Seven Days has learned that embattled Burlington Free Press Editorial Page Editor David Awbrey has stepped down. In an exclusive interview, Awbrey, who steered the Gannett-chain newspaper's editorial page for almost three years, denied he was forced out or fired.
As readers know, the conservative editorialist has found himself under an ever-darkening cloud this year. The cloud eventually turned jet-black with the publication of Awbrey's infamous and utterly ridiculous June 4 editorial slamming Independent Rep. Bernie Sanders for supporting Wal-Mart.
Awbrey cited Sanders' efforts to get federal funding for improvements near I-89's Exit 19 as proof of the socialist's backing for Wal-Mart's proposed new store in St. Albans.
Unfortunately for Awbrey, who never bothered to check, the new Wal-Mart is slated for a site near Exit 20, five miles up the superslab. Awbrey got his exits wrong.
We dubbed Awbrey's editorial "Vermont's Journalism Joke," another in an endless line of Freeps mistakes that only enhances the foreign nature of the Gannett newspaper's approach to covering Vermont.
As it turned out, Awbrey's Bernie-bashing edit was the last editorial the 55-year-old Kansas transplant wrote for Vermont's largest daily.
On June 10, Freeps Executive Editor Mike Townsend published an unprecedented "Correction and clarification" at the top of the Freeps' editorial page. In it, Townsend apologized for Awbrey's inaccurate June 4 editorial smear.
Of late, Awbrey has been officially "on vacation." The vacation, however, ended last Thursday when a tiny, one-sentence announcement was tacked to the employee bulletin board at 191 College Street: Editorial Page Editor David Awbrey has resigned.
Needless to say, many suspect Awbrey's abrupt departure is proof of the old "Three Strikes and You're Out" theory.
Strike One was Awbrey's prominent appearance in the March 14 front-page crowd shot of prominent Vermont fans attending UVM's championship men's basketball game.
Awbrey had accepted two free center-court tickets from UVM. So had a slew of politicians. But Awbrey's not a politician. He's a journalist. Even the Gannett Code of Ethics warns
against taking freebies.
At the time, however, Awbrey protested his innocence, denied an ethical lapse and passed it off as no big deal.
Strike Two whizzed over the plate in April when Seven Days received a copy of the email Awbrey had sent op-ed columnist Barrie Dunsmore of Charlotte. In the missive, Awbrey revealed the source of the decision.
"Free Press Publisher Jim Carey has taken a dislike to your column and doesn't want us to run it anymore," wrote Awbrey to Dunsmore. "He has been vague on the reasons... I deeply regret this decision, but I have no other choice."
In the 21st century, one ought to be wary of delivering such bad news via the Internet when a phone call would do just fine.
Strike Three was the spitball Awbrey pitched in June to Ol' Bernardo. All he had to do was look at a Vermont road map or call Sanders' office. Ignorance is bliss. And Awbrey sounds almost blissful about recent developments.
David was in good spirits when he spoke with Seven Days on Monday. The loquacious Kansan bore no grudges over our coverage of his malaise and denied he had been forced out by publisher Carey.
Rather, Awbrey told us that he read the three "rookie reporter mistakes" he had made this year as a sign that after almost 32 years in journalism he "didn't have the edge anymore," and wasn't functioning "at the best possible level."
A reflective chap, indeed, Mr. Awbrey said that with his 56th birthday approaching, he was thinking about whether there was something else he wanted to do in his professional life as the final chapters approach.
"I've got one last thing to do," he told Seven Days with determination in his voice.
And so Mr. Awbrey will be moving to Springfield, Missouri, his wife's hometown, where he plans to become a high-school history teacher.
As a college student at Kansas State University, Awbrey was the long-haired student-body president and campus leader of anti-Vietnam War protests.
Thirty years later, he wakes up and finds himself writing ridiculous right-wing editorials for a conservative Gannett paper in the most liberal state in the nation.
You might say, David Awbrey has come full circle, eh?
And you know what?
David Awbrey's going to be a fantastic high-school history teacher. How do we know?
