Archive | January, 2011

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Gov. Dan Malloy Checks On, Umm, Budget


By Ann-Marie Adams, Staff Writer

HARTFORD — Guess which top state official was spotted downtown today?

Connecticut’s own Gov. Dannel P. Malloy was spotted Monday in the State House Square branch of Wachovia Bank checking on his own budget.

Yep. He stood at the teller’s window as he made his deposit and checked his balance.

When asked by a reporter if he was indeed doing his own banking, the governor paused for a photo and responded:

“Well, someone has to do it.”

The governor was not alone, however. Nor did he have an entourage.

There was one private security officer in the background with an eagle eye.

But to the other customers in the bank, the governor was  just, well, a regular joe.

“I guess he’s really trying to get a hold of his own finances,” quipped one bank customer from Windsor.”He has to do that first before he tackles the state’s budget gap.”

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Edwin Vargas Kicks Off Mayoral Campaign


HARTFORD — Edwin Vargas Jr. is the fourth city resident to announce his mayoral bid for the 2012 election.

At Shop Fare Supermarket on Maples Street, about a dozen supporters and onlookers surrounded Vargas on Friday as he officially kicked off his candidacy.

“I’ve been in the community, Vargas said at a gathering at Jesse’s Bar on Broad Street. “I have a lot of support.”

Vargas, 61, is a long-time educator and community activist, having taught for more than three decades. He then became president of the Hartford Federation of Teachers.

He has also served as president of the Greater Hartford Labor Council AFL-CIO, president of the Puerto Rican PAC, and chair of Hartford Democratic Party.

Last year, Vargas challenged incumbent state Sen. John Fonfara, 54, for the 1st Senate District seat in the August primary. The district represents Hartford’s South End and parts of Wethersfield.

Ed Vargas, Jr. confers with onlookers at gathering at Jesse's

Vargas carried Hartford but not Wethersfield.

Vargas has had his eye on Fonfara’s seat for sometime and was gearing up to make another bid–if Fonfara had resigned to accept another prize: Department of Public Utilities Commissioner in Gov. Dannel Malloy’s administration. Malloy offered that job to someone else.

And that door was closed for Vargas again, so he jumped into the mayoral race.

But this time, Vargas said, he has enough support in Hartford to put up a robust mayoral bid.



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State Official: Remove Snow Buildup


HARTFORD — Citing a special weather statement from the National Weather Service, the Connecticut Department of Emergency Management and Homeland Security  today strongly urged residents and business owners to clear the buildup of ice and snow from buildings, especially from flat or low-pitch roofs and decks.

Another round of winter weather is expected to hit the state early this week and could add significantly to the amount of snow on rooftops, increasing the risk of collapse, state officials said in a statement released today.

The Weather Service warns that “a deep snowpack remains across a large portion of the tri-state area. A general 10 to 30 inches of snow depth remains on the ground, with the deepest snow values across Connecticut.” (See the full statement here.)

“The heavier-than-expected snow Connecticut received in last week’s storm led to a number of roof and barn collapses,” DEMHS Commissioner Peter J. Boynton said. “The risks to life and property are serious. And when the snow is allowed to accumulate, the danger grows with every storm.”

Last week, Gov. Malloy also urged people to clear their roofs and decks.

The DEMHS Commissioner added that snow may seem light and fluffy from the inside but is actually real weight that increases tremendously when rain, freezing rain or sleet is added to the mix.

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Bitter Pill: NY Schools Chief’s Birth Control Joke Offends


By Nayaba Arinde

NEW YORK—Parents, educators and elected officials gathered at the Department of Education HQ at the Tweed Building on Tuesday to denounce the birth control gaffe made by controversial Schools Chancellor Cathie Black.

Apparently, Black, a mother of two, objects to fruitful loins in the inner city. Last Thursday night, speaking at a task force meeting about overcrowded classes at Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s downtown Manhattan office, Black quipped, “Could we just have some birth control for a while? It would really help us.”

To what appeared to be nervous laughter, Black compounded the faux pas by adding that concerned parents are faced with “many ‘Sophie’s choices,’” referencing a movie where a mother has to make a choice regarding handing one of her two children over to the Nazis.

