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April 29, 2011

Vermont Supreme Court: Ballots are Public Records

Ballot Score a victory for public records.

The Vermont Supreme Court ruled today that election ballots are not exempt from public inspection under the state's public records act.

The 4-1 ruling ends a more than three-year legal battle between a lone voter in Fairlee and town officials, the secretary of state and the attorney general. Justice John Dooley dissented.

Timothy Price, who served on the town's Board of Civil Authority in the fall of 2006, ended up suing the town in 2008 to get access to ballots and tally sheets from the November 2006 election.

Price served as his own lawyer. In doing so, he went up against not only lawyers for the town, but also Attorney General Bill Sorrell, who sided with Fairlee.

When contacted by Seven Days about his victory, Price was stunned. He hadn't yet been informed of the ruling.

"That's really wonderful news," said Price. "It's been a very long process."

What prompted Price to sue for access was the 2006 state auditor's race. The election night results were so close between incumbent Republican Randy Brock and Democrat Tom Salmon that a statewide recount was held.

Continue reading "Vermont Supreme Court: Ballots are Public Records" »

April 22, 2011

Two Vermont Abenaki Tribes Earn State Recognition

282233735 Gov. Peter Shumlin signed two bills today that grant official state recognition to two Native American tribes: The Nulhegan and the Elnu.

For decades, Vermont's Abenaki tribes have sought state recognition. It's been a bitter fight with lawmakers and various administrations, as well as internally between tribes and family bands within the Abenaki as well as Abenaki who have contested the legitimacy of the recognized tribes.

With state recognition, these two tribes — estimated to have a few hundred members combined — will be able to sell their crafts as Native American-made, or Abenaki-made, if granted approval by a federal crafts board. In addition, the tribes will also be able to apply for federal housing and education grants, though winning approval of those funds isn't guaranteed.

For the Abenaki in the room, however, the official recognition was more about ending decades of hiding their identity and charting a new path for their children.

Continue reading "Two Vermont Abenaki Tribes Earn State Recognition" »

April 04, 2011

VT Dept. of Education Issues New Seclusion and Restraint Rules

Special ed coverEd. note: Ken Picard provides a follow-up to this week's cover story on special education.

To what extent are Vermont teachers and other school staff allowed to use seclusion or physical restraints on students who act out, throw tantrums, destroy school property or pose an imminent and serious threat to themselves or others?

That question has been debated for years, especially by advocates for students with physical and developmental disabilities, who are subjected to seclusion and restraint at much higher rates than the general student population. Currently, there are no laws at the federal level restricting the use of seclusion or restraint in public or private schools, and state laws vary widely across the country.

But on March 17, in response to pressure last year by parents and disability advocates, the Vermont Department of Education issued new rules governing the use of seclusion and restraint in all settings under the DOE's jurisdiction. They include public schools, private schools, preschools, tutorial programs, daycare centers and juvenile treatment facilities. 

The new rules, which take effect August 15, expressly prohibit the use of physical or chemical restraints in school, as well as any other containment method that "restricts or limits breathing or communication, causes pain or is imposed without maintaining direct visual contact."

Also, seclusion-and-restraint techniques may not be used as a convenience for staff, as a form of discipline or punishment, as a substitute for inadequate staffing or adult supervision, or as a response to profanity or other verbal or physical displays of disrespect.

Continue reading "VT Dept. of Education Issues New Seclusion and Restraint Rules" »

March 22, 2011

VT Supreme Court to Hear Several Big Cases Tomorrow

VT Supreme Court The Vermont Supreme Court is taking the show on the road — to Vermont Law School. The court will hear seven cases tomorrow (including a few big ones). For full details, click here.

On the docket: an appeal of the approval of the Act 250 permit for the proposed St. Albans Walmart; two public records lawsuits filed by the Rutland Herald; and a case questioning whether a defendant charged with robbing a pharmacy using a toy pistol should have his statement to police excluded because he made it after asking for a lawyer.

Here's a rundown of tomorrow's court session, which starts at 9:30 a.m. in South Royalton:

Rutland Herald v. City of Rutland v. AFSCME Council 93, Local 1201 (9:30 - 10 a.m.)

