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Judgment Calls 

Inside Track

Published March 2, 2005 at 5:00 p.m.

If news is about the unexpected taking place, then last week's sudden resignation of the chairman of the University of Vermont's board of trustees surely qualifies. Surprisingly, however, not all local media outlets saw it that way.

James Pizzagalli, a hometown boy and UVM grad, surprised everyone on February 23 by announcing he was quitting a powerful post he surely must have loved. In his other life, Jimmy runs Pizzagalli Inc., the largest construction company in the Green Mountains. He had been on the UVM board since 2000 and became chairman last May.

Timing is everything, right?

Pizzagalli's resignation came less than two weeks after reports of a $7.5 million cost overrun in the current big dig on campus -- a residential housing complex. As everyone knows, President Dan Fogel's "vision" calls for a whole lot more of the same.

Pizzagalli's resignation also came just 11 days after members of the UVM faculty and other union activists publicly called for the Pizza Man's resignation at the board of trustees meeting.

Associate Professor Nancy Welch, accompanied by 20 sign-carrying colleagues, told the trustees they had not learned anything from "the scandals of the Fletcher Allen Renaissance Project -- the scandal of cost overruns, insufficient board oversight and ironworkers asked to do dangerous work on a hospital construction site while they themselves had no medical coverage at all. The University can avoid the mistakes of Fletcher Allen," said Welch, "by recognizing that Mr. Pizzagalli, as president of the Board of Trustees and as head of the region's major construction company, has a serious conflict of interest and should not be a part of any of UVM's construction and expansion decisions."

The appearance of the protesters was carried in the WCAX-TV report, but not mentioned at all, to Welch's chagrin, in a Burlington Free Press article the next day.

The matter seemed to fade away until last week's shockeroo -- Pizza Man had pulled the chute! Pass the pepperoni!

"I hereby resign as trustee effective immediately," wrote Chairman Pizzagalli. He then acknowledged there was a conflict of interest, but he had an interesting spin on the situation.

You see, in Jimmy's view, the conflict of interest wasn't about his company getting favored treatment in claiming the fat construction contracts yet to come in the Fogel Era. No, no. It was about Pizzagalli losing those bids because, if they got the business, it'd look like an inside job!

Jimmy declined our request for an interview. However, in his letter of resignation he wrote his departure was "in the best interests of Pizzagalli Construction Company." He never once mentioned the best interests of the university.

First things, first, eh?

Professor Welch told Seven Days she was quite surprised by Pizzagalli's sudden departure.

"We thought it would take more for that to happen," she said, adding, "I do think it was a response to the publicity. We didn't get very much [news coverage], but what little we got was enough to make people very nervous. And I think people don't want a repeat of the Fletcher Allen Renaissance debacle."

As for Pizza Man's "official" reason for quitting the board, Welch asked with a touch of sarcasm, "In recent years he's received more than $100 million in contracts from UVM. So that's not enough?"

Welch's perspective was shared by union activist David Kaczynski. "The Iron Workers Union always felt that James Pizzagalli had his company's interest paramount to UVM's," he said. "His resignation letter confirms our suspicion."

Would you be surprised to learn that UVM President Dan Fogel doesn't agree?

According to Dan the Man, neither media publicity nor public relations strategizing had anything to do with Pizzagalli's abrupt exit.

"Mr. Pizzagalli made this decision on his own as a principled decision for the reasons stated in his letter," Fogel told yours truly. "It had nothing to do, absolutely nothing as far as I can see, to do with pressure from any external group."

But if UVM's bid system is as squeaky-clean, fair and aboveboard as you claim, we asked, why didn't Jimmy Pizzagalli trust it? Why did he claim that he feared his company would get screwed?

"I think he was concerned," Fogel told Seven Days, "that all things being equal, there would be a feather on the scale weighing against him because of the concern that there not even be the slightest appearance of conflict. And our conflict-of-interest policy says trustees must avoid even the appearance of conflict, so that was it. I think that's all there is."

Whatever you say, Danny Boy.

What do you think?

News Judgment -- It was quite remarkable to see how differently the local press covered Pizzagalli's surprise resignation.

It barely made WCAX-TV, "Vermont's Own," that evening -- just a brief teleprompter read by Marselis Parsons at the tail end of their hourlong Six O'Clock News.

