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Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Lawmakers Pledge a 'Coronavirus Recovery Session'

Posted By on Wed, Jan 6, 2021 at 6:40 PM

House Speaker Jill Krowinski - KEVIN MCCALLUM ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Kevin McCallum ©️ Seven Days
  • House Speaker Jill Krowinski
Vermont lawmakers booted up a new legislative session Wednesday, heartened to elect a historic all-female leadership team but also humbled by the challenges posed by a pandemic forcing them to draft laws in isolation.

Two-thirds of the 30-member Senate convened in person in the Statehouse Wednesday morning, while the 150-member House of Representatives met  remotely, with just a handful of lawmakers gathering in the House chamber.

Among their first acts as legislative bodies, each elected a woman to lead them — a first for the state and a cause for celebration. As expected, the Senate elected Sen. Becca Balint (D-Windham) as its president pro tempore, succeeding Tim Ashe, who did not seek reelection in order to pursue a losing bid for lieutenant governor.

And House members elected Rep. Jill Krowinski (D-Burlington) as speaker, replacing Mitzi Johnson, who narrowly lost reelection in November.
“I’m excited to see this all-female leadership team,” Rep. Selene Colburn (P- Burlington) said. “It feels like a very different landscape.”

And yet the need for lawmakers to continue to meet remotely weighed on many minds.

“The form of our work right now is not ideal,” Balint said in her opening remarks to her colleagues. “We can feel isolated, cut off from each other. And we know we cannot do our best work in isolation.”

Balint had signaled before Wednesday that the pandemic will continue to be the Senate's main priority, and that remote meeting constraints would force lawmakers to scale back aspirations for complex legislation like major Act 250 reform.

She stressed that lawmakers must remain vigilant and focused on helping Vermonters weather the ravages of the pandemic.

“The entire country is weary from the pandemic, but the virus doesn’t care,” Balint said. “We must continue to address the disease caused by the health emergency and the fear and doubt that our constituents feel.”

Sen. Brian Collamore (R-Rutland) praised the choice of Balint as pro tem, calling her thoughtful, fair and funny, with a “good-natured outlook” that senators deeply appreciate.

Balint was first elected to the Senate in 2014 and since 2017 has served a majority leader.

“If you’re having a bad day, running into Sen. Balint can change that quickly," Collamore said.

Due to its smaller size, the Senate was able to hold its inaugural session with only limited protocol changes. Senators were sworn in in groups. They spread out around the chamber. Access for the media and special guests was limited. And plexiglass guards were installed at the rear of the chamber to create a barrier between senators and the few members of the media and public  allowed in.

The Statehouse has been largely unused since last March, and it showed. Chairs removed from committee rooms were stacked up in hallways. The cafeteria remained dark.

The building had a new feature: heat-sensing scanners that check people for fevers at the entrance. 

Sen. Joe Benning (R-Caledonia) quipped that that center of the normally technology-free chamber, where Senate Secretary John Bloomer and his assistant sat surrounded by computers, huge screens and cameras live-streaming the proceedings, made it “look like the bridge on the Starship Enterprise."

Unlike the Senate, the House’s opening ceremonies needed to be almost entirely remote.

Standing at the rostrum in a nearly empty chamber behind a plastic partition, a masked Krowinski made clear that the House will remain laser-focused this year on pandemic-related issues, declaring the start of the “coronavirus recovery session.”

“We gather here for a session like no other,” the new speaker told her colleagues. “The echoes of the Statehouse are quiet. The hallways of the capitol are still. Yet our work begins now, at the fall of the gavel.”

Krowinski, who was appointed to the House in 2012 by then-governor Peter Shumlin and went on to become majority leader in 2017, said the pandemic has demonstrated the large gaps in essentials such as broadband, childcare, housing and mental health.

“We’ve seen too many Vermonters struggling to balance their needs,” she said. “The responsibility before all of us is to provide our constituents with the support they need right now.”

The House also voted to give itself the authority to continue meeting remotely for at least the next two months, and elected a new clerk to replace outgoing parliamentarian Bill MaGill. BestyAnn Wrask, a Waterbury resident and member of the legislative counsel team, will now help ensure that representatives are following the House’s arcane rules and procedures.

The Senate also passed a slate of new rules to ensure that in future health emergencies, committees can meet remotely — under strict rules for public notice and access — without having to meet in person to pass such rules, as they did last year.

Colburn, the first female leader of the House Progressive caucus, said while it is noteworthy that all legislative leaders are either women or, in the case of Sen. Randy Brock (R-Franklin), people of color, much work remains to be done to improve inclusion through state government.

Brock said he was pleased to be named minority leader for a caucus that has grown from six to seven this year, and he hoped to use that position to ensure vigorous policy debates continue to take place.

"This gives me an opportunity to help marshal our forces and our voices and to make sure that we will contribute to the conversation and continue to add value," Brock said.

Despite the restrictions of the Zoom sessions, freshly minted Sen. Josh Terenzini (R-Rutland) said he was overwhelmed with excitement in anticipation of the work ahead.

