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Copping an Attitude 

Outside Track

Editor's Note: Peter Freyne is taking a week off for the first time since he started writing for Seven Days in 1995. Don't fret - he'll be back next week.

The Thought Police showed up nearly on time -- just 19 years later than George Orwell predicted in his classic novel, 1984. In this case, though, it was a Thought Policeman -- one lone, rogue cop. And unlike Orwell's constables of the consciousness, this one, Officer John Mott of the Barre Town Police Depart-ment, presumably has no mind-reading powers; he relies on the concrete -- posters, drawings and bumper stickers -- for "evidence" of subversive thinking.

Most Vermonters know Mott's story by now, and some civic business leaders in Barre Town wish it would just go away. If it does go away, however, their town -- my town -- will be the poorer for it. The worst thing we could do is ignore a crusade to castigate people on the basis of their beliefs, especially when those people are children.

At 1:30 a.m. on the night of April 9, while we townsfolk were sleeping, Officer Mott took a "break" from his duties, left his jurisdiction by crossing into Barre City, and drove to Spaulding High School, which serves students from both the Barres and other neighboring communities. Dressed in uniform and totin' his gun, he found a way to get into the school. Mott knew his way around the corridors, having taught ROTC at Spaulding. Once inside, he got the janitor and had him unlock the door to teacher Tom Treece's classroom.

Who's going to refuse a cop?

Treece had been the focus of local conservative enmity because the teacher had not concealed his distaste for the George W. Bush Administration and its war policies. In fact, Treece had broadcast his opinions, by deriding Bush on a community bulletin board in the school as "the idiot boy king" and pasting an "Impeach Bush" bumper sticker on his classroom door. In his Public Issues course he was leading discussions about the war on Iraq, among other topics, and, given his unconcealed political positions, conservatives suspected he was indoctrinating young minds with liberal bias. And never forget that for conservatives, "liberal" means "anti-American."

Our society has grown dangerously divided and hostile, and we jump to conclusions when we know or think we know another person's persuasion. In this case, Treece's students had said publicly that he encouraged them to think, listen, consider and espouse in the Public Issues course, and if the fruits of that exercise led them to admire Bush and support the war, that was as acceptable an outcome to Treece as any other.

Rumors flew in this community, however, about people shoving desks at each other, flags being destroyed in the classroom, and teachers cruelly deriding students for their beliefs. It didn't matter what Treece's students said, not even conservative students who disagreed with his politics but valued his class. Adults who hadn't been in the school and had no children in the school knew better. Treece and Mott, by the way, knew each other from their days as co-faculty members at Spaulding, and in the words of someone connected to the school, were "not on each other's Christmas card list."

Uniformed Police Officer Mott, in the dead of night and with camera in hand, was on a mission. He was going to take pictures of student artwork to prove that they were learning anti-American garbage.

His attire conveyed the impression that he was on official business. But his findings ended up not in the hands of town or school officials -- who requested them but were refused by Mott -- but in the possession of community members frothing at the mouth to fire Treece, turn out the entire school board and defeat the high school budget, which they did a few weeks later.

Oh, and the "evidence" also turned up on Rush Limbaugh's Web site, where it is now Exhibit A in The Decline of America at the moist hands of Vermont's nefarious "liberals."

What do the pictures show? One can wade through Limbaugh's site -- hip boots are recommended -- and find a photo of the classroom door, with its "Impeach Bush" bumper sticker and several others of a liberal bent, like "Goddess Bless the World." Another poster presents President Bush with duct tape over his mouth. There are references to two more student works, but you have to become a member of the Web site to gain access to those. Somehow, I couldn't find it within myself to join.

To its credit, the community has not taken this lying down. A lot of people are outraged by Mott's skulking like Golum in other people's business, by the obviously planned duplicity by which he gained entry to Treece's classroom. Others defend him for exposing a situation whereby an adult was, in their view, undermining the patriotic values that ought to be imparted in our public schools. Some, including people who are uncomfortable with the way he went about things, ask us to excuse Rogue Officer Mott because "he spent 30 years in the military." I, for one, don't get the connection.

Unfortunately, one hears little concern expressed for the students whose work Mott pirated and exposed to derision. Like Treece's students, Mott's former students from his days on the ROTC faculty speak highly of his dedication and decency. And Mott's target obviously was not the students so much as their teacher. But to get to Treece, Mott and those who congratulate him have climbed over the very same young people we claim in this society to love, honor, respect and protect. Talk about social evolution! Kids in this community will now grow up having had the experience of the government -- in the person of Officer Mott -- slinking around their thoughts, surreptitiously collecting the evidence, and exposing them to all right-thinking people as enemies of the state.

