Even the best-laid plans go astray sometimes! Just hours after last week's paper hit the street, with our column item on "Torti's Two Hats," Gov. Jim Douglas decided the next president of the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce does not need to stay on the state payroll until the end of the year after all!
Late that afternoon, word came down from the governor's office that things had changed. Agency of Natural Resources Secretary Tom Torti will not be staying on, as planned, until after the November election while he waits to assume his new duties as president of the pro-business, pro-shopping center, pro-Circ Highway, Burlington-based chamber.
And yours truly's was not the only voice questioning the startling ethical blind spot on the Fifth Floor. That morning the Valley News over on Vermont's eastern border echoed similar sentiments in a blistering editorial titled "The Long Goodbye."
"Were [Torti] to be moving into retirement or taking a job in central Asia, the protracted departure wouldn't mean a thing," wrote the Valley News. "The problem is that Torti plans to be at the helm of an organization that is very much affected by decisions rendered by the agency he now heads."
As we noted, the Douglas administration did some serious damage control that very afternoon. The Fifth Floor suddenly announced Torti would be leaving his post at the end of this month, but will remain on the state payroll as a "consultant" through August.
Environmental groups such as VPIRG and the Conservation Law Foundation have rightly noted that Gov. Douglas appears to be afflicted with a severe case of gubernatorial memory loss. After all, back in September 2003, Gov. Scissorhands proudly decreed a strict "Code of Ethics" for members of the executive branch of Vermont state government. Read it yourself at www.vermont.gov/governor/. Click "Executive Orders."
According to the Douglas Code, "An Appointee shall not take any action in any particular matter in which he or she has either a conflict of interest or the appearance of a conflict of interest, until such time as the conflict is resolved."
An "appearance of a conflict of interest" means "the impression that a reasonable person might have, after full disclosure of the facts, that an Appointee's judgment might be significantly influenced by outside interests, even though there is no actual conflict of interest."
"After reading the executive order," said State Sen. Ginny Lyons (D-Chittenden), chair of the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee, "it's very clear that if there's a perceived conflict of interest, a person would have to step down quickly." Lyons said that Gov. Douglas "should have been aware from the beginning that Torti had applied for the chamber position."
We asked gubernatorial press secretary Jason Gibbs when Sec. Torti told the Guv he had applied for the LCRCC presidency, but have not received a reply.
In addition, CLF's Chris Kilian formally filed a public-records request last Wednesday with Sec. Torti seeking "all records pertaining to steps taken by you and your staff to prevent conflicts or the appearance of conflicts in regard to the agency and your future employer."
As we go to press this week, there's still no response from Torti.
But in terms of reactions to Tortigate, or lack thereof, a few stand out.
For one thing, Gov. Douglas' Democratic rival Scudder Parker has, surprisingly, not made an issue of it. Yes, Ol' Scud was critical in last week's "Inside Track," but we had to call him for a comment. Candidate Parker has so far not issued a press release criticizing the brazen attempt by his November opponent to flout his own Code of Ethics!
Maybe Candidate Parker is suffering from Fourth of July "parade fever?"
Secondly, Vermont's TV News station of record, WCAX, completely ignored the Torti controversy in its newscasts. We're not making this up.
Ch. 3 did not inform its viewers that environmental groups were raising serious and significant conflict-of-interest complaints. Even though the story was hot news on VPR, the Associated Press wire, on radio and in the state's top daily newspapers, WGOP-TV pretended it did not exist. Ch. 3 News reported that Torti got the Chamber presidency, and that was it.
Even last Wednesday's announcement by Gov. Douglas that Torti would leave sooner rather than later did not make Ch.3's newscasts that evening.
We've long teased Ch. 3, referring to it as "WGOP" when its pro-Republican Party coverage demanded it, but the station's total silence on Tortigate -- Vermont's top political story of the summer so far -- indicates "Chamber of Commerce TV" might also be a worthy moniker.
On Monday we emailed News Director Marselis Parsons and Station Manager Peter Martin seeking some kind of explanation for Ch. 3's news blackout of the Torti story.
Unfortunately, neither gentleman has replied.
"Rainville" & "Bush" -- You will never see those two names appear in the same sentence, or on the same web page, if Republican Congressional candidate Martha Rainville has her way.
