Papers, Please: The Feds Reach Deeper Into Vermont | Fair Game | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

News + Opinion » Fair Game

Bernie Sanders

Papers, Please: The Feds Reach Deeper Into Vermont


Published August 9, 2017 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated September 5, 2017 at 3:57 p.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.
  • Kym Balthazar

Picture this: You're on a Greyhound bus that leaves Boston just before midnight. After a stop in Manchester, N.H., it arrives in White River Junction at 2 a.m. Next thing you know, two federal agents board the bus and demand to see everyone's identification.

That's not a hypothetical. It happened on Tuesday, August 1. So says a passenger on that bus: 29-year-old Danielle Bonadona, a special instructor at Dartmouth College. (Her tale was first reported last week by Valley News editor and columnist John Gregg.)

"I was in the front seat right behind the driver," Bonadona says. "He opened the door, and two [U.S.] Border Patrol agents are standing there. They didn't make any announcement. They just walked in. One went to the back of the bus and worked forward. The other blocked the exit door.

"The agent asked everyone 'Are you American?' He only checked the IDs of those who didn't present as white."

Two women were held back for further checking, Bonadona says, "one international student, and a woman vacationing from Hong Kong." (Neither was detained or charged, according to Brad Brant, special operations supervisor for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection's Swanton sector.)

It must have been a bit of a shock, in the middle of the night and so far from any international border. But area residents and travelers should get used to it.

For several years after the 9/11 attacks, the feds operated occasional checkpoints on I-91 in Hartford. As recently as four years ago, CBP was seriously considering a permanent checkpoint in the area. But Brant says there's been little patrolling in the Upper Valley of late.

That's about to change.

"Transportation stops will be more common in White River Junction," says Brant. That's because the sector has more resources, thanks to additional staffing ordered under the Obama administration last year.

The Border Patrol has broad authority within 100 miles of any international border. "That authorization is to stop transportation conveyances," explains Brant. "We can stop and question individuals in any kind of transportation."

Was there anything in particular that drew the feds' attention to that particular bus? All Brant will say is that it was based on "intelligence and available manpower."

Brant says the Border Patrol routinely conducts ID checks at the long-distance bus hubs in Burlington and Plattsburgh, N.Y. How often? "I don't know. I imagine they do it quite a bit." How do they decide which buses to check? "Intelligence and available manpower."

Might the new attention to the Upper Valley include a return of freeway checkpoints? Brant knows of no plans but won't rule it out.

Vermont political leaders are expressing concern.

"Anytime there's a move to expand the border, I think is reason for us to have some concern," Gov. Phil Scott told Seven Days Monday. "That's overreach. People should be allowed to move freely in Vermont."

He said he would be communicating with Vermont's congressional delegates, all three of whom expressed concern as well.

"Strict vetting already is performed at our borders," said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who called the bus action "a waste of time and taxpayers' money." Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) called for "more time apprehending criminals ... rather than randomly boarding buses in Vermont."

In truth, however, all this "concern" won't change a darn thing. The Border Patrol is more likely to expand, rather than reduce, its activities within the 100-mile border zone. The Trump administration wants to add 5,000 new agents to the 21,000-member Border Patrol. That ought to give the Swanton sector a big boost in "available manpower," which would doubtless lead to more ID checks far away from the nearest boundary line. After all, those blueshirts will have to keep busy somehow.

Wind Break

When Gov. Scott was hiring a new chair for what was then called the Public Service Board (recently rechristened the Public Utility Commission), he said that all the nominees shared his opposition to ridgeline wind turbines. He then appointed attorney Anthony Roisman, who had represented wind opponents in court cases.

Roisman has been in office for a little over two months, and already he appears to be imposing Scott's views by making it much harder for wind projects to gain approval, or even get a hearing. This is in addition to tougher limits on noise from large-scale turbines proposed by the PUC in May before Roisman's appointment. Those rules are currently awaiting review by a legislative committee.

On June 22, the PUC postponed action on Swanton Wind, a plan to build up to seven turbines near St. Albans, until the developers can file "a complete and final System Impact Study." That's an assessment of the project's effect on the power distribution network. Developers say that's never been required upfront and would require access to proprietary information from utilities and system operators.

On July 27, the commission rejected an application from Kidder Hill Community Wind, a proposal to build two large-scale turbines in the Northeast Kingdom, due to alleged deficiencies in the filing. That decision would force Kidder Hill to start from square one.

"I was sucker-punched by the decisions," says Leslie Cadwell, a Castleton attorney who represents both projects. "It's very different from past practice."

