Bill to Open Vermont Police Records Advances in Legislature By Mark Davis Montpelier — The Vermont Senate unanimously approved a bill yesterday that would require police to release investigation records that are currently not available to the public, cheering open-government advocates who have long criticized law enforcement with ducking public scrutiny by operating behind closed doors.
The bill, which was crafted by the Senate Judiciary Committee, passed 29-0 in a roll call vote, after State Sen. Dick Sears, chairman of the committee, told lawmakers that the bill was a “big deal,” according to Allen Gilbert, executive director for the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. It now heads to the State House of Representatives, where lawmakers are expected to take it up before the session expires.
“People have to realize, the position we’re all in now is that nobody has access to any criminal investigation records, even if the case is closed, or the suspect is dead,” Gilbert said in an interview this week. “We’re currently in a total shroud of secrecy situation, and the bill would move away from that.”
The bill was initially proposed by Gov. Peter Shumlin and has been touted by open-government advocates as a needed dose of accountability for law enforcement. Under current law, police typically assert a blanket right to keep the records of all investigations sealed. Under the bill, records would generally be made public absent a specific finding of “harm” that their release would cause. That would bring Vermont law in line with federal laws.
But supporters did not get everything they wanted.
At the urging of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns and other groups, the bill included stipulations that allow the names of witnesses and victims of crimes to be withheld.
The Shumlin administration and the ACLU opposed the exemptions, deeming them unnecessary. The proposed law included protections for “unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” Moreover, it could potentially allow authorities to withhold names of people targeted by police use of force that is later deemed illegal.
“There’s always a danger when you create a categorical exemption,” Gilbert said. “There might be times when who a witness is can be important to how you understand a case. We’d rather have a court determine whether or not to release a witness or victim’s name rather than say ‘You can’t do it,’ categorically.”
Additionally, the Shumlin administration voiced concern that the new protections could allow not only people, but companies and agencies to have their identities redacted from police records.
Vermont’s public records law, which generally allows citizens to access all manner of government records, contains an exemption for records of “detection and investigation of crime.”
That exemption has routinely been invoked by police when refusing to release files from cases that have been closed, or never resulted in criminal charges. For example, Hartford police, backed by Sorrell’s office, declined to release files from two incidents in which officers were alleged to have used excessive force against citizens who were later found not to have committed any crimes.
Critics argue the current law allows the police to operate with little oversight, and leads to the Vermont Attorney General’s Office clearing officers of criminal wrongdoing without showing the public how they reached those conclusions.
Several legal experts who, at the request of the Valley News last year, reviewed a file of a Vermont State Police investigation into Hartford police officers accused of assaulting a naked and unconscious Wilder man said that state police appeared to soft-pedal the inquiry and only spotlight facts that reflected favorably upon the actions of police officers. (The Valley News obtained the file from confidential sources — police declined to release the file, citing the legal exemption.)
Under the bill, those files would now likely be released, advocates say.
The bill will likely be reviewed by House Judiciary Committee and the House Government Operations Committee before it moves to the full House for a vote.
State Rep. Donna Sweaney, D-Windsor, the chairwoman of the government operations committee, said she is in favor of making police records more transparent.
“If you’re speaking about individual police records or investigative records ... we need to have a standard procedure to say yes, they are open records,” Sweaney said in an interview.
Meanwhile, lawmakers continue to mull two other bills that impact police operations.
A bill that would limit the amount of time that police can retain information generated by automatic license plate scanners has been re-written in an attempt to forge a compromise between privacy advocates and police.
State Sen. Tim Ashe, a Democrat/Progressive from Burlington, introduced a bill that would require police to delete electronic records collected by the scanners after six months. Information from the devices, which can scan thousands of license plates per hour, is currently stored in a law enforcement database for four years.
After committee hearings, the bill was re-written to allow police to retain the information for 18 months. It is scheduled to taken up by the full Senate today. In the Upper Valley, police in Hartford and Springfield, Vt., and the sheriff’s departments in Windsor and Orange counties utilize the license plate scanners.
Another bill is unlikely to make it through the legislature this year.
A proposal that would dramatically restrict police use of stun guns and increase training for officers who must confront mentally unstable person will likely need another year of work, Sweaney said, who noted it would likely be voted on in next year’s session, Sweaney said.
More than 30 members of the Vermont House of Representatives sponsored a bill that advocates said is a direct response to the death of Macadam Mason, an unarmed, a mentally ill man who died after a Vermont State Police Trooper shot him with a stun gun when they ordered him to surrender at his home in Thetford last June.
