Many support downtown redevelopment

Burlington (Apr 25) – Over forty Burlington and State government officials and special interest group leaders gathered outside the Burlington Town Center on Church Street to hold a press conference about the downtown redevelopment project that is in the works.  This project will create more office space, affordable housing, and many opportunities for employment.  Support for this revitalization of downtown is from government officials, local downtown businesses, and regular citizens. Only one voice has been loud in its disagreement with the project.  “This development will be out of scale with Burlington” says Marc Sherman, owner of Outdoor Gear Exchange.  “Burlington retail is strong but because we’ve maintained the small town feel” says Marc as he believes that urbanizing Burlington will drive tourists away from the town instead of attracting them. On the other hand, there are over 25 different organizations, non-profits, and businesses in support of the redevelopment with the list still growing. “Smart growth will lift us all up” said Zandy Wheeler, owner of SkiRack and Patagonia.  He believes that not only will the side-street businesses grow from the redevelopment, all of downtown and Burlington as a whole will too. Mayor Miro Weinberger speaking about the positive impacts the redevelopment will have for Burlington
Vermont Interfaith Action is an unlikely, but strong supporter of this project as well.  Debbie Ingram, the Executive Director, stated that Vermont Interfaith Action works for social justice and “that happens two ways 1) providing jobs and 2) providing affordable housing, both of which this project will do”.

UVM takes a look at rape culture

Burlington (Apr 12) – “I think survivors know everything” said Leah Lakshimi Piepzna-Samarasinha, keynote speaker for the 11th Annual Dismantling Rape Culture Conference at the University of Vermont.  The DRCC is one-day, university funded conference that looks at rape and sexual violence and way they are perceived and received in our society.  The UVM Women’s Center hosts this free event that is open to people of any and all identities that has hundreds of participants from all over Vermont and surrounding states.  

Leah Lakshimi Piepzna-Samarasinha giving the keynote speech
“We have been told we’re in the wrong neighborhood, dressed wrong, coping wrong” said Piepzna-Samarasinha.  Her speech was the opener for the conference and addressed the way society interacts with victims and blames them for being the victims of violence.  “We’ve been told we’re too black, brown, and angry for the white feminist movement” she said.  Leah also addressed the complicated issue of feminism vs. white feminism and how to acknowledge the differences. Along with the moving keynote speech that received a standing ovation from the audience, there were over 25 other workshops for participants to attend to explore the culture surrounding rape and sexual violence. Two UVM undergraduate students, Caroline DeCunzo and Jack Braunstein, lead a workshop titled “Troubling Consent: Toward the Prevention of Rape on Campus” where they lead a discussion surrounding research they did for a class project.  The general consensus of the discussion was that prevention starts with proper sex and consent education for kids.

Black drivers stopped more often than whites by local police

Burlington (Apr 11) – City Council learned of racial profiling in Burlington Police Department traffic stops in a presentation given by Dr. Stephanie Seguino, an economics professor at the University of Vermont.  Seguino has been studying BPD traffic reports from 2012 to 2015 to see if there are differences between blacks and whites. “Black drivers are being over searched, or another way of looking at it is white drivers are being under searched” saidSeguino. Dr. Stephanie Segunio presenting her study on Burlington Police Department Racial Disparities in Traffic Policing to City Council
This study shows that although blacks make up only 4.5% of the local population they accounted for 7.9% of traffic stops in town.  Also, car search rates of black drivers (3.3%) is three times the rate of searches for white drivers (1.1%) even though when searched white drivers were found with some kind of illegal substance or object 63.5% of the time as opposed to blacks who had a “hit” rate of 46.2%.  “Hit rates are significantly lower in blacks which shows that they are being searched with no results” said Segunio. “It is incredibly helpful and sobering to see this information” Councilor Sharon Bushor of Ward 1 said.  Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo later joined Seguino at the table for questions and said he wants to make information like this available “quarterly” for the public.  Seguino also touched on the fact that there are “stark differences between the way Asian drivers and black driver are treated” but that wasn’t the focus of her report. Vehicle searches can be conducted without a warrant with reasonable cause or suspicion but intentionally or unintentionally, Burlington police have been searching blacks at a much higher rate than whites.  “I don’t believe the smell of marijuana emanates any more from African-American cars more than it does white cars.

