Embarrassment to democracy

There’s plenty of embarrassing to go around this election season. Some of it beyond the GOP presidential field.

Donald Trump is a historically bad candidate, yes. Barry Goldwater bad, in that he is likely to signify a sea change in how the country is run and by whom. But it was Marco Rubio who made the first dick joke, about the size of Trump’s hands, and he’s the Republican establishment’s choir boy. The less said about Ted Cruz, the better, so I’ll leave the background to others.

As a media watcher / former participant, the interesting thing to me is how completely the media have abandoned any shred of impartiality in going after The Donald. I’ll skip over the “liberal” media, because we all expect the NYT editorial page to shrink in horror from Trump:

  • There’s the whole Rubio / Trump “size of his hands” thing, where Rubio essentially got a pass from the media and then Trump was excoriated for responding. I’m not defending either, mind you, just noting the difference in the reception. One was a bad line from a debate, the other was a sign of the apocalypse.
  • Fox News moderators showing up to a debate with an attack plan, including background clips and graphics. I didn’t couldn’t bear to watch the whole thing, but I didn’t see or hear of anything like that for any of the other candidates. And the GOP went apeshit over “harsh” questioning by NBC moderators in October. Imagine the furor if they had gone after a GOP favorite son as hard as Megyn Kelly & Co. went after Trump. And they were congratulated for doing it. Shouldn’t we ask hard questions of all the candidates?
  • The combined consensus that Ted Cruz winning his home state and such bastions of moderation as Kansas, Oklahoma and Arkansas gave him enough momentum to knock off Trump. Now that might be true … but a neutral read would be that it might have given him the momentum he needs but we won’t have a real clue until the March 8 votes or more clearly until March 15, particularly since the states that just voted are the kind of states Cruz absolutely, positively needs. Trump is leading in every poll in Michigan and in the minimal polling done in Mississippi and Idaho and unlike the past weekend’s voting, these states are open to swing voters, where Trump’s strength is. Without waiting for some sort of confirmation before anointing Cruz the second coming, this is simply trying to swing the electorate, not reporting. It’s a collective gamble by the media, because if Trump wins on Tuesday it will reinforce his “winner” spiel and likely solidify his chances in places like Florida and Ohio … and if Trump wins Florida and Ohio, he’s going to be the GOP nominee. He’ll be at something like 700 delegates, Cruz under 450 (after the entire Deep South has voted) and Rubio and Kasich with all the potential of a used rubber on the floor of an airport john.

At that point, the weasels looking for a cabinet post wilchrischristiel start moving to the Trump camp in hordes, not one at a time, and the anti-Trump movement will fizzle as the Republican faithful start to face life with either President Trump or President Hillary & First Gentleman Bill Clinton and they will by and large choose Trump.

(Speaking of media whoredom, yes, the lead weasel is the one first endorsed, then unendorsed by the Manchester (NH) Union Leader, which ought to be solid proof that New Hampshire needs to be removed from the first primary slot and that visionary leadership like Joe McQuaid’s is why newspapers are disappearing.)

  • But the pièce de résistance has to be the fawning coverage of Mitt Romney’s takedown of Trump, which was widely and uncritically covered by virtually every major media outlet. Among the nuggets that fell unquestioned from the mouth of the King of Bain was Romney calling Trump “greedy.” Pot, kettle, etc. It’s true that some outlets did get around to questioning Romney, but he got an entire day’s news cycle right before the most recent round of primaries with all the rigorous cross examination one would expect from the North Korean media when the Dear Leader talks. And I still haven’t seen anyone call Romney out for the “greedy” shot.

The interesting fallout will be the relationship between Fox News and its viewers. Long accusers of “mainstream media bias,” Fox has (with a couple of exceptions) thrown in with the GOP elite — where the money is — and put itself at odds with a substantial portion of its sheeple. If angry white men abandon Fox, who’s left for an audience?

It’s easy to dismiss these kinds of concerns with the arguments that pulling back on the leader is just a function the media loving a horse race.  Which might hold water if it hadn’t taken approximately forever for the same media to discover that there was a second candidate on the Democratic side. The most sympathetic defense of that coverage was that it was an honest but systemic failure, which means that the best thing you can say about the coverage of both sides of primary season has been a cluster fuck.

Whether or not Trump wins the GOP nomination — and he’s the odds on favorite — it will be another confirmation to the mass audience, the Silent Minority, if you will, who tuned out “MSM,” that the media in untrustworthy, that the fix is in. And on the evidence, it’s true.

