Gov. Jim Douglas was beaming Friday as he announced the Bush administration had greased the skids and given the green light to Chittenden County's Circumferential Highway. After years of squabbling, construction of the link between I-89 in Williston and IBM in Essex Junction is going out to bid. Construction, said Gov. Douglas, could start this fall!
Don't bet on it, folks. Because the Circ Highway project has enough political grease on it to raise a host of legal and ethical questions.
Why did the Environmental Protection Agency suddenly reverse its position and find no need for an environmental assessment of the project?
How did the Federal Highway Administration manage to ignore the overwhelmingly negative comments submitted during the latest public comment period?
The answer is George W. Bush and his cunning plan to gut federal environmental laws that have been on the books since Richard Nixon was president.
Don't forget, this is the president who ordered the EPA to lie to New York residents about the air quality of New York City following 9/11.
This is the president who just circumvented the law by exempting power plants from Clean Air Act compliance. Sen. Jim Jeffords called it "malfeasance."
And this is the president who used an "executive order" to put Vermont's Circ Highway (and six other road projects) on the White House political fast track. It was clearly done as a favor to then Republican gubernatorial candidate Jim Douglas. Douglas has since bragged about how he lobbied Vice President Dick Cheney to help speed up the Circ during a campaign stop in Vermont.
Circ opponents say it is against the law to circumvent federal environmental laws to pay off a political ally.
Friends of the Earth attorney Brian Dunkiel finds the latest political machinations involving the Circ disturbing at best, illegal at worst. "The Federal Highway Administration obviously believes," said Dunkiel, "that Bush's executive order trumps the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)," passed way back in 1971.
According to Mr. Dunkiel, previous attempts by the Bush White House to circumvent NEPA have been found by the courts to be "arbitrary and capricious."
In the case of the Circ, said Dunkiel, the NEPA process has "an unmistakable stench of political influence that appears to have fouled the agencies' hard look, full-disclosure and objective review required by law."
If Dunkiel's right, there won't be any ribbon-cutting for the Circ anytime soon. And it'll be the fault of Jim Douglas and George W. Bush.
Meanwhile, Vermont's governor continues to march in lockstep with President Bush on the subject of our idiotic invasion and occupation of Iraq. Jimmy D still believes we'll find those phantom weapons of mass destruction.
"Obviously I'm concerned, as everyone is, about our commitment there," said Douglas. "But we've made a commitment. The president is determined to see it through and we'll have to rely on his leadership. I believe the president is on the right track, as most Americans do."
Meanwhile, presidential candidate Howard Dean has been making it perfectly clear he thinks President Bush lied to the American people about Iraq.
Deanwatch 2004 -- Writing Tuesday afternoon, yours truly is watching a live online feed of our favorite presidential hopeful addressing hundreds of enthusiatic supporters on Navy Pier in downtown Chicago. Holy computer, Batman! The crowd is chanting, "We're Hot for Howard!"
Howard Dean is wrapping up his four-day cross-country Sleepless Summer Tour on the wings of a rented Boeing 737. It started Saturday in Virginia. Since then, Ho-Ho and company have hit Milwaukee, Boise, Seattle, Spokane and Portland, Oregon. Then they turned around and headed to Austin and San Antonio, Texas. Now it's Chicago. And tonight Ho-Ho wraps it all up with a rally on 42nd Street in the heart of the Big Apple.
Thanks to the Dean campaign's state-of-the-art Internet skills, yours truly has been able to hear his speeches and see the crowds of thousands and thousands who've latched on to Ho-Ho and his call to take our country back.
Gov. Dean once told yours truly he doesn't believe in destiny. But we do. And right now it appears Ho-Ho is having his rendezvous with destiny.
What else explains something like the obituary that appeared last week in the Concord Monitor?
According to the obit, Kenneth Reichstein, 65, died at his home in Sanbornton, New Hampshire. "He was active in town and state politics in New Hampshire and was a passionate organizer on issues of social justice and peace."
Then came this kicker: "Contributions in his memory may be sent to the Howard Dean campaign at http://www.DeanforAmerica . com."
When you've got people supporting your candidacy from the other side of the grave, you've got something very special going on.
P.S. Only two local media shops sent reporters along on the Dean tour. WPTZ-TV sent Stewart Ledbetter and photographer Mike French, while The Burlington Free Press sent Sam Hemingway. Sam the Sham has been assigned to cover Ho-Ho's campaign full-time. His story in Tuesday's edition had a lot of people scratching their heads.
Instead of telling voters back home what was going on out in the heartland, Sam the Sham tried to create a dust-up between Dean and his successor, Jim Douglas, over the recent IBM layoffs.
Hemingway baited his hook by making the claim that Gov. Douglas had blamed Gov. Dean's lack of leadership for the latest round of IBM job cuts. Dean declined to take Sam's bait.
"I disagree with that assesssment," said Ho-Ho to Hemingway. "I'm not going to get into a fight with the Douglas administration," said Dean. "I'm running for president."
That didn't stop Sammy. He portrayed Dean's brush-off as a "contrast" to Dean's reputation as a straight-talking campaigner. Heck of a stretch, eh, Sammy?
The fact is, Gov. Douglas has not blamed Gov. Dean for the latest job cuts at IBM. Sam the Sham wasn't at Jimmy D's press conference last Thursday, so he probably didn't know that. But had he read his own newspaper, he would have learned in Nancy Remsen's story that Gov. Douglas blamed the IBM layoffs on "the softness of the microelectronic industry," not on Howard Dean.
Just to be sure, we checked with the Associated Press bureau in Montpelier. Those folks cover the governor pretty closely and no one there could recall Jim Douglas blaming Howard Dean, either.
