  at his press conference this afternoon,  he arranged a pair of yellow and blue campaign signs on either side of the podium.  The signs proclaimed,  “Sager  for State Senate. No nonsense. Honest Leadership.”

Literally, the  announcement may  change the face of  NYS Senate District 42.

Not only did Sager  announced his intention to  challenge long-time incumbent Republican John Bonacic, but   he will do it as a Democrat.

Sullivan County Democratic Chair, Steve Wilkinson,   introduced Dr. Sager and welcomed   Delaware County’s  Democratic  Chairwoman Cindy Lockrow-Schimmerling and various other Democratic Party notables.

“I’d like to address the large elephant in the room,”  Mr. Wilkinson began.  “David  is changing his  political affiliation from Republican to Democrat.  This is not an opportunistic change but a a philosophical change,”  Mr. Wilkinson  continued to loud applause.   “To borrow from Winston Churchill,  ‘There’s nothing  wrong with change as long as it’s in the right direction.’  Democrats wholeheartedly welcome David to the Democratic Party. For too long  the New York State Senate has been the log jam to realizing change in New York. It has been mired in its own personal politics.”

Obviously, it  was not just any elephant Mr. Wilkinson was talking about.  Dr. Sager has held his  Sullivan County Legislative seat as a Republican.  In order for him to face Bonacic as a Democrat  in a  General Election,  he must get the nod from the  Democratic Chairs of the four  counties  which  comprise District 42:  Sullivan,  Ulster, Delaware and  a piece of Orange.

Ulster  County Legislator, Susan Zimet  (D, District 10)  campaigned against John Bonacic in 2006.  Although her effort fell short by roughly 12,000 votes,  it was a strong showing against the then-16-year incumbent. (Bonacic first became a member of the New York State Assembly in  1990 and has served in the NYS Senate since 1998.)  Zimet’s  2006 campaign website is still  up and available for viewing here.

Dr. Sager’s opening remarks  perhaps signaled  the tone he hopes to strike during the upcoming campaign.  “During the course of my service on the Sullivan County Legislature,  I have been honest and passionate. I have not been afraid of issues that were unpopular or complex.  If you liked me as a Republican, you will like me even more as a Democrat.  I will contuinue to champion fair and just causes and it won’t  matter to me if an idea is Republican or Democratic as long as it’s a good idea.  After  years of consideration,  I have changed my party enrollment and  have done so in good conscience.   I still stand  for fiscally  responsible and accountable government but my social views have evolved and are more in concert with core Democratic Party values.”

Taking on some who have criticized him  for  verbal  gaffs,  Sager said,  smiling at  The Times-Herald Record’s reporter,   “I have a reputation for having a  salty tongue — per The Times-Herald Record.  I will continue to be candid and fight for what’s  right. I will put the people first. Our state government is broken…and our current State  Senator is a long-time part of the problem. Unfunded state mandates have crippled  local governments and placed the burden on local taxpayers.”

“State Senator Bonacic  advocates for unfettered gas drilling.  I want a society and  government that asks at what price do we support industrial development that is potentially lethal to us  all.    At what point do we say no to large corporations who put their profits  first?   Gas drilling must be safe, legal, economically beneficial to all and subject  to local controls. We must take a hard look at a comprehensive  Environmental Protection Agency  study of gas drilling.  We must  support the Englebright bill which will institute a drilling moratorium in New York State until 120 days after the EPA releases the results of its study.   It’s a simple, sensible bill.  We can  wait for the science. We have a responsibility to provide safe drinking water to our children and families…. Safe drinking water is a right not a privilege.  Senator Bonacic  has been misguided [about gas drilling] while  I have been demanding a rational approach.  There must be a return to  local control. ‘Drill,  baby,  drill’  is a slogan not a policy.”

At a recent County Legislature meeting, Dr. Sager said  that the drilling issue  should not pit  farmers against non-farmers.  “It’s not an agricultural issue.  It’s about the industrialization of New York.”

“We must ask,  ‘Will the growth we advocate be sustainable?  How will  New York State and  District 42 grow?’  The 42nd District is in the process of becoming an important economic link to New York City  —  an important link to  a  sustainable lifestyle —  industrially, personally and agriculturally.”

