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September 11th, 2008

Bubba-hood vs. intellectualism

Two undercurrents of the Republican Convention jumped from the stage so blatantly they became the white elephant in the room: the irony that the Republicans were running as a party of change, and the championing of bubba-hood over intelligence as qualifications to lead this nation.

Sen. John McCain’s choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, and the subsequent convention rhetoric used to promote her nomination and lash out at the Democrats with partisan rancor, showed just how far the G.O.P. has sunk in its election strategy.

In a country that used to seek “the best and the brightest” to lead our nation, Republicans recently have chosen candidates who have ranked at the bottom of their classes academically (Bush and McCain) and rely frequently on personal beliefs, rather than accepted facts or critical review of performance, to make decisions that are crucial for the nation’s future.

Bush’s appointment of Donald Rumsfeld as head of the Defense Department and his willingness to keep him in place in the face of abysmal failure and a ruinous foreign policy for the first five years of his presidency, for example, were disastrous. Similarly, his decision to ignore the evidence that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction and instead invade Iraq, while taking the focus off of capturing Osama bin Laden and defeating the Taliban, has been costly and counterproductive.

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Choosing the winning storyline

If Americans believe that “we are a better country” than what we have seen for the past eight years, as Democratic Presidential nominee Barack Obama said in his acceptance speech Thursday night, then that sense of hope will help propel him into the White House.

In what was an inspiring speech, Obama’s soaring rhetorical style encouraged Americans to dream again of a country that leads the world, not by military might, but by the force of its optimism and a promise of opportunity available to all:

“It’s a promise that says each of us has the freedom to make of our own lives what we will, but that we also have the obligation to treat each other with dignity and respect,” Obama said. “It’s a promise that says the market should reward drive and innovation and generate growth, but that businesses should live up to their responsibilities to create American jobs, look out for American workers, and play by the rules of the road.

“Ours is a promise that says government cannot solve all our problems, but what it should do is that which we cannot do for ourselves — protect us from harm and provide every child a decent education; keep our water clean and our toys safe; invest in new schools and new roads and new science and technology. Our government should work for us, not against us. It should help us, not hurt us. It should ensure opportunity not just for those with the most money and influence, but for every American who’s willing to work.

“That’s the promise of America - the idea that we are responsible for ourselves, but that we also rise or fall as one nation; the fundamental belief that I am my brother’s keeper; I am my sister’s keeper.

“That’s the promise we need to keep. That’s the change we need right now.”

But Obama’s speech wasn’t just about hope. He also asked the American people to look critically at the failure of the Bush administration over this past eight years, and not excuse that performance.

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April 14th

Rock on, Bobby Dylan

“Come gather ’round people

Wherever you roam

And admit that the waters

Around you have grown

And accept it that soon

You’ll be drenched to the bone.

If your time to you

Is worth savin’

Then you better start swimming’

Or you’ll sink like a stone

For the times they are a-changin’.”

The song was from the 1960s and Bob Dylan, who is widely noted as the most acclaimed and influential songwriter of the past half century, was talking about the changes rocking the country during that era of protests, demonstrations, love-ins and generation gaps. He was right on target, saying in his music of the day what political and social analysts would discuss for the next few decades in retrospect.

“Come senators, congressmen

Please heed the call

Don’t stand in the doorway

Don’t block up the hall

For he that gets hurt

Will be he who has stalled

There’s a battle outside

And it is ragin’.

It’ll soon shake your windows

And rattle your walls

For the times they are a-changin’.”

Dylan, who the Associated Press recently wrote “brought rock from the streets to the lecture hall,” received an honorary Pulitzer Prize last week for what the Pulitzer judges called his “profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power.”

The break through for rock ’n roll was substantial. The AP noted that “the Pulitzer judges, who have long favored classical music, and, more recently, jazz, awarded an art form once dismissed as barbaric, even subversive.”

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Of common sense & bridges

Middlebury and Weybridge selectmen were right to reject the state’s plan to close the Pulp Mill Bridge for up to a year for renovations before the town’s proposed Cross Street Bridge was built. The state’s plan would leave the town with just the Battell Bridge on Main Street to cross the Otter Creek — a move that would cripple the downtown’s retail district and frustrate residents who already face traffic jams there several times throughout each day.

It’s as if the town’s shortage of bridges across the Otter Creek has been lost on the state transportation agency, even though the town has been pressing its need for a second span for more than 50 years and has been hard at work on the Cross Street Bridge for the past several years.

Let’s hope the selectboard’s message to do the work on the Pulp Mill Bridge after the Cross Street Bridge is in use is taken to heart and honored.

As important is that the work on the Pulp Mill Bridge is dictated by common sense, not sabotaged by misguided — though well-intended — strictures. In this case, the Vermont Historic Covered Bridge Committee must sign off on any improvements or changes to the bridge, which is being renovated at a cost of over $2 million. The current bridge has structural design flaws, according to at least one expert, that should be corrected as part of the renovation. The state’s plan, however, preserves those design flaws (thus weakening the bridge) in order to maintain its historical integrity. Such stupidity, if the alleged flaws would weaken the bridge, would make a mockery of the state’s historical preservation efforts.

A proposal to correct the flaws and construct a nearby educational exhibit detailing the original architecture — and the design flaw that was corrected — is a reasonable suggestion (see story Page 1A) that we also hope will be honored.

