- Tim Newcomb
We Vermonters have been telling ourselves an unhappy story that nevertheless delivers a twinge of satisfaction: If the rest of the nation had Vermont's per capita coronavirus death rate, only about 86,000 Americans would have died since the pandemic's onset.
Instead, the national toll stood at more than 400,000 deaths as of Tuesday. What accounts for the excess deaths? There are several explanations, including relative population densities, but the first thing many people will point to is the difference in basic governmental competence and leadership. We've had Gov. Phil Scott and Health Commissioner Mark Levine. The federal government has had Bozo in Chief Donald Trump, corrupting nearly everything he touches.
But before we crow too much that Vermont is better run than the federal government or other states, consider a place called Slate Ridge in West Pawlet — and the state's failure, at least so far, to enforce its laws against a man accused of terrorizing his neighbors.
Late last October, VTDigger.org delivered an excellent, long and detailed report exposing Slate Ridge, a tactical firearms training center run by 47-year-old Daniel Banyai. He faces felony firearms charges in New York and operates his "school" just over the state line in Vermont.
You might ask: Why is it permissible for someone facing felony firearms charges in one state to cross into a neighboring state and start a firearms training school?
More than two years ago, the Natural Resources Board wrote to the Vermont Attorney General’s Office to ask that Banyai be investigated and warn that he might be a “safety risk.” Just last Friday, Judge Helen Toor of the Rutland Superior Court issued a no-stalking order against him on behalf of a neighbor and her two teenage children.
The judge referred to several threatening Facebook posts on Slate Ridge's page. "One described [neighbor Mandy] Hulett and her husband as pieces of garbage and racists who hated the Second Amendment and needed to 'go to HELL!,'" the judge wrote in her order. "It went on to say, 'We must eradicate these people...'" and listed the Huletts' home address, as well as Mandy Hulett's work address with the notation "midnight shift."
(For the record, Hulett told Fair Game she is a hunter.)
One video on the Facebook page showed "Hulett Trucking" — the name of a Hulett family business — written on the bullet-riddled door of a car that had been targeted in a "vehicle assault class."
Banyai denied responsibility for the threats, but the judge wasn't buying it. "While he denied that he operated the shooting range, said that only his family uses it, and denied he had any authority over its operations or its Facebook page, the court did not find that testimony to be credible," Toor wrote.
Hulett and other neighbors in the Rutland County town say they live in fear. They argue that the noise of target practice and the apparent commercial use of Banyai's property add up to violations of local zoning rules and the state's Act 250 land-use law.
What have state officials been doing in the years since the situation came to light?
"We're just looking for some sort of assistance," Hulett said in court last week, according to VTDigger.
Vermont Public Radio published its own reporting by Nina Keck and Peter Hirschfeld last week that highlighted a stunning amount of bureaucratic buck passing and responsibility ducking by a range of government agencies.
So far, the Vermont State Police, the Rutland County Sheriff's Office, the office of Rutland County State's Attorney Rose Kennedy, the office of Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan, town zoning officials and constables, and the state Natural Resources Board haven't been able or willing to provide neighbors the assistance they're seeking.
Donovan told Fair Game that state police had offered to have a trooper accompany a Natural Resources Board investigator looking into whether Banyai's operation complies with Act 250. That offer was declined. Donovan attributed the problem to "a difference of opinion as to investigative strategies."
Evan Meenan, an attorney with the board, pointed Fair Game to a November 12 email he wrote to Jason Gibbs, Scott's chief of staff.
"The Vermont State Police has offered to provide a police escort for the Board's civilian investigators who may need to visit Mr. Banyai's facility," it said. "While the NRB most definitely appreciates that offer, the NRB has decided that due to the safety concerns that it has repeatedly expressed ... it is not going to send civilian investigators to the facility regardless of whether a police escort is present."
Officials including Scott and Donovan offer arguments that boil down to two: They haven't gathered sufficient evidence of criminal threatening to charge Banyai or his associates; and cops don't investigate Act 250 or zoning violations.
"I completely understand the concern and frustration of the neighbors, as I'm frustrated, as well," Scott told Fair Game. "I want them to know I have assigned a high-level team at the Department of Public Safety to continue to monitor the situation. And I assure them, if an actionable threat or sufficient evidence of a crime is brought to light, we will act."
Here's what Public Safety Commissioner Michael Schirling, whose department includes the Vermont State Police, told VPR.
"It's unprecedented to use a law enforcement organization to investigate a land-use issue ... Our investigators don't know anything about Act 250," he said. "So to ask that we investigate that kind of event is just — there's no basis of knowledge from which to launch that kind of investigation."