On other topics, Dr. Sager  reminded the audience,  “I have sponsored sweeping and meaningful ethics reform for Sullivan County and  I will be at the head of it in New York State.”

“I will champion property tax reform and will be joining  Sullivan County Treasurer, Ira Cohen,  in  continuing to  review  tax exempt policies.  Large tracts of land and living complexes end up off  the tax rolls.  People cannot continue to vacation in the 42nd district for free.”

“I will fight for our schools, teachers and students so students can afford the college education they need and I’m determined to ensure our region has  the  infrastructure it will need  to benefit small businesses.”

“I’m going to need your help.  We need people who passionately support our cause. We need volunteers who will go door-to-door.  Please contact us at:  sagerforsenator@gmail.com until we get our website up and running which will be very soon.”

After his prepared remarks, Breathing asked Dr.  Sager  what he had to  say about local drilling issues and ethics reform.

“The county is in the  process, because of  my fierce prodding, of completely re-doing  our ethics policy.   As to drilling, I have not taken an anti  approach but there has been a general and blind pursuit of drilling without a necessary analysis of the science.  DEC’s  [NYS Department of Environmental Conservation] employees have  said the draft Supplemental Generic Impact Study is seriously flawed and no local official should be questioning that statement.”

Dr. Sager was also asked  how changing his  political party affiliation will affect his status with the Sullivan County Legislature.   “I’ve got a great working relationship with Jonathan [Rouis] and Woody [Elwin Wood]. I intend to caucus as a Democrat.”

A member of the  public  asked,  “Are you going to support green technology that  will help us avoid dependence on  Middle East  oil?”  and Dr. Sager reiterated,  “I want to turn the 42nd District into an area that promotes green technology. It’s how we’re going to grow our area.”

When Breathing asked a Sager supporter about  the candidate’s “salty tongue” remark,  the long-time patient of   “Dr. Dave”  said,  “Does he step in it sometimes?  Yeah.  He’s a passionate guy.  He’s not always smooth but that’s why I like him.  He does his homework and doesn’t have a lot of patience for  political games.”

For information on the amounts of money  NYS Senator Bonacic has raised in the past,  comprehensive postings have been made available  FROM PROJECT VOTE SMART and FROM THE DAILY KOS. Dr. Sager should hold on to his hat because both sites have published campaign war chest  figures for the Senator  in the $700,000 range.

Gas Interests Want You To Feel Alone


At comment #9  under  “Update:  Seismic Thumping in Wayne County,” (an article notifying readers that the thumpers had  turned away from The River Road)  “Regret”  wrote,   “But hope has to be based on reason.”

I understand Regret’s pessimism about the state of drilling in Wayne County. I know the history of the US in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, South America, and any other region of the world where humans have built lives above oil fields.

I know how many acres  the Northern Wayne Property Owners say they’ve leased.

I know our own laws and Supreme Court decisions often provide only  apparent protections.

I know we’re in deep trouble and it doesn’t matter much to me whether the threats to our livelihoods, land, food sources and water  come from powerful drilling companies or powerful agribusiness factory farms and our collusive  government that  provides relief and friendly supports to all of them.

But there is hope  in the work of our people!

There’s hope in Pennsylvania.  Cabot was shut down in Pennsylvania because a few families would not stop telling their stories.

There’s hope in large news outlets  beginning to tell the stories of contamination and evacuations caused by drilling.

There’s hope in the large landowners who’ve refused to sign.

There’s hope in the landowners who’ve signed but who pray to their Gods that  a Moratorium will come to Pennsylvania and New York and that the gas companies will lose.

There’s hope in the landowners who, despite being marooned between large leased parcels,  continue to refuse to take the money.

There’s hope in award-winning documentaries like Josh Fox’ Gasland whose national audience is growing at incredible rates.