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Of fools, $18 billion oil subsidies and the nation’s energy future

On Tuesday, Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., chairman of the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, held a well-publicized hearing with five of the nation’s top oil executives. The theme: Explain why the nation’s taxpayers should extend $18 billion in tax subsidies to an industry whose top five companies posted profits of $123 billion last year.

The obvious answer: Cut the subsidies and make it effective as soon as possible. Then, extend those subsidies to the alternative fuel industry and increase the nation’s conservation efforts.

That is the very least Congress should do to right the wrongs promoted and passed by a Republican Congress and President Bush since he came to office. The Republican Congress and Bush not only have been in bed with the oil companies since 2000, the excesses border on the obscene. Hence, Exxon-Mobil’s vice-chairman was testifying before the committee why it seemed reasonable that its former executive was given a $350 million salary and retirement package — an amount, as the senator from Missouri noted, that translates to $958,904 per day. When the average American is struggling to afford a tank of gasoline and oil companies are pulling in record profits, just how — the Democratic congressman asked — should he explain to his constituents why they are being taxed to pay for $18 billion in oil industry subsidies?

J. Stephen Simon, senior vice president for Exxon, did his best to explain the excess, but it was abundantly clear that greed has tarnished the oil industry as much as the hydro-carbons the industry produces.

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Turning politics on its head

The move Tuesday by Democratic House Speaker Gaye Symington to abandon plans to close a loophole on a capital gains tax exemption initially proposed by Republican Gov. James Douglas turns state politics on its head. Since when do Democrats fail to close a tax loophole to the wealthy for potential gain to the common good?

Yet, that’s what happened.

Not that there would not have been difficulties proceeding with the proposal. The Democratic Legislature and Gov. Douglas had disagreements over how to spend the estimated $21.4 million annually. Douglas wanted to give the windfall to middle income Vermonters as well as to the very rich. Democrats wanted to split the amount three ways: $4.2 million for targeted property tax relief; $8 million for the highway and bridge program and $7 million to pay off a portion of the $55 million the state owes on school construction projects (the latter two of which would also indirectly lower local property taxes for most Vermonters.)

Because Douglas objected to spending the money for the common good (as detailed above — no new programs, just meeting existing obligations of the state) and because he would be denied the possible campaign claims of saying he had reduced income taxes, a political battle was looming on the horizon. Both sides of the political aisle saw it coming and the decision to bail was greeted by sighs of relief from both parties.

Interestingly, the administration was relieved because it meant Democrats wouldn’t spend the money — even if the expenses had already been committed or, go figure, were for property tax relief. (Why Douglas would support income tax relief, but not property tax relief is unclear.) Many Democrats, on the other hand, were relieved because of the future economic uncertainty and the very real possibility that legislators might need to tap that ready source of income in the near future for critical needs.

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March 12th

A solution for Bristol’s pit

In Bristol this Tuesday, March 11 at 7:30 p.m., the Zoning Board of Adjustment will meet to continue discussions regarding the proposed Lathrop gravel pit. It’s a complicated project with an Act 250 filing as thick as a big-city phone book, but the central question that needs public input and board leadership is relatively straight-forward: Is the proposed location of the pit the appropriate place for a large-scale mining operation, and should the public have a chance to clarify wording in the town plan that has created much of the ambiguity pertaining to this project?

The ambiguous wording is the phrase “in any district” found in section 526 of the town plan. The dueling interpretations of the phrase contend that the phrase would allow gravel mining ‘in any district’ in the town (supposedly including the village or any other residential setting) or, opponents of the pit argue, that the phrase meant that mining was allowed ‘in any district’ (industrial, etc.) where mining was allowed.

Logic would suggest that full-scale mining operations — with rock-crushers and the consequential noise and dust that would come from such an operation — would not be suitable for residential zones or mixed rural residential, commercial zones. The Bristol Planning Commission, which has the authority to clarify zoning by-laws and revise them if necessary, has said it will take up this section of the town plan at upcoming meetings. That’s welcome involvement because surely the commission members will make every effort to seek public opinion to determine the will of the community. Town plans, after all, are approved by a majority of the town’s residents and crucial aspects of the plan should be reviewed and revised, if necessary, with the public will in mind.

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2008: A watershed year for Middlebury

The year 2008 may mark one of the turning points in the Middlebury’s history. It will be the year town residents committed to building the Cross Street Bridge, approved a $16 million bond and agreed to change the town’s charter to allow for the implementation of local option taxes. All were enormously important decisions.

But it will likely also mark the beginning of a renaissance in community betterment.

Let’s count the ways:

• This summer, after almost a decade in the making, Middlebury’s Town Hall Theater comes back to life. The extraordinary $6 million renovation of that historic building will have been completed and Middlebury’s arts scene will be more vibrant than ever before.

• A riverfront committee is making plans to continue improvement on the banks of the Otter Creek just below the falls, following up on work that began this past fall. If all goes according to plan, an outside amphitheater will get underway that will provide several rows of riverside seating (just above and beside the footbridge near the Marble Works’ picnic tables) and the potential for musical and theatric entertainment in the summer and fall when the weather permits.

That’s just one part of a long-range plan to more fully utilize the Otter Creek’s shoreline through the length of the town and beyond. Better canoe and boat access and egress points are also in the works, making it more convenient for boaters to appreciate the creek. Expanded parks and a running/walking path along the creek are also in the planning stages.

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