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All the News That's Unfit to Print 

Fair Game

Published December 10, 2008 at 6:08 a.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.

*****UPDATED 12/17/08*****

Cate Correction - I owe an apology to Burlington Parks & Rec Waterfront Manager Adam Cate. I erroneously reported that Cate used city money for personal use. In fact, Cate authorized a loan using cash on hand to a new city employee who had worked for five weeks without being paid, according to Cate's attorney Sheldon Katz.

City employees are supposed to be paid biweekly, and because the city had not paid the employee, he was unable to pay his rent, Katz explained. Adam had seen his mentor, former Parks Superintendent Ben Pacy, do the same thing many times, Katz said. "In this instance, it was the right thing to do."

Katz said his client is trying to move on to improve the City's waterfront operations. "He's already paid a heavy price," said Katz. "He shouldn't be saddled with false and unfounded allegations."

My reporting on this issue was unprofessional and hurtful to Adam and his reputation. My regrets and apologies.

*****END OF UPDATE*****

In its recent coverage of City Hall, The Burlington Free Press is confirming one of its more insidious “local customs.” The folks at 191 College Street never let facts get in the way of a good story — or mayoral election season shenanigans.

In 1993, Peter Clavelle faced a tough reelection bid after advocating a plan to extend health-care coverage to unmarried partners of city employees. Burlington was in the vanguard then. Today, “domestic-partner benefits,” as they were dubbed, are standard human-resources fare.

The Freeps eviscerated the plan and helped usher in one-term Republican Peter Brownell.

Clavelle stormed back two years later, and kept on getting reelected for another decade. So out of touch.

Fast forward to today’s ongoing saga of Burlington’s waterfront supervisor. Adam Cate was suspended in May — with pay — because it appeared he had hacked into the emails of some coworkers. He also instructed an employee to hide $2300 in cash, which sparked an embezzlement investigation. Cate’s boss, Wayne Gross, fired him in October. Then, last month, the city’s Parks Commission voted to overturn Gross’ decision and reinstate Cate.

Read the Free Press and you’d think Cate was the victim — not city taxpayers whose money he “borrowed,” or the coworkers whose privacy he violated. The Free Press wants us to believe that Cate was the subject of a witch hunt by Mayor Bob Kiss and his iron-fisted apparatchik Jonathan Leopold.

Just look at what happened when Public Works Director Steve Goodkind cried foul at the commission’s decision to reinstate Cate. He was vilified.

Goodkind sent a terse letter to the parks commission pointing out that its decision to give Cate a pass will make it harder for the city to reprimand managers in the future.

The city’s “ethical bar” is now so low, Goodkind wrote, that “dishonest managers don’t even have to slither under it, they can just slide over.”

Good line.

The Freeps didn’t like it. They questioned Goodkind’s motives, claiming he was just a tool for his shadowy bosses Leopold and Kiss.

The Freeps Sunday editorial read, “Mayor Kiss wouldn’t have let loose such an attack, but he said Goodkind is entitled to talk to the commission. That’s nonsense. Goodkind’s sputtering vituperation was an embarrassment. This looks like nothing less than a case of hard-knuckled politics waged by a surrogate amid a big shut-up.”

Fightin’ words.

Goodkind told “Fair Game” that neither Kiss nor Leopold pre-approved his letter.

Aside from what the Freeps doesn’t know, or doesn’t want to know, there’s evidence to suggest the newspaper has more information, and isn’t sharing it, from 630 emails from City Hall and the police report that details the embezzlement investigation.

Seven Days had a chance to review the same materials and learned that nearly $500,000 flows through the Boathouse each summer — from docking and other fees — and the accounting system currently in place is not secure. Register tapes can be altered, for example.

The system was so shoddy, in fact, that police couldn’t determine whether Cate had stolen money.

The police report confirms, too, that Cate demonstrated what would be described as a cavalier attitude about the money stored in the city’s boathouse safe. Out of a $2300 stash of cash, he loaned $400 to an employee as an advance, and then used $150 to reactivate his personal cellphone.

Cate told police he was only borrowing the money and had planned to pay it back in three days, when he got paid.

It’s water under the bridge now. Cate is back at the Boathouse, surrounded by records, computers, files and the safe.

In a recent interview, Parks Director Gross said he is trying to “move forward” from the fracas. He’s also planning to change the way money is handled at the Boathouse.

Ya think?


Queen City Quartet — Republican City Councilor Kurt Wright will make it official Thursday: He’s running for mayor.

Wright’s entry into the race guarantees that Burlington’s next mayor will once again be selected using instant runoff voting.

The system, in which voters rank their choices, was employed in 2006 to elect Progressive Bob Kiss. Kiss, who is categorically considered to be “a nice guy,” snagged enough second-place votes to emerge victorious, besting both the Democrat and Republican contenders.

“I don’t think anyone will get 50 percent with four of us in the race, which means that second-place votes are going to be crucial,” Wright observed.

Also in the race are Democrat Andy Montroll and Independent Dan Smith. The latter announced his candidacy on December 2; Montroll piped up one day later.

Kiss will launch his reelection bid after Progressives gather on December 14 to nominate a mayoral candidate.

