Author Archives: John S. Walters

About John S. Walters

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

A state full of fetishes

FETISH, n. An object regarded with awe as being the embodiment or habitation of a potent spirit or as having magical potency. (Dictionary.com)

The notion of obsessing over, or even worshipping, an object, is often thought of as a sign of primitiveness. Here in the modern West, we know better than to believe a mere object can be imbued with magical powers or even divinity.

Funny thing is, we don’t act that way.

This is true wherever you look. Donald Trump’s wall is a fetish for him and his supporters: If we build it, we will be protected from malign influences. The American flag is a fetish; many value its security above the Constitutional rights it is supposed to represent. Heck, the Constitution itself is a fetish for those who carry it in their pockets but, when they open their mouths, reveal a lack of familiarity with its purpose. As is the Bible.

But here in Vermont, hoo boy, we’ve got ’em in spades. And far too often, our fetish fetish* sucks time and energy away from actually, you know, tackling the real problems we face.

*See what I did there?

Our latest inanimate fixation is a dying maple tree (link to article behind the Valley News‘ paywall), the last vestige of the Ascutney farm owned by Romaine Tenney. When the interstate freeways were being built, his land was in the path of I-91. Tenney repeatedly refused to sell out. When the farm was seized via eminent domain in 1964, he burned down the farmhouse, killing himself, rather than move away.

Only the maple remains. A state-contracted arborist recently concluded that the tree is beyond saving. Due to a local outcry, the state has postponed plans to cut it down and is consulting a second arborist. This isn’t the tree’s first health crisis; as the Valley News reports, “About 10 years ago, cables were installed to stabilize the tree.” Which is a lot of time and expense devoted to an organism with a lifespan that will inevitably end in death.

You know where I’m going with this.

C’mon, folks. It’s just a fuckin’ tree. Let it go. Death with dignity.

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Way Down In The Hole

[Not Exactly As Illustrated]

Brookfield Asset Management, the alleged developer of Burlington’s infamous hole in the ground, continues to be frustratingly vague about its plans and its timeline for actually building something on the former site of the Burlington Town Center. And folks, this could turn out to be the defining issue in the March 2021 city elections, when incumbent Mayor Miro Weinberger is expected to seek a third term.

And, to craft the ultimate in mixed metaphors, that hole may become a millstone around his neck.

Demolition of the old mall began nearly two years ago. Original developer Don Sinex began boasting of big plans for the site way back in 2014. He tapped out earlier this year, and Brookfield stepped into the void.

(Sorry.)

(Although Sinex’s grand vision for Burlington CityPlace can, for shits and giggles, still be seen on its splashy website. Maybe cityplaceburlington.com been declared a historic monument or summat.)

City leaders are pressing Brookfield for some measure of certainty about its plans. Brookfield has failed to miss planning benchmarks since it took over the property. It presented sketches of a site plan to for the site to city council last month, but many crucial details remain to be filled in.

Weinberger, who was a loud and vocal supporter of Sinex and has now, a little more cautiously, tossed his hat into the Brookfield ring, is sounding a little antsy. Seven Days:

“We are looking for them to do more, quickly, to prove … that, in the end, it’s going to succeed,” Mayor Miro Weinberger said. “We are looking for some further confirmation on that.”

Good luck with that, Mr. Mayor. And good luck running for re-election if the hole is still a hole in early 2021. Which is not terribly farfetched; every step on a project of this scope is going to take time, especially in a micromanaging community like Burlington.

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A Gloomy Day for Vermont Newspapers

There were two pieces of bad news on the state’s media front today — one substantive, the other more symbolic.

The latter is the departure of Rob Mitchell from the Rutland Herald and Barre Montpelier Times Argus. The former is the fully-consummated merger of Burlington Free Press owner Gannett with GateHouse, forming the largest (by far) newspaper chain in the country. The combined entity, now saddled with $1.8 billion in debt and facing continued declines in circulation and ad revenue, is set to go on a cost-cutting spree that could eliminate more than 10 percent of its workforce.

Mitchell had continued to serve as general manager of the papers after their 2016 sale to Pennsylvania-based Sample Newspapers. His resignation marks the end of more than 80 years of Mitchell family involvement in the two papers.

If he’s being in any way forced out by the new owners, he’d doubtless keep that to himself. He did say that “I started to realize that I wasn’t growing in this role anymore,” which could be taken to mean that he didn’t see a future under outside ownership.

The Mitchells’ tenure wasn’t perfect, but they were at least local owners answerable to their own communities. Sample, whose properties include a few dailies and a lot of weeklies and free shoppers, has no such ties. So far, its tenure has not seen noticeable cuts — but neither has there been any tangible sign of strengthening the Herald and Times Argus, which have been bare-bones operations for years.

The Gannett/GateHouse deal creates a true industry monster that will control 18 percent of America’s dailies. Ken Doctor, news industry analyst who writes the Newsonomics column for the Nieman Foundation, expects that one in eight G/G employees will be out of a job by the end of 2020. And that’s on top of a fresh round of layoffs expected to come even before the GateHouse bloodletting begins.

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Where is TJ going?

Much speculation has surrounded Democratic Attorney General TJ Donovan this year. Will he run for governor in 2020, or won’t he?

Maybe the real question ought to be, Which primary would he contest?

