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Williamstown annual reports are in the mail ... for now

WILLIAMSTOWN — The slimmed down town reports just mailed to voters could mark the end of an era because if the folks who are now receiving them agree they’ll only be mailed upon special request this time next year.

Though it’s too late to ask the question on Town Meeting Day, a Select Board concerned about cost and waste is ready to present voters with a proposal that would relieve the town of the responsibility of mailing the annual reports to every voter every year.

It is a costly and cumbersome exercise that is complicated by the fact that the most economical option for mailing the town reports — bulk mailing them to voters with Williamstown’s 05679 ZIP code — misses many voters.

Not all Williamstown voters have the same ZIP code, leaving some out of the bulk mailing loop that is now being used. That includes those who share ZIP codes with neighboring Graniteville (05654), South Barre (05670), and Northfield (05663). The list is somewhat longer than that based on the personal preferences of voters who have their mail sent to post office boxes in Barre and Montpelier.

In an era when town reports start out as digital documents that are turned into hard copies by printers many Vermont communities have shifted away from mailing them to voters. That has long been the practice in Barre and more recently in Montpelier, where hard copies of the reports are available and digital versions are posted on municipal websites.

Williamstown hasn’t made that shift and board members told can’t without first obtaining the blessing of voters.

The board appears poised to ask the question and while it won’t happen on March 3 when voters will be asked to approve municipal and school budgets and settle local elections, an April vote isn’t out of the question.

Those opposed to a recently adopted ordinance that would open many town roads up for use by all-terrain vehicles are circulating a petition that would force a special vote on the new regulation. The deadline for submitting that petition is Feb. 26 and if voters are able to collect the signatures of roughly 100 registered voters – 5 percent of the checklist – a special election will be held in April.

Town Manager Jackie Higgins said the “mail or not to mail” question with respect to the town report could be tacked on to that ballot, or added to the for the August primary or the general election in November.

“We’ve got options,” Higgins said, who noted that despite a relatively recent attempt to save money be sending one town report to each household the mailing costs typically exceed $1,000 and many of the of booklets never make it out of the post office.

According to Higgins, hundreds of the town reports are discarded by voters who don’t want them, but receive them automatically. That’s just at the local post office, where Higgins said town officials were once able to retrieve the reports that were tossed, but are no longer permitted to due to a change in postal regulations.

In order to alter the town’s current practice voters must agree to give the town the option of mailing notice the reports are available at least 30 days before the annual election. The notice could be in the form of a post card and hard copies of the report would available at the town offices, the library, and select locations around town, as well as at town meeting.

Voters who want a copy mailed to them would have the right to make that request, but a blanket mailing to all voters would no longer be required.

Town Clerk Barbara Graham predicted some would ask for a copy of the report to mailed and others would make sure to pick one up, notwithstanding the fact many are routinely thrown away.

“Not everybody wants them, but for the older generation it’s like the bible to them,” she said of a booklet that includes a copy of the town audit, reports of local officials, and the information including lists of local births, deaths and those delinquent on the their property taxes.

david.delcore @timesargus.com

The Phantom doesn't disappoint

MONTPELIER — The cold didn’t stop the Valentine’s Day Phantom from striking again in the Capital City.

The usual display of paper red hearts plastered on storefront windows in the downtown in dazzling sunshine was enough to warm the hearts and souls of many, despite the cold.

The reverie of the community-wide celebration has been a staple in the city for decades, apart from a one-year break when the original phantom — identity still a closely guarded secret — moved away and an equally secret band of volunteers stepped in to take the Phantom’s place.

As hoped, the paper hearts appeared overnight, and again this year, included additional hearts that had been colored by elementary school children in the city.

Businesses were hoping for a good day, despite a slow start and the below-zero temperatures early morning.

Flowers, chocolates, cards and dinner reservations were the order of the day at many businesses.

Botanica Florals’ co-owner Sarah McAllister said Valentine’s Day started early this year for the business.

“We’ve been actually filling a lot of orders all week because Valentine’s Day is on a Friday, so a lot of people who want Valentine’s flowers sent to work like them to be there all week, so it’s really been a very busy week, all over,” McAllister said. “Then, because of the weather being so cold today, yesterday was super, super busy — a lot of people wanted their flowers before it got very, very cold.

