It’s a common practice: Release bad news late on a Friday afternoon.
That was the case in Burlington last week, when a shocking tidbit turned up in the email inbox at 2:57 p.m. on August 21. It came in the form of a joint statement from Progressive Mayor Bob Kiss and Steve Allen, chairman of the city Parks & Recreation Commission.
Had someone been maimed by a rogue disc golf player? Champ washed ashore? Samuel de Champlain come forward to confess he was not the guy who “discovered” Lake Champlain?
No, no and no.
The two had reached a political accord over the commission’s role in the hiring of a new parks director to replace Wayne Gross. Kiss decided not to reappoint Gross to the post in June.
I say accord because it’s been a metaphorical arms race among Kiss, the parks commission and Gross for more than a year.
Most recently, Kiss ruffled the commission’s feathers by appointing Chris Pearson, a Progressive and newcomer to the commission, to the select committee of people who would interview director candidates. Pearson was appointed to the legislature to fill Kiss’ House seat after Kiss was elected mayor of Burlington in 2006.
Allen and other commissioners protested that Pearson was not familiar enough with the many issues that have come before the commission in the past 18 months.
What was the mayor thinking?
Perhaps Kiss came to the realization — as “Fair Game” has — that the commission has been at the epicenter of some of the most heated controversies of his administration: disc golf at Leddy Park, a months-long investigation into the city’s waterfront manager, a plan to jack up the rent for the Burlington Farmers Market at City Hall Park, a push to carve out “a penny for parks” on the city’s property tax, and the appointment of a new Parks & Rec director.
In almost every case, Kiss found himself at odds with the commission and Gross. In fact, two high-profile and vocal commissioners — Democrat John Ewing and Independent David Hartnett — supported one of Kiss’ mayoral opponents: Republican Kurt Wright.
Wright and others were critical of how Kiss handled the investigation of Adam Cate, the waterfront manager accused of playing fast and loose with marina cash and accessing the email accounts of fellow employees without proper authorization. Cate became their cause celébre: The probe was taking too long; it was too hush-hush and was nothing more than a “witch hunt.”
Parks & Rec detractors seem to share a common misconception: that the city’s ever-quiet CEO was, and is, secretly out to get them.
This paranoid vision was part and parcel of the story that unfolded behind closed doors during a disciplinary hearing the commission held at Cate’s request. Last fall, Gross decided to fire Cate, and Cate appealed that decision to the commission.
“I was worried for my job, Wayne’s job, fellow employees’ well being, the autonomy and future existence of the Parks & Recreation department as we know it,” Cate wrote in a statement to Parks & Rec commissioners explaining his actions.
Despite the fact that Cate lied to investigators about how he came across emails from union official Bill Rasch and former Parks manager Ben Pacy, the commission bought his story of a department under siege by an administration run amok. According to Cate, Pacy and Rasch were conspiring against Gross and the department.
“The commission is persuaded that, under these circumstances, department supervisors had legitimate basis to question the motivation behind the HR investigation,” the commission noted in its report.
That’s quite a statement. In other words, it was OK for Cate to hack into other employees’ emails (with the approval and knowledge of another top department official, Bob Whalen), lie about it to investigators, and ask subordinates to hide both money and a city-owned laptop (which Gross later said contained pornography) all in the name of department loyalty? And then question whether the city should be questioning his actions?
In the end, the commission reinstated Cate, suspended his pay for 30 days and put him on a six-month probation. Cate violated his probation earlier this year and was fired. For good.
Now Gross is gone, too.
That gives Kiss has a chance to shape Parks & Rec with new hires and appointments. Pacy’s position remains unfilled, and Whalen is on extended medical leave. Given his role in the Cate affair, I suspect he may decide now is the right time to start “spending more time with his family.”
The idea of merging several departments — library, arts, parks, recreation and public works — has been around for 20 years. It was suggested twice in two years by a citizen budget task force.
The mayor has said it’s worth exploring all the options, but nothing more. In fact, no firm proposals have ever surfaced. The only one that did — from Gross — would have boosted the salaries of a few key managers and granted them greater say over more employees. That didn’t sit well with the rank and file, and they complained, said Rasch.
Both Kiss and Allen say they hope working together to choose a new director will ease past tensions.
“I’m hoping that that’s history, and I’m hoping that it’s going to be a more constructive future, and I’m really committed to doing that,” said Allen.
Kiss said he hopes to have a nominee ready for the city council to vote on by mid-September.
“I think there is potential for moving forward,” said Kiss. “My first goal is not to abolish the department, but with some new energy I hope to get everyone working together again in harmony.”
Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death Panels! — I missed the Tea Party rally at Taft Corners in Williston last weekend. More focused on the waning summer than on rising socialism, I s’pose.
The rally took place on Vermont’s tax-free holiday. The “Party” animals weren’t protesting that. They like cheating the government out of 7 percent on every purchase, but they don’t like the public-option health care plan. Got it.
