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The More Things Stay the Same

Fair Game


Published January 21, 2009 at 11:21 a.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.

Change is in the air, but one thing remains the same: After-hours mixers are de rigueur in Montpelier — they give lobbyists, state officials and lawmakers a chance to rub elbows.

Powerhouse lobbying firm Kimbell, Sherman and Ellis held one such shindig last week, and more will be sprinkled throughout the session; state employees, trade associations and other interest groups take turns playing host.

The goal of these events is simple: Make a good impression on the folks who write and enforce state laws. Vermont’s a small place, after all, and we’re all just friends, right? Here, have another drink on me.

The promise of good lawmaker relations no doubt motivated Entergy to sign up to be the plutonium, er, platinum sponsor of the gov’s recent inaugural ball. With a $5000 gift, Entergy was the event’s top donor. Hope they got the first dance.

Entergy’s money went to a good cause, though: The Vermont Foodbank received all proceeds from this year’s ball. Not sure why Entergy didn’t give directly to the Food Bank. Maybe the company doesn’t realize how close the Barre nonprofit is to the Statehouse. Entergy’s in Mississippi.

Entergy has had no bigger defender than Gov. Jim Douglas. Just last week he claimed lawmakers should move forward on a vote to let Vermont Yankee operate another 20 years beyond 2012, even if we don’t know how much they’ll charge us for power.

Trusting guy.

It’s gotta be comforting that Public Service Commissioner David O’Brien — Douglas’ top energy official — is keeping a close watch on VY. So close, in fact, that [Entergy Nuclear Vermont Yankee’s] top exec, Jay Thayer, was a guest at O’Brien’s annual holiday party last month in Stowe.

Thayer and his wife were joined by former Democratic lawmaker Robert Dostis of Waterbury, who used to chair the House Energy Committee. He’s now working in external affairs for Green Mountain Power. Local Republican Rep. Heidi Scheuermann of Stowe also came.

Other members of the administration, along with officials from Central Vermont Public Service and VELCO, got invites but couldn’t make it because of the weather. Bummer. Sounds like they missed a good party.

O’Brien said people talked about wine, trips and what to do for fun in Stowe. Thayer and his wife recently moved there and wanted some local advice. What does one do in Stowe in the winter? Hmm.

“We didn’t talk business at all,” confirms Dostis.

Added O’Brien, “When it comes to utilities, I pound on them 364 days a year, and for one day a year we celebrate Christmas and the holidays, and the best part of it is, we don’t talk about business.”

But if that’s true, why did O’Brien originally deny entertaining Thayer?

“Fair Game” got a tip that the commish had Thayer and his wife over just days before his department released a lengthy — but partially redacted — report on the reliability of Vermont Yankee.

Not so, he assured us.

It wasn’t until after we talked to at least one attendee and confirmed invites from other folks that O’Brien suddenly remembered there had been a party after all — not a “dinner” party, but a “Christmas” party.

When we first asked the question, O’Brien explained, he heard “dinner party” and didn’t think of his Christmas party since it’s a low-key event with friends and not a business meeting.

Honest mistake. Cool. Vermont Yankee makes ’em all the time.


Free Press Furloughs — Staffers at The Burlington Free Press learned of more cost-cutting measures last week. Between now and the end of March, all employees have to take the equivalent of one week’s unpaid vacation.

Like all Gannett staffers, workers at the Freeps received an email from the news organization’s top dog, CEO Craig Dubow. He said the furloughs were the “fairest and least intrusive way to meet these fiscal challenges . . . We sincerely hope this minimizes the need for any layoffs going forward.”

In another move to reduce expenditures, the Freeps has combined the front and local sections to create a 14-page, one-section Monday paper. Living is folded into the tabloid-sized Business Monday, which was 28 pages. Loved the positive spin from Executive Editor Mike Townsend: “It’s a quicker and broader look at the news of the day.”


Return to Sender — Meanwhile, Seven Days got an actual “pink slip” from the Freeps. It came with a bill for an ad placed for our December buy-local “Holiday Payday” promotion.

It turned out to be a change-of-address notice. From now on, Vermont advertisers are instructed to send payment to: “The Burlington Free Press, P.O. Box 822840, Philadelphia, PA 19182-2840.”

No explanation from Publisher Brad Robertson on Philly’s claim on our hard-earned cash. Or how the paper can opine ad nauseam about Vermont not doing enough to keep jobs, and our money, here while it ships its own out of state.

All in the Family — The bad news kept coming for Vermont media last week. The family-run company that owns the Rutland Herald/Times Argus newspapers announced 14 layoffs.

Of those, five were axed from the papers’ newsrooms — two editors, two reporters and a newsroom assistant. In all, the company publishes several niche publications with a staff of 165. Company President and Publisher R. John Mitchell said, “In spite of our best efforts to reduce costs over the past year, they are not nearly enough to offset the loss of advertising revenue.”