Continue reading "VT Supreme Court to Hear Several Big Cases Tomorrow" »

March 03, 2011

7 Questions For: George Eighmey, Oregon Right-To-Die Expert

DSC09233George Eighmey caught a red-eye flight from Portland, Oregon to Burlington on Wednesday to bring this message to Vermonters: Don't believe the myths. A "death with dignity" law will not result in the euthanizing of the disabled, the depressed or any other vulnerable population. It hasn't happened in Oregon. It wouldn't happen here.

Eighmey (pictured), a former Oregon state legislator and retired director of Compassion and Choices of Oregon, was instrumental in passing that state's first-in-the-nation right to die law in 1994 and defending it against a repeal effort three years later.

He is touring Vermont this week to whip up support for passing here what opponents call "physician-assisted suicide." The group Patient Choices Vermont, the main backers of the Vermont bill, H.274, flew Eighmey in for a three-day whirlwind of public forums and media interviews. He will appear alongside Dr. David Babbot, a retired UVM medical professor and board member for Patient Choices Vermont. Forums are today in Middlebury and Manchester Center and Friday in Hardwick. He was also appearing on Thursday's "Mark Johnson Show" on WDEV-FM. For full details, click here. Click here and here for more Seven Days coverage of this issue.

Eighmey argues the Oregon law has worked effectively and without abuse. For a dozen years, he was on the front lines heading up Compassion and Choices of Oregon, an information clearinghouse set up to help doctors, pharmacies and patients and their families navigate the law.

Backers in Vermont are hopeful the law will pass this year (it's failed several times before) because newly-elected Gov. Peter Shumlin supports it and because a recent Zogby poll showed 64 percent of Vermonters back the idea. The bill has yet to get a hearing, and House and Senate leaders have suggested they won't move it forward unless it's clear it would pass.

Seven Days caught up with Eighmey on Wednesday at Muddy Waters coffee shop in Burlington. His next stop was a meeting with Rep. Ann Pugh (D-South Burlington), chair of the all-important House Human Services Committee. Edited excerpts follow:

Continue reading "7 Questions For: George Eighmey, Oregon Right-To-Die Expert" »

February 17, 2011

'Right-To-Die' Bill Introduced in Legislature

DWD Presser Armed with a new poll that says 64 percent of Vermonters support a right-to-die law, a group of lawmakers introduced legislation today that would give terminally ill patients the choice of ending their own lives.

After intense lobbying, the group Patient Choices Vermont secured 43 co-sponsors for H-274, including every House member from Burlington, minus Republican Kurt Wright and Democrat Johannah Leddy Donovan. Rep. Donna Sweaney (D-Windsor) is the lead sponsor. The bill was unveiled by Patient Choices Vermont founder Dick Walters (pictured at podium) and other supporters during a Statehouse press conference this morning.

Two things give supporters hope that "death with dignity" will pass this year: Gov. Peter Shumlin supports it (former Gov. Jim Douglas did not); and a new Zogby poll commissioned by Patient Choices Vermont, and released today, shows broad support for the legislation.

The Death With Dignity National Center in Oregon, where the nation's first right-to-die law was passed in 1997, has targeted Vermont as the most likely state for a legislative victory this year. The center's executive director was in Vermont in December to meet with Shumlin and organizers for the effort. Click here for more background.

The Zogby telephone survey was conducted on February 11 and asked 600 likely Vermont voters: "Would you support or oppose legislation to give a mentally competent adult, dying of a terminal disease with a prognosis of less than 6 months to live, the right to request and take medication to peacefully hasten death?" The results: 64 percent support, 26 percent oppose and 10 percent aren't sure.

That's actually lower support for right-to-die legislation than in previous Zogby polls. A 2007 survey showed 82 percent of Vermonters supported the bill. That same year, the House voted down a right-to-die bill 63 to 82.

Continue reading "'Right-To-Die' Bill Introduced in Legislature" »

February 15, 2011

Federal Appeals Court: Sidewalk Preacher Has No Right to Shout on Church Street

William Ray Costello

UPDATE below with comment from William Ray Costello.

A federal appeals court has ruled that Burlington sidewalk preacher William Ray Costello has no legal right to shout the gospel on Church Street — even as one of the judges questioned the constitutionality of Burlington's noise ordinance.

Costello (pictured) — a born-again Christian from Milton who evangelizes with one sign showing an aborted fetus and another reading "Fags Burn in Hell" — has battled the city of Burlington in federal court since 2007, when a police officer threatened to ticket him for shouting Bible verses on the pedestrian mall.

