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Onion City Madness

Fair Game


Published May 28, 2008 at 1:17 p.m.
Updated November 7, 2017 at 12:33 p.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.

"J'accuse!" That was the cry uttered in 1898 by French writer émile Zola in defense of a general he believed was improperly prosecuted and imprisoned. Zola's open letter, entitled "J'Accuse!" ("I Accuse"), in the newspaper L'Aurore claimed the government conflated charges against President Félix Faure, in part because Faure was Jewish.

The phrase could easily find its way onto government stationery in Winooski, which is abuzz over the battle of wills between new City Manager Joshua Handverger and veteran Police Chief Steve McQueen. For certain, the city's symbol - an onion - remains apropos. There are plenty of layers to peel away, and in the end someone's sure to shed a tear.

Handverger alleges that McQueen has been derelict in his management of the police department, and that the pattern of behavior dates back several years. The city manager admits he has a tough case to prove to against a popular chief with strong allies. (I mean, really, can anyone bring down a guy whose namesake starred in The Magnificent Seven or The Great Escape?)

McQueen, through his attorney Pietro Lynn, says Handverger has trumped up the charges and, for some inexplicable reason, is raking over old coals in hopes of getting the chief fired. Lynn is also fuming that Handverger made public the May 20 letter that outlined the charges against McQueen. The content of the letter was first reported in The Burlington Free Press by Matt Sutkoski, provoking a number of "That's it?" reactions in the paper's peanut gallery, er, online commentary section.

Lynn says Handverger is the one who should be fired.

"We didn't agree to this document being released, and he can't just selectively decide on his own which documents to make public or not," the attorney says. "Steve has his First Amendment rights, and he's been told not to talk to the press by Handverger, or it's insubordination."

Handverger maintains that he's just doing his job as the city's personnel officer. Moreover, once McQueen and his attorney made it known they wanted a public hearing, he felt it proper to release some of the material on the chief. Besides, the city manager wasn't ready to spend taxpayers' money fighting off public-records requests by the media.

Lynn, who says the charges outlined in Handverger's letter were old news and had been resolved under previous city managers, added, "There was no personal gain from any of these allegations for Steve."

McQueen faced a no-confidence vote in 2002 by the police union, which alleged poor management and favoritism. In 2003, complaints arose that the chief frequently missed work and failed to fill out reports on time. He was also accused of giving conflicting statements about payments for a cellphone he had given his wife.

McQueen isn't the first Winooski police chief to find himself in hot water. Back in the mid-1990s, Walter Nieliwocki, a former Connecticut State Trooper, fell out of grace with some key members of the council and the mayor. Nieliwocki lived, paid taxes, and voted in Winooski, but never moved full-time to the Onion City. His wife remained in Connecticut, and city officials and taxpayers began to grumble over the cost of reimbursing the chief for travel back and forth to Connecticut. He eventually resigned.

Nieliwocki had another problem: McQueen. That's according to one former Winooski city worker who spoke with Seven Days on condition of anonymity. The former employee says Nieliwocki was not impressed with McQueen, then a lieutenant, and reprimanded him for failing to complete tasks accurately and on time. With each reprimand, this employee recalls, Nieliwocki ended up in hot water and with a bit more bad press.

As Nieliwocki left, he recommended an interim chief to the council, the former employee says, and it wasn't McQueen. Nonetheless, McQueen was tapped as interim chief and eventually was chosen to lead the department.

The current charges against McQueen would doom any other police chief, the former employee adds. But, while one might think McQueen's bulletproof vest stops more than just bullets, it didn't stop one longtime critic, Jodi Harrington, from being elected to the city council in March. Harrington was the top vote getter in the election, running largely on a platform that promised to shine a light on the department's budget and the actions of its chief.

"I asked, 'Why are we paying a police chief to go to Montpelier and lobby for decriminalizing marijuana when you can buy crack and heroin in Winooski?'" says Harrington. "I asked why we don't have community policing when we are a city of 1.4 square miles and 65 percent elderly, and why we have $100,000 in overtime."

Harrington thinks McQueen could face a tough time next week, given what she's hearing from constituents. Meanwhile, Mayor Mike O'Brien hopes to resolve the matter quickly and get Winooski back to being the little city on the go with a redesigned downtown.

"We're trying to be fair and unprejudiced to all parties involved right now," says O'Brien.

Once the council makes its determination on the charges facing McQueen, it will likely shift its focus to Handverger, who has his own past to contend with. He's facing charges of sexual harassment in Massachusetts by a former employee - charges that were missed in his first background check. But, Handverger points out, they came to light shortly after he first leveled charges against McQueen in March, when he put the chief on paid leave. Council members have until August 1 to inform Handverger whether or not his contract will be renewed.

If Handverger is Zola in this modern-day government drama, he may not like how things ended for the author. Zola's letter caused such a stir that he was prosecuted and found guilty of libel. He had to flee France to avoid prison.

Hearings begin Monday night, and will pit Handverger and the city's specially hired counsel, veteran Joe McNeil, against Lynn and the city council's long-time attorney, William O'Brien, the mayor's cousin and part of a clan that has worked for the city for decades.

Save a seat for me.


Denver Ho! - A crowd of 800 or so Democrats gathered Saturday in Barre for the state party convention, and to elect delegates to the national convention in Denver and hear speeches from several statewide candidates.

As noted in "Fair Game" last week, it was a spirited race for some of the coveted 10 delegate slots - six to represent Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and four to represent New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, with each group split evenly among men and women.

