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Thursday, March 4, 2021

Leahy: Vermont Would Receive $1.3 Billion Under Proposed Relief Bill

Posted By on Thu, Mar 4, 2021 at 7:26 PM

Sen. Patrick Leahy - FILE: PAUL HEINTZ
  • File: Paul Heintz
  • Sen. Patrick Leahy
A new stimulus proposal working its way through the U.S. Senate this week would net Vermont $1.3 billion, about $400 million more than what the state could expect from a House-passed version of the bill, according to Sen. Patrick Leahy's office.

The potential windfall comes after Leahy — who chairs the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee — successfully tweaked the $1.9 trillion relief proposal to beef up aid to small states and ensure they take in at least the same share they received under the initial COVID relief bill passed last March known as the CARES Act.

Vermont received $1.25 billion from that bill and used the money to fund a wide range of initiatives, from housing and rental assistance for the homeless to business grants and hazard pay.

"Vermonters can be confident that our state is getting its fair share in this package," said Leahy, who noted that the rest of Vermont's congressional delegation also pushed for the changes.

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Magic Number: How Weinberger Won the Mayor's Race by 129 Votes

Posted By and on Thu, Mar 4, 2021 at 2:10 PM

Mayor Miro Weinberger at the Edmunds School - LUKE AWTRY
  • Luke Awtry
  • Mayor Miro Weinberger at the Edmunds School
Updated at 5:55 p.m.

Forty years ago this week, an ideological politician named Bernie Sanders shocked Burlington by knocking off Democrat Gordon Paquette in a three-way mayoral race.

The margin? After a recount, just 10 votes.

Fast-forward to Tuesday. Ideological politician Max Tracy, a Progressive city council president, barely missed out on an upset of his own.

The margin? Just 129 votes, a mere percentage point separating him from incumbent Democrat Miro Weinberger. It was the tightest mayoral election in the city since Sanders won that storied campaign in March 1981. No recount has been announced this time around.

For Weinberger, it was also his worst showing of four campaigns. Put it this way: 57 percent of voters picked someone else.

Luckily for the incumbent, there were plenty of someone elses to go around. City Councilor Ali Dieng ran as an independent and picked up 13 percent of the vote. Four other lesser-known candidates, plus write-ins, combined to take about 2 percent of the vote. That left Tracy just 42 percent.

Some Tracy supporters might complain about the spoiler effect of those less-competitive candidates. But city data show there were plenty more votes out there for the taking.

While there was 6 percent more turnout this year than for the 2018 mayoral contest, only 38 percent of all registered voters cast ballots — pretty paltry for a year in which ballots went out in the mail to all active, registered voters.

With that in mind, here's a more comprehensive look at the votes that were cast, and where.

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Cannabis Organization Heady Vermont Is on Hiatus

Posted By on Thu, Mar 4, 2021 at 11:00 AM

Heady Vermont sponsored a party in Johnson in 2018 to mark Vermont's legalization of marijuana use. - FILE: SARA TABIN ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • File: Sara Tabin ©️ Seven Days
  • Heady Vermont sponsored a party in Johnson in 2018 to mark Vermont's legalization of marijuana use.

Heady Vermont, the cannabis industry group that expanded in 2019 into a new 3,000-square-foot headquarters in Burlington, is on an indefinite hiatus, said founder Monica Donovan.

Donovan said that no events or publications are planned, and she doesn't know if she'll continue with Heady. "I’d love to, but won’t know positively for a while," she said by text on Wednesday.

The 5-year-old membership organization published a weekly "News Roll Up" and organized events for businesses and consumers, including an annual trade show at the Champlain Valley Expo. At its peak last year, it had an all-female staff of six. But the pressures of the pandemic shutdowns were too much for Heady, said Kathryn Blume, the former communications director, who left last summer as work dwindled.

“Events were one of our primary income streams, and if you can’t have events, that makes things really hard,” said Blume, who now works in communications for NurseGrown Organics CBD in Underhill. “Also, the fact that it took so long to get the tax-and-regulate bill passed meant that a lot of businesses who would have been business partners for us were on hold as well, and then the financial uncertainty of the pandemic was, I think, a perfect storm.”

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Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Candidates of Color Win, Lose and Even Tie on Town Meeting Day

Posted By and on Wed, Mar 3, 2021 at 8:29 PM

Esther Thomas - FILE: JAMES BUCK
  • File: James Buck
  • Esther Thomas
The Vermont candidates of color profiled in a February 23 Seven Days cover story had a varied showing in Tuesday's election. Two won, three lost and one tied — a rare occurrence that could spark a recount.

Middlebury voters chose Esther Thomas, a residence director at Middlebury College, to serve a one-year term on the town’s selectboard. Naval Reserves officer Travia Childs won a two-year seat on the South Burlington School Board.