“I take this position very seriously and want to serve my constituents with the dignity and the respect this office deserves,” said Terenzini, whose wife, Jessica, and 4-month-old son Grant were on hand to witness his swearing in.

Yet Terenzini, whose father Tom Terenzini is a Republican representative from Rutland, acknowledged the remote meeting requirements of his first session will make it tougher for all freshman lawmakers to get up to speed.

“I have a lot of learning to do quickly, and unfortunately, in the first few months at least, it’s going to be by Zoom rather than making relationships with my colleagues and being able to have those discussions and conversations in the hallways and the cafeteria of this great building."

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'This Was Not a Drill': Welch Recounts Chaos as Trump Supporters Stormed U.S. Capitol

Posted By on Wed, Jan 6, 2021 at 2:59 PM

Rep. Peter Welch (far right) and others duck for cover in the U.S. House gallery - ASSOCIATED PRESS
  • Associated Press
  • Rep. Peter Welch (far right) and others duck for cover in the U.S. House gallery

Updated 8:59 p.m.

Members of Congress, including Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.), were placed under lockdown on Wednesday after supporters of President Donald Trump breached barricades at the Capitol building, propelling the nation's government into a state of chaos on a day meant to certify President-elect Joe Biden’s victory.

Federal lawmakers were debating an attempt by some Republicans to overturn Trump’s election defeat when pro-Trump extremists stormed the Capitol building. Security rushed Vice President Mike Pence off of the Senate floor and placed both chambers on lockdown.

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Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Burlington Police Union Accuses Tracy of Suppressing Opposing Views

Posted By on Tue, Jan 5, 2021 at 10:35 PM

City Council President Max Tracy - FILE: COURTNEY LAMDIN ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • File: Courtney Lamdin ©️ Seven Days
  • City Council President Max Tracy
The Burlington police union has accused City Council President Max Tracy (P-Ward 2) of silencing opposing viewpoints and “cherry picking what narrative he would like to push forward” during public forums at council meetings — allegations that Tracy, a mayoral candidate, strenuously denies.

Cpl. Tyler Badeau, president of the Burlington Police Officers’ Association, said he signed up to speak during Monday night’s council meeting, before councilors failed to overturn a mayoral veto of a proposal to bolster citizen oversight of police.
He had intended to read a statement from the union in support of Mayor Miro Weinberger’s veto of the Progressive-backed plan, which sought to create a new “community control board” to investigate and discipline cops for misconduct. Despite signing up five hours before the meeting started, Badeau said that Tracy never called on him.

"If [Progressive councilors] were truly interested in governing correctly, they would allow equal time during the public forum for all voices, and they're not," Badeau said. "Max isn’t interested in governing. He’s interested in his agenda."

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Winooski Schools Extend Remote Learning as COVID-19 Cases Mount

Posted By on Tue, Jan 5, 2021 at 8:03 PM

On the Winooski school campus - FILE: LUKE AWTRY
  • File: Luke Awtry
  • On the Winooski school campus
This fall, COVID-19 stayed away from Winooski schools. During the first three months of the school year, there were no reported cases of the virus in the district.

As things remained steady, K-5 students ramped up to four days a week of in-person school in October and November, while middle and high school students learned under a hybrid model, with a mix of in-person and remote instruction.

But in early December, the district reported three cases of COVID-19 within a week and a half, with a fourth case coming soon after. On December 9, the school district transitioned to fully remote learning.

Since the first recorded case, a total of 66 Winooski students, teachers and staff have tested positive for COVID-19. With approximately 800 students and 200 teachers and staff in the district, that means about 6.6 percent — or 1 in 15 members — of the school community tested positive for COVID-19 in about a month.

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Montpeculiar: Luckily, This Was Not an Actual Legislative Session

Posted By on Tue, Jan 5, 2021 at 6:33 PM

Member of the Vermont House of Representatives practicing remote voting Tuesday - SCREENSHOT ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Screenshot ©️ Seven Days
  • Member of the Vermont House of Representatives practicing remote voting Tuesday
The new, mostly remote session of the Vermont legislature goes live Wednesday with the typical annual ceremonial and procedural oaths, speeches and votes by the House and the Senate. But lawmakers who logged on for a practice session Tuesday got a refresher course in just how frustrating remote legislating can make these otherwise routine tasks. 
montpeculiar2.jpg

House members on videoconference forgot to mute themselves, talked over one another, struggled to use voting software and endured a dull humming sound from someone’s faulty microphone.

“I don’t even know what I’m doing here!” Rep. Robert Helm (R-Fair Haven) declared in exasperation at one point. “Am I recorded as voting yes?”  
Rep. Robert Helm - SCREENSHOT
  • Screenshot
  • Rep. Robert Helm


The 1 p.m. practice session was staged precisely to help lawmakers and Statehouse staff work out any glitches in remote voting procedures and clear out any cobwebs that some acknowledged had gathered since the previous session ended in September.

Helm and his colleagues weren’t voting on real legislation. Rather, he was expressing befuddlement about whether his vote on a pretend bill — dubbed H.R. XYZ — was being properly registered.

