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Barre City Council
Divided council endorses passenger rail study

BARRE — City councilors have narrowly endorsed an application for federal funds that, if awarded, would finance the analysis of re-establishing passenger rail service between Barre and Montpelier.

“All aboard” it wasn’t Tuesday night — Mayor Lucas Herring had to cast the decisive fourth vote.

Herring told councilors the Central Vermont Regional Planning Commission is poised to apply for a BUILD (Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development) grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation on behalf of Barre and Montpelier. The council’s support, he said, would strengthen that application.

Councilor John Steinman questioned the wisdom investing any money in “ancient technology” to serve two communities that are separated by 7 miles and already have public transportation provided by Green Mountain Transit.

Steinman argued buses trump trains — especially the self-propelled ones he believes will likely be used if passenger rail service between Barre and Montpelier is restored after being explored at the behest of the Legislature.

Lawmakers have given the state Agency of Transportation until December to deliver a written report estimating the cost of upgrading the state-owned rail line that runs between Barre and Montpelier to meet commuter rail standards, as well as a construction timeline. While the recently passed legislation specifically states that report should be “neutral” regarding the type of passenger rail car, Steinman said the likeliest option would by the bi-directional, self-contained Budd Co. cars AllEarth Rail LLC has been pushing for more than two years.

Steinman described the 94-seat Budd cars as “antiques” and argued they have a much larger carbon footprint than GMT’s 18-seat buses that rarely run at capacity.

“We’re going to use taxpayer dollars to run a 50-year-old train between Barre and Montpelier that will be carrying less than 18 people?” he asked. “We’re going to support that? For what purpose?”

Steinman said re-establishing passenger rail in central Vermont would be “… redundant, unnecessary … and not nimble enough for the 21st century.” It also, he said, could create a parking problem in downtown Barre where those who wanted to travel by train would have limited places to board, as opposed to what councilors were told will be a soon-to-be-expanded number of GMT bus stops.

Herring said Steinman was getting ahead of the study, which would be far more comprehensive than the report the AOT has been asked to prepare by Dec. 1.

“For me it’s really just looking at different options,” he said. “It’s a study to see what could (be). If we don’t look into it, we’ll never know.”

Councilor John LePage agreed.

“All this is is an application for a grant to obtain some knowledge,” he said. “It’s not like we’re committing to do something … It’s a no-brainer.”

Not according to Councilor Michael Boutin, who said he couldn’t bring himself to support spending tax dollars — even federal tax dollars — on an idea he doesn’t believe makes sense.

“I don’t see a future (in it),” he said.

With Steinman and Boutin both opposed and Councilor Jeffrey Tuper-Giles absent, Herring had to cast the decisive vote, joining LePage and Councilors Rich Morey and Teddy Waszazak in the requisite four-vote majority.

During a discussion that saw LePage and Steinman call each other out for interrupting, councilors never discussed the amount of the grant application or what it would actually pay for.

Dan Currier, manager of the regional planning commission’s transportation program, said Wednesday both are still moving targets.

Days before Monday’s application deadline, Currier said he expects the commission will apply for at least $400,000 and perhaps as much as $1 million to finance an analysis that will be far more thorough than the report AOT must prepare by Dec. 1.

Assuming the planning grant is awarded — and that is a big “if,” according to Currier — the AOT report would be finished months before the start of a consultant-led study. That feasibility study, he said, could take 18 month to two years to complete, would involve a cost-benefit analysis, significant community outreach and a deeper dive into improvements — both required and desired — to accommodate passenger rail.

“The planning study that we are proposing would go quite a bit further than what [AOT] will do,” he said. “It’s a significant project.”

david.delcore @timesargus.com


jebcas / Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff Photo  

All Smiles

Children splash the water with their feet Wednesday during swim lessons at Curtis Pond in Calais. From left are Tessa Hanna, 5, Hazel Morton-Lynch, 6, Glen Premo, 6 and Elva Teachout, 6.


Local
Officials: Street drugs being mixed with other drugs now commonplace

BARRE — Officials say detectable amounts of drugs like fentanyl are now commonly being found in other drugs like crack cocaine and vice versa.

