hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News November 2018



Advocates push for more trains from Saratoga


Passenger-rail advocates and local officials have begun lobbying New York state to increase the number of daily Amtrak trains between Saratoga Springs and New York City.

Proponents say more frequent service is the logical next step now that the state has completed long-awaited projects to add track capacity and upgrade stations along the route north of Albany. A new $23 million station opened last month in Schenectady, and the state also has completed construction of a second 110 mph track between Schenectady and Albany – eliminating a bottleneck where trains often faced delays.

The Times Union of Albany reported that with these improvements now in place, advocates are urging the state to extend one or two daily trains northward from Rensselaer to Saratoga Springs. The state Department of Transportation helps to underwrite Amtrak service in New York and would need to commit funds to support the expanded service.

Amtrak currently runs 13 daily trains each way between New York City and Rensselaer, but only six of those continue to Schenectady, and only two trains serve Saratoga Springs. Most business travelers from the region now drive to Rensselaer, because under Amtrak’s current schedules it is impossible to make a same-day round trip to New York from any of the stations farther north.
Gary Prophet, the president of the Empire State Passengers Association, told the paper there’s a need for an early morning departure from Saratoga Springs that would get travelers to Manhattan around 9 a.m., with a return trip leaving the city in the late afternoon.

“The option of people getting on a morning train in Saratoga Springs or Schenectady also relieves traffic on Interstates 87, 90 and 787,” Prophet said. “Those are very busy roads during the morning rush hour.”

Todd Shimkus, the president of the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce, suggested the added train service also could benefit Saratogians who are tired of commuting by car to Albany.
“We need to find other ways to get people in and out” of the state capital, he said.
The train station in Rensselaer, however, is across the Hudson River from downtown Albany and therefore is not within walking distance of most destinations there. In contrast, the new Schenectady station is in the center of a downtown area that has been the focus of a series of redevelopment projects in recent years. The new station was built on the site of the old Schenectady Union Station that was demolished in the early 1970s.

In other news from around the region in October:


House seat stays vacant after racial harassment
Bennington Democrats have asked Vermont’s governor to leave the seat of former state Rep. Kiah Morris vacant until the new legislative session begins in January – as a symbolic show of respect for her.

Morris, a Democrat who was one of the few African Americans in the Legislature, had represented Bennington for two terms but abruptly dropped her re-election bid in August, saying she had been the target of death threats and harassment by white supremacist groups for more than a year. In late September, she decided to resign immediately, citing continued harassment and the need to help her husband recuperate from heart surgery.

The local Democratic organization chose Jim Carroll, a Bennington Select Board member, to replace Morris on the November ballot. He is running unopposed along with Republican Rep. Mary Morrissey for the two House seats representing Bennington District 2-2.

The Bennington Banner reported that Republican Gov. Phil Scott had agreed to appoint either Carroll or another interim representative designated by local Democrats to fill Morris’ seat until January. But the local party committee voted unanimously to “leave the seat open as a tribute to Kiah.”

Carroll told the paper he fully supported the committee’s decision. Although the harassment of Morris has prompted several unflattering stories by national news organizations about race relations in overwhelmingly white Vermont, Carroll said most local people are not racist.
“We should remember that Kiah won five elections – three primaries and two general elections,” he said.

In an interview with Vermont Public Radio in late August, Morris described a pattern of online threats as well as incidents that made her concerned about her family’s safety at home.
“We had propaganda being left underneath the door of the Democratic Party,” she said. “ I had a home invasion, vandalism. Even the woods near my house, where’d go and walk frequently as a family, had swastikas painted all over the trees.”

Morris also said in that interview that she and her husband had sought support from law enforcement officials, “but what was happening was nothing, to be quite frank … it was a shoulder shrug and a ‘good luck.’”

That prompted Bennington Police Chief Paul Doucette to release a statement in early September detailing his department’s handling of a series of complaints from Morris and her husband since 2016 – complaints he maintained had been investigated “appropriately and efficiently.” Doucette also said evidence collected by his department has been turned over to state police and the state attorney general’s office, which have taken over investigation of the case.

Robert Appel, a Burlington lawyer and former executive director of the state Human Rights Commission, is now representing Morris and says he has advised her against making further public comments about the case.

The Banner reported in 2016 that a judge issued a one-year protective order barring a local man, Max Misch, from having contact with Morris after the lawmaker reported Misch had sent her a series of racially charged tweets over a period of several months – and after an Election Day encounter that Morris said made her fear for her safety.
Misch, then 33, was ordered to have no contact with Morris and her family and to stay at least 300 feet away from their home. The paper reported that Misch’s Twitter account, which was subsequently suspended, “included numerous references to white nationalism and anti-Semitism.”

