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January 2014

January 22, 2014

This Week's Issue: Aging Prisoners, Woodstoves and Public TV Trouble


A new issue of Seven Days hits the newsstands today. Here's what you'll find inside:

Get all these stories and more in print, online or on the app.

Cover photo by Tom McNeill

Updated: Fox's Widower, Michael Sirotkin, Expresses "Interest" in Her Senate Seat

SirotkinUpdated below with news that former Vermont Democratic Party chairman Jake Perkinson and Rep. Kesha Ram (D-Burlington) have dropped out and endorsed Sirotkin. Rep. Tim Jerman (D-Essex Junction), meanwhile, says he will stay in the race. Gov. Shumlin says he's "thrilled" Sirotkin is interested.

In a move likely to upend the contest to fill a Chittenden County state senate seat opened up by the death of Sally Fox, her husband of 36 years says he's interested in succeeding her.

Michael Sirotkin, a longtime lobbyist and well-known figure in Montpelier, wrote Chittenden County Democratic Party chairman David Scherr late Tuesday to raise the possibility.

"Please accept this letter as an indication of my interest in being appointed to Sally's Senate seat," Sirotkin wrote. "Sally had months ago expressed an interest in my doing so, although clearly our first preference was always that the choice would never present itself. After much soul searching and encouragement from others, I decided I would welcome the opportunity if given such honor by your Committee and the Governor."

Sirotkin's decision comes just hours before an 80-member committee of Chittenden County Democrats is set to winnow the field to three candidates, whose names will be forwarded to Gov. Peter Shumlin. The governor is free to appoint a replacement from that list, or he can select his own candidate. 

Continue reading "Updated: Fox's Widower, Michael Sirotkin, Expresses "Interest" in Her Senate Seat" »

January 21, 2014

Vermont Judge Rejects Prison Company's Bid to Keep Records Secret

An effort to learn more about the workings of a private prison company that houses 600 Vermont inmates scored a key legal victory last week.

A Montpelier judge rejected a request by Corrections Corporation of America, which has been paid more than $70 million by the state since 2007, to dismiss a lawsuit that seeks to access records of its operations. 

CCA had argued that since it is a private company, it should not be subject to Vermont's public records law, which generally allows citizens to access records of government operations. The Vermont Department of Corrections, which has long grappled with a shortage of prison beds, sends long-term inmates to a CCA prison in Kentucky, among other prisons the company controls across the country.

Continue reading "Vermont Judge Rejects Prison Company's Bid to Keep Records Secret" »

Donovan Says He Won't Challenge Sorrell for Attorney General in 2014

TJ DonovanAfter months of deliberation, Chittenden County State's Attorney T.J. Donovan has decided he won't challenge Attorney General Bill Sorrell to a rematch this year.

"In the final analysis, I came to the conclusion it's not the right time for me personally and professionally," Donovan said Monday. 

Instead, the two-term county prosecutor said, "It's likely that I'll run again for state's attorney."

In August 2012, Donovan (pictured at right) came within 714 votes of unseating Sorrell, who was first appointed to the post in 1997. The unusual and remarkably bitter primary pitted against one another two Burlington Democrats from interconnected families. Ever since, the 40-year-old Donovan has publicly and privately hinted that he might give the 66-year-old incumbent another run for his money. 

But last week, Donovan said, he finally decided against it.

"I've been struggling with it for quite some time," he said. "Literally my mind would change every morning when I woke up. I'd feel one way one day and the next day I'd feel another way. And, you know, I had to make a decision, so I did."

Continue reading "Donovan Says He Won't Challenge Sorrell for Attorney General in 2014" »

January 20, 2014

VT Supreme Court Affirms Life Sentence For Burlington Man Who Attempted Murder

The Vermont Supreme Court has rejected an appeal from a Burlington man who was the first person in state history to be sentenced to life in prison without parole for a crime other than murder. 

In a 5-0 decision, justices unanimously upheld the sentence of Norman Stevens, 70, who in 1999 attacked his ex-girlfriend with a hammer and planned to lock her in a van he intended to set ablaze. Stevens, convicted of attempted murder, argued that his sentence — the toughest possible penalty under state law — was disproportionate to his crime, in violation of the U.S. Constitution's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

Chittenden Superior Court Judge Michael Kupersmith said during a 2001 sentencing hearing that Stevens was "in many ways worse" than the 9/11 terrorists. And in Stevens' appeal, described in a Seven Days story in November, his lawyers noted at least a dozen Vermonters who had been convicted of murder but received lesser sentences.

In a six-page opinion, the high court said that the "heinous" nature of Stevens' actions — he was kept  from tying his victim inside the van only by the intercession of neighbors and he had previously fired a firearm in the direction of his children — meant that Kupersmith's sentence met the legal standard of  "just proportion."

