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June 2009

June 24, 2009

Naked Guy Blurt Alert

Did anyone else see the naked man jogging down Shelburne Road at around 4:15 p.m.? I did. I guess he wasn't completely naked — he was wearing a pair of sandals, a watch and some spectacles, as he seemingly was out for an afternoon run.

When I told my colleagues of the sighting they quickly told me that any good media person would have gotten a photo. Oops.

Can Vermont Kick the Nuclear Habit?

A group of energy experts will gather tonight in the Mad River Valley at the Big Picture Theater in Waitsfield to discuss what the future holds for Vermont’s power supply, and if the state should allow its lone nuke plant to operate for another 20 years.

I'll be live-Tweeting the panel discussion and Q&A. You can follow me on Twitter.

Staff writer Ken Picard, who previewed the panel discussion in last week's issue, will join me at the event. 

Ken thought it best he come along on the trip to Waitsfield as he heard they allow disc golf in the Mad River Valley, which means you never know what kind of nutjobs could be lurking in the crowd. Traveling in pairs from Burlington may ensure one of us isn't treated to some form of "enhanced recreational technique," as Ken put it. Smart guy.

The free event, to be held from 6 to 8 p.m., is dubbed “an educational discussion” on Vermont’s energy future and the “political, health, economic and environmental implications of this decision.” At least an hour will be set aside for the public to ask questions of panelists.

Panelists include several critics of the nuke industry, including Dr. Nancy Chickering with Physicians For Social Responsibility and James Moore, a clean-energy advocate with Vermont Public Interest Research Group. Lawrence Mott, the third panelist, is managing director of New Generation Partners and has spent nearly a quarter-century developing wind and solar projects in Vermont. And, last but not least, there’s Arnie Gundersen, a nuclear engineer and member of the Vermont Yankee Oversight Panel.

Gundersen was recently asked by lawmakers to continue to monitor Vermont Yankee's progress in making improvements to its operations.

The plant has been beset by a series of leaks in the past couple of weeks, which is sure to draw some discussion and early conclusions about its long-term potential as a reliable power source.

If They Can't Stay It's A Shame

For 103 years Centennial Field has been home to Vermont Baseball and it's finally showing signs of age. The mound, like a bum hip, needs replaced, the outfield seems to need a cane to stay level, and like any 103 year-old, it's getting harder to see in the dark. But to quote Satchel Page — who pitched past his 59th birthday — "Age is a case of mind over matter, if you don't mind it don't matter."

And it especially don't matter when you have fans and boys who want to play ball.

I was at the Lake Monsters home opener the other night, and you would have thought Major League Baseball approved the stadium for 15 more years. You could barely keep the thought of losing the team in your mind during the nearly nine innings of shutout ball. Everyone had the stomach for hot dogs, the energy to dance between innings, and the stamina to watch the winning run in the 10th.

The spirit was undoubtedly alive in the stands, but it's anyone's guess whether it will prod the "supporters" in City Hall, The State House, and beyond. Hopefully they don't shake off the sings coming from the stands.

And one more thing, what's so bad about an outfield with a few lumps? Now, I'm not condoning an outfield that resembles the foothills of the Green Mountains, but do you think Satchel Page played on level fields when he was in the Negro League? Do you think minor leaguers have always enjoyed perfect lighting? Of course not. That's what makes theses young ballplayers tough — it's probably the reason someone like Satchel Page lasted as long as he did.

After all, this is Single-A ball, not the show, and certainly not the ballet. I like baseball. I like when the games are dirty and tough. But now I'm rambling. Play ball!

June 23, 2009

A Fool & His Money ...

If a fool and his money are soon parted, what does it mean that the state is holding onto tens of millions of dollars worth of unclaimed assets?

That's what Barre resident Wallace Nolen aims find out. Nolen has raised the hackles of state and local officials for the past few years thanks to voluminous requests for public information—and suing town officials who ignore his requests.

For the past month, Nolen has been accumulating the names and contact information for state and local officials in an effort to alert Vermonters that millions of dollars of their money is being held. In some cases, they are state and local employees. In other cases, he wants them put on notice that folks living in their towns are owed money.

Nolen's goal?

