Friday, December 16, 2011

Mr. President, thank you for keeping your promise

by Michael O'Brien

Today, the colors have been cased and the Iraq war is officially over. As an American and a veteran I am relieved that the war in Iraq has ended and that President Obama kept his promise to bring the troops home. When the President took office in January 2009, there were over 140,000 U.S. troops in harm’s way in Iraq. Now the Iraqi people have full responsibility for the security of their nation and American soldiers, sailors and Marines are on their way home.

Now that President Obama has brought the war to a responsible end and the last troops leave Iraq, we must never forget the men and women who served our country, those who were wounded and especially those who made the ultimate sacrifice in that service. We also honor the millions of military families who sacrificed at home while their loved ones served abroad often on multiple tours.

To ensure that veterans can find jobs when they come home President Obama has taken action to encourage businesses to hire unemployed and disabled veterans. The President proposed and signed into law the VOW to Hire Heroes Act of 2011 which received broad bipartisan support in both the House and Senate. The act new provides tax credits and locks in pledges from America’s largest businesses to hire veterans and their spouses.

A vital part of the VOW Act is the Veterans Retraining Assistance Program, VRAP. VRAP provides for job training and educational assistance to unemployed veterans, helping them develop the skills needed to ease the transition to the civilian job market.

So thank you Mr. President for your leadership and for your efforts in helping veterans recover and restore their lives. Most of all, thank you for keeping your promise.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Protecting the Future of Athens County

by Michael O'Brien

Recently on a brisk, sunny Saturday morning I left Athens for Wetzel County West Virginia. I was with a group of local folks who like me were concerned and curious about hydraulic fracturing of deep shale rock to extract natural gas, the process that has commonly come to be known as fracking. Over the course of the last several years Wetzel County has become a focal point of fracking in West Virginia with the promise of jobs and prosperity.

Admittedly I did not know what to expect in making this trip. Like many people I have heard and seen the stories of exploding kitchens sinks and tainted water wells depicted in documentary films like Gasland. And like anyone who watches television I have seen endless natural gas industry advertisements touting jobs and cheap energy as some of the benefits of fracking. With conflicting views and an open mind I travelled up Highway 7.

From Martinsville we drove up the winding road dotted with modest homes, pickup trucks and vegetable gardens. Stopping in the small hamlet of Wileyville we met our guides for the trip up to the fracking fields.

Heading out further up the mountain it was not long before we stopped on a narrow, not quite two lane road of freshly laid asphalt when suddenly we were forced to stop. A flagger was stopping uphill traffic as no less than half a dozen dump trucks navigated around a sharp curve. With bare inches of road and gravel shoulder to spare the trucks edged passed us narrowly avoiding a steep drop off hundreds of feet to the canyon below.

I learned later that the truck traffic is a nearly round-the-clock hazard which residents encounter. Hillside slips are common and the trucks beat the pavement down which explains why the road has been repaved multiple times over the last two years. The residents I spoke to told stories of delays and impassable roads often requiring miles-long detours down the backside of the hill. For people unlucky enough to live adjacent to the roadbed their daily lives are now a cacophony of noise, dust and vehicle wrecks.

A few more switchbacks up the ridge and we arrived at the home of county resident Dewey. Dewey is a simple man, an Army veteran who served in Vietnam, came home and worked in the Laborer’s Union for 35 years. In 2008 he and his wife purchased a 100 or so acres on a ridge top with a simple dream to live out their days in a modest singlewide mobile home, grow a subsistence garden and graze his granddaughter’s pony.

When the drilling started Dewey, like other surface land owners in Wetzel County, discovered that he had virtually no recourse, nowhere to turn and no rights to compensation other than what Chesapeake felt compelled to give him, a one-time payment of $18,000. One quarter mile from his home the hilltop was leveled by more than 19 feet, the trees, dirt and his garden bulldozed into the valley. A holding pond built to contain fracking chemicals, water and drill tailings was drained – only halfway. The remaining material was mixed with dirt and spread over the pad.

The fracking pad takes up more than 4 acres of land with two wells and permits for 4 additional wells which can be drilled within 200 feet of Dewey’s front door. The promulgation of West Virginia’s 200 foot rule was simple. The maximum height of the drilling rig is 175 feet and if toppled would miss the house by 25 feet. His land value has dropped from $1,700 an acre to $700 and Dewey is responsible for paying taxes on land he no longer can use.

