Thursday, October 15, 2009

Q&A With John Theriault

Education and Economic Development Key To Independent Party Candidate John Theriault's Campaign

Interview By John Murray
Photographs By Michael Asaro

Observer: John, you seem like a nice guy. Why are you doing this to yourself?

Theriault: I am a nice guy and have a lot of respect from the community. I’ve been a lifelong resident of Waterbury and I’ve worked in the town for 32 years as a teacher and a principal. I want to give back to the town and the community what they gave to me. They gave me a good living all these years. As you develop your skills and hone your talents I think it’s time to give back. There are things going on in the city that I don’t like.

Observer: Like what? What’s the number one thing you don’t like?

Theriault: I see a mayor who is a full-time developer and a part-time mayor. I see some wheeling and dealing going on with NETCO/Synagro down in the sewer plant. I see the mayor building buildings outside the city and recruiting businesses out of Waterbury. This erodes our tax base.
I see people in Waterbury struggling with their taxes and unemployment and there is no economic development plan in place.

Observer: So you are frustrated?

Theriault. Yes. I want to be part of the solution to the problem, I don’t want to be the problem itself. I want to offer some initiatives. I want to expose the issues. I have no desire to ever attack the mayor on a personal or family basis. The mayor has a lot of issues regarding the operation of city government that have to be addressed.

Q&A With Michael Jarjura

Strong Financial Practice Centerpiece Of Incumbent Mayor Mike Jarjura's Re-election Campaign.

Interview By John Murray
Photographs By Michael Asaro

Observer: Let’s start off with the primary. Only 19% of the voters showed up, what’s up with that?

Jarjura: Well, you can look at it a couple of ways. Some people who wanted to be positive said the voters thought the mayor was doing a good job and basically stayed home because they were happy with the way things are going. The other way to look at it is general apathy. People are so involved in the economic crisis, the war in Afghanistan and the national debate about health care that they just aren’t focused in on local politics. Any way you look at it I think a 19% turnout is a disgrace.

Observer: I agree. In the 16 years I’ve had the Observer there are less and less voters every election. Everyday you pick up the Republican-American and look at the obituaries you see the people we are losing who were involved in the process.

Jarjura: We are not losing population but we are losing the involved community-minded people. We saw some districts in the primary where barely 5% of the voters showed up. One of the biggest voting districts by registration is at Maloney School and they had the smallest turnout.

Observer: That’s largely Hispanic isn’t it?

Jarjura: Yes, and we had a very poor turnout in the North End as well. The big turnout was Bunker Hill, Town Plot and the East End.

Observer: Historically the minority community has not participated in the voting process as much as the other ethnic populations in the city.

Jarjura: But they came out when they wanted. They came out for the Obama election so it shows they can come out if they want to.

Observer: If they are motivated..

Jarjura: How do we motivate them? We ran ads, we put up signs, we did phone calls and we had Hispanic candidates and African-American candidates on the ticket. What else can you do?

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Mind Of Steel

Derek Poundstone Uses Extraordinary Mental Toughness To Become Arguably The Strongest Man In The World.

Some might think that genetics and large muscles are the key to Derek Poundstone’s stunning rise to the title of America’s Strongest Man.

They would be wrong.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Billy's Law

In her tireless effort to find her missing son, Billy, Janice Smolinski uncovered systemic problems with the country’s national data banks, and the way law enforcement officers collect and process DNA samples. Congressman Chris Murphy is introducing federal legislation to correct the problem, and has named it “Billy’s Law”.

Janice Smolinski, center, watched Connecticut Congressman Chris Murphy unveil plans to upgrade the national system of the Missing and Unidentified Dead at a press conference in Hartford, CT. The legislation is being named "Billy's Law" after Smolinski's 31 year old son, Billy, who vanished five years ago.

The first time missing persons advocate Janice Smolinski met with Congressman Chris Murphy two years ago she had a difficult time reading him. They had originally agreed to meet at a coffee shop in Cheshire, but Murphy had to reschedule, and they ended up meeting inside his office in New Britain.

The meeting lasted 45 minutes and Smolinski said she did most of the talking. She told Murphy about the 40,000 unidentified human remains being stored around the country. She told him about the 160,000 missing persons in America, and the difficulty using national data bases to try and connect DNA samples from the missing to the unidentified dead.

“I threw a lot of information at him and he didn’t say too much,” Smolinski said. “When I left the office I didn’t have a good feeling. It didn’t seem like he had grasped the enormity of what I was saying to him.”

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Into The Woods

Billy Smolinski Vanished Five Years Ago. The Cops Believe His Body Is Buried in Shelton or Seymour. The Big Question Is Where?

Janice Smolinski watches as private investigator Todd Lovejoy searches through debris in a wooded area in Shelton.

Bands of electrical storms surged across Connecticut and heavy air hung oppressively across the lower Naugatuck Valley. It was a day to sit on the front porch and drink iced tea, not a day to stomp through the forest, scramble up embankments, and peer beneath rubbish looking for the body of your murdered son.

Welcome to the world of Janice and Bill Smolinski, which for the past five years has been a living nightmare as they relentlessly search for the remains of their 31-year-old son.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Battle Lines

Plans To Transform Anamet To Clean BioFuel Generator Meets Public Resistence. Company Has Troublesome Past.

The Anamet site has been dormant for nearly a decade.

Saverio Romanelli of the Waterbury Environmental Control Commission questioned Chestnut Hill BioFuel during its March 2009 presentation.

Old equipment decaying inside Anamet

On the surface it sounds like a terrific idea.

Chestnut Hill BioEnergy is proposing to purchase the Anamet property on South Main Street in Waterbury and transform the shuttered buildings, which have lay dormant for 9 years, into a clean energy project. The gist of the proposal is to take up to 54 truckloads of food waste a day and transform it into electricity.

The company will knock down an abandoned building along the Naugatuck River which used to generate steam and electric power for Anamet, a massive company that made metal hoses in the south end of Waterbury for 72 years, and turn a Brownfield into a taxable business that will put money in city coffers.

The plant would employ 40 to 50 people and tax revenue from the property would increase at least ten times. Sounds great, huh? Well, as usual, the devil is in the details. And upon closer inspection, some of the details don’t smell so good.

