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ACLU and NAACP call for police oversight

The Vermont branch of the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont are calling for a “broader inquiry” into Bennington officials, after Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan told reporters last week that the Bennington Police Department failed to disclose relevant information during an investigation of threats and harassment against Kiah Morris and her family.

Donovan said he had spoken with Bennington Town Manager Stuart Hurd on Monday.

“It’s my opinion that an outside law-enforcement expert is needed to review Bennington Police Department’s policies and procedures to ensure that best practices in policing are being followed. This action step will promote and maintain the public trust in the Bennington Police Department. I urge the town of Bennington to do this,” he said Monday.

Asked if his office could order that review, Donovan said, “I think I’m going to wait to hear back from the town of Bennington.”

He said he had not suggested a time frame to Hurd, but said he believed “the sooner, the better.”

Tabitha Pohl-Moore, Vermont director of the NAACP and president of the Rutland-area branch, said she hoped there would be a requirement that Bennington allow an oversight investigation.

“Kiah knew, and we knew all along that Mr. Misch and potentially associates were potentially dangerous to her, that they were already doing something that would not be tolerated if Kiah Morris had been a white woman. We know that for sure. The reason that we’re calling for accountability is because to this point, there has been none,” she said.

Morris is not quoted in the release, but Pohl-Moore said Morris was in support of the NAACP and ACLU’s call for oversight of the Bennington police and the town’s justice system.

Pohl-Moore said she believed police in Bennington didn’t take the threats seriously and hid information.

“Things that could potentially put Ms. Morris in further danger, people are going to ask, ‘Well, Attorney General Donovan, would your findings have been different if you had this information prior?’” she said.

Morris was the second black woman elected to serve in the Vermont House of Representatives. Last year, she ended her campaign for re-election because of ongoing harassment.

Bennington resident Max B. Misch, 36, who described himself as a “troll” who thought it was fun to send Morris racially-hateful messages, was arraigned last week in Bennington criminal court on two misdemeanor counts for allegedly possessing large-capacity magazines in violation of a Vermont gun law passed last year.

Misch bought the magazines in New Hampshire, where the sale would not be illegal, and allegedly brought them back to Vermont. Police said they were found in his home when a search warrant was executed last week.

Hurd released a statement on the town’s behalf.

“The town of Bennington and its police department remain steadfast in our commitment to the pursuit of racial justice and fair treatment under the law in all aspects of our service to the community,” he said by email.

Hurd said the Bennington Police Department cooperated fully in Donovan’s investigation and turned over all requested information concerning the complaints from Morris and her husband, James Lawton.

The Bennington police “worked closely” with the Vermont State Police in its weapons-related investigation of Misch, he said.

“The apparent misunderstanding relates to information that was contained in a statewide database equally accessible to the Vermont State Police when it took over the investigation, and to the Attorney General through the state police,” the statement said.

Speaking to reporters after Misch’s arraignment last week, Donovan said the Bennington police knew Misch had bought large-capacity magazines in October. He said his office should have been told about that purchase.

The charges brought against Misch were based on magazines purchased in December.

The press release from the NAACP and ACLU accuses law-enforcement in Bennington of being a system of “dysfunction” when it comes to racial justice issues.

James Lyall, executive director of the ACLU, said it was concerning to hear the Bennington police may not have provided all the information to Donovan’s office.

“It’s especially bad in this context of concerns that the Bennington PD didn’t respond appropriately to the threats that Kiah Morris and her family were facing, which (Donovan) referred to as a ‘breakdown’ in Bennington. The context also includes a broader track record of racial bias and discrimination not just in the Bennington PD but in the criminal justice system in Bennington,” he said.

Lyall said the ACLU of Vermont has a pending racial profiling lawsuit against Bennington police, based in part on police stop data showing Bennington PD has some of the worst racial disparities in the state.

“Nonetheless, Chief (Paul) Doucette has repeatedly denied that bias exists in his department,” the release said.

Members of the NAACP and staff at the ACLU called for non-specified “state officials” to look into the Morris case, including whether any other relevant information or evidence was improperly withheld and by whom.

The statement criticized Donovan, saying his “conclusions and public statements in this case have focused on the conduct of private citizens, ignoring the actions and inactions of Bennington officials.”

patrick.mcardle

@rutlandherald.com


rlayman / Robert Layman / Staff Photo  

Firing Away

Steve Halford, of Wallingford, fires his 1620s-style muzzleloader rifle at a target during the 15th annual Southern Vermont Primitive Biathlon in Manchester on Saturday. See more photos in this week’s People and Places on page B8.