“She made a joke,” declared staunch defenders like Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who aggressively ushered in the unqualified, waiver-requiring former chairwoman of Hearst Magazines into the position that heads the city’s 1,700 schools, with their 1.1 million public school students.

Running interference on Tuesday at her first press conference since the comment, Bloomberg answered 13 of 15 questions asked of his schools chancellor, and then butted in again when she was asked about her birth control remark.

“Let me say it for her. Yes, she made a joke,” Bloomberg insisted for the umpteenth time in the wake of this latest controversy. He had made the same defense after he was booed at the Rev. Al Sharpton’s Dr. Martin Luther King Day celebration at the National Action Network on Monday.

As Bloomberg and Black held Tuesday’s news conference at the Department of Education, regarding the city seeking $10 million to fund programs for students in need of additional tutoring, Bloomberg said, “She made a joke. Should she [have] made the joke? In retrospect, probably not.”

Council Member Jumaane Williams called Black’s comment “simply astounding. Given the history of government-sanctioned sterilization programs and medical experimentation on communities of color and the large numbers of students of color in the New York City school system, the statement shows an unacceptable level of insensitivity.”

While the Department of Education did not respond to an AmNews request for comment, they did issue a statement last week saying, “Chancellor Black takes the issue of overcrowding very seriously, which is why she was engaged in a discussion with lower Manhattan parents on the subject. She regrets if she left a different impression by making an off-handed joke in the course of that conversation.”

At a rally at the Tweed Building on Tuesday, Brooklyn Councilman Charles Barron wasn’t buying it, “Once again she has shown that her inexperience and the fact that she is unqualified does not bode well for the public school students of this city. Bloomberg should admit that his choice was the wrong choice, and Cathie Black should resign immediately. Her comments are blatantly ignorant and racist.”

Barron said, “Our children’s future is not to be played with. A child dies in ‘Sophie’s Choice.’ Those comments and references are no laughing matter.”

Council Member Leticia James said in a statement that “within a week of Cathie Black taking over for former Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, she has already shown her lack of experience in the field,” and called her statements “simply irresponsible.” She added, “By stating birth control is a ‘simple solution’ to overcrowding, it implies that the birth rate is the only contributor to the overcrowding in schools; not the lack of funding for public school education and the continual closure of schools, specifically in urban neighborhoods.

Mass entry of students into the public school system from private and parochial schools, the extensive unemployment rate and poor economy over the past few years may also play a role in overcrowding. Other reasons could be an increase in population due to relocation from other states or countries, as well as new housing developments being built throughout the city.”

“Wealthy families are not concerned about overcrowding, so Cathy Black was obviously talking about people in the lower income bracket in a city where 85 percent of the students are Black or Latino—so she means us,” said Barron, who hosted two rallies protesting Black’s remarks. “She’s not telling rich white people to have fewer children. Are we about to hear about eugenicist William Shockley or former Education Secretary William Bennett, who said that the crime rate could be reduced by aborting ‘every Black baby in this country’? It is a slippery slope when you start talking about birth control and ‘Sophie’s Choice’ with reference to overcrowded classrooms, but ignore the real factors like funding, the lack of resources and the hijacking of public schools by charter schools, and treating New York City public schools like a for-profit business for Bloomberg and his cronies.”

“Like many New Yorkers, I cringed when I heard that Schools Chancellor Cathie Black offered a smug reply…in response to the genuine concern about the overcrowded classroom situation in our public schools,” said State Sen. Reverend Ruben Diaz. “Given her attitude, can we expect that Cathie Black will be holding parent-teacher meetings where she will advocate for parents to either stop having sex, or to embrace abortion and sterilization as a solution to school overcrowding?”

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No Longer About Bread—Egyptians Want Mubarak’s Head


Commentary, Andy Lei

The last time Egyptians took to the streets was spring 2008, to protest the rise in food prices, especially bread or aish, also the Arabic word for life. For Egyptians, the two are synonymous. A dozen died, becoming “bread martyrs.”