A few years ago David Goodemote – the man driving the proposal in Waterbury - was the president of Eastern Organic Resources which ran the Woodhue Composting Center in Springfield, New Jersey. The business took in 100 tons of wood chips, food waste, brush, and cardboard a day, and transformed the stew into compost they would resell to landscapers, garden centers and contractors.

David Goodemote

Food waste compacter behind a local Stop and Shop

Goodemote proclaimed his company to be environmentally friendly, but his neighbors had a different story – they called the composting center an obnoxious and destructive force in the neighborhood. The neighbors complained about a foul odor coming from the composting plant, and one neighbor, George Nicholson, worried that the foul air from Eastern Organic Resources caused respiratory infections among the racehorses on his farm.

In 2006 the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection hammered Eastern Organic with a $1.5 million fine for polluting the air and water, and committing administrative violations. Among the charges was that Eastern Organic had illegally discharged contaminated water into wetlands and a nearby brook. In an article in the August 6th, 2006 issue of the New York Times, David Goodemote said the accusations were unfair, and stated the company’s problems could be resolved by enclosing the facility and trapping the air and water inside.

Goodemote said New Jersey would not allow him the permits to do that. Frustrated, the composting plant was morphed into a solar energy farm and Goodemote set out to find a new home for his food recycling enterprise. After searching several states, and visiting sites around Connecticut, Goodemote zeroed in on the Anamet property, nestled between South Main Street and the Naugatuck River.

“New Jersey was not willing to work with us,” Goodemote said at a meeting in Waterbury recently, “but Connecticut and Massachusetts are.”

The key, according to Goodemote, is to obtain the proper permits to contain composting in an airtight process at the Anamet facility and trap all contaminated water and air inside. With the facility closed in, Goodemote said, there would be no odor problem in the South End, and no contaminated water seeping into the Naugatuck River. Mike Maynard, of Chestnut Hill BioEnergy, was also at the March meeting of the Waterbury Environmental Control Commission. Maynard said his company is not shy about talking about their “painful experience in New Jersey.”

“There are lessons learned,” he said. “We need to pay careful attention to odor control and the only way to do that is to close it in.”

Mike Maynard

Goodemote and Maynard said their problems in New Jersey arose from “political shifts” that thwarted their efforts to close in the facility. “The Connecticut DEP has been to our facility in New Jersey,” Goodemote said. “It is the largest composting facility on the East Coast. We know the key is to get our permit first.”

The Meeting
On a drizzling night in late March, Chestnut Hill BioEnergy gave a power point presentation about their Anamet site proposal to the Waterbury Environmental Control Commission. The company has been making the rounds for months trying to drum up support for their project, and opposition is beginning to stir. Neighborhood groups are e-mailing each other to muster troops to oppose the project. Members of the Waterbury Greenway Advisory Committee are paying close attention to the proposal as they plan a 7 mile multi-use trail along the Naugatuck River. Images of a multi-million dollar Greenway next to a plant processing food waste – operated by a company with a history of air and water violations - has given members pause.

The Anamet site is directly on the east bank of the Naugatuck River.

Greenway Advisory Committee Chairman Ron Napoli poses questions

After Chestnut Hill BioEnergy finished its presentation, Ron Napoli, the chairman of the Greenway Committee, rose to address the group. He said residents in the South End have had prior experience with serious odors from the city’s Waste Water Treatment Plant that had impacted their ability to enjoy their property. Napoli said that consultants studied the problem and said the odors had come from inside the plant. Napoli concluded by saying “odors could be the worst thing to happen to our Greenway project.”

Goodemote and Maynard assured Napoli that there would be no odors escaping from their composting process and that they would like to participate in the Greenway project. They would be happy to allow the Greenway a trail right through their property, they said.

Dick Scappini

Dick Scappini asked the presenters what control they had over the dozens of trucks that would deliver food waste to the plant each day. Goodemote and Maynard said they didn’t own the trucks and they would rely on independent haulers.

“I can’t say there will never be a leak,” Goodemote said. “There will be leaks and there will be a consequence to the hauler.”
The trucks will mostly haul compactors, not packers, greatly reducing spillage and leakage. Scappini wanted to know what happens when a leak occurs. Who cleans it up? What is the city’s recourse?

Goodemote said the haulers would be fined.

Close attention was paid to which route the trucks would use to get in and out of Waterbury. Goodemote said there would be no residential traffic, no impact on schools, no trucks on South Main Street, and that trucks could only operate from 6 am to 6 pm, and not at all on Sunday. The trucks would have a fairly easy entrance into the plant, but exiting proved more troublesome, with initial plans to route the trucks past the Brass Mill Mall.

Anamet's close proximity to St. Anne's Church proposed Loyola Project has raised concern.

Environmental Control Commission member Art Denze wanted to know “Why Waterbury?”, and he was concerned about building a Greenway “next to a garbage disposal.”

Steve Schrag

Steve Schrag is the head of the commission and he also wanted to know how and why Waterbury was selected for the project. Goodemote and Maynard told him that a multi agency task force and the state Department of Economic and Community Development had given the company a list of communities to consider: Hartford, Waterbury, New Haven, Bridgeport and Meriden.

“We had to be along a highway,” Goodemote said. “And we needed to be centrally located in the state’s population density. When we looked at the Anamet site we fell in love with it. We couldn’t build a site like that for less than $500 a square foot. This was far and way the best site we found. The building is impregnable. We can easily make it airtight.”

The Watchdog
Larry De Pillo has been a community activist in Waterbury for 30 years. He has been a mayoral candidate in Waterbury four times and was instrumental in forming the Independent Party in the city. To some people Larry De Pillo is an obstructionist, a man who stands up at almost every aldermanic meeting to rail against some proposal or another. To others, De Pillo is a man of integrity who challenges the political structure in Waterbury and keeps the powerful on their toes.

Whether he’s a pebble in the shoe, or a champion for the people - or both - it’s hard not to notice Larry De Pillo.

Larry De Pillo

De Pillo is strongly against the Chestnut Hill BioEnergy proposal for two reasons. “I don’t think this type of business belongs in a location where a lot of people live,” De Pillo told the Observer. “And #2, the people making this proposal are the same ones that experienced big problems in New Jersey.”

De Pillo said he called the DEP in New Jersey and was told “they had feet worth of files on the company, that they had conducted a horrendous operation and were shut down.”

