Corrupt DPH Marijuana Process Leaves Bulk Of Western Mass. Without Dispensaries

dph map

In the often-forgotten counties of western Massachusetts, some surprise was expressed when the Mass. Department of Public Health today awarded only 20 medical marijuana dispensary licenses, covering only ten of the state’s fourteen counties, to sixteen nonprofit Phase 2 applicants.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the DPH has yet again successfully stalled full implementation of the 2012 voter-approved law endorsed on the ballot by 65% of Mass. voters, which stipulates that every county in the state shall be permitted a licensed dispensary.  I say not surprisingly, because virtually every aspect of the regulation process has thus far been misguided and steeped in corruption.

The “panel” reviewing these Phase 2 applicants has been, from the very outset, a bit of a joke, consisting of 1 representative from the naturally-competing pharmaceutical lobby, a police official paid as a lobbyist to oppose the ballot initiative before it was passed, and a bunch of DPH employees.  Not that it matters, because as was indicated to applicants at an October 2013 conference, final decision went to DPH Commissioner and self-described “political animal” Cheryl Bartlett.  Though outstanding applicants existed in every county, Bartlett’s group somehow managed to leave a majority of the eligible patients in the entire western half of the state disenfranchised from this form of voter-legalized medical service by approving just over half of the expected number of dispensaries to be licensed in the first year.  With this, Bartlett has (almost, but not quite) implemented the bare minimum of that required by the voter-approved mandate, while being able to reward some long time friends and political allies in the process.

In the grand tradition of Massachusetts cronyism, it’s not surprising that about a quarter of the RMD applicants licensed today turn out, upon closer examination, to be run by former high-ranking state politicians and Democratic party insiders.

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Take for instance, the top scoring “candidate” for RMD licensing, in the DPH’s final evaluation, who were granted 3 of the 20 licenses: Medical Marijuana for Massachusetts.  This new nonprofit is headed by former state rep. Bill Delahunt, a longtime “great friend,” political patron, and campaign donation recipient of Cheryl Bartlett, and also features as an executive Kevin O’Reilly, former advisor to Mass. Senate President Therese Murray, another known BFF of Commissioner Bartlett’s.

Almost as well-rewarded was the #2 top-scorer, New England Treatment Access, Inc, which is backed by Arnon Vered and the Kessler Group, a substantial chunk of whose total political campaign contributions from 1995-2013 went to Massachusetts Democrats, particularly Attorney General Martha Coakley.

Even former Mass. state senator Brian Lees, who in November raved about what a good job Bartlett was doing managed to squeak by on the lower end of the high-scorers to secure a DPH license to operate a dispensary in Holyoke.

But wait, yes, I remember now, we’re supposed to believe that Bartlett did NOT hold sway over this, and this responsibility was handed over, at the eleventh hour, to a new medical marijuana program director Karen van Uten.  While this new official may lack the visible political entanglements of Bartlett, she is nonetheless an employee answerable to the Commissioner, an employee starting the job a mere two weeks before she allegedly made the “final decision” in a sudden, last minute change from the DPH’s stated policy that came just days after Massachusetts Republicans began complaining of smoky-room politics at work in the RMD licensing process.   That leaves us with either the option that the DPH Commissioner is an idiot, or she thinks we are…

I suppose, then, that it is worth remembering that Bartlett only last summer replaced former DPH Commissioner John Auerbach who resigned amidst the department’s deplorably bad track record of the past two years. The Massachusetts Department of Health *as an entity* has recently been at the center of massive scandals, which cost lives, put innocent suspects in jail and has cost the state untold millions, in failing to properly manage the state crime lab and in regulating compounding pharmacies… in light of that, maybe we can’t expect any better.

