Coventry voters grill selectmen

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copyright the Chronicle February 22, 2017

 

by Elizabeth Trail

 

COVENTRY — Early on a Saturday morning seems like an unlikely time to draw a crowd for an informational meeting with the select board.

But close to 30 people showed up at the community center here on February 18 for a public question and answer session about the recent audit and the town’s missing funds.

“I know there have been a lot of questions,” selectman Scott Morley said in his brief opening remarks, as early-rising residents sipped coffee or nibbled on doughnuts and muffins provided by the board.

Asking those questions now will prevent chaos at Town Meeting, he said.

For close to an hour and a half, the crowd peppered Mr. Morley and fellow selectman Brad Maxwell with questions and comments. Chairman Mike Marcotte wasn’t able to get to Saturday’s meeting but plans to be at the next two sessions.

The questions generally fell into three groups: the cost of the audit, why the problem had gone on for so many years, and what can be done about it.

Mr. Morley said he was uncomfortable with the word “embezzlement” that a number of people at the meeting used to describe the missing money.

“That hasn’t been proven,” he said several times. “We aren’t using those words.”

But after the meeting he acknowledged to people who asked that the State Police and the FBI are actively investigating the case.

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Bill McKibben speaks at Sterling College

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copyright the Chronicle February 22, 2017

 

by Elizabeth Trail

 

CRAFTSBURY COMMON — “We all want the places we live in to remain unchanged,” writer and environmental activist Bill McKibben told a crowd of about 200 people at a Sterling College open house on Saturday. “But all over the world now, there are people paying enormous prices for our energy use.”

Mr. McKibben was answering a question about large-scale wind development. Behind him through the picture windows at the back of Simpson Hall, his audience could see the college’s new array of solar panels that were being dedicated that day.

Up to 100 million people are expected to die by 2030 as a result of climate change, Mr. McKibben said.

And he said that most of them are poor people in developing countries — people who have done nothing to contribute to the problem.

“Vermonters have a debt to the world, and we should be willing to make sacrifices,” he said.

But Vermont itself is not going to be unscathed by climate change.  Mr. McKibben said that computer models project cross-country skiing and snowmobiling becoming extinct in Vermont by the mid to latter part of this century due to lack of snow. And the forests that are the glory of the state will be sadly changed.

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Coventry Selectmen will air town’s problems

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copyright the Chronicle February 15, 2017

 

by Elizabeth Trail

 

COVENTRY — The selectmen here are planning a series of public meetings over the next three weeks to talk with town voters about their problems with Town Clerk and Treasurer Cynthia Diaz, and their concern about missing town funds.

The idea is to let people ask questions and talk to the select board informally before the March 7 Town Meeting. The first meeting is planned for Saturday at 8 a.m.

An audit by Graham and Graham is the most recent in a series over the past 12 years that have identified missing money in Coventry. It’s the first to demonstrate that a significant number of cash tax payments were collected but never deposited.

The amount so far comes to about $64,000 over the two years covered by the audit. Previous auditors also believed that there were significant amounts of money missing.

“People have questions,” Selectman Scott Morley said at Monday night’s meeting. “And they want more of an open dialogue, more back and forth than they can have in a select board meeting. I think that’s legitimate.”

The Coventry voters in the back of the room on Monday night seemed to support the idea.

“What with fake news and all that, we don’t know what to believe,” said town resident Martha Sylvester.

Ms. Sylvester wasn’t the only one to urge the select board to go ahead with the public meetings.

“I think it’s going to put the board in better standing at the Town Meeting,” Skip Gosselin said.

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Pool of maple syrup spreads across the country

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copyright the Chronicle February 8, 2017

 

by Elizabeth Trail

 

NEWPORT — “It wasn’t that big, honestly,” Newport City Fire Chief Jamie LeClair said over the phone before any question was asked.

Ever since late Monday afternoon when a single 42-gallon barrel of maple syrup fell out of a pickup truck on the I91 exit 27 ramp outside of Newport, Mr. LeClair’s phone has been ringing off the hook with calls from the media asking about the big spill.

He’s heard from CNBC, CNN, NBC, Fox News, USA Today, just for starters.

Boston Magazine wanted to know how the spill might affect global syrup prices.

Bostonians learn about the Great Molasses Flood of 1919, when a storage tank in the city’s north end burst, and a 35 mile-an-hour wave of molasses swept through the streets, killing 21 people.

Chief LeClair even got a text in the middle of the night from his son, who is deployed overseas, wanting to know if he was still on the scene.

“I can’t believe maple syrup is that big news,” he said. “If the puddle was six feet across, that would be an exaggeration.”

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Diaz pleads the Fifth, then testifies

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copyright the Chronicle February 1, 2017

 

by Elizabeth Trail

 

NEWPORT — Immediately after she took the witness stand in Orleans County Superior Court on Monday, Cynthia Diaz invoked the Fifth Amendment.

“Hadn’t you better hear the questions first?” Judge Howard VanBenthuysen asked Ms. Diaz, who appeared in court without an attorney. “Some of them might be to your benefit to answer.”

The Coventry town clerk, treasurer, and delinquent tax collector was back in court to answer a motion for contempt. It was filed on behalf of the town by attorney Paul Gillies after she allegedly failed to meet a December 30 deadline to turn over all original town documents in her possession.

Ms. Diaz brought a thumb drive and a foot-thick stack of papers to court on Monday but that didn’t even come close to being what the town of Coventry believes is missing.

After a lengthy recess to allow Mr. Gillies, forensic accountant Jeff Graham, and 
Coventry Selectman Scott Morley time to look over the documents, Mr. Gillies pronounced them “insufficient.”

“The missing records we asked for would fill a six-foot by six-foot square about six feet tall,” Mr. Graham told Judge VanBenthuysen, “not the small pile she brought to court today.”