Judge Mary L. Morrissey was presiding over a hearing earlier this week in Washington County criminal court involving someone in drug treatment court. The defendant had recently tested positive for fentanyl, an incredibly strong opiate, though he told the court he was primarily a crack cocaine user. Morrissey noted others in treatment court had also been testing positive for fentanyl despite not being known opiate users, or reported they hadn’t used an opiate and instead had used another drug.

Trisha Conti is the director of the Vermont Forensic Laboratory, where law enforcement sends suspected drugs to be tested. Conti said over the last year her lab has seen more cases where drugs that are tested aren’t coming back as straight cocaine or straight heroin. She said 10 to 15 years ago that wasn’t the case because suspected drugs tested then came back as only containing one drug. Now she said a drug can come back with seven or eight different compounds in it.

“There seems to be quite a bit of crossover,” she said.

Conti said she didn’t know if drugs were being added to other drugs intentionally or if it was a byproduct of sloppy handling and packaging. Law enforcement has said in the past drug dealers these days try to be “one-stop shops” where people can buy cocaine, heroin, marijuana or other drugs.

“It’s not like this is a production laboratory that has cleaning practices, it’s somebody’s kitchen table that they’re working on,” Conti said.

She said when a suspected drug comes to her lab it is analyzed to see all of the compounds it is composed of. Conti said because of time and workload constraints her lab doesn’t test to see how much of a certain compound is in a suspected drug so she couldn’t talk about percentages of fentanyl in suspected crack cocaine. Because of this, she said the lab can’t definitively say a drug was laced with another drug because they don’t know how much it contains. All the lab can report is how much the suspected drug weighs, what it is predominantly made up of and what was detected in it.

Cpt. Kevin Lane, of the Vermont State Police, is the commander of the Special Investigations Unit, which includes the Narcotics Investigation Unit. Lane said this mixing of drugs has become the norm rather than the exception and it isn’t isolated to Vermont. He said it’s something the whole East Coast is dealing with.

Lane said while there may be some accidental co-mixing with drugs, he believes because there is so much mixing, a good amount of it is being done intentionally. He said while a drug user may want to only buy crack cocaine, for example, the dealer may include a little bit of an opiate as a way of getting the user hooked on that drug as well. He said drugs like fentanyl can be cheaper than cocaine so drug dealers may be adding it in to maximize profits.

“That’s part of the danger of using these illegal drugs,” he said.

As for marijuana, Conti said her lab has been keeping an eye on any drugs being added to it because there have been reports of people saying their weed was laced with something like fentanyl. But she said the lab has not confirmed any cases of marijuana being mixed with opiates or any other illicit drugs.

eric.blaisdell @timesargus.com


AP
Immigration and Customs Enforcement
Activists worry about potential abuse of face scans for ICE

BOSTON — Civil rights activists complained Monday of the potential for widespread abuse following confirmation that at least three states have scanned millions of driver’s license photos on behalf of Immigration and Customs Enforcement without the drivers’ knowledge or consent.

Public records obtained by the Georgetown Law Center on Privacy and Technology provided the first proof that ICE had sought such scans, which were conducted in Utah, Vermont and Washington.

All three states — which offer driving privileges to immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally — agreed to the ICE requests, according to documents shared with The Associated Press on Monday and first reported by The Washington Post.

“States asked undocumented people to come out of the shadows to get licenses. Then ICE turns around and uses that to find them,” Alvaro Bedoya, the center’s director, said Monday.

ICE spokesman Matthew Bourke did not directly address written questions, including whether the agency used the scans to arrest or deport anyone.

“During the course of an investigation, ICE has the ability to collaborate with external local, federal and international agencies to obtain information that may assist in case completion and prosecution efforts,” Bourke said in a written response. “This is an established procedure that is consistent with other law-enforcement agencies.”

At least two cases in Utah and one in Washington state appeared to involve immigration enforcement, but the vast majority of requests from ICE in Utah were from its Homeland Security Investigations division, which has a limited role in immigration enforcement.

The documents for Vermont and Washington involved just a handful of records. The Utah document obtained by Georgetown was a ledger with details on more than 1,800 cases spanning two years of requests from multiple agencies, including other states, the FBI and the State Department.

The use of facial-recognition by state, federal and local law enforcement agencies has grown over the past decade as an FBI pilot project evolved into a full-scale program.