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BCAC Giving Tree Needs Another Miracle This Year

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As in the past few years, BCAC’s ELF Giving Tree program is struggling through the holiday season to muster desperately needed winter clothing for over a thousand kids of low income applicant families in central Berkshire County this year.  While it had hoped for a finish date of December 15, it will now extend into the next week until the nearly 200 remaining children are sponsored.
I applaud the many different local charitable drives this time of year, and encourage all possible support to them. Without getting too preachy, making things a little brighter, especially for kids, around what realistically can be a very difficult time for many, is, well, probably the type of thing we’re on this Earth to do.  A lot of the rest is just ribbons and wrapping. In particular, though, I believe this 33rd year old, all volunteer-driven program coordinated by the Berkshire Community Action Council serves a crucial need. The Giving Tree, stationed at the Berkshire Mall these past many years, is remarkable in that it anonymously but directly connects the community with hundreds of real children under 12, children with names and needs.  The process of shopping for or donating for a specific child with a first name, ages, sizes and favorite colors gives back not only the sense of helping out, but also an opportunity to reflect.

Studies have shown that children who lack or have limited proper winter attire face many disadvantages beyond the obvious, limitations which have been linked to academic and social problems as well as numerous health issues.

Volunteering at the Giving Tree table this year, I saw a powerful awareness of this in the generosity of many, and so often from those who can scarcely afford it. Last week, I met an elderly veteran who had just successfully fought to have his rightful benefits, and one of his first acts with what “little extra” he could manage was to get to the mall to make a cash donation. These heart-breaking moments are the daily norm at the Giving Tree; the kids who ask their parents to donate for a poorer child instead of giving them presents, the teenagers who donate their slight earnings, the moms and dads who find a way to take on just a little bit more somehow, or the couple who lost their own child and came to shop for ones they’ll never meet.  And all these other people, people who just know what it is to be cold out there, to live at a lowest-legally-allowable quality of life that’s not actually livable.
Some say it’s the spirit of the season, but I think it’s the cold, too, the reality of New England winter.  This program is triage, a front line of the hierarchy of human needs, and the basic well being of children in our community… and for a few kids out there, maybe survival itself this year.
GT-Dec 21

December 21, 2012

7 Reasons The Springside Dog Park Plan Is A Terrible Idea

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1) Incompatible with original vision & master planning for Springside Park
 
In 1910, Kelton B. Miller donated the original acres of Springside Park to the city with an agreement that the city shall “forever maintain the granted tract” along with promised land to be added later “for the use and enjoyment of the public as is usual with lands of this character.”  The Miller family, who continued to obtain and donate many more acres of land to the park over subsequent years, were major proponents of preserving natural land, and were instrumental in preserving many other large tracts of lands for public appreciation of nature, including many of the state forests in the county. Over the years, the Miller family has repeatedly objected to the occasional taking of this land by the city for other uses, and clarified the intent that Springside Park was meant to be preserved in a mostly natural state that would accommodate multiple uses, but no single-use that would adversely impact the others.  In 2007, Kelton’s grandson Mark Miller condemned the proposal for a dog park at the proposed site as a violation of the spirit of the terms under which the land was granted.
 
In the 1960s, longtime Parks director Vin Hebert proposed that Springside Park, which already enjoyed some of the greatest biodiversity and natural wonder of any public land in town, be home to a “world class arboretum” for display and education about native trees and other plants.  “At least one park system of a city should have horticultural interest, and this is highly appropriate at Springside,” Hebert wrote. Five subsequent arboretum master plan assessments and studies by professional consultants, from 1963 to 2000, echoed the wisdom of this use for Springside, above all others.
 
Numerous studies, planning documents and the wishes of the park's donors have always said Springside should mostly be limited to low-impact activities that preserve its natural beauty

Numerous studies, planning documents and the wishes of the park’s donors have always said Springside should mostly be limited to low-impact activities that preserve its natural beauty

“The idea of a single-use, restricted area such as a dog park violates the original intent, the spirit, and the letter of the deed, as well as subsequent plans developed by the city’s park commissioners and superintendents,” according to Friends of Springside founding member Royal Hartigan. “It is a betrayal of the Millers, and the public trust in what the park is, and the people of our city and county, whose public access to the core of the park’s beauty is an essential and unique part of Pittsfield’s heritage and quality of life.”