Among the candidates in the “Anybody But Bob” camp, Wright is likely to have the strongest support in the city’s largely conservative and populous New North End.

Although Wright’s “official” announcement is the 5:45 p.m. event at Burlington City Hall Auditorium, he’s scheduled to spill the beans that morning, at 7:40 a.m., on WVMT’s “Charlie & Ernie” radio show. Oh, and it’s already up on a Facebook event page.

Wright, who is also the Burlington City Council president, is hoping to best his second-place mayoral showing in 1999.

Maybe this time is the Wright time.


What’s So Funny About Progs & Dems Understanding? — Mayoral candidates notwithstanding, a few Dems and Progs gathered last week at the Seven Days forum, “Why Can’t Progs & Dems Get Along?”

About 100 people came to hear four panelists — Rep. Dave Zuckerman and City Councilor Jane Knodell for the Progs and Rep. Joey Leddy Donovan and city party chairman Jake Perkinson for the Dems — engage in a spirited but civil debate about the parties’ differences.

No groundbreaking détente was reached, but each side explained where Ds and Ps have common ground, where they differ and why. Will they ever work strategically to oust Republicans?

We’ll see. In 2010, many will expect the parties to unite and defeat Republican Jim Douglas a tall order, since Douglas beat both Democrat Gaye Symington and Progressive-turned-Independent Anthony Pollina by more than 30 points this fall. He had 56 percent of the vote; they each got about 21 percent.

Details of the back-and-forth jabs are on the live-blog transcript by Cathy Resmer and Max Bookman that can be found on the Seven Days blog, “Blurt.” Terri Hallenbeck did the same for The Burlington Free Press on VTBuzz. Bianca Sota also filed a report for WCAX. Nice to see a few political journalists are left to cover these events.

Word is, some key Ds and Ps wished the moderator — moi — had been fairer to their side.

I’ll take that as a compliment.


The Dearth of Journalism — What’s black and white and pink all over? Vermont’s print media.

Here at Seven Days we bid goodbye to News Editor Brian Wallstin. At the Free Press, four people from the newsroom were let go: longtime editor Rob Eley, a features reporter, and two support staff, one of whom had been there nearly 30 years. Another five people were laid off and five vacant positions were axed from the payroll. Two of those were in the newsroom. Word is there will be no more layoffs until February — just in time for Valentine’s Day.

What’s puzzling is that the Free Press remains a profitable paper by anyone’s standards — except Gannett’s. As noted last week, Jim Hopkins at GannettBlog posted an internal Gannett report showing the Free Press raked in more than $21 million between January and September of last year and was running a 36 percent profit margin. A gold mine.

Free Press Publisher Brad Robertson told “Fair Game” these numbers fail to tell the whole story. Perhaps, but it tells a story former Gannett staffers know all too well.

Paul Oberjuerge, a former Gannett sports writer, summed up the numbers best: “By its own preferred corporate-speak, [Gannett] has owned ‘profit centers’ — and the greedy bastards who ran the company were bold enough to call it just that.”

Newspapers are still profitable, they’re just not boasting 30-50 percent profit margins, Oberjeurge notes, but a 10 or 15 percent margin.

He did offer sage advice to the unemployed: “You didn’t fail. The company you worked for failed.”


New News Guy — With Vermont’s media ranks dwindling, a longtime journalist has decided to step up and be counted.

On Monday, Barton’s Jon Margolis launched the Vermont News Guy blog to provide “Real News for Real Vermonters.”

Margolis mourns the loss of good journalism in the state. “I kept telling anyone who would listen, ‘Someone should do something about this.’ A lot of people would turn to me and say, ‘Why don’t you?’”

Margolis knows a thing or two about topnotch reportage, as the former national political correspondent for the Chicago Tribune and contributor to such pubs as the New York Times Magazine, American Prospect, The New Republic and Mother Jones.

He says Vermont journalism is too often superficial and shallow, barely informing the reader. “Meaning that it injures the public it is supposed to serve,” sayeth Jon.

Tough love.

We need that, and then some.


Ballot Bingo — The mood at Chittenden Superior Court is sober, and not just because jurors are hearing yet another pedophile priest trial.

Since December 3, two to three dozen “volunteers” have been earning $30 a day recounting votes in the Chittenden County Senate race. By Friday, they had tallied 8800 ballots — just under half of Burlington’s 19,000 and 10 percent of the 80,000 cast countywide.

Democrat Denise Begins Barnard asked for the recount, after finishing just 417 votes behind sixth-place finisher Progressive/Democrat Tim Ashe.

Here’s how it works: One person reads off the candidate names while another watches. Two people take down the results and then compare notes. When each batch of 50 is completed, the results are entered into a computer. Another quartet of volunteers is deployed to work on a different task. Two people watch a ballot counter reading the results, and the other two watch a full-time court employee typing in the results.

I wish it were as exciting as it sounds. Supervising it all is County Clerk Diane Lavallee, who said they have been getting through close to 3000 ballots a day when she has enough volunteers. That wasn’t the case Friday. The group barely completed one city ward in Burlington.

At this rate, the recount could spill into the legislative session and cost at least $30,000 — more than any state senate candidate spent getting elected.

But, hey, it’s all worth it, right?

Got a news tip? Email Shay at [email protected]

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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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