Local
State House to host 2nd annual cannabis conference

MONTPELIER — The second annual Cannabis in the Capitol conference will be held at the State House on Wednesday.

Presented by Heady Vermont and Greenbridge Consulting, the conference centers around cannabis, hemp and medicinal marijuana advocacy and education. Lawmakers will be on hand to share feedback about ongoing legislation, and vendors will display their products at a free exhibition.

There has been a renewed flurry of activity to pass legislation in the State House for a taxed and regulated cannabis market in Vermont after efforts stalled last session. Two new bills in the Senate and House propose differing versions of a regulated market. Last month’s Senate bill, S.54, calls for a 10-percent tax on cannabis sales, plus a 1-percent local options tax, with sales expected to begin in the spring of 2021. Last week in the House, Rep. Sam Young, D-Orleans-Caledonia, submitted H.196, which proposes allowing existing medical marijuana dispensaries to pay a $75,000 fee to sell cannabis to the general public at the beginning of next year.

Young said it would generate funds to create a Cannabis Control Board that would oversee a regulated market. Young’s bill calls for an 11-percent excise tax, plus Vermont’s 6-percent sales tax and a 3-percent local options tax — totaling 20 percent — to benefit cities and towns hosting cannabis businesses.

But both bills face hurdles because of concerns by Gov. Phil Scott and House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-Grand Isle-Chittenden, that there should be funding for youth and adult prevention education programs and a roadside saliva test for driver impairment. Critics of the saliva test say it does not reveal impairment, only the presence of cannabis in the body.

Proponents of legalization say that last year’s legislation allowing an adult 21 years or older to possess a limited amount of cannabis does not discourage the black market, which poses risks to buyers of unregulated, unsafe cannabis products.

There is also concern about an announcement by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration stating that products containing CBD, the non-psychoactive cannabidiol ingredient in hemp that is believed to have health benefits, cannot be sold as dietary supplements. State regulators in New York and Maine recently announced they were pulling CBD edible products from shelves.

Vermont Agency of Agriculture officials said they would work to allow hemp-derived products to continue to be sold in Vermont. The officials have also written to the FDA, asking it to allow Vermont hemp products to be sold in other states to support the burgeoning market for Vermont producers.

Eli Harrington, co-founder and COO of Heady Vermont, said the cannabis conference would be a chance for legislators, Vermonters and industry stakeholders to discuss the future of cannabis and hemp products in Vermont.

“For us, we’ve got about 30 total exhibitors, who in the evening are going to have open house so people can walk around and learn directly and actually touch, see, feel and probably smell the plants and products involved,” Harrington said. “It’s a chance for the cannabis community to come together and advocate for themselves. It’s really about education; that is the major motivation. We think it’s a good idea to bring people to the State House and do it directly.”

Wednesday’s cannabis conference program begins in the cafeteria on the third floor of the State House at 10 a.m. with a legislative update and advocacy of best practices in the industry.

At 11 a.m., in rooms 14 and 16 on the first floor of the State House, there will be a chance to meet with Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, who is a strong proponent of a legalized cannabis market.

From 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., participants are invited to have lunch with representatives and share advocacy stories.

At 12:40 p.m., in the Cedar Creek Room, there will be a press conference with cannabis reform advocates and allies.

At 1 p.m., there will an observance in the House chamber, followed at 1:30 p.m. with a guided tour of the State House, starting in the main lobby.

At 3 p.m., exhibitors will begin setting up tables and booths in the cafeteria for the Vermont Cannabis Exposition which runs from 4 to 7 p.m. and is open to representatives and the public.

To learn more about the conference, visit Heady Vermont at www.headyvermont.com.

stephen.mills

@timesargus.com


Local
A patient hand holds the leash at Rutland County Humane Society

PITTSFORD — Beth Saradarian came to Vermont from New Jersey 15 years ago looking for something different. At the Rutland County Humane Society, she found it.

“I did everything from sales, marketing, project management, online service data collection, sales reports. I was able to bounce around so I learned a lot,” she said Monday while comforting another newcomer to these parts, Sasha Marie, a 5-year-old Collie-Shepherd mix from the southern United States.

Saradarian began her time at the humane society as a shelter assistant, caring directly for the dogs, cats, guinea pigs, birds and other critters up for adoption. It was announced Monday by Craig Arsenault, president of the humane society’s Board of Directors, that Saradarian is the shelter’s new executive director.

Saradarian was the group’s assistant director prior to November, when Dr. Kevin Rushing stepped down after serving as executive director for about a year. Saradarian, having worked or helped in nearly every role in the organization, stepped in as interim executive director while the board conducted the search for a new one. Arsenault said Monday that the position didn’t get a chance to be advertised before the board turned to Saradarian.

