Daily Archives: December 29, 2020

Northfield’s Leaders Pull a Doomed Political Power Play

The town of Northfield has a problem. Its police chief, John Helfant, has been dinged by Washington County State’s Attorney Rory Thibault over questions about the chief’s reliability. Thibault has issued a so-called “scarlet letter” branding Helfant as untrustworthy. This will make it difficult for Helfant to be a witness in court cases, and may limit his ability to investigate crimes. Which is kind of a big deal for a small town with a small police force.

Northfield’s response: Line up behind the chief and appeal to Gov. Phil Scott to intervene.

Which he has no statutory authority to do. Thibault has complete discretion in such matters.

It’s ridiculous. And it shows the extent to which local officials will stand behind their police chief, come hell or high water.

We’ve seen this same dynamic at work in Bennington and Vergennes, just to name two. The police chief in a small community occupies a position of great authority and political influence. Elected officials are either victims of Patty Hearst Syndrome, believing in their chief despite all evidence, or they are simply afraid to cross their chief. Either alternative begs the question, Who watches the watchers? Who, if anyone, has the chops to ride herd on a police chief — and boot them out if need be?

The answer, more often than not, seems to be “Nobody.”

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Another Brick in the Climate Change Wall

Late Monday, the Scott administration initiated the process for filling a pending vacancy on the Public Utility Commission. The PUC is a three-member body with broad authority over electricity, natural gas, cable TV and telecommunications in Vermont. During the Phil Scott years, it has consistently applied the brakes on development of renewable energy.

This, despite the fact that it has had two Democratic appointees, one of them being Margaret Cheney, wife of U.S. Rep. Peter Welch. I don’t know why the two Dems have played along with the renewables slowdown, which has included strict noise rules for large-scale wind installations and a steady ratcheting down of the net-metering rate (the amount utilities are required to pay for power generated by solar installations).

And recently, VTDigger reported that the PUC had rejected a study that showed major savings from solar power in the Northeast. Yeah, they’re not exactly green-friendly.

And now, one of the two Democrats is exiting the commission. Sarah Hoffman Hofmann was appointed to a six-year term by then-governor Peter Shumlin in 2015, and her term expires this year. On Monday, the administration issued a press release seeking applicants for the position. It did not explain the circumstances of the vacancy, so we don’t know whether (a) Hoffman Hofmann is stepping down or (b) Scott wants to replace her.

The upshot is that Scott appointees will soon hold a 2-1 majority on the PUC, including chair Tony Roisman. Cheney and Hoffman Hofmann haven’t exactly been friendly to green power, but a Scott appointee will inevitably support the governor’s anti-renewable agenda.

And no matter how long Scott is governor, his appointees will dominate the commission for at least four more years. It’s one of the small costs of Scott’s re-election, and another reason why Democrats who voted for Scott can’t really claim to support climate action. Because as I wrote in October, the governor gives plenty of lip service to the issue, but opposes any meaningful policy changes. His choice for Hofmann’s replacement will be expected to toe the administration’s line.

Note: Updated 12/29 to correct misspelling of Commissioner Hofmann’s name.