That's right, WGOP reported the sudden resignation of the UVM trustee chairman after weather and sports -- buried in that second half-hour after most people have switched channels to catch national news.

There was no "live" report from the UVM campus. After all, Mr. Pizza doesn't coach basketball. No reporter was assigned to the story. It was as if it didn't matter.

The Big Story that night was Jack Laduke "live" from Lake Placid with the 25th anniversary observance of the 1980 Olympic Games.

Important stuff Vermonters need to know, eh?

The next morning, The Burlington Free Press got it right for a change and splashed the Pizzagalli story across the top of the front page. It was, after all, the kind of story front pages are made for.

Now, we know Jimmy P. and the owners of Ch. 3 have a few things in common. Both Pizzagalli and Stuart "Red" Martin donate generously to conservative Republican candidates.

And we know that Jimmy and Peter Martin, general manager and son of Red, are both on the board of the Shelburne Museum.

And we know that Pizzagalli Construction built WCAX's headquarters on Joy Drive. In fact, they're neighbors!

Still, burying the news of Pizza Man's resignation was beyond the pale. Ch. 3 didn't mention it at all at 11 o'clock, nor during their newscasts the following morning.

What gives?

According to WCAX's Peter Martin, aside from the connections mentioned above, "There are no other ties between WCAX or me to Pizzagalli Construction or Jim."

In a written reply to our email inquiry, Mr. Martin the Younger wrote, "I was unaware of the resignation story until my return from Washington late Friday. You probably have noticed that WPTZ did not run it at all, so far as I can tell."

According to St. Peter, "The UVM press release came out late Wednesday afternoon, after our producers had blocked out the 6 p.m. broadcast."

The powers that be in the newsroom, Martin explained, "obviously decided that it was worth inclusion in the Wednesday broadcast, but well down in the order. It seems to me that it was appropriately placed."

Hey, every news shop is entitled to call it as it see it. Free country. However, St. Peter appears to have gotten two things wrong.

According to WPTZ news director Andy Wormser, Ch.5 did report the story. In fact, it was fairly high up in their newscast -- "at 6:06 p.m.," said Wormser.

And the UVM press release announcing Pizzagalli's resignation came out, according to the UVM communications department, at 2:30 p.m. that afternoon. Marsillyiss and company had more than three hours to do something. Make a phone call. Get a reaction.

They chose not to.

Obviously, it was a judgment call.

GOP Flower Child -- Former Republican National Committeeman Skip Vallee was in fine form this week. We contacted him for comment on his surprising second-place finish in the race for the top source of political campaign contributions in the Green Mountain State.

The largest donors are posted at http://www.opensecrets.org. The site is run by the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research group based in Washington, D.C., that tracks money in politics and its effect on elections and public policy.

Vallee, a.k.a. Gasoline Vallee, owns and operates the Maplefields chain of gas station/minimarts. You know, the ones with the fresh flowers in the rest rooms. Including recent acquisitions, Skip owns 25 gas stations.

In the 2004 election, Gasoline Vallee was an official Bush Ranger. The title means he raised more than $200,000 in $2000 contributions for President George W. Bush's reelection.

Way to go, Skip!

Open Secrets reports that Skip and family personally gave $262,943 in federal campaign contributions in the 2003-'04 federal cycle. Pretty generous folks, eh?

Gasoline Vallee told Seven Days that his personal generosity sets a good example for fellow Republicans.

"When I call and ask people to give their dollars," he explained, "it assists my entry to say I've done it myself."

But Skip sounded disappointed to hear he had not come in first as Vermont's top contributor. He was dying to know who beat him.

No, it wasn't Pizzagalli Construction, which came in seventh. And it wasn't potential 2006 U.S. Senate candidate Ritchie Tarrant's IDX, which finished fourth.

The top source of Vermont campaign contributions, not surprisingly, was Howard Dean's Democracy for America, which dished out $326,000 to dozens of Democratic candidates across the country.

Can't win 'em all, Skip.

Asked about the product he sells and its contribution to global warming and climate change, Gasoline Vallee replied, "We view ourselves as purveyors of coffee and fresh flowers, rather than the sellers of hydrocarbons."

