MONTPELIER — Advocates for migrants, people of color and other marginalized groups say the state’s fair and impartial policing policy hasn’t gone far enough.
The Vermont House Judiciary Committee held a hearing at the State House on Thursday at which representatives from law enforcement, the Vermont attorney general’s office and other stakeholders testified.
Lt. Gary Scott, director of fair and impartial policing for the Vermont State Police, said State Police are actively recruiting outside the state in the hopes of diversifying their ranks. Scott said troopers also take part in implicit bias training as part of the police academy and after they graduate.
Scott said those looking to make a complaint about a trooper can send State Police a message on social media such as Twitter or Facebook, via email or at the State Police website. Depending on the complaint, he said, a note could be made on the trooper’s record or an internal investigation could be started.
State Police Maj. Ingrid Jonas was asked what State Police are doing to reduce the fear marginalized groups have when calling police to report an emergency. Jonas said for a vehicle stop, for example, troopers are emphasized to tell the driver immediately why they were pulled over instead of leaving the driver guessing.
For those who may be in the country illegally, she said, there are very few situations where it would ever be relevant to ask someone his or her citizenship status.
“I can’t see where that would ever be relevant,” Jonas said. “We actually don’t have any statistics around how many victims or witnesses of a crime we engage with, or even suspects of crime, in terms of their (citizenship) status.”
She said there have been times where someone gets arrested and in the process of identifying them their citizenship status does come up, but that’s not a motivating factor for police.
“We’re not in the role of enforcing federal immigration laws. That’s not our function,” she said.
Two migrant workers also testified at Thursday’s hearing.
José Luis Cordova Herrera works on a dairy farm and has been in Vermont for more than 2 years. Herrera, speaking through an interpreter, told the committee he came to the United States because he wanted to be able to provide for his children.
“I’m here because I believe Vermont police should not collaborate with immigration agents. I’ve had the unfortunate experience of having family members go through this. They were stopped by the Franklin County Sheriff’s Department in 2017. And the reason they were stopped was because of a problem with the license plate. If that were the case, an appropriate response would be to give them a ticket or warning and send them on their way,” he said.
Herrera said immigration officials were notified, but there was no reason for it. He said a video recording of the stop shows a sheriff’s deputy realizing the family is from Mexico and then contacting immigration authorities and forwarding the family’s information to them.
“Because of discrimination from the sheriff in this instance, my brother and nephew were detained for 6 months and then deported,” he said.
Another farm worker named Olga didn’t give her last name. She — also speaking through an interpreter — talked about how afraid she is to leave her home to go to the store. She said if she has to leave her young child at home and gets picked up by immigration authorities, she could be deported and her daughter wouldn’t know what happened. She said her daughter has asthma attacks late at night so she’s also afraid to call 911 when her daughter is having an attack because she doesn’t want to be deported.
“What we are asking for is to be treated equally, as anybody else,” she said.
Lia Ernst, a staff attorney with the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said Thursday’s testimony has shown the state has not done enough to protect the safety and security of its immigrant communities. Ernst said other states around the country have done much more, including Nevada where the Department of Motor Vehicles is prohibited from sharing any information regarding immigration status, citizenship or nationality. She said Washington, D.C., has a similar law.
“Unlike these states, Vermont has been dragging its feet,” she said.
Ernst said immigrants who witness or are the victim of a crime are more likely to come forward if they are not in fear or distrust law enforcement.
The policy was supposed to come with $40,000 that was to be used to hire a training coordinator to help train law enforcement on fair and impartial policing, but for reasons that weren’t disclosed, the money wasn’t allocated. Officials said Thursday that money will be allocated this year.
After saying it could take 3 years to test the drinking water at every school in Vermont for lead, the Department of Health now says it will finish testing by the end of the year.
Gov. Phil Scott this week asked the Legislature for $1.3 million for the testing. Department of Health Commissioner Mark Levine said the state would work with outside laboratories and consider hiring extra staff members to make sure the tests are completed before the end of the year.