There’s hope in the work of loved ones in Wayne County who spend every single moment of their waking days thinking and working on ways to stop these takings of our rights to enjoy our properties,  our rights to drink our water, our rights to eat food that isn’t filled with hormones — hormones that are changing the chemical composition of our childrens’ bodies.  And when those loved ones in Wayne County sleep  —  which is a bare few hours a night —  their sleep is invaded by clouds — dark and seemingly impenetrable clouds.

There’s hope in the numbers of people who’ve begun to read and write about the looming drills.

There’s hope when a group of people get together and create The Watershed Post.

I have hope in my  loved ones get up each morning to the nightmare and continue to help organize residents on The River Road.

There’s hope when women stand up alone and say,  “NOT ON MY LAND!”  and the thumper trucks turn away.

I’m going this morning  to a meeting with  incredibly bright, creative and determined people who will not give up.

There’s a party planned this evening for people who  will celebrate that we are all still  together.

There are legal fights still to be fought and  Damascus Citizens has organized an heroic team on that front. DONATE TIME AND MONEY TO THOSE EFFORTS!

There are PA legislators who’ve decided to sacrifice their political careers — who are being joined by others — to slow down this raging locomotive.

There are people who love the river working within the National Park Service to protect the River from this degradation.

There IS hope.

Contact landowners who are resisting the landsmen.  (See Breathing’s coverage of the DRBC –  hearing in Matamoras, PA)

Contact landowners whose leases are due for renewal.

Contact landowners who’ve signed to protect themselves but who support a Moratorium and the FRAC Act.

Write the National Park Service.  Tell them to find the research we need to stop the despoiling of  our Basin.  Let them know they’re not alone!

Tell NY State Senator John Bonacic  his political career will not be saved by the landowners who leased.  Even those in NY who lease for fear of being compulsorily integrated will vote against him.

There’s hope in the NY Assembly thanks to Bills being co-sponsored or supported by Aileen Gunther.  TELL HER YOU SUPPORT HER SO SHE KNOWS SHE’S NOT ALONE!

Organize large public vigils as near the Wayne County test wells as you can get.

As Lula Lovegood told Harry Potter,  “I think he [Voldemort] wants you to believe you’re alone.”

But it isn’t true.

I got almost five hours sleep last night — more than I’ve had in weeks — and   I’m not alone.  I’m ready.

Sullivan County Business Challenges Workers’ Right to Organize


On March 3, 2010,  The National Labor Relations Board’s  (NLRB)  Buffalo, NY office issued a press release stating  it was “…seeking a federal court order to force an egg processor, Deb-El Food Products, to rehire seven fired union supporters and begin contract negotiations with the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union.”*

This is big news for Sullivan County, NY where few workers know what the “NLRB” is and even fewer have asked the independent federal agency to ensure a Collective Bargaining vote is conducted fairly and equitably in their workplace.

In 1935, the U.S. Congress enacted the National Labor Relations Act (29 U.S.C. §§ 151-169) which established the National Labor Relations Board. (NLRB)   In deciding  its action  was necessary,  Congress said,  among many other things,    “The inequality of bargaining power between employees who do not possess full freedom of association or actual liberty of contract and employers who are organized in the corporate or other forms of ownership association substantially burdens and affects the flow of commerce, and tends to aggravate recurrent business depressions, by depressing wage rates and the purchasing power of wage earners in industry and by preventing the stabilization of competitive wage rates and working conditions within and between industries.” (Italics added for emphasis.)

In sum, the National Labor Relations Board was established to serve two primary functions:

  • to prevent and remedy unfair labor practices, whether committed by labor organizations or employers, and;
  • to establish whether or not certain groups of employees desire labor organization representation for collective-bargaining purposes, and if so, which union.

In the current  Deb-El case,  the  NLRB investigated the company’s actions and found   it had  illegally interfered with its employees’  right to debate and establish a Collective Bargaining Unit.

More, Deb-El employees have alleged  the company, in its efforts to block a union vote, committed violent and inhumane  acts such as:

  • beating  an employee with a tire iron;
  • forcing an employee  to eat broken egg material off the floor; and
  • denying   employees  access to bathroom facilities

On Monday, March 22, 2010,   several Hudson Valley advocacy groups held a press conference at the Sullivan County Government Center in   support of  employees at Deb-El who risked much to join  UFCW Local 342.

