A Blizzard and Biscotti: Easter Day, 2015

11134000_10153233734537276_3462173835281411901_nEssex County, Vermont.  The snow started early yesterday afternoon, but didn’t seem particularly ominous or impressive.  On the contrary, it appeared light and probably fleeting.  But it continued steadily through the day and the wee hours, and this morning, we woke up to a hard snow, which by 7:30am had turned into a blizzard. Yes, a true blizzard, with howling winds and near white-out conditions.  I suspect most easter egg hunts in these parts had been moved indoors.

I dutifully started and stocked our wood stove and then headed out for a newspaper and some baking items.

By about 11am, the wind died down, the snow stopped, and the sun came blazing out.  The temperatures are still pretty cold, but the morning blizzard, as fierce as it was for April, is gone.

I’ve kept the fire going, however, and today’s baking project was coconut-almond biscotti.  I have a little recipe book devoted exclusively to biscotti.  On this occasion, I used a recipe from that book, but decided to ad lib in some sliced almonds. The spontaneous addition worked well!   Biscotti is a great (and healthy) snack for late winter.  We’ve been munching on it all day as we read the New York Times and play with the dogs.

When will winter begone?

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Doug Willey: Public Defender of the NEK

127481-0This week, to my great sadness, Doug Willey passed away.

At the time of his death, Mr. Willey was the chief public defender in the three counties of the Northeast Kingdom,  the region where I also practice law.  He was a tireless advocate for the most unpopular among us, those accused of crimes large and small.  He carried out his job with passion and conviction, but also with a healthy dose of realism. His sense of justice was profound and over the years, he and his right-hand investigator Chip Troiano have touched thousands of lives and played their role in forcing the State to prove its cases against the accused beyond a reasonable doubt, as all good criminal defense attorneys do.

He knew the ins and outs and complexities of the courts, corrections systems and  prosecutors, and  that knowledge was voluminous and sophisticated.  He was generous with his knowledge, sharing his information and experience with newer lawyers like me, and in any encounter with Doug, I could always count on a useful–and usually hilarious–insight.

I admired Doug for all these reasons, but there was more to it than that: I’ve always felt a special kinship with him, because he’d taken an unconventional path to the practice of law, similar to my own.  Like me, he never went to formal law school, instead reading, or apprenticing for the law under the Vermont’s Law Office Study program.

After serving in the Marine Corps, Doug made his living as a logger, woodsman and accomplished horseman, operating out of a cabin in Walden, Vermont.  He then made the leap to working as an assistant at one local firm, and then ultimately landed at Sleigh & Williams in St. Johnsbury, the same firm where about 15 years later, I would also do my Vermont law study clerkship.

By the time I got to my clerkship, Doug had already taken the bar exam, been admitted to practice, and moved on to manage the public defender system for the entire region.  In a geographically isolated area marked by high rates of poverty, joblessness, and substance abuse,  the public defender caseload is high and the challenges are many.  Doug handled it all with a dry wit and a steady temperament and he never sought publicity or the limelight for himself.    But in the courtroom and with prosecutors he pulled no punches.  He was the very first criminal defense attorney I saw in action out here in Essex County, as he  aggressively tried cases or negotiated fair plea deals as needed with our local State’s Attorney.

Most people remember seeing Doug in the Caledonia County Courthouse in St Johnsbury.  But for years, he was also a regular presence at our Essex County Court in Guildhall, often standing on the court house steps facing the Town Green, deep in conversation with clients or smoking a cigarette as he waited for a jury verdict or his turn in front of the judge.

I’ll never forget an encounter with Doug a few weeks after I’d passed the Vermont bar exam in the fall of 2011.   He stood in his usual spot on the courthouse steps as I walked by.  Outside the courtroom, Doug wasn’t one to talk much, but on this occasion, he waved and called out to me:  “I heard you passed that g__dd___m exam.”  When I confirmed I had, he asked “on the first try?”  and when I nodded happily, he said “smart girl,” stubbed out his cigarette and went inside.

Rest in peace, Doug.

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More from Town Meeting: Saga of the Salt Shed

Salt Shed, Collapsed Feb 2015.

Salt Shed, Collapsed Feb 2015.

In our town, population 263, we don’t have much municipal infrastructure.  There’s a Town Office and that’s about it.

Oh, except for the salt shed.  Here in Guildhall, we don’t have our own road crew and we own no equipment or vehicles. Given our size, it makes more sense for the Town to outsource plowing and road maintenance to private contractors.

Back in 2007, however, the Town decided to appropriate money to build a structure for the storage and protection of the large amount of salt we use on our Class 2 and 3 roads.   The salt shed, as it’s called, has a long and somewhat stormy (and sometimes amusing) history.  Citizens voted to create a reserve fund for it in 2007, but the project languished until 2011,  when the Road Commissioner Barbara Peaslee Smith lobbied hard to have the salt shed built on the Peaslee Farm.  She and her husband Matt Smith were managing and overseeing the farm’s operations at the time.