Well, yours truly is the one who has highlighted Editor Awbrey's professional mistakes for the world to see.
Each time, we called him for comment.
Each time, he treated us with respect and behaved the way grown-ups are supposed to. And in the end, Awbrey owned up to his mistakes.
There's a lesson there, folks, and a damn good one, too.
Shallow Breathing -- "I think," said State Buildings Commissioner Tom Torti, "that people get nervous, and we can't blame them."
The people Tom Terrific is talking about are the 140 state workers who get up every day and go to work at the Old Thayer School on North Avenue in Burlington. The school, built in 1947, was bought by the state in the late 1970s.
The problem causing all the nervousness is a simple one: the air that people breathe inside the building.
One worker who spoke to Seven Days on condition of anonymity said there have been "numerous health problems" among workers. At a recent staff meeting, we're told, one worker reported a sinus condition that had required surgery.
Four departments of state government currently inhabit the facility: PATH (Social Welfare), DMV, SRS and the district offices of the Health Department.
Worker complaints about illness and symptoms related to air quality finally spurred the Department of Buildings and Grounds to take a closer look. An air quality consultant was hired -- Crothers Environmental Group -- and a copy of the recently completed final report has been obtained by Seven Days.
According to the 44-page study, an overwhelming majority of workers has experienced a host of symptoms that certainly raise red flags. Complaints were highest in the PATH and Health Department offices.
Unlike the DMV offices, which have been remodeled and have new ventilation systems, PATH and the Health Department rely on the building's original heating and ventilating system.
"Stuffy/itchy/runny noses" were reported by 85 percent of those workers interviewed in the PATH offices. "Cold/flu episodes" (74 percent), "Sinusitis (53 percent) and "Headache" (71 percent) also raise concerns.
Commissioner Torti told Seven Days he is well aware of the problem. The state has responded to concerns and hired a consultant, he said. According to Boss Torti, the study found that the particulate matter in the air is within "acceptable limits."
According to the consultant's report, everything from ozone to mold to particulate/dust concentrations were checked. Everything came back within "acceptable limits" or "below OSHA standards."
However, one section of the report sparks concern, especially since there have been reports of at least one worker coming down with a serious bacterial infection.
Look, yours truly's not a biologist, but we know that there's good bacteria and bad bacteria. The good stuff, for example, is in yogurt. Unfortunately the consultant found some of the
bad stuff in the duct system at the Old Thayer School.
According to the report, the bad stuff is Gram-negative bacteria. "Endotoxins are part of the outer membrane of the cell wall of Gram-negative bacteria." You don't want to mess with endotoxins.
According to the report, "During an infection with Gram-negative bacteria, endotoxins can cause fever, malaise, changes in the white blood cell count, respiratory distress, shock and even death."
"The presence of elevated concentrations of Gram-negative bacteria inside supply air ducts is a concern," states the report. "Sensitive individuals can have adverse reactions when exposed to this type of bacteria."
Phew! That's a relief. Only "sensitive" employees have to worry. All the "insensitive" ones are safe!
Commissioner Torti told Seven Days the building is safe, in his opinion, but he acknowledged there are problems that need to be addressed.
One is the ancient air-duct system with its deteriorating fiberglass lining. Not good.
The other is the asbestos found mixed with the dirt in the crawl space underneath the basement.
Still, insisted the commish, "There's no reason to evacuate."
Easy for you to say, Tommy Terrific, but you don't work there. Tell it to the people who do.
"It sucks," one state worker told Seven Days. "I feel like it's ruined my health. I know a lot of people who feel that way."
According to Kathi Partlow, the Chittenden County field rep for VSEA, the state employees' union, "Workers have already been informed by the state's Risk Management Division not to bother filing workers'-comp claims."
A union meeting on the health concerns, she said, is scheduled for early next week. And VSEA Director Annie Noonan is scheduled to meet with Torti as well.
Torti, incidentally, acknowledges the problems need to be cleaned up. In fact, Seven Days has learned the state is looking at the possibility of moving out in the near future.