Judging from the rally photos posted online, it appears that some of the protestors, er, “patriots,” are eligible for those dreaded public-option programs: Medicare and Social Security.
But I’m sure if they’re eligible, they won’t accept the money or the health care coverage. They are patriots, after all.
And what’s more patriotic than standing on the public-option right-of-way next to a public-option highway complaining about … socialism?
I’m sure if anyone complained or harassed them, they would have ignored the impulse to call the public-option police and turned to mall security, or their local militia, for help.
Then again, if the police were called, they would drive their public-option cruisers along the public-option roads. And, what if an accident ensued? Then you’d have to call in the public-option rescue squad and fire department.
Surprised Gov. Jim Douglas didn’t stop by to thank the group for doing their patriotic duty. As we’ve pointed out in “Fair Game,” he’s no fan of public-option health care. Unless, of course, it’s his personal health care plan — which is funded by, of course, Vermont taxpayers.
As we’ve also noted in this column, at a reimbursement rate of $54 a day, five days a week, Douglas is a big fan of the public-option meal plan.
Putting Truth on Hold? — News that U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder will appoint a special prosecutor to investigate whether the CIA violated anti-torture laws could put the kibosh on Sen. Patrick Leahy’s (D-VT) call for a nonpartisan “Truth Commission.”
Earlier this year, Leahy said absent a nonpartisan commission of inquiry, we may never get to the bottom of allegations that the Bush administration condoned the use of torture on prisoners in its custody.
Holder’s probe would only look at CIA personnel or contractors, not the grand schemers of the Bush administration who OK’d the so-called “harsh interrogation techniques.”
Still, Leahy said he hopes the probe will put to rest questions about whether the U.S. violated international anti-torture laws.
“I recognize how difficult this decision has been for Attorney General Holder, and I am grateful that the Justice Department is finally being led by an independent attorney general who is willing to begin investigating this dark chapter in our country’s history,” said Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“I hope this investigation will also bring a measure of accountability to the American people in holding responsible those whose decisions may have undermined our values and our laws,” he added.
Considering the narrow scope of the investigation, I wouldn’t bet on it.
I’ve run out of jokes about the lack of “change” coming from Pres. Barack Obama. It’s just not funny anymore.
Weeklies Are the Way — Here’s something humorous — or maybe ironic. The Pulitzer Prize-winning, family-owned Rutland Herald daily newspaper is launching … a weekly.
“We want to reproduce the era when a local weekly served as your source for the day-to-day goings-on in your community,” said Randal Smathers, the paper’s editor, in a note to readers. “That’s where you come in. We’re looking for correspondents from around the county to report weekly on what’s happening in their communities.”
The paper will launch with eight pages, and expects to double in size in short order, Smathers told “Fair Game.”
Interestingly enough, it was a weekly publication launched by the Burlington Free Press that took that paper’s one and only top honor in the New England Associated Press News Executives Association writing contest.
Lynn Monty of the Freeps took a first-place award in the special publications category for Hometown Weekly — a paper mailed to homes in Chittenden County. Guess somebody likes it. Congrats.
Papers that cover Vermont nabbed a few other top honors, too. The Rutland Herald’s Dennis Jensen took first place for his sports column; Adam White of the Bennington Banner got the gold for deadline sports coverage; staff at the Valley News (based in New Hampshire, but the paper of record for the Upper Valley region) won for best continuing coverage of last summer’s brutal murder of Randolph teen Brooke Bennett, while Dan Barlow, Brent Curtis and Peter Hirschfeld came in second for the Rutland Herald’s extensive coverage of gay marriage. Finally, Peter Jamison of the Valley News won first place for investigative work regarding police SWAT teams. His paper also won first place for headline writing.
They’re Baacck! — Steve Cormier and Tom Brennan, aka “Corm & the Coach,” will bring their popular morning talk show back to the Champlain Valley thanks to a new radio station, WNMR-FM, at 107.1.
Cormier is not only a show host, he’s president of Convergence Entertainment and Communications Radio Group — the local firm that owns the radio station, along with a couple of TV channels.
One of those owners is Jeff Loper, who was a partner in WWIN-TV, which originally launched these local channels more than 10 years ago.
“I originally started with WWIN-TV. We had some internal differences as to the directions to take the company, and I basically left and some other people ran it for awhile,” said Loper. He later returned when the company got into financial trouble and shepherded it through bankruptcy. When the next owner also filed for bankruptcy, Loper bought the station.
Corm & the Coach will return to the air from 6-9 a.m., beginning mid-September, and later in the fall an hour of the show will be simulcast on sister TV station WGMU Channel 39. “I think it has a lot of potential,” said Loper. “I want to try to syndicate it and take it nationally.”
Cormier says the station will launch with nationally syndicated programs by conservative talkers such as Michael Smerconish and Guardian Angels founder Curtis Sliwa.
“What we want to do down the line is incorporate more local talent into the station,” said Cormier.
Local talent? Go figure.
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