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Photo by Jon Olender  

Pulling his weight

Rutland City firefighter Jonah Farrow works out Tuesday afternoon at the fire station “tire flipping” with an old 16-ply truck tire.


Local
Board of Aldermen
Gorruso, Johnston and Reveal stake out positions

This is the second of three stories on the race for the Rutland City Board of Aldermen, in which nine candidates are competing for five seats. Candidates are being profiled three at a time, in alphabetical order.

Sam Gorruso says the Board of Aldermen could use him again.

“I still remember most of the charter and ordinances,” the former alderman said. “I expect to hit the ground running.”

Gorruso, 62, who runs Sam’s Good News, was on the board from 1992 to 1998.

“I’m one who doesn’t think the city’s moving in the right direction,” he said. “I was on the board in the ’90s and we got a lot of stuff moving, a lot of good stuff going on. I thought I’d throw my expertise in.”

Gorruso said he has been unhappy with some of the press the city has gotten, particularly national coverage regarding the drug problem.

“That one still haunts me when I’m on the phone with out-of-state people,” he said.

Gorruso also said he questions the direction of the current discussion around economic development.

“Some of our other political candidates say we need to bring in people,” he said. “You’re not going to bring in people if you don’t have jobs.”

While organizations like the Rutland Region Chamber of Commerce have repeatedly reported that local companies are having trouble finding people to fill available jobs, Gorruso questioned how desirable those jobs were. He compared the current employment landscape to the manufacturing jobs that were available in the 1990s, and said he would like to see those jobs return. He said he wasn’t sure how to bring them back.

“Sales usually begins with contact,” he said. “Are we contacting organizations? Are we asking the question, would you like to move to this area?”

Gorruso said he was unfamiliar with the work of the regional marketing campaign.

“I don’t know what they’re doing,” he said. “I was surprised to hear of them. I didn’t know they existed.”

Kam Johnston, 57, has made numerous unsuccessful bids for Board of Alderman — and mayor and city assessor — but won a School Board seat in 2017. He is seeking re-election to the School Board while again trying to become an alderman.

Should he win both seats, Johnston would have to give one up. He said that if it comes to that, he would request a waiver from the two boards allowing him to hold both.

“They can suspend the rules,” he said. “They can do anything they want to. Everybody talks about making sure the Board (of Aldermen) and the School Board are better connected. We are one community.”

Johnston said serving on the School Board has altered his perspective on the Board of Aldermen.

“I’ve mellowed,” he said. “I’m not going to put out any grandiose claims. I want people to know I’m capable of making decisions that are well-grounded in evidence.”

Johnston said he is concerned with pedestrian safety, and would prefer if the proposed paving bond was weighted more heavily toward sidewalks. He advocated for the creation of an “inspector general” position for the city — a position mirroring one in his School Board campaign — but said he recognizes there might not be an appetite for creating a new position in the current budget climate.

Johnston also said he was not taking any campaign contributions, relying on “free media” to connect with voters.

“I would just ask people to consider me,” he said. “I will serve where they put me.”

Alderman Matt Reveal is finishing his first term on the board.

“I’ve learned how the city runs, more or less,” he said. “I went to the aldermen meetings for a good six or seven months before ... but to actually get in and roll up your sleeves — it’s a learning experience.”

Reveal recently turned his bar, Muckenschnabel’s, over to his family so that he could take a job at Baker distributing — state regulations don’t allow someone to hold the necessary licenses for both jobs simultaneously. He said owning a business and working is sales gave him experiences that serve him as an alderman.

Reveal said that despite growth in the grand list and rooms, meals and entertainment tax revenue, the tax rate needs to come down. He said he would like to see the budget back down at $21 million. He said the most likely way to achieve that would be to find an alternate funding source for the pension, but he did not know what that might be.

“It’s something the entire board needs to come up with together,” he said.

Reveal said the city also needs to keep working on infrastructure.

“We really need to tackle downtown,” he said. “Underneath those buildings and roads we have a 100-year-old system,” he said. “We need to do something — not digging it all up at once like Brandon, but taking it one piece at a time.”

gordon.dritschilo

@rutlandherald.com


Local
Trooper appeals discipline to Labor Board

MONTPELIER — A former station commander for Vermont State Police in Rutland County, who was permanently removed from his post last March, demoted and given a new job, is appealing the discipline the department imposed on him for mishandling trooper wrongdoing.

The case centers on the response by former Lt. Michael “Stu” Studin when told two troopers from the Shaftsbury barracks had failed to investigate a new Rutland trooper for suspected driving while under the influence in October 2018, state records show. He was put on paid leave while the case was investigated.

State Police in March 2019 eventually issued Studin two concurrent 10-day suspensions, a demotion to detective sergeant, a reassignment to the Royalton barracks as a criminal investigator and added a letter of reprimand to his personnel file, the records show.

