News

The top 10 stories of 2020

MARCH 12, 2020

#1 COVID: THE STORY THAT AFFECTED EVERYONE ALL YEAR
Early in 2020 word began to reach the U.S. and Addison County of a deadly respiratory disease striking a Chinese city with a name unfamiliar to most — Wuhan. We saw images of masked residents and health care workers and troops in hazmat gear. Middlebury College students in China had to abandon their studies and hurry back stateside. Porter Hospital began to make preparations — just in case.
Before long it all hit home. Lockdowns. Masks. Social distancing. Closed schools, town offices and businesses. Layoffs. A recession. Rising infection counts and death tolls. A stunning, nonsensical politicization of a pandemic.
One day in March we were going about our business as usual, even if we were looking over our shoulders wondering what was coming. Students were still going to school. High school and college sports playoffs were under way.
Then March 13 Gov. Phil Scott issued the first of 36 COVID-related executive orders, closing nursing homes to visitors and ordering changes in unemployment insurance procedures.
Orders followed switching schools to remote learning, limiting or closing many businesses, restricting the size of gatherings, and imposing travel limitations and bans and quarantine requirements.
Many of those eased as summer neared, but then tightened again as winter approached and coronavirus numbers spiraled upward around the country and even in a state that had been among the most successful at controlling the pandemic.
All along the Scott administration’s responses and its regular press briefing drew praise for competence and transparency, just as the presidential administration drew criticism from many for lies, favoritism and incompetence.
In the fall, Scott was returned to office overwhelmingly, while at the same time Vermont had the highest percentage of residents of any state voting for the winning Biden-Harris ticket.
As of Dec. 29 state officials reported that Addison County had seen 251 cases, about 0.6% of its population. Vermont overall had reported 7,202 positive tests, about 1.1% of its population. Many cases were in long-term-care facilities.
Schools did reopen in the fall, after some debate. Most opened on a hybrid model, with students attending two days a week and learning at home three days. After a few weeks, K-6 pupils began attending full-time — they were considered at less risk of transmitting the coronavirus or becoming infected, and more in need of full-time, in-person education.
An abbreviated fall sports season was permitted, but then winter sports remained in limbo as the infection rate rose.
Gov. Scott clamped down on Thanksgiving gatherings, requiring people to celebrate only with those in their immediate households. Then he eased some holiday restrictions as virus case numbers showed signs of leveling off, even dropping, as December wore on.
Why was that the case? More than elsewhere in our divided nation, most Vermonters, regardless of their politics, complied with masking and distancing requirements. It seemed like the neighborly thing to do, and we are a state of neighbors and communities.
And more good news came as December wound down with the approval of two vaccines. Locally, by Dec. 28 Porter Medical Center had doled out 307 of the first of two necessary shots.
That figure included 61 Middlebury EMS staff, plus residents and 50 staff at Helen Porter Rehabilitation & Nursing.
State and national officials had identified frontline healthcare workers and residents of long-term care facilities as the first to receive shots, with the elderly and those with underlying medical conditions up next.
Exactly when that might be remained unclear, and the vaccine rollout to the states came under fire for its slow pace. President-elect Biden pledged to speed things up when he took office.
Regardless, reason for optimism had arrived as the sand ran out of the 2020 hourglass.
 