Vermont citizens debate marijuana legalization

Montpelier (Mar 31) – Over 40 different Vermont citizens were able to share their stance on marijuana legalization with the House Committee on Judiciary and Government Operations this Thursday. Those speaking were given only two minutes to share their thoughts whether pro, con, or undecided about legalization though many took less than the allotted time. “Let’s start over and get it right” said one citizen who believes that the Vermont lawmakers need to slow down, throw out the current bill, and start over to create a better one that includes more of what the people want. Students presenting spoken word skit on the potential dangers of marijuana legalization and usage. Arguments against legalization ranged from public health concerns to protest over language that would exclude small farmers from being able to grow, and everything in between.

Judiciary committee changes marijuana legalization fines

Montpelier (Jan. 27) – Senator Alice Nitka stood firm about leaving the open container fine of marijuana legalization bill S. 241 at $25.  The Senate Committee on Judiciary spent the day looking closely at the wording of the bill to make sure everyone agreed on it.  One senator suggested the fine for an open container in a car should be $100, not $25.  “Someone’s giving someone a ride, they don’t know what they’ve got” said Senator Nitka, arguing to keep the fine at $25 for the driver of the car. Another change the Senate Judiciary made to S. 241 was increasing the fine for the operator of the car from $25 to $50 if they are the owner of the marijuana.  The committee was trying to make sure the appropriate fines were stated in the bill to ensure traffic safety. When asked how he felt about people driving under the influence of cannabis, Dr. Rob Williams of the Vermont Cannabis Collaborative, answered with a firm “don’t do it”.  “The penalty should be the same for alcohol or drug impaired driving; stiff” said Williams.  Although being pro-cannabis, Williams is open about the fact that it isn’t a harmless practice and that people must use cannabis wisely. The Senate Committee also discussed how statistics on marijuana usage and traffic accidents could not be the most reliable.

Marijuana prohibition could be doing more harm than good

Montpelier (Feb 16) – Continuing to ban marijuana could be hurting kids instead of protecting them. Through lumping cannabis in with other dangerous substances like heroin or meth it “diminishes potency when talking to young people about the dangers of drugs like heroin” said Representative Chris Pearson in a joint hearing of the House Committee on Judiciary and House Committee on Government Operations. Pearson went on to explain saying “if kids experiment with marijuana they will likely wake up the next morning and look back on the night before in a pleasant way and then think maybe they [adults] were wrong about those [dangerous substances] too”. He also made the point that the prohibition of marijuana also stops any conversation and education surrounding the substance. The two committees then did a walk through of the Senate approved marijuana legalization bill lead by Michele Childs, Legislative Counsel of the Office of Legislative Council.

New firetruck sparks tensions

Hinesburg (Feb. 29) – Town meeting is a time for citizens to be directly involved with government goings-ons in their towns. Tensions ran high at Hinesburg’s town meeting over a new firetruck. “I don’t remember this being on last year’s minutes. It feels a little underhanded” said one concerned citizen.

Complicated documentation may be roadblock for effective special education

Montpelier (Feb 24) – Funding for special education programs is dependent on very specific documentation that schools and supervisory unions must fill out.  The difficulty of the paperwork sometimes stands in the way of funding for special education.  “Why do we need to label a child to give them what they need?” asked Beth Hemingway, Director of Student Support Services for Grand Isle Supervisory Union.  Because of this often difficult paperwork, effective special education programs like SWIFT can’t get off the ground. SWIFT, Schoolwide Integrated Framework for Transformation, is a national program developed at the University of Kansas that is a unique method of teaching for students with special needs.  The program is comprised of integration in the classroom with “typical” students, heavy family and parent involvement, engaged administrative staff, and many other things.  

