Banks for Ideological Purity. Do banks run Vermont’s capitol city?

Street theater troupe in Montpelier VT protests the kangaroo court

<b“To repeat myself ad nauseum, I still don’t see how our city’s chief economic development officer can hold and promote views that are fundamentally anti-capitalist in nature.”

–  March 19, 2013, email from the Montpelier mayor to the city manager

When a city employee promotes a point of view that happens to center on an aspect of populist economics that seeks to serve the public good, and the democratically-elected mayor of that city has an opposing ideology that he’d rather not debate openly, why would anyone expect the resolution of this conflict to be anything but ugly?

That describes the often-covert, year-long struggle by minions of the private banking industry in 2013 to strangle the nascent idea of a Public Bank for Vermontin its cradle before the public might begin to admire it and help it grow.

In this preliminary outline of the circumstances that appear to have culminated in a process so blatantly unfair as to be laughable if it were in a movie, the three main actors all worked for the City of Montpelier:

John Hollar, the mayor of Vermont’s capitol, Montpelier (population about 8,000), is an attorney in the Montpelier office of Downs Rachlin Martin, one of the state’s more prominent law firms, for which he is a registered lobbyist with some thirty years of lobbying experience. His clients include Bank of America and Wells Fargo. In March 2012, he ran unopposed and was elected in a citywide vote as mayor of Montpelier, a part-time position paying $4,000 a year.

William J. “Rusty” Fraser has been Montpelier’s city manager since 1995, longer than any city manager before him. He has cultivated a reputation for political and ideological neutrality. He has also cultivated his music since he was about 10 years old and in recent years has performed with his band Rusty Romance, playing “roots’n’roll” around the Montpelier region. Â The band now appears to be moribund.

Gwendolyn Hallsmith published “The Key to Sustainable Cities: Meeting Human Needs, Transforming Community Systems” in September 2003. She was serving as executive director of Global Community Initiatives, a small 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, when she went to work for the City of Montpelier as the Director of Planning and Community Development. Her hiring letter of October 11, 2006, makes specific allowance for her activity with Global Community Initiatives, which she founded, and other organizations, as well as her attendance at related conferences at city expense. Â 

Vermont’s reputation for having a green streak was justified

In 2001, the Montpelier City Council endorsed the Earth Charter, which defines itself as “a universal expression of ethical principles to foster sustainable development.” Montpelier was the first state capitol to endorse principles that might appear anti-capitalist in nature, as expressed in the Earth Charter preamble:

“We stand at a critical moment in Earth’s history, a time when humanity must choose its future. As the world becomes increasingly interdependent and fragile, the future at once holds great peril and great promise. To move forward we must recognize that in the midst of a magnificent diversity of cultures and life forms we are one human family and one Earth community with a common destiny. We must join together to bring forth a sustainable global society founded on respect for nature, universal human rights, economic justice, and a culture of peace. Towards this end, it is imperative that we, the peoples of Earth, declare our responsibility to one another, to the greater community of life, and to future generations.”

In this context, the city’s hiring of Gwendolyn Hallsmith made complete philosophical sense. Starting in 2007, the planning director oversaw the development of the 247-page Montpelier Master Plan using Earth Charter principles to guide “enVision Montpelier, a community driven, longrange planning initiative.” The City Council adopted the plan in September 2010, with a 30-100 Year Vision Statement that said in part:

“Our vision is to excel as a creative and sustainable community. More specifically, we seek to safeguard the natural environment and enhance our small-town setting. We aspire to strengthen community ties and expand civic participation. We aim to encourage learning and cultivate good jobs.”

For awhile Montpelier’s government followed its own plan

Even though the City Council was changing, with two new members including Mayor Hollar elected in 2012, the governing body seemed to maintain principled continuity. In December 2012 the city again paid the planning director to attend and speak at a New Economy conference, which she helped organize as a co-sponsor through Global Community Initiatives. Also co-sponsored by the Public Banking Institute and the Donella Meadows Institute, the conference promoted itself by announcing its potentially anti-capitalist nature:

“We all want vibrant, resilient economies that support our communities, but it’s becoming clear that our current economic system can’t deliver all that”¦. Â and profits are shared very unevenly. There are alternatives. Our economies can be better, healthier, and stronger. They can be more sustainable, more fair, and more local.” [emphasis added]

The conference keynote speaker was Los Angeles attorney Ellen Brown, chairman and president of the Public Banking Institute, formed in January 2011 “to further the understanding, explore the possibilities, and facilitate the implementation of public banking at all levels – local, regional, state, and national.”