 
2) Will cost thousands in taxpayer dollars for this new construction, while even the most rudimentary park maintenance has gone neglected for years due to budget 
 
Even if a majority of funding is provided by the Stanton Foundation, as suggested in the proposal, the cost of implementing this project will amount to at least $15,000 dollars, not including unforeseen costs and necessary future upkeep.  Meanwhile, requests for such simple items as trash barrels and other minor expenses have been largely ignored, and park organizations have been told that even the cost of replacing simple signs made in-house by the city (such as those prohibiting motorized vehicles which have wreaked untold destruction on the natural forest) are simply “too expensive” for the city to take on, despite a cost of only a meager few dollars.  A request for removal or replacement of a broken and potentially dangerous bench has been neglected for more than a year now.  The city has allocated no funds whatsoever to support efforts to further establish and enhance the unique attraction of Berkshire County’s only arboretum at Springside, a plan approved by Mayor Wojtkowski and the city council more than 20 years ago.  If funds are lacking for even some of the most basic upkeep of the existing park, it is hard to see how room can then be found in the budget toward a new major capital project, and even more doubtful that the requisite funds for its maintenance will be available in the future.  
 
3) Poses environmental issues not suitable for an ecologically sensitive area
 
Dog urine and feces have a measurable environmental effect which is exponentially increased when many dogs are concentrated in a small area. Dog waste is commonly cited as either the 3rd or 4th largest contributor of bacterial pollution in urban watersheds.  Dog feces has higher phosphorous rates than that found in cow manure, broiler chicken litter or swine manure.  Dog urine contains significant levels of excess nitrogen, a form of nutrient pollution that is compounded when concentrated, and excess runoff can lead to serious water quality issues.  A 2002 study of a Colorado dog park found that native grasses (especially plentiful in the meadows of this section of Springside) accustomed to low nitrogen levels were unable to compete with nitrogen-loving exotic invasive species that flourished when dog waste increased on the site.  While signage at the dog park will indicate the expectation that owners pick up after their dogs (only feces, and not urine obviously), there is little reason to think this will be universally or even largely obeyed.  Analysis of other dog parks has shown that hundreds of pounds of feces can be left behind in a matter of weeks, and given recent park history, it is absurd to think that city maintenance staff will rigorously maintain upkeep in this regard. 
 
Additionally, further ecological damage to this area will be caused by the construction of the dog park itself, which includes the need to install underground plumbing for water access.
The proposed site of the dog park is flanked on both sides by wetlands and biodiverse watershed area

The proposed site of the dog park is flanked on both sides by wetlands and biodiverse watershed area

 
wetlands2All of these factors make a dog park extremely inappropriate in the proposed location, immediately adjacent to wetlands and at a nexus of several different model ecosystems of the Arboretum, at a site that is frequently used as a gathering point for naturalist programs for the general public and schools from around the region.
 
4) The decision process has been undertaken without regard for public transparency and community input
 
The original determination to locate a dog park at this particular site in Springside was made quietly behind closed doors by a hand-picked ad hoc committee in 2007, without any attempt to seek or acknowledge input from the public or volunteer park groups.  At subsequent Parks Commission meetings on the issue, no members of the public spoke in favor of this concept, while many spoke against it. It was voted in favor 3-1, with the sole opposing vote by Charles Garivaltis, who was then not re-appointed by former Mayor Ruberto. Funding never materialized, and attempts to raise funds privately for this project failed, demonstrating a lack of true interest and widespread disdain for the plan as approved.
 
When an outside funding source for a large portion of the project was finally found, in the form of a private dog park foundation who will oversee and control much of the process, preparations quietly resumed.  Springside Park organizations were finally notified that this resumed effort had progressed significantly just one week before a city council vote to accept a grant for design of this dog park, and at a meeting on Saturday were informed that while public input is nominally “welcome,” it would have zero impact  on the decision of where to locate the proposed dog park, and that ultimately this call would be made by a landscape architect hired through this design grant, sounding suspiciously like a foregone conclusion that would conform to the opinion (of officials, not of the public) already advanced.
 
5) Plan lacks community support and is opposed by the volunteer organizations who actually take care of Springside Park.
 