If the state decides to stay in the building for "a long time," said Torti, about $500,000 would have to be put into the Capital Bill next session to bring the building up to snuff.
But Torti told Seven Days that a new state plan for human services delivery in Chittenden County could be just a week away. And it could well be a plan, he said, "that does not involve the Old Thayer School."
Cut and run time?
Meanwhile, hundreds of state workers and visiting members of the public might want to consider taking real shallow breaths when they're inside.
The damn endotoxins, sources say, don't take orders from Tom Torti.
Dean vs. Nader -- Way to go, Ho-Ho! You did surprise us after all, with a brilliant demonstration of how to take the legs out from under third-party presidential spoiler Ralph Nader.
Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean debated Nader on NPR last Friday.
Dr. Dean first killed Nader with kindness, praising Ralph's contributions to America. Then Ho-Ho chopped him off at the knees by highlighting Nader's support from Bush-friendly, anti-gay Republicans who view Ralph as crucial to their cause in battleground states.
Surely it's just coincidental, but Nader's support has dropped in the polls since his debate with Dean.
Nice work, Ho-Ho!
Fahrenheit 9/11 -- Many Vermonters who've seen Michael Moore's blockbuster documentary have left the theater with a Vermont political question in the back of their minds.
Early in the film, the 2000 election of George W. Bush is covered in some detail. In fact, Moore vividly presents it as a well-orchestrated coup d'etat.
Specifically there's a scene where members of the Congressional Black Caucus are offering their formal objections to the Florida vote and calling for just one member of the U.S. Senate to join them. Just one!
Had a senator stepped forward, the Senate and House would have voted on accepting Florida's 25 electoral votes. With Florida included, Bush would win. Without Florida, Democrat Al Gore would become president.
Why didn't the members of Vermont's congressional delegation object? If only Democrat Patrick Leahy or then-Republican Jim Jeffords had stood up, we'd have been spared the debacle that history will remember as democracy's darkest hour, right?
What wasn't perfectly clear in the film was the timing of the objection raised in the House.
As Sen. Leahy's veteran Chief of Staff Luke Albee told Seven Days, at the time House members like Rep. Maxine Waters were passionately begging for one senator to sign on. "The Supreme Court had ruled, the Electoral College had met, and Al Gore had conceded."
As Mr. Albee put it, "The Fat Lady had sung."
Besides, the GOP had a pretty solid majority in the House. A vote would have been purely symbolic.
Movie No-Show -- Incidentally, not every Vermonter has seen Fahrenheit 9/11.
Republican Gov. Jim Douglas hasn't seen it and doesn't intend to. Perfectly understandable. After all, Vermont's chief executive has religiously echoed the White House talking points on this one. Douglas has repeatedly said Saddam Hussein had WMDs
and was a threat to America. He never wavered from the Bush-Cheney line. Not once.
Clearly, watching Fahrenheit 9/11 might raise Douglas' stress level to the danger zone. After all, there's nothing harder for a politician to do than admit he was wrong.
And the bodies keep piling up.
GOP Senate Team -- Monday's the filing deadline for aspiring major- party office seekers, and in Chittenden County the GOP looks to be filing out its six-seat State Senate dance card.
The lone Republican incumbent in the field is Sen. Diane Snelling. Seven Days has learned she'll be joined by former State Sen. Dennis Delaney of Charlotte, and former Reps. Mike Quaid and Don Brunelle. Also on our list are Kate Purcell and Judy Shailor.
Seven Days has also learned of several potential candidates for the state senate who turned down pitches from GOP power brokers. According to sources, developer Ernie Pomerleau said no when asked. So did attorney Peter Kunin.
That's right, the GOP tried to recruit the child of former Democratic Gov. Madeleine Kunin!
For example, Delaney and his Model-A spent Saturday parked at the Essex Town dump. His name recognition remains strong. Ninety percent of the folks in the approximately 300 vehicles that visited the dump remember him, said Dennis the Menace.
Why go out and knock on 300 doors when you can park at the dump and let the voters come to you?
The politician once known for being everywhere in Chittenden County is back with a vengeance!