#2 COVID TOOK A TOLL, BUT IN THE END WE PULLED TOGETHER
COVID-19 was without a doubt the biggest story of 2020 in Addison County, but initial versions of that story were often told with data: case counts, deaths, transmission rates, recovery rates.
This information was of course essential to our understanding of the pandemic and how best to respond to it, but it could never tell the full human story: what it felt like to be sick or to help the sick, to fret over loved ones and sometimes to lose them, to experience profound loneliness and disconnection and anxiety about the future.
Sometimes it felt like everything had been canceled. Come to think of it, nearly everything was.
Schools and businesses closed. People stopped gathering socially. Stages went dark. We lost our Memorial Day and Independence Day parades. We lost our fairs and our festivals and our camps.
We even lost our funerals.
But we did not lose our nerve.
Our nurses kept nursing, our teachers kept teaching, our first responders kept responding and our selectboards figured out how to use Zoom.
And — God bless ’em — our neighbors kept the registers running at grocery stores and pharmacies, hardware stores and gas stations.
Roads got paved. Sidewalks got replaced. Concrete tunnels got installed.
Stuck at home, we started painting our kitchens and renovating our bathrooms and building new decks — lots of decks.
Volunteers sewed face masks and formed mutual aid networks.
Vergennes and Ferrisburgh residents formed ad hoc vehicle parades and made a joyous racket to keep their spirits up. Bristol put on a spontaneous front-yard art show.
Local restaurants fed cooks and waiters and bartenders and dishwashers who had lost their jobs.
Help Overcoming Poverty’s Effects — aptly known as HOPE — made adjustments so it could continue its outreach, and so did local addiction and recovery organizations.
Bridport EMT Paul Miller trained for potential surges of COVID-19 and shared his reflections with us.
The Independent’s Megan James got tested for coronavirus and explained to us what we should expect from that experience.
Weybridge resident Doug Wilhelm and Whiting resident Keith Mattison told us what it was like to contract, battle and recover from COVID-19.
Through Dr. Wesley Clark we learned what it was like to fight the pandemic in New York City.
And when longtime former Bristol resident Mary “Pat” Brown died from COVID-19, her family told us her story, asked us to remember the names rather than the numbers, and to do what would could to keep each other safe.
Sometimes, though, it was hard to keep hope alive.
Domestic violence increased during the pandemic. So, too, did automobile accidents. Some of us lost loved ones to substance use disorder.
By the end of the summer our social service organizations had built strong networks in response to the pandemic, but finding and implementing brilliant and creative solutions at every turn is utterly exhausting. Fatigue began to set in.
Still, we remained standing.
We stood up for essential workers and for science. We stood against racism and hatred. We demanded that all the votes be counted.
Undaunted, our artists and performers got to work, too, re-establishing themselves online.
Town Hall Theater in Middlebury organized local entertainers for a series of short videos. THT Artistic Director Douglas Anderson staged a timely political play online, and followed that up with a short opera. The Vergennes Opera House reimagined its popular Broadway Direct productions.
The Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival took a giant leap of faith and went virtual, and by all accounts it was a great success.
As the darkest days of the year approached, Gov. Scott encouraged Vermonters to light up the season, literally, and that’s just what our Addison County neighbors did.
Our clergy found ways to hold us together. Our shelters found ways to house the least fortunate among us.
By year’s end, the impending arrival of vaccines brought us new hope, and dreams of sugar plum fairies transitioned to dreams of being together once again, breaking bread, laughing with neighbors, hugging friends, and throwing the masks away.
 

#3 LOCAL BUSINESS, HIT HARD BY COVID, IS BOUNCING BACK
When the schools closed and the need for social distancing began to sink in during middle and late March of 2020, many people were reasonably concerned about the personal well-being of themselves and their family members. But as social distancing led to closing of restaurants, bars, retail shops and other businesses then another level of concern set in.
Businesses began to curtail services and potential customers weren’t sure if they were safe going into stores. Greg’s Market, for instance, expanded delivery with a masked Pierre Vachon dropping off groceries. Other businesses began asking people to order over the phone and then pick up their orders outside the store. Alas, anything that required gathering mass numbers of people — theaters, the Vergennes Opera House, events like Addison County Fair and Field Days and Festival on the Green — simply had to close down.
Demands for businesses to require customers to wear masks and limit in-person contact resulted in calls for police to enforce social distancing. Local officers said they would not write tickets, but in cases where businesses or individuals did not respond to polite requests local departments or Vermont State Police would forward information to the attorney general’s office.
The local hospital, Porter Medical Center, and the UVM Health Network of which it is a part announced in May that it expected to lose $152 million in the fiscal year because of additional costs due to coronavirus and decreased revenue because it canceled and then resumed in only limited numbers its elective surgeries.
And while Main Street was worried about the economic outlook, dairy farmers in March and April were worried about the here and now. As a result of the economic dislocation, demand for milk from restaurants and other commercial establishments has plummeted, resulting in some farmers dumping their milk rather than sending it for processing. An economist said the price farmers receive for their milk had plummeted well below the cost of production and likely would go lower. In July the state reported that 25 dairy farms had gone out of business since March 1.
In Montpelier, state government in April learned that plummeting tax collections meant that the Education Fund would have an $88.7 million revenue shortfall for the fiscal year.
With less money — or none at all — many businesses had to lay off employees, which resulted in personal hardships as well as a hit to the economy overall.
Perhaps the biggest source for emergency funds — the federal government — came through with passage of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act in late March. It directed $2 billion dollars in relief to Vermont. The feds also authorized Vermont and other states to pay unemployment compensation to people who lost their jobs due to the coronavirus. A separate relief bill specifically targeted for businesses funded the Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP. While it provided small businesses with loans that could be converted into grants if the companies saved jobs, PPP ended up being a relatively difficult program to administer.
According to Small Business Administration data released in July, 754 Addison County businesses received somewhere between $43.7 million and $74.1 million to keep at least 5,776 workers employed through the PPP, with 672 receiving smaller loans totaling $23.2 million to retain at least 2,923 jobs, and 82 receiving larger loans totaling between $20.5 million and $50.9 million to retain at least 2,853 jobs.
More than two-thirds of the loans received by Vermont businesses were for less than $50,000. The median loan amount was $26,460.
Lawmakers here used some CARES Act money to create the Vermont COVID-19 Agriculture Assistance Program, which made $21.5 million available as direct payments to eligible dairy farmers and $3.8 million allocated for eligible dairy processors, to cover losses and expenses incurred because of the pandemic.
CARES Act funded the Restart VT Technical Assistance program, which helped small businesses like Comfort Hill Kennel in Vergennes improve its marketing to compete more successfully during the pandemic.
Small but significant success stories, like the one at Comfort Hill Kennel were showing fruit by the end of the year. As CARES Act programs expired, though, businesses were hoping to see the economy overall turn around in 2021, though the light at the end of the tunnel was still a long way off.
 