To reunite enough people with their lost money that the raid on the Vermont treasury forces the state into bankruptcy—or at least cripples it to the point that real budget-cutting measures need to be enacted.

“I don’t know what he’s going to do when people start filing claims en masse,” said Nolen.

Treasurer Jeb Spaulding said the state could find it difficult to pay back all the money it owes if it came in at once. In all, the state is holding about $45 million in unclaimed assets to tens of thousands of people.

"If it all were to come at a time when we were short on cash, it would be hard to do," notes Spaulding. "But, we've never had a huge run at once, and the money is being utilized by the state in the meantime. Of all the potential financial challenges I could spend some imagining and planning for, this isn't one of them."

That's because Spaulding said no matter how hard he tries, not everyone wants to be reunited with their money.

Nolen said the state could do more to reunite people with its money. While the Douglas administration talks a good game about lowering taxes, Nolen notes that taxpayers are funding about $150,000 to pay for ads touting the treasurer and his website.

"It amounts to nothing more than a political ad for Jeb Spaulding," said Nolen. "All the ads say is to call his office or go on his website. If they truly wanted to turn around and disperse this money, they could—but they need to reach out to people more directly. The state wants to hold onto it so they can use it for other purposes."

In 2007, a federal judge in California ordered the state to send out letters on official letterhead to claimants (who are owed a certain amount or more). At the time, the state was holding about $5 billion of unclaimed assets, adding about $900 million a year.

If Spaulding, or Gov. Jim Douglas, wanted to "stimulate the state economy," they would send out similar letters before being forced to do so by a judge. Nolen may seek to do just that in court.

“It’s a big can of worms and the news media hasn’t dug into this kind of stuff,” adds Nolen.

Spaulding said it's in his best interest to reunite people with their money, and his office is doing all it can.

"Look, I'm a statewide elected officer and nothing gets people more excited than getting money, so it's in my best interest as a politician to make sure they get it," said Spaulding. "So, if someone has some good new ideas, I'm all for it."

Spaulding said his office is always trying to improve its outreach, but it does get harder to unite people with their money as time goes by. In some cases, if the original owner dies, then the money is passed on to a spouse or relative.

In fact, some of Vermont's more prominent pols are on the list, including former Gov. Phil Hoff, State Sen. Diane Snelling (R-Chittenden), Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin (D-Windham), and the campaign committees of Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), former Gov. Howard Dean and current Gov. Jim Douglas.

Each year, the treasurer's office prints out copies of who is owed money by municipality and by legislative district. The municipal lists are sent to town clerks and the legislative district lists are given to individual legislators. No one knows who the people are, or where they live, other than local workers and elected officials.

State law was changed this year so the tax department can share mailing addresses with the treasurer's office if a social security number or tax identification number matches someone from the unclaimed property list.

On average, people are owed amounts in the hundreds of dollars. However, Spaulding did note a recent payout was in the millions. It was the estate of a woman who had died, and her heirs ended up in court over the settlement.

"What's interesting is, with the economy being the way it is, we're seeing people claim smaller sums," said Spaulding. "It was fairly typical in previous years to see people ignore amounts less than $100 or so, and now people are claiming everything they can get."

To find out if the state has some missing money of yours, click here.

Governor on the Go

Unlike his Republican counterpart in South Carolina, Gov. Jim Douglas is always easy to find. And it's already been a busy week for the state-trotting chief executive.

Tomorrow he meets, once again, with Pres. Barack Obama. This time he won't be alone, however, as he joins five other governors to talk about health-care reform.

“I look forward to our meeting," said Douglas in a statement. "It will give us the chance to speak directly with the President about the good things we are doing in our states and how we can work together to craft a health-care-reform program that achieves our goals.”

Douglas met with Obama earlier this year, one-on-one in the Oval Office, as the president drummed up bipartisan support for his economic stimulus package. Now, the president is hoping to forge similar alliances around health-care reform.

“Vermont is a leader among states when it comes to important reforms to our health-care system. Many of our programs serve as a national model and are being implemented in other states and municipalities across America,” added Douglas.

Earlier this year, Gov. Douglas and Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick cohosted one of five regional White House Forums on Health Reform. The New England forum was held at the University of Vermont’s Davis Center. Pres. Obama will meet with five of the governors who hosted these regional forums.

