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July 2013

July 25, 2013

Embattled Goddard President Announces Departure, Citing Family Challenges

Vacarr2Barbara Vacarr, the embattled president of Goddard College, announced Thursday in a joint statement with the school's board of trustees that she will step down from her post in December.

"In this challenging time of national economic and enrollment concerns for higher education, I remain focused on the issues paramount to Goddard's mission," she said. "However, I have concluded that I must also pay more attention to the personal challenges facing close family members. Therefore, I look forward to working with the board in leaving the college moving ahead. I am grateful for the opportunity to lead such a wonderful institution."

Vacarr was the subject of a February 2013 cover story in Seven Days, in which staff writer Kathryn Flagg documented the president's struggle to turn the college around. While some community members praised her efforts to retool the school, others criticized the "corporate mentality" they say she brought to the hippie haven.

In a November 2012 letter sent to Vacarr and Goddard's board of trustees, Flagg reported, 46 faculty members complained about what they saw as a "pattern of unilateral decision making" at the school. 

Continue reading "Embattled Goddard President Announces Departure, Citing Family Challenges" »

In Defense Funding Bill, Welch Seeks to Rein in NSA, Block Military Aid to Syrian Rebels

Welch.House.FloorCongressman Peter Welch (D-Vt.) and an unlikely group of liberal Democrats and libertarian Republicans narrowly lost a bid Wednesday night to curtail collection of U.S. citizens' phone records.

An amendment to the annual defense appropriations bill would have rolled back powers granted to the National Security Agency by the USA PATRIOT Act, restricting the agency's collection of domestic phone records to "a person who is the subject of an investigation." 

Welch was one of 111 Democrats and 94 Republicans to back the amendment, which was sponsored by Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.). The final vote was 205 to 217. 

In the days leading up to Wednesday's vote, the White House aggressively lobbied against the Amash amendment, dispatching members of the national security apparatus to Capitol Hill to talk lawmakers off the cliff. Though ultimately unsuccessful, this was the first major congressional effort to rein in the NSA's domestic surveillance powers since former agency contractor Edward Snowden leaked classified details of the NSA's wide-ranging phone data collection programs last month.

Continue reading "In Defense Funding Bill, Welch Seeks to Rein in NSA, Block Military Aid to Syrian Rebels" »

July 24, 2013

Totally Looks Like: Vermont Politics Edition

We interrupt our mostly serious political coverage to bring you this totally ridiculous waste of time.

One of my favorite sites on the World Wide Web is, run by the good folks at ICanHasCheezburger. The premise is simple: "Stuff that looks like other stuff." Pair 'em up, and have a good laugh.

Here at Off Message, we couldn't help but notice that a lot of Vermont politicos look like other people. Or stuff. And with Google's help, we found the matches. So, without further ado, we present "Totally Looks Like: Vermont Politics Edition."

 Congressman Peter Welch (D-VT) totally looks like former congressman Chris Shays (R-CT).

Welch Shays

Continue reading "Totally Looks Like: Vermont Politics Edition" »

Dean: "And then we're going to Staten Island... YARGGGGHHHHH!!!"

You gotta hand it to Ho-Ho. 

For a guy undoubtedly tormented by obnoxious references to his scream heard 'round the world, former governor Howard Dean sure knows how to poke fun at himself.

At a fundraiser for New York City mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio last Thursday, the Burlingtonian reenacted his blood-curdling roar — five-boroughs style. Dean first dipped into NYC politics last month when he endorsed de Blasio, the city's public advocate. and put the might of his political action committee, Democracy for America, behind the candidate. (Correction: Democracy for New York City, an affiliate of Dean's Democracy for America, has endorsed de Blasio for mayor. DFA, the parent organization, has not endorsed in the New York City mayoral race.)

Might not be enough to knock former congressman Anthony Weiner out of the race, but, well, Weiner's doing a pretty good job of doing that himself.

Dean's reenactment has gotten plenty of media play in the last 24 hours, but it hasn't quite gone viral — yet. As of this posting, just 5900 people have viewed this fantastic performance:


Continue reading "Dean: "And then we're going to Staten Island... YARGGGGHHHHH!!!"" »

July 23, 2013

In VSEA Counter-Coup, Mitchell's Back and His Opponents Are Out

When you stage a coup, you better be sure to off the king.

That's the lesson two top lawyers at the Vermont State Employees Association learned Monday when their boss, Mark Mitchell, was reinstated as executive director of the state's second largest union.

Nearly six weeks before, the lawyers — VSEA general counsel Michael Casey and associate general counsel Abigail Winters — led a seemingly perfectly orchestrated effort to oust Mitchell. At the time, they told the union's board of trustees that Mitchell had "knowingly allowed the organization to violate numerous laws, exposing VSEA to liability," as Casey later put it in an email.

