Author Archives: John S. Walters

About John S. Walters

Writer, editor, sometime radio personality, author of "Roads Less Traveled: Visionary New England Lives."

When Pigs Fly

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the wave of ensuing protests, Vermont’s political leadership is united in calling for criminal justice reform.

They are also united in minimizing expectations for actual, y’know, results.

This shouldn’t be surprising. Law enforcement has always gotten a full, respectful, sometimes dreamy-eyed reception in legislative committees. Police chiefs, sheriffs and state’s attorneys always wield strong influence when it comes to any issue that touches on their work, from criminal justice to substance abuse to cannabis to the deadly perils of Happy Hour.

(This post concerns our top Democratic and Progressive leaders, not Republican Gov. Phil Scott. He has made all the right noises, and I’m sure he will endorse modest reforms. But the expectations ought to be higher for the D’s and P’s.)

No surprise then, that Dem/Prog Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe and Dem House Speaker Mitzi Johnson have already put the kibosh on any talk of cutting the Vermont State Police budget. Ashe, who believes it’s time for him to move up the ladder to the lieutenant governorship, offered this in lieu of leadership: “It’s one thing to say that, to communicate as part of this national discussion, but how you actually implement such a proposal is not a one size fits all.”

Spoken like a politician fleeing a hot-button issue.

Johnson asserted that Vermont has “a very different law enforcement structure than a lot of other states,” so those notorious one-size-fits-all solutions just won’t work here.

Well, I’d like to know more about how Vermont’s structure of state police, county sheriffs and municipal police departments, whose officers are armed with lethal weapons and who are primarily responsible for responding to a variety of public safety situations, is so dramatically different from the police structure elsewhere.

And whose officers have a track record of disproportionately stopping or arresting people of color and of using deadly force in dealing with the mentally ill.

Eh, I don’t think out “structure” is so different. Johnson is simply making another meaningless callout to Vermont exceptionalism.

As for Attorney General T.J. Donovan, he has tweeted that America’s criminal justice system is “broken,” and the time to fix it is “now.” But his proposed fixes are from the lipstick-on-a-pig bargain bin.

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Can’t solve a problem? Then make it invisible.

(Not exactly as illustrated)

The traffic jams that formed outside “Farmers to Families” food giveaways around Vermont weren’t quite this bad, but they were bad. Embarrassing, appalling, a sign of exactly how much food insecurity exists in our great (but not as great as we like to think) state.

Well, last week, the state found an answer. If you can’t find enough food for your people, at least prevent them from creating a public spectacle. This week, in advance of scheduled food drops in Middlebury (Wednesday), Brattleboro (Thursday) and Morristown (Friday), the state Emergency Operations Center switched to a registration system. You can’t just show up; you have to sign up in advance for specific time slots.

This is definitely a service to those who might otherwise wait in line for hours, their cars idling away throughout. But it also eliminates the politically charged images that have resulted from past giveaways. News coverage, if any, will be focused on grateful recipients and hard-working volunteers rather than the desperation of food-insecure Vermonters or the unprecedented demand on our system of charitable food distribution.

Those pictures were, again, unfortunate for all involved. But they made an undeniable point — underscoring the need for more resources. This, at a time when state anti-hunger organizations are warning that the system could collapse without a fresh infusion of state aid.

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The Cromulent Bureaucrat

The official responsible for the Scott administration’s biggest clusterf*ck to date has been … rewarded with a promotion?

You can tell the Gov had no qualms about removing the “interim” tag from Labor Commissioner Michael Harrington’s business cards because he [checks notes] announced the news at 4:56 p.m. last Friday.

Yeah, the classic weekend newsdump.

Harrington, voted the administration official most likely to be featured in the Lands’ End fall catalogue in an imaginary poll, was named interim DOL chief last September in a Falling of the Cabinet Dominos — old-school hardass Tom Anderson stepped down as public safety chief, Commerce Secretary Michael Schirling replaced him, then-labor commissioner Lindsay Kurrle slid into Schirling’s seat, and then-deputy labor commish Harrington moved up the ladder.

His interimship has featured the failure of a long-overdue upgrade of unemployment insurance software, and the UI system’s collapse under the unprecedented demands of the Covid-19 pandemic. Neither can be fully blamed on Harrington; in many ways he was dealt a really bad hand at the worst possible time.

But still. When a team performs poorly, the coach gets the zig. You might say Harrington is the Hue Jackson of Team Scott. It wasn’t entirely Jackson’s fault that the Cleveland Browns had a 3-36-1 record — the front office was a disaster, and Jimmy Haslam may be the worst owner in the NFL. But the coach bore the brunt.