Trump is a creation of the media chasing spectacle over substance, of “if it bleeds it leads,” of Fox Propaganda Network pulling the country to the right regardless of the cost. Now we’re reaping the whirlwind. But don’t say we weren’t warned.


Free the compost!

I’m guessing a lot of folks got an exhortation to plant a rain garden in the junk mail in the last couple of weeks, just like chez Cooke-Smathers (link is to the full-blown piece, not the pocket-sized mailer).

Why the junk mail is there is as simple as following the money:

  • Lake Champlain is getting a buildup of phosphorus pollution, to the point that state entities are legally liable for cleaning it up.
  • Much of the phosphorus comes from “waste products,” aka poop: Cow poop, human poop and recycled poop in the form of fertilizer being three main sources.
  • Vermont isn’t going to do anything to stop cow poop from reaching Lake Champlain. Why? Well, they’re cows … and it’s Vermont. I blame Woody Jackson. He could have painted a Morgan horse, after all. Instead we got Love Thy Holstein.Image
  • If we can’t fix the cow poop, that means fixing the human/fertilizer waste streams getting into our, errr, streams.
  • Many, many, many towns have similar problems to Rutland: While they can control the routine sewage needs of their populace, the systems overflow, literally, in big storms and wash lots of phosphorus (and other pollutants) into the water, which on this side of the Greens means into the lake.
  • Too much runoff for too long and the EPA comes around with an order mandating communities build much bigger, much more efficient wastewater systems.
  • So those towns (and the state) need to control that outflow to head off the EPA, which means cajoling you, me and the guy down the block into controlling our runoff.

Got it? It’s enlightened self-interest on behalf of the state and local government. So here’s a suggestion: Don’t just send us a little flyer, make it easier to build a rain garden. We followed the money, now show us the money. Here’s how:

Compost is an essential element of a rain garden, which is a glorified ditch, filled with gravel, then dirt and compost mixed together to make a more-easily drained bed. Rainwater runs into the bed, sinks through the dirt and gravel and is filtered into the groundwater instead of running straight into streams and lakes. Build enough of them and the EPA goes away, Lake Champlain cleans up and we get to keep the cow cult, guilt-free.

Rutland has a big old compost pile at the dump. We users either drop off the lawn waste that makes the compost for free during the spring/fall amnesty periods or we pay $5 a pickup load to drop it off during the summer. How about when Rutland County Solid Waste District issues a dump sticker it also issues a permit to pick up a load of compost once or twice a year, same as with dropoffs? Make a big deal out of it: Compost amnesty week! Free the compost, save the lake!

As a way to encourage us to plant those rain gardens, you could call it a grassroots effort.

In praise of teachers

Last week I happened upon a group of teachers holding a protest (after school hours) in Poultney, encouraging the Rutland Southwest Supervisory Union to resume negotiations with their teachers in advance of a possible strike.

Monday, Bill Toscano, our Granville (NY) reporter, came in with a story and photos on the Future Business Leaders of America club collecting items for the local food bank. It’s a happy story: The club went a little over its 2,200-item target. There was an adult in one of the photos, helping load boxes after schoImageol for the delivery. I asked whether that was the teacher-advisor. Bill said no, that was the teacher’s spouse, helping out. That’s him on the right in the picture … oh, and I believe that’s his trailer they’re using.

On Thursday, we went to Rutland Northwest Elementary School for “Superhero Saving” night, sponsored by the Heritage Family Federal Credit Union.Most of the teachers were there, after working hours, helping students play the learning games to teach them lessons about money. Northwest is Rutland’s “bad” school, for those of you keeping score, because it has a higher percentage of kids getting free and reduced lunch. With our oldest son moving onto the Intermediate School next year, we are making arrangements for our younger one to go to Northwest, even though it would be easier logistically to have him go to Northeast. Northwest’s faculty and staff are terrific.

My wife, who works “part-time” as a teacher (29 hours per week so as not to burden the school budget with benefits), spends at least two hours each night on marking and lesson planning. Most Fridays, which she doesn’t “work” because she’s “part-time,” she catches up on paperwork.

Yesterday, she got reimbursed for buying tickets for a school event for all her students on our credit card, per school district policy. We are paying the interest on that out of pocket, just FYI.

Vermont’s civil servants took cuts in helping the state get through the recession. So did teachers (and private sector employees, but that’s another matter). The state is eager to ensure the public sector employees are getting recompense for their lost wages, but they’re still banging the drum about education costs. There’s a disconnect here.

