Shocked and Persuaded

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Separating Fact From Fiction

Back Off Westboro Baptist Church

Last year we had a group of visitors here in Burlington from Topeka, Kansas affiliated with Fred Phelps‘ Westboro Baptist Church. For those not familiar this group you may be familiar with some of their pleasant slogans such as “God Hates Fags”, “Thank God For Dead Soldiers”, “Thank God for 9/11”, “Thank God for IEDs”, “Fags are Beasts, “God Hates Jews”, “Fags Doom Nations”, etc, etc. The list is long and oh so thoughtful. When this group came to Burlington they brought with them their signs and their children to protest Vermont being “most ‘gay’ friendly spot in DOOMED america.” This was not the first time they visited little ol’ Vermont they came a couple of years earlier to spew nonsense during the funeral of a Richmond man killed in Iraq by one of those IEDs they like to scream about so much.

During their most recent visit the anti-Westboro contingent was large, persistent, and peaceful following them from Montpelier to Burlington and all around town just letting them know we didn’t agree with their tactics or the hateful rhetoric that came forth from their mouths and those of their children. BUT I don’t know one person involved in the Burlington section of the anti-Westboro crew that thought they didn’t have the right to say what they wanted wherever they wanted. As common defense of Howard Stern goes: If you don’t like him change the station?

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Conservation Dept. under siege

In deciding quite forcefully that she would close the Waterbury environmental laboratory, the Department of Environmental Conservation’s commissioner Laura Pelosi demonstrated that her concern for both the environment and conservation runs only skin deep. This type of move is indicative a philosophy first forwarded by William Kristol and Karl Rove, which is to say when the chips are down, pick on the defenseless or eliminate them entirely. Privatization of the science underlying efforts to monitor our lakes, rivers and streams is analogous to moves by the Bush administration to privatize the military in its entirety for the profit of a select few. That worked and continues to work really well, doesn’t it?

Well, don’t be under any illusions that Ms. Pelosi’s and, by extension, Douglas’ vision will do any better. We must be very careful when we entrust the private sector to interpret and present us with data. This type of effort borders dangerously on Andrew Jackson’s “spoils system” in which cronyism is openly embraced and deemed the best option. As you would probably imagine, the health of our natural resources is not something that exactly dovetails with the bottom-line concerns of private industry, no matter how altruistic they may pretend to be.

Won’t everyone have to make sacrifices in the immediate future to stem the tide of this recession? Of course, and no one is saying otherwise, including those at the DEC who suggested Ms. Pelosi trim employee hours or, heaven forbid, really try to get creative about this problem. Here’s the rub. We have a lake that we share with New York and Quebec that teeters every summer on becoming eutrophic due to urban and agricultural runoff. Algal blooms have been low in the last two years, but there is no reason to believe that we can count on this trend to continue, and if Ms. Pelosi gets her way we won’t have any data to prove or disprove the myriad hypotheses floating around Vermont, New York and Quebec. What about those icy days when large trucks slip and slide only to overturn their load in some unsuspecting wetland? What will we do then? Send samples off to where? The fact is that Ms. Pelosi wants to close shop on the environmental laboratory now only to reopen a similar incarnation in five to six years when the economy miraculously springs back to life! However, in doing her calculations I would imagine Ms. Pelosi, et. al., didn’t take into account the money that will be needed to train new technicians, equipment, etc. This would not be, in the popular vernacular of the present, a “shovel-ready” project. So, why take that shovel and throw dirt on an already existing and invaluable resource?

The University of Vermont recently outsourced much of its soil testing laboratory and, given our status as an agricultural state, such actions along with the one proposed by Ms. Pelosi reflect poorly on us as a state and Gov. Douglas’ completely apathetic and disillusioned administration. This is an example of Montpelier neither leading nor following; rather, they and Mr. Douglas specifically are all too comfortable to get in the way of progress, and now, it turns out, science. I say bring on vox populi! Bring on Anthony Pollina ASAP!

The farmer’s market and you

Recently a posting was sent out on the Front Porch Forum regarding the city and more specifically the Parks and Recreation Department’s fiscal bullying tactics relative to the Burlington Farmers Market and proposed 450 percent increase in rent for the former this coming summer.

Chris Wagner the farmers market manager, said, there are 58 summer residents of the market, which means we would essentially be raising their rent, assuming equal contributions, from $62 a summer to $286.90, which while not an end of the world increase is by no means trivial. This is akin to raising taxes on Church Street so that only large entities like Old Navy, Urban Outfitters and Starbucks can afford to display their products.

I know, I know, Ron Redmond and the City Council have already done that so why not rake these farmers and craftspeople over the same type of coals? The answer is that the farmers market represents community, social equity and local values, while the borderline multinational purveyors of goods on Church Street do not, and in many instances are overtly and more likely covertly set on destroying the fabric of the communities they invade.

I would argue that Church Street in most respects no longer reflects the community or state upon which it derives its “charm,” while the farmers market is all things Burlington and all things Vermont. It is a place locals and tourists can intermingle, but more importantly it is a place where our friends and neighbors in the agricultural and crafts sector are the true stars getting to strut their stuff and making a decent, but by no means extravagant, living. The fact that the City Council, Parks and Recreation Department and mayor would jeopardize the aspirations of this venture is quite disturbing not simply because it betrays their message of community but because it smacks of hypocrisy of the highest order.

Oh yeah, and by the way, who decided that the city has the right to charge for this space?

That we do everything we can in this city to accommodate the Church Street Marketplace as it moves steadily away from its community obligation, while something that is entirely communal and has aspirations of becoming even more so is being threatened strikes me as subterfuge and not becoming of those in City Hall or those at Parks and Recreation. I would note that such a raise in rent seems worthy of a citywide referendum, public hearing or town hall style meeting, or all of the above.