Since the first attempt to move this forward by a small group within city government 6 years ago, it was unanimously opposed by the Friends of Springside Park and the Vincent Hebert Arboretum, and some members of the Springside Greenhouse Group and Morningside Initiative have now joined this chorus.  Just in the past year, the decades-old Friends of Springside and Arboretum on their own have contributed more than 1,000 hours of labor to clean up, maintain, improve and beautify Springside Park, far more work-hours than all city staff combined. It is probably safe to say that no one knows the park, its users, its needs and appropriate uses than the very organizations who conduct all of their activities toward maintaining the park for the good of all residents.  Those who arguably know better than any what best suits the future of Pittsfield’s largest park are entirely opposed to the plan *as currently proposed.*   This input has been entirely overlooked by a small number of decision makers in advancing the plan anyway.
 
In addition to park groups, other parties with knowledge of this plan have also concurred that the proposed location in this iconic, historic area of the park is a poor choice.
 
6) Pittsfield has numerous other recreational areas more fitting for a dog park
 
The city contains some 30 parks and playgrounds other than the one that has been designated for the preservation and appreciation of nature, which the state has identified as having prime agricultural soils, and which serves as the most intensive constant site of ecological education for students from elementary school to college. Additionally, Springside Park is the only Pittsfield park on the National Register of Historic Places, and which the city just recently entered into a Preservation Restriction with the Commonwealth.
In some of these alternate open spaces, a dog park is not only more appropriate, but actually desired by residents, in contrast to the widespread opposition at Springside. For instance, an online poll conducted by former Ward 4 city council Michael Ward found that 83% of his constituents desired a dog park at Kirvin Park.  
 The decision to try to site this project at the core of Springside Park, where it is strongly opposed, versus other neighborhood parks favored by many, is hard to understand, except in terms of the haste in which cursory site visits were conducted as part of the Parks Commission subcommittee process in 2007, a speedy evaluation that has not since been revisited for this new project.
 
 
7) This development is being touted as a “solution” to a perceived problem of off-leash dog walking at Springside Park, but there is no logical reason to believe there is any correlation between the two.
dog park
 
“I would walk on a path system through woods with strategically placed trash barrels spread over the entire Springside Park.  That’s doable…designated  dog paths,” said Pat Pritchard, Co-President of the Springside Greenhouse Group and an avid dog walker   “It would be less costly and more human and dog friendly.  An enclosed area with strange dogs running around is a very bad idea.”
 
Diverse opinions on the complexities of canine psychology aside, even common sense should dictate that the long scenic rambles through hundreds of acres of wooded trails, as is the habit of virtually all dog walkers currently, is a completely different animal than running dogs about in a less-than-one-acre fenced in patch of dirt.  While a demand for both may well exist in Pittsfield, it is absurd to suggest they are the same thing, or that the latter would replace the former activity for most dog owners.
__________
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Conclusion:
It is time for the city to go back to the drawing board on this project, and restart the planning process with an open, inclusive discussion that has never taken place, one which takes into account the opinions and voices of Pittsfield residents and park advocates, as opposed to just a tiny handful of city staff and officials deciding without asking anyone.

 —

ADDENDUM:  While the original project ok’d 3-1 by the Parks Commission was dubbed an experimental “pilot” program that called for simply an $8,000 fence which could be removed if unsuccessful, this new proposal calls for a $150,000+ major construction which cannot be easily or cheaply undone, if at all.  Source: Berkshire Eagle, 2/13/08  As such, this completely new, completely different proposal has never been voted on by the city’s Parks Commission, and therefore a request to the city council to approve a grant for its design is premature for a project which has never been properly put out for public input or approved by that board.  The City Council therefore, has a procedural obligation to refer the request for this project back to the Parks Commission, hopefully with an emphatic message that said body invite, and listen to, input from the public, in a way that was not done during the approval of the previous  smaller-scale project.

Pittsfield Cleans Up Its Act: Neighborhood Pick Up Efforts Booming this Spring

Pittsfield Cleans Up Its Act
Neighborhood Pick Up Efforts Booming this Spring 
By Joe Durwin
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The city’s Morningside neighborhood was abuzz last weekend with volunteers working to spruce it up, from trash collection to flower planting, the most recent in a series of well attended efforts to clean up parts of Pittsfield this Spring.

