Monday, August 18, 2014

Jim Jeffords, Vermont Icon With an Independent Streak, Dies at 80

Posted By and on Mon, Aug 18, 2014 at 11:55 AM

Updated at 4:53 p.m.

Former U.S. senator Jim Jeffords, an iconic independent and veteran Vermont politician, died Monday at age 80.

Near the end of his 40-year career in public office, the Rutland Republican stunned the nation in May 2001 when he left his party to become an independent. The move handed control of a closely divided Senate to the Democratic Party for the next 18 months and earned Jeffords a place in political history.

But according to his longtime chief of staff, Susan Boardman Russ, Jeffords’ most important contribution was not his defection from the GOP, but his decades of work fighting for education, the environment, dairy farmers and the disabled.

“That’s his legacy. That’s what mattered to him,” Boardman Russ said. “The publicity he got for switching parties I sometimes wish hadn’t happened because all those incredible things he did over those years got lost.”

Jeffords died Monday morning at the Knollwood Military Retirement Residence in Washington, D.C., where he had lived since the death of his wife, Liz, in 2007, according to former spokeswoman Diane Derby. 

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Monday, August 4, 2014

State to End Contract With Health Exchange Vendor

Posted By on Mon, Aug 4, 2014 at 2:42 PM

Lawrence Miller, left, and Mark Larson at Vermont Health Connect's Winooski office - ALICIA FREESE
  • Alicia Freese
  • Lawrence Miller, left, and Mark Larson at Vermont Health Connect's Winooski office

The Shumlin administration is parting ways with CGI, the vendor that built Vermont's still-incomplete health insurance exchange, Vermont Health Connect.

The decision to end the contract is "mutual," according to Mark Larson, commissioner of the Department of Vermont Health Access. He announced the news at a press conference this morning, alongside Lawrence Miller, whom Gov. Peter Shumlin recently appointed as chief of health care reform.

CGI has already received $57 million of Vermont's $83 million contract and, under the agreement, the Canadian company will leave the Green Mountain State with another $9.7 million, according to Miller. He noted that 97 percent of the exchange cost is federally funded.

Since the federal government ditched CGI in January, many Vermonters have been clamoring for state officials to do the same. Miller acknowledged that people will view the step as long overdue. 

"There's no doubt in my mind that the biggest question is going to be, 'Why the hell didn't you do this months ago?'" he said.

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Monday, July 21, 2014

Sanders to Return to Iowa in September

Posted By on Mon, Jul 21, 2014 at 8:54 AM

Updated at 12:38 p.m.

As he continues to explore a 2016 run for president, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) will return to the first-in-the-nation caucus state of Iowa this September.

Sanders plans to hold town meetings in Dubuque, Waterloo and Des Moines the weekend of September 13, according to spokesman Michael Briggs. Sanders will combine the trip with a previously scheduled appearance in Wisconsin at the Fighting Bob Fest, an annual gathering to celebrate the life of progressive icon — and senator-turned-presidential candidate — Robert La Follette.

September's trip will mark Sanders' second to the Hawkeye State this year. He traveled to Iowa City in May to headline the Clinton County Democratic Party's Hall of Fame Dinner and, according to the Daily Beast, met with activists there and in Des Moines. Sanders has also held political events twice in New Hampshire this year, in April and June.

Last week, Sanders reported raising an unusually large sum of money for a year in which he does not face reelection. The Vermont independent collected nearly $716,000 in the past three months, boosting his campaign treasury to $4.4 million. Sanders, who was reelected to a second six-year term in 2012, will not have to defend his Senate seat again until 2018.

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Monday, July 14, 2014

Burlington Will Investigate Alternatives to Buffer Zone

Posted By on Mon, Jul 14, 2014 at 10:37 PM

  • File photo
In its first meeting since the Supreme Court effectively voided Burlington's buffer zone, the City Council voted unanimously Monday to start "urgently investigating and supporting legally defensible alternatives that ensure women’s safety and access to healthcare services."

On June 26, the nation's highest court ruled that a buffer zone law in Massachusetts, created to prevent protesters from coming within 35 feet of reproductive health centers, violated the First Amendment.

Burlington had erected a similar buffer zone in 2012, but upon the advice of city attorney Eileen Blackwood, the city stopped enforcing it after the ruling. Part of the city's law remains in place. Blackwood explained that while the zone itself has been dismantled, people are still prohibited from "obstructing, detaining, hindering, impeding, or blocking a person's entry or exit from a clinic." 