Studin, who lives in Chester, is asking the Vermont Labor Board to reinstate him as a lieutenant, award him all money lost during both his suspension and while working at his reduced rank, and also asked that all mention of the suspensions, his demotion and reprimand be removed from the file.

The Labor Board is due to begin hearing Studin’s appeal Thursday in Montpelier.

The case began to unfold when an off-duty probationary trooper from the Rutland barracks was discovered passed out at the wheel of his private car behind the Cumberland Farms store on Northside Drive in Bennington about 6:30 a.m. Oct. 28, 2018, officials said.

State Troopers Thomas Stange and Benjamin Irwin, both assigned to the Shaftsbury barracks, were at the Bennington convenience store for another incident and were asked by a store manager to check on the unresponsive driver that turned out to be off-duty Trooper Spencer Foucher, records show.

Foucher, who was a member of the Vermont National Guard, had failed to appear for his State Police work shift, records show. Foucher later reported that he had become confused about his work schedule, a State Police report indicated.

Studin in his labor board appeal noted “the troopers who discovered him did not investigate suspicion of driving while under the influence.”

In his appeal, Studin said when he was notified about the case, he instructed the patrol commander in charge of the shift to document the trooper’s absence from his job, “but suggested he did not include any information about the ‘alcohol aspect’ until Grievant had a chance to speak with his captain about it the following morning, which was Monday Oct. 29. 2018.”

State Police, in its written response, maintains Studin “told” the patrol commander to avoid “any information about the ‘alcohol aspect’” until his captain could be consulted.

Capt. Roger Farmer, the Southern troop commander, ended up calling Studin to learn more about the incident, records show.

State Police Director Matthew Birmingham later wrote in part in a suspension memo that “in light of serious and credible allegations of misconduct and/or improper conduct on your part, and out of concern for the safety and welfare of the Department and others, you are hereby suspended from duty with pay per order of the Commissioner of Public Safety, Thomas D. Anderson.”

Studin joined State Police on July 14, 2003. He later became a senior trooper and was promoted to patrol sergeant at the Rockingham barracks March 24, 2013. He was promoted to lieutenant and named station commander in Rutland County on Sept. 4, 2016.

Studin, in his union grievance, maintains he was briefed by a subordinate about the missing work shift and that Fulcher was found sleeping in his car outside the store.

A store manager arriving for work called Bennington Town Police to report the sleeping man with the seat down, according to an audio recording from the dispatch center.

“There’s a car parked behind our building with a man seemingly passed out in the car, seat reclined all the way back. The car is running and the windows are up,” the manager tells the police dispatcher on the recorded call. He says he has no idea how long the car and driver have been there.

The manager notes, “There are State Police outside and I have notified them, but they are actually here coincidently looking for someone else. And I believe he was going to go around back and take a look, but he told me I should still notify local police.”

The Bennington emergency dispatcher alerts Officer Derek Osgood about the complaint, but Trooper Irwin, whose radio number is 455, overhears the call and says:

“Myself and 437 (Stange) just checked on that subject. He’s fine.”

Osgood responds, “10-4 — Thank you,” according to the audio recording of the call. The Bennington officer cancels his response to the store.

The store manager, in a State Police report, indicated that the passed-out driver and car remained there for a few more hours.

Stange and Irwin also were placed on paid leave following the incident. They remained on paid leave for 17 weeks and eventually returned to work Feb. 25. Because most State Police discipline is confidential, it remains unknown if any action was taken by management.

State Police records show they later attempted to reconstruct Foucher’s activities from that night to determine if he should face a DUI charge.

Bennington County State’s Attorney Erica Marthage later said based on the report provided by State Police there was not enough evidence to file any criminal charge. She said the two troopers never requested a breath test from their colleague.

Stange has worked for State Police since July 16, 2012, while Irwin was hired July 10, 2017.

Foucher resigned on Oct. 29, one day after the incident at the store. Foucher, who joined State Police Jan. 16, 2018, grew up in Bennington and was a wrestler at Mount Anthony Union High School.

Studin maintains his demotion, suspension, transfer and letter of reprimand are not supported by just cause under the union contract. He claims the department also bypassed progressive discipline under the contract.

Studin has at least one earlier high profile discipline case. By coincidence — Studin’s administrative leave in the Bennington case began exactly 10 years to the day as another discipline case involving him.

Studin made a splash Oct. 29, 2008, when he drove a super-charged unmarked State Police cruiser at 133 mph in a 65-mph zone on I-91 in Rockingham. In the process he passed then-Public Safety Commissioner Thomas Tremblay and his wife in their private vehicle.

Instead of charging Studin in criminal court, Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell’s office gave the officer a pass and issued him a civil speeding ticket.

Studin was eventually assessed $1,036 in fine and fees, records show. The speed was determined by the in-cruiser video for the 2008 Dodge Charger normally reserved for the Southern Traffic Safety Unit.