“We envision this program including all of the schools in Vermont,” Levine said. “Everyone has an equal opportunity to have lead-free drinking water within a time frame that is reasonable.”
Levine testified Wednesday before the Senate Education Committee where lawmakers considered a bill establishing guidelines for the testing program.
Last year the health department tested the water at 16 schools as part of a pilot study and found traces of lead in every school.
At five of those schools, there was enough lead in the water to require immediate action.
“We were all alarmed by the results,” said State Sen. Phil Baruth, chairman of the Education Committee. “Lead is a highly toxic metal, especially for kids, and this is the highest priority for this committee.”
The $1.3 million the administration is seeking should cover the first round of testing, but it was not clear at the hearing if that money would cover follow-up testing after remediation efforts are complete.
The committee is also considering having the state test water at licensed child care centers, which could be costly, and lowering the threshold for deeming water contaminated.
The Department of Health has set a level of 15 parts per billion, which is the level recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency.
But the American Academy of Pediatrics has set the level at one part per billion, and Baruth said the committee will likely settle on a compromise threshold.
“We should have scientific-based standards in the law,” Baruth said. “Everyone agrees that 15 parts per billion is ludicrous.””
Lowering the threshold would have wide-ranging impacts, forcing more schools to take on expensive projects to remove pipes leaching lead into the water.
Baruth said the state will also need to find funding to help schools with that work.
POULTNEY — After Wednesday’s announcement that Green Mountain College will not reopen this fall, Poultney residents and local officials said they’re not sure what this would mean for them, but the struggling town certainly didn’t need another economic blow.
“I can’t project the future,” said Town Manager Paul Donaldson. “The state of Vermont is trying to make urban centers a thing now. There’s no urban centers: You’ve got Chittenden County, and now a few in Rutland ... but how do you get help anywhere in rural Vermont?”
Donaldson said people in town wanted to see more industry and manufacturing in town, but there didn’t seem to be many outlets for that in Rutland County.
“This town used to have multiple car dealerships and multiple five-and-dime stores,” Donaldson said. “Things change.”
Down the street at Perry’s Main Street Eatery, a popular breakfast spot for many GMC students, owner and chef Donna Perry said 30 to 40 percent of her business comes from the college staff, students and faculty.
“It’s going to hurt lots of businesses, that’s for sure,” Perry said. “It’s sad to see. But what can you do?”
For late-night appetites, Poultney House of Pizza was a dining destination for many students craving everything from their popular pies to mozzarella sticks, especially during exam season.
“This is like their comfort food,” said Kosta Nanopoulos, who manages his father’s shop. “For some of the businesses in town, it’s going to be rough for sure.”
Tot’s diner was recently converted into Taco Experiment by local entrepreneur Adam Lindberg who said he heard about the possible closing of the college months ago, and decided he would open the shop anyway.
“I don’t know how substantial a blow that’s going to be,” Lindberg said. “I think that putting in more places like this might be the answer, to some degree.”
Lindberg said he believed in the resilience of the community enough to know his restaurant could still succeed, even without the over 400 hungry students living at the end of his street.
‘The one hinge-pin was not Green Mountain College closing,” Lindberg said. “I still think that if people like tacos and tequila, they’ll drive 8 or 9 or 10 miles to come visit.”
If they weren’t shopping at the Stone Valley Coop, students, staff and faculty went to Shaw’s, where manager and bookkeeper Kelsey Beebe said she’s bracing for a hard hit in their absence.
“A lot of our business comes from the college,” Beebe said. “They come in here during the summer time for their summer program when the language kids come ... now it’s going to hurt us.”
Beebe said the harder hit would be to the town overall, and Shaw’s by default, because in a town with less than 4,000 people, GMC’s 470 students made a difference.
“There’s not going to be anything in the town left,” Beebe said. “We used to have a whole bunch of kids who worked here, now we’re getting one or two maybe. They can’t afford to live on campus — it’s too expensive ... unless they bring our bank back and our pharmacy back, there’s no hope for this town.”