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Vermont Lawmakers Expect to Enable Mail-In Voting for Town Meeting Day

Posted By on Tue, Jan 5, 2021 at 5:06 PM

A poll worker behind a sheet of plastic in August - FILE: JAMES BUCK ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • File: James Buck ©️ Seven Days
  • A poll worker behind a sheet of plastic in August
Vermont lawmakers expect to empower municipalities and school districts to hold mail-in Town Meeting Day elections in light of the coronavirus pandemic's continued surge.

A bill would offer flexibility ahead of Vermont's traditional March voting day, which packs residents in some towns into gymnasiums, auditoriums, and meeting houses to cast ballots on budgets and other local matters.

"Many eligible voters on Town Meeting Day will not be able or willing to vote in person or attend a traditional floor meeting," Vermont Administration Secretary Susanne Young and Secretary of State Jim Condos wrote in a joint memo last month asking for money to offset costs for municipalities. "We must ensure voters can safely and securely participate in all elections, not just the November election."

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Burlington Councilors Fail to Override Mayor's Veto of Police Oversight Proposal

Posted By on Tue, Jan 5, 2021 at 1:00 AM

Racial justice protesters in downtown Burlington - FILE: JAMES BUCK
  • File: James Buck
  • Racial justice protesters in downtown Burlington
Burlington city councilors on Monday failed to override Mayor Miro Weinberger's veto of a proposal to create a new citizen board that would investigate and discipline police for misconduct.

The 7-5 tally was one vote short of the eight needed to overturn the mayoral decision. The result was identical to last month's council vote on the original proposal, with Councilor Ali Dieng (I-Ward 7) joining all six council Progressives in support of an override.
None of the five Democrats flipped, despite pleas from dozens of callers during public forum who urged them to reconsider.

"Even for those of us who are going to be voting to sustain the veto, it's with a very heavy heart," Councilor Chip Mason (D-Ward 5) said during the virtual council meeting. "I think everyone that I'm seeing on the screen right now supports a civilian oversight body."

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Friday, January 1, 2021

Weinberger Vetoes Police Oversight Ballot Item, Urges Council to Compromise

Posted By on Fri, Jan 1, 2021 at 3:32 PM

Mayor Miro Weinberger - FILE: COURTNEY LAMDIN ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • File: Courtney Lamdin ©️ Seven Days
  • Mayor Miro Weinberger
Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger has vetoed a Progressive-led proposal to create a new police oversight board, offering to rescind his decision only if city councilors agree to "find common ground" before Monday evening's council meeting.

The proposal sought to form an "independent community control board" with the authority to investigate and discipline cops for misconduct. The council passed the resolution on a 7-5 vote on December 14, intending to send the charter change to the Town Meeting Day ballot in March.
Instead, Weinberger kicked the measure back to the council without his approval. In a three-page memo issued on New Year's Eve, the mayor wrote that the proposal would dismantle the city's police department and "compromise the City’s ability to ensure public safety."

"I veto the Charter Change with great reluctance, because I agree that the current charter is problematic and there is urgency to amend it," Weinberger wrote. "If we cannot find consensus now and my veto is sustained, we must find other ways to make near term progress on the issue of police discipline."

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Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Media Note: Paul Heintz Departs Seven Days to Lead VTDigger Newsroom

Posted By on Wed, Dec 23, 2020 at 8:04 PM

Paul Heintz - MATTHEW THORSEN ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Matthew Thorsen ©️ Seven Days
  • Paul Heintz
Seven Days reporter Paul Heintz is leaving the newspaper to become the managing editor at VTDigger.org, the competing news organizations announced Wednesday evening.

"We’re surprised and very sorry to see him go," Seven Days publisher Paula Routly wrote in an email to staff. "But we congratulate him on this new chapter in his journalism career and look forward to competing with him."

Heintz, a Dartmouth College graduate, has worked at Seven Days since 2012, including stints as political editor, Fair Game columnist and most recently as a staff writer.

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Vermont Prison Probe Finds 'Disturbing' Number of Sexual Misconduct Allegations

Posted By on Wed, Dec 23, 2020 at 10:50 AM

Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility - FILE: LUKE AWTRY
  • File: Luke Awtry
  • Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility
Updated at 6:37 p.m.

A law firm hired to investigate Vermont's only prison for women documented an alarming number of allegations of sexual misconduct against inmates and employees of the facility, according to a report issued Wednesday.

"While even a single instance is intolerable, this misconduct occurred to a disturbing degree," investigators concluded.

The state hired the firm, Downs Rachlin Martin, in December 2019 after Seven Days published a series of stories describing allegations of sexual misconduct, drug use and retaliation at the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility in South Burlington.

The report documents many of the allegations first uncovered by Seven Days. At a press conference Wednesday morning, Downs Rachlin Martin director Tristram Coffin said that, after a year of review, his team had concluded that those allegations “were largely accurate and needed to be addressed” by the state’s Department of Corrections.

“The prevalence of sexual assault, harassment and misconduct was surprisingly and alarmingly high at CRCF,” said Coffin, a former U.S. attorney.

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