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Fare Thee Well 

Fair Game

But ’tis done — all words are idle.

From “Fare Thee Well” by Lord Byron

Yeah, yeah, whatever. This is my last column.

You’d think that after writing 184 Fair Games, hundreds of blog and Facebook posts, and thousands of tweets, coming up with a final 1600 words would be easy, right?

Not really.

Where to start? Where to end?

Deep breath.

I guess I could start at the beginning.

Peter Freyne, my predecessor in this space with his long-running Inside Track column, was a fearless reporter and is still a helluva guy,” were among the opening lines in my April 2008 inaugural Fair Game. “He’s a hard act to follow — though, like any good second act, I don’t plan to mimic his routine. Nicknames will probably not be found here, but you can expect independent, behind-the-scenes reporting — with dashes of humor — that holds the high and mighty accountable. As this new column’s name suggests, everything and everyone will be fair game, and will be treated fairly.”

I hope I lived up to the promise I made in that initial column. When I fell short, readers usually let me know. Politicians, too — some more bluntly than others.

I’ve had a remarkable run at Seven Days. As I’ve told folks in recent weeks, it was not an easy job to give up.

Writing a political column is truly a gift gig, in an industry with few gift gigs left. It’s the rare newspaper in Vermont that employs a political columnist. Which is a shame, because there’s no better way to keep elected officials of all stripes accountable — and to shine a light on important stories that otherwise go unnoticed or ignored.

Since announcing my departure, a lot of people have asked: Do you have a favorite column?

After reading, and rereading, them, I can honestly say I don’t have one favorite. Although the Fair Game from March 18, 2009, comes pretty close.

I broke a major story in that column, about a $7.25 million golden parachute awarded to William R. Milnes Jr., former CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Vermont. Lawmakers proposed legislation allowing BCBS members to elect the board of directors and a state investigation. The legislation went nowhere, but the investigation resulted in a $3 million levy against BCBS. No chump change.

That column also had a First Amendment theme: The Vermont Supreme Court had ruled in favor of two horse loggers protesting at a John Negroponte commencement speech at St. Johnsbury Academy; Republican Kurt Wright was getting heat for calling the cops to City Hall Auditorium during a contentious parliamentary debate involving Democratic city councilors David Berezniak and Ed Adrian.

I also pointed out how lawmakers were easily making up for a 5 percent pay cut with reimbursements for meals, lodging and mileage.

The BCBS story was the first scoop in Fair Game. There were others.

Among them: the $17 million “loan” that Queen City taxpayers unknowingly gave to Burlington Telecom, and the behind-the-scenes story of money, not-quite-sex and intrigue involving the spouse of University of Vermont now-former president Dan Fogel.

Fogel resigned a year ahead of schedule, and UVM launched an internal probe as a result of my reporting. UVM’s board of trustees adopted a new policy governing the volunteer work of presidential spouses. Additional policies are slated for revision, including an updated “campus climate” policy that would give employees more ways to report on-the-job harassment.

At Burlington Telecom, things went from bad to worse. Though as Fair Game reported last week, BT may soon have a new sugar daddy, er, financial partner.

Holding the high and mighty accountable — regardless of party — has been my guiding mission. I exposed the cozy relationship that existed between the Douglas administration’s Department of Public Service and the owner of Vermont Yankee. The nuke plant’s top exec was among the guests at Commissioner David O’Brien’s annual holiday party.

I shined the same bright light on the Shumlin administration’s replacement: DPS Commissioner Liz Miller. She may have a conflict of interest on rulings related to Green Mountain Power because her husband is a managing partner in the law firm that represents the utility. In addition, several of Gov. Peter Shumlin’s top aides or confidantes either work or have worked for GMP.

I’ve had my share of dustups with pols, too. The most memorable was with state Auditor Tom Salmon. In response to an innocent email asking why his office was using a state email account to distribute a campaign message, Salmon replied, “Fuck off.”

Good times.

