Monthly Archives: June 2015

Southern Vermont: Journalism-free zone?

A while ago I was chatting with somebody from Seven Days, and I half-jokingly suggested that Vermont’s only financially healthy print publication should think about launching a Southern Vermont Edition. Or at least, including some southern Vermont content within the existing paper. (The Rutland Herald and Times Argus share stories, but what’s front page in one is often on page 5 in the other.)

Well, it might just be go time.

New England Newspapers Inc., has laid off 10 editorial employees in Vermont and Massachusetts.

The company laid off three newsroom staffers at the [Brattleboro] Reformer. Tom D’Errico, the manager of content marketing, Mike Faher, senior reporter, and Pat Smith, the newsroom clerk, were given notice on Friday. On June 12, Michelle Karas, the managing editor of the Reformer and the [Bennington] Banner left earlier to take a job at The Colorado Springs Gazette. The Banner laid off newly hired reporter Jacob Colone, and the [Manchester] Journal let go of Brandon Canevari.

Leaving two papers with “skeleton crews”: three reporters at the Banner and only two at the Reformer, whose coverage of Vermont Yankee has been invaluable to the entire state. And at the Journal, they’re facing a Zen question: what do you call a newspaper with no reporters? That’s right: zero.

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Bishop Coyne: “It’s gonna take us a long time”

Well, my substitute hosting duties on The Mark Johnson Show are over for this round. On my last day, Monday, came the interview I’d most been looking forward to*: The Most Rev. Christopher Coyne, Bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington.

*And that’s saying something; I had a lot of great guests, and I thank them all.

When Bishop Coyne was installed in January 2014, much was written about his career in the Church, including his years as chief spokesman for the Boston Archdiocese. But little scrutiny was given to that period, which was a crucial one in the history of the modern American Church.

The Archdiocesan spokesman in 2002, carefully choosing his words.

The Archdiocesan spokesman in 2002, carefully choosing his words.

He was the front man for Bernard Cardinal Law during the depths of the child sex abuse scandal that rocked the Archdiocese to its core. It ultimately forced Cardinal Law, one of the most powerful Churchmen in America, to scurry off to a well-appointed hidey-hole in the Vatican, where he still resides.

There were many things I wanted to ask the Bishop. But, in light of the continuing scandals in the Church, the one thing I most wanted to ask about was whether the Church has changed itself, improved, reformed — and how he reflects back on his time defending the seemingly indefensible.

I give him full credit. He answered with honesty and humility. Sure, he was a bit defensive about the institution to which he has devoted his life; but he admitted that the Church had dug its own moral cesspit, that it had no one to blame but itself, and that restoring the compromised moral authority of the Church will take a lot of hard work and a very long time.

It was much more than I expected from a Church lifer. And yeah, I believe he was being sincere.

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Just call me Nellie

Suggested truth-in-advertising logo for the VTGOP.

Suggested truth-in-advertising logo for the VTGOP.

I guess the Republican State Committee held a meeting today. Sorry, couldn’t make it; had to get the chores done before the Women’s World Cup came on.

VTGOP Chair David Sunderland delivered a pep talk (of sorts) to the assembled dozens, in which he bravely talked up the party’s rebuilding effort. The text has been posted on the party’s website; highlights and annotations follow.

Despite the misleading proclamations of Democrats and other negative nellies, our fundraising is very strong. IN FACT, we have substantially more cash on hand this year than we have had at this time in any year since 2008. Isn’t that great news?!

I don’t know how you verbally express “?!”, but I’ll gladly accept my Negative Nellie Membership Card, since I recently posted a far-from-glowing review of the VTGOP’s recent financial reports. And yes, Sunderland is right, they’ve got more money flowing than “in any year since 2008,” but that’s not saying much. Indeed, it’s almost certain that the VTGOP’s finances were at an all-time low during the first four years of the Shumlin administration.

Remember the dark days of 2012, when the VTGOP accepted monthly handouts from the Romney campaign just to keep the lights on? Remember that the party went for several years without a single paid staffer? Now, they have a payroll of one (Jeff Bartley). A top Dem I talked with recently couldn’t imagine trying to run a major party with only one paid staffer.

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Welch declines the honor

Okay, so I’m on the air live this morning on The Mark Johnson Show. House Speaker Shap Smith, openly considering a run for governor but waiting to see what Congressman Peter Welch would do, has just left after a 45-minute interview. I’ve got Randy Brock, once and (possibly) future Republican candidate, sitting with me in the studio waiting for his interview to start.