Their accusations led to Mitchell's swift dismissal. But just days later, the worm began to turn. A week after voting 10-6 to fire Mitchell, the board reversed course and voted 10-7 to reinstate him, put him on leave and commission an independent investigation into his actions.

On Monday, the union announced in a statement that the investigation had "determined that the charges against Mitchell do not warrant dismissal by this body." Mitchell, according to the statement, had been "invited to return immediately to his role as VSEA executive director." (The story was first reported by VTDigger's Alicia Freese.)

And what of those two lawyers?

Casey and Winters, the statement said, "have voluntarily resigned from their positions. They will leave VSEA on August 2, 2013 in good standing. VSEA thanks them for their years of dedication and good service to the union."

Voluntarily resigned? Kicked out to the curb? Not a single person associated with the union would return our calls Monday, so it's impossible to say which it was. But it doesn't really matter. The fact is, there's simply no way Mitchell and his accusers could work side-by-side after last month's putsch.

One party or the other had to go. 

As for not returning our calls, who can blame 'em? Just last month, we took the union to task for airing its dirty laundry in pretty much the sloppiest manner possible. That its leaders are clamming up and refusing to diverge from a single message — that the union's "committed to moving forward and making VSEA even stronger" — is perhaps a sign that they're serious about doing just that.

July 21, 2013

Burlington Deputy Police Chief Andi Higbee Arrested for DUI

Higbee_AndiUpdated below with comment from Burlington Police Chief Michael Schirling and Vermont State Police spokesperson Stephanie Dasaro.

Burlington's deputy police chief was allegedly caught in a state police dragnet looking for drunk drivers early Sunday.

Vermont State Police issued a press release Sunday saying Andi Higbee, 44, was stopped around 12:09 a.m. while driving off-duty in the town of Sheldon for failing to use a turn signal while turning from Casino Road onto VT Route 105. He was investigated for operating under the influence, the release said, and subsequently arrested.

Higbee was transported to the St. Albans barracks for processing and was later released on a citation to appear in Franklin County Superior Court on August 12.

Burlington Police Chief Michael Schirling responded to the arrest in a press release. "Earlier this morning I was made aware that Deputy Chief Andi Higbee had been pulled over just after midnight by the State Police in St. Albans and subsequently processed for DUI. DC Higbee has been placed on paid administrative leave.

"No additional detail is available or expected today [while] we work to gather information regarding this personnel matter," Schirling added in the release.

The state police press release did not indicate Higbee's blood alcohol content. The Burlington Free Press reported Sunday that Higbee previously pleaded guilty to driving under the influence in 1999.  

Stay tuned to Off Message for updates on this story.

Update - Monday, 1:30 p.m.

Chief Schirling said Monday that he is hiring an outside investigator to conduct an internal review of Higbee's arrest to determine whether it violated departmental policies. Schirling said he has not selected the investigator yet, but hopes to by day's end.

Meanwhile, state police have still not released Higbee's blood-alcohol content. VSP spokesperson Stephanie Dasaro said Monday her agency generally does not release that information, though she admitted it has done so in the past. She said in this case it would not be released before Higbee is arraigned next month.

She also would not discuss whether Higbee had been served a notice of civil suspension, which if he had, would indicate that his breath test registered a BAC above .08, the legal limit for operating a motor vehicle. It is possible to blow under a .08 and be charged criminally, if there is other evidence of intoxication. But civil suspensions require a suspect blew .08 or higher. 

File photo of Andi Higbee by Andy Bromage

July 19, 2013

The Scoreboard: This Week's Winners and Losers

Scoreboard.newWho won and lost the week in Vermont news and politics?

Workers, swimmers, drinkers, Welch, Dodge, Bernie, Shummy & Brommy. That's Andy Brommy to you.

Here's the Scoreboard for the week ending Friday, July 19:


Gov. Peter Shumlin — By striking a very reasonable deal with aggrieved neighbor Jeremy Dodge, the gov should finally be able to put his real estate troubles behind him — at least until next fall, when his political opponents will undoubtedly resurrect the issue. That is, unless there are any more Jerry Dodges out there... Runner-up losers: The Republican operatives who hoped to fan the flames a little longer on this one. 

Jeremy Dodge — Last fall, the guy was one step away from losing his land to tax sale. Now he's got five years to pay off a low-interest mortgage. He got exactly what he wanted: his house — and another chance to hold on to it. Now, let's hope the family and friends who were so quick to jump in front of a TV camera remain by his side to help him pay Shummy back.

Gov. Peter Shumlin (redux) — Turns out the gov got a nice boost to his bank account in January when his campaign repaid him the $275,00 he loaned himself during his 2010 gubernatorial race. Better yet, none of his (obvious) potential 2014 opponents — Randy Brock, Phil Scott, Brian Dubie or Bruce Lisman — turned in impressive fundraising totals this week. Runner-up loser: Shumlin's small-dollar donors, whose money went straight to the gov's personal bank account.