Mayor Hollar opened the conference with a three-minute welcome speech, using talking points Hallsmith had prepared for him. The mayor touted the city’s Master Plan as a guide to developing a creative local economy, and he noted recent initiatives including a wood-burning power plant, a time bank exchange, and the effort to make Montpelier bicycle and pedestrian friendly. He concluded saying, “Thank you to Gwen [Hallsmith] for all your work on behalf of the city.”

Introducing the mayor, the planning director had just said, “I’ve been working hard over the last six years to make Montpelier a model of a resilient local economy ”¦ trying to set an example for other communities.”

By the end of 2012, public banking legislation had been introduced in at least 16state legislatures, but Vermont was not among them. As of November 2013, banking lobbyists continued to be successful in keeping the Vermont Legislature from even forming a study committee on public banking.

How many personal attacks does it take to add up to “ad nauseum”

It’s not clear precisely when Mayor Hollar started ragging on his planning director for her “views that are fundamentally anti-capitalist in nature,” but by March 19, 2013, by his own email account, the mayor had been repeating himself ad nauseumat least to the city manager. That particular email outburst was apparently prompted by an email he had received about an hour earlier from Lucie Garand, a fellow attorney at Downs Rachlin Martin.

Garand was reporting to him and other lawyers in the firm about legislative testimony earlier that day dealing with pending public banking legislation and the threat public banking could pose to the firm’s private banking clients. A Demos report in February had argued that “large out-of-state banks are failing Vermont small businesses.” Even though the Senate committees on finance and appropriations reported the bill favorably, it died quietly April 30, on a parliamentary move by Democratic senator John Campbell, and never came to a vote.

Whatever the mayor may have expected on March 19 that the city manager would do about the planning director, the city manager appears not to have done it. On April 10, while chairing a City Council public meeting with startling ineptitude (so startling it might appear to have been deliberate), Mayor Hollar allowed a disgruntled member of the Planning Commission (John Bloch) to vent at length, including thinly veiled personal attacks on the planning director (although apparently not for her anti-capitalist views). Bloch’s uncontrolled vitriol prompted at least one member of the public to complain at length (four pages, single-spaced) to the mayor directly, with copies to the council and the city manager. [The video of this meeting is no longer available on the city website.]

Three days after the April 10 meeting, Mayor Hollar sent a four-line apology to the planning director, with copies to the council and the city manager. The mayor said, in part:

“I want to apologize for not intervening and cutting off John Bloch’s rambling criticism of you and the Planning Department”¦. Â and you should have been given an opportunity to respond in any event.”

What happens when city officials try shutting down free speech? 

The day after the meeting, Planning Director Hallsmith had filed a complaint form with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), seeking their help in defending her First Amendment rights. The city manager had by then showed her the mayor’s “anti-capitalist” email, with its clear intent to coerce the city manager into quieting Hallsmith. She summed up her situation this way to the ACLU:

“On two separate occasions now, my supervisor – the city manager – has expressed his concern about my outside speaking and writing, and last week, on April 4th, he told me that serious changes are being considered for my job responsibilities because members of the City Council think that the ideas in my books and outside writing are not consistent with what the city should be doing”¦.

“Last night the City Council met to discuss one of the changes to my job responsibilities and reiterated their belief that the role I have been playing in community and economic development is not appropriate, due in part to my interest in the public side of it, as opposed to the private sector side. While no action has been taken yet, the atmosphere at work has become very intimidating, and I feel as if I’m being punished for the writing and speaking I have done when it doesn’t match the ideological bent of a few City Councilors.”

Hallsmith did not claim that city officials were creating a hostile workplace by their actions, but she describes workplace conditions that would support such an allegation. Nor did she complain that she was under pressure, in effect, to violate the law as expressed by the city’s duly-adopted Master Plan, which some city officials wanted to ignore, although that, too, appears to be the case.

“I am hoping that it can be resolved without a huge public scandal,” Hallsmith wrote the ACLU. “I am not looking to make headlines – but I feel my rights are being compromised and my job is in jeopardy. I work hard for the city, and I do not like being treated this way.”

