BARRE — Early voting is underway in Barre and Barre Town, and it doesn’t yet have anything to do with decisions that will be made on Town Meeting Day.
Voters who participate in a special election next Tuesday will be asked to decide two Act 46-related questions. One will dictate how significant structural changes to separate pre-K-8 schools in Barre and Barre Town, as well as jointly owned Spaulding High School, will be made in the future. The other will determine the composition of the yet-to-be-elected board that will run the new pre-K-12 merged district.
Polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. next Tuesday at the Barre Municipal Auditorium and at the Barre Town Middle and Elementary School.
School officials are stressing the importance of the two articles they’ve placed on the ballot in hopes both will pass — altering articles of agreement that would otherwise be imposed by the state.
Those articles include a two-year protection from restructuring, redistricting and closing schools, but after that leave those decisions in the hands of a jointly-elected school board.
The first of two proposals on next Tuesday’s ballot would change that. Any decision to close or reconfigure the current school — specifically creating one elementary school and one middle school to feed jointly-owned Spaulding High School — would require approval of voters in the new district. The same would be true of a decision to close any of the three schools, though based on current enrollment the chances of that being proposed are remote.
Unlike the contemplated district-wide votes on restructuring plans, the proposed article must be separately approved by voters in each community in order to pass next Tuesday.
The same isn’t true with respect to the second article, which resurrects the prospect of turning oversight of the merged district over to a new nine-member board. A feature of two previously rejected merger proposals, the new board would include four members directly elected by voters in Barre, four more who are directly elected by voters in Barre Town, and one member who would be jointly elected by voters in both communities.
In order to replace state language that school officials view as far less appealing, that article must be collectively approved by a majority of voters in Barre and Barre Town.
If it fails, default articles of agreement drafted by the state dictate the new district would be run for at least the first year by a new four-member board. That board would include two representatives from each community — all of whom are jointly elected by both.
School officials believe a four-member board is untenable given the comparatively large size of the three districts involved, and they are wary of the quirk that would require voters in each community to help decide who should represent the other.
As the two-town, three-school Barre Supervisory Union presses ahead with the first of the forced mergers under Act 46, local school officials have tentatively developed a road map to the July 1 launch of the new district.
The first order of business is amending the articles of agreement that would govern the district. Those decisions will be made next Tuesday following a 6 p.m. public hearing on both proposals Monday in the high school library.
The hearing will be hosted by the recently seated transitional board of the new district, which is expected to warn the election of the new board at Monday’s meeting.
Due to uncertainty involving the composition of the new board, Superintendent John Pandolfo said he will ask the transitional board to approve two separate warnings pending the outcome of Tuesday’s vote. One assumes voters approve the shift to a nine-member board, and the other contemplates the ballot article fails and a four-member board will be elected.
Either way, Pandolfo said he will ask the transitional board to schedule the election for April 9. Though the number of school board seats is still uncertain, petitions must be filed by those interested in running by March 4.
Once elected, the new board is expected to warn a district-wide vote on a combined budget for both elementary schools and the high school. That vote has tentatively been scheduled for May 14 — the date Barre Town regularly holds it municipal elections.
The only school-related questions that will appear on the Town Meeting Day ballots in Barre and Barre Town next month involve the need to temporarily fill expiring seats on the Barre, Barre Town, and Spaulding school boards.
The Vermont branch of the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont are calling for a “broader inquiry” into Bennington officials, after Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan told reporters last week that the Bennington Police Department failed to disclose relevant information during an investigation of threats and harassment against Kiah Morris and her family.
Donovan said he had spoken with Bennington Town Manager Stuart Hurd on Monday.
“It’s my opinion that an outside law-enforcement expert is needed to review Bennington Police Department’s policies and procedures to ensure that best practices in policing are being followed. This action step will promote and maintain the public trust in the Bennington Police Department. I urge the town of Bennington to do this,” he said Monday.
Asked if his office could order that review, Donovan said, “I think I’m going to wait to hear back from the town of Bennington.”
He said he had not suggested a time frame to Hurd, but said he believed “the sooner, the better.”
Tabitha Pohl-Moore, Vermont director of the NAACP and president of the Rutland-area branch, said she hoped there would be a requirement that Bennington allow an oversight investigation.