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Trump Has Broken the Police (Updated)

Since the death of George Floyd, we’ve seen police officers do a whole lot of bad stuff. I mean sure, most police are good people etc., etc. But there’s too much shit going on to blame it on a few bad apples.

We’ve seen unreasonably aggressive force used on peaceful protesters — and on people who just happened to be in the way. We’ve seen people chosen, seemingly at random, for beatings and arrests. We’ve seen excessive use of tear gas, flash grenades, rubber bullets and other instruments of “humane” policing. We’ve seen police vehicles drive through protesters. We’ve seen numerous officers stand idly by while their colleagues engage in needless violence. We’ve seen police destroy water supplies and first-aid stands. We’ve seen loads of instances of police attacking journalists who had identified themselves and were carrying proper credentials.

And we’ve seen police committing vandalism to private property and even to their own vehicles, apparently to justify attacking and arresting peaceful demonstrators.

They’re acting with impunity, with no apparent fear of punishment, dismissal, or shaming. Hell, they arrested a CNN reporter and his crew during a live television broadcast.

They’re acting like Proud Boys with badges. Take this Orange County sheriff’s deputy (please, take him) who thought it was a dandy idea to report for protest duty wearing paramilitary patches right next to his actual badge.

OK, so America has been dealing with a sometimes-toxic culture of policing for a long time. But there’s something different about the ubiquity and shamelessness of police misconduct during the George Floyd protests.

And I think it’s Donald Trump.

Throughout his presidency, he’s been normalizing — nay, celebrating — behavior that is widely considered aberrant. He’s talked of beating up demonstrators, reporters, “not being too nice” with suspects. He has encouraged all the forms of police misbehavior that have been on broad display these past several days.

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Hiatus 2: The Endiggening

For the second time in its brief history, The Vermont Political Observer is headed into the deep freeze. I’ve accepted a gig as a political columnist and contributor for VTDigger. I’ll be writing weekly columns on the website, and contributing daily to Digger’s “Final Reading,” an email newsletter that you can get for free simply by signing up.

The folks at Digger approached me a few weeks ago. I wasn’t particularly looking for a job, nor did I expect any offers, and it took some thought before I accepted. I love the freedom of blogging. And last time around at Seven Days, fitting me into a journalistic enterprise proved to be quite the strain (on all of us).

But hey, paid positions don’t come along every day in the news biz. Hardly at all, in fact. In the end, the offer was too good to refuse.

And when they get tired of me or I get tired of them, I can always come back here. And I will. Stay tuned!

A complete failure of justice

Gotta hand it to USA TODAY (all caps, as God intended) for uncovering the distressing case of Leonard Forte, a retired cop from New York state who was accused and convicted in 1988 of sexually assaulting a 12-year-old Vermont girl. His conviction was overturned on appeal, and that’s when things got weird. In 1995, facing a second trial, Forte claimed he was on death’s door and that the stress of a trial would surely kill him.

And then… nothing.

For almost 25 years.

Well, not entirely “nothing”. The case would occasionally get another look, Forte would claim ill health, and back into the deep freeze it went.

If USA TODAY is to be believed, the prosecutor overseeing the case — longtime assistant attorney general David Tartter — wasn’t exactly devoting a lot of energy to it. “Neglect” seems the best descriptor for his approach.

Meanwhile, the accuser is now 45 years old and living with the consequences of the assault. Forte is 78 and still claims to be dying, but has been enjoying a pretty decent retirement in Florida. And the chances of bringing him to justice appeared faint, thanks to this:

The USA TODAY Network found that Vermont officials have destroyed materials key to the prosecution of Forte, including most of the original trial record. The mistaken destruction of transcripts and court audio recordings appears to be due to the unprecedented age of the case, by far the oldest open prosecution in Vermont and certainly one of the oldest in the country where the defendant is not a fugitive.

… Michele Dinko, the alleged victim, said in a recent interview that Tartter has expressed to her that he has little hope left of prosecuting Forte. Dinko said Tartter also told her privately that having the case loom over Forte for so many decades is its own kind of punishment.

That’d be a hard “no,” Mr. Tartter.

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Bookshelf: A simple lie will obliterate a complicated truth

Florida: The place where reality goes to die, where men’s dreams turn to rot. where history is an inconvenience consistently trumped by comforting legends.

This book, I tell you.

Finding Florida was published in 2013; I found it in my local library, and am I glad I did. (It’s still in print.) It’s 450-odd pages of mythbusting excellence. Not only did I learn a lot about why Florida is the way it is, I also learned a lot about why the whole U.S. of A. is the way it is.

Which is to say, a place built on myths and legends, a place fond of ignoring complicated truth.