The sidewalks of St. Paul Street, where Planned Parenthood runs a clinic, have gotten more crowded, according to Jill Krowinski, public affairs director for Planned Parenthood in Vermont. Prior to the ruling, a handful of protesters showed up one or two days a week. Now they're outside four to five days a week, and last Saturday, there was crowd of roughly 20 people, according to Krowinski.

As the city council's ordinance committee considers its options, Krowinski described the tactic that Burlington's Planned Parenthood is employing: "The more protestors we see, the more greeters we’ll have." 

The Supreme Court ruling suggested that Massachusetts' buffer zone wasn't "narrowly tailored," and people seeking reproductive health services could be protected using other means. It stated, “A painted line is easy to enforce, but the prime objective of the First Amendment is not efficiency.”

One of the potential long-term options suggested by Blackwood would make it a criminal rather than a civil offense to violate the still-standing part of the city's ordinance. Krowinski said that Planned Parenthood is working with its other affiliates to find alternatives, too. One possibility they are considering: asking the City Council to establish a "bubble" in lieu of a buffer that would create a barrier around patients rather than a building. The Supreme Court upheld Colorado's "bubble" law in 2000. 

At Monday's meeting, Krowinski described protestors "persistently following and engaging with patients even when they say they are not interested" and taking photos and video footage of people entering the St. Paul Street facility. 

Two of those protestors were also at the city council meeting and disputed her account. "We are being misrepresented here," said Agnes Clift. "We will continue to be there praying and offering support and literature to people."

Friday, July 11, 2014

Burlington School District Asks City for a Loan of up to $4.8 Million

Posted By on Fri, Jul 11, 2014 at 4:59 PM

Patrick Halladay - FILE PHOTO
  • File Photo
  • Patrick Halladay
The Burlington school district is asking the City Council for an interest-free loan of up to $4.8 million to make sure it can pay its bills during a 90-day period.

Confronted with the possibility that it will temporarily run out of cash — a common situation for school districts across the state, according to school board chair Patrick Halladay — the Burlington School Board's finance committee has been looking for a line of credit.

"This is nothing that would be considered atypical," Halladay said, adding that the cash flow situation doesn't stem from the district's deficit troubles. "The complication we have this time is this hasn’t been how things have been done in Burlington in the past."

Up until July 1, the city and the school district shared a pooled cash account. If the school district was running low on money and needed to send out paychecks or pay for other expenses, it could temporarily draw on city funds. They terminated that arrangement and separated their accounts at the request of the Agency of Education.  

In early June, the school board asked the City Council for a loan of up to $2.6 million at a 0.5 percent interest rate. At the time, several councilors on the board of finance expressed misgivings about approving such a low interest rate. Before the council had a chance to vote on the request, both city and school officials found at that state law doesn't actually allow municipalities to charge schools interest on loans.

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Monday, June 30, 2014

Pomerleau Gives $1 Million to Boys and Girls Club of Burlington

Posted By on Mon, Jun 30, 2014 at 3:28 PM

Tony Pomerleau - ALICIA FREESE
  • Alicia Freese
  • Tony Pomerleau
Summer camp for the kids at Burlington's Boys and Girls Club began Monday with a series of speeches delivered by men in suits. The campers plucked clover in Roosevelt Park as the politicians and philanthropists offered inspirational advice. 

Arguably the best-dressed and indisputably the oldest of the men in suits was 96-year-old Tony Pomerleau, who was there to dole out something more concrete to the Club: $1 million. 

To put that in perspective: According to GuideStar, the Club recorded $1.4 million in revenue in 2012— most of which came from grants and donations. The gift, to be paid in installments over the next decade, is the largest in the club's history, according to its executive director, Mary Alice MacKenzie.

"If Tony Pomerleau didn't give one more gift in his life he would go down in history as one of the most generous Vermonters this state has ever seen," MacKenzie said. "But he hasn't stopped and we are very very lucky that he has believed that what we are doing with our education program is worthy of a very very big gift from him."

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Friday, June 27, 2014

Burlington School Board Opts for Financial Consultant Rather Than City's Assistance

Posted By on Fri, Jun 27, 2014 at 4:49 PM

The Burlington school board won’t be taking Mayor Miro Weinberger up on his offer of dispatching Bob Rusten, the city’s chief administrative officer, to patch up the district’s finances.