Officer Mott has planted an idea in the minds of these Vermont students that tells them their opinions will be monitored, and their acceptance -- perhaps even their safety -- in American society will depend on their conforming to publicly condoned thought. Unless this trend is corrected, that's how these kids will enter the 21st century.

Speaking of corrections, none has been forthcoming from town and police department leaders, who refer to Mott's transgression as a "personnel matter" that has been "handled internally." That's not good enough. This is like Dick Nixon's plumbers being set free to plumb again. In candid moments, town officials are said to complain that "it's hard to find good officers." Apparently so.

And guess who pays them? We do. The Thought Police dine at the public trough. Taxpayers cover John Mott's salary. I'm often moved to make a similar complaint about George W. Bush, who's taking my money and giving it to Halliburton. But at least, in Bush's case, it's true that a sizable minority of my countrymen and women voted for the guy.

A Matter of Balance? -- As Peter Freyne commented in this space last week, it's the season when Vermont legislators get out of Montpelier to make way for tourists, who stop by the busload to view the smallest state capital in the U.S. Before leaving, the pols disposed of a slew of bills, some obviously of greater merit than others. They got the budget passed, and it is notable that Vermont will have a balanced budget.

Beautifully balanced? Well, no -- not when low-income Vermont seniors will have to pay more for Medicaid.

But when Howard Dean encounters the brickbats sure to come his way from political rivals on the national scene -- "Vermont," they'll sneer, "is where they let gay people get married" and "Vermont is where they throw stones at people in uniform" -- he can counter: "Vermont is where we balance our budgets."

If it's still "the economy, stupid" in 2004, that ought to pack some cachet.

School funding got a make-over, boosting the sales tax to ease the burden on the property tax. The sales tax, of course, is regressive, because it takes a bigger bite out of the Spaulding High School janitor's pocket to pay the extra tax on a gallon of laundry detergent than it does for, say, a hospital president.

The legislation also includes a two-tiered property-tax valuation and an increase in the block grant given to towns for their schools. But frankly, I'm just too dumb to understand the whole thing. What worries me is that I happen to know some of the folks in the Legislature, and they're not the brightest candles in the window, either. I just have to hope they got it right. But considering the leads that have sunk every other education-financing system in memory, I have my doubts.

On the other hand, we may finally be out of the woods on school funding, because NOW WE'VE GOT POWERBALL! Folks won't hesitate to vote against school budgets -- or complain about them without quite getting around to the polls on election day -- but they'll toss their money after fantasy any day of the week. And with that irritatingly moralistic Howard Dean out of the way, the state is only too happy to scrape a little off the top to put toward the schools. What a cowardly way for government to raise revenues.

Finally, it's worth noting that the Legislature pulled a Neil Armstrong variation this year. In the matter of renewable energy, our legislators in 2003 took what seems to have been a giant, painstaking step for them but was just a small step toward a smarter, safer, energy policy for Vermont.

Not to quibble -- a step is a step.

And this step is particularly welcome after last year, when the House had a truly good renewable energy bill in its hands that had been passed overwhelmingly by the Senate, but then, one by one, cut the legs out from under it. Finally, "industry" (read: IBM) was able to topple it completely with just a nudge. Big Blue suggested that any legislation with even a whiff of price-increase for electricity would be a death knell for Vermont industry.

Last year's bill would have -- I'll keep this short -- promoted 1) "green pricing": utilities let interested customers pay a little extra for power, the added money going to support renewable-energy projects somewhere on the planet; 2) renewable portfolio standards: utilities would have been required to buy some tiny percentage of their wholesale power from a "green" producer; 3) group net metering: people get together and buy a wind or solar generator and run the meter backward, sending power into the utility's system when production is abundant; 4) use of Vermont's roughly $750,000 of oil-overcharge money to offset some of the costs to small companies of retailing wind and solar systems -- a subsidy, if you will, not unlike the enormous subsidies received by the oil industry; and 5) a sales tax exemption for solar hot-water systems.

This year, renewable-energy advocates clearly corralled their ambitions. The bill, birthed Caesarian-like on the final day of the session, allows the Public Service Board to cut a little slack for utilities that do a good job promoting energy efficiency, and politely asks the PSB to study renewable-energy portfolio standards. Companies may voluntarily offer green pricing programs. And that oil-overcharge money that's been idly sitting around will be put to use studying the future of the hydroelectric dams on the Connecticut River and supporting a few small green systems.

Nobody has to do anything, which is all somehow very British and mannerly. Gov. James Douglas thinks it's peachy. These changes represent one small step for Vermonters toward safety and self-sufficiency, even as our president runs around Europe this week greasing the skids for further invasion of the world's oil reserves.

Will Lindner is a former editorial page editor and columnist for the Times Argus.

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Will Lindner

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