Her request of the ACLU was simple and moderate: “I think it would probably be sufficient to send a letter to the city manager advising him of the questionable legality of his actions.” In a letter to Hallsmith almost six weeks later, the ACLU declined to meet with her or offer her any help whatsoever.

The mayor was on notice in April of potential city illegalities 

Responding to the mayor’s apology the same day, Hallsmith thanked Mayor Hollar for his “belated regrets” while criticizing his failure to maintain order and civility by reining in obstreperous city officials who were making unfounded personal attacks. She went on to point out what Attorney Hollar surely knew: that it was her duty to follow the Master Plan and the state law that gave it authority. [She did not mention that one of the contentious zoning issues involved property in which the mayor had a personal interest.]  She outlined the larger city government problem bluntly:

“In both Planning Commission and City Council meetings, there appears to be very little understanding that the zoning needs to be in compliance with the other city policies. When I’ve brought it up in City Council, [councilor] Tom Golonka accused me of ‘throwing the Master Plan in our face.’ [Planning commissioner and attorney] Eileen Simpson was quoted in the paper questioning the need to change the zoning in the first place. At the City Council the other night, Tom Golonka said again that ‘policy changes’ needed to be vetted with City Council first. When the City Council adopted the Master Plan and received Growth Center designation, you established the policies the zoning needs to implement.”Â Â [emphasis added]

To resolve this collective impasse, the planning director suggested to the mayor “that we schedule a joint meeting of the City Council and the Planning Commission where we do a workshop on state land use law, the master plan and zoning adoption and amendment processes, and the substance of our current policies ”¦ to insure that a few people can’t change the overall city policy direction without due process.”

There is no available record of the mayor or others responding to the planning director’s response to his personal apology (she sent copies to the same list he had copied his apology to). No workshop has been held in the interim and, as of late 2013, the city government is no less dysfunctional and peppered with conflicts of interest than it was in the spring. 

The slow kabuki of Gwen Hallsmith’s kangaroo court proceeded 

On April 15, according to Hallsmith, an angry city manager, accompanied by his assistant, berated Hallsmith for writing to the mayor directly, even though it was in response to an email directly from the mayor and the city manager was on the copy list of the exchange. Hallsmith reports that the city manager ordered her “not to speak or write about New Economy issues,” which includes public banking, and warned her that the mayor was still “angry about the December 7 conference” at which he had spoken.

Through the summer and into the fall, Hallsmith continued to speak and write about the issues she cared about, without immediate consequence.

On April 23, Jed Guertin, a Montpelier resident and former state employee, who likes to keep track of city government issues (he’s watched the broadcast or attended most of the Planning Commission meetings in 2013), wrote a letter to Mayor Hollar, the Council and the manager about the April 10 Council meeting. Guertin was disturbed by several facets of the meeting, including the mayor’s failure to control personal invective. There is no available response from anyone to Guertin’s letter, which independently confirms the governmental failures the planning director had described. At Guertin’s request, the City posted his April 23 letter with the December 20 city manager’s report.

At its June 24 meeting, the Planning Commission made clear its intention to ignore the City’s ethics policy when discussing properties in which members had some interest.

In July, Vermonters for a New Economy, one of Hallsmith’s projects, initiated a “State Bank Town Meeting Campaign,” designed get Vermonters at a town meeting on March 4, 2014, to support this resolution:

“We call on the State Legislature to create a Public Bank for Vermont that enhances the work of the Vermont Economic Development Authority, the Vermont Student Assistance Corporation, the Vermont Housing Finance Agency, the Municipal Bond Bank, and Vermont chartered community banks and credit unions by accepting deposits from the state and municipal governments and making loan programs available for students, homeowners, municipalities and enterprises to make Vermont economically stable, self-reliant, and successful.”

State turf defenders squeal, Mayor Hollar seeks Hallsmith’s head

The executive director of one of the targeted state agencies – the Vermont Housing Finance Agency (VHFA) – got hold of an earlier version of the resolution that called for consolidating, not just enhancing the agencies. VHFA’s Sarah Carpenter took the wrong version of the resolution and raised an alarm with a “high importance” email to a short list of people that included Attorney Jennifer Hollar, the wife of the Montpelier mayor. Forwarding the email to his city manager, Mayor Hollar added his own volcanic response (here in its entirety) in his own “high importance” email:

“I would like to know 1) how Gwen manages to run her non-profit and pursue this initiative while maintaining her obligation to the City; and 2) how this campaign is consistent with the City’s economic development policies and her job

description. Why in the world would the city want to take a position in support of consolidating the agencies below (and antagonizing some of the ‘most senior economic development officials in the state’)? More importantly, this is something the council has never discussed. Gwen obviously can pursue interests on her own time, but as the City’s chief economic development officer, her position on these issue can’t be distinguished from her official position with the City.

