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June 2011

June 30, 2011

Burlington Free Press Wages a Battle — for Documents and Headlines

Bilde-1It's hard to not cast a cynical eye on the tsunami of ink the Burlington Free Press has unleashed in trying to obtain police and university documents related to the case of the Essex couple who went missing on June 8. On the one hand, as a fellow journalist, I can sympathize with reporters' and editors' ire over being repeatedly shut down in their public records requests. On the other hand, the daily drumbeat playing out on the front pages of the Free Press seems like little more than a way of generating headlines in a criminal investigation that, for now, is mostly unfolding behind closed doors.

Ever since the June 8 disappearance of William and Lorraine Currier of Essex (pictured) the Free Press has run at least seven stories about the legal wrangling over the paper's denied records requests for search warrants, police affidavits and UVM emails belonging to William Currier, an animal-care technician employed by a university subcontractor. Both the Chittenden County State's Attorney's Office and UVM officials have repeatedly denied those requests.

Based on the number of Free Press writers who have penned stories on this subject (four), as well as the urgent tone of their headlines — "Ruling pending on release of Currier case search warrant" (June 23); "Warrants, emails challenged in Currier case" (June 23); "Prosecutor challenges judge's ruling to release warrants to media in case of missing Essex couple (June 25); "Supreme Court keeps Essex search documents secret" (June 27); "Court rules to temporarily seal warrants in case of missing Essex couple," (June 28);  "Judge: Prosecutor's case for sealing search warrants in missing couple case weak" (June 30) — one could led to believe that Vermont's courthouses are under siege by an army of Gannett lawyers filing repeated motions and memoranda in the name of the Fourth Estate.

Continue reading "Burlington Free Press Wages a Battle — for Documents and Headlines" »

First Lady Media Fly-By Leaves VT Press Out in the Cold

Michelleobama Curious what First Lady Michelle Obama is going to tell hundreds of people attending two political fundraisers in Burlington today?

Good luck finding out.

The Vermont press corps found out in the past 48 hours that the fundraisers are off limits to local media — with one exception. Print reporters from the Burlington Free Press will be allowed to cover the two campaign fundraisers. They will file a so-called "pool" report, which means a story that is released by the White House to the rest of us chumps (and the national press corps, too).

In other words, one perspective from the events for all Vermont media and Vermonters to consume. How fair and balanced.

State House reporter Terri Hallenbeck will be covering the Sheraton event while Molly Walsh will cover the ECHO dinner.

No word from the Obama campaign — or Freeps officials — regarding how or why the Gannett-run daily was chosen as the go-to outlet.

What, were they worried about contending with the crush of Vermont's media? All ten of us? Sheesh.

Continue reading "First Lady Media Fly-By Leaves VT Press Out in the Cold" »

June 29, 2011

Two Girls, Two Bikes, No Problems

2011-06-29_13-40-37_119 In Vermont, it's not uncommon to see folks out on the roadside, thumbing for rides. Hitchhiking, especially in the hinterlands, is still a fairly accepted way to get around our rural state. There are always folks hitching on Route 2 in Montpelier or out on Shelburne Road. Whether anyone ever picks them up, or whether they're ever heard from again, is a different story. 

So, the fact that two young Canadiennes have been wandering around Burlington all day looking to bum a ride to Montréal isn't all that remarkable. During the summer, Church Street is choked with dirty travelers looking for ways out of town. But these two, named Erica and Alex, are a little different from your average freight-hopping hobos.

The pair bicycled down to Burlington from Montréal, a nearly 100-mile trip on secondary country roads. And now they'd rather not bike back. It was one of those things that seemed really fun at the outset, but maybe isn't worth doing again. So they're trying to catch a ride back to the land of flannel and maple. Wait, that's Vermont. And they're willing to pay for some gas. (But not the $60 each it'll cost them to take the Dirty Dog.) And they might even give you that packet of peanut M&Ms seen in the photo above.

So, if you're not a creep and you're heading to Montréal in the next day and you'd like some company in the form of two seemingly charming and hip young women and their two bicycles, and you like peanut M&Ms, give them a call at 646-318-4911. Tell them Seven Days sent you. 

Prosecutor: No Criminal Charges in Burlington Telecom Probe (VIDEO)

* Update below: Burlington Mayor Bob Kiss reaction * 

After a six-month investigation, a top prosecutor announced today he is not filing criminal charges against anyone involved in the high-profile case of Burlington Telecom.