“Kiah knew, and we knew all along that Mr. Misch and potentially associates were potentially dangerous to her, that they were already doing something that would not be tolerated if Kiah Morris had been a white woman. We know that for sure. The reason that we’re calling for accountability is because to this point, there has been none,” she said.
Morris is not quoted in the release, but Pohl-Moore said Morris was in support of the NAACP and ACLU’s call for oversight of the Bennington police and the town’s justice system.
Pohl-Moore said she believed police in Bennington didn’t take the threats seriously and hid information.
“Things that could potentially put Ms. Morris in further danger, people are going to ask, ‘Well, Attorney General Donovan, would your findings have been different if you had this information prior?’” she said.
Morris was the second black woman elected to serve in the Vermont House of Representatives. Last year, she ended her campaign for re-election because of ongoing harassment.
Bennington resident Max B. Misch, 36, who described himself as a “troll” who thought it was fun to send Morris racially-hateful messages, was arraigned last week in Bennington criminal court on two misdemeanor counts for allegedly possessing large-capacity magazines in violation of a Vermont gun law passed last year.
Misch bought the magazines in New Hampshire, where the sale would not be illegal, and allegedly brought them back to Vermont. Police said they were found in his home when a search warrant was executed last week.
Hurd released a statement on the town’s behalf.
“The town of Bennington and its police department remain steadfast in our commitment to the pursuit of racial justice and fair treatment under the law in all aspects of our service to the community,” he said by email.
Hurd said the Bennington Police Department cooperated fully in Donovan’s investigation and turned over all requested information concerning the complaints from Morris and her husband, James Lawton.
The Bennington police “worked closely” with the Vermont State Police in its weapons-related investigation of Misch, he said.
“The apparent misunderstanding relates to information that was contained in a statewide database equally accessible to the Vermont State Police when it took over the investigation, and to the Attorney General through the state police,” the statement said.
Speaking to reporters after Misch’s arraignment last week, Donovan said the Bennington police knew Misch had bought large-capacity magazines in October. He said his office should have been told about that purchase.
The charges brought against Misch were based on magazines purchased in December.
The press release from the NAACP and ACLU accuses law-enforcement in Bennington of being a system of “dysfunction” when it comes to racial justice issues.
James Lyall, executive director of the ACLU, said it was concerning to hear the Bennington police may not have provided all the information to Donovan’s office.
“It’s especially bad in this context of concerns that the Bennington PD didn’t respond appropriately to the threats that Kiah Morris and her family were facing, which (Donovan) referred to as a ‘breakdown’ in Bennington. The context also includes a broader track record of racial bias and discrimination not just in the Bennington PD but in the criminal justice system in Bennington,” he said.
Lyall said the ACLU of Vermont has a pending racial profiling lawsuit against Bennington police, based in part on police stop data showing Bennington PD has some of the worst racial disparities in the state.
“Nonetheless, Chief (Paul) Doucette has repeatedly denied that bias exists in his department,” the release said.
Members of the NAACP and staff at the ACLU called for non-specified “state officials” to look into the Morris case, including whether any other relevant information or evidence was improperly withheld and by whom.
The statement criticized Donovan, saying his “conclusions and public statements in this case have focused on the conduct of private citizens, ignoring the actions and inactions of Bennington officials.”
BARRE — Thousands of people descended upon Barre this weekend to take part in the Central Vermont Gun Show.
The show, which is in its 38th year, is hosted by the Barre Fish & Game Club and took place at the Barre Municipal Auditorium.
Brad Herring, the event’s organizer, said Saturday there’s been a steady crowd of people all day.
“Everybody seems to be having a good time,” he said.
Herring said about 2,000 people had showed up to the show as of Saturday afternoon. He said between 4,000 and 5,000 people are expected for the duration of the weekend.
He didn’t know how much business would be conducted over the weekend, but he said people were walking out with guns and other items.
The 65 vendors at 216 tables at the event were selling new and old guns, bows, ammunition and plenty of accessories for gun enthusiasts.
Herring said the gun show is important on a community level because bringing in thousands of people for the event means those people also visit local restaurants and hotels.
“It’s a time of year when there’s not a whole lot going on. It’s in the winter. There’s not a whole lot of recreation going on for people,” he said, adding some businesses report this weekend is their biggest of the year. Herring said the event also serves as a place for people to come together, people he only sees once a year at the gun show.
Herring said people at the event were concerned with the Legislature and what its plans are when it comes to gun control measures.