Milan Bhatt, Executive Director of The Workers Rights Law Center, which advocates for low wage workers and is based in Kingston,  NY,  welcomed the press and public and stated,  “…the Center stood in strong support of  the right of Deb-El workers to bargain collectively.”

The Rural and Migrant Ministry,  which  has a broad and inclusive mission of  service to rural families, youth and workers, was represented by  Ruth Faircloth who said,  “One million people of faith feel that our men and women in food production have the right to be treated decently.  Our Ministry is deeply disturbed by testimony and reports… that Deb-El  punished its  workers for attempting to organize.  We support the NLRB in its efforts to right these wrongs.  Workers cannot organize in an atmosphere of violence.”

Eric Monroe of the Sullivan County Human Rights Commission and the NAACP reaffirmed  “the right of any worker to earn a decent wage”  as did Eileen Weil,  another member of the Commission who spoke on behalf of Sullivan Peace & Justice.

An NLRB Hearing convened right after the press conference  to consider,  according to the gathered organizations,  “…reinstatement of  [terminated]  workers,  awards of back pay and  a bargaining order requiring Deb-El to recognize UFCW Local 342 as the representative of workers.  On December 30th 2009, the Regional Director for the NLRB’s Region 3 Office in Buffalo ruled in favor of the workers and issued an extensive complaint outlining Deb El Foods’ misconduct.”

Despite NLRB having already ruled in favor of the workers,  this current hearing and subsequent appeals by Deb-El could extend for months.**

Workers who have questions concerning workplace practices,  rights to organize and other issues that impact the heart of families and their communities, are encouraged to contact any of the organizations linked in this article.

**************************

* In explaining its action,  The NLRB stated, “The petition filed today in federal district court argues that action is urgently needed.  ‘Unless injunctive relief is immediately obtained, it is anticipated that Respondent will continue its unlawful conduct…with the result that employees will continue to be deprived of their fundamental right to organize for purposes of collective bargaining.’  A majority of the Thompsonville facility’s workers signed cards in mid-May seeking a union election. In the weeks before the late June election date, according to the petition, the employer’s agents allegedly engaged in a sustained effort to discourage union support, threatening employees with dismissal and loss of benefits, telling them a union vote would be futile, and asking employees to sign an anti-union petition. One employee was allegedly asked to take a cell phone picture of his ballot. Seven union supporters were fired. In the end, 18 employees cast ballots for the union and 21 voted against it. In response to charges filed by the union ((3-CA-27215) and after a thorough investigation, the region found that the alleged pre-election misconduct made a legitimate vote impossible, even if rerun. Accordingly, the Region is asking that the injunctive relief require that the Respondent bargain with the Union. The petition for injunctive relief was filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.”

** As a nurse-paralegal who has worked on employment  discrimination and retaliation complaints filed in The  Southern District of New York, I have also represented the Plaintiffs  (workers) in their attendant disability and unemployment claims.  One thing is always true in such cases:  time is on the side of the employer.  Companies  have the resources to sustain months and even years of hearings, decisions, appeals and trials.  Without community supports,  the same can never be said for  employees — even after, as in the Deb-El case,   hearings have resulted in findings favorable to those workers.

**************************

Sullivan County’s unemployment rate rose to 10.3% in January 2010. Some workforce development  estimates have placed that  figure  nearer to  20% when it includes  unemployed and under-employed workers no longer eligible for unemployment benefits.   The overall rate in NY State is 9.4%.  Of  New York’s 62 counties, Sullivan’s unemployment rate is ranked amongst  the highest  at 43. Bronx County is ranked at the bottom  with a rate of  14.1%.

Historically, as too many unemployed workers compete for too few jobs,  wages have been driven downward and  working conditions have worsened. As wages have fallen,  so has the ability of workers to support local economies.  As Congress opined in establishing the National Labor Relations Act and Board,  collective bargaining is essential to ensuring against  ensuing economic depressions  — like our current one.

