Our Sheriffs Continue to Cover Themselves in Glory, Or Something

Our county sheriffs are engaged in a Sideshow Bob rake routine, and the timing couldn’t be worse. The Legislature is considering a package of reforms to the system, including an end to profiteering off contract work and tightening up the standards for unprofessional conduct.

And the sheriffs seem bent on ensuring the reforms become law.

We’d previously seen numerous disgraceful aspects of the sheriffin’ trade. Now, just in time for committee hearings on the reform bill, we’ve got a fresh crop including more badness from former Orange County sheriff Bill Bohnyak, a retiring sheriff tossing bags of loot around the office, and the questionable finances of a newly-elected sheriff who won office despite facing an assault charge.

Real bunch of prize specimens we’ve got here.

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Shall We Call This “The Zuckerman Rule”?

This item is almost too petty to report. But if it was that petty, then why did the Vermont Democratic Party do it?

I’m referring to a change made last year to the party bylaws that seems to be aimed squarely at Progressive/Democratic Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman.

Follow me into the weeds. The VDP allows its top officeholder at the state level to appoint a nonvoting member to the party’s executive committee. Under the former bylaw, that would be Zuckerman. But the appointment was, in fact, made by Treasurer Mike Pieciak.

That’s because the bylaw now specifies that it’s the top officeholder with “D” as their only or first party designation. Used to be, Zuckerman’s “P/D” would qualify. Indeed, during his first tenure as LG he named Ed Cafferty to the committee. (And Cafferty is, in fact, a loyal Democrat of long standing.)

This rule change didn’t matter when Democrat Molly Gray was LG. But it does now that Zuckerman is back in office.

Now, this is small potatoes to be sure. It’s a nonvoting member of a party committee. But again, if this is so trivial, why bother making the change? We’re talking about the sequence of two capital letters here. Is P/D really that different from D/P?

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Now That’s What I Call a Perfectly-Timed Scoop

Every reporter loves to get a scoop — a story with some impact that you’ve got all to yourself. It’s a badge of honor, to be sure. But more often than not, it doesn’t make much of a difference.

The latest comes from Seven Days‘ Courtney Lamdin, who hit the sweet spot by uncovering a lucrative side hustle negotiated by the Burlington Police Officers Association. It made a deal with a luxury condo development to provide security with off-duty city cops.

Her story may affect the outcome of the hottest issue on the Burlington ballot: A proposed police oversight board that would exclude members of the force from serving. That idea has prompted opposition from Mayor Miro Weinberger and Interim-For-Life Police Chief Jon Murad, among others.

Well, Lamdin’s article makes me think there’s a real need for police oversight, and it would be best done without any officers on the board.

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“You Either Die the Hero, Or You Live Long Enough to See Yourself Become the Villain.”

Hey, remember when Seven Days was the “alternative” newspaper in Burlington?

Well, if there was any doubt that the scrappy underground outfit has adulted itself into the establishment, last week’s “From the Publisher” column settled it once and for all. If you were to Google “White Privilege,” you might very well find a link to the piece.

The essay’s subject is the former Greater Burlington YMCA building at College and South Union Streets, now derelict and unused. It’s sad, but publisher Paula Routly sees it as emblematic of an entire city on the edge of an abyss.

Paula Routly is a real contributor to the city life and culture of Burlington. She and co-founder Pamela Polston are to be admired for what they have built. In a time when other print publications are shadows of their former selves, Seven Days is an invaluable part of Vermont’s media ecosystem.

But that column. Woof.

Whiny. Entitled. Fearful. Classist.

Lest you think I exaggerate, I call your attention to the last paragraph of the essay.

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Hoffer Debunks Another Bag of Magic Beans

The city of Burlington is in a spot of bother over “numerous errors’ in its Waterfront Tax Increment Financing (TIF) district. According to Auditor Doug Hoffer, the city owes the TIF district $1.2 million and owes the state Education Fund nearly $200,000, because it couldn’t keep proper accounts for its Waterfront TIF. He also found that the city spent $173,000 on bike path improvements that were, uhh, outside the TIF district. Since the total scope of waterfront improvements was $16 million, those mistakes add up to almost 10% of the whole ball of wax. Not inspiring, that.

But Hoffer doesn’t blame Burlington so much as the complex structure of the program itself. In a way, this shouldn’t be surprising; after all, it’s comically difficult to even explain the TIF concept in lay terms, let alone successfully manage one of the damn things.

But heck, let’s give it a shot. A tax increment financing district allows a municipality to incur debt for infrastructure improvements needed for development in the district and pay the debt out of future higher tax revenue. If it works, everybody wins. But the devil’s in the details, and there are hordes of pesky details in Vermont’s TIF program.

Whew. I think that’s in the ballpark at least, but don’t cite me as gospel. The point is, TIFs are complicated as all getout, and Hoffer’s audit indicates that it’s too much for our cities and towns to handle. In his words, ““Managing the complexities of this TIF district proved challenging for even the largest municipality in Vermont.” Says here if we can’t build a program amenable to proper management, maybe we should ashcan the whole thing.

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Phil Scott’s Charmless Offensive

Since the beginning of his fourth term, Gov. Phil Scott has been busily drawing lines in the sand and daring the Legislature to cross them. It’s a strategy that seems to borrow much more from his years at Thunder Road than from his allegedly collaborative approach to governing.