Before then, Egyptians rioted in 1977.  Again, over bread. Their popular slogan: “The people are famished.” About 800 perished before the army crushed the protests.

On Jan. 25, 2011, Egyptians took to the streets once again. Not for bread, but for Mubarak’s head.

How to make sense of last week’s violence? Is this a secular revolution? Tunisia, the sequel? The Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamic revolution?

Clearly, it is a People’s Revolution, powered by general disenchantment over 30 years of stagnation; youthful vigor aided by technology and inspired by their Tunisian neighbor.

From my Egyptian friends’ Facebook pages:

**Mr. Mohammed Abdul Quddus, the chairman of the Freedoms Committee at the Press Syndicate, is arrested in front of the Journalists Syndicate. Like an injured deer, he is being hauled away by five plainclothes police who drag [him by] his arms and legs. The most common response: “Hosny, Allah is my best protector.” Uttered when one has no recourse, this phrase invokes God’s name against the perpetrator of injustice. It is an ancient rebuke.

**Hey, youth, we want to demonstrate Friday after prayers of 100,000 mosques, 100,000 manifestations of the fall of governance. Spread the idea. I cannot stand by myself…

The revolution will not be televised: So goes a 1970 song, but it will be Tweeted and Facebooked. Already, 90,000 Facebook fans have joined the “Day of Revolution.” In light of the Tunisian violence leading their President to retreat to Saudi Arabia, Egyptians have been inspired to do likewise. As they should be.

According to Egypt’s Interior Ministry, more than 10,000 protesters gathered last Tuesday inMidan Tahrir, aptly named Liberation Square, in honor of the 1952 Egyptian Revolution that overthrew King Farouk. (He, too, was condemned for corruption.) Yes, Egyptians know some things about freedom. For the last six decades, they have enjoyed little to none under their military dictators.

Their grievances? Rampant corruption, injustice and high unemployment—the usual complaints in an Arab country.

Are these the last days of Hosni Mubarak’s regime? Don’t bet on it. While Tunisia’s demonstrations were spontaneous, Egypt’s were planned online, but they are no less legitimate.

I used to live in downtown Cairo for a year and a half, teaching English and learning Arabic. I was a tutor and tutee. Observer and participant. Active and passive. I used to traverse the square daily on my way to Arabic classes across the Nile.

Shortly after I arrived, the popular movie was Hiya Fawda, or It is Chaos. A dramatic film about corruption and police brutality, it resonated with the Egyptian audience. Now, life imitates art.

An entire generation of Egyptians has grown up under the System (Al-Nazam) or Pharaoh, as Mubarak is sometimes called. (His other moniker is La Vache Qui Rit, or the Laughing Cow, after a popular French cheese.) The Tyrant (Al-Taaghera) is 82 and ailing but wants another term. In 1999, Mubarak received 94 percent of the popular vote; in 2005, 88.6 percent. This never ceases to make me nervous.

Ayman Nour, Mubarak’s token opponent, garnered only 12 percent.  In the tradition of dictatorships, he has already groomed his son, Gamal, to succeed him. While a small window exists in Egypt for political discussions, it is often shuttered when a sandstorm gathers.

The Cairo of my memories is at odds with the TV images. Whereas you see blood streaming down beaten heads, I recall warm smiles uttering the ubiquitous phrase, “Welcome to Egypt!” Whereas the Internet has been shut down, I recall a city that boasted of WiFi in nearly every major café. Smoke a sheesha while you surf the web!  And whereas I recall young people in downtown celebrating soccer matches, now they shout “Freedom!” in the streets.

What led to all this?

In a sense, Egyptians have worn masks to cover their troubles. Talk to any vendor or cab driver and you are greeted by sunshine. Probe a bit deeper and you get the unadulterated truth. A family of seven surviving on 500 LE ($90) a month. A brother taken away by the police. A reporter jailed for writing about the Tyrant’s health.

Egypt’s premier statesman, Saad Zaghloul, is famous for a particular phrase: “There’s no benefit.” In other words, there’s nothing you can do. It is this sense of resignation that best characterizes Egyptians under Pharaoh’s rule. Sadly, it was also the first phrase I learned on arriving in Cairo.