At a morning news conference, Chittenden County State’s Attorney T.J. Donovan said he decided not to prosecute city officials for “neglect of duty” as it relates to complying with a key condition in the municipal utility’s state license.

That condition required BT to repay any money it borrowed from the city’s universal checkbook — the so-called “cash pool” — within 60 days. BT ended up borrowing $16.9 million from the cash pool, which to date has not been repaid. Plans to refinance BT’s growing debt fell apart in 2008 when the global financial markets crashed. It wasn't until late September 2009 when the public first learned that BT was in such deep debt.

Donovan said the burden of proof required to bring a "neglect of duty" charge against one or more officials would be too high to guarantee a win at trial. Also, it would cost "tens, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars of the public's money [and] cause greater division with the city and disrupt the governance of the city, all with an uncertain outcome and no possibility of restitution of $17 million."

Even if it was a sure conviction, Donovan notes, anyone found guilty of the crime would spend a maximum of only one year in jail and face a $1000 fine.

Continue reading "Prosecutor: No Criminal Charges in Burlington Telecom Probe (VIDEO)" »

June 28, 2011

Women's World Cup is Happening... Without the Vuvuzelas and the Media Hype

Picture 4 Question: How many of you knew that the FIFA Women's World Cup began on Sunday?

I'm going to go out on a limb and say about three of you. And for two of you, it's because you saw the story about the Muslim female soccer players in the Sunday New York Times. If you're not one of those three, you can be excused for not knowing that this event was happening. I didn't know it was going on and I like to think I know a thing or two about women's sports. That said, I'm pretty embarrassed that the World Cup took me totally by surprise.

But why didn't we/I know the tournament — arguably one of the largest in the women's athletic calendar— was happening? During last year's men's World Cup, people were tripping over themselves to watch the games at bars around Burlington and talk about their mutual hatred of the South African vuvuzela. Seemingly everyone had an opinion on Cote d'Ivoirian player Didier Drogba's fearsomeness and Spaniard Carles Puyol's Weird Al-like hair. We collectively crossed our fingers that powerhouse Ghana would become the first African nation to win a World Cup (They didn't. They were routed by Uruguay in the quarterfinals.). And we all grimaced when the slick-rick U.S. team couldn't make it past their bracket. Again.  

Continue reading "Women's World Cup is Happening... Without the Vuvuzelas and the Media Hype" »

Outdoor Gear Exchange Fights City Hall for Sign Placement on Church Street

OGE 2The Outdoor Gear Exchange has moved to a bigger space on Burlington’s Church Street, but the store’s signature handmade sign may get lost in the shuffle.

That’s because the Burlington Department of Planning and Zoning has raised objections to the proposed placement of two signs on the former Old Navy building (pictured in renderings at right and below).

The Outdoor Gear Exchange wants to place its painted wooden sign — which depicts the Green Mountains over the motto "Clothing and Equipment for an Active Lifestyle" — above the glass canopy that fronts Church Street. It wants a second oval sign that says “OGE” on the corner tower where Old Navy’s sign once hung.

OGE 1 But city planners rejected the sign placement because it would exceed the zoning ordinance’s 14-foot height limit and would be out of character with the building’s "Googie" space-age style of architecture.

The Outdoor Gear Exchange has appealed the city’s denial, arguing signs have hung there for more than 50 years and that numerous Church Street businesses — such as Macy’s, Starbucks and Borders — have signs higher than 14 feet. City planners counter that most of those are grandfathered in under previous zoning rules.

OGE co-owner Marc Sherman, who crafted the wood sign himself 16 years ago, admits his sign would exceed the 14-foot height limit, but says he can’t fit that sign or any other "decent-sized sign" under the canopy.

"We could put our words under the glass canopy and that’s about it,” Sherman says, noting that most of the grandfathered stores on Church Street are national chains. “The one local business looking to put their sign above 14 feet is being denied."

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Alice Eats: Smitty's Pub

1127 North Avenue, Burlington, 862-4300

IMG_2465 New North End residents have long had high hopes for a neighborhood restaurant in the space at 1127 North Avenue that's worth opening their wallets for. Cannon's fit the bill for a while, with its fried, pecan-coated chicken. When that went downhill, nothing seemed to please the locals.

The last spot, Norm's Grill, opened and closed in little more than a year. The latest, Smitty's Pub, is the baby of Norm's bartender, Ed Smith. That's his silhouette on the sign. Or Alfred Hitchcock's. Either way, I couldn't help but hear "Funeral March of a Marionette" in my head as I entered the building.

Could Smitty do better than Norm? On first look through the restaurant, it appeared unchanged. The signed photos of athletes are the same. So is the set-up of separate entrances for the bar and restaurant. The menu, with its burgers named for everyone from Big Papi to Danica Patrick, was similar, too.

Continue reading "Alice Eats: Smitty's Pub" »

Search and e-Seizure: What Police Can and Can't Do In Your Digital Domain

Know-your-rights-privacy The Vermont Supreme Court was back in the national spotlight last week when it heard arguments about how much snooping police can do into our digital drawers in the name of solving crimes.

The case involves a Burlington Police detective's investigation into alleged identity theft in December 2010. In it, Queen City cops asked the court to authorize an extraordinarily broad search and seizure of every digital device in the suspect's house, even those belonging to other people in the home not suspected of any wrongdoing.

As Seven Days reported in its December 8, 2010 cover story, "Digital Apprehensions: High-tech computer crime-fighting has arrive in Vermont — but at what price?", increasingly, Green Mountain law enforcement are relying on digital forensic work to solve major cases, raising a host of privacy issues that have yet to be fully sorted out.

Obviously, our laptops, smart phones and other digital devices contain huge amounts of personal info about ourselves, friends, families and co-workers, some of which is sensitive, confidential and potentially embarrassing enough to wreck our lives and careers (read: former Rep. Anthony Weiner). 

So, how far does the Fourth Amendment extend in protecting you if the government seeks to peruse your iPad? Do you know what to do if the cops show up at your door and want to take a little look-see?

Yesterday, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the Vermont case in conjunction with the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont, published a helpful guide on knowing your rights — in the digital domain and your own living room. EFF staff attorney Hanni Fakhoury answers a few common questions.

Continue reading "Search and e-Seizure: What Police Can and Can't Do In Your Digital Domain" »

June 27, 2011

EatingWell Sold to Meredith Corporation

JA Cover_QF HI-RES We woke up this morning to big news here in Vermont: The Wall Street Journal reported that publishing giant Meredith Corporation has snapped up EatingWell Media Group, the thriving company that has "lived" and prospered in bucolic Charlotte for the last 20 years or so.

Meredith already reaches 75 million women monthly via its magazines Family Circle, Better Homes and Gardens, Ladies' Home Journal, Fitness, More, American Baby, Fitness and Diabetic Living, as well as its websites and broadcast efforts. Just today, Meredith also launched, a website and magazine aggregating 20,000 recipes aimed primarily at their middle-class, 'mom on the go' demographic. Earlier this month, Meredith laid off 75 employees and folded its website ReadyMade.

EW told its employees about the sale three weeks ago, says Lisa Gosselin, EW's editorial director. Despite the question on everyone's mind — will EatingWell stay in Vermont?  — Gosselin expects that the company isn't going anywhere, at least geographically. "I think they [Meredith] recognize the value of the people here, and that this is a very strong team. Vermont is so much a part of our brand. I don't think we would have been the same if we hadn't started here," says Gosselin. 

Most immediately, Meredith — which is based in Des Moines but has offices in New York — plans to increase EatingWell magazine's circulation from its current 350,000 to 500,000 by January, and to "substantially increase" the group's digital presence, according to a press release.

"The resources they have compared to the resources we had as owners are starkly different. I expect they will do some stupendous things," says Cairn G. Cross of Shelburne's Fresh Tracks Capital. Cross was the chair of EatingWell's now-defunct board. He added that the deal had "been my life for the last six weeks," as Meredith combed over every facet of the business. The terms of the deal were not made public. 

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June 25, 2011

Schenk's Seven Dirty Words

“A penis is a vagina on steroids,” Those were the terrible words that American Flatbread founder George Schenk uttered in his commencement speech at Colchester High School, according to a reporter who probably doesn’t want to be named.

Schenk was warning students of the health risks of smoking, among which he named erectile dysfunction in men and similar problems in women. It was here that he compared female equipment to male.

He said he only meant to get the kids’ attention. Mission accomplished.

But the words were considered so assaultive — several sources named grandmothers as particularly vulnerable — that the district issued an apology to the community and embargoed broadcast of the speech on community TV.

And, as Ken Picard reported this week, no media, er, organ would print the sentence (until now).

Perhaps editors could not substantiate its biological accuracy.

Ed. Note: Judith Levine writes the bi-weekly column, Poli Psy.

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