Commentary

Bram Towbin: Local officials need state’s backing

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Bram Towbin, a selectman for the town of Plainfield.

Author’s note: A hard copy on Town of Plainfield letterhead will be sent to Gov. Shumlin.

This past week an incident occurred which highlights the problems local officials face when the two layers of government — the local municipality and the state agency — interact. The end result is state officers viewing local government as overly demanding and hysterical while the municipality sees the state as myopic and uncaring. Both points of view are understandable. The particulars of this situation should not be the focus of this proposal but rather merely a springboard for overall change.

The incident involved a logger who was hired by a Plainfield resident. The elderly landowner turned to a Selectboard member for help as he felt the logger had duped him and was stealing lumber. The selectman discovered that this particular logger had a storied history of taking advantage of vulnerable citizens. In fact, there was a VTDigger article (“Should Vermont loggers be licensed?”, Oct. 20, 2013) detailing a very similar violation perpetrated by the same loggers in a neighboring town.

The selectman went into overdrive in order to stop the logger. When he contacted the the Department of Forest, Parks and Recreation, he discovered that state officials did not feel nearly as urgent as he and the landowner. They certainly shared the selectman’s characterization of the logger as a bad actor but, as they saw it, their responsibilities were extremely limited. In fact they pursued what they considered to be a vigorous sanctions against these individuals in the past. Unfortunately the fines were never collected and there was no real punishment. The logger was free to mow down the Plainfield resident’s trees.

On Jan. 10 the Times Argus ran a story about the incident. The head of enforcement at the Agency of Natural Resources was quoted: “They (the loggers) could owe us a billion dollars, but if we can’t collect it from them, it doesn’t make any difference.”

Strangely, if you owe a couple of hundred dollars in traffic fines your vehicle will be immobilized via a car-boot if you park illegally in the state capital. Yet if you owe huge sums to the state for logging violations, your skidder is free to wreck forests and terrorize taxpayers. Booting skidders is probably beyond ANR’s authority, but it might not be for another agency.

Unfortunately there is a lack of coordination amongst government officials to solve the broad problem of the forest’s destruction. There is a direct relationship between the state’s inability to collect fines and the boldness of the lawbreakers. When municipal officials arrived on the scene to deliver a notice of trespass, they faced real intimidation. This included photographing the license plate of their vehicle and aggressive language.

Meanwhile the state agency focused their regulatory scrutiny on the Plainfield resident. The landowner faces possible fines and expulsion for the current use program. The details of the contract between the logger and the landowner became the focus for state regulators interest rather than intervening in the destruction of forestland, not to mention the intimidation of an elderly person. It was immaterial that the loggers were known bad actors who operated for a decade preying on older people. From the agency’s point of view there was the limit of what was legally actionable. But this is only true from a narrow perspective; one agency alone cannot solve the problem of renegade loggers.

Municipal officials, acting on behalf of besieged townspeople, want to know when we face off against a bully that the full force of ALL Vermont state government is behind them.

 

The state’s focus on the minutia leads to towns being overwhelmed with much larger problems. The degree to which this eats up meager municipal resources cannot be overstated. A perfect example concerns a garbage heap here in Plainfield on a waterfront property owned by someone from out of town. Debris flowed into a nearby stream and on to a neighbor’s property. ANR responded, but little action was taken as it was small potatoes from their point of view. The state’s laxity had major ramifications for our town. That pile grew and grew … for SEVEN YEARS. The neighbors became so distressed they offered a significant amount of money to buy the property. But the owner, emboldened by state inaction, asked an outrageous price. Town officials have spent thousands of hours soliciting grants, filing legal paperwork and organizing the cleanup. The nefarious owner benefited greatly — at great expense of the local taxpayer and many local volunteers. Had ANR been aggressive in enforcing violations, this bully would have been tamed years ago. To be fair, this matter pales in comparison to the huge environmental issues facing ANR. But the agency’s choice of relegating Plainfield’s problem to a low priority has exacted a great price on the town. No one wants to willfully hurt our town – but the ability to frame the issue has consequences that are not understood at the State level.

State officials’ misunderstanding of the scope of problems goes far beyond small garbage piles. The inability of the Public Service Department and Public Service Board to demand better performance from Fairpoint Communications has not only affected the quality of life in Plainfield but literally threatened the life of a local resident. A Selectboard member was approached by a single mother who spoke of the difficulty in having to wait eight weeks for Internet service from Fairpoint. (Note: She has an existing landline and phone service). This means she must make trips to the local library in order to keep up with events at her child’s school. Ask any young single mother who lives in Vermont how easy it is to coordinate these journeys with a library that is open limited hours.

But that problem pales in comparison to the fact that our fire chief and another resident, who has a serious heart condition, were without landline service for over eight days.

The regulators’ mission is to address service problems in non-emergency settings. The person with the heart condition was asked to file paperwork which will be addressed in a few months’ time. What if the regulator was in the position of the local official who sees a citizen in fear for their life? That experience might prompt the state to be more bold and creative in its approach. That poor gentlemen went nearly two weeks without a phone. I wonder how the service response time at Fairpoint would be affected if the Attorney General called the CEO of Fairpoint and said, “If a Vermonter dies from Fairpoint’s inability to respond to a service request in a reasonable amount of time, a million dollar fine be assessed, in addition to possible criminal charges.” No doubt it would have a stronger impact that hollow threats from PSD and PSB.

This solution would seem absolutely absurd by current state regulators, but not if they put themselves in the shoes of a local official. A selectman is personally accountable to an individual citizen. This perspective is absent from state officials as exhibited by their policy choices. Those decisions would be different if they had to speak directly to the young mother, the fire chief or the sick resident.
Municipal officials, acting on behalf of besieged townspeople, want to know when we face off against a bully that the full force of ALL Vermont state government is behind them. We need to combine forces against the thuggish logger, the irresponsible landowner or the immoral corporation to fully serve our towns. Local officials can be your front line asset. The Vermont Constitution speaks to the fundamental role in government to safeguard citizens and their property from all forms of predators. Here is first part of Article 7:

That government is, or ought to be, instituted for the common benefit, protection, and security of the people, nation, or community, and not for the particular emolument or advantage of any single person, family, or set of persons …

Every member of Plainfield municipal government takes that responsibility seriously. Our frontline perspective is critical to gauging the views of Vermonters in need. Municipal governments are a catch-all for numerous problems, whereas state offices view Vermonters through the lens of their particular portfolio. The ramifications of the divergent POV wreak havoc on government’s ability to fulfill the duties of Article 7’s mandate. Bullies take advantage of the disconnect.

This letter urges you, as chief executive officer of the state, to bridge the divide and produce a more efficient responsive experience for average Vermonters who feel under siege.


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  • Bill Olenick

    These days it is best to keep as much as the government functions local as we only need to look at Washington to see that great central governance is dysfunctional.
    Keep it local including taxation.

  • Steven Farnham

    Well written, Bram. A member of the PSB is a Plainfield resident. I wonder if the Fairpoint situation would be handled differently if it was his phone service that was out for weeks…