In an interview this week, we asked Marvelous Martha if the absence of a photo or even a mention of her party's leader, President George W. Bush, on her campaign website -- www.martharainville. com -- indicated she was "running away" from Mr. Bush? After all, many GOP candidates are, and Mr. Bush's approval rating in Vermont is around 26 percent.
"I'm running on Vermont issues and that's what I want to keep it about," replied Rainville. "That's what my focus is."
Was that a "yes," we asked?
"I don't honestly see myself as running away from anything as much as running for something. And I'm running for what Vermonters care about."
OK. Well, do you think Mr. Bush is doing a good job as president?
"I think that depends on what you are talking about," replied Martha.
Well, do you think he's doing a good job?
"I think he does a good job on a lot of things," answered Candidate Rainville. "I think he has made some mistakes on others, just like anybody else. I think that what's important, though, is we look at where we are and where we need to head."
Take note -- she never even uttered the president's name. Not once.
New subject. Has Marvelous Martha seen Al Gore's global-warming flick, An Inconvenient Truth?
"No, but I do plan to see it," she told us.
No offense, but she desperately needs to see it soon. Why?
Because Martha Rainville sounds like she still is in a state of conservative, pro-business denial when it comes to acknowledging that global warming is not just a theory but actual fact. It's here, and it's happening now.
Is the global-warming crisis as critical to her as it appears to us?
"I think what's critical," replied Rainville, "is that we have to educate ourselves on it. There are obviously different opinions on global warming, but the overarching question is, what is global warming? What is the extent of it? How much of it is influenced by man and the decisions that we make? And what ought we to be doing?"
Martha's answer might have held water 10 years ago, five years ago, or even two years ago, but it simply doesn't hold water in 2006.
Quite simply, Candidate Rainville ought to consider updating her global-warming position quickly. Though she told us she normally only sees movies on DVD, this one might be worth a trip to the theater.
P.S. As for getting into debates with Democrat Peter Welch, Martha told us she will wait until after the September Republican Primary before engaging the Democrat. That is, of course, assuming she wins the GOP primary. After all, her main GOP rival, State Sen. Mark Shepard of Bennington, is not afraid to mention the name of President Bush, either in public or on his website: http://www.shepardforcongress.org.
Surely most of the diehard Bush supporters left in Vermont will be casting ballots in the September 12 GOP primary?
Laconic Bob? -- Fine front pager in Tuesday's Freeps on Bob Kiss, the man of few words who is Burlington's new mayor.
"Today in his 100th day in office," wrote John Briggs, the Freeps' Woodstock-generation city-hall scribe, "Kiss is staying true to his pre-election reputation for laconism. He has yet to make a deep impression."
The new Progressive Mayor of Vermont's largest city is not one to seek the limelight, which is why many continue to wonder why he ran for mayor in the first place. For example, at every city council meeting, the mayor is allotted 10 minutes at the top of the agenda to speak on "general city affairs." As usual, Mayor Laconic only needed two minutes Monday night for a few rather mundane "announcements." No big deal.
By the way, we did not realize "laconic" has its roots in the Latin laconicus, meaning "Spartan." Apparently the Spartans, like the current mayor of Burlington, Vermont, enjoyed a reputation for "terseness of speech." They were known for being concise to the extreme.
Sure sounds like Mayor Kiss, eh?
In fact, the few times Mayor Laconic verbally ventured into virgin political territory during his first 100 days cost him.
Take the remark the rookie mayor made to a May Day North Street rally supporting immigrants' rights. Kiss was caught by Ch. 3 News saying he hoped Burlington "could move forward to become a sanctuary city."
WCAX-TV jumped all over that little remark, and it became a raging battle for weeks. Republican City Councilor Kurt Wright introduced a resolution putting the council on record against a sanctuary city designation, even before one had been officially proposed. That resolution, also backed by Ward 5 Democrat Joan Shannon, was quietly withdrawn as cooler heads prevailed.
Mayor Kiss has apparently learned his lesson about off-the-cuff political remarks. He appeared happy to let the sanctuary-city dustup quietly die down. But the issue will not die down.
At Monday's city council meeting, a half-dozen folks spoke up on the sanctuary issue. One of them was Ward 5 resident and UVM English Professor Nancy Welch.
Welch told "Inside Track," "In a refugee resettlement city [which Burlington is], this issue is vitally important." She noted "everyone was in the streets" on May 1 at rallies coast to coast, and they were "saying the sleeping giant has awoken. We're workers, not criminals, and we deserve full rights in this country that we contribute so much to."