#4 PORTER PROFESSIONALS PROVIDE RELIEF IN TIMES OF PAIN
In early February, COVID-19 was still seen by most as a mysterious virus that had only touched a handful of Americans and was doing most of its damage in China and Europe.
Still, Porter Medical Center officials started preparing the county’s health care hub for an inevitable influx of patients who would become afflicted with the highly contagious disease, characterized by high fever, coughing, headaches, sore throat and loss of taste and smell. Porter adopted an “action plan,” and was in daily communication with the Vermont Department of Health and CDC.
The hospital on March 18 implemented a strict visitation policy aimed at reducing the chances of patients, staff and the general public contracting the coronavirus. All patients and visitors were required to enter the hospital through the Emergency Department, where they would be screened for potential virus symptoms. Porter barred visits to Helen Porter Rehabilitation & Nursing, as the elderly — particularly those with pre-existing medical conditions — were most vulnerable to COVID-19.
That day Porter joined other hospitals in the UVM Health Network in suspending non-urgent, elective surgeries and procedures until further notice.
In April, PMC opened an Acute Respiratory Clinic, routed all of its outpatient X-ray services to the orthopedic office on Exchange Street, and redirected outpatient cardiology visits from Porter’s primary practice site within the hospital to its Brandon Primary Care practice.
These precautions — coupled with quarantines, social distancing, mask wearing and other state mandates — had a positive effect in stemming what was an anticipated tide of COVID-19 patients. Except for a spike of 27 cases in early October that were confined to Champlain Orchards, Addison County COVID-19 cases came in at a trickle, as opposed to the gusher that healthcare officials had feared.
May saw Porter restore most of its services, including elective surgeries. Patients were sent a firm message that Porter was back open for business in virtually all respects — albeit with health-preserving precautions that included patient and staff screenings before entering facilities, mandatory face masks, and a process through which some patients were whisked from their cars to procedure rooms.
By late May, the hospital’s operating rooms were functioning at 30-50% capacity, while labs were fully operational, and radiology was functioning at 40-50%.
At the same time, PMC’s budget officers were figuring out ways to mop up $5.7 million of the $152 million in COVID-related red ink the UVM Health Network was projected to incur by Sept. 30. Porter achieved that goal, and without layoffs.
By late fall, Addison County saw its COVID-19 case count rising precipitously, adding a couple of cases every day.
At the same time, Porter Medical Center — and indeed healthcare facilities worldwide — were hearing great things about two COVID-19 vaccines. Both vaccines — one by Pfizer, the other by Moderna — both received federal approval in December. Porter administered the Pfizer vaccine to 193 of its frontline workers during the third week of December, and planned to inoculate another 150-170 the following week. By the end of December, Porter was vaccinating local emergency responders and home health workers.
There was still no word, though, on when the vaccine would be available to the general public.
 
As of this writing, Addison County has recorded 255 COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began.
 