“We are fortunate to have someone like Beth around in-house,” said Arsenault.

Since this will be the shelter’s 60th year in operation come April, he said it’s good to have an executive director in place who’s familiar with the organization.

“I had no idea, really, what the board was thinking, but since I’ve been here for a while, I was happy to pitch in and help,” said Saradarian. “I know so much, it was an easier way for us to bridge that gap.”

Her new role will have her doing more work with fundraising; seeking out supporters, writing grants and other such avenues, she said.

“We want to become more automated,” she said of where she’d like to take the shelter. “We’re still pretty paper-based, and I think there’s an opportunity for us to take advantage of lots of web-based programs that will help us be a little more automated.”

Saradarian said she also wants to expand the humane society’s social media presence and leverage it for fundraising.

The shelter sees between 1,300 and 1,400 animals per year, according to Saradarian. About 75 percent of those animals are cats and kittens. The rest are mostly dogs and puppies, but the shelter takes in other pets as well.

“When I got here, we had enough local dogs, but I think because we do such a good job in the northeast of spaying and neutering, there’s a lot less dogs and puppies looking for homes, and there are people looking for dogs and puppies,” she said.

In recent years, she said, the shelter has had enough room to take dogs from other facilities and see them adopted fairly quickly. However, there’s no shortage of local felines.

“That’s one of our challenges, I think, is continuing to help spay and neuter the cats in Rutland County,” Saradarian said.

She said the spay and neuter programs work. From what she’s been able to glean from old records, the number of animals the shelter has been seeing in a year has been dropping.

Saradarian said she learned most of what she knows about animals while on the job, though she’d been a pet owner all her life and had volunteered at shelters before.

“Patience and going slow” are keys to working with an animal, she said. “I had a dog I adopted from here, she didn’t leave the kitchen for two weeks. You just have to give them the time they need, because you think about where they’ve been there’s been so much transition and upheaval in their life; just be patient with them.”

keith.whitcomb

@rutlandherald.com


Local
Visually impaired skiers
Blind skiers find their way down Pico

It was Audrey Lester’s second time skiing.

“I thought it was going to be much easier,” the 34-year-old from Washington D.C. said as she stood in line Saturday for the lift up Pico’s bunny slope. “It’s an unnatural position to be in, to lean forward into your skis.”

Lester was one of 35 people at Pico Saturday for an event organized by Vermont Adaptive Ski and Sports for skiers with visual impairments.

“I am challenging my body to do something new,” she said. “I have not fallen today. Last week, I fell three times. I’m making significant progress.”

Kim Jackson, Vermont Adaptive’s communications director, said the group was a mixture of newcomers and veteran skiers.

“If you’re passionate about sports, regardless of your ability, you should be able to do them,” Jackson said. “Learning to do something is empowering. ... The cool thing about sports is that you’re doing it with friends. You’re all on the same playing field. You’ve got people who are guiding you, helping you, but everyone’s having fun. ... I think everybody needs to have those goals and those experiences. That’s what life’s about.”

Jackson said each participant skis with a group of four to five instructors — a lead instructor, and assistant and two or three “shadows.”

“They’re kind of blocking and making a cocoon around the skiers,” she said.

Mika Pyyhkala, 47, of Boston, said he had been skiing on and off since elementary school.

“Last year was the first time I came to Vermont Adaptive,” he said. “It sells out a lot. You’ve got to get you’re name in early to get in.”

He said he loves the energy of the group and the skill of the guides.

“It’s good outdoor activity and exercise,” he said. “The thrill of skiing and the camaraderie ... You get a lot of stories. People come from all over the country.”

They also come from close by.

Mac Janney, 44, of Rutland, who has narrow tunnel vision in his left eye and none in his right, said he has been skiing since 14. He said visually impaired skiers have differing preferences on how they are guided down the mountain. His particular preferences involves directions being called out with a cadence — “and left” — that gives him just enough lead time to prepare for a turn.

“I’d say I’m a good intermediate skier,” he said. “If someone calls out when I’m centered in the trail, that’s all I need. I can go back and forth. If there are obstacles in the way, they can guide me with call turns.”

Janney said skiing gives him a sense of independence.

“I love being outdoors,” he said. “Sitting inside doesn’t give me any satisfaction. Going and and doing stuff gives you a better sense of what’s around you. Someone with a disability, if you’re able to ski, you’re able to do anything. Having the wind ripping in my face, knowing I’ve worked so hard for it — it’s fun.”

gordon.dritschilo

@rutlandherald.com