Social Security…Isn’t


Often,  when my unemployed state threatens my  spirit, I bake bread.  Enormous swelling mounds of sourdough or pumpernickel.  The yeast, the texture, the molasses remind me that wealth depends on the right  ingredients,  a practiced  touch and a will to create something good.  At least,  that’s the hope.

Yesterday —  a damp, gray day  —  as I  wrestled with 15 cups of white flour, 6 cups of wheat  and 10 cups of rye,  an elderly   man knocked on my door.

“Do you own a German Short Hair?” he asked.

“Excuse me?”  I replied, wiping flour down the front of my  pants and sweater.   “A what?”

“A German Short Hair,”  he answered.  “The Town  received a complaint about a German Short Hair dog running loose at  this address.”

He leaned a bit heavily against the door frame and when I opened the door wide, he favored his knees crossing the threshold. After too short a visit,  he realized he’d been given wrong information and turned stiffly,  prepared  to visit the rest of the houses in the neighborhood.

“I don’t envy you your job,”  I apologized.  No matter my own state of affairs, it was an honest statement.

“It’s the bottom of the pits,”  he nodded.  “I’m 75 years old. My  wife and sister are home  with Alzheimer’s.  I take care of them  and this is how I stretch my monthly check.  You play the cards you’re dealt, right?  What else is there to do?”

As I watched him pick his way through the snow — on to the next house — my own knees gave out and   I crouched there on the back stoop, overwhelmed by hatred and impotent fury.

How many more groups can we join on Facebook that demand Congress give up its health care?

How many more petitions can we sign demanding a legitimate jobs bill for America’s workers?

How many more of our families must supplement their meals with dog food?

How many more of our children must graduate high school as functional illiterates?

How many more years must we spend more to incarcerate our youth than to educate them?

How much more will  America’s workers swallow before we  call a national strike?

How many more corporate bailouts will we suffer before we pitch our tents  and outrage on the National Mall?

More frequently than I like to admit, I’m struck dumb and inert by the evil that steals through the halls of Congress.  By  leaders who toss pennies to the working poor and billions to their cronies in crime.

I don’t know what to do.  I and countless others send out resumes day after day.  We circle and circle possible jobs in the paper.  We scroll through endless job search engines.

Each morning we swallow the mounting sense of hopelessness and smile unconvincingly at our children.  They’ve never been through this before.  They take their cues from us.

Tomorrow, I’ll give thanks for the likes of Mayor Tillman in DISH, TexasJosh Fox’ award-winning  Gasland and Joel Tyner in Dutchess County.

Tomorrow,  I’ll  get back to work with Mary and Bernie Handler,  Bruce Ferguson and Victoria Lesser as we prepare for  Mayor Tillman’s visit to Callicoon this Saturday.

Tomorrow,  I’ll  be grateful for the  water  we’re delivering to Dimock, Pennsylvania.

Tomorrow,  I’ll  work to rid myself of futile rage.

Tonight,  I’ll  curl in on myself,  grieving for a nation  that’s lost its way;  that cares little for its elders, its youth and its workers.

WJFF: Community Radio’s Future


(This article derives, in part, from a September 23, 2009  WJFF Board of Trustees  meeting.   Under normal circumstances, it would have been  published  within 24 hours of the meeting.  Instead,  for  four days, I’ve fretted and edited.

WJFF  has touched each of us whether we know it or not.  Its in-depth interviews of local, national and international activists have broadened and influenced our local  debates about  casinos, dams,  flooding and the advent of hydraulic fracturing.  During the lead up to the Iraq Invasion,  while  other journalists cheered  the fear mongers,  we  listened to WJFF   and heard  85 year old  Robert Byrd  lead the filibuster against granting the President preemptive war powers.  In a shaky voice,  he outlined  the Constitutional limits of Presidential power and Congress’ obligations.  We had no doubt  the moment was historic and potent.

But WJFF’s contributions have  been individual and personal as well.  The kids, including my youngest son, who participated in The Station’s  Youth Radio Project will never forget the safe haven where their creative juices could erupt in wonderful and often unpredictable ways.

It has been, quite simply, an integral part of our evolution as a region.)