“This year, people are looking for lots of color and lots of spring – tulips, iris, that’s really popular right now. We also do a lot of little bulb plants like azalea and succulents, something that can grow. People really want to see green right now,” she added.

Around the corner at Regal Flower Design in the Rabble Rouser space on Main Street, there was a similar theme when it came to Valentine’s flower requests.

“We have a lot of roses, but there’s a lot of spring flowers that people want – lots of tulips and fresia, and daisies, even ... bright colors,” said owner Rebecca Miracle.

At Rabble Rouser, shopkeeper Jennifer Overton said business was particularly brisk before Valentine’s Day.

She said popular choices for chocolates included French ganache chocolates, and truffles, including the Bees Knees and Tom Cat fillings created with spirits from the nearby Caledonia Spirits distillery on Barre Street.

Liz Knapp, a co-owner of Rabble Rouser, added: “I was surprised how many people wanted truffles this year, because previously, every year we made double the amount of truffles when we were in Middlesex, and every year it was a dud. This year, the truffles are flying off the shelves, maybe because it’s a different location.”

Round the corner on State Street, two other chocolate confectionery businesses were also hoping to do well on Valentine’s Day.

At Delish, co-owner Mary Kay Blouin had just opened but said she business was booming on Thursday.

“Yesterday was fantastic, it was just full of people,” she said. “It started kind of slow but it was really cruising after 2:30 (p.m.), people buying lots of truffles.”

Across the street at the Cocoa Bean of Vermont, co-owner Jane Delia had a similar story.

“Round truffles,” Delia said when asked what customers were looking for, “and, peanut butter cups and caramels, but we sell everything.”

At Bear Pond Books, co-owner Claire Benedict said the Valentine’s Day would be a busy day for the store.

“We have a lot of Valentine’s Day cards and a 10-for-10 (10 books for $10) sale going on, so as soon as we opened the doors, people started coming in.

“It’s kind of a busy day in general, with people wanting to see the phantom valentines and getting Valentine’s Day gifts. It’s really my favorite day in Montpelier,” she added.

At La Brioche café and bakery at NECI on Main, customers were offered a range of pastries, cookies, cakes and cupcakes, some with Valentine’s Day themes that quickly sold out.

“We have Valentine’s Day options for dessert pastries and decorations and have been very busy lately, selling out,” said barista Jordan Higgins.

Early Friday morning, Positive Pie was one of the few restaurants open early, getting ready for the lunch and a heavily booked dinner crowd.

Owner Carlo Roberto was busy making pizzas and had already planned the dinner menu, which included a spinach salad and shrimp cocktail appetizers, sweet potato gnocchi, ahi tuna and prime rib entrees, and for dessert, strawberry cannoli, tiramisu and strawberry mousse.

“I might make some heart-shaped pizzas, when I get a moment to breathe, because we’re trying to get ready for a big day, today,” Roberto said.

Kent Bigglestone, co-owner of Capitol Stationers, said the identity of The Phantom would remain a mystery, as far as he was concerned.

“It seems like every year, we have this conversation but I enjoy our little tradition,” Bigglestone said. “It’s nice that this has been going on, 15, 20 years. ... I could tell you who The Phantom is, but I’d have to kill you.”

stephen.mills @timesargus.com

Agency memo contradicts Greyhound on bus raids

SEATTLE — A Customs and Border Protection memo obtained by The Associated Press confirms that bus companies such as Greyhound do not have to allow Border Patrol agents on board to conduct routine checks for immigrants in the country illegally, which is contrary to the company’s long insistence that it has no choice but to do so.

Greyhound, the nation’s largest bus carrier, has said it does not like the agents coming on board, but it has nevertheless permitted them, claiming federal law demanded it. When provided with the memo by the AP, the company declined to say whether it would change that practice.

Greyhound has faced pressure from the American Civil Liberties Union, immigrant rights activists and Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson to stop allowing sweeps on buses within 100 miles (160 kilometers) of an international border or coastline.

They say the practice is intimidating and discriminatory and has become more common under President Donald Trump. Border Patrol arrests videotaped by other passengers have sparked criticism, and Greyhound faces a lawsuit in California alleging that it violated consumer protection laws by facilitating raids.

Some other bus companies, including Jefferson Lines, which operates in 14 states, and MTRWestern, which operates in the Pacific Northwest, have made clear that they do not consent to agents boarding buses.