Continue reading "VT Supreme Court Affirms Life Sentence For Burlington Man Who Attempted Murder" »

Lawmakers Advance 'Solar Standoff' Solution

SolarWhen some Vermont utilities started rejecting proposed home-grown solar installations last year, it looked like a plan to increase solar production in Vermont had been too successful.

Utilities were bumping up against a cap on so-called net-metered projects far faster than the lawmakers who'd designed the rules ever anticipated. Those utilities said it was time to put on the brakes; solar energy advocates argued that doing so would cripple solar development just as the industry was hitting its stride in Vermont. 

Now a plan to breakup that solar standoff is gaining traction in Montpelier. The House Natural Resources and Energy Committee advanced legislation on Friday that would relax the cap on homemade power to better match the demand for residential solar generation. The bill will head to the full House on Thursday. 

Continue reading "Lawmakers Advance 'Solar Standoff' Solution" »

January 17, 2014

Bill Would Give VT Judges New Tools for Dealing With Brain-Injured Defendants

Localmatters-pion2Defendants who argue compellingly that they committed a crime as a consequence of a past traumatic brain injury often go free in Vermont. That's because the state's courts have no way of dealing with such cases.

Judges cannot order defendants with TBI to be incarcerated, hospitalized or placed under state supervision — in contrast to those found incompetent to stand trial due to a mental illness or cognitive deficiency. As Seven Days reported last March in "Why Brain Injured Defendants Often Go Free," judges often have no choice but to let a defendant with TBI walk, even if he or she has committed numerous violent or sexual offenses and remains a threat to public safety.

But that could change this year. On Friday, Rep. Warren Van Wyck (R–Ferrisburgh) presented legislation to the House Judiciary Committee that would let judges order a brain-injured defendant to be committed to the custody of the Vermont Department of Mental Health, just like someone diagnosed with schizophrenia. And, like a person with mental illness, he or she could be tried for the crime if later deemed competent to stand trial.

Continue reading "Bill Would Give VT Judges New Tools for Dealing With Brain-Injured Defendants" »

The Weekly 7: This Week in Vermont News


Each weekday, Seven Days scans the news across the Vermont media landscape to find the smartest, best and most compelling stories. We bundle them up in an email and send them out to our subscribers early each afternoon. It's called the Daily 7.

So which Vermont news stories are you reading? And which should you be reading? Here are the stories you clicked on most from this week's editions of the Daily 7:

(Editor's note: The Weekly 7 replaces the Scoreboard, our weekly roundup of winners and losers in Vermont news and politics. We hope you agree it's a winning move.) 


#1 Slain Teen's Mother Fights Involuntary Hospitalization
By Mike Donoghue, Burlington Free Press — Sunday, January 12

The mother of an Essex teen killed last month in an apparent murder-suicide says she is being held against her will in the psychiatric ward of Fletcher Allen Health Care.


#2 Barn Fire in Richmond
By Judy Simpson, WCAX — Monday, January 13

No one was hurt in an early morning fire in Richmond that destroyed a barn full of vegetables and closed a section of Route 2.

Continue reading "The Weekly 7: This Week in Vermont News" »

January 16, 2014

A Crowded Field Emerges to Replace Fox in the Senate

At least five Democrats are campaigning to fill a Chittenden County Senate seat opened up last week by the death of Sen. Sally Fox. 

The candidates include two incumbent House members, a former state party chairman, a major philanthropist and the runner-up in the 2012 race to represent Vermont's most populous county. More contenders could yet emerge.

While the decision ultimately rests with Gov. Peter Shumlin, he is likely to choose from a list of candidates — typically three — sent to him by the Chittenden County Democratic Committee. That group plans to meet next Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. at the Fletcher Free Library to make its selection.

All five declared candidates have been calling and emailing the 80 county committee members eligible to vote. Only members who live within the district — which includes most of the county, but excludes Colchester, Huntington and Buel's Gore — can cast a ballot.

So who's running? Here's the list, thus far, in alphabetical order: 

Continue reading "A Crowded Field Emerges to Replace Fox in the Senate" »

Campaign Finance Bill Passes Senate; Shumlin Expected to Sign It

Galbraith.1.16.14Nearly eight years after the U.S. Supreme Court threw out Vermont's campaign fundraising and spending limits, the state is poised to adopt a new set of rules.

By a vote of 20-8, the Vermont Senate on Thursday passed compromise campaign finance legislation approved last week by the House. It now heads to Gov. Peter Shumlin, who "will want to review the language but expects to sign the bill," according to spokeswoman Sue Allen.

The legislation would double to $4,000 the amount individuals and corporations can donate to statewide candidates in a two-year election cycle and would quintuple to $10,000 the amount they can donate to political parties. 

At the same time, it decreases to $1,500 the amount those entities can contribute to Senate candidates;  to $1,000 for House candidates. Those limits currently stand at $2,000.

Continue reading "Campaign Finance Bill Passes Senate; Shumlin Expected to Sign It" »

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