“They need to start rebuilding,” said Deb Fowler, manager at the Full Belly Deli and liquor store on Main Street. “It’s going to be a sad place. Nobody is going to come (to Poultney.)”
Fowler said she gets at least one food order a day when the students are around, and when the students leave, they’ll leave a gaping hole in the community.
“When they’re gone for their month, when they’re off on winter break, that’s the way it will feel all the time,” Fowler said. “Unless they get something else in there, it’s really going to hurt the whole town. Even our properties are going down in value. You’re not going to have anybody in this town. The college kids spend so much money — I think we’re in for a rude awakening come fall.”
Anyone who visits Poultney can’t miss the darkened storefronts: the Stone Valley Coop is closed, Priscilla’s Sweet Shoppe has left, the Citizen’s Bank building stands vacant, Drake’s Pharmacy on the corner of Main Street is gone, and where The Station restaurant, which later became the Local-Motive student-run café for Li-High school is no longer in operation.
“It’s happening all over with small businesses,” said Marty VanBuren, owner of Mart’s Sporting Goods on Main Street. “Is it just going to sit there until it collapses? Then who’s going to take care of it?”
VanBuren said the economic hardship felt statewide is largely due to the disparity caused by votes in the Legislature that only concern the needs of Chittenden County, leaving working-class communities to fend for themselves.
“Their views are a lot different than us,” VanBuren said. “What they want and what they want to spend. Look at all the new bills coming up in the Senate and the House up there, and how they’re doing things to local people. Cut a horse in the mouth. ... What are they going to replace this with? Another school? Who’s going to buy it? Give it to them.”
“Population decline is really the story of rural communities,” said Tyler Richardson, executive director at the Rutland Economic Development Corp. “This is not a Rutland county problem — this is a rural community problem.”
Richardson said he believed Poultney to be a community strong enough to overcome the loss of the college, and was looking forward to talking about marketing regional assets that would boost Poultney’s economy.
“There’s a real thirst for a sense of community that we all experience everyday by living here,” Richardson said. “There’s real opportunity out there.”
“Poultney’s identity is GMC,“ said resident Pamela Burlingame, whose husband Josh is a local carpenter and a GMC alumus, class of 2000. “This needs to be a place where residents need to be and others want to visit. ... I don’t want Poultney to just be a bedroom community.”
Burlingame said she doubted that local residents understood how linked the town has been to the fate of GMC, and she worried about the social fabric of the town deteriorating in its absence.
“Friends of mine who are GMC faculty members are also serving in community service positions like the school board or as President of the Historical Society,” Burlingame said. “If they can’t find meaningful new employment in the area, that’s a big loss that ripples in all sorts of ways.”
“It’s really, really sad,” said Albany native Heidi Quattrocchi, junior at Green Mountain College. “I knew they were going to do something. I didn’t think they were just going to close.”
Quattrocchi said the college suggested transferring to Prescott College in Prescott, Arizona, but a lot of students couldn’t financially afford to make such a drastic change.
“Sadness has overtaken anger at this point,” Quattrocchi said. “I know that if I don’t continue on with education, I won’t have to pay any loans, so that might be an option right now. This place honestly changed my life — it’s a great community, and a great place to be.”
Reporter Kate Barcellos is a graduate of Green Mountain College.
“It’s a fog with no end in sight. People are just going home and nesting, trying to conserve resources.”
Michael Northern, restaurant executive in the Huntsville, Alabama area near an Army base that’s home to 70 federal agencies, about how the continuing government shutdown affects his business. — A7
Gordon Dritschilo talks with Public Works Commissioner, Jeff Wennberg about the lesser traveled but perhaps not as well plowed Rutland roads. A2
It’s midterms on this week’s episode of The Inside Pitch. Tom Haley and Bob Fredette have graded all the boys basketball teams in Rutland County. Look for it at bit.ly/0122InsidePitch