Philip Baruth used his popular blog, "Vermont Daily Briefing," to pitch his candidacy and that of other Obama-delegate hopefuls. It worked. He, and many of those he profiled, won. Baruth was one of three men chosen - the others being Taylor Bates, who voted for the first time in March, and Arshad Hasan, the executive director of Democracy for America (the group once known as Dean for America, named for former Vermont governor and presidential candidate Howard Dean). Michael Gaffney is the alternate.

Carolyn Dwyer, who managed Rep. Peter Welch's campaign in 2006 and has signed on to run his 2008 bid, was tops among female Obama supporters, followed by Rep. Rachel Weston (D-Burlington), and Daria Mondesire of Derby Line. Mary Sullivan is the alternate.

Former Gov. Madeleine Kunin led the pack for Clinton delegates, with Beth Robinson close behind. Among men, former Secretary of State Donald Hooper was tops, followed by Michael Pieciak. Nancy Richardson is the alternate.

This group of 10 delegates will pick the remaining six at a special June 7 meeting.

Here's what else I learned at the Democratic convention:

* Welch was loudly cheered when he called for a return to the rule of law and an end to the war. Wasn't that the battle cry of the 2006 elections? Yet, here we are, still in a war and still with a president who can't seem to remember the Constitution isn't just an artifact but a living document.

* Welch may get an opponent in the Democratic primary, thanks to Craig Hill, a 9/11 "truthseeker" who waged a similarly quixotic battle against Sen. Pat Leahy in 2004.

* Rep. Mark Larson (D-Burlington) will face strong challenges for House Speaker from top women in the caucus, possibly House Majority Leader Carolyn Partridge herself, as well as from John Rodgers, a Democrat who may have support among Republicans.

* The Obama surge is real and, as evidenced by the delegates they picked, it's fueled by youth. When Kunin asked who in attendance was at their first state convention, nearly 80 percent raised a hand. That could spell real trouble for the Republicans if the newbies vote a straight Democratic ticket.

* The bad blood between the Obama and Clinton camps is real. Efforts by Kunin, who spoke in support of Clinton, and Obama surrogate Joe Andrews to preach unity were met with hisses and moans from the crowd.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gaye Symington gave perhaps her best campaign stump speech yet, with a lot more energy and charisma than we've seen from the usually soft-spoken Speaker. She'll need to keep up that energy if she's going to ride the Obama tide to victory in Vermont and oust Gov. Jim Douglas. Then again, she did support Hillary in the primary and co-chaired her campaign here.


A Prog Spring? - While Democrats and Republicans duke it out this November for control of the Vermont House and Senate, the Progressives are mounting an effort to add to their six-member delegation, one of whom is now a committee chairman (Rep. David Zuckerman of Burlington was tapped by Symington to lead the House Agriculture Committee).

And national progressives are taking note of the party's efforts.

Writer Chris Hedges, a senior fellow at The Nation Institute and former correspondent for The New York Times and Christian Science Monitor, in his latest column (posted on TruthDig on Monday) says Vermont's Progressive Party "is slowly succeeding at a time when other progressive movements are failing. And maybe, just maybe, this movement in Vermont signals a crack in the political landscape that could allow American progressives to rise from the dead . . . If progressives want to regain political influence, we have to, like these Vermonters, think local."

Zuckerman and fellow Burlington Rep. Chris Pearson take political pokes at Democrats, and tell Hedge why the Progs succeed in rural areas:

"If you approach [the Dems] as a Progressive and talk about pocketbook issues, you can get their vote," Pearson told Hedges. "And we do. Because we are not Democrats, they can vote for us. In a funny way, they are liberated."

Zuckerman and his five Progressive colleagues are all running for reelection. Meanwhile, Mollie S. Burke of Brattleboro is vying for the House seat being vacated by Independent Rep. Daryl Pillsbury, who is retiring after eight years. If elected, Burke would be the second Progressive to serve in the legislature from Brattleboro. The other is Rep. Sarah Edwards.

Nancy Potak is running in Orleans-Caledonia-1 (Albany, Barton, Craftsbury, Glover, Greensboro, Sheffield and Wheelock), a two-seat district represented by John Morley, a Republican, and John Rodgers, a Democrat. Potak ran in 2006, and came within 100 votes of winning a seat.

Cindy Weed is running in Franklin-4, the seat vacated by Democrat Avis Gervais. Paul Cook will run in Chittenden 3-6 (Winooski and part of Burlington), a two-seat district currently held by Democrats Clem Bissonnette and Ken Atkins. Winston Dowland plans to run in Orleans-1 (Brownington, Charleston, Derby, Holland and Morgan), also a two-seat district, against incumbents Scott Wheeler and Robert Lewis, both Republicans. Dowland won the seat in 2004, ousting conservative lightning rod Nancy Sheltra, but lost in 2006.

The Democrats now must pick which races to enter and which they will sit out. If the governor's race is any indication, expect plenty of three-way races.


Last But Not Least - Last week, I neglected to list the Vermonters heading to the GOP national convention in Minneapolis. They are: Gov. Douglas; Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie; Rep. Steve Adams, Susie Hudson, Randy Brock, Sen. Kevin Mullin, Suzanne Butterfield, Walter Freed, Jay Shepard, Linda Kirker, Craig Bensen, Stewart Skrill, Rep. Rick Hube and Robert Sims.

Say hi to Garrison Keillor for us. I hear he's really a Republican.