Newport hopes to improve its image

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copyright the Chronicle June 7, 2017

 

by Joseph Gresser

 

NEWPORT — In a marathon meeting Monday night, the city council considered ways of improving Newport’s image, the future of its downtown program, a new music series on the waterfront, and a possible extension of the city’s recreation path to the Canadian border.

Newport has been looking for a new web master in the months since Mayor Paul Monette told the council that he will no longer be the volunteer custodian of the site. City Manager Laura Dolgin suggested making up for his loss by hiring a firm that will do public relations for Newport in addition to managing its web presence.

Ms. Dolgin argued for hiring John Gilfoil Public Relations, a Massachusetts company. City officials have been fielding an increasing number of complaints from city residents, and it would be a good idea to have someone putting out positive stories about Newport, she said.

Mr. Gilfoil, a former Boston Globe reporter who served as deputy press secretary for former Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, spoke to the council by speaker phone. He said his company would build a new website for Newport and train employees to post information to it for $10,000 if the city also hires the firm at a cost of just under $1,000 a month to handle the city’s press relations.

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LRUHS — A very good school has a very good year

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copyright the Chronicle June 7, 2017

 

by Tena Starr

 

Lake Region Union High School Principal Andre Messier had nothing but good to say about this year’s graduating class at the school’s annual awards night last Thursday. Awards night recognizes students in all grades, but Mr. Messier focused on the seniors and the school itself, which U.S. News and World Report has once again ranked in the top ten high schools in Vermont. This year it’s eighth.

“This is my favorite night of the year,” Mr. Messier said. Students get recognition when they win in sports and other events, he noted. “But rarely do we get to focus on the academic side.”

Towards the end of the program when he handed out the Presidential Awards for Academic Excellence, he said: “This group of seniors has set the bar, the standard, for this school. Those of you who are younger have something to chase.” He added that he fully expects them to do that, of course.

Eighteen students received the Presidential Award: They are: Maria Brosseau, Hunter Cota, Rebecca Doucet, Hunter Duquette, Margo Foster, Emily Klar, Elizabeth Locke, Avery Marcotte, Ashley Morrill, Olivia Owens, Andrew Parkinson, Colton Porter, April Streeter, Katherine Whipple, Alexis Rodgers, Sam King, Zachary Hale, and Erin Smith.

Mr. Messier also noted that this is the sixth year in a row that U.S. News has recognized Lake Region for outstanding achievement.

“That’s something this community should be extremely proud of,” he said. “That’s six consecutive years that the students who have come through Lake Region have maintained this.”

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Murder charge reduced to second-degree

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copyright the Chronicle May 31, 2017

 

by Joseph Gresser

 

NEWPORT — Orleans County State’s Attorney Jennifer Barrett lowered the charge against the man accused of shooting Ron-Lou Schneider in 2015 from first-degree to second-degree murder Tuesday afternoon.

Ms. Barrett also added a charge of manslaughter against Ryan P. Bacon, 32, of Point Pleasant, New Jersey, during a hearing held in the Criminal Division of Orleans County Superior Court.

Both charges are based on the same set of facts, so Mr. Bacon can only be convicted of one of the charges, Ms. Barrett said after the court hearing.

Judge Howard VanBenthuysen presided over the hearing.

Ms. Barrett said she and Jon Valsangiacomo, Mr. Bacon’s lawyer, will discuss the possibility of a plea agreement and will return to court in two weeks for another status conference.

If the two sides cannot agree on a deal to settle the case, Ms. Barrett said, she will go to trial on one of the charges.

Witnesses to the shooting gave conflicting statements to police, Ms. Barrett said. As a result, it is doubtful that the state could prove the most serious charge, she said.

Under Vermont law, first-degree murder is one “committed by means of poison, or by lying in wait, or by willful, deliberate and premeditated killing, or committed in perpetrating or attempting to perpetrate arson, sexual assault, aggravated sexual assault, robbery or burglary.”

Any other homicide is considered second-degree murder. Manslaughter refers to killing someone when under sudden passion or great provocation that would mitigate, but not justify, the killing.

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Keeping our food safe was Sutton man’s career

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copyright the Chronicle May 31, 2017

 

by Tena Starr

 

This country frets about terrorism a lot. But one of its more potentially effective, if less splashy, forms — attacking the food supply — has occurred with surprising infrequency.

Hank Parker, an agroterrorism specialist who has retired to Sutton, is among those who have played a part in that.

Mr. Parker is a scientist, and one of the things he’s spent his long and unusual career thinking about is the safety of U.S. agriculture and food. He was a fellow at the National Defense University, where he wrote a treatise on what the federal government could do to protect American agriculture and the food supply. He’s been acting director for homeland security for the U.S. Department of Food and Agriculture (USDA). And in retirement he teaches a graduate level class in agroterrorism at Georgetown University.

Before September 11, 2001, he said in a recent interview, the U.S. food system was highly vulnerable — and in many ways still is. But back then agriculture wasn’t even considered a critical infrastructure, he said.

