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Got a Plan? 

Fair Game

Bernie Sanders

Published November 2, 2011 at 10:02 a.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.

Burlington Telecom — the embattled city-owned utility that launched a thousand mayoral candidacies — may be closer to finding a private partner.

That’s according to a bimonthly report delivered to state regulators late Monday by the telecom’s attorney, William Ellis of McNeil, Leddy & Sheahan. The memo says an “out-of-state independent telephone company” that’s been courting BT for almost six months remains interested — and is putting together financing to make the deal happen.

Members of the city council and Blue Ribbon Committee were briefed on the potential deal in secret in late September, according to city records.

Under the prospective deal, the buyer would purchase all-new equipment to run BT’s phone, cable and internet services, according to Ellis’ memo to the Vermont Public Service Board.

That’s significant, because the parent company of Burlington Telecom’s creditors, CitiCapital, is suing BT in federal court seeking to reclaim the fiber optic network. Burlington stopped making payments on its $33.5 million municipal lease agreement with CitiCapital more than a year ago.

Ellis’ letter suggests that the new suitor — whoever it is — is undeterred by the looming legal battle.

CitiCapital wants the city to stop using the BT network but it hasn’t asked the court for “emergency relief” that would fast-track the seizing of those assets, meaning a handover of BT’s equipment is not imminent. That’s good news for the city, since all of its key services — including police and fire — depend on BT for phone and internet, and pulling the plug would cripple them.

Meanwhile, Burlington Telecom is slowly climbing out of its financial hole, under the watchful eye of turnaround expert Terry Dorman of consulting firm Dorman & Fawcett. As of mid-October, BT was $200,000 in the black, a feat achieved through layoffs and cost cutting. It’s still not enough to make a dent in the $17 million it owes to Burlington taxpayers.

In short, BT is like that college graduate who — deep in debt and unable to find work — is living back at home with his parents, indefinitely deferring payment on student loans.

Sooner or later, BT’s gotta move out of the basement.

You’ve Made Your BED, Now Lie in It

Republican mayoral candidate and House Rep. Kurt Wright made a splash when he proposed selling off the Burlington Electric Department and using the proceeds to pay off Burlington Telecom’s $17 million debt to city taxpayers, among other city IOUs.

Before he sticks a “For Sale” sign into BED’s greenbelt, Wright might want to double-check that such a deal is even legal. From a close reading, it appears the city charter and BT’s certificate of public good from the Vermont Public Service Board forbid ratepayer dollars from being used to bail out BT.

The relevant charter language reads: “In no case shall funds collected from electric ratepayers be used to cross-subsidize or finance the repayment of any debt instrument used to fund the construction, operation or utilization of any new cable television, fiber-optic cable, or other telecommunications network or telecommunications business.”

Ironically, it was Wright’s fellow House Republicans who passed this charter language in 2000, before Wright was a state lawmaker. The GOP worried that Burlington would use its taxing authority — or, more specifically, its cash-cow utility, BED — to prop up BT during its start-up phase and gain unfair advantage over private phone and cable providers such as Adelphia and Verizon. Adelphia has since gone bankrupt and was purchased by Comcast. Verizon dumped its landline business onto FairPoint Communications.

Unfair advantage? Bwahaha!

Wright believes that GOP-authored clause didn’t envision the predicament facing voters today. “I think it was designed to make sure the city didn’t bear the initial losses,” said Wright. “We’re facing a different scenario today.”

Possibly, but a second charter clause notes that if BT is abandoned or curtailed, those costs must be borne by BT’s investors and not “the city’s taxpayers, the state of Vermont” or “electric ratepayers.”

Look on the bright side, Kurt. Now you’ve got $17 million in fantasy dollars to spend on something else.


Chip off the Old Bloc

When Burlington’s largest labor union endorsed State Sen. Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden) for mayor last week, it made a potent comparison.

“We feel like he’s a young version of Bernie Sanders and we need more politicians like him,” said Ben Johnson, president of the Vermont chapter of the American Federation of Teachers. The trade union represents 3000 workers statewide, including hundreds of nurses and technicians at Fletcher Allen Health Care and professors at the University of Vermont and state colleges.

If hordes of them show up to vote at the November 13 caucus, the impact on the four-way race could be significant.