A bill has been introduced into the Vermont House that would implement a 72-hour waiting period for those looking to buy a gun. A similar bill has been introduced in the Vermont Senate with a 48-hour waiting period.
Ed Cutler, the president of Gun Owners of Vermont, said his organization is very concerned with the proposed legislation.
“This gun show is on for two days,” Cutler said. “With a 72-hour wait, you buy a gun here what are you going to do? The gun shows will close up.”
He also brought up an incident in December where a rabid bobcat attacked people in White River Junction. Cutler said someone who has a rabid animal around their house wouldn’t be able to buy a gun and kill the animal for three days if the bill is passed into law.
“You have to wait 72 hours to protect yourself against a rabid animal, or a bear with cubs or a number of other things,” he said. “It takes away a person’s self defense.”
MONTPELIER — The second annual Cannabis in the Capitol conference will be held at the State House on Wednesday.
Presented by Heady Vermont and Greenbridge Consulting, the conference centers around cannabis, hemp and medicinal marijuana advocacy and education. Lawmakers will be on hand to share feedback about ongoing legislation, and vendors will display their products at a free exhibition.
There has been a renewed flurry of activity to pass legislation in the State House for a taxed and regulated cannabis market in Vermont after efforts stalled last session. Two new bills in the Senate and House propose differing versions of a regulated market. Last month’s Senate bill, S.54, calls for a 10-percent tax on cannabis sales, plus a 1-percent local options tax, with sales expected to begin in the spring of 2021. Last week in the House, Rep. Sam Young, D-Orleans-Caledonia, submitted H.196, which proposes allowing existing medical marijuana dispensaries to pay a $75,000 fee to sell cannabis to the general public at the beginning of next year.
Young said it would generate funds to create a Cannabis Control Board that would oversee a regulated market. Young’s bill calls for an 11-percent excise tax, plus Vermont’s 6-percent sales tax and a 3-percent local options tax — totaling 20 percent — to benefit cities and towns hosting cannabis businesses.
But both bills face hurdles because of concerns by Gov. Phil Scott and House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-Grand Isle-Chittenden, that there should be funding for youth and adult prevention education programs and a roadside saliva test for driver impairment. Critics of the saliva test say it does not reveal impairment, only the presence of cannabis in the body.
Proponents of legalization say that last year’s legislation allowing an adult 21 years or older to possess a limited amount of cannabis does not discourage the black market, which poses risks to buyers of unregulated, unsafe cannabis products.
There is also concern about an announcement by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration stating that products containing CBD, the non-psychoactive cannabidiol ingredient in hemp that is believed to have health benefits, cannot be sold as dietary supplements. State regulators in New York and Maine recently announced they were pulling CBD edible products from shelves.
Vermont Agency of Agriculture officials said they would work to allow hemp-derived products to continue to be sold in Vermont. The officials have also written to the FDA, asking it to allow Vermont hemp products to be sold in other states to support the burgeoning market for Vermont producers.
Eli Harrington, co-founder and COO of Heady Vermont, said the cannabis conference would be a chance for legislators, Vermonters and industry stakeholders to discuss the future of cannabis and hemp products in Vermont.
“For us, we’ve got about 30 total exhibitors, who in the evening are going to have open house so people can walk around and learn directly and actually touch, see, feel and probably smell the plants and products involved,” Harrington said. “It’s a chance for the cannabis community to come together and advocate for themselves. It’s really about education; that is the major motivation. We think it’s a good idea to bring people to the State House and do it directly.”
Wednesday’s cannabis conference program begins in the cafeteria on the third floor of the State House at 10 a.m. with a legislative update and advocacy of best practices in the industry.
At 11 a.m., in rooms 14 and 16 on the first floor of the State House, there will be a chance to meet with Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, who is a strong proponent of a legalized cannabis market.
From 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., participants are invited to have lunch with representatives and share advocacy stories.
At 12:40 p.m., in the Cedar Creek Room, there will be a press conference with cannabis reform advocates and allies.
At 1 p.m., there will an observance in the House chamber, followed at 1:30 p.m. with a guided tour of the State House, starting in the main lobby.
At 3 p.m., exhibitors will begin setting up tables and booths in the cafeteria for the Vermont Cannabis Exposition which runs from 4 to 7 p.m. and is open to representatives and the public.
To learn more about the conference, visit Heady Vermont at www.headyvermont.com.