We even checked with Gov. Douglas' press secretary, Jason Gibbs. He told us his boss has never blamed Dean for the layoffs. Sam the Sham Hemingway was in a world of his own on this one. His entire news story was based on a false premise.
Yikes! Let's hope this isn't a sign of coverage to come.
Softball Politics -- Sunday afternoon's team of Republican politicians led by Gov. Jim Douglas and Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie took on a team of Democrat and Progressive politicians led by Independent Rep. Bernie Sanders, Mayor Peter Clavelle and a host of legislators including Democratic State Sens. Ginny Lyons and Jim Condos. (Ginny, by the way, is one heck of a ball player.)
The charity event was won by the Democrat/Progressive squad 13-10. The metaphor was simply too obvious to ignore.
As long as Vermont Democrats and Vermont Progressives stick together, they'll beat the Repub-licans every time.
That's a scenario Jimmy D and Doobie-Doobie Do do not relish.
Melinda the Marathon Runner -- Yours truly got a little one-on-one last week with a soon-to-be very important person in Vermont -- the new CEO of Fletcher Allen Health Care. Melinda Estes, M.D. officially takes the reins on Hospital Hill in October. She comes by way of the Cleveland Cinic's Florida health-care operation.
Everybody knows about the scandal that Melinda's predecessor Bill Boettcher left behind. Thanks to Boettcher and a board of trustees that simply couldn't be trusted, the Mary Fanny lost its greatest strength -- the trust of the community it serves. Rebuild-ing it could take as long as rebuilding Baghdad.
Melinda Estes is everything Bill Boettcher wasn't. She's a doctor by training (University of Texas), an administrator by experience and a marathon runner by desire. Taking the embattled CEO job at Fletcher Allen is akin to taking the captaincy on the Titanic. We just had to ask her, "Do you have a screw loose?"
"Well, I don't think I have a screw loose," replied Dr. Estes with a smile. "I think the people at Fletcher Allen have been pretty candid, in fact very candid, about all of the issues. I spent a good deal of time with a number of community groups hearing just what you mentioned -- trust, scandal, lack of truth -- and I'm up for the challenge. I'm not one to shy away from the challenge."
Tough cookie, eh?
And it sounded like she trained well for her coming challenge at her last post in the Sunshine State.
"In Florida," said Melinda, "I walked into a situation of high turnover, large financial losses, no trust in the community, and a county commission that didn't believe a word we said. Over the last three years we've managed, brick by brick, mile by mile, to rebuild that."
That's precisely the assignment she faces here. It's encouraging to realize Melinda's coming in with her eyes wide open.
"The task ahead," she told Seven Days, "is going to be a marathon, not a sprint. I'm good at marathons."
P.S. The first little snit surrounding Dr. Estes' appointment erupted over reporter Cadence Mertz' description of the new Mary Fanny CEO in The Burlington Free Press. Cadence, who's on the less-than-large side herself, portrayed Melinda as "petite and wearing a dark pants suit."
That sparked a couple of smartalecky letters from the local politically correct police, noting the Freeps never portrayed Interim CEO Ed Colodny as "portly and wearing a gray flannel suit."
We can't recall what Estes wore during her interview with Seven Days, but we're certain she was fully clothed. She also left us with the impression she was something special. Maybe even just what the doctor ordered?
Speaking of Fashion -- Last week Gov. Jim Douglas appointed a new state tax commissioner. As far as we can tell, he has the distinction of being the first Vermont tax commissioner to have appear-ed in a nude men's calendar.
Rep. Tom Pelham of Calais confirmed his appearance in the recent "Men of Maple Corner" calendar. But unlike the men of the month who wore nothing but their birthday suits, Pelham appeared fully clothed. Whew!
"I appeared in the second Maple Corner calendar," he confessed last week, "as a member of the Maple Corner Moral Majority. We were dressed in coats and ties and carrying pitchforks in protest."
Pelham, a rookie state rep, has been a fixture around Montpeculiar for over a decade. He served a number of posts in the Dean administration, ending up as finance commissioner.
His return to the executive branch, he said, is motivated in part by the fact that it's been tough to make ends meet on the skimpy salary of a citizen legislator.
"Do you think legislators should be paid more?" we asked.
"I do," answered the newest member of Gov. Douglas' cabinet. "There's no way I can support two kids on $12,000 a year." Pelham said legislative pay should be "prorated commensurate with the median income of a family of four."
To deal with extended legislative sessions, Pelham said legislative pay should be "a fixed amount for an assumed length of session, so that as sessions drag on, people don't feather their own pockets."
Commissioner Pelham makes a good point. But don't expect to see his new boss, Jim Douglas, propose a pay increase for lawmakers in his January budget address. In fact, those will likely be the last comments on increasing legislative pay ever to pass the lips of Commissioner Pelham.
Fashion Finale -- Did you catch Corrections Commissioner Steve Gold's announcement that Vermont prison inmates will soon be required to wear uniforms?
Gold says inmates smuggle in illegal drugs sewn into the seams of their clothing. Standard-issue uniforms will prevent that, he says. According to Gold, the "baseline" drug in prison is marijuana.
Our unscientific survey of prison guards over the years has revealed a preference for allowing inmates to smoke a little pot. Keeps them mellow, we've been told, and less troublesome. And come January, they won't be able to smoke cigarettes either, as the state enforces a tobacco ban in prisons.
According to Commissioner Gold, 43 percent of Vermont criminals under the care and supervision of Corrections aren't even in jail. Instead, they're serving time on parole or furlough or early release in neighborhoods near you.
Given the spate of recent crimes by those folks, maybe Gold should put the new uniforms on the inmates outside the barbed wire first. That's where they actually might do some good, eh?