Yes, there were people in the federal government who recognized the potential threat, but it took the September 11 attacks to improve coordination of security in general. There was also a more serious effort to make sure that Americans don’t have to worry about eating, at least not because of terrorists.

Mr. Parker’s career has not run in a straight line. He started out in biological oceanography, specializing in aquaculture. Basically, that’s fish farming. The USDA hired him as coordinator of its aquaculture program in 1992, and over time, he got involved in research programs.

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World dishwashing record shattered in Hardwick

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copyright the Chronicle May 31, 2017

 

by Joseph Gresser

 

HARDWICK — For a while it looked like Bethany Dunbar’s biggest problem would be finding enough dirty dishes. The Center for an Agricultural Economy, where she works, had plenty of clean dishes. It has been collecting them to hold its own zero waste events and has created a 400-dish library to loan to other organizations wanting to do away with paper plates.

A warm sunny day, a rarity this spring, brought huge crowds to Hardwick’s Spring Festival Saturday and it seemed there would be plenty of dishwashers for the assault on the record.

Time passed. People finished their meals and deposited plates and bowls in the bins Ms. Dunbar had set out to collect used plates. Then they set off to do whatever needed to be done in the garden or around the house.

By 2:30 p.m., the time set for people to line up, there was only a fraction of the crowd that had been milling about Atkins Field only an hour before.

Ms. Dunbar and her fellows from the Center for an Agricultural Economy had reason to be nervous.

The plan was to break the Guinness Book of World Records mark for the most people simultaneously washing dishes. Ms. Dunbar said the Center and the Kiwanis Club, which sponsor Hardwick’s spring festival, hoped the attempt would inspire more people to attend.

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OCSU shaping up for a food fight

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copyright the Chronicle May 31, 2017

by Elizabeth Trail

 

A plan to hire a half-time food service coordinator for the Orleans Central Supervisory Union (OCSU) drew a small crowd including parents, community members, and school cooks to an OCSU Executive Committee meeting on May 25.

The coordinator would plan a single menu, order food, and handle the paperwork that now falls on the shoulders of the school cooks and OCSU business manager Heather Wright.

From the central office’s point of view, that would not only save time for those employees, but would save money by being able to buy food in bulk.

Community members are concerned that ordering from a central supplier will undercut the autonomy of school cooks and undo years of progress toward getting more local and whole foods onto menus.

They’re also concerned about the way the the way the decision was made at the supervisory district level, without input from the public.

The job is being advertised on the School Spring web site, and the first interviews began last week.

But no formal job description has been written.

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The Coventry case Diaz bond revoked, has ten days

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copyright the Chronicle May 26, 2017

by Elizabeth Trail

 

COVENTRY — Town Clerk and Treasurer Cynthia Diaz has ten days to come up with a $2.5-million bond or lose her job.

The Vermont League of Cities and Towns (VLCT) paid up on the town’s $500,000 claim on Wednesday, May 24, but said it will no longer cover Ms. Diaz on the town’s insurance.

Under state law, Ms. Diaz will have ten days to come up with a bond on her own. If she can’t, the select board can declare the positions Ms. Diaz holds vacant.

All town clerks, treasurers, and delinquent tax collectors in Vermont must be bonded. In recent years, VLCT has provided insurance to member towns to cover the loss of any money entrusted to officials in lieu of the traditional bond.

In its claim, the town documented losses of $876,383 based on the report of forensic accountant Jeff Graham, who recently completed an exhaustive audit of the town’s finances.

According to a May 23 letter to the select board from Frederick Satink, VLCT’s manager of underwriting, safety and health promotion, VLCT found that “Ms. Diaz failed to faithfully perform her duties as prescribed by law.”

The decision was “based on Mr. Graham’s findings as to the cash-handling practices of the town treasurer,” the letter says.

VLCT’s policy covers the town both for “faithful performance” and for employee theft.

If the loss is found to have been caused by theft, that portion of the town’s coverage would also be canceled as far as Ms. Diaz is concerned, Mr. Satink’s letter says.

Coverage for other Coventry town officials and employees remains in force.

The actual claim that Coventry submitted was for $500,000, the maximum that VLCT will pay for a single incident. After subtracting the town’s $1,000 deductible, the check was for $499,000.

The town is still out of pocket for the rest of the $876,000 that Mr. Graham said he found to have been collected from taxpayers and never deposited. The select board has also spent almost $300,000 on the Graham and Graham audits and ongoing support in its civil suit against Ms. Diaz over the money Mr. Graham says is missing.

And Mr. Graham said he has calculated that Coventry has lost close to $200,000 in penalties and interest. That means it has lost or spent an estimated $1.3-million, Mr. Graham said in February.

Vermont law gives the select board the authority to set the amount of a town official’s bond.

A few years ago, in a very different situation, the Irasburg Select Board used that authority to force a town clerk to resign.

But months ago, Mr. Marcotte decided that Coventry wasn’t going to go down that road.

“People in Irasburg are still angry about that,” he said then. “We’re going to wait and see what the insurance company decides.”