The story was the same everywhere. Pessimism seemed to pervade the young and old, professional and blue-collar, educated and illiterate.

Egyptian youth, like their counterparts in Tunisia, Yemen, Algeria and other Arab countries, are ruled by corrupt governments, and have few economic opportunities. Even the very educated are unemployed after graduation. My friend Yehia, a lawyer and Arabic-English translator, only worked part-time at the court. Outside the court, he studied translation and helped me hone my Arabic. He is fortunate. His father, a businessman, owns several grocery stores.

In Cairo, working at McDonald’s is considered a good job because of its high wages, relative to other service jobs. In fact, a common ad reads: “Speak both Arabic and English? Have a college degree and experience? Please apply inside.”

Those who do not toil at the golden arches lead tourists in the shadows of the pyramids or on the feluccas of the Nile.

Another friend of mine, Hazem, yearns to leave Cairo. At 22, he is approaching graduation. Fluent in English, he speaks it faster than most Americans. In one evening walk along the dusty streets of downtown, he lamented, “I want to leave Egypt. There’s no hope. No opportunities here.” In a sea of pessimism, Hazem was one of the few optimistic beacons.

He had a curious mixture of street smarts and book smarts that would make him quite successful given the right opportunity. Ahmed, his older brother, already had married a Western woman and moved to Germany the previous year. Inspired by Ahmed’s success, Hazem began German lessons.

Egyptian wages are so meager that professionals often work multiple jobs: A university professor or a government bureaucrat by day, taxi drivers by night. Once, I even met a police officer moonlighting as a cab driver. One could easily meet all of Cairo’s professionals by simply taking a taxi ride. Or by talking to doormen.

Regib, my doorman, graduated from Cairo University in 1980 with an English-translation degree. However, he could never find anything else worthy of his degree. Mahmoud, the other doorman, actually worked two full-time jobs to support his family.

Two Ramadans have passed since I traded the Nile for the Mississippi. I wonder about my Egyptian brothers. What has become of Hazem? Can he go to Germany? What of Yehia? Is he still translating? His morning commute runs through Midan Tahrir. Has he made any detours?

2011 is not 1977. The people are not agitating for more bread. They are hungry for something even more basic, but equally important—freedom. Whether the Tyrant relinquishes power is anyone’s guess. But he should remember the lessons of 1977 and 2008. Freedom, like hunger for bread, is a frequent re-occurrence.

California native Andy Lei lived in Cairo from fall 2007 to summer 2009 studying Arabic, teaching English to Sudanese refugees and working at an English-language magazine. He is a first-year graduate student at the Hubert Humphrey School, University of Minnesota, focusing on global policy.

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City Employee Resigns Amidst Allegations


HARTFORD — The city’s chief information technology director tendered his resignation after reports circulated that he is the subject of  a city investigation about sexual harassment.

In a statement Thursday, Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra said Eric Jackson offered his resignation and it was accepted and  effective immediately.

“The city has a zero-tolerance policy regarding any claims of sexual harassment,” Segarra said.

Perez also said that with Jackson’s resignation no further action can be taken. Consequently, the internal investigation about alleged sexual harassment is now closed.




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Less Than Half of Students Proficient in Science


By Christine Armario

Very few students have the advanced skills that could lead to careers in science and technology, according to results of a national exam released Tuesday that education leaders called alarming.

Only 1 percent of fourth-grade and 12th-grade students, and 2 percent of eighth-graders scored in the highest group on the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress, a federal test known as the Nation’s Report Card. Less than half were considered proficient, with many more showing minimal science knowledge.

“It’s very disappointing for all educators to see students performing below the level we’d like them to be,” said Bonnie Embry, an elementary school science lab teacher in Lexington, Ky. “These low scores should send a message to educators across our nation that we’re not spending enough time teaching science.”

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the results mean students aren’t learning at a rate that will maintain the nation’s role as an international leader in the sciences. He and others expressed concern that more students aren’t prepared for careers as inventors, doctors and engineers in a world increasingly driven by technology.

