On the Waterfront
Every day all summer, tourists flock by the thousands to the sparkling jewel in the Queen City's crown -- the Burlington Waterfront. They ride the Lake Champlain tour boats, rent bikes to glide along the shoreline bikepath, visit the ECHO museum, stroll the boardwalk and enjoy one of the world's finest vistas.
Main Street Landing Company (MSL) has for some time controlled most of the developable real estate on the Burlington waterfront. The outfit owns the old railroad station and adjacent buildings and is currently behind the big construction project north of College Street. Cinemas, eateries, offices and more are planned for architect Colin Lindberg's playful waterfront circus maximus.
Big doings, indeed!
On its website, http://www.mainstreetlanding. com, MSL defines itself as "a company with a vision that includes environmentalism and social conscience. We build buildings and we build relationships."
According to Chittenden Superior Court records, one of MSL's best and longest relationships has deteriorated into a nasty legal battle that's revealing a side of MSL's principals, Lisa Steele and Melinda Moulton, few have imagined.
The lawsuit against MSL was filed two years ago by Manon O'Connor. O'Connor operated Mona's restaurant out of MSL's CornerStone building for seven years until Steele and Moulton had the locks on the restaurant doors changed one May night in 2002. Instantly, Mona's was out of business. It was the talk of the town. Rumors were flying. Two years later, the details are finally emerging.
O'Connor has filed a seven-count complaint against MSL alleging everything from "Breach of Lease" and "Breach of Good Faith and Fair Dealing" to "Defamation."
According to court records, MSL claimed that Mona's was behind in the rent and didn't have a valid lease at the time of the lockout.
Superior Court Judge Matthew Katz, however, disagreed. Judge Katz ruled that "the lockout on May 20, 2002, coming as it did without notice, was improper." MSL had continued to accept monthly rent since the original five-year lease ran out in 2000, a lease remained in effect.
The case involves the best and brightest of the Burlington legal community. O'Connor is represented by Ritchie Berger of Dinse, Knapp & McAndrew. Berger, a.k.a. The Terminator, usually defends doctors and hospitals in malpractice lawsuits.
When Mr. Berger shifts gears to represent a plaintiff, it's primarily because he believes someone's been royally screwed. That was the case 10 years ago when he successfully represented fired Burlington Free Press reporter Paul Teetor. And it appears to be the case here.
Manon O'Connor had been a star on the local restaurant scene. She started bussing tables at the Charlemont in Morrisville when she was 15. Later she met and married chef Arthur O'Connor. In 1988, they opened Bourbon Street Bar & Grill on College Street. It was a great success and in 1994, MSL's Lisa Steele recruited the O'Connors to open a second restaurant in the mostly vacant CornerStone building next to their recently redeveloped Union Station.
Mona's opened on the waterfront in 1995 and was an instant draw. When Chef Arthur died in 1998, Manon battled on.
"It was a terrible time," said O'Connor in a Seven Days interview. "He was my business partner, husband, father of my child and an extraordinary human being. I had a mission. I had to continue. Arthur had great faith in me."
Continue she did, but by the time George W. Bush moved into the White House in January 2001, the economy was heading south. After the 9/11 attacks by al Qaeda, things only got worse. Americans lost their love of shopping and eating out. Mona's felt the pinch.
As 2002 dawned, said O'Connor, she looked at Mona's financial picture. With business off, it was clear, she said, that her $12,000-plus monthly tab for rent and common area fees was "out of whack." Besides, the waterfront hadn't developed as fast as MSL had promised. She started to think about selling the restaurant. And she made her concerns known to Melinda Moulton.
"Melinda didn't want to hear it," said O'Connor. "Her take was, 'If you don't like it, get out!'"
O'Connor paid the rent through April. Then, on the night of May 21, 2002, Moulton, with Steele's blessing, had the locks on the restaurant doors changed. Mona's was out of business.
Not only that, but MSL even refused to allow O'Connor to auction off her equipment and fixtures on site. Apparently, there was a little bad blood between the waterfront women.