#5 SCHOOLS, STUDENTS AND TEACHERS ADAPT TO THE PANDEMIC
One of the earliest and most widely felt effects of COVID-19 in Addison County last year was the sudden closure of our schools.
Because of its international reach, Middlebury College had begun responding to the pandemic in January, closing down study abroad programs in the countries hit hardest by the outbreak.
By March 10, however, college officials decided it was time to act at home, too, and Middlebury became one of the first American colleges to suspend in-person classes.
Scrambling on short notice to find their way home, Midd Kids formed impromptu support networks to share rides, storage spaces and other resources, and the local community stepped up to help them.
State and local public school officials worked feverishly to develop pandemic response plans, but the world was changing too fast to make accurate public health predictions. So in mid-March Gov. Phil Scott ordered the immediate closure of Vermont’s public schools.
The shockwaves were felt in every corner of Addison County. This was an emergency. This was real.
And so was the response.
Within days the Mount Abraham Unified School District had whipped together a child care program for essential workers, and officials in all three county districts developed plans to deliver meals to their students, who by this point were learning remotely.
Teachers worked around the clock to maintain some kind of contact with thousands of kids spread out across hundreds of square miles: Zoom calls, phone calls, curbside calls to deliver meals, Chromebook chargers, class assignments. “We are still here,” they told their students. “We are here for you.”
By the end of March, state officials decided school buildings would remain empty for the rest of the spring semester.
Middlebury College soon followed suit. Then it began preparing some of its buildings for community and/or medical use in the event Addison County experienced a surge in coronavirus cases.
By May, the Bristol- and Vergennes-area school districts were delivering 1,800 meals a day to their students, and educators were beginning to iron out wrinkles with remote-learning.
But increased restrictions on public gatherings meant schools wouldn’t be able to host traditional graduation ceremonies, so the college hosted a virtual celebration with promises of an in-person ceremony someday. Local high schools found creative solutions — including limited in-person components — to celebrate their classes of 2020.
Almost immediately, thoughts turned to the fall. Should schools reopen? If so, how?
As summer got under way, Middlebury College announced it would take a phased approach to bringing all of its students back to campus in August, which would begin with a campus quarantine. It also planned to conduct thousands of COVID-19 tests over the course of the semester.
The plan drew sharp criticism from some members of the local community, who feared college students would bring COVID-19 with them and cause an outbreak.
Soon enough, local schools announced their own plans for the fall — a “hybrid” of in-person and remote learning.
By the time local schools had opened in September, Middlebury College had safely welcomed more than 2,000 students back to campus. Every student was tested twice in the first week, and 99.9% of them tested negative.
The next three months at Middlebury were by all accounts a great success. The few people who tested positive for COVID-19 subsequently recovered, chronic rule breakers were sent home, and students departed campus on Nov. 21, as scheduled.
Several weeks into the public school year, elementary kids were allowed to attend in-person classes full-time, because Vermont was continuing to “flatten the curve.”
But the disease began spreading more rapidly in October and November, and state health officials began to worry that Thanksgiving travel would cause a surge in cases.
Thankfully, that didn’t happen, although cases popped up here and there in many of our local school communities.
 
COVID-19 was still with us at the end of 2020, but vaccines were on their way, offering new hope, and the community was already looking forward to spring 2021.
 

#6 FUNDING AT THE HEART OF THE SCHOOL CONSOLIDATION CONUNDRUM
The pandemic notwithstanding, school consolidation was one of the biggest stories of 2020. It was also one of our Top 10 stories in 2019.
When 2020 began, there were 15 elementary schools in the three school districts that operate exclusively in Addison County:
•  Addison Central School District (ACSD), operating schools in Bridport, Cornwall, Middlebury, Ripton, Salisbury, Shoreham and Weybridge.
•  Addison Northwest School District (ANWSD) in Addison, Ferrisburgh and Vergennes.
•  Mount Abraham Unified School District (MAUSD) in Bristol, Lincoln, Monkton, New Haven and Starksboro.
By year’s end, that number stood at 14: ANWSD, after failing to obtain permission from Addison voters in 2019, sought and won permission from Ferrisburgh, Panton, Vergennes and Waltham voters in 2020 to repurpose Addison Central School as an alternative education center. Officials were also hinting that Ferrisburgh Central School would not be viable long-term.
Also by year’s end, ACSD appeared to be favoring a plan to close elementary schools in Bridport, Ripton and Weybridge, and MAUSD had proposed to repurpose elementary schools in Lincoln, New Haven and Starksboro.
The ACSD board, through a super-majority vote, has the authority to close its schools. The MAUSD board doesn’t, but the district superintendent believes the school board has the right to “repurpose” its schools.
If their stated plans are enacted in 2021, the three districts will operate just eight elementary schools by 2022. If ANWSD also closes or repurposes Ferrisburgh Central, the three districts will have done way with more than half their elementary schools in three years.
And a year after that, Addison County may also have one fewer school district. ANWSD and MAUSD officials are considering a merger in an effort to eliminate staff redundancies and save more money.
Why all this wrangling?
Costs keep going up. In 2021-22, ACSD, ANWSD and MAUSD’s combined health insurance premiums — which they have no control over — will likely increase by more than $1 million, by one estimate. That means the districts would need to cut at least 10 teachers just to make up for rising health insurance costs.
At the same time, enrollment is declining in Addison County, which means its districts get less revenue from the state to operate their schools. If the ACSD, ANWSD and MAUSD were collectively to lose 50 students in one year, that would amount to roughly $1 million in lost revenue — the equivalent of another 10 teachers (based on estimated teacher costs in MAUSD).
By themselves, declining enrollment and rising health insurance costs add hundreds of dollars a year to per-pupil spending.
Meanwhile, the state has mandated a per-pupil spending limit, and instituted stiff tax penalties for districts that exceed it. The limit rises a little every year, but doesn’t make up for lost revenue or ballooning health insurance costs.
If nothing is done to dramatically alter these trends, school officials have said, districts could in the next few years face millions of dollars in tax penalties — or thousands of dollars per household of additional education property taxes.
Compounding the issue in 2020: The pandemic brought Vermont’s commerce to a grinding halt, meaning the state collected less in taxes. The state education fund is looking at a shortfall in the tens of millions of dollars.
The best solution to this crisis, according to county school boards and administrators, is to combine elementary school students into fewer schools, where staffing reductions — which will happen whether schools are closed or not — are presumed to have a less dramatic effect per pupil.
But residents in towns that stand to lose their schools have launched vigorous opposition. Six months after ANWSD repurposed Addison Central School, Addison residents were considering a plan to withdraw from the district. Ripton and Weybridge residents are considering withdrawing from the ACSD, and will put the question to voters on Jan. 12.
MAUSD residents have had only a few weeks to process the dramatic changes being proposed there, but folks in Lincoln and Starksboro have begun to organize and are considering legal action against the district. Some Lincoln residents are also raising the possibility of withdrawing from MAUSD.
Closing small rural schools is widely seen as a last resort, and school officials say they’ve put it off as long as they could.
 