The memo obtained by the AP was dated Jan. 28, addressed to all chief patrol agents and signed by then-Border Patrol Chief Carla Provost just before she retired. It confirms the legal position that Greyhound’s critics have taken: that the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment prevents agents from boarding buses and questioning passengers without a warrant or the consent of the company.

“When transportation checks occur on a bus at non-checkpoint locations, the agent must demonstrate that he or she gained access to the bus with the consent of the company’s owner or one of the company’s employees,” the memo states. An agent’s actions while on the bus “would not cause a reasonable person to believe that he or she is unable to terminate the encounter with the agent.”

Border Patrol officials have previously said agents do seek the consent of the bus driver before boarding and questioning passengers. Bill Kingsford, the operations officer for the Border Patrol’s Spokane, Washington, sector, said Thursday that before the memo he had never seen that policy in writing.

In response to criticism over the past two years, Greyhound has said that it does not support or “consent” to the bus searches, but that federal law left it no choice. The company said the immigration sweeps make for delays, missed buses and unhappy customers.

Greyhound’s parent company, FirstGroup PLC, said last summer: “We are required by federal law to comply with the requests of federal agents. To suggest we have lawful choice in the matter is tendentious and false.”

Greyhound said that it appreciated the Border Patrol “clarifying” its policy. “We were unaware of USBP’s memo clarifying their practices regarding transportation and bus check operations,” the company said. “We are pleased there appears to be greater context about these practices as we have publicly stated we do not consent to these searches and maintain that position.”

The statement said it would continue to request guidance from the Border Patrol. “Our goal is to ensure that our passengers and drivers feel safe and secure when riding with us, and we’ll continue to make that our top priority.”

Advocates said the memo could give them additional leverage.

“This puts the pressure on Greyhound,” said Matt Adams, legal director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. “Are you going to stand up and protect your customers or are you going to collaborate with the government and turn over your passengers to the Border Patrol?”

ACLU chapters in 10 states — California, Washington, Vermont, New York, New Hampshire, Michigan, Florida, Maine, Texas and Arizona — wrote to Greyhound in 2018 to express their concern with passengers being pulled off buses and arrested. In several cases, they said, it appeared passengers had been singled out and questioned based on having dark skin or foreign accents.

The Border Patrol denies that, saying all passengers are questioned.

“Greyhound must take a firm stance — issue a public statement, add signage to buses and stations, train and empower employees, etc. — to make it abundantly clear that the company as a whole does not consent to these searches,” said Andrea Flores, deputy director of policy at the ACLU’s Equality Division.

Washington’s state’s Democratic attorney general has threatened legal action, saying that Greyhound’s acquiescence to the Border Patrol causes travel delays as well as alarm and confusion for patrons — in potential violation of state consumer protection law. He asked Greyhound last year to take several steps, including posting stickers on its buses notifying the Border Patrol that it does not consent to searches, but the company has so far declined to do so.

Other bus companies contacted by the attorney general’s office have placed stickers on their doors noting that the company does not consent to searches or have given drivers placards to hand to agents explaining the refusal.

“This memo is consistent with what my office has been saying all along to Greyhound,” Ferguson said in a statement. “Unfortunately, Greyhound continues to demonstrate indifference to the legal rights of its customers. If Greyhound refuses to recognize their legal obligations, then we will be forced to take action.”

Under then-President Barack Obama, Customs and Border Protection in late 2011 began cutting back on so-called “transportation checks,” especially along the U.S.-Canada border, amid criticism that it amounted to racial profiling. The agency told agents to keep away from bus and train stations entirely unless they had “actionable intelligence” about someone who had recently entered the country illegally. It also said such operations had to be cleared with Border Patrol headquarters in Washington, D.C.

The Trump administration returned authority to the chief agents in each Border Patrol sector to approve the operations, and they have been on the rise, the agency says.

In a statement, the CBP said that “enforcement operations” are routine at transportation hubs and “are performed consistent with law and in direct support of immediate border enforcement efforts.”

“The U.S. Border Patrol conducts regular outreach with transportation companies to foster good working relationships,” the statement said.

The agency has especially faced criticism for conducting the checks on buses far from the border. In Spokane, just under 100 miles from Canada, arrests at the city’s bus depot rose from 35 in 2017 to 84 last year, according to data obtained by the University of Washington’s Center for Human Rights. Bus routes there run east and west and don’t cross the border.