*    *    *    *    *

“In 1986, WJFF founders Malcolm Brown and Anne Larsen put an ad in some of the newspapers around Jeffersonville.  It asked if there were folks in the area that were interested in having a public radio station, and if so, would they come  to a meeting about it at the Lake Jefferson Hotel.  This was the beginning of WJFF.   Station lore has the number of people who came to that initial meeting growing and growing.  (It’s up to over a hundred by now) but in actuality, somewhere between 40 and 50 people arrived at the Lake Jefferson Hotel that first night.  But hundreds of community members were involved from that day forward in getting  the station on the air February 12, 1990….”  (WJFF  “Soundings”  newsletter, 2005 retrospective.)

Twenty-three years later, on September 17, 2009, the following  email was forwarded  by a friend who has no  station-affiliation, “There have been internal issues that the volunteers, the Community Advisory Board (CAB) and Board of Trustees  (BOT) of our community radio Station, WJFF, have not been able to iron out.”  The writer then asked community supporters of  WJFF to attend the Board of Trustee’s meeting on September 23rd.

Regular listeners of WJFF  knew that Walter Keller,  host of  First Class Classicals (one of the station’s longest running shows)  and his production assistant,  Bill Jumper, had been either “fired,”  “suspended,” or  “dismissed”  after their August 29, 2009 show.  (In fact,  Mr.  Jumper resigned.)

In a letter to Community Advisory Board (CAB) member, Matt Frumess,  WJFF’s Board of Trustees President, Steve Van Benschoten wrote,   “…the two volunteers had “[violated] one of the cardinal rules of the station.  On page 9 of the volunteer manual,” he stated,  “you will find this injunciton:  ‘Volunteers may not use WJFF airwaves, events, listserve or links to discuss station politics.’   The rule is there to prevent an on-air person from using their program as a bully pulpit to present their case…. We simply can’t have this.  That is why they were suspended.”

Furthermore, Mr. Van Benschoten explained,  Walter and Bill had  run afoul of  WJFF-procedure,  “We have a process in place at the station for grievances to be mediated.  If a programmer feels that the Program Committee is wrong in their assessment of his  or her performance, they can take the matter up with the Board of Trustees (BOT), bringing supporters and arguments to bear on their side of the isue.  Instead, Walter and Bill chose to seize an opportunity on-air, in violation of station rules, to thumb their noses at the procedures WJFF has set in place to establish a rule of fairness and justice.  We simply can’t have this.  That is why they were suspended.”

(Breathing note:  Not only is the Program Committee appointed by the BOT, but   WJFF’s new 2008  “conflict resolution policy”  describes  the grievance process  somewhat differently,  “Volunteers who feel they have been treated unfairly in mediated dispute or who feel unjustly accused of violation of WJFF regulations may present their case to the Board of Trustees provided that…They submit their argument in writing to the Board of Trustees.  The Board may or may not decide to hear from the complainant or complainants in person.“)  (I was unable to find this document online for linking purposes.)

During the Board of Trustees meeting on September 23, 2009 and in subsequent emails, several volunteers disputed Mr. Van Benschoten’s   contention that a  forum exists where  the public, volunteers and station management can openly discuss their differences. Others  expressed a need for change in the way Trustees,  the Station Manager and members of the various boards are selected or appointed.  “It’s in-grown and self-perpetuating,”  one volunteer said and several echoed.

According to the station’s by-laws, most members of  The Board of Trustees are appointed by currently-serving Trustees and  no more than three Trustees are elected  by the active volunteers at the station.

Further,  The Board of Trustees determines the number of Trustee vacancies to be filled during any given election  cycle, appoints members to standing committees, approves  the Community Advisory Board and hires  the Station Manager.

“I don’t know what we can do,” wrote one volunteer after the  BOT  meeting where  she was not afforded an opportunity to speak.  “I want to try and work through the differences in a diplomatic fashion, but we are not even being allowed a forum…can’t talk on the list serve, can’t talk via email….  It’s a scary situation….Winston [Station Manager] and Steve can argue that we were there to discuss a ‘personnel’ issue (which isn’t always open to discussion), but they both knew through my emails that I had other concerns – lack of communication, lack of leadership, the feel of the station changing etc.  Walter and Bill are the underlying symptom of a much deeper problem….I do know that there are people who have stopped listening.   This is not due to the Walter/Bill issue but the fact that we are sounding too homogenized – where are all the community voices?”