That proposal was controversial, to say the least.  Many of us felt it was unwise to intermingle municipal and private property in this way.  Others were concerned about the appearance of a conflict of interest, given that the Road Commissioner was pushing the Town Selectboard to place a facility at the farm she managed, and therefore would stand to gain rental/lease money from the Town.   At a straw vote taken of the assembled opinion, a majority of those present were opposed to the idea of it being at the farm.  But the Selectboard voted to put it there anyway.

After Ms. Peaslee-Smith and her husband exited the farm and moved to Lancaster, the new manager and the owner Janice Peaslee came up with an idea that seemed to make sense.  In 2013, they proposed to sell the land where the salt shed sat to the Town, at a discounted rate.  That way, taxpayers wouldn’t have to expend money to move the damn thing, and it would be a town building sitting on town land.    But for reasons that are not altogether clear, the Selectboard decided to reject the Peaslee offer and dismantle and reassemble the shed on a small parcel of Town-owned land near Elvina Allen’s house.  This past winter was the first winter at the new location.

According to the budget presented in this year’s Town Report, the cost of moving the structure to the new site was over $31,000.

Flash forward to last month, when the Town Clerk Sam called to let me know that the roof of the salt shed had collapsed.  Even worse, I later learned, there would be no insurance money to cover repairs, because the Selectboard had specifically declined to insure the structure.

I didn’t get a good look at the salt shed until last week.  Until then, I had assumed it was just a minor dent.  As you can see, the damage is  more serious than that.

At last week’s Town Meeting, the problem of the salt shed was a major topic of discussion.  It looks like we’ll probably have to shell out $60,000 or more to put it back up again properly.   There’s no insurance money, and there’s no line item in the budget for it, so where the money is going to come from is anybody’s guess.

(By my calculations, this salt shed will have  cost us a pretty penny when all is said and done:  $25K from the initial reserve fund, $31K to move it, and if the estimate presented at Town Mtg was accurate, $60K to replace/repair it.   That means approximately $116,000.  Was it worth it for saving a bit of salt runoff?)

 

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George Blakeslee Elected as Town Clerk and Treasurer

George Blakeslee, new Town Auditor, moments after his victory

George Blakeslee, new Town Auditor, moments after his victory

Our beloved George Blakeslee has been elected to the positions of Town Clerk and Town Treasurer here in Guildhall.  George is already well-known to townspeople, because he’s our Town Moderator, Lister, and Auditor. He also sits on the town’s website editorial board and acts as the computer/IT go-to person at the Town Offices.

A few days after his election last week, George came by my office in Guildhall to swear me in as his Assistant Treasurer and sign me again to the municipal and school district accounts.  (I was also the assistant treasurer for the previous Town Clerk and Treasurer).

We chatted and reminisced about our mutual history and experience in town politics, and I recalled meeting George for the first time when he ran for and was elected Town Auditor in 2010.  At the time, I was the Town and School District Treasurer–and as any Treasurer knows, detail-oriented and conscientious auditors like George are an incredible boon to our jobs.  I’ve had many occasions to work with Mr. Blakeslee since then and have always been impressed.  He’s competent, organized and multi-skilled.  We’re lucky to have him!

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Gary Brown Joins Guildhall Selectboard

11020329_10206102569791370_433299411_n(This blog post is the first in a series covering issues and results of Town Meeting day here in Guildhall, Vermont)

There was only one contested race for town officials this year, for an open seat on our town’s Selectboard.   Voters chose between two names on the ballot,  Gary Brown and Tom Rogers, Sr.  Mr. Brown defeated Mr. Rogers handily and this was welcome news to me, since I had voted for and otherwise supported him.

Gary is one of my neighbors here in the village.  He doesn’t say a lot, but when he does, it counts for something. Most of us think of him as gentle and soft spoken,  but  beneath that demeanor is a person of character, conviction and when necessary, steely resolve.

The man  has an extremely strong sense of fair play and justice.  I’ll never forget a time, three years ago, when Gary stood up tall among the crowd at a meeting of the Guildhall School Board.  An unexpected  hush came over the room, because Gary wasn’t known for speaking up.  The fact that he stood to address the Board at all spoke  volumes in itself.  When he did speak, he demanded, respectfully, but passionately that School Board member Matt Smith resign.  A large crowd had come to the School Board meeting that night because we were troubled by Smith’s conduct on the board.    Many were outraged, but not everyone had the moxie to speak up.   Gary was one of them.
I was proud of him that night and I have come to know and appreciate him in countless other ways.  He quietly makes a difference in our town, mowing town property, doing snow removal, acting as the muncipal building and elementary school janitor,  maintaining our beloved historic cemeteries and serving on our town water commission, doing his part to make sure the system functions properly.  He’s a great person and I’m thrilled that we’ve elected him to the Selectboard.  Congratulations, Gary!

