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Plane Spoken 

As the Burlington City Council debates whether to base F-35 fighter jets at the city-owned airport, Sanders and the rest of Vermont's congressional delegation reiterate their support for the basing.

A countywide debate over the proposed basing of a new military jet in South Burlington finally landed at Burlington City Hall Monday night. With it came the standing-room-only crowds and political consternation familiar to local officials in several neighboring cities.

One by one, more than 40 speakers weighed in on whether the Vermont Air National Guard should become the proud owner of 18 to 24 shiny new F-35 fighter jets. All but three said, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

Their concerns? The planes are too loud, too expensive and unsafe, they said. They’ll scare away our tourists, terrify our children and devastate our property values! Their only purpose is to prop up the military-industrial complex, advance our imperialistic foreign policy and do the devil’s work!

Damn. What a bunch of Debbie Downers.

Those supporting the so-called “bed down,” meanwhile, say that with the Guard’s F-16s headed to the junkyard, winning the new planes is necessary to retain some 1100 jobs, $350 million in payroll and $2.5 million in fire and rescue services the Guard provides Burlington International Airport.

So what’s a local pol to do? No elected official wants to choose between jobs and quality of life.

Queen City councilors took a Goldilocks approach, proposing three resolutions to reckon with the issue — each introduced by a member of a different political party.

From Vince Dober, a Ward 7 Republican, came a rah-rah, pro-troops resolution expressing support for the bed down.

From Vince Brennan, a Ward 3 Progressive, came a hippie-dippy, not-in-my-backyard resolution expressing opposition.

And from the Dems? Precisely what you’d expect: a noncommittal, milquetoast resolution sponsored by City Council President Joan Shannon (D-Ward 5) asking the Air Force to answer a series of questions.

Can you guess which one the politicians rallied behind?

By a unanimous vote, the Shannon resolution won the day — though most councilors also weighed in on one of the others. Democrats Norm Blais and Chip Mason joined Dober and fellow Republican Paul Decelles in supporting the bed down.

Democrat Bram Kranichfeld and independent Sharon Bushor joined Brennan and fellow Progs Rachel Siegel and Max Tracy in opposing it — after Bushor amended the resolution to tone down some of the peacenik rhetoric.

And the rest? Independent Karen Paul and Democrats Ed Adrian, Bryan Aubin and Pres. Shannon were happy simply asking questions.

Talk about profiles in courage!

With public comment on the Air Force’s draft environmental impact statement due this Wednesday, the Queen City and its neighbors can now sit tight and wait for the Pentagon to carefully read over each of their resolutions — which it’ll surely take into consideration when making a decision. No doubt the nation’s top military brass is checking the mailbox twice a day just waiting to hear what Vermonters have to say!

Is there anybody in Vermont who could get the Air Force’s attention? How about the three amigos who, back in July 2010, “announced” that the Air Force had selected the Green Mountain State as one of two preferred choices to house the F-35? Back then, Sens. Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders and Congressman Peter Welch heralded Vermont’s selection and pledged to work with the Air Force to ameliorate concerns raised by residents.

(Disclosure: I used to work for Welch.)

Now that Chittenden County residents are finally paying attention to the air traffic, is Vermont’s federal delegation feeling the heat from the afterburners? After all, those planes will fly right over three of Vermont’s six most populous cities, where a number of voters presumably reside.

Fair Game asked all three congressional delegation members separately whether the recent uptick in opposition has changed their minds about the F-35 and how they’d respond to community concerns. Closing ranks, the trio replied with a joint statement:

“Senators Leahy and Sanders and Representative Welch have not changed their position supporting the basing of F-35s in Vermont. At the same time, they are concerned about the potential impact of increased noise on the neighborhoods next to the airport and in various possible flight paths,” the delegation’s spokespeople said. “That is why they have asked the Air Force to take the comments of all Vermonters into consideration, including the comments of those who have concerns about environmental impacts such as noise.”

Fair enough. The members of the congressional delegation have pretty much boxed themselves in on this one. Having taken credit for bringing the flying pork to Vermont, they can’t easily turn that plane around and send it back to D.C. And what politician wants to preside over a ribbon cutting at a base closure?

Nevertheless, if the plane haters really want to roll up the runway, they might consider spending less time at city hall and more time working their federal representatives.

After all, they who giveth sweet new planes can taketh them away.

Messy Messaging

As Gov. Peter Shumlin’s non-campaign for reelection heats up, you’ll be hearing plenty about his administration’s deft response to Tropical Storm Irene. Crass as it sounds, nothing makes for better politics than competent crisis management. Just ask Rudy Giuliani.