Shortly after the hydraulic fracturing began the pony stopped drinking the well water. Dewey discovered his well was tainted. The well had been rendered unusable forcing Dewey to haul 1000 gallons of water a week for bathing and cooking and buy drinking water from Kroger. As for the pony she drinks the hauled water without complaint.

Moving on we stopped at the Martin place, travelling to the top of a steep hill. The view was spectacular except for the many fracking pads and a drill site in the distance. Looking east I saw a large compressor station installation about a mile away. Recently complete the six giant compressors move gas coming off the wellheads through pipelines to larger pipelines that now honeycomb the countryside.

Before we left I asked the owner what the compressors sounded like when not shut down for repair. “Like a tractor trailer idling outside the window, 24 hours a day” she said. We would later visit a larger 12 compressor station running full blast. Mrs. Martin was right.

These stories are typical of many echoing across this once idyllic countryside. In Wetzel the promise of jobs was never fulfilled and suffers the highest unemployment rate in West Virginia. It turns out the drilling crews, pipeline crews and crews that flatten the hilltops are largely from out-of-state and drilling outfits are said to be scouting a site for a “man camp” capable of accommodating 400 to 700 workers. Is this the future of Athens County?

Back home in Shade that evening I reflected on what I had seen and heard, arriving at a simple conclusion – Ohio must immediately enact a moratorium on fracking until we know exactly what the impacts on people and the environment will be.

It would irresponsible and immoral to have the people of Athens County and Southeast Ohio left holding the bag for lack of a comprehensive plan. We need to ensure the rights of people and mandate strict protections of our air, water, jobs and infrastructure before the drilling starts and not wait until the damage is irrevocably done.

Mike O’Brien is an Athens County resident and Democratic candidate for county commissioner.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Steve Wynn Serves Up the Whine

by Michael O'Brien

According to a published report by CNN Money, Las Vegas casino mogul Steve Wynn in a fit of selfish irony, lashed out at President Obama. Citing what he thought was the President’s “weird political philosophy” Wynn claimed that the nation’s business community was “frightened to death” to invest in new jobs. Wynn was ripping the President while taking questions about his latest real estate development in Macau, China. China? Steve, what are you doing creating jobs in China?

Wynn, whose casino business is based in part on bleeding gamblers and tourists of every nickel, seems to think that the President is responsible for U.S. corporations sitting on an estimated $2 trillion in cash. Corporate profits are near record levels as companies work their existing employees into the ground for less pay, fewer benefits and less job security. Yet the self-described supporter of Democrats has let his greed get the best of his thinking.

Wynn claims that a hostile political climate, unfriendly to business is the only thing preventing from him from creating 10,000 jobs in Las Vegas. Come on Steve, if you knew there was a buck to be made, political climate or not you would exploit the opportunity. No, you would have us believe that the big bad government is keeping rich people like you from getting richer. Besides, a new survey of employers shows the 50% are planning to expand hiring over the next six months.

Do they know something you don’t? Why are the heads of those companies scared to death? Or are you just blustering to just hear yourself talk? Funny that phony billionaire and presidential wannabe Donald Trump spewed that same nonsense until he realized that the American people, even those who claim to be Republicans were not buying his lame song and dance.

Wynn’s most telling statement hinted at what he must have been doing when he went off on the Administration. Speaking of the President, hypocrite Wynn blustered that “until he’s (Obama) gone, everybody’s going to be sitting on their thumbs”. So it is time to put up or shut up Steve. You can sit there, rotating on your thumb or you can help spur the U.S. economy by doing what business people do everyday in business climates good and bad – take a risk and create all those jobs in the U.S. – not in Macau.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Ohio Representatives Johnson & Gibbs Pledge Allegiance to Corporations and the Wealthy

by Mark McCutchan

Saturday night, Speaker of the House John Boehner said “No” to a deal that would have cut $4 trillion from our federal debt - a major reversal of what the GOP leader has said was their main goal.

President Obama has bent over backwards to accommodate the GOP Right Wing even upsetting his Democratic and progressive base by putting Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid on the negotiating table. The total amounts to $3 trillion in spending cuts, if Republicans would agree to $1 trillion in removing tax loopholes for corporations and the wealthy – a 3:1 ratio in Mr. Boehner’s favor. Still he said, “No deal”.

Why would the GOP turn down a win on their goals of cutting debt reduction and entitlement programs?

Because John Boehner cannot count on support from 235 of his House Republicans! These radical members of Congress have decided it is more important to pledge allegiance to Grover Norquist the so-called Americans for Tax Reform by signing the No Taxes, Ever, Under Any Circumstances Even It Means Throwing the Country Into Default pledge.

