Category Archives: local/regional

Randolph Exit 4 I-89 development land conserved

Sometimes with the right combination of co-operation, money, power, and influence things can be made to “click” to preserve open land here in Vermont.vermontlandsave1

An agreement has been made involving developer Mr. Jesse “Sam” Sammis and his wife Jean “Jinny” Sammis, the Castanea Foundation, and a Vermont goat farm that will result in the conservation of hundreds of acres almost two hundred acres of land which will remain open and farmed. Sammis’s now-abandoned  development proposal  along Exit 4 from I-89 in Randolph as planned would have included 274 residential units, 280,000 square feet of office space, 236,000 square feet of light manufacturing space, and a 180-bed hotel and conference center.

As reported in a press release last week from the Preservation Trust of Vermont:

The Montpelier-based [Castanea] foundation is acting as an intermediary to hold the land to allow time for the sale of a conservation easement with public funding, private fundraising, and the eventual sale of the conserved land to Ayers Brook Goat Dairy for agricultural purposes.

In addition, Sam and Jinny Sammis have agreed to sell the remaining 22 acres that they own at Exit 4 to the Preservation Trust of Vermont. Working in conjunction with Conservation Law Foundation, the Vermont Natural Resources Council and the citizen group Exit 4 Open Space, the Preservation Trust of Vermont will have the opportunity to purchase the remaining 22 acres. The groups will need to raise $1 million dollars – substantially below the assessed value for the property – over the next 60 days to complete the deal.

The original sprawling undertaking had the backing of the Shumlin administration. Part of the proposed project was an agreement with the state for developer  Sammis to build and run an officially sanctioned state welcome center. The center and a 30-year lease on state-owned land would have provided  exceptionally convenient access with the Interstate exit funneling traffic to the Sammis-owned industrial park, office space, conference center and hundreds of residential units. Former Governor Shumlin’s former Secretary of Administration, Jeb Spaulding, was particularly enthusiastic “When I first heard about this proposal I thought it sounded too good to be true.

The recent agreement to save hundreds of acres of land took an impressive alignment of active local opposition to the development, several heavy-hitting conservation groups, and of course lots and lots of money.

But despite all the smiles and good feeling now, developer Sammis’ said: “I’m happy about it from a conservation standpoint. As a developer and somebody who’s lived in Randolph for over 40 years and knows that there’s a tremendous demand for good jobs, I’m disappointed.”  Sammis’ remark (nudging pretty close to right up against some sour grapes) anticipates future development battles.

And those battles will involve Act 250 Vermont’s statewide development review process. Governor Phil Scott has pledged to “reform” Act 250. His  encounter with Act 250 as young businessman is part of his well-worn origin story. The review process is bound to be factor as that thousand-acre utopian city-state planned for nearby Upper Valley towns of Royalton, Sharon, Strafford and Tunbridge moves forward.

So there’s more to come. Think of all the open land through no fault of its own located near the interstatefound just “sitting” there, “undeveloped”barely even monetized! For Phil Scott, surely a heresy!

Budget-stressed, crowded PA corrections system to take VT’s inmates

The Scott administration has been scurrying around to find a place to relocate the approximately 260 inmates currently held in Michigan at GEO Group’s for-profit private prison. In late 2016 GEO Group unexpectedly canceled its extension option on a multi-year contract to house Vermont prisoners and  set a June deadline for their removal. Governor Scott didn’t pursue in-state alternatives he claims would cost more. It’s all about bottom-line GOP budgeting priorities: “The reality is it’s a lot less costly to have some out of state,” Scott said as a candidate.

cellDetails about a new deal Governor Scott is reportedly arranging with the Pennsylvania state prison system are scant to say the least. According to Vtdigger.com, Secretary of Human Services Al Gobeille will only say that the administration is “very close” to a deal with the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. An official from the PA Dept of Corrections did confirm they may soon house the Vermont prisoners but nothing is finalized. Pennsylvania Corrections regularly charges $72.00 per day cost for out-of state prisoners. That’s about $10.00 more than soon to end $61.80 per day fee GEO Group now charges to Vermont .

Whatever details eventually emerge about the Pennsylvania prison inmate housing deal, a quick look at news reports about the state system of is hardly reassuring for anyone concerned. For a period of years that state’s department of corrections has been undergoing major budget and staff cuts. The state is still suffering severe budget problems; this year, reductions under consideration in the Pennsylvania house, if enacted, would put about 1,500 state employees out of work, with prisons in line for the deepest job cuts. The administration produced an internal budget office analysis that indicated nearly 650 layoffs would occur at the Department of Corrections.