Given all the proposals on the table this coming year, and the vehement opposition to those proposals, school consolidation likely will be one of the biggest stories of 2021.
 

#7 MIDDLEBURY TORN APART, PUT BACK TOGETHER FOR TUNNEL PROJECT
After more than four years of planning and dozens of often contentious meetings, a 10-week burst of around-the-clock construction during the summer of 2020 yielded a 360-foot-long concrete tunnel that supplanted the decaying, 1920s-era rail bridges in downtown Middlebury.
Downtown residents and merchants entered 2020 having already gotten a taste of what construction disruption would be like. Preliminary work on the tunnel included temporary detours, blasting, the relocation of utilities and the fabrication of a drainage system that would divert rainwater from the rail bed to the Otter Creek below the falls.
But disruption during the summer of 2020 rose to a whole different level.
Main Street and Merchants Row were closed to through-traffic for 10 weeks. Vehicles were diverted away from the downtown via South Pleasant Street, Court Street and Weybridge Street. With the Battell Bridge essentially placed out of commission for all but pedestrian traffic, both the Cross Street Bridge and historic Pulp Mill Bridge saw increased use by people seeking alternate Otter Creek crossings.
Residents and merchants stoically braved the dust, noise and other inconveniences caused by the $72 million project. Adding to the merchants’ travails were the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, which reached the county in March and forced some businesses, lodging establishments and restaurants to close — at least temporarily. So downtown merchants faced a trifecta of hurdles: the tunnel-related shutdown, the pandemic, and online shopping trends.
The Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans), town of Middlebury, the Better Middlebury Partnership and a group called “Neighbors Together” tried to mitigate some of the pain of the downtown shutdown. The town and Neighbors Together applied for — and received — around $200,000 in state grants to promote downtown commerce during the heaviest work. Promotional efforts included creation of a pop-up store called “Bundle,” upgrades to the “Experience Middlebury” website, special events, advertising, and a variety of scavenger hunts and competitions aimed at drawing people to affected restaurants and stores. Prizes included “Middlebury Money” that can be used as currency at participating businesses.
The pandemic in the sprint also delayed the start of the final push to build the tunnel, but work resumed in May.
In July freight train traffic through downtown Middlebury was suspended for the 10-week shutdown, so that Kubricky Construction workers could have free access to the rail bed. Vermont Railway, thanks to state/federal funding, was able to divert its trains along a competitor’s rail line.
By mid-July, those who live, work and travel through downtown Middlebury were able to see real progress on the tunnel.
Four massive cranes worked overtime to hoist and install, one by one, the 422 separate precast-concrete sections of tunnel. Those sections were stored at the Fifield Farm and trucked in via Route 30. Landscaping and new sidewalks followed. People were also excited to see new public space that the project created in front of St. Stephen’s Church, as well as the outline of a new Lazarus Park off Printer’s Alley.
All of this work and hardship culminated in the official opening of the tunnel on a sunny Friday, Sept. 18. Representatives of the town of Middlebury, Middlebury College, VTrans and Kubricky led a celebration of the occasion, which included the reopening of Main Street and Merchants Row. More than 100 people sporting face coverings and standing in socially distant pods applauded speeches and a symbolic first train journey through the tunnel.
While the tunnel is now completed, additional work on the project will seep into 2021. Landscaping and completion of the public park spaces are among the jobs left to be done. Also on the agenda: recruiting new ventures to occupy the numerous empty storefronts downtown.
Nancy Malcolm, a leader of Neighbors Together, said this as Main Street reopened to traffic:
 
“I’m impressed with how the work was done, and I’m really impressed with the whole community. I think the most positive takeaway is the support the community has given, and the courage a lot of our businesses had in adapting and hanging in there.”
 