Mitchell has avoided major layoffs until now, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t visibly cut costs. A year ago, the company ditched its excellent Sunday magazine. The paper offered the mag’s editor Dirk Van Susteren a different job, but Susteren took a “generous” severance package instead.

More changes are coming. Readers will notice both publications are narrower in width, a paper-saving move expected to save tens of thousands of dollars.

But news coverage isn’t completely disappearing at the RH/TA.

Still intact is the three-person Vermont Press Bureau of Louis Porter, Dan Barlow and Peter Hirschfeld. The trio covers Montpelier and the Douglas administration.

Good thing someone is keeping an eye on Montpelier. Appreciate it while it lasts.


Jim on Jobs — The Douglas administration couldn’t find enough vacant positions to trim the state’s workforce by 400, as promised. It’s about 50 jobs short.

Given the economy, Douglas noted, fewer people are leaving state’s employ. Go figure.

That could mean larger-scale state layoffs down the road, Douglas told reporters at his weekly presser.

The gov used the occasion to continue his harangue against the education-industrial complex and its out-of-control hiring-and-spending spree. You know the details: In the past decade, Douglas claims, student enrollment has dropped by 10 percent and school staffing has increased by 22 percent. Budgets have been growing at 6 percent, etc.

Incoming Education Commissioner Armando Vilaseca says the governor needs to do his homework. The commish notes that more than 175 teachers have been let go in the last two years; the only growth is in support staff who work with at-risk or special-needs kids.

Schools need to retool themselves during this economic crisis, just like state government and businesses are doing, insisted Douglas. “Some of you have had personal experiences with the economic realities we’re facing and the tough decisions employers around Vermont are making.” His words were directed at the reporters in the room.



Dean Cleans Out the Closet — The Democratic National Committee and its outgoing chairman Gov. Howard Dean settled a discrimination suit brought by the organization’s gay, former outreach director Donald Hitchcock.

The out-of-court settlement is said to be in the six figures, but neither side would confirm the amount.

As reported in “Fair Game” two weeks ago, Hitchcock alleged the DNC fired him in 2006 because his partner criticized Dems for marginalizing gay issues, among other reasons.

The two sides issued a joint statement last week that was full of praise for each other. Hitchcock was quoted saying: “I appreciate all the things the DNC, Gov. Dean, Rev. [Leah] Daughtry, Andy Tobias, Julie Tagen — and the Democratic Party generally — have done to advance equality. I had hoped for even more, but the dialogue is not over yet. I look forward to working with them all for continued progress.”

Six figures. That would make me appreciative, too.


All’s Not Fair — No one is on the line for some union workers who were promised jobs in Vermont and New Hampshire by FairPoint Communications.

FairPoint, which this week officially takes over Verizon’s landlines in New England, is shipping about 70 collections jobs south after promising to keep them in the region.

There wasn’t enough interest in Littleton, N.H., according to Don Trementozzi, president of Communication Workers of America Local 1400. But there was strong interest in South Burlington, where office space was prepared for the anticipated employees.

But no: Last week FairPoint announced the jobs are going to Mississippi. Trementozzi added the union could bid on the positions, as long as the offer is competitive with Mississippi wages and job conditions.

Republican State Sen. Vince Illuzzi met with Pam Powell, FairPoint’s top exec in Vermont, in hopes of keeping jobs in the state. Company officials told Illuzzi they will hire additional people in Vermont to make up for the outsourced jobs.

Union officials aren’t so sure they can trust FairPoint. “They promised they would keep 600 jobs in the community,” said Trementozzi, “and they are reneging on day one.”


Re-Reporting for Duty The Progressive candidate who ran against freshman U.S. Rep. Peter Welch last fall is being “involuntarily activated” from the so-called “individual ready reserve.” Vet-turned-peace-activist Thomas Hermann isn’t sure whether he’ll report for duty.

During his three years in the military, Hermann was deployed for one year to Iraq, where he patrolled Mosul and in Al-Anbar province. Then, as with many soldiers, Hermann’s “tour” was extended by four months.

Now he’s in a group of soldiers that doesn’t train or receive pay — unless they’re summoned by the Presidential Reserve Call-up Authority. By law, Hermann can make a case to the military that he should not serve again.

To date, four of his unit comrades have been called up, and all four asked to be excluded. So far, they either have been denied or their appeals are pending. Hermann’s not sure if he’ll follow suit.

“I seek the best path where I can honor my commitment and adhere to my moral convictions about the Iraq war and redeploying,” he told “Fair Game.”

Yet Hermann wonders: Why the need for a call-up when recruitment is going gangbusters, given an economy in the shitter and a de-escalation of forces in Iraq?

One word: Afghanistan. How’s that for “change,” folks?


No Shrub for Vermont — Vermont will remain the only state George W. Bush did not visit during his presidency. To the other 49 states, we can only say: Nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah!

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