 Representatives of the Morningside Neighborhood Initiative said that one hundred forty-seven people took advantage of an offer Saturday morning for free disposal of furniture and other refuse.  Approximately eighty car loads of unwanted items and materials dropped off at Morningside Community School filled four industrial dumpsters rented out by the group in under two hours.  On top of the dumpsters, a vast quantity of tires were picked up by Pittsfield Mosquito Control, and about one hundred fifty televisions and appliances were accepted that morning by the Goodwill Industries facility across the street, according to an employee there.
“It was very successful,” said Gail Krumpholz, who chairs Morningside’s steering committee, “We got a ton of tires, and mattresses, things people might otherwise dump somewhere else.”

On nearby Cherry Street, other neighbors were busily planting 716 flowers donated by Pittsfield Garden Tour to the Berkshire Dream Center, for enhancing the landscape of their home street.  
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“What we’re doing is handing them out to the residents to plant themselves, and the city is allowing us to plant on the public parts of the street around every tree,” said Katelynn Chapman, who formed the Center four years ago with the aim of neighborhood improvement.

“We stepped it up a notch this year,” said Chapman, who explained the Dream Center now coordinates litter clean ups every Monday and Wednesday, along with every other Saturday, on its expanding network of “adopted” streets.  Cherry, Lincoln, 2nd and Burbank Streets are currently among the streets adopted for ongoing care and attention, and then expanding out to the sidestreets that branch out from them.
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“Clean up teams go out and pick up trash, rake leaves, we even clean the city gutters,” said Chapman, who described large attendance at its recent clean ups. “The goal is to eventually span all over the city. One street at a time.”

Other recent clean up efforts have also seen high levels of participation.  The previous week, a 15th annual Downtown Corporate Cleanup saw a record attendance, of over 150 volunteers, according to Downtown Pittsfield Inc. Executive Director Pamela Tobin.  While the annual afternoon work party of trash pick up and street sweeping was initially started by downtown merchants, the project has been increasingly augmented by large contingents from non-downtown major employers such as General Dynamic and SABIC, the latter of which received the event’s “Biggest Impact” award for dispatching 68 employees to help.

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On April 20, the 24th Annual Friends of Springside Park clean up also saw its biggest turn out in at least a decade. Over the course of seven hours, around 65 residents, including 22 students of adjacent Reid Middle School, swarmed over the 237 acres of the city’s largest park to haul out over two tons of refuse.

“I feel like we’ve really turned a corner,” said Royal Hartigan, a founding member of the Friends, noting that due to the large attendance and increased frequency of group and individual efforts, large areas of the park were less cluttered  than in the past and volunteers were able to tackle some more in depth remediation of long term problem areas.

Experts say the increasing trend of youth participation in these kind of outdoor clean up efforts can have a powerful positive effect.  A 1999 paper in the Journal of Environmental Education found that students who had participated in this kinds of hand on outdoor clean up exhibited greater intentions to behave in ecologically responsible ways, while a 2006 study in Psychological Science further indicates that heightened, hands on exposure of this sort to public park areas has been correlated with a decrease in sedentary activity in youth.

“Being able to take action and make a difference is addictive,” adds Berkshire Environmental Action Team Director Jane Winn. “If we all realized that our individual actions can led to big changes, I think more of us would take action.”

For challenged neighborhoods like Pittsfield’s Morningside area, that difference may be a key to important changes.

“We’re hoping that the clean ups, and the flowers and things, will help reduce crime and other problems eventually,” said Chapman, who noted that while in past years Dream Center clean ups were apt to find a certain number of used needles on the ground, this year they haven’t.  “The more clean and the more beautiful, I hope people start to think that sort of stuff isn’t tolerated.”

The Week in Pittsfield/2013, Part 1

January 1-6: City Manager nixed; still superintendent seeking, Mayor looks back;  the Great Parrot Caper of ’13, and more…

DSC_0649The 3 month old Charter Review committee made its first firm indications of direction in the process of reviewing Pittsfield’s outdated charter document this week, dispensing with the suggestion of a city manager (supported by some councilors but panned by past mayors) and endorsing the idea of changing the mayor’s term to 4 years, among other inclinations…

…while a new panel of interviewers convened in the hopes that 3rd time will be the charm in the search process for a new superintendent of schools;

Mayor Bianchi looked back at his first year in office; while the BRPC voiced concerns about flow diversion in the maintenance to Pittsfield’s reservoir out in Hinsdale; and YNN’s Madeleine Rivera explored potential loss of program resources at the Elizabeth Freeman Center from funding gaps following Congress not reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act for the new year.