“Between this and the planning commission fiasco, this really can’t continue. I’m not sure I see the point in my meeting with her to outline these concerns. I’ve raised them before with you, I assume they’ve been communicated to her, and nothing has changed.”Â Â [emphasis added]

The mayor admits the City Council has never discussed public banking, much less determined a City policy on public banking. The planning director cannot possibly be speaking out against a policy that does not exist. The point is that she has been told not to speak at all and, while working to keep his fingerprints off the apparent plot to decapitate this anti-capitalist, the mayor manages to make it clear that he’s had more than enough!

This has long been a traditional response of power to truth, illustrated similarly in the 12th century, when an angry King Henry II took umbrage at the integrity of Thomas Beckett, Archbishop of Canterbury. “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?” the King complained to his underlings, and soon the archbishop was murdered in the cathedral. Montpelier in the 21st century may not be so grand, but a willing city manager and a kangaroo court would soon accomplish a similar if less bloody end.

Who needs evidence when you’re just following orders? 

On September 27, a week after hearing from the mayor, and without any official action by the City Council or any further documentation to justify his decision (other than the mayor’s angry email demanding ideological purity), the city manager made this series of unsupported, ex cathedra assertions:

1) You have lost the confidence and support of the City Council.

2) You have lost the confidence and support of the Planning Commission.

3) I have lost trust in your ability to communicate effectively when carrying out your official duties.

4) Your extensive non-profit corporation Work and other non-city Work continues to raise questions about your commitment to the city and your allocation of time.

5) Despite multiple conversations that we have had, you continue to be involved with and/or take public positions on political matters that may not reflect city policy and may, in fact, be in direct opposition to the city’s economic development goals. This has diluted your credibility as a city official.

To make these arbitrary assertions even less credible, the city manager prefaced them by saying: “I acknowledge that there are multiple sides to all of this and that this warrants a more complete discussion and review.”

The city manager went on to place the planning director under the supervision of his assistant (who had been on the job about six months and had no special expertise in planning or economic development). Â He also ordered the planning director to prepare zoning regulations as the Planning Commission requested, without regard as to the legality of the commission’s request. And he put a limited but vague gag order in writing: “You will refrain from involvement in external political issues such as public banking which may impact your effectiveness as a Montpelier City official.” [emphasis added]

Without referring to the mayor directly, the city manager offered this final, ambiguous understatement: “l sincerely regret that circumstances exist which require me to take these actions.”

Handwriting on the wall? Let everyone read it.

In early October, Planning Director Hallsmith went on vacation, much of which she spent organizing Vermonters for a New Economy events. She also had what she described as “an off-the-record conversation with people at the Times Argus [a Montpelier newspaper] about Mayor Hollar’s email of September 20th, which impugned my integrity and my personal reputation.” The city manager got wind of this meeting and started sending Hallsmith somewhat frantic emails that did little to clear the air, as he accused Hallsmith of being the problem: “You have created the difficulty by disclosing confidential matters to the press.”

The first news story ran October 23 in the Times Argus, and other stories followed in Vermont media. According to the Times Argus, the city manager said Hallsmith was “in no danger of losing her job over this.”

In the VTDigger story, “Public Banking Campaign Sparks Controversy at Montpelier City Hall,” both the mayor and the city manager continued to misrepresent the town meeting resolution Hallsmith was actually promoting.

On October 24, in the wake of the first news stories, Hallsmith attended a contentious Planning Commission meeting at which she was a target. Despite what the city manager had written, the Planning Commission did not hold a vote or otherwise collectively express confidence in Hallsmith. On the contrary, attorney Kim Cheney (who has his own zoning conflict of interest and chairs the commission) wrote Hallsmith a conciliatory email after the meeting, saying in part: “We need your expertise to write a new law with new concepts.”