Ohio Congressmen Bill Johnson and Bob Gibbs who represent the 6th and 18th Congressional Districts are two of Ohio’s more radical politicians having been elected with help from the so-called Tea Party. Both have chosen to protect corporations and the wealthy rather than defend the best interests of their constituents and our country to reduce the federal debt, because removing tax loopholes would mean wealthy individuals and corporations finally have to pay their fair share.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Opening up the Athens County Democratic Party

by Michael O'Brien

“sunshine is the best disinfectant” Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis

Is there ever a circumstance when elected officials can take a vote in secret? And not just any vote but one that determines who will fill a vacated, elected position. The obvious answer is no. Imagine an elected governing body voting in secret with no accountability for who voted and how. Naturally many politicians might well prefer a system that allows them to wield power of office without the hassle and inconvenience of having to defend their voting record.

Long criticized for a perception of secrecy, the Central Committee of the Athens County Democratic Party was recently given an education in openness and transparency. The occasion was a meeting of the committee to select a county prosecutor to replace the retiring C. David Warren. With Warren’s term running through 2012 the decision would have long-felt consequences for both the citizens of Athens County and the Democratic Party.

Let us stipulate to the credentials of the candidates, Athens City Pat Lang and acting Athens County Prosecutor Keller Blackburn both as loyal Democrats and as attorneys who spoke forcefully about their prosecutorial experience.

But before the speeches it quickly became apparent that many members of the Central Committee came to the meeting with an expectation of being able to cast a ballot in secret, safe from scrutiny and any perceived political fallout.

A crowd of people filled the small court room in the Athens City Building to standing room only capacity, spilling out into the hallway. Members of the community and the press waited along with members of the Party’s Central and Executive Committees. The heavy atmosphere of politics was evident especially when the presence of a representative of the Ohio Democratic Party was acknowledged by Party Chair Bill Bias.

Chris Redfern, Chair of the Ohio Democratic Party had dispatched Bill DeMora, parliamentarian with the Ohio Democratic Party, to remind the Party of the rules and laws governing the selection of candidates to vacated elected offices. DeMora saying “this is democracy” pointed out that if the vote was conducted in secret, the Republican Ohio Secretary of State Husted would invalidate the results and possibly choose the next prosecutor, most certainly not a Democrat.

As the discussion turned toward the past practice of conducting secret votes a low grumble was audible throughout the chamber. The rumble grew louder as committee members took the floor to claim for instance that Central Committee members “we’re not city council people, we’re not county commissioners…this is putting people on the spot”. Party Chair Bill Bias bemoaned the change, his voice taking on an apologetic tone. “I did not ask for this tonight. I wish things were not changing. “I think it’s going to be a lot more difficult to get people to run for Central Committee and to take part in democracy the way that you’re going to be asked to tonight.”

More difficult to take part in democracy? Mr. Bias, himself a member of the Athens City Council, knows full well that elected officials by statute must hold votes in public.

Is Bias advocating that all elected officials be allowed to vote in secret? Is he just shy about bucking tradition? Or is it a case of confusing the ability of people to cast a secret vote away from the prying eyes of government during an election and elected officials voting in secret in order to protect themselves from public scrutiny and political consequences? American history is replete with examples of people in power rationalizing their behavior on the basis of always having done it this way or that way.

During my tenure in the corporate sector I made a career of informing people that doing it “because we’ve always done it this way” was contrary to the goals of the organization and sometimes to the stockholders.

Would anyone accept the vote of city council or county commission that was not completely open? Imagine if a local school board withheld the details of how members voted revealing only the yeas and nays with no names attached. I suspect there would be an outcry complete with pitchforks and cries of vote the bums out!

Chris Redfern made the right call by protecting both the rule of law and the integrity of the Democratic Party bylaws. Let’s hope that Bill Bias takes the hint, gets with the program, guards the public trust and lets the sunshine in before he finds himself on the outside looking in.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Athens County Democrats choose Blackburn for prosecutor

Athens, Ohio
by Michael O'Brien

Acting County Prosecutor Keller Blackburn was chosen by the Athens County Demcratic Center Committee to fill the term of the retiring C. David Warren. Tuesday night's vote came after a cantankerous debate over legal requirements mandating an open, public ballot.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Obama Puts Birthers, Trump in a Corner

by Michael O'Brien

President Obama, in releasing his long form birth certificate, has put the the race-based, xenophobic birthers and fraud peddler Donald Trump in a corner. Throwing the last shovel of dirt on the birthers, President Obama has again shown his political skill. Trump and his racist birther followers have no where to go but deeper into Crazy Land where even the most ardent conservatives will be slow to tread.