Call it the we-don't-do-windows defense.
There was a time when the state police weren't investigating internet-based sex crimes against children, either, because the internet wasn't a thing. Under previous leadership, they've shown the ability to adapt. Maybe the cops who used to fly around in helicopters looking for pot crops could get some training in Act 250. Or is protecting Vermont's environment just not as high a priority as keeping people from getting stoned used to be?
This is pretty basic stuff. Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that we are "endowed by (our) Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness, that to secure these rights, Governments are instituted..."
Earlier this month, the U.S. Capitol Police could not — or, in the case of some officers, would not — defend the Capitol against marauders. Here in Vermont, petrified neighbors of an apparently illegal gun range, whose pursuit of happiness led them to make homes on a peaceful rural hillside, lie awake at night with revolvers next to their pillows. They wonder: Where's the government?
(Editor's note: See documents from the stalking case at the end of this column.)
Killing the Messenger?
It's an old story by now — out-of-state investor buys venerable local newspaper and launches a campaign of cost cutting. Newsroom staff is cut to the bone. The paper contains less and less of local substance and more puffy features about the latest trends in fireplaces or some such.
The New York Times had a terrific, sad story last year featuring Evan Brandt, the last reporter covering Pottstown, Pa., for the once-proud Mercury. Newspapers have lost readers and advertisers to the internet and, in the past year, the economic devastation wrought by the pandemic.
Meanwhile, as in Pottstown, hedge funds and other investors have been swooping into communities and snapping up local newspapers as easily as inserting a quarter in the slot and taking a copy. The next move, as the Times put it, is to "siphon away profits rather than reinvest in local journalism."
The St. Albans Messenger and three affiliated weekly newspapers, the Colchester Sun, the Essex Reporter and the Milton Independent, appear to have suffered greatly under this triple threat. The weeklies have halted print publication and gone fully online. The Messenger announced last week that it was cutting back publication from five days a week to two.
The decline follows the sale of the papers two years ago by Emerson and Suzanne Lynn to O'Rourke Media Group, based in the Chicago area. Emerson Lynn had been the Messenger's publisher and editor — or, as U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) liked to call him when he wrote an editorial that annoyed the senator, "the ownah" — since 1981.
Lynn also — and this appears to correlate strongly with the quality of a local newspaper — lived in the community his paper covered and cared deeply about it. The Messenger consistently punched above its weight, with strong local and state coverage, excellent photography, and Lynn's often business-oriented editorials, which were read by leaders around Vermont.
Former and current Messenger employees I've reached in the past couple of weeks would talk only if they were not identified, if they would talk at all. Some spoke of their loyalty to the papers, saying they didn't want to harm any chance they might have at a rebound. Others were worried about the effects of any criticism on their own jobs or future prospects.
But those who talked described a profit-first pattern. The Messenger and three weeklies combined had a newsroom staff of 11 or so at the time of the sale, a figure that has been cut in half, my sources said. They added that turnover has been rapid. Nearly everyone working on the editorial and sales staffs in 2018 has left, and many of their replacements have left, as well.
Publisher Jim O'Rourke, CEO of O'Rourke Media Group, did not return a call seeking comment. Lynn also had no comment about his former life's work.
Former executive editor Michelle Monroe, who left in December, provided a prepared statement, which said in part, "My departure was long-planned, but delayed by a combination of my love for the community and the work, and COVID-19. My affection for the Messenger remains, and I hope to see it succeed."
What have the changes meant for content? Too much cutting-and-pasting of press releases from the governor's office, as opposed to any serious analysis or tough questions about policy changes. Last week, one reporter wrote a feature on "the most wishlisted Airbnb in Vermont last year."
O'Rourke Media Group was formed in October 2018, two months before it bought its Vermont properties. It now owns papers in Arizona, Minnesota and Wisconsin, as well. The "About Us" page on its website promises locally based "content producers" (those used to be known as "reporters") and "sales leaders," as well as "a full suite of advertising and marketing solutions" for local businesses.
Even before the pandemic, O'Rourke had reduced the publication schedule from six days a week to five.
"Once our playbook takes full form (year two or sooner), we run at a 25-30% profit margin," the "About Us" page says. The American Enterprise Institute reported not long ago that the average profit margin for an American company was 7.5 percent.
One word the "About Us" page doesn't mention: journalism.
O'Rourke did use that word when the Messenger's change to twice weekly was announced last week: "Local news and information combined with meaningful journalism will always be front and center at the Messenger," his statement said.
Journalism front and center? I hope I am wrong, but count me as skeptical.
Editor's note: The full no-stalking decision and the order involving Slate Ridge are here: