Desperately Seeking Permit Reform
It was the top issue on Gov. Jim Douglas' agenda, but so far, the Democrats haven't rolled over to give it to him. In fact, we're wondering if "permit reform" is the urgent issue Gov. Jimbo says it is.
One year ago, Candidate Douglas began a TV blitz designed to frighten Vermonters. Job losses at IBM and elsewhere were but the tip of the iceberg, he warned. If Vermont didn't reform its cumbersome permit process, many more jobs would be lost.
Again and again Douglas cited the O'Neal Report as the evidence. That's the rather superficial 2002 "survey" commissioned by the Agency of Commerce that allowed Douglas to claim reforming the Vermont permit process is the #1 issue for business.
So we were a little surprised the other day when the Guv couldn't tell us what percentage of businesses surveyed, according to the hallowed O'Neal Report, cited the permit process as a problem. (It was 54 percent, meaning about half don't find it a problem at all.)
We were even more surprised when the Guv couldn't name the second or third "disadvantage" of doing business in Vermont cited by O'Neal. ("Hard to recruit people" and "air travel.")
In fact, Gov. Jimbo could not recall any of the other business "disadvantages" cited in the report, like health-care costs and the housing shortage. Nope, for our governor there is "permit reform" and nothing else.
Mark Sinclair, vice-president of the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF), a pro-environment watchdog group, called Douglas' permit-reform quest one of the "biggest disinformation campaigns" Vermont has ever seen.
Compared to other states, said Sinclair, Vermont is a "cakewalk." Decisions on development projects "are made at a much faster clip here." And the numbers indicate, said Sinclair, that "98 percent of proposed development projects get approved."
Repeatedly over the last year, Douglas has been unable to conceal his contempt for CLF and other groups that dare speak up on development issues. Passing a law that would keep such groups out of the process is clearly the governor's goal.
As it is today, said CLF's Sinclair, "state regulators never saw a development they didn't like." The Agency of Natural Resources (ANR), "gives out permits like candy." If Gov. Jimbo succeeds and watchdog organizations like CLF are cut out of the process, "no hard questions will be asked and the system will become a rubber stamp for developers," warned Mr. Sinclair.
He's got a point.
Just last week the state Water Resources Board (WRB) tossed out the Watershed Improvement Permits (WIPs) that ANR had issued for four Chittenden County streams that are already impaired. The Board found the permits handed out by our state environmental agency violated state law because they didn't require polluters to clean up their pollution within five years. Remember, the waters of the state belong to everyone, not just shopping-center developers.
Gov. Douglas called the WRB ruling "very, very troublesome." He said polluted streams should be cleaned up, "but in a thoughtful way that does not disrupt the economy of Vermont."
"Thoughtful way," eh?
Didn't know you could clean up a polluted stream just by thinking about it.
Circ Update -- CLF, Friends of the Earth (FOE) and others will be filing comments by June 16 on the new, greased "Environmental Assessment" of the Circumferential Highway the feds recently released.
According to Brian Dunkiel, lawyer for FOE, "Our experts have completed a preliminary review and they're finding significant deficiencies."
Dunkiel says the assessment "illegally" breaks the project into segments "so as not to look at the full range of environmental impacts the highway will cause." He cited stormwater pollution and sprawl as examples.
You'll recall that last fall Candidate Douglas got President George W. Bush to put the Circ on the "fast track."
CLF's Sinclair says the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was "taken to the woodshed" by the Bush administration on this one.
"I've gotten it from EPA staffers," said Sinclair, "that they've been called off. More than likely this is going to end up in court."
DeanWatch 2004 -- "What did the president know and when did he know it?" That's the memorable Watergate Scandal line that Howard Dean resurrected at an Iowa picnic Sunday. It was originally uttered by Republican Sen. Howard Baker.
Ho-Ho used it in reference to the torrent of lies that have spewed from the lips of the current president concerning Iraq's alleged "weapons of mass destruction" that were an "imminent" threat to the American people.
A good follow-up for Dr. Dean would be the infamous line uttered by President Richard Nixon's legal counsel during Watergate -- John Dean (no relation). Lawyer Dean testified on March 21, 1973, about a private meeting with his boss in the Oval Office.
"I began by telling the president that there was a cancer growing on the presidency," said John Dean, "and if the cancer was not removed the President himself would be killed by it."
In an article by John Dean posted at tompaine.com, the former Nixon aide wrote:
"To put it bluntly, if Bush has taken Congress and the nation into war based on bogus information, he is cooked. Manipulation or deliberate misuse of national security intelligence data, if proven, could be 'a high crime' under the Constitution's impeachment clause. It would also be a violation of federal criminal law, including the broad federal anti-conspiracy statute, which renders it a felony 'to defraud the United States, or any agency thereof in any manner or for any purpose.'"
And you thought impeachment of a president required an oral sex act, eh?
Bernie's Big Oil Connection -- Finally caught Congressman Bernie Sanders this week on his Monday radio talk show on WDEV. Let's face it, Ol' Bernar-do's a great talker.
On Monday's edition, Bernie read emails from listeners, but so far he isn't taking phone calls.
The funny part was when the congressman broke for commercials. That allowed Bernie fans to hear the sweet voice of the opposition. You see, Republican National Committeeman Skip Vallee is running 60-second spots touting the benefits of Exxon-Mobil and his chain of Maplefields Mobil mini-marts.
Gasoline Vallee highlights Maplefields' "fresh-cut flowers and impeccable bathroom" and pitches the Exxon-Mobil "Speed Pass" that allows motorists to gas up without digging out a credit card. Instead, they "just wave the wand."