Time to rethink rec.

Specifically, it’s time to rethink the role the Recreation and Parks Dept. plays in Rutland City.

Briefly, the genesis of this idea was running through a few disconnects in my head … wait, that doesn’t sound right … in my head, I ran through a few disconnects. Yeah, that’s better:

As many of you know, I was briefly out of work. When there’s no income and you get a signup calendar for rec programs, suddenly you start to sweat the entrance fees. I didn’t find the “scholarship” part of the program particularly easy to navigate/user friendly. We didn’t need it, as it turned out, but it got me thinking about a very basic disconnect in the fight over the Giorgetti community center. If you remember, the center went down to defeat in the revote, with the support dropping along with the average income in each ward.

The core argument against the center (and one of the few factually accurate ones) was that many people in the city can’t afford even the most basic recreation programs. I remember at one meeting Ejay Bishop, the head of the department getting quite angry and saying that the department went out of its way to make sure everybody’s kid could get in.

So that’s the first disconnect: Rec wants everybody to feel like it’s “their” rec. department, but the voters don’t see it that way. The second was at the aldermanic forum put on by the Creative Economy. One of the more well-informed candidates (might have been Chris Siliski or Christopher Robinson) was talking about the rec. department and defending it by noting how much revenue it generated for city coffers. It was in the multiples of dollars of revenue for every dollar spent in the rec. budget. The exact dollars aren’t critical, but at some point, I’ll go look them up …

The point is that recreation is a net profit for the city, and it has been for several years. Various city administrators, including Ejay and Hizzonner Chris Louras (another Chris … do you have to be named “Chris” to be elected in Rutland? Just checking …) proudly run that statistic out every time the rec. budget is trotted out for perusal.

But combine those two ideas: The city’s poorer residents feel like the rec. department does not serve them, and rec. turns a profit on programming. Doesn’t it suggest we need to increase the department’s outreach to people who think recreation is too expensive, even if it means cutting closer to making the department a break-even proposition, instead of a money-maker?

Look, it’s really easy to sneer at the folks driving around in beaters, smoking, with their kids in the car, or to bemoan the percentage of food stamps (3SquaresVT for the politically correct) going to soda and Cheez Puffs. But if we want to turn recreation into a positive force for the entire community, instead of just those in the middle class and already active, we need to ask ourselves if we are doing everything we can to make it happen. I say we’re not.

I would like to see more user-friendly screening for needs. If it means letting a few people dead set on screwing the system out of a few bucks succeed, but getting more low-income people into the program, so be it.

I would also like to see the city pushing rec into the low-income homes instead of waiting for them to come to the city. Direct outreach through the schools might be a place to start, using the list of kids eligible for free and reduced lunch. Send a note home with those kids saying by the way, you’re probably eligible for free soccer this season, then have a sign-up in school for both paid and free participants. Make it fun, instead of a bureaucratic grilling. This is an excerpt from the form available online:


A. Wages: ____________ D. Food Stamps: ____________ G. Alimony: ________________

B. RUFA: _____________ E. Housing Assist. : __________ H. Child Support: ___________

C. Social Security: ____________ F. Workers Comp: ____________ I. Other: ______________

Would you want to go through that so your kid could play soccer unless you were already convinced it’s something he/she ought to be doing? No, me neither. But this is the starting point for participation for those needing help.  I believe Ejay when he says they want all the kids in the city to be able to use their services. But I don’t think they’ve looked at it from the other side of the “scholarship” form.

What’s the worst that can happen? You get too many kids involved in youth sports and because of overwhelming demand, the city has to pay in a little extra instead of using signup fees to pad out the slush, errr, general fund. When kids soccer next starts up in Monsignor Connor park, I would love to see kids from all around the immediate area walking to the park to play in the city leagues. Instead, the people who are using the leagues are those of us with enough money, driving through Happy Valley. Solve that problem, and the rec center will pass in all four wards.

So what’s so smart about it?

OK, I admit that I’m a bit of an early adopter. I’ve always liked gadgets. So I’m inclined toward accepting the new meters.