“Our ability to create the next generation of U.S. leaders in science and technology is seriously in danger,” said Alan Friedman, former director of the New York Hall of Science, and a member of the board that oversees the test.

The results also show a stark achievement gap, with only 10 percent of black students proficient in science in the fourth grade, compared to 46 percent of whites. At the high school level, results were even more bleak, with 71 percent of black students scoring below the basic knowledge level, and just 4 percent proficient.

Fifty-eight percent of Hispanic 12th-grade students scored below basic, as did 21 percent of whites.

“These are really stunning and concerning numbers,” said Amy Wilkins, vice president for government affairs and communications at The Education Trust. She noted that minority and low-income students are the fastest growing parts of the youth population, making the need to increase their achievement levels all the more urgent.

The exam tests knowledge and understanding of physical, life, Earth and space sciences. Examples of skills students need to demonstrate to perform at the advanced level include: designing an investigation to compare types of bird food in fourth grade; predicting the sun’s position in the sky in eighth grade; and recognizing a nuclear fission reaction for those in 12th grade.

Overall, 34 percent of fourth-graders, 30 percent of eighth-graders and 21 percent of 12th-graders scored at the proficient level or above. Seventy-two percent of fourth-graders, 63 percent of eighth-graders and 60 percent of 12th-graders showed a basic level or above of science knowledge and skills.

“I’m at least as concerned, maybe even more, about the large number who fall at the low end,” Friedman said. “Advanced is advanced. But basic is really basic. It doesn’t even mean a complete understanding of the most simple fundamentals.”

The results also indicated there are significant differences between states.

Twenty-four states had scores that were higher than the national average at fourth grade, and 25 had higher scores at eighth grade. The achievement gap was also more notable in certain states. In Mississippi, for example, 68 percent of black fourth grade students scored below basic, and just 4 percent were proficient.

The test was given to more than 150,000 students in both fourth and eighth grade, and a nationally representative sample of 11,100 high school seniors. The last time it was given was in 2005, but the test was significantly updated in 2009, making a comparison between years unreliable.

Results from the 2005 exam were also concerning: Only 29 percent of fourth and eighth-grade students scored proficient or better, as did just 18 percent of 12th-graders tested.

Friedman said the 2009 exam tested students more on how well they understand and know how to apply scientific knowledge, rather than memorization of scientific terms and formulas.

He and others said that while there are too many differences between the 2005 and 2009 exams to make a comparison, the overall trend is one of stagnation. He pointed to the Programme for International Student Assessment, a key international assessment, which shows U.S. students trailing many other nations in science.

The 2009 PISA results placed U.S. students within the same range of countries including Poland, France, and Portugal. The average U.S. score was 502, far below the average score of 575 for students in Shanghai, China.

Duncan said President Barack Obama has called for an “all hands on deck” approach and set a goal of recruiting 10,000 new science and math teachers over the next two years.

“Our nation’s long-term economic prosperity depends on providing a world class education to all students, especially in mathematics and science,” Duncan said.

Experts pointed to a variety of factors that likely contribute to the lackluster results.

Friedman said one unintended side effect of the No Child Left Behind law has been less emphasis on science, history, arts and other subjects in order to emphasize performance in math and reading.

Wilkins was skeptical of that explanation, noting that strong reading and math skills are the underpinnings for a strong science education as well. Schools that are doing well in reading and math are also doing well in science, she said.

“Yes, we have to be intentional about science education, and we have to ensure that all schools have working science labs, but you can’t introduce a kid to a science lab and expect them to do well if they can’t read the text,” she said.



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The State of the Union Speech Is Over—Now the Real Fight Begins


News Analysis, Earl Ofari Hutchinson

President Obama’s State of the Union address was measured, moderate, and in the wake of the Tucson massacre, the paragon of civility. The speech was less of a presidential annual report card on the shape of the nation and his administration, than a treatise on what the Obama administration will do to create the one thing that the administration has been roundly raked over the coals for: not saying and doing enough to create jobs, jobs, and more jobs.