My rapport with Salmon has improved to what it was pre-outburst — friendly but professional. In recent days, Salmon even thanked me for holding him, and other state officials, accountable.

“I am a better person from what we’ve gone through,” he said.

Me, too, Tom. Accountable goes both ways.

During my tenure, I’ve also had the privilege of documenting some of the biggest stories of the past decade, ones that will have an impact on future generations of Vermonters.

Same-sex marriage should have been a no-brainer, but the issue produced an emotional legislative session that turned into a veto showdown between lawmakers and then-governor Jim Douglas. No one doubted the Senate could override the gov’s veto, but the House was another matter: It needed 100 votes to pass. In the end, the House landed on the right side of history.

It was during the same-sex-marriage debate that my tweeting really took off. My tweet-by-tweet report of the House debate served as a news ticker for hundreds of Vermonters who couldn’t fit inside the tiny House chamber.

To be honest, though, my favorites were more low-key news items that went on to affect state policy. Three examples:

• In 2009, a top aide to Gov. Douglas claimed budget cuts weren’t affecting the administration’s ability to draw down federal funds. Guess what? They were. On the chopping block was a program that hooked up low-income kids with fresh food and veggies.

In response, the Department of Education staffed up to ensure schools could sign up for the federal grants. The new staffers were also able to accept applications for a special federally funded after school meals program championed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT).

• In 2010, I revealed that the private owners of the Wharf Lane apartments in Burlington might sell the building to Champlain College. Wharf Lane was one of thousands of affordable housing complexes built 30 years ago using taxpayer-subsidized mortgages and rental subsidies provided by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The deal was that at the end of the mortgage, the developers would have the option to sell the low-income housing to the highest bidder.

You know how it goes: The public subsidizes the risk, and the owners privatize the profits.

As a result of public scrutiny by Fair Game, the landlords returned to the table with a couple of nonprofit housing agencies. With assistance from the Vermont Housing Finance Agency, the Burlington Housing Authority bought the building, and the 44 residents of Wharf Lane — and nearly 100 in a nearby building — avoided eviction.

• Finally, in August 2010 I broke the news that the state was falling further and further behind in processing food-stamps requests as well as applications for other forms of public assistance. In some cases, people were waiting up to three months for help.

A court order from the 1990s requires the state to respond within 30 days.

More staff were added, the wait times shortened, and people began to get help more quickly.

Did it make a difference?

Months after the story ran, an elderly woman approached me at the grocery store. “When I read your column, I realized I wasn’t alone. I thought I was the only one having problems getting help from the state,” she said.

Yeah, it made a difference.

By now you must be asking yourself: Won’t he miss it?

Of course I will. I’d be lying if I said otherwise. I plan to remain an engaged and informed Vermont citizen — something I’ve been almost all my life.

I’ll have plenty of opportunity to chime in on the events of the day, including politics, thanks to my role as communications director for Chelsea Green Publishing. Their authors are at the cutting edge of politics, agriculture, food, farming, the environment, energy and business. It’s a provocative bunch, and I’m happy to be tossed in with it.

I leave Fair Game in the extremely capable hands of Andy Bromage. My advice to him: Trust your instincts and develop your voice as a writer, and you’ll do just fine. And if people tell you that you have big shoes to fill, just nod and smile. Andy will make his own mark with this column by taking it in new directions. I will be an avid reader.

Before I sign off, I want to thank Paula Routly and Pamela Polston for believing I could follow in the footsteps of a larger-than-life presence. I did my best to prove them right.

Each is a great editor and boss and I’ve been lucky to work with the two of them. They have provided consistent guidance and support — right up to and through my decision to leave.

I also want to thank Seven Days staffers for welcoming me into their awesome, quirky, caring, hardworking and successful newspaper family.

To you, dear readers, I offer two simple words (no, not those two): Thank you.

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More by Shay Totten

About The Author

Shay Totten

Shay Totten

Shay Totten wrote "Fair Game," a weekly political column, from April 2008-December 2011.


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