Allman starts with the early Spanish explorers — who weren’t explorers so much as they were clueless treasure hunters. Ponce de Leon never got anywhere near St. Augustine and didn’t search for the Fountain of Youth; he came to Florida to search for gold. He lost his life for his trouble.

As for the other “heroic explorer,” Hernando de Soto, he spent three miserable years wandering the American Southeast in a real-life Aguirre: The Wrath of God situation: a treasure hunt turned slow-motion death spiral.

Sorry. “Spoiler Alert”

Ponce and de Soto, as we know them today, are entirely the creation of 19th Century American writers, Washington Irving and Henry Schoolcraft, who valued a great story over the truth.

Florida, meanwhile, continued to cast a spell on white folks from far and wide. Presidents Jefferson, Madison and Monroe wrested the peninsula away from the Spanish, who cared so little about the Godforsaken place that they put up virtually no resistance. Those distinguished Founders then embarked on a three-decade campaign of genocide against the Seminoles — who were, in fact, a few thousand natives, whites, free blacks and Hispanics who lived side-by-side, mostly practicing subsistence agriculture.

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Proof: Santa Claus is a conservative a**hole

Vermont Republican Party chair Deb Billado is known for penning ultraconservative, pro-Trump screeds in her official role as the party’s leader. But now, at Christmastime, she’s outdone herself with what I can only hope is a feeble attempt at “humor,” which would serve as further proof that there’s no such thing as conservative humor. (Lookin’ at you, @NewsDoneRight.) Because if she was serious, man oh man, she’s gone round the twist.

Billado’s latest epistle takes the form of a letter from Santa who, as he passed over Vermont, observed “a warm light” from below — a light that “conveyed a good feeling to the people, one of security and goodness.”

That light? The Vermont Republican Party.

Santa tops that off by observing that Billado had been “chosen to be its head to steer the course, right and true.”

Ah. The Chosen One. Where have I heard that before?

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VSEA doubles down in spite of a weak hand

The Vermont State Employees Association may be setting itself up for a fall. Or at the very least, a split within its own ranks and among its political supporters.

Last Friday, Human Services Secretary Mike Smith issued a report to Gov. Phil Scott about the prison abuse crisis, and I have to say, it looks like he’s taking this seriously and coming down hard across the board. He wrote of the need for a “culture change” in the Department of Corrections and specific changes in how administrators handle internal wrongdoing and offending personnel. He also called for drug testing for DOC employees, tougher hiring criteria and a more thorough ban on prison personnel having sex with inmates.

The VSEA accused Smith of a “knee-jerk reaction,” which is, um, ironic, don’tcha think, since it’s the VSEA itself whose knee is jerking.

In workplace disputes, labor unions’ first reaction is to protect the interests of its members. There are good and valid reasons for this. But it’s not always the best thing to do — for the health of the organization, the public interest and even the greatest good for union members.

“I think I would characterize [Smith’s report] as an overreach to try to hide from the public the fact that this case is really gross managerial and incompetence,” said VSEA executive director Steve Howard, despite the fact that Smith targeted front-line workers and administration alike. Never have I heard Smith try to blame the scandal solely on VSEA members. Indeed, his quickest and most decisive actions have been aimed at the top ranks of the DOC, not the poor downtrodden wage slaves.

Howard added that “99 percent” of DOC workers are “upstanding” employees. That percentage might be a little high, but let’s take his point at face value. Isn’t it in the interest of the 99 percent to eliminate the bad ones? It’s not only inmates who have been victimized; DOC employees themselves have reported being subject to harassment and retaliation. Shouldn’t Howard be just as quick to protect their interests?

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When energy is “renewable” but not exactly clean

Can we stop talking about how wind turbines destroy ridge lines?

Real shocker from VTDigger: The large-scale hydropower dams in northern Quebec, which provide much of Vermont’s supply of “renewable” electricity, have taken a human toll on First Nations communities in the far north. And will take an even greater toll as more dams are built.

Because of course they have and of course they will. Each dam floods huge tracts of land. The Innu and Inuit people depend heavily on using their land for hunting and gathering. Their lives are being constricted by the buildout of hydro power, which is in high demand from New England states eager to meet renewable energy targets. Which, in turn, means that more dams are in the works.

By exporting our environmental pain to faraway people. Or, as Inuit elder Alex Saunders put it, “Think about what you’re buying here. You’re buying the misery from the local people of northern Canada.”

You put it that, way, HQ’s “renewable” energy seems a little less renewable.

This isn’t a simple issue. HQ is a major resource for non-carbon-emitting power, and will continue to be. But the lives of indigenous people shouldn’t be swept aside — especially when Vermonters are so queasy about the esthetics of solar and wind installations in their home state, and seem to want to preserve Vermont’s [ahem, false] purity at the expense of others.

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