So it was a remarkable turn of events last week when Agency of Natural Resources Sec. Deb Markowitz — Shummy’s erstwhile primary opponent and new best frenemy — contradicted her boss and stepped in a heaping pile of message manure.

Speaking on a Norwich University panel discussing Irene recovery, Markowitz questioned the governor’s competence at waterway management and said Shumlin sent the wrong message in the storm’s aftermath about removing gravel and other obstructions from rivers, according to a report filed by Vermont Public Radio’s Steve Zind.

“He early on made some statements, some ‘dig-baby-dig’ type statements, that inspired Vermonters to help out in ways that ultimately are very costly not just to the ecosystem but to the infrastructure,” she said.

Talk about wandering off the reservation.

Asked about Markowitz’s impolitic comments at a press conference the next day devoted to — you guessed it — Irene recovery, administration officials gave the secretary a light public spanking.

“Well, I’ve occasionally made comments myself that I regretted later and that were made at a certain setting and context, and I don’t believe those statements were accurate,” said Sec. of Administration Jeb Spaulding, adding later, “I know that the governor feels he made the right decision and would make the exact same decisions again. If there was any indication that that wasn’t the right decision, then that was a misstatement.”

Ouch.

Markowitz declined or ignored repeated requests for an interview over the course of several days. Perhaps she was stuck in time out. But she did send an email saying that her comments “were misinterpreted” and that the state, in fact, took “critical” action in the aftermath of Irene “getting help to Vermonters hardest hit by the flooding.”

No explanation was offered about how you can be misquoted on the radio.

While Markowitz might be busy walking back her off-script comments, some environmentalists say her analysis was spot on.

“It would be problematic if she was looking at what her scientists were coming up with and throwing it out the window,” says Kim Greenwood, the water program director at the Vermont Natural Resources Council. “But she’s standing with her staff, and science is on her side.”

Greenwood points to a recent report produced by Markowitz’s Fish and Wildlife Department estimating that unnecessary river work — hauling out gravel, straightening channels and removing natural debris — caused “major aquatic habitat degradation” to at least 77 miles of Vermont’s rivers and streams. While wild trout populations would normally recover from such flooding within two to four years absent intervention, the report says, all that mucking about in the river will slow that process by decades.

In Greenwood’s view, Shumlin’s repeated statements encouraging municipalities and contractors to dig out rivers are to blame for the degradation. An example: “We’re going to have to go in and do some digging — continue digging as they fill up with gravel,” Shumlin said in September.

“The messages that were getting out were really undermining the science. It created a lot of confusion for people in terms of who to listen to,” Greenwood says. “You know, Shumlin is someone who really gets climate change. He’s great on that. But for whatever reason, on the rivers issue it’s something we just haven’t been on the same page about.”

According to Louis Porter of the Conservation Law Foundation, Shummy’s not the only one who’s at fault for the river degradation, which he said would increase the risk of future flooding. Markowitz herself bears some responsibility for the shoddy river work because her agency failed to bring in more resources to review and monitor projects, he argues.

“To tell you the truth, I think both ANR’s actions after Irene and the statements from the governor both contributed to bad work in the river. Both had a hand in that,” he says.

Rather than pointing fingers, though, Porter says the state should look ahead.

“This isn’t academic at this point. We know that the future of climate change is going to mean more flooding, more incidents, even if they aren’t on such a wide scale as Irene,” he says. “We’ve got to look at what we’ve done and do better next time.”

Media Notes

One of the state’s top political reporters got a promotion last week. The Valley News’ political editor, John Gregg, was tapped to replace Martin Frank as the paper’s news editor. Frank will become editorial page editor, replacing Kathryn Stearns, who’s leaving the paper. Gregg, a veteran of the Rutland Herald, has worked at the paper since 2003 and once served as chief speechwriter to former Massachusetts governor William Weld. He’ll continue writing his popular “Primary Source” political column.

“This is a new set of muscles,” Gregg says. “I love reporting, but this is a good challenge and something I’m excited about doing.”

Gregg isn’t the only Vermont reporter making moves these days. Vermont Public Radio’s Kirk Carapezza was spotted Tuesday night at the Vermont Lake Monsters’ season opener, grasping for a fly ball — and nearly catching it.

“I was able to edge out the 11- and 13-year-old kids who were also vying for the foul ball. The ball hit off my thumb before falling to the bleachers,” Carapezza reports, noting that he was “able to scramble for the ball, which now has a new home in our newsroom.”

Not surprisingly, VPR has already found a way to work it into the summer pledge drive.

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About The Author

Paul Heintz

Paul Heintz

Bio:
Paul Heintz is a staff writer at Seven Days, and the author of the weekly political column, "Fair Game."

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