A week later the City Council issued a formal statement on the controversy that included this fundamentally dishonest assertion: “Aside from raising legitimate questions with the city manager about conflicts between the planning director’s outside advocacy and her job responsibilities to the City, the mayor has had no role whatsoever in this personnel matter.” The statement did not go on to mention that silencing Hallsmith would be a service to Mayor Hollar’s big bank clients.

Maintaining a collective fiction may require heads to roll

On November 6, the city manager removed the planning director from her job, putting Hallsmith on paid administrative leave. The next day he published a slick, self-serving, and dishonest version of events that included the falsehood: “The allegations against Mayor John Hollar are simply not true.” Mayor Hollar’s role is complicated and devious, to be sure, but it’s hard to believe that without his conniving, Gwen Hallsmith wouldn’t still have her job. In any event, the mayor’s “detached disinterest” is the new reality that city officials are repeating ad nauseum. Anything else, like an email all but demanding change, would appear to be a violation of Title X, Section 9 (Non-interference by the City Council) of the Montpelier City Charter.

On November 25, the city manager and the city attorney met with Hallsmith and her attorney, who objected at length to the City’s procedures on the grounds that they were unfair and violated state law. The next day the city manager fired Hallsmith. The city manager had provided a rambling memo alleging Hallsmith’s supposed misdeeds, but there was no serious effort to analyze essentially trivial complaints to show how they rose to the level of a firing offense under the City’s personnel policy.

That policy allows Hallsmith to seek a grievance hearing, which she did. Under the policy, the hearing officer at the grievance hearing would be the city manager, who would also be the main witness for the prosecution.

Hallsmith’s lawyer objected to this strongly in a letter to the city manager: “You cannot possibly sit as factfinder in a case where you, yourself, will be a witness, subject to cross-examination and be called upon to judge the testimony of witnesses which is adverse to your own.”

The City solved this problem by having the city manager’s assistant, Jessie Baker, serve as the hearing officer at the hearing where her boss was the only prosecution witness. The assistant’s name was also on the official “Procedures for Hallsmith Grievance Hearing” held December 20.

The rules might have derived from the jurisprudence of Alice in Wonderland.

Hallsmith would be allowed to be represented by counsel, but counsel wouldn’t be allowed to question the City’s witness. She chose to save money and not question the witness herself. Â The rules of evidence would not apply and the hearing officer could rely on hearsay at her whim. Despite Hallsmith’s request for an open hearing, the City closed the hearing to the public.

City officials have maintained that the “termination decision” was made properly. In a relatively non-responsive reply to an inquiry, the city manager wrote: “The hearing was held under the process established in the city’s personnel plan which was adopted by the City Council pursuant to the authority established in the City Charter”¦. The pre-termination hearing [on November 25] and right to judicial review provide full due process as recognized by the courts. The grievance hearing is additional non-mandatory process pursuant to the personnel plan.”

The grievance hearing on December 20 lasted about five hours and a decision was reportedly promised within ten days.

Meanwhile, the city manager’s weekly report of December 13 had already noted:

“The Planning Commission met in open meeting on Monday, December 9, 2013. The Manager and Assistant Manager both attended to address their agenda item of Commission staffing during the transition with the planning director position. The Commission voted unanimously to hire a consultant to work specifically with the Commission on the rewrite of the zoning ordinance. The city manager’s Office will facilitate bringing on this consultant.”

In the event that the assistant city manager decides the grievance hearing in favor of the city manager, Hallsmith has indicated that he will take her case to the Vermont Superior Court.

Back in April, when Jed Guertin objected to the rancorous April 10 Council meeting, he says he had no idea Hallsmith’s head was on the block. Nevertheless he wrote then: “If there is a real issue with staff, please deal with it appropriately. I’ve seen what firing good staff, because of a political power play, can do to a community here in Vermont. It was not pretty and cost this one community over twenty years of disharmony.”

* * * * *

[Author’s disclosure: Almost the first I heard of this story was an email looking for participants in a demonstration at City Hall the day of the grievance hearing. The idea was to hold a kangaroo court on the steps of the building. I volunteered to be the judge, since clearly someone needed to explain the need for verdict first, trial after, as well as the compelling interest of the city to enforce obedience to the thought demands of the mayor. As it turned out, the demonstrators were too unorganized to demonstrate, and the forces against anti-capitalist heresy remain in control in the Capitol City, whose motto is “A Little Capital Goes a Long Way.”] 

Reader Supported News is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to Reader Supported News.