#8 LOCALS TURN OUT IN RECORD NUMBERS FOR THE ELECTION
Addison County residents turned out in droves on Nov. 3 General Election — and it was the hotly contested, polarizing race for president that attracted residents to the polls more so than area House, Senate and statewide contests.
A whopping 78.15% of the county’s registered voters cast ballots for their preferred candidates. It was a stunning turnout made even more impressive by the fact the election was held during the COVID-19 pandemic. In an effort to social distance, many residents voted early and mailed in their ballots. Ten days before Election Day, county town clerks were reporting that 40–50% of people on their checklists had already cast votes. On Election Day, clerks were creative, with some holding outdoor or drive-through voting opportunities.
That followed high turnout in the August Primary elections. State election officials took the unusual step of mailing ballots to all registered voters to ensure that people weren’t scared away from in-person voting during the pandemic.
Mirroring the statewide trend, county voters backed Democrat Joe Biden by a wide margin over President Donald Trump. A majority of voters in all 23 Addison County communities endorsed Biden. The final local tally was Biden 14,963, Trump 6,292 .
Vermonters flocked to Biden, 65.5% (242,658) compared to 30.37% (112,505) for Trump.
Some activists in Addison County organized get-out-the-vote efforts with calls, postcards and donations sent to Georgia, North Carolina, Texas and other swing states. After Election Day, citizens came out in Bristol, Middlebury and elsewhere to show their support for counting every vote cast in the presidential election — pointedly in opposition to Trump, who sought to stop tallying.
In the race for lieutenant governor, Molly Gray defeated Republican Scott Milne, 11,876 to 9,212, in Addison County, though Milne won more votes in 10 of this area’s 23 municipalities.
The vast majority of county voters also agreed to give Gov. Phil Scott another two years as the state’s top executive. All 23 municipalities here endorsed the Republican governor, giving him a 15,032-6,278 victory over Democrat/Progressive David Zuckerman.
In other statewide races, the county strongly backed incumbent Democrats Beth Pearce (state treasurer), Doug Hoffer (auditor), T.J. Donovan (attorney general) and Jim Condos (secretary of state).
The local election scene featured few surprises, though there was ample interest in the race for Addison County high bailiff. Middlebury Democrat and attorney Dave Silberman bested his closest challenger — Middlebury Republican and former High Bailiff Ron Holmes — by around 3,000 tallies. Silberman garnered more than 10,000 votes. Independent candidate Michael Elmore of Addison, a sergeant with the Addison County Sheriff’s Department, placed third with 2,501 votes. Silberman — who spent more than $12,000 to win the position — vowed to use the post to bring more transparency to the local criminal justice system. The high bailiff’s limited duties include serving papers the sheriff is legally incapable of serving, arresting the sheriff if necessary, and/or acting as sheriff if that office is vacant.
All of the county’s incumbent lawmakers ran for re-election, and did so successfully.
Incumbent Democratic state Sens. Ruth Hardy and Christopher Bray easily prevailed with vote totals of 13,061 and 12,526, respectively. Republican challengers Peter Briggs of Addison and Jon Christiano of New Haven, as well as Libertarian candidate Archie Flower, all missed the cut by more than 4,500 votes.
Addison-1 Reps. Amy Sheldon and Robin Scheu, both Democrats, coasted to re-election in the two-seat district representing Middlebury, while Republican Tom Hughes placed third.
Rep. Peter Conlon, D-Cornwall, easily won reelection to a third term representing Addison-2 (Cornwall, Salisbury, Leicester, Ripton, Goshen and Hancock). Millard “Mac” Cox of Ripton ran a write-in campaign and finished a distant second.
Addison-3 Reps. Diane Lanpher and Matt Birong, both D-Vergennes, cruised to re-election over GOP challengers Tim Buskey of Addison and Steve Thurston of Ferrisburgh.
Reps. Caleb Elder, D-Starksboro, and Mari Cordes, D-Lincoln, easily prevailed in Addison-4 (Bristol, Lincoln, Monkton and Starksboro). Republican challengers Valerie Mullin of Monkton and Lynn Dike of Bristol finished out of the running.
Longtime incumbent Rep. Harvey Smith, R-New Haven, topped Bridport Democrat and first-time candidate Jubilee McGill for the Addison-5 House seat (New Haven, Bridport and Weybridge). Smith remains the only Republican in the county’s House/Senate delegation.
 
Meanwhile, Rep. Terry Norris, I-Shoreham, topped Shoreham Democrat Ruth Shattuck Bernstein and Benson independent Rick Lenchus for the Addison-Rutland House seat representing Benson, Orwell, Shoreham and Whiting.
 