Should those new layoffs and cuts come to pass, it will be on top of existing chronic problems including prisons operating well over capacity, with overcrowding exacerbated by previous years of budget cuts and staff reductions. To save costs two PA state prisons are slated to be closed in 2017. Officially they will be “mothballed,” dislocating and consolidating almost 2,500 inmates into other Pennsylvania prisons. The closings mean the Pennsylvania system will be operating at what is called “emergency” capacity levels. Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said, “It’s not ideal,” and by way of defending the action, he explains Pennsylvania is far from the worst state when it comes to overcrowding. There is speculation by PA officials desperate for any revenue that the newly “mothballed” prison facilities might be profitably put to use as suitable housing for low-risk federal immigration detainees from Trump’s aggressive immigration actions.

With the PA system under major budget stresses engagement by prison social workers, medical, or counseling staff are apt to be minimal to the extent they are provided for out-of-state prisoners. However, for families of Vermont inmate families who want to visit the travel distance may be an improvement of a kind. From Burlington to GEO’s North Lake Correction Facility is over 800 miles and to Pittsburgh, in the western corner of Pennsylvania is under 600 miles.

The snapshot of Pennsylvania’s prisons that emerges from these recent news reports is one of a system struggling under severe budget constraints and perhaps understaffed. The June deadline to move Vermont’s 260 inmates from Michigan is approaching fast: it is time for some details about what kind of “bargain” deal budget-conscious Governor Scott may think he’s arranged with Pennsylvania.

 

 

Vermont DMV & ICE, are they having fun or what?

It turns out the Vermont DMV is still cooperating with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). When Vermont DMV head Robert Ide and Col. Jake Elovirta, the department’s director of enforcement and safety, testified to legislators this week, Ide admitted:  [his] department has not completely implemented the terms of a Human Rights Commission settlement they had agreed to.

Commissioner Ide and Col. Jake Elovirta
Commissioner Ide and Col. Jake Elovirta

According to requirements of the mid-2016 court agreement the DMV was supposed to stop passing along information about foreign nationals to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. However VTdigger.com and Seven Days found: records show that communications between DMV and ICE employees continued [the practice] through the end of 2016.

But I guess it’s hard for some at the DMV to break off their warm relationship with ICE. “It [the settlement with Human Rights Commission] was an ambitious list of tasks,” Commissioner Ide said. “I’m not saying that we are all done yet, but we certainly are on a course that charts us to that end point.”

Implementation of the 2016 DMV agreement may continue to be a challenge in the age of Trump. Since the immigration crack down, there are reports of a “gung-ho enthusiasm” among immigration enforcement officials. Energized hardliners who have now been given what seems to be free reign say their jobs are becoming “fun.” And alarmingly, one federal official said: Those who take less of a hard line on unauthorized immigrants feel silenced. DMVfunzone

When addressing improper communications between DMV personnel and ICE that violate the agreement, Commissioner Ide told the State House hearing that some things just aren’t “fun”: “It’s not fun to have to explain this type of behavior,” Ide said. “But behavior is what it is, and sometimes you have to.”

I kind of doubt anyone at the hearing asked: “Commissioner Ide, tell us, is it fun to do your job?”  So, he must have felt the need to publicly declare his job isn’t even fun anymore.

Fun or not, while bringing the agency into compliance as promised, Ide might consider remarks made by Abdel Rababah. He is the man, on whose behalf the Human Rights Commission filed the case against the DMV. Rababah said. “If we can’t trust the system, how can we as people function in the community?”

Governor Scott Proposes New Balanced Budget Strategy

scott-goldIn response to criticism from legislative leadership, Governor Phil Scott has re-engaged on the budget process in the 11th hour with a modified proposal.

Scott’s initial proposal plugged a multi-million budget dollar hole (while increasing spending for selected items) largely based on a pitch for local school boards to both level-fund school budgets as well as delay their local school budget votes until May. This proposal was criticized as unrealistic on its face, particularly coming as it did only days before most already-crafted school budget proposals were to be legally finalized for Town Meeting Day consideration. Since the Governor’s vision for such a radical change in school budgeting did not materialize, the administration has firmly resisted calls to re-engage with the legislature in order to craft a proposal based on those budget factors within state control.

But that all changed today when Governor Scott announced a modified budget. In a message clearly tailored to legislators who viewed his previous proposal as based on assumptions that were unrealistic or even fanciful, Scott stressed his new proposal was a “serious, thoughtful proposal to bring in another $30 million dollars without raising any further taxes or fees on struggling Vermonters, while maintaining our budget priorities.”
The proposal fills the gap with the Leprechaun’s pot o’ gold. The Governor noted that his staff had been hard at work identifying the location of the end of the rainbow in recent months, and had in fact verified the location of the pot o’ gold only this week. In his press conference, the Governor strongly urged opposition Democrats to “move forward on this responsibly balanced budget without delay.”

leprechaun2Democratic legislative leaders, however, were dubious. In a hastily called press conference, House Leadership was joined by the Leprechaun, where the group characterized this most recent proposal as no more realistic than the previous one.