Instead, the finance committee has approved a motion to ink a contract with a financial consultant — Ed Gomeau, according to one its members, Scot Shumksi. Gomeau has previously served as the New Haven Public Schools’ finance director in Connecticut, and as business manager for the Addison Northeast Supervisory Union in Vermont, according to the Addison Independent.

The school board is also looking for a permanent finance director to replace David Larcombe, who is resigning on June 30. It recently appointed an acting superintendent to oversee the schools while it searches for a replacement for Jeanne Collins, who is also stepping down at the end of the month. 

Weinberger made his offer on April 28, after the public learned that serious budgeting problems had led to the district’s repeat deficits. The City Council voted 12-1 in favor of the arrangement. 

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Thursday, June 26, 2014

Fate of Burlington's Buffer Zones Uncertain After U.S. Supreme Court Decision

Posted By on Thu, Jun 26, 2014 at 1:28 PM

  • file photo
Burlington's buffer zone law — which prevents protesters from coming within 35 feet of reproductive health centers —  is in jeopardy after the Supreme Court unanimously struck down a similar law in Massachusetts on Thursday. 

Burlington's ordinance, implemented in 2012, has withstood a legal challenge, but that federal court decision is currently under appeal. Both the Burlington and the Massachusetts laws carved out 35- foot buffer zones.

Michael DePrimo, a Connecticut-based lawyer representing the plaintiffs in the Burlington case, was also lead counsel in the McCullen v. Coakley case up until it reached the Supreme Court. Reached Thursday, he said the city would be foolish to continue to defend the ordinance. "If they want to continue fighting, then they are wasting the taxpayer money."

DePrimo expressed confidence that Thursday's ruling spells the end for Burlington's ordinance. "The Supreme Court declared the Massachusetts statute unconstitutional. The Burlington ordinance was patterned on the Massachusetts statute," DePrimo said. "The McCullen case applies directly to the Burlington ordinance, and in my view the Burlington ordinance now cannot stand. It is unconstitutional."

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Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Wrongful Death Suit Filed in State Police Taser Case

Posted By on Wed, Jun 18, 2014 at 1:52 PM

From left, Allen Gilbert, director of the Vermont chapter of the ACLU; Rhonda Taylor, her husband, Ken Taylor and attorney Robert Appel announce outside U.S. District Court in Burlington the filing of a  wrongful death lawsuit against the Vermont State Police for the 2012 death of Rhonda Taylor's son, MacAdam Mason. - MARK DAVIS
  • Mark Davis
  • From left, Allen Gilbert, director of the Vermont chapter of the ACLU; Rhonda Taylor, her husband, Ken Taylor and attorney Robert Appel announce outside U.S. District Court in Burlington the filing of a wrongful death lawsuit against the Vermont State Police for the 2012 death of Rhonda Taylor's son, MacAdam Mason.

The mother of a Thetford man who died in 2012 after a Vermont State Police Trooper shot him with a stun gun has filed a federal lawsuit accusing the trooper of using excessive force and ignoring protocols.

In a 34-page lawsuit, Rhonda Taylor alleges a trooper who responded to the home of her son, MacAdam Mason, to check on his medical condition never should have fired a Taser into his chest. State law enforcement officials cleared Trooper David Shaffer of wrongdoing, returned him to active duty and released little information about the incident to the public.

"This is a very sad day, not only for Rhonda, but for the state of Vermont," her attorney, Robert Appel, said during a press conference this morning outside U.S. District Court in Burlington. "This is the only way people can hold police accountable. Left to their own devices, supervisory law enforcement officials have not done well in holding accountable the police when they break the law or protocols. It's important that these cases be filed so that people know how the police work and fail to work in a lawful way."

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Monday, June 9, 2014

After Recount, Burlington School Budget Passes by Another Three Votes

Posted By on Mon, Jun 9, 2014 at 10:58 PM

Dale Tillotson - ALICIA FREESE
  • Alicia Freese
  • Dale Tillotson
Councilors sat in rows, two to a table, giving Contois Auditorium an elementary school feel. Their assignment Monday night wouldn’t have stumped a second grader: They were there to count stacks of paper.

More precisely, they were re-counting the 6,450 ballots Burlington residents cast for or against the school budget on June 3. 

On the day of the vote, tabulator machines recorded the ballots, and the city-certified outcome was that the budget passed by 68 votes. The slimness of the margin led Dale Tillotson, a Ward 7 voter, to request a recount. He knew the outcome was unlikely to change, but said he viewed it as an opportunity to test Burlington's voting procedures.

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