Twenty-one states and Washington, D.C., let the FBI access their drivers’ license and identification photos, according to a Government Accountability Office report published last month. The report said the FBI currently has access to 640 million photos — including for U.S. visa applicants — with more than 390,000 photos searched for matches since 2011, the year the agency augmented its fingerprint database with facial analysis.

Privacy concerns over the burgeoning use of facial recognition are on the rise as public awareness of the virtually unregulated practice grows. San Francisco and Somerville, Massachusetts, have in recent weeks become the first U.S. cities to ban the use of facial recognition by their police and city agencies. Amazon and has come under fierce criticism for providing facial recognition tech to law enforcement.

One major concern of activists is that the technology could be abused in the Trump administration crackdown on immigration. Shankar Narayan, director of the technology and liberty project at the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington, said federal agencies “are seeing a huge opportunity to use technologies ... to enforce immigration statutes in a way that was never intended.”

In July 2017, Georgetown researchers filed Freedom of Information Act requests with every state seeking documents on how they responded to requests for facial recognition information from Law enforcement agencies, Bedoya said.

Many states ignored or denied the requests. Utah, Vermont and Washington provided useful responses.

In Utah, ICE asked to search the database containing license images 49 times between October 2015 and November 2017, said Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Marissa Cote. No search warrant or subpoena was required, but all searches involved potential criminal suspects, she said.

State officials are not always informed if ICE catches a suspect, though the agency has been informed in some cases where a suspect was identified, including heroin trafficking, narcotics smuggling and credit-card identity theft, Cote said.

The state does not run searches for people whose only infraction is living in the country without proper documentation, Cote said.

But Democratic state Rep. Angela Romero called the searches “government overreach” with the potential to spread fear.

“For me, it’s the federal government accessing information without the legislature’s knowledge or permission,” she said.

A spokeswoman for Vermont’s Republican governor, Phil Scott, said Vermont officials stopped sharing facial-recognition information with federal immigration authorities in May 2017.

In Washington state, the Department of Licensing said it has not received a facial-recognition request since 2017 and noted that as of 2018, all requests must be court ordered.

Jaime Smith, a spokeswoman for Gov. Jay Inslee, said “at no point do federal agencies have access to that database.”

“We really want to make clear that we’re not going to allow the federal government to commandeer the use of our state resources to use as part of their immigration effort.”

A law that Inslee signed earlier this year broadly prohibits local law enforcement agencies from asking about immigration status or place of birth unless directly connected to a criminal investigation.


jebcas / Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff Photo  

Dyeing to Sell

Al Morrow, of Groton, an elementary school art teacher, hangs some of her tie-dyed creations Wednesday as she preps for the Barre Farmers Market. The market runs from 4-7 p.m. on Wednesdays in Currier Park and is followed by a weekly concert in the park.


AP
Sanders facing tougher 2020 competition for liberal support

Barbara Lee supported Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential bid, helping him score one of his most decisive victories that year when he dominated the New Hampshire primary. But as he wages another bid for the White House, Lee is looking at a different candidate.

“I like him, I like his ideas,” the 66-year-old retired massage therapist said of Sanders. “I just think right at the moment, Elizabeth Warren has better plans.”

That sentiment is becoming a hurdle to the Vermont senator’s effort to recreate the energy that fueled his insurgent 2016 campaign, when he emerged as the liberal alternative to Hillary Clinton. Democrats now have multiple options, including Warren, who had a strong debate performance and outraised Sanders by more than $1 million during the second quarter in a sign of her growing grip over progressives.

Lacking the clear anti-establishment lane he had to himself in 2016, Sanders now must carve out a new one — and it’s unclear exactly what that will look like.

“He has to be able to convince people that there’s something distinctive about him,” said veteran Democratic strategist Bob Shrum. “His speeches now, and what he says in the debates, are indistinguishable from what he said in 2016. In 2016, he was the new kid on the block, despite his age and he seemed fresh to a lot of people. Right now I think he’s lost some of that sense of freshness.”

Warren isn’t the only Democrat on the rise who could potentially eat into Sanders’ base. Voters making a generational choice have an alternative in a range of fresh Democratic faces who have only recently emerged on the national stage, including Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana , and California Sen. Kamala Harris .

And despite his talk of political revolution, Sanders risks being seen as part of the old guard, another politician in their late 70s like Joe Biden .