Among those detained in Spokane last year was Portland, Oregon, comedian Mohanad Elshieky, who was removed from a Greyhound bus as he returned home from a performance. Elshieky, a Libyan citizen who was granted asylum in the U.S., said he was detained for 20 minutes, even though he had two forms of identification showing that he was in the country legally.

Elshieky’s attorneys sued the government for false arrest in a federal lawsuit Friday. At the time of the detention, CBP said Elshieky should have been carrying different identification to prove his immigration status. The agency said it does not comment on pending litigation.

jebcas / Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff Photo  

Looking To The Future

Kevin Lacillade, of Orange, holds his daughter Peyton Rose during the 18th Commencement Ceremony for the Community Kitchen Academy on Thursday in Barre. Seven graduates received diplomas from the culinary program, run by Capstone Community Action and the Vermont Foodbank, during the ceremony at the Old Labor Hall.

Barre Town talks cannabis, gun laws

BARRE TOWN — Local officials received an update on proposed legislation, including gun bills and retail cannabis, from its two members of the state House of Representatives.

At its regular meeting Tuesday night, the Select Board heard from Rob LaClair and Francis “Topper” McFaun, both Republicans.

LaClair started the conversation with cannabis. He said a bill that would set up a retail market in the state for cannabis has been moving its way through the House. He said the bill came out of the Ways and Means Committee with a 14% excise tax and a 6% sales tax. LaClair said the bill is going to head back to Ways and Means because the latest version received a “cool reception” due to a 2% local option tax another committee added that had been removed from the bill.

LaClair said he and other legislators are concerned that there is no roadside testing in the bill for those who may be driving under the influence. He said the issue is such testing doesn’t show the level of impairment.

“And that’s true. Actually nothing currently being done shows the level of impairment,” he said, adding the state is currently using police drug recognition experts to determine if someone is under the influence.

He said there are also some constitutional concerns about requiring a saliva test without a warrant.

The bill had an opt-out provision so communities would have to vote to disallow a retail cannabis in their towns. LaClair said it’s now opt-in so towns have to say they want retail cannabis first. That’s a key part of the bill for Barre Town. Local officials have discussed in the past creating an ordinance banning or restricting the sale of cannabis in town, but have been told such an ordinance would be useless if a retail system is set up by the state.

Board member Norma Malone asked LaClair what the board can or cannot do. He said right now the town would have to vote to allow retail cannabis. If Barre Town residents voted for retail cannabis, LaClair said the town’s zoning regulations would apply.

McFaun talked about proposed gun legislation which has also been a hot button topic in town. He said right now there is a bill being considered that would establish a 72-hour waiting period after a background check is completed before someone could take possession of a gun he or she bought. He said this would cover all transfers of guns and not adhering to the waiting period would result in a misdemeanor with a maximum sentence of a year in prison and $500 fine.

He said the bill would go into effect on passage, but he has spoken to other legislators who don’t think it will pass. McFaun said a similar bill in the Senate would call for a 48-hour waiting period after a background check is completed. That also carries with it a misdemeanor with a maximum sentence of a year in prison if the waiting period isn’t observed. He said this bill would not cover transfers of firearms that don’t require a background check.

“That’s the bill that I’m told will probably go forward,” McFaun said.

Last year Gov. Phil Scott vetoed a bill that would have required a 48-hour waiting period for those wishing to buy a handgun.

The board was recently asked by Gun Owners of Vermont to support a resolution declaring Barre Town a “Second Amendment sanctuary” municipality. But officials declined saying the resolution was not legally accurate. Michael Monte, the town’s attorney, pointed out the resolution declared owning guns was an “inalienable” right, but felons are not allowed to have guns.

Instead, the board made a statement Tuesday which said “The Barre Town Selectboard stands in support of the Second Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America, and of Article 16 of the Constitution of the State of Vermont, to wit, that the People have a right to keep and bear arms for the defense of themselves and the State; and that the Board implores the Vermont General Assembly and Governor to refrain from passing nay further legislation that would serve to infringe upon that right.”

The statement was sent to the governor and given to LaClair and McFaun.

Malone wanted to make it clear the statement did not make Barre Town a “sanctuary town.”

eric.blaisdell @timesargus.com



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