“Are these all the town documents you have?” the judge asked Ms. Diaz.

“All the original town documents, yes,” Ms. Diaz replied, stressing the word “original.”

Judge VanBenthuysen ordered Ms. Diaz to hand over all town records in her possession, whether she considered them original or not.

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State plans new parking area for Willoughby’s south end

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copyright the Chronicle January 25, 2017

 

by Elizabeth Trail

 

WESTMORE — About 20 people attended the select board meeting here Monday, where construction of a parking area at the south end of Lake Willoughby, and a request from snowmobilers to use a stretch of Long Pond Road to get to the Willoughby Lake Store were the major items on the agenda.

Louis Bushey from the St. Johnsbury office of the Department of Forests, Parks, and Recreation (FPR) unveiled the department’s plan for dealing with traffic and crowds at the south end of Lake Willoughby.

Anyone who has headed south along the lake on Route 5A knows the road can be nearly impassable near the beach area, with vehicles parked along the shoulder and sticking out into the road.

In summer, it’s swimmers. In winter, it’s ice climbers.

Trails down to the lake are steep and eroding. And with no bathroom facilities except a cluster of Porta Potties, a lot of people slip into the woods when nature calls, creating a health hazard.

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Open season on coyotes questioned

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copyright the Chronicle January 25, 2017

 

by Elizabeth Trail

 

Recently, a statewide group called Vermonters for Ethical Co-existence with Coyotes started a petition addressed to the Department of Fish and Wildlife and its citizen board, asking for limits on the year-round hunting season on coyotes. Their goal is 2,500 signatures — as of press time they’d collected 1,813.

And last week, Representative David Deen of Westminster presented a bill — H.60, an act relating to the hunting of coyotes — that would require the Fish and Wildlife Board to prepare a report to the Legislature on coyote hunting by early next year.

The report would cover what’s known about the coyote population in Vermont, how other states deal with coyote hunting, and whether the Legislature should step in and regulate coyote hunting.

One of the questions the board is being asked to weigh in on is whether coyotes should be hunted year-round.

That’s a subject that’s been coming up a lot lately, said Chris Bernier, the fur-bearing animal specialist at the Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Now he’s hearing questions about having a regulated hunting season rather than allowing anyone to hunt coyotes by any method 365 days a year.

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Derby Pond Animal Hospital has new owner

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copyright the Chronicle January 18, 2017

 

by Elizabeth Trail

 

DERBY — When it snowed recently, Dr. Kim O’Connor, the new owner of Derby Pond Animal Hospital, ran to the window in her office in excitement.

“Oh look, it’s snowing!” she exclaimed, watching the flakes come down.

“And the staff just looked at me,” she said in an interview on Monday. “They must have thought I was crazy.”

Dr. O’Connor was born and raised in Georgia. She moved to Vermont in June to take over the business founded and owned until recently by Dr. Steve Sanford.

She’s already bought ultrasound equipment for the practice.

“People were having to drive a long way to get that service,” she said.

And soon she hopes to have 24-hour emergency service and a large animal vet, both services that are in short supply in the Northeast Kingdom.

“It’s not going to happen overnight,” she said. “I’ve never owned a business before, so I’m taking it one step at a time. Baby steps.”

The veterinary practice where she worked in Savannah was big, with lots of people bringing pets for one-time emergency visits and few repeat customers.

In the smaller, more laid back Derby Pond practice, she’s enjoying the chance to form bonds with pets and their owners.

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Ski for Light holds Craftsbury event

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copyright the Chronicle January 11, 2017

 

by Elizabeth Trail

 

CRAFTSBURY — It was a cold gray Saturday here, but the slopes and trails at the Craftsbury Outdoor Center were bright with skiers and snowshoers in red vests, some marked “Guide” and some marked “Blind Skier.”

The 22 visually impaired skiers who came to the weekend’s Ski for Light event are fit and physically active. Many are professionals, most are middle-aged or older, all enjoy a chance to spend a weekend outdoors improving their skiing or snowshoeing skills.

The same could be said of the volunteer guides — sighted skiers who pay their own way to Ski for Light events year after year.

But for the blind skiers, there’s the added challenge of pointing skis down a hill they can’t see, and trusting a guide they may have met just the day before.

“You just relax and bend your knees and go,” said Marie Hennessy, president of New England Ski for Light. “You have to put your full trust with this person.”

In his early days as a guide, Stephen Flanders of Norwich steered a skier into a bush by calling out the wrong directions.

“It’s important to know left from right,” he said drily.

But despite that inauspicious start, Mr. Flanders has stuck it out as a guide for more than ten years.

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Diaz ignores order to hand over documents and cash

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copyright the Chronicle January 4, 2017

 

by Elizabeth Trail

 

NEWPORT — Last Friday’s court-imposed deadline has come and gone, and so far Coventry Town Clerk and Treasurer Cynthia Diaz hasn’t turned over town documents that the select board and auditor Jeff Graham have been requesting over the past year. Nor has she complied with an order to provide full and complete financial records.

Judge Howard VanBenthuysen gave Ms. Diaz until 4 p.m. on Friday, December 30, to deposit any town funds in her possession, to turn over documents, and to start keeping town financial records in accordance with standards laid out in the court order.

Ms. Diaz did deposit $7,433 in checks on Friday, but didn’t furnish any records to explain what the checks were, Mr. Graham said at Monday’s Coventry Select Board meeting. And he said the total doesn’t match financial reports that she handed to the board at the end of the week.

That report showed one $200 check deposited for the week.

None of the funds she deposited had anything to do with the more than $32,000 that Mr. Graham’s forensic audit has so far found to be missing. The missing money was all in cash.

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