#9 CALLS FOR RACIAL JUSTICE ECHOED IN ADDISON COUNTY
Racial issues made headlines here in largely homogenous Addison County in 2020.
After the May 25 murder of George Floyd, a Black man, by Minneapolis police, many in the area turned out to support the Black Lives Matter movement that seeks an end to systemic racism.
In late May and early June more than 1,000 local residents came out to march, chant, wave signs or stand silently in support.
A Vigil for Black Lives in Middlebury came together on the final weekend of May. Then action peaked during five days beginning on June 4. First came a small gathering outside of Porter Hospital: Ten nurses and one other health care provider took a knee onsite just as a memorial service for Floyd began in Minnesota.
The next day, a Friday, almost 100 people met in Brandon’s Central Park at rush hour for a “Say Their Names” vigil, holding signs bearing the names of Black Americans who had died in police custody.
On that Saturday in Vergennes about 250 gathered on the city green for a “Silent and Still Assembly Against Racial Inequality.” Attendees wore black, carried signs and stood six feet apart along Main Street and in the park.
Sunday evening saw between 300 and 400 stand on Middlebury’s Cross Street Bridge for the town’s second Vigil for Black Lives. Some made donations to help cover hospital bills for a local Black woman who had been in a car accident, and many walked to Court Square, where they spread out, holding up signs.
Bristol hosted rallies the next two days. On Monday around 70 people came to the town green near the cannon. Many kneeled or bowed their heads while observing silence for eight minutes and 46 seconds — the amount of time that the police officer kneeled on George Floyd’s neck, killing him.
The next afternoon, more than 350 attended a vigil on the Bristol green to express solidarity with the BLM movement. Carrying signs and chanting, “Black lives matter! Justice for all!” protestors formed a line and marched along North Street and around the town green.
The Vergennes vigil grew into a series of Saturday gatherings on the green in which speakers — people of color Alicia Grangent and Rose Archer, both city residents, and a group of student activists — urged attendees to understand their privilege and start having difficult conversations about race. Grangent and Archer talked candidly about their daily and lifelong experiences of dealing with racism in America, helping at least some to better understand the issues.
Problems, of course, persisted. In late June in Middlebury an inaccurate report of an interaction between a Black caregiver and his client in the town’s rec park led to a tense incident between police and the innocent man. The man, a Brandon resident, maintained his race played a role in the report and the response. Later, a long mediation session helped all understand better each other’s points of view, but did not change the victim’s central belief.
In July, a departing Middlebury College professor, a woman of color, alleged in a campus-wide email her three-year stay there had been plagued by institutional and individual racism.
A follow-up to the 2017 UVM Black and Brown traffic stop confirmed racial disparity in the outcomes of traffic stops by Vergennes and Vermont State Police. Officials pledged to do better.
In late July and early August Middlebury and Vergennes BLM signs went missing, as did “Support Your Local Police” signs in the city. In Middlebury a Zoom selectboard meeting was disrupted by a racist hacker, racist graffiti was found, and white supremacist posters popped up downtown.
In late November Mount Abraham Union High School students voted to fly a Black Lives Matter flag in front of the school for a month. The principal acknowledged that some students stayed away from school in objection to the flag and corresponding racial educational efforts. As the year wound down, some students petitioned to leave it flying rather than hang it in the lobby.
A 10th-grade student of color said those the flag made uncomfortable might be missing the point: 
 
“Black people don’t feel comfortable being discriminated against. Black people are dying — that’s not comfortable for them.”
 

#10 TURMOIL RACKS VERGENNES CITY GOVERNMENT
On July 16 about 75 Vergennes residents Zoomed into a special city council meeting warned as “Discussion regarding accusations that the Vergennes Police Department is demoralizing and intimidating people.”
They saw what the city’s chief planner later described as something with “the grace and charm of a back-alley knife fight” and others called a planned coup against then Mayor Jeff Fritz.
The dust from that evening was still settling when on Dec. 29 a council with four new members interviewed two finalists to become the new Vergennes city manager.
At the July 16 meeting, then City Manager Dan Hofman produced texts between him and Fritz from July 15. They contained alleged threats against Deputy Mayor Lynn Donnelly and Councilor David Austin, and Fritz’s comment that did he not care about police department morale.
Fritz said the texts meant that his political views would prevail. As for police morale, he meant officers’ reaction to a city committee to study if Vergennes should create a citizen panel to help oversee the department, not officers’ overall outlook. Still, that night he acknowledged the texts’ impropriety and offered to resign, and the council voted to accept.
That was not the only issue, however. Hofman shared the texts with Donnelly and Austin before the meeting, but not with other councilors, upsetting councilors and others watching. Many also noted the meeting strayed from its warned agenda.
Councilor Bill Benton resigned four days later, citing divisiveness and “vitriol.” Fritz (officially) and Councilors Tara Brooks and Mark Koenig resigned 12 days later, after Koenig failed to broker a deal in which Councilor Lowell Bertrand, not Donnelly, would become mayor. Koenig later acknowledged he, Brooks and Fritz agreed late that day to resign together after the deal fell apart.
Many residents called for a return to civility in their government and questioned the many phone calls and emails among Hofman, Donnelly and Austin on July 15 and 16 before the meeting. The three said they were just reacting to the texts and denied coordinated action, although at the meeting Donnelly called on Fritz to resign.
Several citizens filed Freedom of Information Act requests for those communications, and said Hofman charged too much to comply and cooperated grudgingly. He insisted he complied willingly and charged fairly.
Meanwhile Hofman also engaged in a public dispute with Vergennes and regional planners over a city sidewalk project. Donnelly decided to preview posts by Hofman and others on the city’s website.
VTDigger.org and news site The Daily Beast joined the Independent in reporting on the dysfunction. Some stories noted the racial overtones of the police debate (traffic stop statistics show the department and state police have not treated whites and minorities equally), as well as the divide among those who support the department and those who believe the city is devoting too much money to law enforcement.
Meanwhile Addison County Sheriff Peter Newton investigated alleged improprieties by Chief George Merkel. The Vermont Attorney General’s Office declined to prosecute.
Lacking a quorum, the city council could do little until a Sept. 22 special election. Fourteen candidates sought four seats. Former city manager Mel Hawley, Dickie Austin, Ian Huizenga and Jill Murray-Killon won. But it took Hawley two tries after a recount showed he and former councilor David Smart tied in the first go-around. He won the rematch handily.
In early October Donnelly called a forum to try to clear the air. It didn’t seem to do so. Dickie Austin applauded Donnelly’s bravery while summing up: “I don’t know that we have accomplished the set goal for this meeting. I think the conversation will certainly need to continue.”  
After a couple of meetings, the new council seemed to find its rhythm. In October and November, the police study committee, which had insisted Hofman was not supportive, was returned to full strength and given time to finish its work.
In October Hofman announced he wanted to leave. The council agreed to let him go — with three months of pay and benefits as per his contract. He left on Friday, Nov. 13. Former manager Renny Perry stepped in as an interim.
In December the council calmly reaffirmed support for the sidewalk project that had sparked debate during the summer.
 