But he’s not stopping with public defiance of the Democratic majority. He’s also putting out a series of aggressive policy stances that threaten to further inflame relations with majority Democrats. First there was the proposal to shift state retirees’ health insurance from Medicare to Medicare Advantage, the Potemkin Village of senior coverage. That proposal was cheekily unveiled during campaign season, when you might think he’d at least pretend to be friendly to the state employees’ union. Second, his proposal to spend $900,000 to study an issue that’s already being studied by the state’s Climate Council.

And third, the Department of Public Safety’s transparently political plan to publish a politically motivated (and dismally stupid) crime “heat map” that won’t help the public understand crime trends but will give the administration another cudgel for its attacks on criminal justice reform.

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An Investment is an Investment Except When It’s Not

Gov. Phil Scott delivered a budget address full of “investments’ in Vermont’s future. It’s a great concept, but he fails to apply it consistently. Public sector expenditures he favors are “investments,” but other stuff is just wasteful spending.

The most recent example of this came with the release of a new report on the costs of improving Vermont’s wretched “system” of child care. (As with health care, it’s not so much a “system” as an abstract sculpture made of chicken wire and spit.) The RAND Corporation figures the price tag is between $179 million and $279 million, depending on how generous the package is.

Scott spox Jason Maulucci offered the usual bromide: Scott really, really cares about child care, just not enough to raise any revenue for the purpose. It’s the governor’s customary Susan Collins kind of caring.

The assertion underlying Scott’s position is this: Raising revenue for child care is pretty much exactly like putting tax dollars in a big pile and setting it on fire. Trouble is, there’s all kinds of evidence that improved child care would more than pay for itself — both in short-term economic growth and longer-term outcomes for kids.

You might even say it’s a bargain. Well, I’d say so.

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Lezak to Depart as VDP Chair

Anne Lezak is about to step aside as chair of the Vermont Democratic Party after a very consequential year-plus on the job. She’s doing so of her own free will, in order to carry on with her work in Uganda. She and her husband Dr. Harry Chen, currently interim commissioner of the Department of Children and Families, spent a year in Uganda in 2017. He helped establish the country’s first residency in emergency medicine, and she worked for Hospice Africa Uganda, one of the continent’s leading training centers and providers of palliative care.

Lezak recently became chair of the board of HAU’s American arm, Hospice Africa USA. She and Chen have been aiming to return to Uganda for some time, and they plan to do so in early March. They will leave their current positions by the end of February. “We are both returning to beloved organizations we were working with,” Lezak said. “It was amazing. It was life-changing.”

Still, she wouldn’t leave the VDP if she wasn’t certain that it was “in very good hands.” She pointed to numerous accomplishments: a historically successful 2022 campaign season, the building of a strong and cohesive party staff, and party vice chair David Glidden, “a great partner throughout,” whom she has endorsed as her successor. That will be decided at a state committee meeting in late February. Lezak calls Glidden “the future of the Vermont Democratic Party in every good way.”

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A Bit of a Kerfuffle at the Ethan Allen Institute

Hey everybody, meet Myers Mermel, the new president of the Ethan Allen Institute.

For those unfamiliar, EAI is Vermont’s most prominent conservative “think tank,” best known for such influential operations as the seldom-heard Common Sense Radio and a steady supply of seldom-read opinion pieces. It was headed for many years by former vagabond John McClaughry, who remains a prolific writer of those opinion pieces. After he stepped out of leadership in 2013, former VTGOP chief Rob Roper took the reins. Roper retired last March, and was replaced by serially unsuccessful political candidate Meg Hansen.

Well, Hansen didn’t even last a year. She’s been ousted in an apparently messy process that culminated last night in Mermel’s razor-thin election to the presidency. The vote of the EAI board was reportedly five for Mermel, four for Hansen, and two abstaining.

Here I must pause to delineate established fact from informed hearsay. Mermel has confirmed he is now EAI’s president. He would not otherwise comment. Everything else I’m about to write comes from a single anonymous source, because official mouths are firmly zippered shut chez EAI.

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“Culture Change” at DOC is a Moral Imperative

More evidence that the long-awaited “culture change” at the Vermont Department of Corrections is still purely conceptual: A new study shows that the Southern State Correctional Facility at Springfield is a hellhole for inmates and staff alike.

It’s bad. Really, really bad. It’s not only an administrative and regulatory failure, it’s a moral failure. It reflects badly on anyone who’s had anything to do with our prison system in recent times: DOC officials, successive governors, union leadership, and the legislators with oversight responsibility. Anyone else? The Judiciary? Prosecutors?

Abigail Crocker, co-founder of the Justice Research Initiative, found many of the study’s results “alarming.” I think that’s an understatement.

One of those findings: 37% of the prison population, and 30% of prison staff, have had suicidal ideations.

So. In a place that’s supposed to be preparing inmates for productive re-entry into society, more than one-third of them are in despair or painfully close to it.

Well, you might say, of course people serving hard time might feel bad. But then you have to explain that 30% figure among staff, which indicates that the prison is just about as horrible for the workers as for the inmates.

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