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Early Morning at the Essex County Courthouse, Guildhall, Vermont

Allen Hodgdon, Valerie Foy, Calvin Colby, Essex County Courthouse, Guildhall, Vt

Allen Hodgdon, Valerie Foy, Calvin Colby, Essex County Courthouse, Guildhall, Vt

Here are Allan Hodgdon and Calvin Colby, newly elected Essex County assistant judges, taking their oaths of office at 8:15 am on Monday, February 2.  The oath is administered by Valerie Foy,  court security officer.

(Valerie is also my next door neighbor, librarian at the public library, and the delinquent tax collector here in Guildhall.)

Allen Hodgdon is the Town’s unofficial architectural historian.  He also serves as  the probate judge, presiding up in Island Pond.  He used to run the Guildhall General Store, where you could get a great sandwich, cup of soup, cinnamon bun or piece of apple pie.  Calvin Colby lives in neighboring Lunenburg, Vermont.  Both were born and have lived almost their entire lives in Essex County.

In Vermont, assistant judges are elected.  They administer the county court systems, as well as sit on the bench on either side of the presiding judge in civil matters.  They have the power to influence factual findings, although conclusions of law are reserved for judges  trained as lawyers.   Some assistant judges, if they complete certain training requirements, can preside on their own in traffic court and undisputed divorce cases.   The role of assistant judges in Vermont remains controversial:  some argue that the positions should be eliminated and that all judges of any stripe should be lawyers.  Others believe that the assistant or “side” judges are critical to the local administration of justice, because they are uniquely attuned to their communities and can provide much-needed perspective to the presiding judge, who typically rotates out of the county after just one, or at the most, two years.

Despite ongoing disagreement about the role of assistant judges, I suspect they will be around, at least state-wide,  for the foreseeable future.  What I’m not so sure about is whether our court here in remote Essex County will survive at all.

Yesterday’s Burlington Free Press featured an article about how the citizens of Grand Isle County (on the other side of Vermont) are battling to retain their county court system.   The Vermont Legislature once again seeks to slash the State budget, and it looks like that may involve another attempt to close down courthouses in counties such as Grand Isle and Essex, the most remote and least populous (and poorest) regions of Vermont.

We’ve been down this road before.  In 2010, the Legislature passed a massive judicial restructuring bill.  In the course of debate over that bill,  Montpelier came quite close to shutting down our county court system entirely. In the end, a formal alliance between the Essex County Democrats and Republicans (who usually agree on nothing)  prevented that from happening.  The Court remained open, although all criminal proceedings were moved to neighboring Caledonia County.  (Defendants and witnesses had to travel over to St Johnsbury).  Then in May of 2014, the criminal docket moved back to us, largely due to the efforts of our local sheriff.    Now, it’s anyone’s guess what will happen.

But in the meantime, the Honorable Allen Hodgdon and Calvin Colby got sworn in.

 

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“Tapping Love,” a poem by Alfred McVetty, Guildhall, Vermont.

My friends Alfred and Susan McVetty live up in the hills of Guildhall, off the grid.   Here is a poem that Alfred wrote recently.  It is reprinted here with his permission.

TAPPING LOVE

I’m sorry that I am going to hurt you again
But it is almost that time
I’ve done it before and will again
You have always been sweet to me
And working together we have made things even sweeter
I will make it less hurtful this time
By using a smaller spout and bit

Alfred McVetty
January 2015

Alfred McVetty, staffing the election polls in Guildhall.

Alfred McVetty, staffing the election polls in Guildhall.

 

 

Every spring, Alfred and Susan, along with various family members and friends, tap the maple trees on their property on Stone Mountain.  (Maple sugaring is just one of the McVettys’ many skills and endeavors).

When I asked what  inspired the poem, he told me that this year, in anticipation of maple sugaring time, he and Susan had made a big change.  They decided to replace all their maple sugaring spiles (also known as spouts).  They’ve been using 7/16″ metal spiles until now.  But the new ones they’ve purchased are all plastic and 5/16″.

Alfred got to thinking about the trees on his property and how the 7/16″ spiles can do a lot of damage to trees. Damage is even more likely if you’ve got lots of family and friends helping with the taps, because not all of those helpers will necessarily have the skills to drive the 7/16″ spiles into the tree properly and gently.  He told me how the new 5/16″ spiles, when driven in, will make a tap, tap, tap, and then a thunk.  The thunk is a reliable indication that you’ve driven the spile in just far enough, and no more.

Maple Sugar Spile with hook from LaPierre's, of Vermont.

Maple Sugar Spile with hook from LaPierre’s, of Vermont.

He bought all new spiles because he wants to be gentler on the trees–in short, to be a good steward of the forest.

And that is what moved him to write the poem.  I love Alfred.   I love how in his world, practical matters intersect so gracefully with poetry.

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