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Bernie Sanders

Dodging a Bullet

Fair Game


Published June 25, 2008 at 5:40 a.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.

It's become a habit to invoke a literary giant when writing about the Winooski imbroglio.

First came Emile Zola's "J'accuse!" Then Albert Camus' The Plague. And for the last, I save the best: Samuel Beckett.

"Waiting" was the key word Monday night as lawyers conferred with lawyers against a backdrop of empty chairs, silent microphones and stilled TV cameras. But the scene was closer to Beckett's second theatrical masterpiece, the one-act Endgame, than Waiting for Godot. Because, in the end, it was all about finishing up, not waiting.

The drama of embattled Winooski Police Chief Steve McQueen played out its final act Monday night, as the chief walked offstage with his job intact, receiving hugs from an adoring audience. He never even had to take the stand.

That's right. After all was said and done - after weeks of public airings of allegations his lawyer Pietro Lynn called unfounded and unsubstantiated - McQueen will retain his job. He'll be back at it on June 30.

"He is overwhelmed with happiness," said Lynn after the bombshell ruling. "He is very happy and eager to get back to work for the people of Winooski." That was all from the usually loquacious Lynn, who deferred any further comment about the proceedings to the city council.

McQueen must also be happy that the council agreed to pay Lynn's $10,000 legal bill. City Manager Joshua Handverger, who brought the charges against McQueen, ducked out before reporters could get to him. Handverger's attorney, Joe McNeil, also cost the city about $10,000.

So, what brought about the big turnaround? New evidence? Nope. Did everyone simply get tired and want to go home? Nope. It was due to a "technicality in the process," according to councilors, who refused to elaborate.

Most of Monday night's hearing, which began at 7:30, took place behind closed doors. About 50 people sat patiently at the Winooski Senior Center while different factions conferred in private rooms (or in back of the building) with attorneys. One "billable hour" after another passed until the city council emerged at 10 p.m. to announce its decision.

Mayor Michael O'Brien read a short resolution exonerating the chief, and the audience erupted in cheers.

Of course, there are conditions in the resolution, agreed to by all parties: McQueen is not allowed to talk to the press about the proceedings; he will not sue the city or its agents; and he will work to "restore confidence" and cooperate with other employees, department heads, the city council and the city manager.

One more thing: McQueen is getting a new job description. The city council will tackle the job of rewriting it.

Handverger was reticent to talk about the council's ruling. "It's my job to follow the city council's decision," he said.

Councilors said they were glad to move past the hearings, which were beginning to take a toll on everyone. Newly elected councilor Jodi Harrington, a long-time proponent of community policing who has been critical of McQueen's performance, said the council's decision would help the city move forward and achieve some long-awaited reforms in the police department.

Revisiting the chief's job description, and moving toward community policing, will force McQueen to respond to a new set of standards and guidelines. Winooski may even create a citizen oversight panel to keep tabs on the police department.

Former police officer Michael Brouillette knows what it's like to bring charges against McQueen and lose. In 2003, when he was head of the Winooski police union, Brouillette brought numerous complaints - some of which involved McQueen - to McQueen and city manager Gerry Myers that led the city to hire an independent investigator to sort out fact from fiction.

In his report, investigator James Cronan, a former state police commander, alleged among other things that McQueen gave a city cellphone to his wife and couldn't prove he reimbursed Winooski. He also suggested McQueen bought computers for private use with federal funds and generally failed to provide adequate leadership.

Despite the severity of the allegations, no heads rolled. Myers dealt with McQueen by working out a plan of corrective action, the former city manager told "Fair Game." When the Cronan report became public, McQueen's response, printed in a Burlington Free Press article, equated to: "They took their best shot and I'm still chief."

Then, as "chief," McQueen was able to issue a gag order on all police officers to prevent them from discussing the report.

Upset and demoralized by the gag order and McQueen's response, the union held a meeting with all 14 members and unanimously agreed they had "no confidence" in the city's top cop. It was a risk they were willing to take, and for some it meant the beginning of the end of their time in Winooski.

Brouillette ended up filing two unfair labor practice complaints against the city, alleging that Myers and McQueen changed his shifts as retribution for speaking out. Brouillette let the matter drop when he left Winooski and joined the force in St. Albans.

The city council hopes its action Monday night will avert any key resignations, but even its hard work may not be enough to stop the past from repeating itself in Winooski.


Democrats for Douglas - The political hubbub last week was centered on the launch of Gov. Jim Douglas' reelection campaign. He hit all 14 counties in two days. Must be nice to have a trooper to do all the driving, eh?

The Douglas tour wound down at a barbecue at the St. Albans home of Frank Cioffi, commissioner of economic development under Gov. Howard Dean and currently the president of the Greater Burlington Industrial Corporation.

