After weeks of mounting citizen opposition, Progressive/Democrat Mayor Peter Clavelle pulled the plug Monday on the planned fall construction of a new $15 million multi-modal transportation center on Battery Street near the Burlington Waterfront.
Project opponents had scheduled a Tuesday City Hall press conference to announce a petition drive calling for a September citywide referendum on the new bus station. In the wake of Monday's cave-in by the Clavelle administration, however, the press conference was canceled.
One of the opponents, Republican State Rep. Kurt Wright, told Seven Days he thinks Clavelle's withdrawal was to some degree a result of the impact a bus station defeat would have on Mayor Moonie's expected gubernatorial bid in 2004.
"I think Peter's a smart politician," said Wright (who lost the 1999 mayor's race to Clavelle). "He can read the tea leaves. He saw the mounting opposition."
Wright said he expected as much as 70 percent of Burlington voters would vote against the multi-modal project.
If that were the outcome, said Kwik Stop Kurt, "Clavelle would be in a heck of a spot."
Mayor Moonie strongly denied Kwik Stop's analysis. His decision, he said, had "nothing to do" with the politics of 2004.
"I viewed [the bus station] as an asset," Clavelle told Seven Days, "but not everyone shared that view." Mayor Moonie said that "if push came to shove" he "might have been able" to get the necessary eight votes out of the 14-member city council. But in recent weeks, said Clavelle, it became crystal clear to him that the new bus station "did not have significant public support."
After eight years of planning and no signs of opposition until last month, the question is, what the hell happened?
According to politicians from all of the local political factions, one of the key factors killing the project was the recent series of five -- count 'em, five -- damning editorials in The Burlington Free Press. The editorials claimed the new location would make bus travel more difficult for low-income riders and block the view of Lake Champlain sunsets.
The Freeps' "11th-hour obsession" with the project "after ignoring it for almost a decade is bizarre," said Clavelle. "There's been a lot of misinformation," said da mayor.
Clavelle points out the sunsets would hardly be blocked by a two-story building. Nor would people have to walk down to the waterfront to hop a bus, since all routes would pass through the downtown Marketplace district.
Still, he concedes, the lack of passenger train service since Gov. Jim Douglas suspended the Burlington-Charlotte Champlain Flyer did not help his case. The current lack of a choo-choo took the "multi" out of multi-modal.
City Councilor Phil Fiermonte (P-3), a project supporter, told Seven Days that the mayor "recognized the way this was playing out. There was not a lot of public support."
Fiermonte, Congressman Bernie Sanders' top Vermont aide, said there's "no question" the Freeps' editorials were a factor in stopping the project.
"I've never seen an issue in this city," said Fiermonte, "where they stirred up public opinion like this."
Councilor Jean O'Sullivan (D-4), who chairs the Transportation Committee and led the opposition on the city council, agreed. "The Free Press really did fan the flames," said O'Sullivan.
So why did a newspaper that never wrote one editorial on civil unions in 2000, nor an editorial on the nurses' union drive, nor an editorial on the current brouhaha over the Circumferential Highway suddenly weigh in so heavily on the waterfront bus depot?
Blame Canada, folks. It's the only explanation that makes any sense.
You see, the five anti-bus-station editorials were the work of someone few people in Burlington have ever heard of. Susan Reid joined The Burlington Free Press about two years ago. One year ago, Ms. Reid transferred from the copy desk to the position of editorial writer. She works under the guy from Kansas, editorial page editor David Awbrey. The bus-station project has been her passion.
You see, prior to coming to Burlap, Ms. Reid was a city hall reporter and copy editor at the distinguished Toronto Star in Ontario, Canada. You know, Canada -- the country that just legalized gay marriage and is on the road to legalizing marijuana puffing. The land of ice hockey legends and Canadian bacon, whose leaders had the guts to oppose President George W. Bush on the invasion of Iraq.
Ms. Reid told Seven Days that waterfronts are special to her. She well remembers the one she left behind on the shore of Lake Ontario in downtown Toronto.
"I came from a city," said Reid, "where the waterfront is all built up and there is little public access."
Susan told yours truly that she and her husband Bill Anderson, the Freeps weekend editor, "fell in love with Vermont a long time ago." When the couple saw "an opportunity here," she said, "we went for it."
And the last thing Susan Reid will allow in her adopted home is for the Burlington waterfront to turn into a copy of the congested Toronto waterfront. We're saved! No Toronto here!
But five years down the line, the commuter rail service may well be back in operation and Amtrak, we're told, fully intends to have service to New York by then.
Unfortunately, there won't be any multi-modal transit center by the train station to whisk passengers to their destinations. Instead, the waterfront will be packed with chi-chi shops, galleries and restaurants and long lines of SUVs looking for an expensive parking spot.
If you've got a problem with that, then there's only one thing you'll be able to do -- blame Canada!
Judge Shopping -- The 11 members of the Judicial Nominating Board (JNB) will be gathering at the State House this Wednesday to begin a second attempt at presenting Gov. Jim Douglas with a list of candidates for the vacancy on the Vermont Supreme Court.
Gov. Jimbo rejected the first list of six "qualified" candidates and sent it back. Couldn't find one that suited his gubernatorial tastes. JNB Chairman Peg Flory told Seven Days she expects to have a new list for the governor by the end of August.
"I don't poke along," said Princess Peg.
The first list included Judges Matthew Katz, Mary Teachout, Francis McCaffrey and Dean Pineles, and two distinguished attorneys, Richard Cassidy and Stephen Saltonstall.
Obviously, none were to the Guv's liking.
The question is, who is Douglas' mystery candidate?
At this point, State Sen. John Bloomer of Rutland County appears to be that candidate.
According to sources, Bloomer, the GOP leader in the Senate, applied for the vacancy but did not win the necessary majority of votes from the JNB.
Asked Tuesday if he was interested in becoming a Supreme Court justice, Sen. Bloomer told Seven Days, "It's not out of the question."
The Rutland Rocket, however, declined to confirm he had applied for the post.
"Everything's confidential, isn't it?" he asked.
Yes it is, John Boy, but we wanted to know if he could picture himself in black robes in the not-too-distant future.
"It's something I might be interested in," replied the coy Bloomer.
All he needs is six votes from the 11-member JNB in the next round to make the list. And if he makes it, our bet is Gov. Douglas will pick him. Bloomer, after all, comes from distinguished Republican lineage. His late father was also a state senator. His mom is currently a state rep.
Barring Bloomer, the Budweiser Longshot in this one is Rep. Duncan Kilmartin. The Newport lawyer is from the Nancy Sheltra wing of the Republican Party. If only Duncan could somehow muster six votes from the JNB, Gov. Jimbo would surely be tempted.
The loquacious Kilmartin, you see, is Vermont's answer to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Kilmartin would surely drive the other four justices bonkers!
Could that be such a bad thing?
P.S. Incidentally, Gov. Douglas went out of his way the other day to criticize the two most important Vermont Supreme Court decisions of modern times: The 1997 Brigham decision that declared Vermont's school-funding system unconstitutional and the 1999 Baker decision that found the state's marriage laws unconstitutional.
Gov. Jimbo muttered something about "judicial activism" and the principle that the legislature, not the Supreme Court, should write the laws.
Rep. Flory, an attorney, said she was surprised by the Guv's comments.
The Supreme Court, she said, "did not do Act 60 or civil unions. The legislature did. I can see from a legal perspective," said Flory, "how they made their analysis. I can't say their analysis was incorrect."
Anti-Gay Gas? -- Last week, Wal-Mart finally entered the 21st century. The world's leading retail giant suddenly announced it had changed its mind about homosexuals. Wal-Mart will henceforth include "sexual orientation" in its corporate discrimination policy.
Hey, with gay marriage legal in Canada and the U.S. Supreme Court throwing out Texas' archaic sodomy laws, the equal-rights train is picking up steam. Let's not forget how the state of Vermont bravely led the way three years ago with the passage of civil unions.
Wal-Mart's decision leaves mighty ExxonMobil standing alone as the only multinational corporate giant that still shuns a policy spelling out employee protection from discrimination based on race, creed, color, gender and sexual orientation.
When Exxon gobbled up Mobil in 1999, it immediately put the kibosh to Mobil's anti-discrimination policy that included "sexual orientation." Mobil even offered domestic-partner benefits. Exxon stopped the practice.
The Exxon position is that it opposes discrimination of all kinds and does not believe it's necessary to single out a particular group, i.e., homosexuals, for protection.
In response, the equal-rights battle has been waged at Exxon-Mobil's annual shareholders' meetings. Several asset-management firms that invest billions of institutional dollars in the stock market have organized the opposition. This year a shareholder resolution calling on Exxon-Mobil to add "sexual orientation" to its corporate discrimination policy drew 27 percent shareholder approval. But still the world's largest oil company refuses to budge.
According to Shelly Alpern, assistant vice-president at Trillium Asset Management in Boston, ExxonMobil "sent a very hostile message to its current and potential gay employees when they rescinded Mobil's discrimination policy. They're alienating 5 to 10 percent of the employee base. As shareholders," said Ms. Alpern, "we object to that. It's bad personnel policy."
That viewpoint was echoed by Elizabeth Elliot McGeveran at the Boston office of U.K.-based ISIS Asset Management. ISIS controls $96 billion of institutional investment capital. According to McGeveran, ExxonMobil stock represents one of the largest holdings in its U.S. portfolio.
McGeveran told Seven Days that "Almost every one of America's largest corporations agrees it is good business to have sexual-orientation language in company discrimination policies."
"We've had many conversations with the company," McGeveran told Seven Days. "We look at not just financial evaluations, but social, environmental and issues of corporate governance, too.
In the "knowledge game," said Ms. McGeveran, it's all about "getting the best employees." And as an investor, she said, ExxonMobil's non-policy on gays is a "red flag."
Here in Vermont, the largest distributor of ExxonMobil gasoline is R.L. Vallee Inc., owned by Republican National Committeeman Skip Vallee. Mr. Vallee distributes Mobil gasoline from the huge tank farm off Home Avenue on Burlington's lakefront. Gasoline Vallee told Seven Days he supplies about 50 gas stations, including 19 that he owns. Of the 19, he said, 12 operate under the "Maplefields" logo -- you know, the mini-mart chain that sells fine wine and offers fresh flowers in the restrooms.
Gasoline Vallee told Seven Days his company's employment policies "are as open-minded and progressive as they get." ExxonMobil, said Skip, "could learn a lot from the way Maplefields is run. They could also take a lesson in diversity in hiring."
Should ExxonMobil add "sexual orientation" language to the corporation's discrimination policy?
"Yes," replied Vallee.
One of the other big Exxon gas operations in Vermont is South Burlington-based Wesco Inc., run by Dave and Bill Simendinger. The Simendingers also own the Champlain Farms chain of mini-marts.
Unfortunately, Bill Simendinger told us Tuesday he was "not interested in discussing" his business with us.
Vermonters, of course, are free to buy gasoline anywhere they choose. It's a necessary evil. If ExxonMobil's gas isn't to your liking, well, there are alternatives to the Maplefields and Champlain Farms chains.
Our favorite is McCaffrey's Sunoco at the corner of North Street and North Avenue in Burlington's Old North End. Pat McCaffrey says Sunoco gas comes from Venezuela, not the Middle East.