Now VLCT has decided the matter. The only question for the select board was how big a bond Ms. Diaz should be required to carry.

On May 24, the board directed town attorney Paul Gillies to set a minimum $2.5-million bond requirement. That number is based on the amount of money in Coventry’s checking account.

“I’m worried about the next ten days,” town resident Leo Piette said at the May 24 meeting.

As soon as Mr. Marcotte, representing the select board, signed VLCT’s “proof of loss” document at Wednesday’s special meeting, any further losses caused by Ms. Diaz weren’t covered by the town’s insurance.

“As of today, the bond no longer exists,” Mr. Marcotte said.

The money in the checking account includes funds that Ms. Diaz has been asked repeatedly to move into reserve accounts.

“The clerk-treasurer has refused to follow our warrants to move that money,” Selectman Scott Morley said. “And that’s cause for concern.”

“The board’s job is to do everything in its power to protect the town’s money,” Selectman Scott Morley said.

The board has taken a number of precautions to be sure the town’s money is secure. Two signatures are now required to move money or write checks.

 

contact Elizabeth Trail at

elizabeth@bartonchronicle.com

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How much of Coventry’s loss is insured?

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copyright the Chronicle May 24, 2017

by Elizabeth Trail

 

COVENTRY — How much of this town’s missing money is covered by its insurance policy with the Vermont League of Cities and Towns (VLTC)?

Will VLTC continue to insure the financial performance of town Treasurer Cynthia Diaz, or will she be compelled to shop elsewhere for such coverage, at any price?

And what would happen if Ms. Diaz can’t find affordable insurance within ten days?

Those were the questions floating around Coventry on Tuesday afternoon. Some of them should be resolved at a special meeting of the select board on Wednesday, May 24, at 3 p.m.

Jeff Graham, a forensic auditor, reported in January that he could not account for $876,000 of town funds after completing an audit in January.

Kelly Kindestin, property and casualty claims manager for VLCT, met with Selectman Scott Morley, town attorney Paul Gillies, and town administrator Amanda Carlson on Tuesday afternoon.

What Ms. Kindestin told the three is still under wraps.

“There is a special meeting scheduled for tomorrow,” Mr. Morley said in an e-mail late Tuesday afternoon. “It is best to wait until then to discuss.”

At Monday night’s meeting of the select board there was speculation that, in addition to how much VLCT would be paying on the claim, the board might hear whether VLCT plans to continue to insure Ms. Diaz.

Town treasurers in Vermont must

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State unveils plan to clean up Memphremagog

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copyright the Chronicle May 24, 2017

 

by Joseph Gresser

 

NEWPORT — Lake Memphremagog has a phosphorus problem and the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has a plan to fix it. Actually, the plan is still in draft form, and Watershed Coordinator Ben Copans is touring the Kingdom looking for comments on the DEC’s proposal.

His first meeting on a three-stop tour of the Memphremagog watershed was in Newport where, in a meeting room overlooking the lake Monday, he outlined some of the measures called for by the plan. Mr. Copans will take his presentation to Brighton on May 30, and Craftsbury on May 31.

The federal Clean Water Act requires states to set a total maximum daily load, Mr. Copans said. That’s the limit on how much phosphorus can flow into a lake from its watershed while it still meets water quality standards.

Mr. Copans said the U.S. end of Lake Memphremagog has phosphorus levels that are 20 percent higher than the 14 parts per billion standard set for the lake. Currently the levels in Vermont’s portion of the lake average around 17.6 parts per billion, but rise and fall during the year.

The Canadian portion of the lake is about three-quarters of Memphremagog’s surface area, although much more than half the lake’s watershed is in Vermont.

Officials from the two nations meet in the Quebec Vermont Steering Committee on Lake Memphremagog and are working together to reduce the nutrient load coming from both the state and the province, Mr. Copans said.

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Panel discusses the future of migrant labor

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copyright the Chronicle May 24, 2017

 

by Elizabeth Trail

 

HARDWICK — “Who will milk the cows?” asked panelists at a farm forum held at Hazen Union High School on May 17.

But the real question on the table was what happens on Vermont dairy farms if President Trump makes good on his promise to step up deportations of undocumented workers?

If deportations are stepped up in Vermont, it could be devastating to Northeast Kingdom dairy farmers. The vast majority of dairy workers in Vermont these days are Hispanic, mostly Mexican, said former farm worker Abel Luna, the campaign and education coordinator for the Burlington-based organization Migrant Justice. And most of them are undocumented.

The issue has united Vermonters from all sides of the political spectrum. Recently, all three members of Vermont’s congressional delegation, along with Governor Phil Scott, Attorney General T.J. Donovan, and Vermont Farm Bureau President Joe Tisbert jointly signed a letter to the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

“This is an urgent issue in our small state — when Vermont farms struggle, so too does Vermont’s entire economy,” the letter says in part.

In a far-ranging conversation that spanned the threat of deportations, treatment of farmworkers, and the economic challenges facing dairy farmers, the four panelists at last week’s meeting in Hardwick answered questions and traded observations with about 40 people.

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