Sweaney, whose committee is reviewing bill, said her committee plans to take more testimony, and is also awaiting recommendations from Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell, who convened a panel discussion last week in which mental health advocates voiced concerns over the use of stun guns. Sorrell is continuing to take written testimony on the bill.
“The Taser bill needs more work, more discussion,” Sweaney said. “We still have some things to iron out about the bill. The committee decided they won’t rush it, and will make sure it’s done (right).”
Casino, Gas Tax Face Off in N.H. By Ben Conarck West Lebanon — Granite State lawmakers looking for new sources of revenue are preparing for a showdown in Concord over whether to approve a casino, a higher gas tax, neither, or both.
The state Senate last week voted 16-8 to establish a casino in southern New Hampshire that would raise money for the state’s highway fund, but its chances of passing the House are questionable. The bill allows the state to levy a 30 percent tax on slot machine betting, and dictates that 25 percent be split between road and bridges projects, state aid to higher education, and North Country economic development.
Earlier this month, the House passed a preliminary version of a bill that would net just under $1 billion over 10 years through raising the per-gallon gas tax by 15 cents over four years, with all of the revenue slated to go directly to the highway fund. The legislation has since made its way to the House Ways and Means Committee, where it is likely to be scaled back in order to increase its chances of passage, but the notion of a gas tax increase appears to have little to no support in the Republican-controlled Senate.
State Sen. David Pierce, the Etna Democrat who represents the heart of the Upper Valley, said yesterday that the House and the Senate will likely have to find a way to strike a compromise not just on one issue, but two.
“I think that you’re either going to see a gas tax and a casino, or neither one,” said Pierce. “I just think that’s the way the sausage is made, and that might be how it works out.”
There are some exceptions to the Senate’s support for expanded gambling. Notably, three of the eight “no” votes came from the state senators who represent the Upper Valley. Pierce voted against the casino bill along with state Sen. Bob Odell, R-Lempster, and state Sen. Jeanie Forrester, R-Meredith.
While Pierce has expressed strong support for the gas tax bill filed by state Rep. David Campbell, D-Nashua, Odell and Forrester have said they would not vote for any increase in the gas tax, whether scaled back or not.
“I don’t see us passing a gas tax increase in 2013,” Odell, the Senate Ways and Means chairman, said yesterday, of the upper chamber.
Forrester echoed that sentiment, though she said she would need to see a final draft of the bill before definitively withholding support. She added that, out of the 27 communities she represents, nobody has said they wanted a gas tax increase.
“I listen to people talk about how bad the roads are, and when I asked the question (of a gas tax increase), they said no,” said Forrester. “And they said no because they don’t believe that the money raised through the gas tax would go to help the community.”
Democrats in the 400-member House, meanwhile, have said they don’t see a casino bill surviving a vote there.
“I started out thinking the other way, and now I’m seeing more people that I thought would be going toward the casino going away from the casino,” said House Ways and Means Chairwoman Susan Almy, a Lebanon Democrat. “But we haven’t had the real pressure put on us yet, we don’t have the bill in front of us yet.”
Depending on the outcome of the House casino vote, Almy said there could be a “totally different dynamic in the committee of conference on the budget,” referring to a joint session between the Senate and the House where the budget is decided.
“I expect the committees of conference to be very long and very difficult,” said Almy.
Etna resident Jim Rubens, a former state senator who chairs the Granite State Coalition Against Expanded Gambling, described the House as “less susceptible to the political winds in Concord, which sometimes blow violently in the wrong direction,” than the Senate.
He said that, for many years, the “pro-casino forces” have had a strategy to narrow the debate by avoiding any other options to raise state revenue.
That way, Rubens said, “the budget conferees at the very end in June are forced to swallow casinos.”
“It’s not that the Senate has passed this on a rationale basis ... it’s that they are bound and determined to remove those other options from the table,” he said.
But Rubens said there were other viable options for revenue, as evidenced by the House’s preliminary passage of the gas tax. He also questioned the reliability of casino revenue.
“If you look at the history of casino licensing in other states over the past decade, no state has been able to get casino money flowing into the general fund faster than (in) two years,” he said.
Some Upper Valley Democrats yesterday expressed reluctant support for the casino bill, such as state Rep. Andy Schmidt, D-Grantham. While Schmidt favored the proposed gas tax increase, describing it as “cut and dry,” he said that the casino proposal was a more difficult decision.
“It’s not a clear cut thing,” said Schmidt. “I don’t like casino gambling, I actually oppose it. The problem is that, given the current political situation, I’m almost driven to vote for it.”