That’s part of the reason John Jenkins, a 33-year-old public school teacher from Ames, Iowa, is considering other candidates.

“He’s kind of a constant,” said Jenkins, who supported Sanders in 2016 and recently attended one of his speeches.

His wife, Natalie Robinson, wore an “Our Revolution” t-shirt to come to see the senator — but she’s also not sure if she’ll support him this time around.

“They all agree on the issues,” she noted, but “it’s how they’re going to make those issues better that matters.”

Jenkins said he’s considering Warren and Harris, whose “enthusiasm is very interesting to me.”

And that, according to Charles Chamberlain, executive director of the progressive advocacy group Democracy for America, may be Sanders’ biggest challenge — the fact that while some voters are interested in policy nuance, many are evaluating the candidates on personality.

“I don’t think he should be changing his content,” Chamberlain said. “What I do think would benefit him would be to think a little bit more about how to personalize his policy, so people can see he’s not just an angry guy with a vision, he’s also warm — like your grandpa.”

Indeed, a number of the candidates have woven personal stories into their stump speeches and debate-stage performances in compelling ways. On the trail, Warren describes how the poverty she faced growing up informed her interest in banking reform. Harris made headlines — and won a bump in support — at last month’s presidential debate after she attacked Biden in deeply personal terms over his opposition to busing .

For Alexis Falcone, a 27-year-old store manager from New Hampshire, the personal connection was what made her decide to shift her support from Sanders to Warren.

“I really feel like she’s sincere and that she wants to help everybody,” Falcone said.

Sanders’ campaign has privately acknowledged they need to hold more intimate events and give him a chance to connect with voters personally, especially in early primary states like Iowa and New Hampshire, where retail politicking matters.

The senator took on a different format in Iowa last week, walking and greeting supporters in five parades; hosting a couple of ice cream socials and opening three new campaign offices across the state.

Still, he gave largely the same speech at an Ames office opening as he does at thousand-person rallies, railing against billionaires and corporate special interests while calling for his supporters to join his revolution. He left his own personal story out of it.

His campaign pushes back against any suggestion that he’s losing support to other candidates. Jeff Weaver, a top Sanders adviser who served as his 2016 campaign manager, said he believed that while the field is more splintered this cycle, Sanders “has a strong base of active and motivated supporters and grassroots donors that are going to carry this campaign forward.”

“Senator Sanders has always run in the same lane,” Weaver said. “He has been working to uplift working people in every Zip code, and in marginalized communities. Regardless of what the race looks like, that will always be his lane. He’s running to create a government and an economy that works for everyone, he was trying to do that in 2016, he’s trying to do that today, he was trying to do that 20 years ago.”

While other candidates may be competing for his voters, Sanders still saw strong enthusiasm during his recent Iowa trip, with overflow crowds at his Des Moines and Ames office openings and nearly 850 people at an Iowa City event that was planned to be much smaller.

After shaking his hand on the side of a Fourth of July parade in West Des Moines, Terri Steinmann, a 42-year-old real estate agent, said she was “verklempt” — a Yiddish word meaning “overcome with emotion.” She says while she did think Sanders could move a bit more toward the center to appeal to moderate voters, she was still excited by his firebrand campaign, and still leaning toward supporting him in 2020.

“I kinda love him just the way he is,” she said.

——

Jaffe reported from Des Moines, Iowa and Summers reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Hunter Woodall contributed from Peterborough, New Hampshire.


Rail

“Unsurprisingly, groups committed to the environment were aptly unimpressed with Trump’s speech designed to make him look like an environmental champion. No one is drinking that particular water, especially here in Vermont.”

Editorial, A4

In the news

Police logs from Montpelier, Barre Town and Barre City. A2

Lots to talk about in Talk of the Town this week. A3

A local man is sentenced for firing a gun outside a Waitsfield bar. A3


Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff Photo/  

The cast of Lost Nation Theater’s production of “Cabaret” which opens July 11.


BTA Hotspot

July 11-28

Cabaret

Preview tonight features a reduced ticket price. 7:30-9:30 p.m. Lost Nation Theater Montpelier City Hall Arts Center, 39 Main Street, Montpelier, info@lostnationtheater.org, 802-229-0492.