“What the Fukushima?” Vermont Yankee nuclear power protests

“What the Fukashima?” and dozens of other anti-nuclear messages graced the bridges of the Interstate Highway from Northampton, Massachusetts, to Burlington, Vermont, reminding Columbus Day weekend leaf peepers that were passing close to the evacuation zone of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, still operating past its 40-year design life.

“What the Fukushima?” refers to the basic design of  the 1972 Vermont Yankee, which used the same General Electric boiling water reactor technology as the 1971 Fukushima plants that failed in Japan in March 2011.

Vermont Yankee’s original license expired on March 2012, but the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has already granted a 20-year license renewal to the plant’s owner, Entergy Corp. of Louisiana. Â The Fukushima #1 plant had been scheduled for decommissioning in 2011, but had been granted a ten-year renewal before the tsunami hit.

Although it continues to keep operating effectively most of the time, Vermont Yankee remains entangled in legal, political, and environmental disputes, in the context of a largely hostile public. Â The State of Vermont is fighting Entergy in federal court. Â The Vermont Legislature has already voted once to close the plant and has passed a tax bill to make up for revenue Entergy presently refuses to pay.

Environmentally, Vermont Yankee has suffered a long string of “events,” including the collapse of a heating tower, various leaks of radioactivity, and seasonal overheating of the water in the Connecticut River.

In September, Vermont started shipping low level radioactive waste from the University of Vermont and a Burlington hospital to Andrews County, Texas, by trucks using public highways. Â This is the first such shipment under an agreement approved 20 years earlier, the Texas-Vermont Low-Level Radioactive Waste Compact. Â Vermont Yankeehas also shipped some its radioactive waste to the same dump, a 15,000 acre site in a poor area that straddles the Texas-New Mexico border.

The unguarded transport of nuclear waste on public highways has been controversial in the past in relation to nuclear weapons waste. Â In Texas, early alarms have been sounded about the safety of shipping this waste to the remote site owned by Harold Simmons, a Dallas billionaire and heavy Republican bankroller, as described in the Dallas-Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

The paper also reported: “In the past eight years, 72 incidents nationwide involving trucks carrying radioactive material on highways have caused $2.4 million in damage and one death, the Transportation Department’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration says.”

The Texas dump expects to receive radioactive waste from 36 states, including Vermont, but this wasn’t the direct target of the holiday weekend banner drop along the Interstate.

“Shut down Before Meltdown” was the message on the bridge in South Royalton, home of the Vermont Law School. “You Are In A Nuclear Reactor Zone” is said on the Bridge in Bernardston, just over the Massachusetts border from Yankee’s location next to the Connecticut River in Vernon. Â Yankee is Vermont’s only nuclear power plant.

The bridge banners were the work of anti-nuclear affinity groups from both states, part of regional resistance to nuclear power older than the plant itself. Â Members of the Sage Alliance, the affinity groups’ names include “Shut It Down,” “Sunflower Brigade,” “Downstreamers” and the “VT Yankee Decommissioning Alliance.”

Police violence elicits official stonewall in Vermont

Source unknown

Hundreds of Vermonters have called for an independent investigation of police violence in Burlington last July, but city officials including the mayor, the police chief, and now the five members of the city police commission have joined in effectively stonewalling any outside review of what led some police officers to shoot rubber pellets and pepper spray at non-violent and fleeing demonstrators.

The Burlington City Council is divided on the question of how, or even whether to hold police accountable. The issue is expected to come before them at their next meeting October 15, in response the police commission’s unanimous vote against any independent assessment of police behavior.

At least 240 people have signed an online petition calling on the mayor, the city council, and the police commission to “deliver an independent investigation and meaningful accountability” for police actions on July 29 when a small group of protestors tried to block several buses full of New England Governors, Canadian Premiers, and other dignitaries from going to a formal banquet at nearby Shelburne Farms. Video of the events shows clearly that the blockade was quickly dispersed by police in riot gear, after which some officers attacked protesters as the buses left the scene.

First term Mayor Miro Weinberger, who did not witness the events, promptly commended the police on their behavior. On August 24, the Burlington Police Department issued an in-house, 83-page “preliminary after action report” that asserted that the officers involved “showed exceptional professionalism under adverse, complex, and rapidly evolving circumstances.”

