Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Bad Vibes in Vermont’s Peaceful Valley

Satisfying as it was to watch the Nixon regime crumble – the Senate hearings were truly “must see” viewing on Public TV – I had my own dispute with the establishment to resolve in 1973. Unless I distanced myself from the youth program I’d worked hard to develop, the school board would refuse a state grant to fund it. The right thing to do was step down, I concluded. Fortunately, my boss appreciated what I’d accomplished already and offered a promotion. It meant working mainly upstate in Vermont’s beautiful Champlain Valley, but I could continue living in Bennington. There would even be an expense account generous enough to lease a new car. With a combination of regret and relief, I said “Hell, yes.”

Each week for the next year I drove north for three days, living in cheap hotels and spare bedrooms, writing grants and developing new para-professional programs. I apparently had a knack for it, and soon became a consultant on the side. Eventually, however, the arrangement grew tiring, especially the constant traveling. I needed one place to live – and a bit more intellectual stimulation. Fortunately, top administrators at the University of Vermont were impressed, and the College of Education offered an office, plus a spot in the graduate program.

Bidding farewell to Bennington and the gang, I took the offer and started a new life in northwestern Vermont. Five years and several jobs later, I returned to see how things had worked out down south. It was 1978, ten years after I first arrived in Vermont. Nixon was long gone, and Jimmy Carter was president.

The Benington Banner, my old paper, had recently reported that between 20 and 50 pounds of reportedly tainted marijuana was being sold locally. The article had prompted Bennington County State's Attorney Raymond G. Bolton to initiate a closed-door inquest. As a result, reporter Tim Powers and his co-author, an elfish 23-year-old named Woody Klein, were facing contempt citations and maybe jail for deciding to protect their sources. I was working for a newspaper again, the recently launched Vermont Vanguard Press, and it sounded like a great story.

Local police hadn't been looking for the lemon-yellow dope, possibly sprayed with the herbicide paraquat before its shipment from Mexico to Vermont. But two weeks after the story appeared a state trooper called the reporters for the names of "local drug dealers contacted by the Banner." Their refusal to provide the information had sparked the legal reaction.

Many things had changed since my time at The Banner, but the bad blood was still running pretty thick. In my day, the news had been school board fights, the village trustees, and power struggles between liberal and conservative parents. If anything, matters had gone from bad to worse. Now workers were being "poisoned" at the Globe Union battery plant and residents were feeling the effects of lead pipes around town.

Woody Klein thought the contempt charge against him might be a scare tactic. But if it wasn't, he was ready to make the trip. "The object of a free press," he told me, "is to assure the safety of the public. In this case we have to measure what privileges we would lose by revealing sources." Pretty spunky, I thought. He’d also been tracking the lead poisoning among Globe Union workers, and was worried about the health effects of the poisoned dope – possible liver, lung and kidney damage.

Powers was concerned about the cops. "People I talk to say there's been an awful lot of heat this year," he said, running down minor busts, a tally that showed prosecutor Bolton hadn't hit on much but users. Yet the paraquat scare was enough to give police a rationale for more raids. The final irony came in Powers' follow up report: separate lab tests of some golden maryjane from Bennington showed that it wasn't poisoned after all, just dyed to increase its price. The dealers, who temporarily pulled back on sales, had denied the contamination from the start.

I interviewed Bolton in his cramped office below the district court chamber. "Finding this marijuana is part of our overall effort,” he explained. “Of course, it's more important than small amounts would be otherwise." But he wouldn't guarantee anything without the names of local dealers. "This information can't be obtained by state agents. You know, people wholesaling drugs won't talk to the police." After three years on the job, he was adamant. "The Supreme Court says that there is no privilege which allows a reporter to withhold sources when criminal activity is involved. These reporters say it's better to write about an activity than to do anything about it."

Plenty of Benningtonians thought the real problem was Bolton. Even George Sleeman, an old nemesis and still superintendent, rapped the prosecutor for making vandalism a low priority. In the years since my departure, teen crime had reached epidemic proportions. Banner publisher Kelton Miller said, "Bolton's no great crusader, either with the Banner or drug dealing."

Surrounded by old photos of himself as a young Vermont legislator, the publisher talked about the case. "Bolton claims federal law supersedes Vermont law, which is more liberal on sources. The Vermont Supreme Court says a reporter must reveal sources, unless the information is available elsewhere." Miller wasn't fighting for absolute privilege, but he was ready to appeal. "If Bolton is right then newspapers will be on shaky ground whenever they look at any quasi or illegal activity. People would become reluctant to talk."

Miller did have one regret; that the issue might be tested on a "grubby case." In the end it wasn't. Bolton eventually dropped the charges.

Driving around town, I looked out the window and thought: damn, this used to be a gorgeous valley. Right next door to Mt. Anthony and the Bennington Battle Monument, the area loomed large in American Revolutionary lore. By the time I arrived in 1968 a low-level sprawl had already stretched out of Bennington Village toward North Bennington. They called it "the Flats." Yet Bennington was still essentially a clean and rolling space outside the urban web.

A grim new reality crept in as I tooled along the just-completed beltline. This place was being re-tailored for suburban growth. The new road was a prerequisite, a bypass for travelers from New York State and other Vermont communities. Once the first section was finished and the valley was covered with ramps and connectors, "obstructionists" had risen in horror. Their leader was Harvey Carter, the Republican lawyer turned Democrat environmentalist who had long ago recommended me for the Banner job. Launching a campaign to stop "Super 7," Carter had succeeded in halting construction. But that left Bennington with a road going nowhere.

Carter’s law partner Marshall Witten, another old friend and still a Republican, was meanwhile leading an attack on the proposed Ramada Inn scheduled to go up near "terminal beltline." Easy road access had jacked up land values outside the village and developers were ready to pounce. Witten spoke for local restaurant and motel owners guarding their downtown commercial interests. But the cause was lost. Next door to the Ramada site, construction was underway on a shopping center. The punch line was that the whole shebang would sit on a flood plain. Even though a flood channel had been built the area could be wiped out if the water levels rose substantially on the Roaring Branch and Furnace Brook. I imagined shoppers rowing to their cars and the whole project swept along into the new state office building down the road.

But this half-baked development was no fantasy and even I had played a part in decimating the peaceful valley. As a muckraking reporter I’d targeted the village trustees. They didn't do much, but did know one thing – they weren't hot on growth. Arrogantly concluding that they were out of touch and behind the times, I set out to discredit them. My weapons were a tape recorder and their own words.

Unfamiliar with local issues I’d decided to bring the recorder to meetings. But instead of putting the discussions in perspective I transcribed what was said. In print, the result was devastating: their meandering dialogues made the group look ridiculous.

Years later J. Duncan Campbell, one of the Town officials who had encouraged my attacks, still believed I had done the right thing. "You turned the light on when you taped the trustees,” he said, “and you showed people what a member of the counterculture was like," I wasn’t so sure. My exposure of the Village "fathers" as a group of backward, disorganized incompetents had helped convince the public that it was time for consolidated local government. The village had been “merged” into oblivion.

Looking back, I regretted it. Too inexperienced to realize what was happening – and blinded by my supposed power – I had been manipulated, becoming an unwitting accomplice in a campaign by local business leaders to set loose suburban growth.

Part Eight of Fragile Paradise: A Vermont Memoir.

Next: Signs of Contamination

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