When Chestnut Hill BioEnergy made an invitation only presentation to the Waterbury Board of Aldermen last year, De Pillo contacted Waterbury Mayor Mike Jarjura to see if he might gain access to the meeting. Jarjura told De Pillo he was unable to attend, and that De Pillo could go in his place. When the meeting started, Board of Education member John Theriault and Republican-American reporter Michael Puffer were denied access because they hadn’t been invited.

“That’s no way to treat an elected official and a member of the press,” De Pillo said.

As the meeting unfolded there was no mention of the company’s problems in New Jersey. De Pillo said he asked if they had any prior experience running an operation like they were proposing in Waterbury, and they said they had. De Pillo wrote the name of the operation down, and after the meeting he went home and entered the name in a Google search on the internet.

De Pillo was stunned.

He found articles in the New York Times that documented the company’s failures in New Jersey. De Pillo gathered information and produced a small booklet about the company’s only previous effort to run a food waste composting facility. Then he called Mayor Jarjura and requested a meeting.

“The Mayor was nice enough to give me his invitation so I wanted to tell him what I saw and heard,” De Pillo said. “When I showed him the booklet he was very surprised, and very concerned.”

De Pillo called the Connecticut DEP and “ripped them new backsides”, he said. “Then when I talked to the guy in charge of issuing permits he said he didn’t know who they were. Despite what the company officials say, the DEP is not onboard with their proposal.”

De Pillo accuses Chestnut Hill BioEnergy of misrepresenting Waterbury’s concerns when they are lobbying for the project in Hartford. “They are telling legislators that everyone in Waterbury is onboard with the concept,” De Pillo said. “This is a lie. Right now I don’t know anyone in Waterbury who is supporting this concept.”

And to De Pillo, this is already more than a concept. “They have a professional presentation they are taking around and it seems to be the same one they used in New Jersey to try and get their permit down there,” De Pillo said. “ New Jersey told them to go pound sand, and we should say the same thing.”

One of De PIllo’s greatest fears is that the project is never brought forward in Waterbury to gain city board approval. “This is all a horse and pony show to get approval from the Department of Public Utility Control (DPUC),” De Pillo said. “This company is trying to ram this through the DPUC and the Siting Council and then it won’t matter what the DEP and Waterbury have to say about it.”

De Pillo said he is not opposed to the concept of recycling food waste into energy, he just doesn’t think the Anamet site in the place to do it, or Chestnut Hill BioEnergy the company to run it.

The Observer asked De Pillo if he were the mayor, what would he do about this situation.

“I would request a meeting with top DPUC members, top siting council members, and top members from the Clean Energy Fund. I would want to know how Chestnut Hill BioEnergy has been representing Waterbury and where they are in the process,” De Pillo said. “It is time for Mayor jarjura and the Waterbury Development Corporation to intervene before it is too late.”

The Waterbury Development Corporation (WDC) is the City of Waterbury’s official economic and community development agency, and Leo Frank is the executive director. Franks said WDC showed Chestnut Hill BioEnergy a few sites in Waterbury, but has not passed judgement on the project.

“We are a sales force showing people properties and trying to stimulate the local economy,” Frank said. “Just because we showed this company the Anamet site doesn’t mean we are a proponent for their plans. We are a proponent for Waterbury.”

Frank met with the company 18 months ago and said Chestnut Hill BioEnergy explained the problems they had experienced in New Jersey. “ I told them you can expect a fierce battle in Waterbury,” Frank said. “ The South End has had problems with high traffic proposals in dense population areas before.”

Frank had addressed the Greenway Advisory Committee a month ago and told the group that Chestnut Hill BioEnergy had no traction and was no where on the radar screen. “When I said that I didn’t know they had received a $500,000 loan from the Connecticut Clean Energy Fund,” Frank said. “But right now WDC has no opinion about the proposal.”

Franks said WDC “doesn’t get too emotional. We try to stay neutral, but if the mayor wants us to get involved, we will.”

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Let It Flow

Ideas Flying For Greenway Project Along The Naugatuck River In Waterbury

The Naugatuck River flows right through the center of Waterbury

Excitement during the 2nd Annual Naugatuck River Race

Hashing out plans during a greenway summit

One of the organizers of the river race, Kevin Zak, of the Naugatuck River Revival Group, addresses a pre-race gathering May 9th

An aerial map of the Naugatuck River generated lots of discussion on April 30th at Kennedy High School

During the past 50 years the spirit of Waterbury has slowly dehydrated like a grape shrivelling into a raisin. The once blustering civic spirit that forged an industrial powerhouse out of a treeless meadow has waned with economic loss, political corruption and systemic arguing.

Enter the healing power of water.

Water has the power to cleanse and nourish our souls. It also has the power to hydrate a dried raisin and make it swollen and plump again.

It was the convergence of seven streams and rivers that led the settlers to build the Mattatuck Plantation here. It was the awesome power of those rivers and streams that fired the grist mills and fueled the brass industry as the city rose to worldwide prominence. Water was the city’s biggest asset, and our ancestors acknowledged that fact when they changed the name from Mattatuck, to Waterbury. The city owns a world class water system that winds through Litchfield County, and the Water Department is the only city department that posts a profit every year.

Somewhere along the way the community lost it’s reverence for our rivers and streams and they became little more than liquid conveyor belts to move our waste and garbage south further down the Naugatuck Valley. Many city residents remember the days when the Naugatuck River was stained orange and red from industrial dyes, and the Naugatuck is one of the only documented rivers in America to actually catch fire from all the debris and pollutants clogging its arteries.

Times have changed.

The river runs clear again. The dams that blocked it for nearly 200 years are almost entirely removed, and the natural wildlife has returned. As the river healed, many area residents began a slow awakening to the extraordinary asset we had mistreated and abused for 200 years. Individuals began to kayak and paddle through Waterbury. Fisherman no longer feared eating the catch they yanked from the river. Bird watchers could see Great Blue Herons, Green Herons, and a lucky few spotted a lone Bald Eagle down in the Platts Mills section of the river.

Several years ago a small group of community minded activists sought to tap into the power of the river and build a greenway along its banks. A preliminary environmental study was completed, but the cash needed to implement the dream was shorter than a politician’s memory after election day.

The missing link was political will.