Marisa Duncan-Holley speaks to the benefits of the SWIFT program as Rep. Timothy Jerman looks on
Around four years ago SWIFT was introduced to supervisory unions across the state where it was successful for some but not for others.  Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union had to leave SWIFT after a rocky start where they spent the first year “independently operating” according to Wendy Pierce, Special Education Director for SVSU.  Wendy said they began SWIFT without much support and they had to figure out how to document the time of special educators, time sampling, appropriately for their block grant, money given to the supervisory union from the government.  One of the principles of SWIFT is relaxed rules around reporting special educators’ schedules so they can work with a broader scope of kids which conflicts with requirements from block grants that happen to enable supervisory unions to be a part of the SWIFT program. “We’re looking at children with what are their individual needs” said Marisa Duncan-Holley, Special Education Director for Windham Southeast Supervisory Union.  Marisa was testifying on behalf of the SWIFT program as she believes makes a difference in students’ lives.  According to Marisa “the idea behind SWIFT is to open up the door for all students but because of funding they have to use the special education door”.

Concerns over workplace safety are biggest opposition to marijuana legalization

Montpelier (Feb. 3) – In a small, tightly packed room seven people waited to share their opinion with Vermont senators on how legalization of marijuana will affect businesses.  Among the crowd was Kendal Melvin, a Government Affairs Specialist, with the Vermont Chamber of Commerce who brought up concerns of workplace safety that were shared by many of the others there to testify.  Melvin shared that the Chamber of Commerce wants “businesses to reserve the right to be marijuana free” regardless of if it is legal.  This brought up questions from the committee as to whether or not an employee would be subject to discipline if they had marijuana in their system on a drug test even if they had not smoked recently or at all since even being around others smoking marijuana could result with a positive drug test. William Discroll, Vice President of Associated Industries of Vermont, spoke to the Senate Committee and stated that with increased usage of marijuana there will be increased workplace accidents.  He also stated that his concern was that legalization will hurt Vermont as a place that out of state businesses would want to relocate to because of the potential for workplace accidents.  He felt that legalization of marijuana would potentially halt Vermont’s economic growth.  Discroll spoke largely about protecting Vermont’s businesses and economic health.  

Bill Lofy with the Vermont Cannabis Collaborative speaks about how marijuana legalization will help Vermont
When Bill Lofy, Chief of Staff, of the Vermont Cannabis Collaborative spoke he stated that he did agree with the concerns raised by others testifying.  Lofy’s argument against legalization hurting Vermont’s economy was that if Vermont legalizes marijuana there will be “4,000 direct and indirect jobs created” in agriculture and high skill jobs like researching and testing marijuana.  This kind of economic growth would be very impactful for Vermont and its many small businesses.  Despite lobbying for the legalization of marijuana, Lofy is not blind to the negative effects marijuana could have on Vermont but he does strongly believe marijuana legalization is what’s right for the state.

A plea to increase funding for Farm to School program reaches the State House

Montpelier (February 10) – A large crowd gathered in Room 11 at the State House this Wednesday to speak of the benefits of the Farm to School program.  Among the crowd were many young students from Bristol and Northfield Elementary Schools.  Despite their age the stories shared about their experiences with the Farm to School program seemed to hold a lot of weight. Second grade teacher Peg Sutlive, pictured above, spoke about how Farm to School improved her students’ personal connection with the food while creating a feeling of ownership over it.  One of Sutlive’s students, Charlotte Crum, said “I hope you keep doing the Farm to School so that I can keep trying new things” which was the general consensus among the students there to testify.  “My favorite part is the hands-on cooking and trying new recipes. Farm to school is important to me because I’ve learned a lot and had fun with it” said Orrin Price, a student at Northfield Elementary. One of the reasons behind asking for an increase in funding is to expand the Farm to School program to pre-schools.  By introducing children to local food and healthy eating practices in pre-school they won’t be surprised by them when they reach elementary school.  The purpose is to begin healthy practices as soon as possible because often children bring what they learned home with them which create healthy homes and subsequently healthy communities.  Susan Camp from the Vermont Department of Health stated there has been a “slight decrease in obesity” in high school students and a “slight increase” in fruit and vegetable consumption in those same students.  She goes on to say it is unknown if that is in direct relation with the Farm to School program but she feels that it is helping.  At the end of the testimony it was very clear that the legislators were in favor of increasing funding to Farm to School programs but the state budget likely won’t allow for it.