This report prompted four city councilors to call for an independent review, since the police report made no attempt to collect information from civilian witnesses or demonstrators. Meeting in September, members of the police commission indicated that they understood that the police report was an incomplete, internal review and was not intended to be a comprehensive review of events from all sides. This report contributed to the petition effort, as well as reports of widespread skepticism that city government would be responsive.

Rejecting any need for further review, Police Commission chair Jerome O’Neill, who was not a witness to the July 29 events, characterized some of the protesters as “troublemakers” during the commission meeting September 27. Responding to audience members defending their right to demonstrate, O’Neill told them, referring to the police, “You didn’t make their job any easier.”

Most of the 40 of so people at the commission meeting wanted an independent investigation, but the commission seemed to have its mind already made up to make no such recommendation for an independent body.

“What would we discover that we haven’t heard?” wondered commissioner Paul Hochenadel.

“And what new information would come out of an investigation that would change the opinion of the department and the folks that what they, what they did was within the, within the policy?” asked commissioner Sarah Kenney.

One of the organizers of the peaceful demonstrations of July 29, Jo Robin suggested that the commission could perhaps find out why she was visited by the FBI shortly before the governors’ conference, and what dealings the FBI and other federal security agencies were having with the Burlington Police Department.

“The value of an objective analysis and the value of a legal investigation is that the spin of a particular narrative can be examined from other sides by gathering evidence and counter evidence, and allegations can be examined for their truth value. In the case of this report, we have a narrative that attempts to paint a small group of protestors as a dangerous group who planned ahead of time to use aggressive and violent tactics on the police,” said Genese Grill, a professor of writing and critical thinking, reading her statement.

Expressing the commission’s unwillingness to look further, O’Neill commented at one point, “But the larger picture – I think we have the picture, I think we understand fundamentally what happened.

The director of the Vermont Human Rights Commission, attorney Robert Appel, tried explaining to the police commission some of the problems with the official response so far: “I was also concerned that within a day or two of the event that both the Chief and the Mayor issued public statements which at least I had perceived to be saying the police acted reasonably. I don’t know how you square that with an after the fact review that is internal”¦. I’m worried that without a true independent, dispassionate review of what occurred that day”¦ that trust and connection with all of the community will be dissipated.”

O’Neill responded only by asking Appel to conclude. When O’Neill and the other commissioners set about writing their recommendation to have no further investigation, more than 20 people walked out in protest.

“This is unbelievable,” said attorney Sandy Baird, a community activist and Burlington College history teacher whose critique of official actions has been broadcast on community television: “They didn’t mention one violent act on the part of the protesters because there was none. My question remains, why weren’t they arrested? The cops had weapons, the protesters did not.”

City councilors at the police commission meeting included Rachel Siegel and Sharon Bushor, both of whom favor an independent investigation.” In August they signed a letter, along with council members Vince Brennan and Max Tracy, asking the mayor to support a neutral review. The city council has 13 members.

Council president Joan Shannon was also present, but remained silent.

Romney campaign sucker punches Vermont media on voting issue

(This article was originally credited to Bob Morris when the actual author was William Boardman. Our apologies.)

Early Tuesday evening, Vermont Public Radio, (VPR) put out a story about the Romney campaign challenging absentee balloting in Vermont, and got it badly wrong. Other news operations repeated the story, getting it just as wrong in the Burlington Free Press, the Barre Times Argus, the BrattleboroReformer and others, on out into the virtual news world.

“Romney Camp Decries Vermont Absent Voting Preparations” was the identical headline in each of those media, giving credence to some problem with absentee ballots. Â That problem, according to an unsupported Romney Campaign claim  was that the Vermont Secretary of State’s “office’s delays caused 53 municipalities to violate the 45-day ballot-transmission deadline for the November 6, 2012 general election.”

In fairness, these media were all parroting the original, erroneous story from the Associated Press (AP), which re-packaged the bogus claim from the Romney Campaign in Washington without verifying it independently.

The accusatory letter to Secretary of State James Condos that falsely asserts “your office’s violations of military voting rights” is the official position of the Romney Campaign. According to Condos, “The Romney campaign emailed the letter to the press”¦. Â We first heard of it and received a copy from the Associated Press.”

The two-page, single spaced letter is dated September 25 and addressed to Condos, in care of Kathy Scheele, Director of Elections, with a copy to the U.S. Dept. of Justice. The letter is signed by Anthony Principi, former U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs under President Bush, and national chair of the “Veterans and Military Families for Romney Coalition.”