All that changed last Spring when the Naugatuck River Revival Group sponsored a six mile canoe and kayak race on the river, and had the brilliant idea to invite municipal leaders from up and down the river to compete.

What could have been a ho-hum race involving 20 experienced boaters was suddenly transformed into the event of the year when Waterbury Mayor Mike Jarjura promised to participate. State Senator Joan Hartley and aldermen Mike Telesca, Paul Pernerewski and Paul Noguira all braved the unknown to paddle from Platts Mills to Beacon Falls. Nobody knew what lay around the next bend and there was a sense of dread and excitement as 200 boats blasted off from Waterbury’s south end.

Waterbury Mayor Michael Jarjura in 2008, and some of the 250 boaters in 2009

The First Selectman of Beacon Falls, Susan Cables, participated, as did Chuck Frigon, the Town Manager in Watertown, and the mayors of Ansonia and Derby. An enormous amount of publicity was generated and photographs of a drenched Michael Jarjura crossing the finish line waving to the crowd seemed to epitomize the event. Jarjura’s canoe had flipped three times and he ruined his cell phone, but he had a blast. Other participants said the event was one of the most memorable of their life.

The importance of influential politicians in the event cannot be underestimated. The race was talked about for weeks, and then suddenly $4 million dollars was reallocated from a 2005 High Priority Federal Transportation Grant and directed towards creating a 7.1 mile greenway along the Naugatuck River.

Over the summer Mayor Jarjura formed a Greenway Advisory Committee and asked many influential community leaders to serve on it. Former mayoral candidate and long-time alderman, Ron Napoli, is the chairman of the committee. Kathleen McNamara, the community development coordinator for the Waterbury Development Corporation, is the vice-chairman. McNamara has been pushing for a greenway in the city for years and has been instrumental in nurturing the project from idea, to the cusp of reality.

Kathleen McNamara

“This is a great project,” McNamara said. “We tried it several years ago but the timing wasn’t right. Now we have tremendous momentum and great public participation. In the past ten years this is the most excited I’ve been about any project in the city.”

And while other communities up and down the Naugatuck River try to get their own greenway projects launched, Waterbury seems to be way ahead of the curve. In addition to the $4 million that now sits in the Connecticut Department of Transportation coffers for the Waterbury greenway, the city just recently applied for an additional $11.3 million in federal funding to advance the project.

But what exactly is a greenway?

In his book Greenways For America, Charles E. Little gives several possible definitions for a greenway. First, he says it is a linear open space established along either a natural corridor, such as a riverfront, stream valley, ridgeline, or overland along a railroad right of way converted to recreational use, a canal, a scenic road, or other route.

Second, Little defines a greenway as any natural or landscaped course for pedestrian or bicycle passage. Third, an open-space connector linking parks, nature reserves, cultural features, or historic sites within populated areas.

Greenways have exploded upon the national consciousness in the past 25 years, but in his book, Little credits Frederick Law Olmstead for inventing the idea of greenways. Olmstead was born in Hartford in 1822 and designed Central Park in the heart of New York City, and ironically, it was Olmstead who also designed Fulton Park in Waterbury.

In the introduction to his book, Little states greenways are “wonderfully rich and diverse - as rich and diverse as human ingenuity and topographical opportunity can make them.”

And in Waterbury the gears of imagination are just beginning to grind.

The Naugatuck River hugs Route 8 for several miles in Waterbury

While still in it’s conceptual stage, the multi-use greenway in Waterbury is imagined to provide a place for bikers, rollerbladers, walkers, and parents pushing their baby strollers up and down the Naugatuck River corridor. The greenway should provide entrance and exit points for kayaks and canoes. It should have educational components to interpret history and nature. It should have places for the community to gather to enjoy theater and concerts, and shops and restaurants to buy an ice cream or a beer.

The Mixmaster intersection of Route 8 and I-84

The Greenway Advisory Committee selected Alta Planning + Design from Saratoga Springs, NY, to plan a route for the greenway. The company was hired this Spring and their first step into the project was to conduct a community wide kick-off and brain storming session on April 30th at Kennedy High School where nearly 150 city residents showed up to participate.

Mayor Jarjura was the first to address the gathering and spent a few minutes talking about his participation in the 2nd Annual Naugatuck River Race being held May 9th, assuring everyone he would wear a helmet this time. “This project has the potential to alter the city,” Jarjura said. “Water is gold. If you have a waterway you have to do something to enhance the community.”

Alta’s Jeff Olson is managing the project in Waterbury and he has extraordinary experience planning and deigning similar projects around the country. Olson addressed the gathering at Kennedy High School and said the first thing he was there to do was listen to the community.

Jeff Olson of Alta Planning and Design

“We want to hear what ideas you have for the project,” Olson said, and then he broke the gathering into smaller splinter groups to work on various concepts and ideas. “I’ve done this all across the country and as you get started your community is way ahead of most communities,” Olson said. “You already have your mayor in a kayak and you have millions of dollars committed. This is fantastic.”

Starting a project with excellent digital maps, environmental studies in place, and a committed city administration gives Waterbury a big head start. Olson asked the gathering if they knew the meaning of the word Naugatuck, and several people knew it was an ancient Algonquian word for “Lone tree by the fishing place.”

As he spoke briefly about the greenway, Olson said “the Naugatuck River can become the unifying theme of this community”, and getting residents out walking, biking running and paddling “can have tremendous benefits on people’s health”.

Olson told the gathering of the importance of including public art in the project and shared a story about how England committed itself to a massive greenway project that included a spectacular amount of public art. In Waterbury there might be ways to connect to public art already in existence - the statues and monuments in downtown Waterbury, the Mattatuck Museum and Timexpo. The greenway can have little fingers or tentacles that shoot off into the community and neighborhoods to connect the city.

There was discussion during the night to try and link the greenway to the downtown UConn campus, to Municipal Stadium and to a proposed transportation center. Other ideas were to connect the greenway to Duggan School in Brooklyn, to the Huntington ballfields, to Fort Hill Cemetery, to neighborhood parks and special events. Another idea was to transform a car junk yard along the river into a park.

Designing a greenway from Waterbury city limits to Thomaston would be much easier than tackling the 7.1 mile stretch in Waterbury, through densely populated areas, factories, brownfields, abandoned bridges and beneath the mixmaster exchange where I-84 and Route 8 intersection. “If this were the Olympics,” Olson said. “The degree of difficulty with this project would be very high.”