The Leprechaun also noted the history of ill fortune coming to those who had attempted to access this source of funding in the past, adding “hands off me gold.”

The Leprechaun further began voicing his concerns over the long-term wisdom of depending on such a “one-off” funding source for the state budget, but was cut short when he was seized by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials after proving unable to produce a valid green card.

EPA Grants Lake Champlain Blue-Green Algae Endangered Species Protection

In an unusual Saturday announcement, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) designated Lake Champlain cyanobacteria an endangered species.

The decision comes as a result of a petition filed by a new regional environmental organization made up of a broad-based coalition of farmers, developers and municipal officials. Their concerns come as long-term projections based on anticipated changes in policy around stormwater and wastewater runoff and agricultural practices suggest hard times ahead for native cyanobacteria, known colloquially as blue-green algae.

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An ideal thriving cyanobacteria population

In the announcement, an EPA spokesperson noted the potentially catastrophic threats to cyanobacteria habitat in coming years. “Policymakers have been discussing wholesale changes to stormwater and agricultural runoff policy with wanton disregard to the potentially devastating impact on this local species. Although today’s EPA is strongly against regulation, we feel that this situation cannot be ignored.”

The Agency indicated it would be mandating a policy of sustained, targeted increases in crop fertilization and untreated municipal sewage dumps until such time that authorities deem the cyanobacteria population is found to be robust and stable.

VTGOP’ers vow: “won’t be fooled again”

Well, a group of GOP legislators in Vermont have vowed not to fall prey to April fool pranks again this year. Last year, as some readers may recall, five VTGOP legislators (two state representatives from the NEK, one from Orange County and two state senators from the Rutland area) in 2016 were readily taken in by legislative satire found on a popular Vermont-based online humor site.cowsoutdoors3

The April 1st 2016 news “report” was about Vermont legislation under consideration in Vermont House and Senate committees which, if enacted, supposedly would have mandated (under penalty of fines) the number of daylight hours a dairy cow could legally spend “indoors.” The “legislation” was said to list appropriate outside facilities for the dairy herd leisure activities. Suggested activities were defined  but to avoid any undue burden, farmers were not required to be in compliance. All that in bill VT H. 4/1/16: the imaginary “Dairy Cow Outdoor Leisure Act”

The proposed law, the story claimed, was inspired by scientific research completed at a major university: [The study] measured how much work dairy cows will do to access pasture, by pushing on a weighted gate. The cows worked hard to access pasture, especially at night. As a comparison, the researchers also measured how much weight the cows would push to access their regular feed when kept indoors; cows worked just as hard to go outside as they did to access fresh feed when they were hungry.

cowsthatagain

In summary: “[…] cows are highly motivated to be outside” said professor Marina von Keyserlingk, lead author of the study.

Well, back in 2016 some conservative anti-regulation GOP lawmakers didn’t take time to notice the date  April 1. As a group the five, quick to react and soon to be embarrassed state senators and reps, took action. They composed a protest letter.

The letter, dated the next day [!] was sent to the committee chairs in both houses they believed were handling the legislation  and more incredibly, it was released to news outlets. It read in part:  “We’re talking about unchecked regulatory aggression. There is scant evidence to substantiate the legislation, and we are skeptical  of the assertion that dairy cows desire leisure time.” They railed against faulty and unproven science.

And the letter closed with this: “No matter what, we wish to make one thing understood; whatever it is, we’re against it. Even if you change or condensed it, we remain against it — any committee version of the bill.” 

Fast forward to 2017: the gullible gang of Republicans have said that should there ever be any effort to mandate leisure time for dairy cows, they would naturally be opposed — after double-checking the date. Lesson learned?

Rutland City Officials Unveil New City Motto “Quidam amici optimi mei sunt Musulmanus”

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The new City seal

The new Rutland City Mayor and Board of Alderman have begun the process of pushing back on negative press surrounding the recent Town Meeting Day elections. The media coverage, which has gone national, has at times characterized the city’s recent vote as driven by intolerance or even outright even racism, in light of election results widely seen as a referendum on ousted-Mayor Louras’s efforts to open the city to Syrian refugees.

Statements made on internet comment pages, the Facebook page of the anti-immigrant “Rutland First” organization, as well as that organization’s welcoming of notorious anti-Muslim firebrands such as Philip Haney and James Simpson have fed a persistent perception that the resistance to opening the city to families fleeing the war in Syria is often based on anti-Muslim or anti-Arab prejudice.