In the race for two seats on the Bennington Selectboard, Tina Cook just missed out. She came in third in a field of eight candidates, trailing second-place finisher Gary Corey by just 31 votes.

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Roughly Two Dozen Vermont Towns Just Say Yes to Marijuana Sales

Posted By on Wed, Mar 3, 2021 at 3:19 PM

Scott Sparks in his Brattleboro store, Vermont Hempicurean - BY TRAVIS STOUT ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • By Travis Stout ©️ Seven Days
  • Scott Sparks in his Brattleboro store, Vermont Hempicurean
The Evansville Trading Post, a general store in the small town of Brownington,  has adapted over the years to stay afloat. These days, its wares include food, fuel, fishing licenses and furniture.

Thanks to the town's voters, store owners Andrew and Kelly Swett hope to add cannabis to that list — not the CBD that’s already available on the counter, but the THC-containing products that people use to get high.

“Things aren’t going so great in retail,” said Andrew, who was relieved on Wednesday to learn that the town had voted to allow commercial cannabis establishments, a move made possible by a bill passed last year. “It would be helpful.”

About two dozen Vermont towns considered similar measures on Town Meeting Day, and almost all passed them.

Under Vermont's 2020 law, municipalities must opt in to the adult-use marijuana marketplace through a public vote before any sales can occur. The law allows the state’s existing medical marijuana dispensaries to obtain licenses to manufacture and sell cannabis products to the public starting in May 2022. Other outlets granted retail licensees won't be able to sell until October 2022.

The towns that put the measure to a vote Tuesday are widely spread around the state, and included the large — such as Burlington, which approved the measure by a wide margin — and the small. Burke passed the measure by a vote of 133 to 130, according to the town’s treasurer.

Only three municipalities — Newport City, Richmond, and Lyndon — rejected it, according to early counts. Results from Ludlow were not yet available Wednesday.

The measure passed in Burlington doesn’t allow any marijuana sales until October 2022.

Andrew said he’s already working with one CBD supplier with whom he’d like to partner for the marijuana business. He thinks another entrepreneur who was eying Newport City will probably also try to set up shop in Brownington after that city said no to marijuana sales.

“We’re probably not going to be the only one in town,” he said. “I think it would help business in general.”

Only about 10 percent of Vermont municipalities put the matter up for a vote. More should have, said lawyer Tim Fair, who saw the results as representative of the state at large. Fair is a founder of the Burlington law firm Vermont Cannabis Solutions.

“One of the big surprises for me in this process is how the selectboards were adamantly opposed to putting this vote to the people,” Fair said. “We’re a representative democracy. We can’t agree on anything anymore, yet almost 70 percent  of Vermonters agree we want a legal cannabis industry.”

Selectboards weren’t the only ones opposed. Pathologist Catherine Antley campaigned against retail sales in Middlebury, which approved the measure by a wide margin. Antley said the industry cannot be successfully regulated, and that cases involving organized crime quadrupled in Colorado after commercial marijuana was legalized. “How many Vermonters know that there is essentially no profit in the industry without the creation and maintenance of addiction,” Antley wrote in an email, adding that the industry targets young people.

Before stores can sell cannabis, the governor has to appoint a Cannabis Control Board, whose members would be full-time state employees. That process is already behind schedule. The board members’ terms were due to start January 19, but Gov. Phil Scott hasn’t yet named his choices. The law calls for the board to recommend certain fees by April 1, and to begin making rules for cannabis establishments by June 1.

Scott has been forthright with his concerns about legalizing marijuana, saying there is more work to be done in the areas of road safety, racial equity and the prevention of misuse. He allowed the legislature’s tax-and-regulate bill to become law without his signature last fall.

Eli Harrington, a Burlington-area cannabis activist who runs a website called Vermontijuana, noted that the town where the governor lives, Berlin, voted to allow commercial marijuana sales.

“Hopefully it’s a little kick in the ass for this commission to form, because that’s really what is holding things up,” Harrington said.

When things do get under way, Scott Sparks, who owns the Vermont Hempicurean CBD store in Brattleboro, has big expansion plans. Along with opening an adult-use marijuana store, he’d like to create a test kitchen to concoct edible marijuana products, expand his sales of cannabis growing supplies, and create an area for growing plants as a demonstration for visitors. He envisions the latter as a “Ben & Jerry’s-type thing for people who haven’t seen cannabis growing before.”

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Burlington High School Opens Downtown Campus in Former Macy's

Posted By on Wed, Mar 3, 2021 at 1:36 PM

Burlington School Board chair Clare Wool - CAT CUTILLO
  • Cat Cutillo
  • Burlington School Board chair Clare Wool
After almost a year with no school to call their own, Burlington High School students have a home base. On Tuesday, school leaders and local politicians gathered to celebrate the opening of a downtown school campus, in the Cherry Street building that once housed a Macy’s department store.

