More Mill

This is the former pulp mill, not the paper mill. Here’s a copy of the utility assessor’s testimony on behalf of the city of Berlin on why the Laidlaw project should go ahead. Chris Jensen has been doing some good work on this story for NHPR, but this popped up on Twitter and I’m not sure it’s been out there yet. This is just for those who want to dig a little deeper. I’ve been out of it a bit, but this made for some interesting reading.

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News Country

Lots going on up north. NHPR had my story alongside one from Chris Jensen about the Laidlaw project, and how the office of the consumer advocate at the PUC was not in favor of the deal. The North Country dominated the news cycle. Heck, the Androscoggin Valley dominated the news cycle. Berlin/Gorham dominated.

Well, in case you missed it, here is Chris’ story about the former pulp mill, and here is my story about the (former?) paper mill.

And if you just want to listen, click below.

Gorham mill sale

Back to the Struggle

I got to interview an interesting man last week, an artist from Berlin who made his way back from a stroke to paint once again. He had to learn to use his left hand instead of his right, and his technique now involves a computer, but it is a fantastic story. (If you’re interested, his name is Daniel Roberge, and his show opens tomorrow at St. Kieran Arts Center.) He described getting back to creating art after being told he would struggle to ever sit up again on his own as “getting back into the struggle.” What elegant language.

And the struggle is back in Berlin, full swing. On Tuesday, before an empty chamber, save Bobby Haggart, Jon Edwards got up to speak during the public comments phase of the city council meeting. He talked about what he’d seen at the Laidlaw hearings in Concord, where he said numerous companies already invested in biomass raised concerns about the Laidlaw project.

He got about four minutes, and then Mayor Paul Grenier cut him off. Mayor Grenier smashed the gavel into the block, and he told Mr. Edwards not to lecture the council. Councilor David Poulin said he was interested in what Mr. Edwards had to say, and Mr. Edwards continued.

Maybe two minutes later Mayor Grenier was again pounding the gavel, loud enough to drown out everything else. He asked the city manager to call the police and to have Mr. Edwards thrown out. Mr. Edwards left a moment later.

What a scene. What a debate. I have come back, I feel, to the struggle.

More Energy, as Always

Again, as is usual, this week I wrote about energy in Berlin. I found something interesting when looking over the power purchase agreement between PSNH and Laidlaw. If you’re following the discussion be sure to check out the Reporter on Wednesday. If you can’t wait until then get a copy of the PPA and look on page 11. I don’t think anyone will be surprised, but it is confirmation of lots of people’s speculation.

Aside from that, there was good news on the Cascade mill gas pipeline project this week. We shift from biomass to methane and natural gas. If that mill goes down it’ll be pretty dark for a number of families around the Androscoggin Valley. It seems AVRRDD might have averted that fate. Quite a task for a refuse district. I’m not sure how that fits with their mission, but it certainly is something they’ve been working hard on for several months. Again, to learn more check out Wednesday’s Berlin Reporter. I’m headed to Berlin shortly for my last day before flying to Peru tomorrow, so I better get on my way.

Going Deeper…

I was doing some research into PSNH’s new PUC docket, and I realized something I knew all along: no one is willing to go deep. Or maybe no one has the capacity to go deep. Or the resources. I did my CPD/PSNH story for NHPR last week, and several people commented it didn’t get deep enough. I totally agree. Unfortunately NHPR doesn’t have the resources to devote half an hour to such a story. (I’m not sure NHPR listeners have the patience to listen to a half-hour version of it either.)

But there is always more. As I wrote the script I knew there was more, and as the news editor cut it down and revised it to fit the time slot I knew I was going to get to say less.

But what’s the solution? PSNH already gives significantly to NHPR, and so do New Hampshire residents (read: rate payers). Interest groups are contributing what they can. Which one should we ask to give more to allow for more depth in reporting that affects them? And what implications would that have on the stories? (The host read a PSNH underwriting tag about 10 minutes before my story aired on Wednesday night. I had to laugh when I heard it—nice coincidence.)

Norm said something on here about the model for democracy being broken. I don’t agree; I agree with the Winston Churchill quote more: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

The same can be said for journalism. It isn’t perfect. In fact, someone at the IGA on Monday told me they can’t believe how bad the paper is (they were talking about the daily). I wish I knew a better answer. I wish there was a way to allow people to take part in democracy, to get engaged in the debates, that didn’t neglect the depth.

I’ve been trying to figure out how I could change that in Berlin. The fact is being a reporter is more than a full-time job; news doesn’t happen on the 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. schedule. But running after the day’s or the week’s news doesn’t allow for enough context, enough depth, to tell people what they really need to know. It takes those parts that get edited out to really understand what’s going on.

So how do you revive what lays on the cutting room floor? I’m not sure. As a staff of one, freelancing and reporting via cell phone and Internet, it’s tough to see where their is room for expansion. I see the need, but not the market. How do you make it profitable for a paper like the Reporter to reopen an office in Berlin, expand the staff and increase coverage. How do you pay for a three thousand word story about the ins and outs of energy? How do you make that argument to a publisher, who is running the paper as a business, not a philanthropic endeavor?