Mr. Vallee's outcue is: "Exxon-Mobil and Maplefields -- progressive innovation making Vermont a better place to live."
The Skipster owns and operates 12 Maplefields and eight other gas-up stations across northern Vermont. His fuel dealership supplies gasoline to 50 stations. His fleet of R.L. Vallee tanker trucks is everywhere.
"I thought it would be important," said Vallee, "for Bernie's listeners to understand the kind of progressive technology Exxon-Mobil has undertaken for consumers."
Gasoline Vallee noted that on Monday's program Sanders "talked about people being forced to take two jobs." People are busy these days, said Skip, "and one of the things the Mobil Speed Pass does is allow you to zoom through" the fill-up process.
Bernie's chief-of-staff Jeff Weaver told us from Capitol Hill Tuesday, "It looks like Skip Vallee is supporting something progressive besides the progressive delivery of gasoline. Who'd have believed it?"
Vallee told Seven Days he's purchased 12 weeks' worth of advertising time on Bernie's radio show. He said it's the only radio program he's currently advertising on. But he's not giving the host high marks, at least not yet.
"Bernie talks a lot about having diversity on his show," said Vallee, "but he hasn't had people on who disagree with his view." Rep. Sanders "should take calls and questions from the audience. It seems pretty staged to me."
Interesting to note, Progressive Anthony Pollina fills the 1-2 p.m. time slot Tuesday through Friday. But Gasoline Vallee's only buying time on Bernie's Monday broadcast.
"I really like Anthony," said Vallee.
You bet he does. A lot of Republicans do, starting with Republican Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie, who cruised to victory in 2002 with just 41 percent of the vote. As expected, Tony the Prog and Democrat Peter Shumlin divvied up the Vermont left.
P.S. Nobody knows what Pollina's plans are for 2004, but it's a safe bet Shumlin will be back. Right now the two Democrats chomping at the bit for a run at Gov. Jim Douglas are Shummy and Burlington's Progressive/Democratic Mayor Peter Clavelle. It'd be a heck of a primary. Shumlin the Southerner has the advantage of one statewide race under his belt. Clavelle the Northerner has the advantage of years of statewide TV exposure.
Of course, there's always Doug Racine, right?
But Racine's rather sparkless gubernatorial campaign has put him on the political shelf for the first time in years. Losing to Jim Douglas was an embarrassment. The Quiet Man will have to leap out of the box to get Democrats to give him a second chance. Douglas-lite just won't cut it.
Supreme Court News -- In Foggy Bottom the battle lines are being drawn for the coming battle over the next presidential appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court. One, maybe two, Supremes are expected to announce their retirement at the end of the month. Abortion rights currently rest on a thin 5-4 majority. This will be a big and bloody battle.
Here in the Green Mountains, the chatter is rising over Gov. Jim Douglas' first appointment to the Vermont Supreme Court. You'll recall in January, Associate Justice Jim Morse stepped down from the bench to take the position of SRS commissioner in the new administration.
Seven Days has learned that the 11-member Judicial Nominating Board has sent the Guv the names of six applicants who have passed muster.
Asked about the matter at his weekly press conference, Gov. Jimbo replied, "I'm prohibited by law from discussing the details of the process of filling the vacancy, so I'll have to decline to answer the question."
He's right. The process is by statute supposed to be confidential. However, Seven Days has learned who made the cut: Judges Matthew Katz, Dean Pineles, Mary Miles Teachout and Francis McCaffrey, and attorneys Richard Cassidy of Burlington and Stephen Saltonstall of Bennington.
"I'm not bound by the initial list submitted by the nominating board," said Gov. Douglas, "but I am bound to make a choice from a list that is submitted."
Gov. Jimbo's right. A few years ago, Democratic Gov. Howard Dean rejected the first list of nominees for chief justice and sent it back. That's because his candidate, Administration Secretary Bill Sorrell, wasn't on it. Dean was pissed. It's one of the few times he didn't get his way.
Sorrell didn't make the second list, either. Dean was so ticked off he chose Republican Attorney General Jeff Amestoy and the rest, as they say, is history.
Handicapping the list of those who did would indicate Judge Pineles is the favorite. As far as we can tell, he's the only Republican. Twenty years ago, he was Gov. Dick Snelling's legal counsel.
The downside, however, is that he was on duty to give King Richard the legal green light for the infamous Vermont State Police raid on the Northeast Kingdom Community Church in 1984. The long-haired Christians who flocked to Island Pond were considered weird and dangerous. Based on unproved allegations of child abuse and fueled by sensational press coverage, more than 100 troopers descended on Island Pond that June morning and snatched 112 church children.
But Judge Frank Mahady, presiding at a special court session in Newport, declared the state's search warrants illegal and the raid unconstitutional. It was Gov. Snelling's biggest mistake. Pineles' too.
As for the rest of the field, Katz is highly regarded, but he's a Democrat, as is McCaffrey. Teachout can be ruled out because the High Court already has two women justices. Can't imagine Jim Douglas going for a female majority, can you?
Attorney Cassidy is an active Democrat. His law partner is former Democratic Gov. Phil Hoff. Attorney Saltonstall has distinguished himself representing environmental groups. Not a chance for either one with this governor.
If the Guv can't swallow Judge Pineles, Jimbo will be sending the list back to the nominating board for some new names.
P.S. Gov. Douglas says he's pro-choice when it comes to abortion rights. But the other day, he applauded the U.S. House for supporting a ban on so-called "partial-birth" abortions. "It seems to me it's something even those of us who are pro-choice can agree is not necessary or appropriate," said Douglas.