Cadwell has more than 20 years of experience in the field. She's a former Department of Public Service attorney and chief counsel for VELCO, which operates Vermont's power grid.

"What this says to me is they're trying to stop all wind development in the state of Vermont," says renewable energy developer David Blittersdorf, the man behind the Kidder Wind project. "All they're doing is trying to elevate the cost so we'll quit."

Roisman rejects the accusations ... sort of.

"We're not adding anything new to what they have to do," he says. But then he adds, "We're asking them to do it up front, so when we do our review we can do it more efficiently."

And there's the rub. Providing all information up front presents major new obstacles in terms of time, cost and technology.

"It's a significant burden," says Cadwell. "An unprecedented burden."

The Swanton order "is in litigation now," according to Roisman. And on Monday, Cadwell filed an appeal of the Kidder Hill rejection. The filing asserts that the PUC "abused its discretion" by demanding "information that is not required by rule or statute."

That appeal will be heard by — you guessed it — Roisman's PUC.

Media Notes

The Valley News, the daily paper serving the Upper Valley region of Vermont and New Hampshire, has spawned an online-only venture called UV Index.

Valley News web editor Maggie Cassidy describes it as "an internet-friendly publication writing about interesting things that may not amount to a news story, with its own voice, a bit self-deprecating, friendly, but serious when it needs to be." Recent postings cover a wide range of topics, from the exploits of a local baseball team, to the filming of a documentary, to a new crosswalk in Fairlee. There's plenty of food and entertainment news as well.

The new site is the brainchild of Cassidy and night editor Amanda E. Newman. "It started around the first of the year as a password-protected Tumblr account," Cassidy explains. "We wanted to see if there was enough to sustain a website. And there was!"

A couple of months ago the pair brought the idea to Valley News editor Martin Frank and publisher Dan McClory, and their bosses gave it the green light.

UV Index went public in late July, with "no fanfare by design," says Cassidy. "We wanted to have a soft launch."

The new site bears superficial resemblances to Daily UV, an independent aggregator of news and views that aims to become a dominant news hub for the area. But the two products are, in fact, very different. UV Index is produced by professional writers and editors, while Daily UV allows people to post content without review.

"When I saw the Valley News launch UV Index, I was thrilled," says Watt Alexander, founder of Daily UV and head of its parent company, Subtext Media. Alexander calls his site a "storytelling platform" that will connect creators with an audience — and give them a share of Daily UV's ad revenue. Ultimately, he hopes to include traditional media, including the Valley News itself, in Daily UV's offerings, and to spread the idea to other markets in the region. He sees the launch of UV Index as a sign that the paper is opening to new ideas.

Meanwhile, there's been a reshuffle in the small world of conservative Vermont media. Back in mid-April, Vermont Watchdog, a right-wing news site, suddenly shut down. At the same time, the commentary website True North Reports was struggling to provide enough content to keep readers engaged.

And then, says Robert Maynard, True North's longtime chief, "Someone approached True North Reports ownership and said, 'Do you want to salvage something from this?'"

The result: a shotgun wedding of sorts. True North Reports was rebooted with a much more newsy orientation.

Maynard now serves as opinion editor. He says operational control is in the hands of managing editor Bruce Parker, a former Vermont Watchdog staffer.

Maynard professes to be unaware of the finances behind the redesign and relaunch, although he does acknowledge the involvement of Burlington's own archconservative mega-donor, the notoriously camera-shy Lenore Broughton. She did not return a call seeking comment.

Otherwise we remain in the dark because Parker, whose profession depends on people returning his calls, failed to respond to numerous requests for comment.

Finally, a pair of Chittenden County weeklies has new leadership. In May, the Stowe Reporter Group, a collection of weekly Vermont newspapers, purchased the Shelburne News and The Citizen, which covers Charlotte and Hinesburg. It's hired a new editor to replace the departed Boston Neary and added an advertising manager.

The editor is Lisa Scagliotti, a former reporter for the Burlington Free Press who's returning to journalism after a long break to raise a family. "She's a great hire, an aggressive news hound," says Tom Kearney, executive editor of the News and The Citizen and deputy managing editor for the Stowe Reporter, Waterbury Record and the News & Citizen of Morrisville.

On the business side, the new staffer is Wendy Ewing, "an experienced advertising representative in Chittenden County," says Kearney.

He cites the hires as evidence of the group's commitment to their papers. "We believe in the power of local news to bring people in," Kearney says. "That's our wheelhouse."

Correction, August 11, 2017: It was Sen. Patrick Leahy who said, "Strict vetting is already done at our borders." A previous version of this story attributed the statement erroneously.