But I think CVPS, GMP and the rest have really short sold themselves by not stressing more the fact that smart grid technology is what’s going to let microgeneration work. A lot has been made in the media about how poor renewables are at replacing baseload power. A large part of the problem is that there’s no good way to tell a coal plant in Ohio that we’re doing fine for power right now in Vermont. But let’s say that GMP goes ahead and plants 15 Mw of solar in Rutland, and a few other entities chip in with wind and solar. With smart meters, when the wind picks up and the clouds blow away, the grid is told in a matter of a few minutes that we’re generating plenty of power. Link that into a sophisticated weather program that tells the system to expect sustained winds in Lowell and sunshine over the Solar City and enough other generation stations, and the next thing you know, you have something approaching smooth power. It’s not smooth enough for IBM (you sort of need hyperclean baseload power to build chips with a thousand or so circuits on a space the width of a hair), but it will run X air conditioners. That lets other sources ramp down, divert energy to batteries (soon) or shift their output elsewhere. Build enough little, clean generators and you can close down some big, dirty ones.

That’s the approximate theory, and I happen to think it’s a pretty worthwhile goal.

Smart? Power!

So we got a postcard in the mail Saturday telling us that our neighborhood is getting smart meters in the next two weeks. I’ll be posting occasional updates on the process and the unit, which bizarrely is getting the tin-hat treatment here in Vermont and elsewhere. Critics argue that they are bathing us in radio waves and putting our health at risk.

Having looked at the radio wave emissions from “smart meters,” they put out about the same amount of radiation as a WiFi network, a fraction of a percentage of the amount that leaks from a microwave oven and an even lower percentage of what comes out of a cell phone, I am not worried about the radiation danger. If you don’t want to do the math, about 12,500 smart meters put out the same radiation as one cell phone; or about 100 smart meters put out the same energy as one microwave oven.

Adding a smart meter will raise our background radiation by approximately 0.0002 mW/cm2. To put it into context, making a cell phone call puts out between 1 and 5 mW/cm2.

That’s assuming I’m standing 10 feet from it, or about at the kitchen door. Given that I sit three feet from a WiFi source in my home office and that on a good day I can pick up 3-4 WiFi signals from here, I guess I’m not too worried about the extra dose from a smart meter.

When CVPS first rolled out its SmartPower proposal, I did some research and found one study in California that suggested utilities needed to do more work on the units, based on the concern that if you had an apartment next to the meter room for a large complex, you could conceivably be living / sleeping within three feet of several hundred meters at once. I think this does sound like a possible problem. Just not for me, or anybody else in Vermont, with the possible exception of a UVM dorm. I trust they’ll adjust their smart meters accordingly.

I’ll keep you apprised as we go along.

Bad investments

It looks like the legislature is cooling off on forcing Green Mountain Power and CVPS to sell their interests in Velco to the state.

For those not following the blow-by-blow on this one, GMP — Vermont’s second-largest utility — is buying CVPS — Vermont’s largest utility; as both own large minority stakes in Velco, Vermont’s transmission company, that would give the new, larger GMP majority control of Velco. GMP, recognizing this might be an issue, volunteered to sell its majority position.

Enter Vince Illuzzi, Vermont state senator from the Northeast Kingdom. One of his pet peeves is the possibility someone (likely Velco) would build a powerline connecting Quebec’s massive hydroelectric operations through Vermont to the Boston/New York grids. Someone is in fact working on a line like that, with a projected path through New Hampshire, although the final path is far from determined.

Illuzzi’s proposed solution would be to have Vermont buy a controlling interest in Velco, although of course he didn’t couch it in those terms; he instead talked about what a great investment opportunity it might be. Cooler heads seem to have prevailed (although Illuzzi’s backers are blaming it on “utility lobbyists).”

What’s wrong with Vermont owning its transmission lines? Nothing if it is simply an arm’s length transaction to invest in and profit from our own infrastructure, perhaps through a vehicle like the state employee retirement funds. They need to be invested somewhere; why not Vermont? But siting anything in Vermont is a challenge, often a legal challenge. Velco is currently being challenged in court over putting up a single cell tower in the Wells area, by a Russian emigre/artist couple who bought somebody’s mountaintop compound in order to get away from things like cell phones … although Velco has a permanent lease for a cell tower on the property, dating back to the previous owner. It’s been a nasty, nasty battle, with plenty of acrimony and name-calling.

That’s a fight best left between private developers and the landowners; as was the lengthy fight over upgrading the “southern loop” power lines. Or the fight over putting a proposed transmission line from James Bay to Jersey. If we don’t want to build our own power here (gas plants, garbage incinerators and wind power all having been rejected as not “Vermonty” enough), we’re going to have to string line somewhere from somewhere else. It’s not a moot point. Given that we’ve signed onto buying enormous amounts of Quebec-generated electricity for the next 20 years, we need high-voltage power lines over somebody pastoral Vermont countryside. Building and maintaining them is Velco’s job.