Donovan has taken a couple more rightward steps in recent days. Last week, Gov. Phil Scott directed his officials to allow people inspecting state documents to take photographs or otherwise record images without incurring any fees. Afterward, Donovan doubled down on his position that fees should be charged to anyone getting copies of public records — whether the copies were made by state employees or not.

Congratulations, TJ. You’re now officially to the right of our Republican governor on a key transparency issue.

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Bookshelf: A sobering look at the nuclear age

First in what might be an occasional series on Books I Just Read.

On my last browse through my local library’s stacks, I came across this book. It came out ten years ago, but I highly recommend it as an informed — and cautionary — tour through the history of humanity’s Nuclear Era. Very readable, to boot. (Although there are certain chapters, including the back-to-back sections on Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, that aren’t the best for bedtime.)

The author, Stephanie Cooke, spent a goodly chunk of her journalistic career covering the nuclear industry. In the process, she developed a wealth of information and contacts that made her uniquely qualified to write a book like this. And boy, did she do a great job.

One of the key themes in the book is how nuclear weapons and “the peaceful atom” have been, from the very beginning, two sides of the same coin. When President Eisenhower was preparing to give a speech to the United Nations on the new atomic age, he was desperate to present a hopeful face to a seemingly dismal recitation of the dangers posed by A-bombs. Literally, he asked his staffers to find him some hope.

The result was the “Atoms for Peace” initiative, which was designed to spread the alleged benefits of peaceful nukes around the world. The idea was to bolster public support (and dispel public angst) for nuclear research, which was necessary for the arms race. The unintended consequence: Marketing “Atoms for Peace” involved spreading nuclear technology — and nuclear material — to other countries. In fact, developing new markets took precedence over nonproliferation efforts.

Even the International Atomic Energy Agency devotes more of its time and treasure to fostering nuclear technology than controlling the spread of nuclear weapons. (The most absurd example, reports Cooke: A grant from the IAEA helped North Korea establish its own uranium-mining industry. Nice.)

In Mortal Hands is also a handy guide to the excesses and shortfalls on both sides of the nuclear coin. The number of incidents and close calls is rather astonishing. Safety and security have never been treated as seriously as they should have been — or as seriously as governments and utilities would have you believe.

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EVERYTHING IS AWESOME

VT Dems assemble for reorg meeting. [Not exactly as illustrated]

The Vermont Democratic Party state committee met Saturday in Stowe, and did their level best to put the Unfortunate Incidents of this year behind them. The elections for party officer positions were uncontested, and every vote but one was unanimous. There was not a single mention of the Brandon Batham embezzlement case until the elections were safely over. At that point, one committee member asked if the party was making efforts to recoup the stolen funds. The answer: Not right away, but maybe after the criminal investigation of Batham concludes.

Otherwise, the two-and-a-half hour meeting was practically a Lego Movie singalong.

There had been some efforts before the meeting to identify other candidates, but nothing eventuated. If state committee members harbored any doubts about the handling of the Batham case, the overly lax management structure that opened the door to his theft, other leadership issues laid bare by the Batham case (including the complete lack of a vetting process for hiring party employees) or the party’s embarrassing fundraising performance over the last three-ish years, they kept those doubts behind zipped lips.

Because… Everything Is Awesome When You’re Part Of A Team!

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Hey, let’s catch up with the VTGOP!

Two weeks ago, the troubled relationship between the Vermont Republican Party and its most successful politician — Gov. Phil Scott — was, for all intents and purposes, formally terminated. At its biannual reorganization, party delegates re-elected chair Deb Billado to a second two-year term. Billado is an earnest soul, but a staunch conservative and devout Donald Trump fan. And she has had zero success with the admittedly tough task of pulling the party out of the doldrums.

She ran without opposition, which is the real point. Two years ago, Scott came up with a nominee of his own: Michael Donohue (not that guy), a very conservative fellow but a realist with a respectable track record of political organizing in other states. Donohue lost narrowly to Billado, in a result that reflected the party’s Trumpward orientation.

This time, Scott didn’t bother. He didn’t even attend the meeting. (He had a good excuse; Vermont was reeling from a weather disaster, and he was visiting affected areas. But I have a feeling he would have found an excuse to stay away. “Had to walk the dog” or somesuch.)

Delegates elected a slate of far-right Trumpers to top posts. Former attorney general candidate Deb Bucknam is the new vice chair; she replaces Brady Toensing, who resigned last spring to take a position in the Trump Justice Department. (He’s the son of Victoria Toensing, frequent promoter of right-wing conspiracy theories on Fox News along with her husband Joe DiGenova. Brady was a longtime member of the family law firm.)

Other officers include Deb Bucknam’s hubby Charlie as party treasurer and Deb Ricker, re-elected as secretary. Two at-large spots on the executive committee went to onetime state representative Paul Dame, who periodically shows up in my mailbox touting “retirement seminars” with a free dinner at the Steakhouse in Berlin*, and Zachary Hampl (not that guy), a Castleton University student and founder of the local chapter of the Young Americans for Liberty. (Young Zach also endorsed Bruce Lisman over Scott in the 2016 primary battle.)

*If that doesn’t work out for him, maybe he can try hawking timeshares.

None of those worthies is on the same ideological continent as Our Governor. Who, again, didn’t even try to offer alternative candidates more suited to his politics and style.

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