The new administration, in an effort to turn the page on the issue and respond to accusations of bigotry, has just adopted a new city motto which officials feel will help set the record straight on the issue.

“Quidam amici optimi mei sunt Musulmanus,” which translates from Latin to read “Some of my best friends are Muslim,” will now be emblazoned on the seal of the city. Officials are confident this change should be enough to put an end to the negative publicity once and for all.

Attorney General Deploys Sandmen to Keep Sanctuary Cities and States Unattainable

sessions-sandman
Sessions with a member of the new Sandman force.

On Saturday, Vermont supplemented recent directives limiting state and local cooperation with federal immigration authorities with a formal statement declaring itself a “Sanctuary state.” The action provoked swift action from US Attorney General Jeff Sessions. In the face of reports that the federal government may not legally be able to follow through on threats to funding from sanctuary cities and states, the Department of Justice immediately implemented a new strategy in response.

“We will be deploying a force of Sandmen, who will be empowered to use any force to prevent any and all ‘illegal’ runners from reaching this, or any Sanctuary.”

box
New ICE administrator Box

Sessions added that the new independent Sandman force would be supported by new head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Box the robot. The Attorney General noted Box’s solid record of utilizing ICE to prevent runners from reaching Sanctuary, even if they do manage to evade capture by Sandmen, or other immigration authorities.

In an unrelated story, satirists suggested that gags based on 70’s science fiction properties that had long since faded from collective memory would likely fail to resonate with readers, generally.

Presidential order downgrades Vermont

upperalabamaFacing prospects of a Senate filibuster for his Supreme Court nominee, President Trump made unprecedented use of the power of his office by signing an executive order which eliminates two influential opposition votes .

With a wave of the presidential pen, Trump has eliminated Vermont statehood, redubbing the former Green Mountain State as “Upper Alabama” and placing it under the authority of Alabama Governor (and Trump supporter) Robert Bentley.

The move has the immediate effect of retiring Senators Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders, as every state is only allowed two Senators under the Constitution, improving the Senate math for the Trump administration on a whole host of issues. In addition, allowing Vermont’s general liberal population of 600,000 to be absorbed into conservative Alabama’s 1.8 million should have the desired effect of watering those Vermonters down as a political force on the state level, and in terms of the Electoral College.

Immediately following the signing ceremony, federal officials got right to work disseminating flags with 49 stars instead of 50, and repurposing the now-former Vermont Senators’ offices and seats on the Senate floor as retail sales space for Ivanka Trump’s clothing line.

Based on the immediate success of the executive order, administration officials are reportedly looking into applying the same strategy in regards to Massachusetts (with an eye toward its reconfiguring as “Texas North”), as well as declaring California a US Marshall Island.

Gov. Scott: Calling FairPoint for Department of Human Resources Commissioner

It is fair to say Governor Phil Scott often makes the point that state government should be managed like a business. So it’s hardly surprising Scott announced that FairPoint Communication executive Beth Fastiggi will be his Department of Human Resources Commissioner.  Fastiggi held a number of posts at FairPoint Communications in her 30-year career there.philsonaphone4

I wonder though — considering some of FairPoint’s history in Vermont  Scott might have been tempted to make this announcement on a Friday — late in the day Friday.

FairPoint, which took over Verizon’s land line business in Vermont, has reached out and touched most Vermonters over the years and not in a good way. Here, and for that matter in all of New England, the company has a long history of poor quality service, bankruptcy, and troubled labor relations. At certain key moments it seems Vermont has been there with helping hand$.

In recent years a variety hefty fines for consistently poor quality of service were imposed by the State of Vermont Public Service on FairPoint. And then, the VPSB waived millions of dollars in accumulated poor service related penalties for the company. The agreement, part of a restructuring plan, allowed $7 million in assessed unpaid penalties to be redirected by FairPoint for statewide broadband build-out.

The relationship between FairPoint and its union employees has been marked by mistrust. For 131 days from October 2014 to February 2015 almost 2,000 FairPoint union employees were on strike over newly imposed rounds of wage and benefit cuts.

Shortly after the strike began, and despite ongoing issues surrounding quality of service, Vermont awarded FairPoint a lucrative contract to manage Vermont’s 911 emergency communications service. Who ever would have guessed that outages and problems would now be plaguing the emergency 911 system?

In the DHS appointment press release Governor Scott says: “Beth is a highly respected business leader who will be a great asset and public servant for the state.”

So let’s see then, FairPoint Comunications squeezed concessions out of union members, provided poor service, got concessions on state-imposed fines and landed a valuable state 911 contract while in bankruptcy  in the middle of a labor strike .

So how does that management skill set connect to the Department of Human Resources Phil? Not too results oriented, eh?