Housatonic cleanup sidelined by mediation
Environmental advocates in the Berkshires are expressing frustration with the secrecy and slow pace of a mediation process that is holding up the start of work on removing PCB contamination from the Housatonic River south of Pittsfield.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued its long-awaited cleanup plan for the river two years ago, and the plan largely survived a legal challenge from General Electric Co., which caused the pollution and is financially responsible for the $600 million cleanup.

But the EPA agreed to enter into mediation on some disputed parts of the cleanup plan, and the mediation is only just getting started – after months spent on crafting a nondisclosure agreement for the participants.

The Berkshire Eagle reported that at a late October meeting of the Citizens Coordinating Council, an EPA community advisory group for the Superfund project, several council members complained to an EPA lawyer about the pace of the process.

“We are not happy with it,” said Tim Gray, the executive director of the Housatonic River Initiative. “Here we are, years later, saying the same things that we said in 2000. This whole mediation, even after the first meeting, stinks.”

Gray’s organization is participating in the mediation in order to preserve its legal standing in the case, but he said the process shuts out those who didn’t file a legal brief in GE’s appeal of the cleanup plan.

“That basically doesn’t allow the public to participate,” Gray said.


School board vote sets off gun debate
The Saratoga Springs school board has drawn the ire of gun enthusiasts after voting 5-4 to prohibit grounds monitors at school events from carrying guns.

The city school district has 14 grounds monitors who patrol the exterior of its eight school buildings during special events. Many of the monitors are retired police officers who now work for the school system, but they are different from the active-duty police who work as school resource officers inside the schools and do carry weapons.

The Times Union of Albany reported that issue arose in September when Superintendent Michael Patton discovered that the district was out of compliance with a state law that says grounds monitor can’t carry weapons without the school board’s approval.

Board member Heather Reynolds said she researched the issue of school violence and concluded that allowing the monitors to carry guns was a bad idea.

“It’s a highly emotional issue,” Reynolds said. “The loss of life during mass shootings at schools is horrifying. But carrying guns at the school does not make our school safer.”
That view was supported by a majority of the school board and also by most people in the audience who spoke out at the board’s Oct. 9 meeting.

But after the board’s vote was featured on the National Rifle Association’s television network, an angry crowd turned out at the board’s Oct. 23 meeting, calling for the vote to be reversed. A new citizens group calling itself Saratoga Parents for Safer Schools said it collected more than 1,000 petition signatures in support of re-arming grounds monitors.

The Times Union reported that Sean Briscoe, a city police officer who also works as a grounds monitor, told the board it takes an average of five to six minutes for officers to respond to incidents in the city. He then aimed his finger at the board members.

“Bang, bang, bang, everyone is dead,” Briscoe said. “Continue armed personnel to stop the dying.”

Lenox voters reject short-term rental limits
Voters in the Berkshires resort town of Lenox have rejected a pair of proposals under which the town government would have started regulating short-term Airbnb rentals.

At a special town meeting on Nov. 1 that attracted nearly 400 people, voters rejected one rental-regulation proposal on a voice vote. The proposed law would have required homeowners who were renting their homes for fewer than 30 days at a time to register with the town clerk and submit to health and safety inspections.

The Berkshire Eagle reported that of the 14 voters who commented on the proposal, all but two strongly opposed it.

A separate zoning bylaw to regulate and restrict short-term rentals also was opposed by “a long parade of speakers,” the newspaper reported, and was withdrawn without a vote and sent back to the Planning Board for possible revision.

The proposals to regulate and restrict short-term rentals had been strongly supported by local innkeepers and also by some residents who contended that the influx of short-term renters in private homes changed the character of their neighborhoods.

But opponents said restricting the ability of homeowners to rent their properties amounted to taking away property rights – and that the rentals are good for the local economy in any case and ought not to be restricted.


Town is last to drop panhandling law
Rutland Town has become the last community in Vermont to repeal its anti-panhandling ordinance in the face of a threatened legal challenge from the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

The town Select Board voted unanimously on Oct. 30 to repeal its 6-year-old law after the ACLU warned in a letter that such laws are unconstitutional and have been defeated in court. Five other communities in Vermont, including Bennington, abandoned anti-panhandling ordinances in recent months at the ACLU’s urging.

The Rutland Herald quoted the local police chief as saying Rutland Town’s ordinance hasn’t been enforced because of fears it would be struck down in court.

The newspaper reported that at the Select Board’s Oct. 30 meeting, Chairman Josh Terenzini called the Green Mountain Plaza shopping center on Route 7 “the No. 1 place for panhandlers in the town.”

“I’ve seen cases where these individuals have come close to being hit by cars, and I think it’s a safety concern,” Terenzini said.

Board member Sharon Russell, who is executive director of the Open Door Mission, a local homeless shelter and soup kitchen, said services are available to those who are destitute and that “when you give them that money, it isn’t always the best thing.”

“I wish people did understand that when they put money in those boxes for those folks, they might be buying them their last fix or their last drink,” Russell said.


-- Compiled by Fred Daley