In a master stroke of in-your-face politics the President will find it easier, not harder, to fend off what he himself referred to as the "silliness" of the birther movement. This did not stop Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus from attempting to blame the President for stoking the birther conspiracy, thus creating what the President called the "carnival sideshow" of Birther Land. Priebus conveniently forgot to mention in his remarks that close to half of Republicans polled wrongly believed that Obama was not a citizen, with another 15% not knowing.

Should the President have done this sooner? The answer lies in how much further the Right Wing will push this. The timing may well work in Obama's favor as the GOP will need to push the Tea Party aside for fear of being connected with increasingly unbalanced and delusional conspiracy theories about the President's educational pedigree. Trump insists that the President could not have gotten into Harvard, a school that more than likely rejected Trump. Trump flaunts this nonsense in the face of Obama graduating cum laude and having been the first African American president of the prestigious Harvard Law Review.

The advantage also falls to the President given that the sensible middle of likely voters have not embraced that Right's racist paranoia and the few that have will likely be persuaded that, as has always been, President Obama is a citizen.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Kasich’s “No Jobs Budget” Hits Home

by Michael O'Brien

The ink was not yet dry on the Governor Kasich's so-called jobs budget when over 90 Ohio state employees were issued layoff notices, the first of many more to come. Locally, the City of Nelsonville, in a story published by the Athens Messenger, stands to lose an estimated $100,000 according to City Auditor Sue Powell.

Many local residents are under the impression that local fire and police services are funded by local tax levies and that these services will not be affected. According the Messenger's report, "Nelsonville does not have any levies that support those services".

Overall, state funding to local governments is expected to fall from its current level of $665 million to $339 million in FY 2013.

Mark Guarino, reporting for the Christian Science Monitor, cited a poll released Monday by the Institute for Policy Research at the University of Cincinnati which shows "53% of Ohioans favor a combination of tax increases and state spending cuts to balance the budget". This compares to 35% who favor solely cuts in state spending.

Progressives and Democrats must ask themselves how far to carry the fight against the Kasich's no jobs budget and Senate Bill 5. This is only the start of a long downhill slide. With Gov. Kasich’s approval rating at only 40% and with a majority of Ohioans favoring a combination of tax increases and spending cuts the Governor will find Ohioans bringing the fight straight to the Statehouse door.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

A Sadder Spectacle at the Columbus Dispatch

Columbus Dispatch risks becoming irrelevant in labor battle

by Michael O'Brien

Newspapers have a long tradition in American politics of choosing up sides in bitterly fought political struggles and a free press is the backbone of any free society - but there in lies the rub. The Columbus Dispatch editorial board, abandoning all pretense of taking the high road, attacked former Ohio Governor Ted Strickland. The Dispatch naively, almost childishly chided the former governor for standing with Ohio workers and their families in the fight to retain basic labor rights. The Dispatch would have us believe that former office holders should “graciously” step aside, even in the face of a concerted effort to strip Ohio workers in both the private and public sectors, of their legal rights to organize and bargain.

The Dispatch seems to feel that once out of office politicians should “seek new avenues where their experience and understanding can make a difference…”. The key word in this statement is new. What “new” issues would the Dispatch suggest the former governor attend to?

Many of the issues facing Strickland during his administration were the same issues faced by virtually every governor in the country, brought on the near collapse of the national economy at the hands of the Republicans and Wall Street in 2008. Ohio’s budgetary woes were further compounded the poison pill pushed through by former Ohio Governor Bob Taft that called for unfunded and unfounded tax cuts.

The inequity in Ohio’s education funding despite, Ohio State Supreme Court decisions, was left to languish by two-term Governor Taft who chose to ignore the Court, dumping the problem in Strickland’s lap. Taft and the Republicans in the statehouse chose to kick the education can down the road. Yes, Taft has remained silent on Ohio’s problems but that makes sense given that, in 2005, Time Magazine named Taft one of the three worst governors in the country, and left office with an 18 percent approval rating.

Having struggled mightily to reform Ohio’s education system Strickland passed a series of reforms that while not perfect put Ohio’s education system on a more sustainable track, legislation that Governor Kasich is intent on overturning.