Studin, who was assigned to the Southern Vermont Drug Task Force at the time, wanted to take the high-speed cruiser for a spin. State Police transferred him back into the uniform division as a road trooper on Jan. 4, 2009, and he faced other internal discipline, the department and union members said at the time. Those discipline records have never been made public.


Photo by Jon Olender/  

Lace up and skate

Erin Outslay, right, of Proctor helps her son Ward, 8, put his ice skates on at the Proctor Ice Skating Rink on Friday afternoon.


Local
Slate Valley
Residents scrutinize Slate Valley bond

FAIR HAVEN — Around 100 people gathered at Fair Haven Union High School Tuesday evening to discuss a proposed $60 million bond for infrastructure and facility improvements throughout the Slate Valley Unified Union School District.

The project would address infrastructure needs at the high school, build a new district middle school, install two new elevators at Fair Haven Grade School and potentially build a new gym and cafeteria at Orwell Village School.

As part of the plan, all seventh- and eighth-grade students would relocate to an autonomous middle school on the FHUHS campus and Castleton Middle School would be leased to Castleton University.

The Herald interviewed Slate Valley officials about the project in a story published on Feb. 10. See bit.ly/0210SchoolBond to read the original story.

SVUUSD serves the towns of Fair Haven, Castleton, Benson, Hubbardton, West Haven and Orwell.

After giving a brief presentation, SVUUSD School Board Chairwoman Julie Finnegan moderated a discussion.

The discussion, at times passionate, remained polite as those in attendance questioned various aspects of the plan.

Of the roughly 15 members of the public who spoke, most were critical of the project in some way.

While no one blamed the current board, a number expressed frustration that years of deferred maintenance have culminated in a pricey project.

Rick Grabowski said he did not support the bond. He said that “neglect for the buildings has been going on for a long time,” and wanted to know how the board could guarantee that pattern of neglect wouldn’t repeat itself.

Orwell resident Paul Stone said he “fought like heck” to keep Orwell out of the SVUUSD, but has come around to the district. He said he sees the bond as a “positive.”

He noted the inadequate infrastructure in Orwell Village School in particular.

“It’s time to bite the bullet and show we care for our children and grandchildren,” he said.

Later in the discussion, Peter Stone, a school board member from Orwell, said that it is “also up to the taxpayer” to hold the board accountable on maintenance issues.

Regarding OVS, the board was clear that the fate of the Orwell Town Hall building, which currently houses school gym and cafeteria, is up to Orwell residents. The bond includes funds for a new building, but if the town decides to keep the existing one, they may do so and that money will not be spent.

Several asked if the board had fully explored potentially re-purposing existing schools rather than building a brand-new middle school.

Finnegan said they had, but any existing building would still require massive upgrades to meet student needs.

“We felt like we wanted to give our middle schoolers the opportunity they deserve,” she said, noting that the current middle schools in the district — some with as few as three students in a classroom — are not putting students on equal footing when they enter ninth grade.

Others expressed concerns of the impact the bond will have on taxes.

A taxpayer with a home assessed at $100,000 would pay additional taxes of an estimated $265 before each town’s common level of appraisal, or CLA, is applied.

Put another way, a taxpayer with an annual household income of $50,000, would pay an estimated $50 in additional taxes annually.

Fair Haven resident and former school superintendent Ray Pentkowski said while he is in favor of making health and safety improvements, he questions the need to do it all at once.

He said the bond showed a “lack of caring for the taxpayer.”

Fair Haven resident Bryce Taylor said he, too, is worried about the tax implications of the bond, noting that Vermont is losing its population “because of taxes.”

He argued that no one is moving to a town because of its school.

Sean Burke, another district resident with real estate experience, echoed that Taylor’s sentiment, and was among several to question the board’s “if you build it, they will come” strategy.

He said people look at taxes before they look at schools when considering a move to a community.

Burke said the Slate Valley area is already economically distressed, and people who are already struggling don’t need another economic burden.

“If this bond doesn’t pass, it’s not that we don’t appreciate the work you did — we just can’t afford it,” he said.

Toward the end of the nearly two-hour discussion, members of the School Board stressed that the district’s infrastructure issues need to be addressed with or without a bond.

Several who spoke wondered if such a large project was absolutely necessary or if it could be tackled piecemeal.

Finnegan argued that if the district was going to be making facilities upgrades, it made sense to “do it to the best of our ability.”

“This work has to be done,” said member Rebeckah St. Peter, explaining that the current bond is the most cost-effective way to accomplish it.

She said if this bond fails, another is inevitable. And even if it’s less than $60 million, it will still be in the “tens of millions.”

Residents in SVUUSD towns will vote on the bond Town Meeting Day, March 3.

jim.sabataso

@rutlandherald.com