Given the fact that an anticipated $80 million in revenue from the casino’s licensing fee was included in Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan’s 2014-2015 budget proposal as a revenue source that would funnel money to the general fund, Schmidt said House Democrats have been placed in a situation where “any discretion in the budget is contingent upon passing gambling.”
“If we’re going to have money for the state university system, or mental health, or whatever, it seems like I have to vote for it whether I like it or not,” he said. “And I don’t like being in that box.”
As for whether the casino proposal would actually pass the House this year, Schmidt gave that a “50-50 chance, and it’s time to have an open debate about it.”
Flip that situation on its head, and you more or less have the conundrum facing state Rep. Rick Ladd, a Haverhill Republican who said he has always been supportive of one gambling casino in New Hampshire as source to generate revenue for the general fund.
But Ladd has reservations about a 15-cent increase in the gas tax, which he said places a disproportionate burden on working families who depend on their cars to commute to work — a demographic he said Haverhill has plenty of.
“It hasn’t been raised in a long, long time, but I can’t support doing it to the degree we’re doing it,” said Ladd. “I don’t think our families up here in Haverhill could sustain that.”
New Hampshire last raised its gas tax in 1991.
State Rep. Ray Gagnon, D-Claremont, said he supports both proposals, and stressed that a broad-based income or sales tax would solve a lot of the revenue problems the state is facing, which he said stems from a reliance on property taxes.
But Gagnon conceded that changing the state’s tax structure wasn’t likely to happen anytime soon, and, confronted with that reality, casino gambling would be a way to make up some of the shortfall.
“I think the governor, to her credit, is saying we need to fund some vital services ... and this is a way of garnering some additional revenue to do that,” he said. “Where else are we going to get the money?”
Renewable energy fight to unfold in Vermont Senate MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) — The Vermont Senate is slated to debate a measure that one side says aims to strengthen reviews of ridge-top wind power projects and the other says would bring development of renewable energy in the state to a halt.
Senate bill 30 is being pushed by critics of wind projects that they say have been damaging Vermont's mountaintops without significantly reducing the state's greenhouse gas emissions. It would call for the Legislature's Joint Energy Committee to examine reports from an energy siting commission and the Department of Public Service and draft legislation for action next winter.
Meanwhile, for the next 15 months, the Public Service Board would shift the way it reviews renewable energy projects to give more weight to environmental criteria and less to the need for power.
Grid chief warns of future NE power problems By JAY LINDSAY, Associated Press BOSTON (AP) — The chief executive of New England's power grid manager warned Tuesday that a growing regional dependence on natural gas, combined with supply constraints, is threatening its ability to guarantee electricity whenever and wherever it's needed.
Gordon van Welie of ISO New England testified in Washington, D.C., before a House subcommittee that "the status quo is unsustainable."
Van Welie said the region now gets just over half its power from natural gas and nearly a third from nuclear power. That's a shift during the last decade from more reliance on oil and coal sources, which have been squeezed out by cheaper gas and tight environmental rules.
A switch to lower-cost, lower-emission natural gas — which also is widely used regionally for heat — has major economic and environmental benefits, he said. But it's straining the existing pipeline infrastructure, which isn't sufficient to allow New England full access to abundant gas supplies from the west and south.
The effect of the bottleneck was seen this winter in a price increase. Van Welie noted that in late January, New England was paying more than eight times what other regions were paying for natural gas, even though temperatures weren't especially low and power demand wasn't high.
"Wholesale electricity prices rose significantly during this period because of physical constraints moving the lowest-priced natural gas into New England," he said, according to prepared remarks.
A massive storm in February, which was accompanied by widespread power outages, also highlighted problems, he said.
Van Welie said at one point, 6,000 megawatts of electricity — about a fifth of the region's total capacity — wasn't available, in part because gas generators couldn't find fuel.
That showed a clear need for more flexibility in the gas supply system, since the gas market operates only on weekdays, and it was a weekend storm, van Welie said.
But he also emphasized the need to beef up fuel inventory, such as by building more storage facilities, making contracts with liquid natural gas suppliers and investing in pipelines.
"It is clear that the gas system is inadequate to meet the demands of electric generators during peak periods," van Welie said.
Van Welie suggested some of the roughly $7 billion in wholesale power costs that New England saved with increased natural gas use in the last five years could be used to expand infrastructure.
Other solutions the ISO is pursuing include changing market rules so natural gas-fired generators have more time to get the fuel they need on a given day. Other rule changes could aim to increase private investment in the needed infrastructure.
Also, the ISO said installing "pay-for-performance" incentives could increase financial rewards for those that provide energy reserves when the system is under the most pressure.