Costello was preaching on a Saturday morning in June, when a jewelry store manager called police to complain of the noise.

Costello, who worships at the Bethel Anabaptist Tabernacle in Lyndonville, maintains the First Amendment gives him the right to preach at any volume, and that past court decisions have upheld that right in similar instances. The city argued that Costello was violating the noise ordinance and disturbing the peace of people living, shopping and dining out on the pedestrian mall. Costello was free to preach at a lower volume, city lawyers argued, but chose not to.

Click here and here for more of the back story.  

After losing in U.S. District Court in Burlington, Costello appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. On Monday, a three-judge panel ruled against Costello and upheld the city noise ordinance as constitutional. (Click here to download the 26-page decision).

"Respect for Costello's right to preach does not trump the rights of everyone else," wrote Chief Judge Dennis Jacobs. "In order to secure for Costello a right to preach at the top of his lungs in a pedestrian mall lined with shops, cafes and dwellings, we would have to impair the rights of all other Burlington residents who shop, work and dine in the same compact area."

Continue reading "Federal Appeals Court: Sidewalk Preacher Has No Right to Shout on Church Street" »

February 08, 2011

Layoffs at Burlington Telecom

Bt_logo Six people were effectively laid off today at Burlington Telecom, less than two weeks after city officials proclaimed that the muncipal utility was paying all of its bills and netting a positive cash flow — absent paying off the debt it owes to taxpayers.

The six positions are slated for elimination as part of a staff restructuring being overseen by outside consultants. The positions include two technicians, two customer service representatives, an outside plant manager and BT's marketing coordinator. The six people who hold those posts were placed on administrative leave today; the City Council will have to approve the changes. Once approved, the six people will be officially laid off, said consultant Gary Evans of Hiawatha Broadband.

At a special City Council meeting two week ago, Evans said the main problem facing BT was too few subscribers. So, why axe the marketing position?

"This doesn't mean that BT's marketing efforts will stop," Evans said.

After the layoffs, BT will have a workforce of 20 employees. "We don't think there'll be a need for additional layoffs," said Evans. "This action does, in no way, suggest the beginning of the end or that this is the end of BT. On the contrary, we feel as if this will put BT at the right staffing level for its customer base."

Continue reading "Layoffs at Burlington Telecom" »

February 01, 2011

Got Al Jazeera?

Images As the world continues to be glued to the unfolding revolution in Egypt, cable TV viewers in the United States are receiving a decidedly Western view of the ongoing protests and unrest.

That is, unless you're a Burlington Telecom subscriber. If you are one of the few thousand BT subscribers you can watch Al Jazeera English (AJE) on Channel 132, tucked between TruTV (which used to be Court TV) and FOX Business.

AJE has received plenty of kudos from news analysts for providing some of the most comprehensive, on-the-ground coverage of the burgeoning revolution and calls for the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak.

Despite its financial transgressions, BT remains one of the few cable television providers in the country that offers AJE to select subscribers. To watch AJE, you have to subscribe to BT's "standard plus" cable package.

The only other cable operators that offer AJE are in Ohio and Washington, DC, according to a recent report by Huffington Post.

BT came under fire for offering the channel to its subscribers and initially was prepared to drop the channel, but free speech proponents and Mayor Bob Kiss thwarted that effort.

When the topic came to a head at a BT advisory committee meeting in 2008, Al Jazeera dispatched a reporter to the scene. Shortly after, BT signed a contract to carry AJE.

Maybe the unrest in Egypt will help boost BT's subscriber base. Then again, maybe the last thing Mayor Kiss wants is unending footage of people rioting in the streets and calling for the resignation of an unpopular leader.

If you're not a BT subscriber, and can't become one, you can go to AJE's website and stream live coverage — for free.

 

January 21, 2011

We the Corporations?

Constitution Vermont could become the first-in-the-nation legislative body to urge Congress to amend the constitution and ban the court-created notion of "corporate personhood."

On the one-year anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court decision that many believe granted corporations increased constitutional protections to free speech similar to those of individuals, a Vermont Senate is introducing a resolution to recommend Congress amend the Constitution and make it clear that corporations are not, in fact, people, under federal law.

Continue reading "We the Corporations?" »

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