Students will return to in-person learning there on Thursday, with half attending classes on Mondays and Thursdays, half on Tuesdays and Fridays. Wednesday will be a remote-learning day.

“It’s amazing to think that we are standing in what used to be a department store; that we’re greeting people where we used to buy winter coats; reading books where they once sold fine China; taking phone calls in converted changing rooms; and learning science in the old suit racks,” Superintendent Tom Flanagan said at the ceremony.

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Tuesday, March 2, 2021

COVID-19 Is Racing Through Vermont's Largest Prison

Posted By on Tue, Mar 2, 2021 at 11:58 PM

An administrative building at the Northern State Correctional Facility - VERMONT DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS
  • An administrative building at the Northern State Correctional Facility
COVID-19 has spread throughout Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport, Vermont’s largest prison. Tests have revealed 108 new cases there, the Department of Corrections reported Tuesday night.

Those cases involve 100 inmates or detainees and eight guards. The prison has been in lockdown since late February as the DOC struggles to contain its worst outbreak to date. The new cases mean that more than a third of  its inmates have tested positive.

“This is the largest outbreak at a Vermont correctional facility since the start of the pandemic, and it’s all hands on deck for our response,” Corrections Commissioner Jim Baker said in a statement. The prison “is now being treated like a hospital,” with a number of organizations trying to help contain the outbreak, Baker said.

Regional hospitals, emergency operations officials and Department of Health teams are all being called upon to assist the prison’s health care contractor, Baker said. Related contact tracing is under way. The entire facility will be tested again March 4.

Amid an increase in new COVID-19 cases in the state in late January, employees at four of Vermont's six prisons tested positive.

Tests turned up one staff case each at Northern State Correctional Facility, Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility in South Burlington, Northwest State Correctional Facility in St. Albans and Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield.

But on February 23, testing at Northern State showed COVID had spread to 21 inmates. 

Families and friends of inmates and detainees can ask the department related questions by following this link.

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Burlington Voters Back Ballot Measures on Weed, Evictions By Big Margins

Posted By on Tue, Mar 2, 2021 at 8:22 PM

Voters checking in at Edmunds Middle School - LUKE AWTRY
  • Luke Awtry
  • Voters checking in at Edmunds Middle School
Updated at 10:43 p.m.

Burlington Progressives failed to unseat Mayor Miro Weinberger on Town Meeting Day, but voters delivered a resounding endorsement of the ballot measures the party’s candidates had championed.

Charter change proposals to limit evictions, resurrect ranked-choice voting and allow the city to tax properties heated by fossil fuels all advanced with more than 60 percent of votes, unofficial results show.

City residents also opted into a retail cannabis market by an overwhelming margin, paving the way for legal weed sales to begin there in fall of 2022.

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Weinberger Fends Off Tracy, Wins Fourth Term as Burlington Mayor

Posted By on Tue, Mar 2, 2021 at 8:17 PM

Mayor Miro Weinberger at the ECHO Center on Tuesday - LUKE AWTRY
  • Luke Awtry
  • Mayor Miro Weinberger at the ECHO Center on Tuesday
Updated at 11:01 p.m.

Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger won his fourth term by just 129 votes on Tuesday night.

Weinberger, a Democrat, earned 43 percent of votes, just barely defeating Progressive challenger and City Council President Max Tracy, who received 42 percent of votes. Councilor Ali Dieng, an independent, came in third with 13 percent of votes.

The mayor tallied 6,189 votes compared to Tracy’s 6,060 and Dieng’s 1,830, according to unofficial results from the city.

The four other independents in the race — Haik Bedrosian, Will Emmons, Kevin McGrath and Patrick White — earned a combined 245 votes, or about 2 percent of the total.

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As Vaccination Pace Quickens, State Shifts Teachers, High-Risk People to Front of Queue

Posted By on Tue, Mar 2, 2021 at 4:05 PM

Health care workers receiving the COVID-19 vaccine - COURTESY OF RYAN MERCER/UVM HEALTH NETWORK
  • Courtesy of Ryan Mercer/UVM Health Network
  • Health care workers receiving the COVID-19 vaccine

Weeks of lobbying have paid off for educators. On Tuesday, state officials announced that teachers, school staff, and childcare workers will be able to start receiving the single-dose Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine beginning on March 8.

Those vaccinations are expected to be completed in early April. Meanwhile, the state will open registration next week for people with high-risk conditions, starting with Vermonters age 55 and above on March 8, followed by Vermonters 16-55 on March 15.

And police staff, 911 call-takers and staff working in correctional facilities have been added to the list of workers eligible in early March for the vaccines, state officials said.  If the Vermont vaccination schedule continues on its current course, everyone in the state who wants a vaccine could have one by the middle of the summer.

Right now, about 9 percent of Vermonters are fully vaccinated. Cases of COVID-19 have decreased about 20 percent since February.

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