From his experience, though, Olson said every greenway project is different. “Each one is an open book,” Olson said. “There are a lot of obstacles, but with innovation and creativity we can find solutions.”

There might be locations in Waterbury where the greenway will have to veer away from the river. There might be opportunities to build the greenway out over the river. In the end it will be Olson’s job to come back to the community and the Greenway Advisory Committee with options and estimated costs. “We’ll be looking for the best most workable solution,” Olson said. “Then it’s up to the community to decide what they want.”

And during the kick-off night at Kennedy High School the community was brimming with ideas. Some of the ideas were a sculpture park on the seven acres being donated to the city in the south end by Mimi Niederman, and to provide security along the entire greenway. Another idea was to create programs to teach city youngsters to ride bikes and to swim. Olson was excited about the idea to get Waterbury kids off computers and outside exercising. “The number of kids across the country who don’t know how to ride bikes and swim is alarming,” he said.

Mimi Niederman is donating seven acres of riverfront property in the South End of Waterbury

At the end of the evening Olson tried to summarize the event. “I was asked by the Waterbury Development Corporation to come and inspire the community. Instead it is me who has been inspired.” Olson said it is usually at the first meetings that individuals come up with pitch forks and rotten fruit to criticize the project, but in Waterbury there was absolutely no negativity.

“There are people out there opposed to this,” Olson said, “and we’ll hear from them.”

Or maybe not.

Waterbury has been so bogged down in bickering and a loss of civic pride, that maybe this project along the river will provide the healing this community so desperately needs. In Charles Little’s book about greenways he wrote “For a 100 years urban rivers have been relegated to the ugliest of urban functions - sewage disposal, heavy industrial sites and garbage disposal. Inevitably the river corridors became a kind of no man’s land, dividing cities, economically and socially - the poor on one side, the rich on the other.”

But, Little writes, times have changed. “The ugly functions have been replaced and when cities discover this the impulse is strong to establish a greenway project along the river front. And then a miracle happens. The river begins to join the people of the city together, rather than separate them. What was once an open wound begins to heal itself, and the city along with it.”

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Jim Calhoun Is Out Of Control

Forget the press conference meltdown, the real issue with Jim Calhoun is not his salary, it's his courtside behavior. He swears at his players, kicks chairs, abuses referees and curses at fans. Is this the price of victory?

Photograph originally appeared in the New York Times

It was a crisp autumn evening in 2006 and Hasheem Thabeet was about to begin his basketball career at the University of Connecticut. Thabeet spent the first 16 years of his life 7,600 miles from UConn, in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, where sultry air wafts into West Africa from the Indian Ocean and the average temperature in November is a toasty 86 degrees.

On this night, November 10th, Thabeet was making his debut at the Hartford Civic Center. Despite his massive size, 7’3” and 265 pounds, Thabeet was extraordinarily inexperienced and had been lightly recruited out of high school. He saw his first pick-up basketball game in Tanzania when he was 15 years old. The other players noticed his 6’8” frame and invited him to play. Thabeet had played soccer his entire childhood and was athletic, with nimble feet, a rarity for a man his size. Thabeet took to basketball quickly, and soon found himself playing high school ball in Kenya, where he began firing off unsolicited e-mails to U.S. colleges trying to get a scholarship. The Internet cold calls didn’t work, but Thabeet was “discovered” by an American businessman who was scouting African players for prep schools back in the States.

Hasheem Thabeet stretches before a recent game against South Florida. Photograph by John Murray

And in the blink of an eye, Hasheem Thabeet was sucked into the world of American basketball, a culture offering unfathomable wealth for those tough and talented enough to run the gauntlet. No player from Tanzania had ever played major college basketball in the United States before, and no Tanzanian had ever played in the NBA. Thabeet’s dream was longer than a long shot — kind of like trying to hit a 325-yard drive with your putter.

High school in America was a whirlwind for Thabeet — he played at three schools in two years, moving from California, to Mississippi, to Texas. During his senior year in Houston he averaged 16 points and four blocks per game, but received scant interest from major college recruiters. Thabeet, though, was the type of player UConn coach Jim Calhoun loved to recruit — raw, with vast room for improvement. A player who Calhoun, with the intensity of a drill sergeant, could forge into a star.

When Thabeet walked out onto the court against Quinnipiac in 2006 he became the tallest basketball player in UConn history. Nobody quite knew what to expect from the raw freshman, but the game was predicted to be a coming-out party for the rest of UConn’s highly regarded freshman class, which included several prized recruits. It should have been a fun night for UConn players as they raced up and down the court like antelope, leaving an outgunned and forgettable Quinnipiac team gasping for air.

The players seemed relaxed and playful, but all that was about to change.

Seconds into the game, Jim Calhoun began stomping his feet on the court to get his players’ attention. He screamed, he bellowed, his face contorted with anger as he paced up and down the bench, spraying obscenities like bullets from a machine gun. With every errant pass or botched offensive play, Calhoun yanked the offending player from the game. Play became stilted as the players peeked over their shoulders to see what Calhoun was doing. At one point Calhoun grabbed Stanley Robinson’s jersey and physically pulled him towards the bench.

At 7'3", Hasheem Thabeet is the tallest player in UConn history. He is projected to be one the top picks in the upcoming NBA draft. Photograph by John Murray

Quinnipiac was playing steady basketball and the game was surprisingly close. When one of the UConn guards missed an outside shot, Thabeet snagged the rebound and went back up with a shot from point-blank range. Instead of cramming the ball through the hoop with a monstrous dunk, Thabeet attempted to make a bank shot off the glass and awkwardly missed the basket by five feet.

The crowd groaned, Calhoun called a quick time out and raced onto the court to confront Thabeet. Calhoun, red faced and waving his hands, met Thabeet at the foul line and screamed, “Dunk the f**king ball.”

It was a strange sight to behold. Calhoun and Thabeet were the only two people on the court, and Calhoun looked like a rabid squirrel stomping his feet and waving his hands at the base of a massive tree. Thabeet, fluent in French and Swahili and still working on his English, was getting a postgraduate course in profanity from Calhoun.

But Calhoun wasn’t satisfied to just verbally abuse his players. Moments later, his wrath spilled into the stands.

A fan behind the UConn bench hollered out some benign comment about grabbing a rebound, and Calhoun spun around to a crowd of men, women and children, and screamed, “Shut the f**k up!”

The fan got the point, but just to be sure, Calhoun bellowed it again. UConn players on the bench looked at each other in stunned disbelief.

Sitting ten feet behind the UConn bench, I was stunned, too. I wondered how Calhoun could get away with this. Does coaching a championship basketball team give the man carte blanche to behave like a vulgar idiot? Calhoun’s antics continued all game long. He verbally abused players, he screamed, he stomped, and by the end of the game he was drenched in sweat, his tie dangling sideways from his neck, looking like he’d just lost a bar fight.

I had gone to Hartford to watch a basketball game, but two hours later I felt like I’d been mugged by Jim Calhoun. After the game, my friend Andy and I spent an hour talking about Calhoun and concluded that Connecticut is in an abusive relationship with the legendary coach. We let him abuse us, and his players, because he’s taken us, and them, to the promised land of NCAA championships. We trade dignity and grace for victory.

Calhoun rips into former UConn player Doug Wiggins. Photograph by Bob Childs of the Associated Press

It’s unfair to only paint Calhoun as an overbearing jerk. He is an intense and complicated man, an exceedingly generous man off the court, and one of the most successful coaches in college basketball history.

In a state that has no professional sports team, Calhoun is a living legend. A few years ago he was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts, largely for taking a second-tier program and driving it to glory. He’s snagged two national championships and groomed 16 NBA players. If he sticks around three or four more years, Calhoun might become the winningest basketball coach in college history.

Rival coach Jim Boeheim of Syracuse said, “Jim Calhoun has done as good a job as has ever been done in college basketball history. He has done something at Connecticut that I really don’t think has ever been done any place else.”

What he’s accomplished at UConn is unique. Calhoun hasn’t piled up wins at an established national powerhouse like Duke, UCLA or Kansas. Despite the school’s location in the woods of eastern Connecticut, Calhoun has built UConn’s program into one of the top three in America. Prior to Calhoun’s arrival, the school had never ended a season ranked in the top 25 in the country. Since then, Calhoun has often led the team to the upper tiers of the national polls. UConn has been ranked #1 in the country nine different times under Calhoun, and in all of Big East history only Georgetown and Pittsburgh have held down that top spot more than once (both teams achieved that ranking twice). In Calhoun’s 23 years at UConn, his teams have won 20 games 18 times. They have reached the 25-win plateau 11 times.

That’s rarefied air.

Calhoun has led UConn to two national championships. Photograph originally appeared in Sports Illustrated.

And if you’re an elite high school basketball player dreaming of a career in the NBA, UConn is one of the schools that better be your radar screen. UConn has 13 players currently playing in the NBA, second only to Duke, with 14. UConn has twice as many players in the NBA as any other Big East team. The message to the players is clear: If you want to turn pro and make millions, go to UConn, because Jim Calhoun has a superb record of developing professional basketball players. That’s why he’s in the Hall of Fame.

Former Hartford Courant columnist Alan Greenberg once wrote that ”the hiring of Jim Calhoun in 1986 was the most important hire in the history of the State of Connecticut.”

Off the court, Calhoun and his wife, Pat, donated $125,000 to the Calhoun Cardiology Research Fund, and the Jim Calhoun Celebrity Golf Tournament has raised an additional $3 million to support the cause.

Calhoun has worked tireless hours raising public awareness of autism, diabetes and cancer. He is a generous man.

He is also abusive and vulgar.

The administration at the university — and the fans across Huskie Nation — have turned a blind eye to Calhoun’s repugnant behavior because he wins championships, makes us feel good about our little state, and, oh by the way, the program rakes in millions of dollars.

None of that excuses his boorish behavior. Winning 800 college basketball games does not give Jim Calhoun the right to act like an ass, or to verbally abuse players, fans and reporters.

Former UConn basketball coach Dee Rowe told the New York Times in 1995 that Calhoun “keeps himself on edge. You look at him, and you say he won’t allow himself to lose.”

Rowe also called Calhoun “Bobby Knight East, and I say that with respect.”

To say Calhoun is controlling is like saying the economy is struggling a little bit right now. In a New York Times interview he said, “I like to control the players’ environment. I like to control the atmosphere.”

In a national bestseller called “The Verbally Abusive Relationship,” Patricia Evans creates the profile of an abuser. There are certain characteristics, or traits, that many verbal abusers have in common. Consider these, and think about how many might apply to Jim Calhoun: irritable, angry, intense, controlling, competitive, quick with comebacks and put-downs, critical, manipulative, explosive and hostile.

Evans writes in her book that name-calling is “the most obvious form of verbal abuse, and that all name-calling is verbally abusive.”

Calhoun explodes on forward Stanley Robinson. Photograph by John Woike of the Hartford Courant.

Writer Robert Fulghum wrote: “Yelling at living things does tend to kill the spirit in them. Sticks and stones may break our bones, but words will break our hearts.”

And not all UConn players have accepted Calhoun’s tirades. Toraino Walker cited verbal abuse as the reason he quit the team in 1992. Other players have transferred, and many recruits have picked other schools because they didn’t want to deal with Calhoun’s screaming. Inside UConn it is well known that families and friends of the players are not allowed to sit behind the team bench. Imagine hearing Calhoun call your son a f**king idiot in front of 16,000 fans?

One Calhoun story — which is difficult to verify — has Calhoun going bananas on the sidelines after a player made a foolish pass. Calhoun is alleged to have grabbed a player off the bench and told him to “Go in for that asshole.” The player dashed to the scorer’s table at mid-court to check in before entering the game. A moment later the player looked confused, and then called back to Calhoun, “Coach, which asshole?”

The Press Conference
Jim Calhoun was recently in the center of a highly contentious exchange with journalist Ken Krayeske that landed them on YouTube, ESPN, Sports Illustrated, and in columns all across the country.

I was at the press conference where the exchange took place, standing three feet away from Krayeske when he asked Calhoun if, considering the dire state of the economy, he might be willing to give some of his $1.6 million salary back. Calhoun said “not a dime back,” and when Krayeske asked how much Calhoun’s deal with Comcast was worth, Calhoun paused, and said “You’re not really that stupid are you?”. When Krayeske said that he was, Calhoun said “My best advice to you is to shut up” and then began screaming about how much money his program brought into the university.

This photograph of Jim Calhoun was taken seconds after Ken Krayeske (pictured below) interrupted Calhoun's monologue to ask the coach if he was willing to give any of his $1.6 million salary back. Photograph by John Murray

When Krayeske walked out of the press conference, he was convinced no one would report about the incident. He was wrong. The incident was caught on video, and within hours it was an Internet sensation. Lines were drawn between the sports world and the realm of bigger, broader ideas.

Some thought Calhoun came off arrogant and insensitive to the struggle of millions of Americans out of work and struggling to pay their bills. State workers were being asked to take unpaid days off, and the highest paid state employee in Connecticut — Jim Calhoun — was glibly refusing to give one dime back.

Some people thought Krayeske was a punk for asking Calhoun a question about his salary during a press conference minutes after UConn defeated South Florida on Valentine’s Day. Many others thought the question was legitimate, but the press conference was neither the time or place to broach the subject. Krayeske came under national attack for his part in the drama, and UConn and many sports columnists were quick to claim Krayeske wasn’t even a journalist — he only had a photo pass, for God’s sake — and had no right to ask Calhoun a question.

That line of reasoning is absurd.

I’ve known Ken Krayeske for 15 years. He has worked at the Republican-American newspaper, the Register Citizen, and the Hartford Advocate. He helped the Waterbury Observer run two summer youth programs back in the 1990s. Krayeske has a degree in journalism from Syracuse University, ran a youth newspaper for two years in Hartford, and now writes a weekly column for the Hartford News. Krayeske is a journalist, and had every right to ask Calhoun a question during the press conference.

As for the photo pass, that’s what I had been issued for the game, too. When you are both a writer and a photographer — which very few journalists are — you have to pick one or the other to get your credential. UConn doesn’t allow photographers to sit in a chair along press row and take notes and game photographs at the same time. If you want photographs you have to sit on the floor underneath the baskets. That’s why both Krayeske and I had photo passes that day.

Krayeske is an excellent writer and photographer, and is every bit as complicated as Jim Calhoun. In addition to being a journalist for the past 15 years, Krayeske is a UConn law student and a political activist, and was the Green Party campaign manager during the 2006 governor’s race. Ken was arrested in a bizarre incident during Jodi Rell’s inauguration parade, primarily because the state and local police had his name on a watch list. His crime when he was arrested? He was standing on a street corner photographing Rell as she walked past. Krayeske filed a federal lawsuit against the police and stands an excellent chance of winning a settlement before the case goes to trial.

Krayeske is also a vocal proponent of legalizing marijuana and has traveled to Africa and Europe to write freelance articles for High Times Magazine. He has also pulled a few political stunts in his role as an activist, including disrupting a speech by Senator Joe Lieberman. And make no mistake about this fact: Ken Krayeske entered that UConn press conference seeking confrontation. While some people avoid confrontation at all costs, Krayeske moves towards it. Krayeske approached me at halftime of the game and asked if I was going to the press conference afterwards. “Make sure you stick around,” he said, “because I’m going to drop a bomb on Calhoun.”

After the game, Krayeske and I talked for ten minutes about his lawsuit and he again encouraged me to stay and watch him go after Calhoun. Was it a set-up? Certainly. Did Krayeske wave a red flag in front of a steamed bull? Absolutely. Was it a legitimate question to ask Calhoun? Yes. Did Calhoun handle the situation well? Certainly not. Calhoun yelled and told Krayeske to shut up. UConn women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma said he feared what might have happened to Krayeske if he had dared to ask Calhoun that question 20 years ago. What does that mean? Would Calhoun have taken Krayeske out into the hall and roughed him up?

The widely circulated video clip of Calhoun shouting became a poltical hot potato. Governor Jodi Rell called the tirade “an embarrassment” and two state legislators wrote a letter to UConn asking that the coach be disciplined for his behavior.

But Calhoun being tripped up by Krayeske’s salary question is like a bank robber getting nailed for snatching chocolate chip cookies. For 23 years, Calhoun has bellowed at and intimidated his players. He is an old-school coach using old-school tactics that repeatedly crossed the line into abuse. Back in the 1990s, then-Governor John Rowland attended a UConn-Villanova game and witnessed Jim Calhoun up close and personal. Rowland was disturbed by Calhoun’s behavior, which he said at the time was “out of control.” Rowland said Calhoun’s behavior and language created a stark contrast to the Villanova bench, where a Catholic priest sat during every game.

A few days later, Rowland placed a call to UConn athletic director Lew Perkins and said UConn needed to do something about Calhoun’s behavior. Perkins agreed, and he began sitting in a chair close to the UConn bench, along press row, where he could keep a close eye and ear on Calhoun.

Whenever Calhoun began to grow agitated and begin to curse, Perkins would catch his attention and signal for him to tone it down. Rowland said this worked for a while, then Perkins accepted a position in Kansas.

Several people connected to UConn have implied that current UConn Athletic Director Jeffrey Hathaway is afraid of Calhoun, and is reluctant to take on the issue of his coach’s behavior.

But it really shouldn’t matter how many basketball games and championships Calhoun has won. He is a public figure, and as the most recognizable celebrity in Connecticut, he is a role model and should be held to high standards. Would we accept a math teacher screaming at students and calling them f**king idiots because they couldn’t master Pythagorean’s Theorem? That teacher would immediately be reprimanded, and if it happened again, he would be fired. It would be a moot point to defend the teacher’s behavior by saying they are forging better students. That behavior is unacceptable.

Would we accept Calhoun-like tirades from the coach of the women’s badminton team? Never. But in the world of sports and big business, anything goes as long as you win, and win big. A majority of avid UConn fans don’t care what Calhoun does as long as he keeps leading the basketball team to victory. Public opinion in the Calhoun-Krayeske dispute is clearly on the coach’s side. A recent Quinnipiac Poll found that 80% of the respondents didn’t think Calhoun should give any of his salary back. But the issue isn’t about money, it’s about behavior and verbal abuse that should not be tolerated.

The Press
Halfway through the Calhoun-Krayeske exchange Krayeske said, “I wouldn’t have to ask these questions if these guys in here did their job.”