Last month, both Steele and Moulton were deposed by attorney Berger. MSL's lawyers will depose Ms. O'Connor at a later date. Copies of the under-oath depositions have been obtained by Seven Days and they reveal an as-yet-unseen side of the two MSL ladies.
Amnesia is apparently more common around here than you'd think. This reader was amazed by Ms. Steele's memory loss. And both MSL officials fought off Berger's questions even when the answers were as obvious as the noses on their faces:
Berger: "Well, what happens when you lock a restaurant out of its leasehold? Does it put the restaurant out of business?"
Steele: "We also have a business."
Berger: "That's not my question. My question to you is when you lock a restaurant out of its leasehold, does it put the restaurant out of business?"
Steele: "I don't know."
Berger: "What do you mean you don't know?"
Steele: "I don't know."
Berger: "How can it conduct its business if the locks are changed and it's forbidden from entering the leased premises?"
Steele: "I don't know."
Berger: "So then you do know the answer to my question. If you lock a restaurant out of its leasehold at Main Street Landing, you're essentially putting that restaurant out of business, true?"
Steele: "We're just locking the doors."
Berger: "If the doors are locked, how can a restaurant open for the day, the week, the month, the year?"
Steele: "I don't know."
Mr. Berger later ran the same question by Moulton, but, unlike Steele, Moulton eventually caved in, conceding the obvious --that changing the locks that night put Mona's out of the restaurant business.
Berger also questioned Moulton about several emails she had sent to a prominent local business leader following what Judge Katz has since called the "improper" lockout.
In one email dated June 4, 2002, Moulton wrote, "It's been a nightmare for a very long time. A very tough lady to deal with and she thinks she can stay in the place without paying rent and without a lease....
"She never appreciated anything MSL did for her and she blamed us all the time for the fact her restaurant wasn't succeeding. The blaming got real old after six years and she's out there slandering us all over town."
In an email sent the following day, Moulton wrote, "I haven't talked to anyone out there in the community, but I know Manon is out there slinging the mud."
Under oath, Berger asked Moulton about it:
Berger: "Did you ever claim that Manon was slinging mud about Main Street Landing Company or you or anyone?"
The Terminator then produced copies of Moulton's email correspondence claiming exactly that. It led to this interesting colloquy:
Berger: "I just asked you under oath whether you ever had personal knowledge that Manon had been slinging mud about you or MSL and you said no, correct?"
Berger: "In Exhibit 11 (the email) you claim Manon 'has been slinging mud.' Correct?"
Berger: "So were you telling the truth then, or were you telling the truth today?"
Moulton: "I guess I was thinking 'slinging the mud.' What do you mean by 'slinging the mud'"?
Berger: "Well, it's your language, right?"
Berger: "So were you telling the truth then or were you telling the truth today?"
Moulton: "I'm telling the truth today and then."
Under further questioning, Moulton was unable to name even one person who had been the recipient of Manon's alleged mudslinging.
In a Seven Days interview this week, Moulton, with her attorney Robert F. O'Neill of Gravel & Shea, staunchly defended MSL's actions.
"We've had probably over 200 tenants," said Moulton, "and always had great relationships. We're loving and caring landlords," she insisted. "We don't screw people and we don't lock them out."
But, but, but... you did, Melinda!
"Over the years we bent over backwards to help Manon," said Moulton. "The bottom line is she couldn't pay the rent. It was time for her to move on. I don't think we're bad people."
Moulton also expressed the hope that she would not wear "a scarlet letter" as a result of this case.
"I'd like not to be judged at this point," she said.
"I'm confident," added Attorney O'Neill, "that what you have is a straightforward commercial contract dispute, and you will find out that Melinda and Lisa have acted properly and fairly."
Moulton acknowledged, however, that O'Connor had sought to renegotiate her rent due to declining business. She called it "a real first."
"I never had a tenant come to me and ask to lower the rent before," she said. The subsequent changing of the restaurant locks, Melinda insisted, "wasn't vindictive on our part. It was a business decision."