Begin forwarded message:
From:"Allen, Susan" <Susan.Allen@state.vt.us>
Subject: MEDIA CLIPS FOR WEDNESDAY, MARCH 20:
Date: March 20, 2013 6:26:55 AM EDT
To: "Allen, Susan" <Susan.Allen@state.vt.us>
RUTLAND HERALD/TIMES ARGUS (CON’T):
Brooks House project a go By Susan Smallheer BRATTLEBORO — Bob Stevens is a happy man.
Stevens, one of the principals of the development group that wants to rebuild the gutted Brooks House in downtown Brattleboro, said last week’s renting party was a grand success.
“We had a really exciting event Thursday and we have commitments that have pushed us over the threshold,” said Stevens, adding that his group plans on closing on the purchase by the end of April, with construction starting immediately afterward in May.
That threshold was set by Mesabi LLC’s main bank, Mascoma Savings Bank, which wanted the $23 million project 75 percent rented before releasing the construction loan. Construction will cost $16.5 million.
“It will make the lenders happy,” Stevens said Tuesday morning.
The Brooks House was gutted by a fire in April 2011, and a local group stepped in after the original owner abandoned plans for rebuilding the historic hotel after about a year.
Mesabi LLC is made up of Stevens, who runs an engineering and architectural firm in downtown Brattleboro, and local attorney Craig Miskovich, and three local business owners: Drew Richards, Peter Richards and Ben Taggard.
Brooks House still has some residential and retail space available, but he said practically all of the space designated for offices has been rented. So much so, that Stevens and his partners are thinking about re-instating a plan to put a third story on a wing off the Harmony Parking Lot to accommodate offices.
“We have verbal commitments that have pushed us over the top. And we have several more that we are meeting later this week,” he said.
Renting retail space still remains a big challenge, he said, with only three of the eight retail spaces rented.
“Retail space has not gone as fast as the rest,” he said, noting the project only has a few apartments but has five retail spaces left.
Only three are rented, he said. But he said the group was talking to a women’s clothing store and that someone was interested in the space formerly occupied by the Moles Eye Cafe, which was in the basement of the building.
A lot of the old retail space in the back of the building has been taken over by the Community College of Vermont and Vermont Technical College, which have become anchor tenants in the revitalization effort. The two colleges are expected to bring about 300 students daily to the downtown area, a big boost to Main Street.
Construction will take a year, Stevens said. The main contractor for the project will be Breadloaf Construction, he said, and it is already soliciting bids for electrical, mechanical and sprinkler work. He said during the summer he expects there will be a couple hundred workers on the project every day.
Stevens said one portion of the building, the so-called Ballroom, which covered 4,000 square feet, was going to be taken by a local office, and wouldn’t have to be cut up into smaller spaces.
“It was that space that pushed us over the spot,” he said.
Wallingford refuses to back local sales tax By SANDI SWITZER WALLINGFORD — There is no support among municipal officials for a 1 percent local option sales tax.
The Select Board opposes efforts in Montpelier to allow towns to raise revenue in that manner.
“I’m personally against the local option tax,” Selectman Nelson Tift said.
The five-member board considered a request Monday by its counterpart in Bennington to support proposed legislation giving all towns the option of assessing a 1 percent sales tax.
Only those towns considered to be “sending” towns under the state’s education funding laws currently have the option of assessing the tax.
Those include Rutland Town, Killington, Ludlow, Middlebury, Manchester, Burlington, Dover, Stratton, Williston, Wilmington and Winhall.
Select Board Chairman William Brooks said he was “OK” with other towns enacting the tax, but he did not think it should be assessed in Wallingford.
“I don’t think it’s necessarily anything we would want to institute,” he said.
Tift said Vermonters were overtaxed and he was unhappy with legislators considering additional revenue sources with “a gas tax, soda tax and a tax on just about anything you can think of.”
Selectman Gary Fredette said the town should not join Bennington in encouraging legislators to pass a bill giving all Vermont towns the ability to assess the tax.
“I think we’ve got enough to worry about,” he said.
New Selectman Mark Tessier also opposed the proposed legislation. “I don’t think we want to be associated with it,” he said.
Brooks directed Town Administrator Julie Sharon to inform Bennington officials that Wallingford “respectfully” declines any effort supporting a 1 percent local option sales tax.
BURLINGTON FREE PRESS:
STORIES ON THE EQUAL PAY ISSUE IN FEDERAL COURT; HOUSING GROUP PULLS AD; BIG SNOWSTORM HITS STATE; ENVIRONMENTALISTS SUE TO PROTECT ENDANGERED BIRD