Presidents know that they can talk eloquently about foreign policy, defense, wars, the environment, deficits, education, immigration, trade, clean energy, tax code reform and, in recent years, the war on terrorism, in their State of the Union addresses. Obama lightly hit on all these points in his. But the success of their administration, their re-election, and their legacy rests on jobs and the economy. The line “It’s the economy stupid” has time and again proven to be anything but a stale cliché.

The perception that Obama slipped badly in that area was a colossal factor in the “shellacking” that he and the Democrats took in the mid-term elections. The message still hung heavily in the air on the eve of Obama’s second official SOTU address when polls showed that while he has gotten a solid bump up in his approval ratings, a majority of Americans still give him a D mark on the handling of the economy.

He even used the time-tested reference to Sputnik. That was the nation’s overdrive rush to beat the Soviets into space, to prod business and political leaders, and the nation to launch a massive program to improve technology, transportation, research and education. This is all aimed at one thing, and that’s to create jobs, and more jobs.

But to do that, it takes money, lots of it. That money can only come from one place: the federal government. Left unsaid in the President’s reference to the Sputnik space and weapons race was that the country spent billions to reassert its superiority over the Soviets in bombs and missiles, and to put a man on the moon. It did not shirk on the spending. The political will and unity and funds to do it were there then. Not this time. The GOP’s priority is jobs but not at the expense of more federal spending. And with a $1.4 trillion dollar deficit, and a sizeable number of Americans in jitters about the debt, spending the requisite billions is not in the official cards. The official attack-point for the GOP has been to paint the Obama administration as reckless, out of control in its spending, and then heap more blame on Obama for allegedly single-handedly creating the deficit nightmare.

GOP Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan, in “rebutting” Obama’s address, vowed that the GOP would trim $100 billion from the federal budget. Obama tried to walk the fine political tightrope between the public’s thirst for an improved economy with more jobs and the GOP’s bellicose call for slash-and-burn spending cuts by calling for a five-year spending freeze. The freeze would halt all non-security discretionary spending. This came on top of his earlier call for a pay freeze for all federal employees.

Budget analysts and political experts have already branded the multi-billions that the GOP says can and should be hacked from federal spending as pie-in-the-sky political rhetoric. This is the same GOP that has virtually institutionalized earmarks, pork barrel spending, and given the company store away in tax breaks and in spending to the defense industry. The GOP draconian budget reduction plan would wreak havoc on vital arts, education, health care, transportation, small business lending and support programs.

That’s just the dollars and cents of the talk of massive spending cuts. The real battleground is the political war that the GOP intends to wage against the Obama administration to hack away at federal programs. Obama acknowledged that despite the congressional calm and civility during his State of the Union address, the fight over spending and jobs versus cutting the debt will be fierce. And the fight won’t be long in coming. Obama will unveil his budget proposal for the 2012 fiscal year on February 13. The GOP almost certainly will scream, nit-pick, and slam the spending proposal as too big and burdensome, and will step up the attack on Obama as a tax-and-spend Democrat who will continue to bloat the deficit.

President Obama in his address repeatedly struck the theme that bi-partisan unity is needed to solve the nation’s problems, first and foremost meaning creating jobs and growing the economy. However, with the GOP gearing up for a full court press to take back the White House in 2012, and the GOP banking on using spending and the federal deficit as its political trump cards against Obama, GOP and Democratic congresspersons sitting together is one thing; working together, as Obama noted, is a far different thing.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He hosts the national Capitol Hill broadcast radio talk show on KTYM Radio Los Angeles and WFAX Radio Washington D.C. streamed on ktym.com and wfax.com and an internet TV broadcast on thehutchinsonreportnews.com. 
Follow Earl Ofari Hutchinson on Twitter: http://twitter.com/earlhutchinson



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City Hall Delays Open, Imposes Ban


HARTFORD — With another snow storm on its way, Hartford City Hall will delay the start of business on Thursday.

City officials have asked all non-essential and non-emergency personnel to report to the office at 10 a.m. on Thursday, Jan. 27.

Essential personnel are required to report to work at their normal times, officials said.   Essential staff members are those employees required for public service during this snow emergency including, but not limited to police, fire, dispatch, emergency services and public works.