Invoking the name of the “Progfather” Bernie Sanders in a contested Democratic caucus in Burlington, however, may not do Ashe any favors. Enough old-guard Democrats already suspect Ashe of not being a real Democrat.

Ashe worked as an aide to Sanders years ago and has twice received his endorsement in state-senate campaigns. No word if Sanders will endorse Ashe before the caucus; traditionally, the Vermont’s independent senator stays clear of Democratic primaries.

Other members of the Sanders political clan are weighing in.

Carina Driscoll, the daughter of Jane O’Meara Sanders and stepdaughter of Sen. Sanders, is endorsing … Bram Kranichfeld, a city councilor and deputy state’s attorney.

“He will bring a new perspective to city hall, and he will connect with people from all walks of life, truly governing from the grassroots,” Driscoll told Fair Game. “Bram has what it takes to be the people’s choice for mayor.”

Driscoll is no stranger to Burlington electoral politics. She’s served on the school board and was first elected to the city council in 2003 as a Progressive from Ward 3. Soon after resigning in 2004, she left the Progressive Party and has been an active Democrat ever since.

Her replacement on the city council was none other than Progressive Tim Ashe.

(Ashe is the domestic partner of Seven Days publisher Paula Routly. See disclosure in Letters to the Editor.)

Take My Uterus, Please!

Comedian Lizz Winstead brought her national “Planned Parenthood, I Am Here for You” tour to Burlington’s Main Street Landing Performing Arts Center on Saturday night to raise money for the women’s health organization. Lately, Planned Parenthood has been under intensifying attack from Winstead’s favorite punching bags — the Republicans who run Congress and statehouses around the country.

Winstead, cocreator of “The Daily Show” and cofounder of Air America radio, has been touring the country since last summer. Last weekend, she performed in Burlington and Manchester, N.H., to benefit Planned Parenthood of Northern New England.

Gov. Peter Shumlin introduced Winstead, noting that his administration is urging the feds to allow women’s health providers such as Planned Parenthood to qualify as primary care providers in the federal health care exchanges established under the Affordable Care Act.

“If you’re going to provide men with access to health care, then you should provide complete access for women,” noted Shumlin. “I know, it’s a radical thought in 2011 America.”

In 2010, PPNNE served 20,000 patients at 10 clinics scattered around Vermont, providing preventative health care services such as breast exams and cervical cancer screenings. Cutting family-planning funds to Planned Parenthood would force PPNNE to close clinics. Women — many of them low income — could lose access to basic primary and preventative health care, said Jill Krowinski, PPNNE’s public affairs director in Vermont.

To hear some vagina demagogues, er, congressional leaders, tell it, access to women’s health care is the biggest threat to the economy since credit default swaps.

Winstead told the crowd that she watched in anger earlier this year when Congress — and state legislatures around the country — tried to defund Planned Parenthood and restrict women from seeking even basic health care services from the organization’s clinics.

“If creating jobs is the number-one priority for politicians in this country, why are they so focused on my uterus?” she asked the crowd. “My uterus doesn’t create jobs — in fact, it no longer even does the one job it’s supposed to.”

Winstead has hosted more than two dozen benefits for Planned Parenthood and has no plans to stop.

“The tour now is almost a lifestyle choice for me,” Winstead told Fair Game in a postshow interview. “It’s not something I can just do occasionally. The right wing already hated me, so I decided that I wanted to do something useful. This tour is it.”

At the end of her standup routine — which satirized nearly every Republican candidate running for president as well as President Barack Obama — Winstead read a more serious essay from her forthcoming book.

At 16, she had sex for the first time and became pregnant. Unsure of what to do, and dumped by her then-boyfriend, she saw a bus ad for a teen pregnancy center and decided to visit it. There, after being “counseled,” she realized she was in a Christian clinic where she was told she had two choices: “motherhood or murder.” She left feeling humiliated, ashamed and confused.

That’s where the essay ended, but not the story. She told Fair Game that after leaving the clinic she sat on a bus and saw an ad for a Planned Parenthood clinic. She visited Planned Parenthood two days later, where she found the process more humane and supportive.

“It was as if they were asking the questions I needed to ask myself but was too immature to know at the time,” said Winstead. “Planned Parenthood has been there for me in every facet of my reproductive health, and now I want to be there for them.”

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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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