And then, in rapid-fire succession, the Supreme Court decision on marriage equality is released… and I find out that Welch has just announced he will not run for governor, but will instead seek re-election to Congress.

Trust me, I didn’t need any coffee to get through that hour. I missed the chance to break the news to Speaker Smith, which would have just been the most fun thing ever. (As of this writing, I’m seeking reaction from him.) I did get to break the news to Brock, which was pretty fun itself.

Live radio, I love thee.

Brock, by the way, said that Welch’s status was one factor in his consideration, but only one of “300 or 400” things he’s weighing. But he sure seemed like he’s rarin’ to go.

Back to the main issue here. How does the Welch decision affect the race?

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The downside of subcontracting human services

We had an unintended confluence on the Thursday edition of the Mark Johnson Show, hosted by Yours Truly. Back-to-back interviews with VTDigger’s Morgan True and State Auditor Doug Hoffer turned out to cover some common themes.

True had reported on problems at Rutland Mental Health Services, one of the state’s “designated agencies” for providing social services. Hoffer had just released a very critical performance audit of the Corrections Department’s transitional housing program. I was in the middle of the show when the light bulb went off. Both interviews were kind of about the same thing: Inadequate oversight of human services contractors.

In both cases, an Agency of Human Services program is contracted out to nonprofit agencies that get virtually all their funding from the state. In a way, it’s a mutually captive relationship: the agencies are completely dependent on the state, and the state effectively has no options for replacing a poorly-performing contractor.

In their own way, True and Hoffer found similar problems in different areas of AHS: lack of consistent oversight, gaps in service provision, and inadequate methods for tracking performance. (In the case of RMHS, the situation boiled over into scandal.) The result is a system that looks good from a distance, not so good up close. Its failures are partly due to lax oversight; but we should also consider whether poor contractor performance may also be due, at least in part, to bare-bones funding by the state.

After the show was over, I pondered another issue: What does the Rutland situation have to say, if anything, about the Shumlin administration’s community-based mental health care system? Because those designated agencies are the front-line troops in that effort.

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Son of Return of theVPO Media Crossover Event!!!!! (UPDATED)

Yep, preparing to get back in the saddle again and host The Mark Johnson Show on WDEV radio the next three weekdays. 550 AM or 96.1 FM in north-central VT (the AM signal can be heard from Burlington to the Connecticut River valley) and live streaming at wdevradio.com. Dates and guests:

Thursday 6/25, 9 am. Jim Salzman, professor of law and environmental policy at Duke University, and expert on water issues and policy. He’s author of “Drinking Water: A History,” a book that explores the very vital — and frequently changing — role that water plays in human society. He just finished a visit to Vermont Law School as a visiting summer scholar. We’ll talk about drinking water’s past, present and future. The School has posted a YouTube video of a lecture given by Prof. Salzman; you can find it here.

Thursday 6/25, 10 am. Matt Dunne, former State Senator and gubernatorial candidate, now head of community affairs for Google. He’s actively considering another run for governor. Oops; last-minute cancellation. Dunne was supposed to fly home from an out-of-state trip Wednesday night; stormy weather prevented that. Or, as he put it in an email to me, “I’m stuck in Chattanooga.” Currently effecting a replacement guest. (Friday and Monday guests after the jump.) Continue reading

The mudwashing of the Sorrell case

Hey, I invented a new word: it’s the opposite of “whitewashing” — the deliberate fouling of something previously spotless.

The legal troubles of Our Eternal General Bill Sorrell have two progenitors. Well, three if you count Clueless Bill himself. But the two I’m thinking of are (1) journalistic and (2) legal/political.

The former is good ol’ Paul Heintz, Seven Days’ political editor and columnist. He made public records requests for Sorrell’s emails and other materials, and ferreted out the unseemly details of the AG’s campaign finance carelessness and his overly cozy relations with the designated AG-handlers at some big national law firms. He posted his first story on April 1, and a follow-up with fresh details on May 11.

Heintz’ reporting, it must be said, was met with a very curious silence from the rest of our political media.

The other progenitor is Brady Toensing, vice chair of the VTGOP, who used Heintz’ reporting as the basis of a formal complaint against Sorrell, filed on May 20. That complaint somehow transmuted Heintz’ previously ignored reporting into a story that other media finally felt obliged to pick up. Toensing’s complaint, in turn, led to the appointment of independent investigator Tom Little.