Maybe a new era had begun.
 

TOP STORIES ONLINE
The Top 10 you just read encompasses only the stories that the news staff of the Addison Independent considered the most important of 2020, but you, dear reader, have your own opinions about what interested you most last year. To get one indication of what you thought was important, we looked at what you “clicked“ in 2020. We considered the response to stories on addisonindependent.com, on our Facebook page, and on our Instagram feed. Here’s what we found.
On the Addy Indy website, people wanted the same thing that we thought was most important —pandemic info. Our top story was (1) the latest local COVID stats — and we post them every day, making that our most-read page in 2020. Folks wanted the scoop when (6) the college closed its campus in March, when (8) Champlain Orchards endured a COVID outbreak in October, and when (4) Gov. Scott banned multi-household gatherings right before Thanksgiving. The story on the (9) first coronavirus case in Addison County drew top-10 clicks.
But it wasn’t all COVID all the time. Readers from near and far mourned the loss of (2) Ollie the Route 7 Camel back in February — that was a very big story for readers. And many followed the story of (7) more than 100 animals seized during a raid on a Brandon farm earlier that month.
Local business news drew tons of readers to our site, too. (3) Foster Motors got a new owner — Todd Stone — and (5) Connor Homes closed its Middlebury shop, both in January. Folks also turned to us in droves to read about (10) the June fire that damaged Tourterelle in New Haven.
FACEBOOK
The top 10 stories we shared on Facebook this year featured some overlap. But as you read the headlines you’ll see we served a different cadre of readers here, too. Here’s what folks responded to on our Facebook page in 2020:
•  Porter launched its first drive-through COVID testing site on March 16.
•  We live-streamed the ceremonial first train through Middlebury’s new rail tunnel on Sept. 18.
•  Ollie the camel died at the end of February.
•  The first confirmed COVID case was recorded in Addison County on March 18.
•  Draft horses carried the remains of Russell Carpenter, who started Champlain Valley Equipment, to his memorial service at the Congregational Church of Middlebury in late February.
•  We watched the Vermont Lights The Way Holiday Train chug through downtown Middlebury in December.
•  In late May, we filmed a pandemic performance of Doc Lyle Sol’s Medicine Show in the streets of Buttolph Acres.
•  The National Guard distributed free groceries.
•  The COVID vaccine came to Addison County on Dec. 16.
•  Vergennes Mayor Jeff Fritz resigned in July.
INSTAGRAM
On Instagram, which is more photo-oriented than our website or Facebook, people like a different set of Addison Independent news and images. Top hits went to:
•  Karl Lindholm’s moving essay about the college’s surprisingly wonderful game-less fall sports season.
•  The death of Ollie the Route 7 camel.
•  The raising of the Black Lives Matter flag at Mount Abe.
•  16-year-old Abby Johnson volunteering at the polls in Starksboro on election day.
•  Nurse Kelly Gill preparing to administer the county’s first COVID vaccine.
•  Mother-and-daughter road trippers sell the map they created to benefit the Vermont Foodbank.
•  Middlebury’s Otter Creek Falls illuminated for the holidays.
•  Skye Devlin, 20, voting for the first time ever in Cornwall with his parents.
•  Middlebury’s festive Hot Chocolate Hut gets a new gig at the COVID testing site.
We look forward to seeing you in the pages of our newspaper and in all of our social media feeds in 2021!

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