Although the letter asserts “violations” four different times, only the U.S. Dept. of Justice can make that initial determination. Â What the letter alleges to be a violation is that unspecified “delays” by the Secretary of State’s office somehow caused some unspecified number of absentee ballots to be sent out after the legal deadline of September 22.

Condos acknowledged that some ballots may have gone out late, but his office needs to review the record with the town clerks who are responsible for actually mailing out absentee ballots to military and overseas voters under state law.

As explained by Bryan Whitener of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission in Washington, the absentee ballot requirement “falls under the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act of 2010 (“MOVE Act”), which amended the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA). The Secretary of Defense has administrative responsibilities for UOCAVA. Within the Department of Defense, the Secretary has assigned these responsibilities to the Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP). The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) is the agency charged with enforcing all federal election laws.”

Condos has provided a copy of the Vermont absentee ballot report filed with DOJ as required by law. Â That report lists all the state’s 834 absentee ballot requests by individual voters, grouped by town. Â Reviewing that report shows that there may be as many as 46 apparently un-sent ballots scattered among 20 towns. Â Â At this point no one knows if some ballots were not sent because the voter came home or died, for example.

The Romney Campaign’s letter falsely claimed 53 “municipalities” violated the law, without naming one.

The Romney Campaign’s letter falsely asserted that the Vermont Secretary of State has some oversight authority over Vermont’s town clerks.

The state’s ballot report shows that some of the un-sent ballots were requested after the deadline. Â It shows that many requests that came in close to the Saturday deadline had ballots sent the out early the following week.

As Condos observed, “Many of those went out on Monday, by email, which means that the recipients will actually receive their ballots before anyone who receives it by snail mail – kind of ironic.”

The Romney Campaign letter notes that it had sent a previous letter of concern, but omits one of the reasons for that concern: the state had to complete an unexpectedly complicated recount of the Progressive Party’s race for the governor nomination before ballots could be printed. Â Neither the state nor the towns do recounts. Â The recounts were handled by the counties, but dependent on the towns. When it was over, this race was on its third official final total.

The Romney Campaign letter concludes with Principi saying, “If I may be of any assistance as your office and the U.S. Department of Justice attempt to

correct your office’s violations of military voting rights, please do not hesitate to contact me.”Â Â But the letter includes no personal contact information other than the campaign website URL.

For days the Romney Campaign spokespersons have been saying that this ballot issue wasn’t “political,” just an effort to help the troops vote. Â But the Vermont letter was apparently coordinated with a similar letter in support of Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown. Â Â And the same erroneous AP story managed to turn up on the website for at least three other states, New YorkVirginia, andFlorida.

Vermont’s Fox News station took the same AP report as everyone else and re-wrote it to make it slightly harsher.

And 24 hours after running the inaccurate AP story, VPR posted a less inaccurate version that still treated the claim as credible, but also as “a taste of presidential politics.”Â Â Â The story quotes a Middlebury College professor to the effect that Romney’s effort won’t affect the result in Vermont, but could be a plus for him in other states, like New Hampshire.

None of the subsequent clarifications explain why the Vermont Secretary of State didn’t challenge the factual inaccuracies as soon as he was aware of them.

Nor does any of this explain why, if the Romney Campaign is serious about defending the right to vote, it hasn’t challenged the latest voting list purge in Florida, an effort to challenge voters’ citizenship even though some of them already proved it during similar purge efforts earlier this year.

Police violence precedes governor’s conference in Vermont


New England governors and friends were on their way to a dinner party prior to a conference in Burlington, VT and found the way blocked by pedestrians and protesters. So they did what was only natural and called in the police, with police violence the predictable result.

This happened in Vermont, which is not a state known for big protests or huge overreaction response from police.  Yet that’s what happened. Something think Occupy has gone away. It sure hasn’t in Vermont, which is a state that has been libertarian since long before the word was invented.  Instead of negotiating with protesters the police arrived in gear more befitting a drug cartel raid than for dealing with peaceful protesters. The level of police violence continues to grow unabated. They apparently view the public as the enemy.

And yes, I have helped organize protests, some of which were huge, where police and organizers did negotiate. They key seems to be size. If there are 100 protesters, police won’t negotiate but they probably will if 100,00 are watching.

The Burlington protesters were perhaps invoking the spirit of the patron saint of Vermont, Ethan Allen.