Meanwhile, she said, the Bush White House and GOP-controlled Congress happily ignores the issues, such as the ongoing War in Iraq and health care, while engaging in "immigrant-bashing." Changing the subject, after all, has long been a winning political tactic.
The UVM prof said the issue will not go away, even if Mayor Laconic doesn't want to talk about it right now.
"My feeling is, Mayor Kiss did the right thing," said Welch. "It may not have been politic, but it was absolutely the right thing for somebody to stand up and say. I'd like my city councilors to stand up and say the right thing, too, even if it's not politic."
Incidentally, there are about 60 sanctuary cities in the United States at present, including St. Paul, Minnesota, Berkeley, California, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Chicago, Illinois.
Not exactly bad company, eh?
New Tactics -- WCAX-TV did not send a crew to U.S. Senate candidate Bernie Sanders' presser last Thursday in Burlap, where he got the endorsement of the Professional Firefighters of Vermont. They didn't have to -- the Tarrant Campaign sent its own crew!
Within hours, Campaign Manager Tim Lennon had a release out whacking Bernie for denying during that press conference that he has "accepted corporate PAC money." Yours truly had asked the question.
The Tarrant Camp has focused on a single $500 contribution to Sanders from Florida Crystals. Lennon wrote that Florida Crystals is owned by the "Fanjul family, described by Time magazine as the "First Family of Corporate Welfare."
On Ch. 3's "You Can Quote Me"Sunday morning, Sanders bristled when Marselis Parsons asked him if he'll give the Fanjul money back.
Ol' Bernardo changed the subject. He denied being a "zillionaire" like Mr. Tarrant. Candidate Sanders noted his campaign has so far received "more than 60,000 contributions, more than 5000 from individual Vermonters." Meanwhile, Tarrant, estimated to be worth $300 million, is personally paying all his own campaign bills.
Sanders insisted Fanjul's sugar operation was a "large farm" and "not a corporation," and he changed the subject one more time, telling Ch. 3 viewers that Mr. Tarrant "owns stock in a Chinese communist-owned company!"
Red-baiting by Bernie Sanders?
Who would have imagined it?
P.S. Yes, confirmed Lennon, that was the "Tarrant for Senate" campaign's office manager Layla Gray grilling Bernie about his sugar contribution at the spaghetti dinner Sanders' campaign held on Saturday in Swanton. Eyewitnesses say the Tarrant staffer did not tell the crowd who she worked for, and kept interrupting Sanders when he attempted to answer her question.
Lennon told "Inside Track" Ms. Gray had every right to be there and ask questions as a private citizen.
Technically, yes. But it is in rather poor taste, Ol' Tim, for a campaign staffer. At least in Vermont. Can't remember it ever happening before in the Green Mountains.
Maybe it's kosher in your native New Hampshire, but in Vermont, the paid-staff doesn't play "average citizen" at an opponent's campaign event.
World Cupped - As noted on John Odum's Green Mountain Daily blog, Vermont's mainstream press ignored the Bloggers Picnic held Sunday afternoon at Burlington's North Beach.
"Not even Freyne of Seven Days could be bothered to wander over. Many there were rather surprised," wrote Mr. Odum. More at http://www.greenmountaindaily.com.
We can't speak for the mainstream press, but we do have an excuse - the World Cup Final between France and Italy. The whole world, or most of it outside of the United States, was watching. As you know, they were tied at 1-1 after regulation. Two scoreless, 15-minute overtimes followed.
Then they went to penalty kicks - a rather flimsy method of deciding a world championship. More luck than skill. Italy won.
Even though the playing pitch in Berlin was lined with familiar corporate logos like McDonalds, Gillette and Coca-Cola, there is something so remarkably un-American about the football the rest of the world is addicted to that we simply could not miss it.
Unlike American football, with helmets and facemasks and shoulder pads, world football is a skin game. And no delays for instant replays. The referee's call stands. Life is not fair, eh?
Yours truly and the state's mainstream press may have missed the bloggers picnic, but a lot of Vermont pols did not. Democrats Scudder Parker, John Tracy and Matt Dunne attended. So did Brendan McKenna, the former Rutland Herald reporter who's press secretary for Martha Rainville.
P.S. There's a rumor floating around about "Inside Track" starting a blog. Word is Seven Days management is looking for just the right sponsors.