After Krayeske punked all the sport writers in the room, Calhoun recoiled, and a collective groan came from the press corp. I’ve attended a dozen UConn press conferences over the years, and they are painful exercises. Sports writers often ask fawning, cloying, pompom-waving queries like, “Coach, how do you think Donyell played tonight?” or “Coach, what do you think your chances are against Pittsburgh on Saturday?”

In reality, the UConn press corps is a much less attractive version of the team’s cheerleaders. Instead of lithe, fit coeds doing back flips, the press corps is mostly comprised of middle-aged men firmly under the thumb of both UConn coaches — Jim Calhoun and Geno Auriemma.

Reporters gather around Hasheem Thabeet after the game against South Florida. Photograph by John Murray

Seldom does a journalist probe into the sensitive areas of the UConn men’s basketball program. The graduation rate is only 30%, and that number crashes to 17% when considering only black players.

In the past ten years, two journalists have taken on Calhoun: Jeff Jacobs of the Hartford Courant, and Ken Krayeske, who has persistently challenged Calhoun’s behavior, his program, his salary, and the exorbitant cost of running the program.

Jacobs questioned how UConn handled an incident involving two players who tried to pawn stolen laptop computers. One player, Marcus Williams, was the starting point guard on a team contending for a national championship. The other player, A.J. Price, was a back-up guard. When Calhoun and UConn announced that Price would be suspended for the season, yet Williams could return for the important stretch of games after January 1st, Jacobs wrote columns questioning the rationale. Was this just about winning basketball games?

A.J. Price was suspended two years ago for trying to pawn stolen laptop computers. In 2009 he is the star point guard and the player counted on to lead the team through the NCAA tournament. Photograph by John Murray

Calhoun was furious and called Jacobs a racist, and implied to members of the UConn press corps that Jacobs was gay. Jacobs fired back, saying he would not be intimidated by Calhoun, and the showdown got plenty of airtime on WFAN sports radio in New York City.

Ten years ago, Krayeske wrote a column in the Hartford Advocate that brought up many of the same issues raised in this article — specifically, Calhoun’s courtside behavior.

“I was told by the sports information people at UConn that my column was not the way to cover UConn basketball,” Krayeske said. “And they cut off my access to the players.”

Krayeske rails against the “clubby atmosphere” that exists between the beat writers and the team they are supposed to cover. Before each home game, UConn lays out a buffet of food for the writers to eat. They are given salad, chicken tenders, lasagna, bread and butter, giant cookies, soda, coffee and bottled water. It’s all free, and before any game most of the writers and photographers sit around large wooden tables, gorging on state-subsidized food.

“If they feed you, you become part of the family,” Krayeske said. “The free food compromises a writer’s integrity and UConn expects you to write only positive stories about their program. The message is, don’t bite the hand that feeds you, and more importantly, why should state government be paying for the press to eat?”

Krayeske refuses to eat the free food.

One of the real ironies of the Calhoun-Krayeske blowout was that Krayeske has asked these questions before, and written extensively about the subject on his blog, The 40-Year Plan.

“I asked Calhoun in a telephone interview how much money he personally made off of an exclusive Nike deal with UConn,” Krayeske said. “His response was to ask me how much money I made at the Hartford Advocate. I told him, and then asked him the question again. He wouldn’t give me an answer.”

In the days after Krayeske punked the sports writers, numerous columns were written about him across the state of Connecticut, and they were mostly vicious. A columnist for the New London Day, Mike DiMauro, went way over the top and stated that Krayeske was a fraud and had no business in the room with real journalists. Ironically, moments after Calhoun blew his top at Krayeske, Calhoun singled out DiMauro and complimented him on the terrific column he had written about Hasheem Thabeet.

“That was a special column, Mike,” Calhoun said. “I told Hasheem he should save that one.”

After the Krayeske explosion, the lovefest resumed.

And seconds after the press conference ended, a journalist came up to Krayeske and confronted him. He said Krayeske had no right to confront Calhoun. Didn’t Krayeske know how important Calhoun was to Connecticut? Didn’t Krayeske know how many jobs had been created by the UConn men’s program? Then the reporter likened Krayeske to the Iraqi shoe-thrower for disrespecting Calhoun the way the Iraqi reporter had disrespected President George W. Bush.

In the days after the confrontation the Internet went wild about the story. Blogs attacked Krayeske as a “whining fruitcake” and a “stupid little hippie.”

Krayeske stopped reading the comments because they were so nasty, but he did admire the creativity of one: “This guy wrote that I looked like a homeless man with a dead squirrel nailed to my head. I thought that was pretty funny.”

Occasionally someone did spank Calhoun. Eric Fries of East Lyme wrote, “UConn coach Jim Calhoun has certainly proven that you can be a winner and a champion and still not have any class.”

Jim Calhoun almost jumped out of his shoes in anger after freshman Kemba Walker made an errant pass against South Florida. Photograph by John Murray

A Sports Illustrated blogger wrote that “the coach is a public figure and he should to be asked tough questions like that. It comes with the territory.”

Many bloggers accused Calhoun of being a bully. If the coach had answered the question like he had answered Krayeske’s previous queries over the years, there would never have been a national controversy. The story became about Calhoun’s over-the-top response and was a perfect storm of arrogance, money, and the tanking economy. Calhoun might as well have said “let them eat cake,” like Marie Antoinette referring to the starving peasants in 1800 France.

So what, in the end, are we to make of our bullying superstar coach?

Jim Calhoun may be the biggest celebrity in Connecticut, but he is not untouchable. Referring back to Patricia Evan’s book about verbal abuse, the key to changing behavior is for the victim to point out the behavior, and ask for change. Somebody in authority needs to directly intervene and ask Jim Calhoun to stop swearing at his players. We need Governor Rell to step in like John Rowland did a decade ago. We need athletic director Jeff Hathaway to supervise Calhoun’s behavior, and reprimand public acts of vulgarity and verbal abuse.

This is not about winning national championships and multimillion dollar contracts. It should be about humanity. Calhoun went on WFAN recently and said, “Life is a motion picture, not a snapshot. There are always a few frames any of us would take back.”

But the longer Jim Calhoun is allowed to storm up and down the court, spewing profanities at players and fans, the snapshots become a movie about abuse, not championship glory.