The city has also set the message that it will get tough on owners of cars that prohibit plow machines from clearing the roads.

The city will enforce the parking ban is in effect  from 8:00 p.m. Jan. 26  to 8:00 p.m. Jan. 27.

City officials said that if school is cancelled on Thursday, vehicles may be parked in public school lots but must be moved once the parking ban has been lifted.

Police said if your car is ticketed and towed, information on its location may be obtained by calling the HPD Record’s Division at (860) 757-4150 between the hours of 8:00 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.

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Who Got Loan Modifications and Who Didn’t—Gov’t Stalls on Data


News Report, Ngoc Nguyen

At the end of this month, for the first time ever, the U.S. Treasury plans to release to the public a treasure trove of demographic information on people who have received loan modifications. That is, if the government releases the information as promised— information that has a critical impact on policies that prevent home foreclosures.

So far, the Treasury has stalled on making this key information available, despite requests by housing and consumer advocacy groups and media organizations, including New America Media, under the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Loan modifications are changes made to the terms of a home loan and could include such things as being granted a different interest rate, a principal reduction, or a decrease in how often the loan must be paid off.

Housing advocates say they have been waiting for the Treasury to the release the information for more than a year.

National Consumer Law Center attorney Geoffry Walsh, whose organization filed a FOIA at the end of 2009, says the Treasury still hasn’t provided the information. Walsh says his group requested data detailing why borrowers were denied loan modifications.

“There were promises from the FOIA people that they would be sending [the data]…and that just went on and on for months,” he said. “They sent a few relevant things, but nothing substantial pertaining to what we asked for.”

New America Media first asked the Treasury for race and ethnicity data of those who received loan modifications under President Obama’s Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP) last September. A Treasury spokesperson said the information would be released at the end of October. The release date was then pushed back to November. New America Media submitted a FOIA request last November, and is still waiting for the requested data. The Treasury now promises to release the data by the end of the month.

“Any delay in publishing the file is to ensure all proper precautions have been taken to protect homeowner privacy – our utmost concern,” Treasury spokesperson Andrea Risotto, said in an emailed reply to New America Media.

For housing advocates, the delay means not having access to critical data that could shed light on who’s getting loan modifications, which has been the key policy for preventing foreclosures, according to Kevin Stein, associate director of the San Francisco-based California Reinvestment Coalition.

The number of foreclosures nationally continues to rise and Stein believes they could reach 12 million by 2013.

“Many people will still need help,” Stein says, “and [loan modifications are] still the main way people will get help.” But, there’s little public information about who is getting the loan modifications and the terms of the deal, “except [what is] in the hands of the banks.”

According to Stein, in much the same way that demographic information on lending has revealed racial disparities, the HAMP data could be used to ensure fair housing laws are not being violated. The HAMP data has limitations though, as 80 percent of loan modifications occur outside of the program, Stein said, citing figures by bank regulators.

Walsh of the National Consumer Law Center says his organization was denied a request for information about a calculator that loan servicers use to determine who qualifies for a loan modification. The calculator, referred to as a net present value (NPV) calculator, takes inputs such as the borrower’s income, property value, length of time behind on payments, credit score, and modification amount and “shows if the investor would do better under the loan modification or by foreclosing,” Walsh said.

The request was denied on the grounds that it was proprietary information. “Basically, they said it belongs to Fannie Mae and private businesses,” Walsh said. “We don’t agree with that.” The group appealed the decision, but the appeal was also denied. “Under HAMP rules, if the NPV test shows that the loan modification is the better option, the servicer has to do the loan modification, they can’t foreclose,” he added.

Homeowners have expressed frustration with the lack of transparency on the part of the bank, while trying to modify home loans with their lenders. Walsh says at least two changes set to begin next month will offer homeowners more transparency about their loan modification process.

As a part of the Wall Street Reform Act of 2010, banks will be required to list the figures that they used in the NPV calculator in denial letters to homeowners. In addition, Walsh says, the Treasury has said it will make the calculators available in the spring. That too, remains to be seen.



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