In addition, Douglas and a group of governors will meet with U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius; Lawrence Summers, director of the National Economic Council and assistant to the president for economic policy; Valerie Jarrett, senior advisor and assistant to the president for intergovernmental affairs and public liaison; and Nancy-Ann DeParle, counselor to the president and director of the White House Office of Health Reform.

On Monday, Douglas was in Washington, D.C., as Surescripts doled out awards to health care leaders from around the country. Vermont was deemed the most improved state, jumping in rank from 31st to 14th.

Douglas joined Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen, his cochair of the State Alliance for E-Health and cohost of the Fourth Annual Safe-Rx Awards.

The State Alliance was created by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices in January 2007 to improve the nation's health-care system, according to the governor's office. The group formed a collaborative body that "enables states to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of the health information technology initiatives they develop."

Douglas will take over as chairman of the National Governors Association come July.

He was back in Vermont today to celebrate the reopening of the Richmond bridge to traffic. Hey, why stay in D.C. when you can cut a ribbon in Vermont, right?


Best Bites: One Federal, St. Albans

I don't care about American food the way I care about Korean or Bosnian or Uyghur cuisine. It takes a lot for me to get excited about dishes most Americans consider standards.

Spring 2009 169 That's why One Federal has been such a revelation. Never before did I think I could get so excited about an unadorned rack of lamb (pictured at right). But this one, seasoned with little more than salt and pepper — yet so juicily medium rare, with nary a trace of gaminess — has me dreaming.

The side of mac and cheese was among the best I’ve had. An Alfredo base makes the grown-up noodles creamy. Cheddar and high-quality Parmesan, brought from Italy by a friend of the chef, sharpen the flavor.

The kitchen knows how to fry. The chicken fingers (pictured) are stellar – ultra crispy and tender on the inside. The maple-bacon fritters are filled with green onions like light, fluffy scallion pancakes with a smoky sweetness. The fish and chips are chip-shop perfect, with little excess grease, an airy crust and Spring 2009 188 fresh, moist fish. Over three visits, I found the fries reliably crisp and always perfectly seasoned. I recommend them with the Vermonter burger – a big ol’ patty glazed with maple syrup and topped with grilled apple, thick-cut bacon and sharp cheddar. 

With an onsite bakeshop, the desserts are bakery fresh. They even make the ice cream. Try the maple-walnut with a parfait glass of apple crisp. The brownie sundae, served with two giant triangles of maple bread pudding, are excellent, too.

Desserts, entrées and appetizers – I am trying to work my way through the whole menu. So far, I have literally said "Wow," upon tasting each dish.

June 20, 2009

#iranelection Protest Today

Iran I came to the office early this morning to work on What's Good, but now I'm captivated by coverage of the events unfolding in Iran. There was a protest scheduled for this morning (4 p.m. in Tehran), and apparently the government has deployed armed forces to confront the protesters.

I'm following the situation on several sites — Andrew Sullivan' Daily Dish, the New York Times Lede blog, the BBC and the #iranelection hashtag on Twitter. The Twitter hashtag is an unfiltered stream of information, and it's hard to know what's reliable, but the good stuff tends to get ReTweeted and picked up by the media.

I'm also following VPR's Steve Zind's Twitter updates. His latest tweet, from just before 9 a.m.:


"hard to judge reliability w/out knowing source of tweets or if 2,3 or 4th hand info. But numerous reports of clashes w/police. fog of war"


I found this photo on Twitter, and saw it on the NYT blog, too. The NYT attributes it to a blogger who is apparently posting from Iran. It's titled "Tehran 6/20/09"

June 19, 2009

Kudos for 'Hometown Newspaper'

A story turned up on Alternet that made us feel good here at Seven Days--Ben Dangl, a freelancer who is also the editor of Burlington-based international-news online mag Toward Freedom, wrote "Next on the Endangered Species List: Your Hometown Newspaper." Dangl notes that while he was reporting from Latin America in recent months, the 7D website was his "portal to home." He adds that it "underscored the importance of local newspapers in providing a sense of community."

But then Dangl points out what we've all been hearing and reading, that local papers are disappearing. Dailies in major markets "have been folding at an alarming rate." The sea change in media is exacerbated by the crappy economy, but is not the sole cause of it. The industry is changing inexorably; none of us knows what lies ahead for newspapers, or any other traditional media outlets.

Here's the good part, though. Dangl says that while he was catching up on the state budget or reading a column by a local taxi driver ("Hackie"), he realized that Seven Days "had become like so many friends I ran into upon coming back to Burlington--something that helped define my place in the world ... This local paper was a part of the landscape."

And when he was done reading the paper, Dangl concludes, he took it outside to his garden and laid sheets of it between rows of vegetables. "A column on the Democrats' override of a veto by our Republican governor went next to the beans, face up," he says. "An update about a new Vermont law allowing residents to dry their laundry outside on a clothesline ... went along a row of carrots." I especially love this part: "I knew I was finally home after the paper put local news into my brain, and began collaborating with the dirt and the sun to put local food in my stomach."

Thanks, Ben. We hope, despite the trends, to be around for you for a good long time to come.

VT Archeology: Bitin' the Dust?

New rules allowing all-terrain vehicles on some state lands aren't the only ones the Douglas administration has in the works that are raising eyebrows.

Vermont's Division of Historic Preservation will soon launch a series of public meetings around the state to gather input on changes to rules governing the treatment of potential archaeological sites when a development is reviewed under Act 250, the state's land use law.

The first hearing is Tuesday night in Williston from 5-6:30 p.m. in the police station's community room. Additional hearings will be held this month in Rutland (June 25) and St. Johnsbury (June 30), and next month in Rockingham (July 14).

Some critics of the changes fear the Douglas administration is throwing a bone to the development community, a group that has provided Douglas with thousands of dollars in campaign cash over the years. In addition, two of Douglas' top officials — Commerce Secretary Kevin Dorn and Deputy Commissioner for Housing Tayt Brooks — once worked for the Home Builders and Remodelers Association of Northern Vermont.

One archaeological expert said the changes could dramatically alter how archaeology is conducted in Vermont, potentially leaving hundreds of sites, and thousands of years of history, buried forever.

Continue reading "VT Archeology: Bitin' the Dust?" »

June 18, 2009

Water Water Everywhere: VT Yankee Springs New Leak

Another week, another leak at Vermont's lone nuclear power plant.

This time the leak is in a pipe that draws in water from the Connecticut River and is funneled into Vermont Yankee's "service water" system.

A service water system in a nuke plant draws in water to keep its various pumps and physically hot equipment cool. However, the particular four-inch pipe in question that sprung a leak is only used for one purpose: To clean off the screens that catch river debris before water is sucked into the plant.

"This leak has no impact whatsoever on the plant's ability to operate, and we won't need to power down to fix it," VY spokesman Larry Smith told Seven Days. "The only time we use this is when the screens get clogged up and we have to backwash the screen."

Vermontyankee The plant washes down its screens every two to three weeks, depending on the amount of debris the screens capture, Smith said.

Federal regulators are monitoring Vermont Yankee's efforts to fix the leak. Vermont Yankee officials isolated the leak by closing the valve. The valve is temporarily opened to allow spraying of the screens.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission's resident inspectors are following Entergy's activities to evaluate the pipe, determine the extent of condition of similar piping and plan a course of action.

"The system is still capable of functioning,"  said Diane Screnci, a spokeswoman for NRC's Region 1 office. "There is no risk to the public."

Despite the safety-related function of the service water system, Screnci said this particular pipe's function is not a safety concern.

"The service water piping is safety-related. The travelling screen is not safety related," said Screnci. "So that section of piping, while safety related, is not performing a safety related function."

Got that? Good.

The leak comes just one week after Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin notified the Douglas administration that the legislature had hired nuclear expert Arnie Gundersen to keep tabs on Entergy's efforts to improve the overall reliability of the aging reactor.

Douglas officials said Gundersen's hire was not needed as they have it all under control. A VY spokesman called the additional oversight "unwarranted."

Ya know, that'd be an easy argument to make if the plant weren't spouting a leak as regular as Old Faithful. Just sayin'.

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