*   *   *   *   *

So what did Walter and Bill  say on-air during First Class Classicals  that simply could not be borne by station management?

Walter led off  by referring to a recent change he’d made in deference to the Programming Committee:    “We don’t have the international weather.”

Bill Jumper:  We’re going to change a lot of things at First Class Classicals because this program has come under some pretty serious criticism from the WJFF Programming Committee.   They are saying that the paramount concern is  the audience so what we would like to do is ask our listeners out there… to ask you to let us know what you think of the aspects of the program as we’ve been doing it.  And, if we have some  good reports  for the programming committee  we would like to have  some of those to do…  otherwise  you’ll  see some probably pretty signifcant changes here at  First Class Classicals  here on WJFF.

Walter:  Thanks, Bill.

Bill Jumper:  Please participate. Please send in your cards and letters.  Please call the station and let them know what you think of  First Class Classicals.

Walter:  Thank you, Bill.   What is the number  on the voice box for people to call?

Bill Jumper:    There is no  voicebox anymore.

Walter:  Oh.  There’s no more voicebox?  (Gives WJFF’s  phone and address information.)

Walter:   I will say this… that each of us individually and collectively  have  had very positive feedback  about how the show begins.

Bill Jumper:  We have had some but  we just need more of our listeners to participate.  To let the station manager know what you think about this program.  Because you are  our first concern.   It’s why we are all here.  We aren’t doing this for the station manager or the  programming committee, so please give us a response and let us know if we’re pleasing you.  If we’re not, by all means we will change anything you’d like us to change   This program has been singled out for some very severe criticism, in my opinion by the program committee.

Walter:  I will second that…

Then, at the top of the next hour,  Bill  said,  “We just wanted to remind you that we need your support.  We’ve received some information from the Programming Committee that they want to substantially change some of the thngs we do here at First Class Classicals.  And so we would like your input and, as is true of us too,   the paramount concern is you the listeners  so please give us your support.  (Provides station contact information.)

(Breathing note:  During fund drives, this kind of conversation occurs on  most of  The Station’s on-air shows.  In the midst of  WAMC  fund drives,  personnel frequently allude to  bean-counters, program decisions  and hatchets,  “So now’s the time, if you want to keep this program,  you have to step up,”  or words to that effect.)

*   *   *   *   *

In  response to Walter’s  suspension and Bill Jumper’s resignation,  CAB member, Matt Frumess wrote,  “At the last regular CAB meeting…,  Walter Keller read a directive from the Programming committee… [which] included… some specific things involving the content of his show.  These things included shortening his international  weather segment and instructions to begin playing music as soon  as the local weather was done.  Frankly, Walter was less perturbed by these items than were many members of our board.

“The meeting ended after several of us expressed our concern about the station management micro-managing our station’s shows and, in general, meddling with the content of ongoing shows….All of us who listened to Bill’s short requests were surprised by  how innocuous they were.  We had all expected to hear some sort of tirade….By this time, word had gotten out that Walter’s show had been cancelled and emails and listserve entries hit the fan;  nearly all respondents were appalled by the heavy-handed behavior of the station management.”

Mr.  Frumess then laid out  four conclusions reached  unanimously by  the CAB:

  • “that Walter and Bill be reinstated immediately…  We feel that….there was nothing said that was so egregious that it should have elicited the immediate and inappropriate reaction it did.
  • that  given the extraordinary contributions made to the station by both Walter and Bill, the heavy-handed manner in which they were treated sends a dangerous message to all the current and prospective  volunteers at the station… As the CAB, representing a devoted listening audience, we expect the station management to maintain its community orientation and ts commitment to diversity, free speech and fair play
  • globally, that the recent behavior of the station management is being seen as a threat…to the integrity of WJFF as we know it….diversity requires freedom for  programmers and staff to express themselves as they see fit…unless they stray dramatically from the shows original proposed content or violate the law or specific station standards…
  • that the removal of the voicebox call-in line was inadvisable and should be restored.  The station needs a safe harbor mechanism for listeners to call….With our  mission to  serve a broad-based community, we need any source of feedback we can get.”