But the media have reported it as a matter between Toensing and Sorrell, removing Heintz (and the journalistic underpinnings) from their narratives. I’d expect this sort of convenient reasoning from Sorrell himself:

“I enjoy the work. I can’t say that I enjoyed the Toensing assaults on my personal integrity and that I would abuse the integrity of the office. I’m not a masochistic person and that is not fun, whatsoever.”

Oh good, I can stop trying to imagine Bill Sorrell in leather restraints and a ball gag.

[Purell break.]

Sorry. The point is, it’s clearly in Sorrell’s political interest to depict this whole mess as a partisan attack. But why should our distinguished political media carry that water for him?

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What do you do with a Senator like that?

There's a face only a mother, or someone behind on their rent, could love.

There’s a face only a mother, or someone behind on their rent, could love.

The disgraced and [ALLEGEDLY] disgraceful Norm McAllister continues to, ahem, “serve” the people of Franklin County as one of their two state senators. Some of his constituents are circulating petitions asking him to resign; many people, including Your Obedient Serpent, have called for the Senate to DO SOMETHING in spite of its convenient state of adjournment; and those same people have wondered why Republicans are so curiously circumspect about their [ALLEGEDLY] disgraceful brother in arms.

So I got a call from Joe Benning, Senate Minority Leader, seeking to explain the Senate and VTGOP side of things. He made some very good points, both politically and institutionally.

The political

First of all, he noted, “Everyone in the Republican Party I’ve talked to hopes that he will see that the difficulties before him are too great” for him to continue in office. And although the VTGOP’s efforts have been almost entirely behind the scenes,

It’s not like anyone is sticking their heads in the sand. …I’ve had two conversations with him and let him know my concerns. There are people in the county and state parties who are having ongoing conversations. He’s mulling over those conversations.

Benning hopes that McAllister will realize that he’s politically isolated, and facing a process likely to take “a year or more.” In other words, beyond the 2016 legislative session and well into the campaign. There’s a nightmare scenario for the Republican Party.

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Donovan vs. The Invisible Man

Well, the news broke late Sunday on Seven Days’ website: Chittenden County State’s Attorney TJ Donovan will run for Attorney General, setting up a potential Grudge Match return engagement of his 2012 primary battle with incumbent Eternal General Bill Sorrell. And from day one, Donovan will be in the unusual position of being favored over an incumbent from the same party.

Donovan came very close to winning last time. This time, he appears to have a very united Democratic Party behind him. Top Dems continue to hope and pray that their AG will, ahem, “retire” and spend the next year and a half doing a victory lap.

Hints abounded at Friday night’s Curtis Awards dinner, one of the VDP’s big shindigs of the year. Donovan was given a Curtis Award, while Sorrell was nowhere to be seen. Even his name was a no-show:

There was, quite literally, no sign of him. Banners for all the other Democratic statewide elected officeholders, except Sorrell, covered the wall behind the stage. Julia Barnes, executive director of the Vermont Democratic Party, said the party didn’t have a Sorrell banner to hang.

Aww darnit, she must have left it in her other suit.

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Return of theVPO Media Crossover Event!!!

Prepping for another hosting spot on WDEV’s Mark Johnson Show Monday morning. Also Thursday, Friday, and next Monday the 29th. Here’s the lineup for tomorrow and some notes on the rest of the week…

9:00 Monday: State Rep. Corey Parent, R-St. Albans. He was one of eight freshman state lawmakers chosen for the Canadian Embassy’s “Rising State Leaders” program, which included a tour of eastern Canada. We’ll talk about his trip and his reflections on his first year in the Legislature. And since he’s from Franklin County, I’m sure I’ll ask him about Sen. Norm McAllister.

10:00 Monday: Sarah McCall, executive director of Emerge Vermont, a group that trains aspiring women to enter the political arena. (Vermont has rarely elected women to statewide office, and has never sent a woman to Congress.) We’ll talk about the ongoing shakeup in Vermont politics and whether it creates chances for women to move up the ladder.

And later in the hour, we’ll catch up with State Sen. Becca Balint. She was a 2014 graduate of Emerge Vermont, who went on to win a Senate seat from Windham County. She’ll talk about what the program did for her, and her thoughts on Year One in the legislature.

As for my other upcoming days…

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