Photo c/o Jo Duran, Berkshire Trails

Photo c/o Jo Duran, Berkshire Trails

In arts and recreation, First Fridays Artswalk kicked off 2013 with its 9th month of exhibitions with a decent turnout despite icy temps and piled snow; Barrington Stage is seeking young actors for the upcoming 10×10 Upstreet Arts Fest, for which Larry Murray has compiled some resources on iPhone film making for its mini 10-themed smartphone film fest… meanwhile, over on First Street, several fire fighters have taken it upon themselves to return ice skating to The Common for the first time in 5 years.

…and while Pittsfield crime frequently leans toward the bizarre and over the top, the Williamson family of Perrine Avenue really outdid themselves this week.  On Wednesday night, 25 year old Marquis Williamson lead state police on a brief chase through a city neighborhood, then threatened to bomb their headquarters and shoot people during his arrest.  On Friday 52 year old Charles L. Williamson, of the same address, abducted an expensive parrot from the Pittsfield Petco.  Williamson was seen going about Friday night attempting to sell the bird at bars in the Tyler Street area after first trying Fin & Feather pet shop.  While this Williamson [who made headlines in Boston this summer when his sex offender registration case came before the Mass. supreme court] was arrested Saturday, the bird’s whereabouts remain mysterious.  Petco employees concerned about “Clementine” have used social media aggressively since the theft in an effort to locate the bird, and a Facebook  group devoted to the search now has over 400 members…

UPDATE Pittsfield Police announced late Sunday evening that the bird had been located safely due to an anonymous tip, and returned to the store.

“We are just THRILLED to have her back. Pittsfield Police Department did an INCREDIBLE job throughout the ordeal. I have no doubt that without their quick reaction to every phone call, report and tip, we wouldn’t have Clementine back. Her safety was our number one priority. THANK YOU!” said Petco employee Amy Cavanaugh.

Have you seen this parrot? Contact Officer Osborn, Pittsfield Police 448-9700 ext 400

Have you seen this parrot? Contact Officer Osborn, Pittsfield Police 448-9700 ext 400

The Giving Tree Needs Your Help!

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A time honored local tradition of holiday helping has faced tough times in recent years.  Last year, this important initiative struggled right to the last day to nail down enough donors to provide much needed gifts of warm winter clothing for local children in need [see story:iBerkshires.com].  This year, the challenge has been increased by about two hundred additional children on the list.

The Berkshire Community Action Council’s Giving Tree Program, which collects donations of warm clothing to children in need, came to the mall with more than 700 names of low income children in need of these most basic essentials, and is currently down to about 220, with three days remaining to its {Thursday] December 20 deadline. [Update: 150 names left at 4pm Wednesday] 

“What can we do?” said volunteer Regina White, “We can’t turn down any applicants.  These kids need our help.”

The non-funded program, run by staff and numerous volunteers, depends on generous individuals and businesses who sign up to “sponsor” a particular child.  Donors pick an envelope of a young girl or boy, complete with sizes and clothing items needed, purchase the items at the retailers of their own choosing, wrap them, then bring them back to the Giving Tree in the Berkshire Mall’s center court, near J.C. Penney to be sent on to the family that needs them.

The mall tree is but one component of the countywide program, with additional lists of names being handled by North and South county branches of BCAC, along with many hundreds that are picked up by local businesses and their employees before the remainder go to the mall volunteers.  In total, members of the community help gift clothes to more than 2000 kids who need them each year.

This year, a special 30% off discount is being offered for Giving Tree sponsors by The Children’s Place (must show giving tree envelope to qualify), also located at the Berkshire Mall.

About 80 more names were generously picked up today (Monday), leaving approximately 220 remaining to be helped by caring people like yourselves!

What are you waiting for? Let’s do this thing.  I’m off to pick up a few things for a little boy named Thelonious, whose favorite color is black.  If you make it there, please drop me a comment here or email me at joe.durwin@gmail.com to let me know what the current count is.