Radio Ratings -- The Fall 2004 Arbitron Radio Market Report for Burlington-Plattsburgh is out and shows little change among the most popular stations in the commercial market. In radio, the big bucks are all in the morning, when the get-up-and-go-to-work audience tunes in.

In first place is WOKO's Morning Roundup with C.K. Coin and Wild Bill Sargent, who extended their lead in morning drive to a 23.6 average quarter-hour share. Awesome!

Second place goes to WIZN-FM's "Howard Stern Show." Still crazy after all these years. Stern gets a 10.1 audience share.

And 95 Triple X was third. Mike &; Chantal drew a 6.9 share.

Farther down the line are "Corm &; the Coach" on WCPV-FM (3.5 share), which tied WBTZ-FM The Buzz and good ol' "Charlie &; Ernie" on WVMT-AM (2.2 share).

Funny thing is, WCPV has a cartoon on its home page [ http://www.champ1013.com ] of Coach Tom Brennan smacking the bare butt of Howard Stern. (Butt touching, after all, is a big part of male jockdom.)

However, based on Arbitron ratings going back to the fall of 2002, WIZN's Stern is kicking Corm and the Coach's butts.


P.S. Arbitron only measures "commercial" stations. About 20 percent of the local radio audience is tuning into public radio.

Ethically Challenged? -- In making its editorial endorsements for Burlington City Council candidates and ballot items, The Burlington Free Press declined to weigh in on one race because of the appearance of a conflict of interest.

The Freeps editorial declared the paper would take no position in the Ward 5 council race between incumbent Democrat Joan Shannon and Republican challenger Charity Tensel: "The Free Press has opted to sit out this race because Tensel is a writer for the Writers Group on our Opinion Page."

How noble!

The River Shannon, by the way, is expected to win big. After all, it's Howard Dean's ward.

What's funny is that the paper's ethical editors have no problem with the chair of the Burlington Republican Party belonging to its Writers Group. On their webpage, the Freeps fails to ID Tensel's political office.

Interesting, eh?

A New Dawn? -- There are indications this week that Fletcher Allen Health Care is learning from its mistakes.

As everyone knows, the secrecy involving the Mary Fanny's Renaissance Project was justified by the fact that the scheme wouldn't have been approved without lying about its true cost.

What former CEO Bill Boettcher pitched as a $171 million project, we now know, is a $382 million project. You, me and our children and grandchildren will pay for it in our health insurance bills.

One sign of a change came Tuesday. We contacted hospital spokesman Mike Noble around 9 a.m., inquiring about reports of construction problems with the new massive underground parking garage. Our sources described rebar protruding from support beams as well as large cracks in the floor and ceiling in an unopened section of the facility.

In fact, we had pictures of the damage, though we didn't let Mr. Noble know that.

In the old days, such a press inquiry might have spawned delays and denials from Hospital Hill.

Not anymore.

Noble Mike called us before noon to say he was on the way to pick us up. We could see the area in question with our own eyes, he said.

Upon arrival, we hooked up with project manager Dave Keelty and went below ground for a look-see.

Everything was as it appeared in the photos. Workers, explained Keelty, had chipped out some concrete pillars because of "spawling" within. The temporary floor-to-ceiling shoring was in place, he said, to provide vertical stability when repairs are made.

The floor cracks, said Keelty, occurred "post-tension," i.e., after cables embedded in the slabs were tightened to hold them in place.

"It doesn't mean the building is unsafe," he assured us. It'll all be fixed shortly. The unopened section of the garage will open around October 1. Everything's on schedule, he said.

Rumors about garage problems have been circulating through the hospital staff. Thanks to Mr. Noble's straight dealing, the rumor ought to be nipped in the bud.

What Nobel's response hopefully reflects is a new attitude on Hospital Hill -- honesty is the best policy.

Pretty radical stuff, eh?

Got something to say? Send a letter to the editor and we'll publish your feedback in print!

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About The Author

Peter Freyne

Peter Freyne

Peter Freyne, 1949-2009, wrote the weekly political column "Inside Track," which originated in the Vanguard Press in the mid 1980s; he brought it to Seven Days in 1995. He retired it shortly before his death in January, 2009. We all miss him.


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