"It was nice to end it in Franklin County, where I've had tremendous support across both sides of the aisle," Douglas told "Fair Game."

Along the way to Cioffi's backyard, Douglas made stops to highlight, and take credit for, the Choices for Care program in Brattleboro, the upcoming sales tax holiday in Fairlee, a residential drug treatment center in Bradford, and so on.

"These all relate to my leadership and accomplishments of the past five years and about the future. I want to make sure that all Vermonters have hope and opportunity and succeed in a challenging economic environment," said Douglas. "And, to be a voice of change for our state and bring about our innovative ideas like our blueprint for health, regulatory reform and the E-state initiative. We need to be at the cutting edge of change and innovation and, at the same time, I am also the voice of reason and provide balance to a very liberal general assembly."

Both Democrat Gaye Symington and Progressive Anthony Pollina chided Douglas for claiming to be the voice of "change" in this election. It's a word he's borrowed from Sen. Barack Obama, who is working the "change we can believe in" slogan at the presidential level.

However, Obama and Douglas do have something in common: a key supporter. The host of Douglas' kickoff barbecue - Cioffi - is a charter member of Democrats for Douglas. He's also a "strong supporter" of Obama for president.


The First Lady Places Second - First Lady Laura Bush visited Woodstock Monday at the invitation of a friend associated with the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Park. She spent Sunday night in a cottage on the grounds, got a tour of the park on Monday, announced a trails grant of $50,000, and then headed north to Maine's Acadia National Park to visit friends and continue her hiking trip.

Several locals were on hand, including Democratic Rep. Alison Clarkson, chairwoman of the Billings Parks Commission, which oversees Woodstock parks. She described the First Lady, with whom she spoke briefly, as "a lovely person and an articulate spokesperson for the national parks."

Notably absent was the state's top Republican: Gov. Douglas.

He received word of Bush's visit last Wednesday and was invited to attend, but he had already scheduled appointments he couldn't cancel.

"We were unable to rearrange the governor's schedule to accommodate the First Lady's visit. We did, through staff, pass along his appreciation for her support for our national parks and historic-preservation efforts," said Jason Gibbs, the governor's spokesman.

The source of the scheduling jam? Douglas wanted to be on hand to hear Comcast officials announce their 300-mile network expansion to seven previously unserved communities - a key element of Douglas' E-State Initiative. Additionally, he had several private meetings that could not be rescheduled, Gibbs said. Local Republican Rep. Steve Adams, who is the House minority leader, was there.

As for the D.C. delegation, they were informed the First Lady would be in Vermont but were not invited to attend. Sen. Bernie Sanders was already playing host to the Secretary of Veterans Affairs.

This is not the First Lady's first visit to Vermont. She came in 2006 to raise money for Republican Martha Rainville during a spirited campaign for Vermont's lone House seat. Bush's mother-in-law, Barbara Bush, also came to Vermont to raise money for Rainville, who eventually lost the race to Democrat Peter Welch.

President George W. Bush has yet to come to Vermont, the only state he has not visited during his presidency. Why? Two towns - Brattleboro and Marlboro - would have him arrested if he sets foot on their soil. And Newfane selectman Dan DeWalt did launch those local impeachment resolutions around the country . . .

Despite the misgivings of some Vermonters, Sanders has invited Bush to visit the Green Mountain State. The offer, which was made in person at the White House, still stands, according to Sanders' spokesman Michael Briggs.

Coincidentally, it was Dubya's father, President George H.W. Bush, who created the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Park in Woodstock. It's the state's only national park. H.W. made it to Vermont three times. Despite being heckled by antinuke activists on a vice-presidential visit, he came two more times while president.


The Doctor is . . . Out Again - Just as soon as the Democrats found a credible candidate to challenge Republican Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie, they lost him.

Emergency-room doctor Harry Chen, a Democratic representative from Mendon, has opted against running for the state's number-two job. He's also decided not to run for reelection.

Chen told "Fair Game" that, despite the good wishes of many, the timing was wrong. "I spent the past week talking with a lot of people - friends, family and colleagues - and decided it just wasn't the right time for me to run," said Chen. "I am certainly thankful for all the good wishes and really looked forward to the challenge of a statewide race, but not this year."

No word yet on possible Democratic candidates, but Progressives may step in to fill the void. They're talking to candidates this week about running for statewide office and are eying the lite-gov slot, said Progressive Party Executive Director Morgan Daybell.

Note to Democrats: Replicating the magic of Dr. Dean may not be in the cards. How about trying to recruit someone from a different profession - a butcher, a baker, a candlestick maker?