Sen. Bernie Sanders — According to BuzzFeed, he's got "the best hair in Congress." Runner up winner: BuzzFeed's Benny Johnson, for compiling the definitive collection of Bernie hair photos.

Swimmers — Because, as Seven Days' Ken Picard reports, there's poop in the water — and you don't know about it.

The Commons — For publishing the definitive story, penned by veteran freelancer Joyce Marcel, of the 2011 Brattleboro Co-Op shooting.

Three-Buck Chuck drinkers — Trader Joe's is a-comin' to South Burlington. QUICK, EVERYONE FREAK OUT!

Vermonters — If Norwich's Jane Stetson is named ambassador to France, we all get to party down at the American embassy in Paris, amiright amiright?!?!?!

Losers and ties after the jump...

Continue reading "The Scoreboard: This Week's Winners and Losers" »

July 18, 2013

F-35 Defenders Aim to Move Off the Defensive in Debate on Local Basing

Green ribbons 002Debate over the F-35 has been dominated in recent weeks by the plane's opponents. But supporters of basing the fighter jets at Burlington International Airport went on the offensive Wednesday.

Their tactics did not prove as creative or as colorful as the opposition's deafening F-35 noise simulation and the fudge-gifting event staged at Sen. Patrick Leahy's downtown office. The organizer and two prominent backers of the Green Ribbons for the F-35 campaign held a traditional press conference at the Main Street headquarters of the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce.

The pro-F-35 speakers nevertheless made controversial claims that were met with skepticism from some of the reporters in attendance.

Chamber president Tom Torti argued, for example, that there's no validity to the case against the plane on the basis of the noise it makes. "We believe that's a red herring," he declared.

Continue reading "F-35 Defenders Aim to Move Off the Defensive in Debate on Local Basing" »

Shumlin's East Montpelier Neighbor Strikes "A Good Deal" with the Governor

Jeremy DodgeTwo months after he took on Gov. Peter Shumlin over a land deal gone sour, East Montpelier resident Jeremy Dodge says he's happy with an agreement he struck late Wednesday with the governor.

"It's a good deal," Dodge (pictured) says. "I got my property back and that's what I was looking for. I wasn't looking for anything else."

Shumlin, for whom the dispute represented the biggest political crisis of his two-and-a-half years in office, is also relieved to put the situation behind him, according to his lawyer.

"He's pleased that Jeremy Dodge and his family are pleased," says Jerome Diamond, Shumlin's attorney.

Faced with a looming tax sale prompted by $17,000 in unpaid taxes, Dodge sold his home and 16 acres to Shumlin, a neighbor, last November for $58,000. At the time, the property was appraised at $233,700, though a subsequent reappraisal reduced its value to $140,000. 

Nearly two months ago, as Dodge's July 15 deadline to move out of the house approached, he and his family told reporters Shumlin had taken advantage of him — and sought to nullify the agreement. They said the 54-year-old man lacked the mental capacity and legal representation to strike such a deal with an accomplished negotiator and real estate investor like Shumlin.

Both sides engaged high-powered attorneys, who spent the last month negotiating a resolution. Shumlin's team presented Dodge with several proposals and late Wednesday, as WCAX's Jennifer Reading first reported, the aggrieved neighbor agreed to one.

"An agreement has been reached in principle," says Dodge's attorney, Brady Toensing. "The details will be worked out in the next few weeks, but it involves Mr. Dodge buying back the property over the next five years."

Continue reading "Shumlin's East Montpelier Neighbor Strikes "A Good Deal" with the Governor" »

Big Dreams of Plattsburgh's Uppity Airport May Cause Nightmares at BTV

PBGPlattsburgh's "international" airport (PBG) remains much smaller than Burlington's, but economic-development officials on the New York side of Lake Champlain sure do dream big.

Direct flights from PBG to Caribbean vacation spots represent "the lowest-hanging fruit" potentially within the airport's reach, North County Chamber of Commerce chief Garry Douglas recently told the New York Times. And that might just be the first step in giving substantive meaning to the "international" part of the airport's title, Douglas added. 

The Times reported his suggestion that it might be feasible in the longer term to board flights from Plattsburgh to destinations such as London, Paris and Tel Aviv. That would be quite a leap from the handful of domestic destinations PBG currently serves.

But PBG clearly does expect to handle many more passengers in the coming years than the 150,000 or so who boarded flights there in 2012. A remote parking site with 1500 spaces — in addition to the 2000 already available — is scheduled to open in 2016, the Times said. That's the same year when Plattsburgh's terminal is due to complete an expansion that will triple its size.

PBG's ambitions hinge almost entirely on attracting additional traffic from Quebec. More than 80 percent of its passengers currently come from Canada — drawn in part perhaps by PBG's claim of being "Montreal's U.S. Airport."

Continue reading "Big Dreams of Plattsburgh's Uppity Airport May Cause Nightmares at BTV" »

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