(Breathing note:  Walter Keller and BOT President, Steve Van Benschoten both attended the CAB meeting described here by Mr. Frumess.  Mr. Van Benschoten  was  aware that  Walter had  agreed to the Programming Committee’s recommendations and had begun to implement  them.  Nonetheless  —  and without making his intention clear at the CAB meeting  —   the Station Manager was directed to call Walter the next morning  and inform him [after nearly 20 years on  air] “that he and Bill Jumper were indefinitely suspended for violating station policy.”)

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In a letter written after the September 23rd  BOT meeting where Walter’s suspension was discussed in Executive Session,  Mr. Van Benschoten wrote,  “I’m pleased to announce that the Board of Trustees’ voted to reinstate Walter Keller to the airwaves and that Walter has agreed to the conditions… I also want to inform the volunteers that the Board of Trustees has accepted Bill Jumper’s verbal resignation from the station, and (as he requested) a written acceptance of his resignation has been sent to his home.  There were many issues that were left unsaid and unanswered at the Sept. 23rd meeting due to the time limits unexpectedly imposed by the Jeffersonville Library.  At our next meeting, most likely in the Village Hall adjacent to the library, we hope to have much more time to hear from all who attend.  There were many issues that were left unsaid and unanswered at the Sept. 23rd meeting due to the time limits unexpectedly imposed by the Jeffersonville Library.  At our next meeting, most likely in the Village Hall adjacent to the library, we hope to have much more time to hear from all who attend.”  (Breathing note:  If you want to receive  meeting notices, you can sign up for the WJFF newsletter.)

*   *   *   *   *

Breathing opinion:  WJFF  must be cherished  as a valuable community resource.  Its capacity for a full-breadth of discussions  cannot be lost to us in a time when its service area faces the challenges of hydraulic fracturing,  multiple casino developments, increased job losses  and failing revenue streams.  It would be helpful to have WJFF’s alphabet soup of  committees,   volunteers and  concerned members of the public convene  in “town hall”   venues throughout the listening area.  The community of current listeners, those who’ve drifted away and those who haven’t  found 90.5  yet, must be given an opportunity to  help formulate the way forward.

Hopefully, the  currently in-grown system which has

  • Trustees appointing themselves and standing committee members
  • approving CAB’s members and chairperson  while also
  • hiring and tactically directing the duties of  the Station Manager

will be replaced by a  more inclusive,  elective process.

Since its inception, WJFF has reflected  the rough-hewn, down-to-earth flavor of  the village streets and sharp winters where it lives.   Despite some of those villages being more gentrified   than they were twenty three years ago, we’ve  learned through hard times that no set of hands is less than another and that all voices and visions must be actively sought.  Otherwise, we face a future  scored  by the divisiveness of  “them and us.”  Given WJFF’s legacy to us — that  a strong community can build anything it conceives —  such an outcome would be a terrible waste.

As would forgetting this phrase from WJFF’s  Mission Statement,  “Radio Catskill… aims to involve the community in preserving and transmitting its own cultural heritage and artistic expressions….”

To paraphrase a question raised by one volunteer after the  BOT meeting was cut short, “How does replacing  Walter’s homegrown First Class Classicals with  a canned program sponsored by British Petroleum (BP) involve or preserve the   ‘community’?”    We’re a  (*%@$%*^@!)-ing hydro-powered radio station!”

A highly-charged debate about hydraulic fracturing is taking place in WJFF’s listening community. British Petroleum will receive 32.5% of  revenues generated by Chesapeake hydraulically fracturing the Marcellus Shale.  For the BOT or Programming Committee to say, “You can’t blame us; canned programs come with sponsorship embedded,”  is, politely-speaking, insufficient.  Please see an earlier Breathing article, “Tom Paxton’s  We Didn’t Know.”

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