Barring an out-of-court settlement, O'Connor's lawsuit against MSL appears headed for a jury trial. Given the actors, including an opera-fan judge who referenced Monsieur Benoit's difficulties in the Act I of La Boheme in a recent entry order, it should be quite a show.
Asked how much she's hoping to recover from MSL in damages, O'Connor said, "I'm not looking for millions. I just want to recover the money I lost."
She declined to give a figure.
P.S. Manon O'Connor has finally left the restaurant business behind. She's currently the interim Director of Development at Fletcher Allen Health Care. And attorney Berger has filed a motion to compel re-depositions of Steele and Moulton because they refused to answer a multitude of his questions because they were relying on their attorney's advice at the time.
"It is well-settled law," wrote Berger, "that the attorney-client privilege cannot be used both as a shield and as a sword."
The motion is pending before the operatic Judge Katz.
Back to Politics -- OK, political junkies, guess what Peter Clavelle's biggest problem is? Here's a hypothetical that might loosen your mind.
You're the Democratic candidate for governor in a state with one major TV station. Let's say it's called WGOP-TV because, imagine for a second, its owner is a major financial contributor to the Republican Party and Republican candidates. And let's imagine the current governor is a Republican.
You schedule a mid-week press conference in the state capital to discuss your energy policy and point out the incumbent's shortcomings on the issue.
But WGOP-TV does not send a crew. Not only that, the station with the hour-long evening news doesn't even mention the A.P. wire-story version. It's as if it never happened.
Unfortunately, the above is not a hypothetical. It's what happened to Democratic gubernatorial candidate Peter Clavelle last week. The TV station that prides itself on its quality news coverage completely ignored the gubernatorial challenger.
According to Clavelle's press secretary, B. J. Rogers, WCAX was notified by press release. That morning, Rogers called the station to remind them. Standard procedure.
Mr. Rogers said he was told by an unidentified Ch. 3 newsroom employee that their schedule for the day had not been determined yet. He was also told that WCAX News did not intend to cover every campaign press conference.
The message is clear: If Clavelle wants to see himself on Ch. 3, he's going to have to buy 30-second spots.
Hail, Incumbency! -- Let's face it, incumbents generally have huge advantages by virtue of their incumbency. Everybody's heard of Gov. Jim Douglas, but Burlington Mayor Peter Clavelle is not yet a household word in every corner of Vermont.
A search of the WCAX news archives indicates that since May, Jim Douglas' name has been mentioned on WCAX newscasts more than twice as often as Peter Clavelle's.
And it's not just WCAX.
A search of the archives at the Rutland Herald and Vermont Public Radio also shows that the incumbent governor gets mentioned on newscasts almost twice as much as his Democratic challenger.
Add to that the fact that the state's largest TV news operation didn't even consider Clavelle's news conference on energy policy newsworthy, and you can see the steepness of the uphill fight Mayor Moonie will have to wage if he's going to win on November 2.
Speaking of Energy -- The Douglas administration's second attempt at writing a credible 20-year energy plan recently slipped through the news with little notice. Energy policy, many say, is one of Gov. Jim Douglas' weakest arenas. Remember, at first Gov. Douglas supported letting Entergy Nuclear boost power at Vermont Yankee without requiring any safety assessment whatsoever.
Wisely, following a little accident at Vermont's aged, lone nuke, Gov. Scissorhands flip-flopped (as he's also done on medical marijuana and imported drugs from Canada) and demanded a safety assessment.
Gov. Douglas' first state-energy plan wasn't even taken seriously by the Democratic State Senate. This governor's Public Service Depart-ment is viewed as being more corporate-friendly than consumer-friendly.
VNRC Policy Director Pat Berry described the latest version of a 20-year energy plan as "even less ambitious than the first." The Douglas administration, "added 160 pages of background," he said, "but it's still not a vision for the future. Rather, it's a set of problems for which no tangible results are offered."
Download the Douglas draft plan at www.state.vt.us/psd and enjoy.