The state has an oversight role, through the Public Service Board and Dept. of Public Service. It would be wise to stop right there. Adding political fights to the already detailed permitting process would mire even needed projects down in an unnecessary level of complexity.

Poor options over state offices

Since Gov. Peter Shumlin first speculated about the future of the state office complex in Waterbury in the wake of Tropical Storm Irene, I was intrigued by the possibility of state government rethinking how it provides services to the residents … aka does its job.

One of the first lessons I learned in the aftermath of the big storm is how completely dependent the southwest corner of the state is on Route 107, when it comes time to access state government. That would be the same Route 107 that was the last road opened in the storm’s wake; the same Route 107 that is a difficult drive even in the best of weather.

And Shumlin — like Jim Douglas before him — has spent no end of energy discussing how the entire state needs to be electronically connected. The argument is that we can attract businesses of all stripes anywhere in Vermont if we offer a sturdy broadband backbone. A good example of putting that in practice would be spreading some of the 1,500 jobs from a floodplain in Waterbury to other locations around the state.

Over the past couple of years, Vermont’s government has debated cutting its physical presence in the hinterlands (ie, not in the Burlington-Montpelier corridor). So when the discussion of moving some of the offices from Waterbury, I was hoping for a discussion of the opportunities to decentralize state government; to move some of the head office functions for various departments around Vermont, relying like many private businesses on conference calls and cloud technology. Surely there are some parts of Vermont government that would be better off with more jobs being done at remote locations and fewer in head office?

More to the point: It would have government rely on remote communication the way the state hopes businesses that locate/relocate here will, so when the economic development folks talk to prospective business owners here they can discuss remote access to head office knowledgably, instead of walking them up and down the centralized corridors of power. That means working with a laptop and a cell phone and relying on cloud technology instead of sitting in meetings in a conference room, but getting back a leaner, more responsive central office in order to spend a larger percentage of money on field staff instead of front office staff and a big building …

But the debate seems to have become simply whether Barre Mayor Tom Lauzon will succeed at poaching some of the jobs a few miles down the I-89 corridor … into downtown Barre, where Lauzon is the leading property developer. No conflict of interest there. While that may be a fine thing for Lauzon “Barre,” it leaves the rest of the state as cut off as ever.

It seems we really didn’t learn so much from Irene as we like to pretend we did. Disappointing.

Oil cartels

So why is it, in the middle of the mildest winter in a donkey’s age, that I just paid $4 per gallon for heating fuel? If a free market was working, there would be a glut of oil in the literal and figurative pipeline by now, and there would be downward pressure on prices. Instead, they remain high, pushed up not by supply and demand but by speculation and (call it what you will … collusion, price fixing, insider trading among conglomerates, gouging).

Typically, the local dealers don’t add a lot to the prices … so I’m guessing the problem is farther up the line.

I know Bernie’s busy with his constitutional amendment. Maybe Peter Welch could take a look at the problem … or the media in the Northeast. There’s something fishy here, and it ain’t cod liver oil.

Distracted driving

I thought Steve Pappas had a good editorial on driving and cell phones in the Times Argus this week (reprinted in the Herald), but there’s another step media outlets can take on this issue.

An editorial is fine, but regular coverage of issues speak louder because they are repetitive. With the state legislature likely to consider a bill outlawing cell phones, texting, etc., behind the wheel, it would be helpful of the reporters covering police would start including that information in their stories about serious accidents. On the story on the fatal accident in Rutland recently, the reporter asked if speed and / or alcohol were factors, but with a very young driver, it seems likely that some use of electronica is more likely to be a cause than alcohol … based on the anecdotal information that a lot of kids drive while texting and even more while on the phone. I for one would be most interested to know if the police were looking at the possibility of phone/text use in the case of the pedestrian fatality, and if not, why not?

Those questions (speed? alcohol?) follow the ground rules, but there are times when newsrooms ought to make the call to either go beyond the routine or to change the routine altogether.

If reporters were to ask in every crash story if the driver was distracted, it would give the public some data to consider while our politicians are deciding whether to crack down on cell phones behind the wheel. The time is right for the state’s media to start following this issue day-to-day on the streets, instead of asking state committee members where they might stand. Sadly, that’s what we too often get for political coverage these days, from all of our outlets.