I don’t know, but I see the need. I recognize the criticism my story got as valid, but I have to take it as criticism of a broken system. I would have loved to add the details, but there simply wasn’t time. How do you make time? That’s the real question.

Budgeting Berlin

The council passed a budget last night that laid off six city employees, all of them teachers. The police department, fire department and public works department all avoided layoffs.

It was a close finish to the most important part of the council’s year. If the council’s goals are the same next year they will face an even more challenging scenario, but they pulled it off this year.

A representative from one of the city employee’s unions told me last night they could have found an additional $300,000 in savings, but after the council rejected the teachers’ proposal no one else wanted to be next. That might be ingredient that enables the city to keep the tax rate flat next year.

$200,000 made it in to take down dilapidated properties the city got through tax deeding, and $200,000 more for street repair. While those are minuscule amounts compared to what the city needs the council is clearly committed to upgrading the city’s aging infrastructure, though it has limited resources.

So if you live in Berlin, your taxes shouldn’t go up and your services shouldn’t go way down. The battles may have left some bad blood (a firefighter spoke last night with some strong words for the council) and class sizes are going to go up, but the fire department isn’t getting any smaller.

Now the city just has to expand its tax base. Easier said than done.

On another note, if you’re looking for an update on the CPD/PSNH dispute listen to NHPR tonight. My story about how some people feel PSNH is deciding Berlin’s future through its control of the energy markets should air around 5:45 p.m. It will have the latest on the easement issue. I talked to a number of councilors about this, but I tried to restrict the voices to those of people in the middle, instead of ardent CPD supporters or opponents. I only had four minutes to explain years, but I think it came out well. Let me know what you think.

A PPA and more

It’s official: PSNH has reached an agreement with Laidlaw Berlin Biopower to buy their power. The PUC still has to approve the PPA to ensure it is in the best interests of the rate payers, but this is a big step toward getting financing for a major generation project for any private developer.

At the same time there are some new roadblocks to CPD’s project, which will be in next week’s paper (Tuesday night meetings vs. weekly paper schedule). Again it involves PSNH. Energy, it again seems, will be a big part of the coming Reporter.

I’m also seeing if I can do an NHPR story on CPD and Laidlaw.

At the end of Wednesday night’s meeting there was a short debate about the mayor’s position on the two plants, as well as those of several other councilors, which didn’t make it into my council story last week. I had to follow up on a major story I’d done two weeks before, and by the end of it I didn’t have room for a new version of on an old argument. Not that the argument is unimportant, but I simply didn’t have room.

In fact, a lot happened on Monday night that didn’t make it into either paper. That’s how it always happens. There just isn’t enough space dedicated to news to capture all that goes on at those meetings. Those decisions are made by publishers, but reporters, editors and citizens have to live with it.

It makes me wonder about all mediated messages. It’s impossible to follow all that’s going on, but it is imperative residents stay informed. The media doesn’t have room for all of it, but unfortunately in Berlin there is seldom any other account of events. When Mayor Grenier asked for public comment on Monday night at the start and end of the meeting the only person in the audience was Bobby Haggart. There funny looks from councilors who recognized the absurdity of the moment.

Thus my version of what happened, and that of the daily’s reporter (both inevitably incomplete), make up the story of Monday night’s meeting. The councilors also have their opinions of the discussion, but their views reflect their politics. Residents don’t have access to a complete, unbiased view of the meeting. A few more first hand accounts would be phenomenal.

(Some people would say the meeting minutes provide this, but I assure you they are incomplete; not in content, perhaps, but in emotion. The debates often involve backstory and personnel interactions that the secretary doesn’t write down. It’s like reading a script versus watching a movie—one doesn’t compare to the other.)

People come out for issues, but not to ensure their city is run to their liking. For day to day decisions, often only the reporters (and Mr. Haggart) are watching. And there just isn’t enough newsprint available to capture it all.

Do you ever notice the daily has three stories on Wednesday about what happened on Monday? They could do more, too, if they had a bigger news hole. It’s amazing how much goes on in the evenings at city hall, and how few residents are engaged.

But then again, maybe the silence is approval. The budget hearing last month was much quieter than I’d expected, considering teachers, cops, public works employees and firefighters are all getting laid off. Maybe Berlin is OK with that. Maybe even thought the papers can’t get the word out people are confident the politicians are doing a fine job. Aside from the occasional street name change perhaps everyone is happy.

That seems like a stretch. I’ve talked to many people who don’t like what’s going on there, but then I never see them at public comment times. Everyone who cares about the city must know the papers do not have the space to answer all the pressing questions, and residents have to take a keen interest if they want to see Berlin thrive. The best stories develop largely through interactions with residents and seeing what people care, often at these meetings. Media doesn’t act alone. It takes engaged citizens to generate engaging reporting. And it isn’t enough to just read the stories. People need to show up.