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


News August 2019



Groups fight county’s bid to share data with ICE


A coalition of civil rights and voter advocacy groups filed a federal lawsuit late last month in an effort to block Rensselaer County from sharing voter registration information with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The four groups went to court after the county’s leading Republican officials announced they would ask ICE to review local voter rolls to see if anyone who is registered to vote in the county is in the U.S. illegally.

The dispute is an outgrowth of a new state law that allows undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses in New York – as was possible before 2001. Although the new licenses cannot be used as identification for federal purposes and will not entitle their holders to register to vote, some county clerks have raised concerns about the change.

Rensselaer County Clerk Frank Merola, who oversees the county Department of Motor Vehicles operation, has claimed he’ll refuse to issue licenses to undocumented immigrants, and last month he filed his own lawsuit contending the new state law conflicts with his duty to uphold federal immigration law.

Then on July 22, Merola and several other top county officials, all Republicans, announced their intention to have ICE review the names of county residents who sign up to vote through the DMV in what’s known as the “motor voter” program.

“It is important to have another agency assist us in determining who is eligible to vote,” Merola said.

The Troy Record reported that Merola and the other officials characterized the county’s effort to involve ICE as a logical response to the new driver’s license law. Rensselaer County Executive Steve McLaughlin called the move “a common-sense initiative to combat the recent efforts of out-of-control liberals to circumvent federal law on immigration.”

But county Democrats said the talk of turning over voter information to ICE was case of “grandstanding” by Republicans. Cindy Doran, the deputy minority leader of the Rensselaer County Legislature, told the newspaper that the county’s Democratic elections commissioner, Ed McDonough, will not cooperate with the effort to turn voter records over to ICE.

In filing suit to block the county initiative, opponents argued that involving ICE might deter even U.S. citizens from registering to vote through DMV offices.

Susan Lerner, the executive director of Common Cause New York said in a statement that the county’s plan is “designed to fearmonger against immigrants and needlessly alarm and confuse eligible potential voters.”

Opponents also contend that the county’s plan would violate federal law.
Cameron Kistler of the group Protect Democracy, another litigant in the case, told the Times Union of Albany that the Rensselaer County proposal is “a transparent attempt to scare lawful voters,” especially Latinos.

“Such lawless conduct has no place in our democracy, which depends on free and fair elections in which all citizens may participate without fear,” Kistler said.

In other news from around the region in July:


Advocates push rail link to Boston
Advocates from the Berkshires have delivered a strong message to the Massachusetts transportation planners who are weighing options for new east-west rail service in the state: The trains should run the full distance from Boston to Pittsfield.

At a preliminary meeting on the issue last month in Springfield, representatives of the state Department of Transportation outlined six broad options for establishing rail service from Boston to western Massachusetts. In three of the options they presented, trains would only run as far west as Springfield, with bus connections continuing from there to the Berkshires.

But The Berkshire Eagle reported that state Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox, wrote an emphatic “NO” next to all the options that involved bus service.

“Anything that does not include rail to the Berkshires, I would eliminate,” Pignatelli told the group, later adding in an interview with the newspaper that any proposal without direct rail service “should be dead on arrival.”

Similarly, Richard Holzman, who has pushed to establish a train stop in the Hampden County community of Chester, about halfway between Springfield and Pittsfield, said forcing travelers to switch from trains to buses at Springfield “would be counterproductive.”

And Karen Christensen of Great Barrington, who helped found The Train Campaign, a citizens group pushing to restore rail service from the Berkshires to New York City, called through east-west rail service from Boston to Pittsfield “absolutely critical.”

The forum was a preliminary step in a study the state DOT is undertaking, at the request of the Legislature, to evaluate options for new rail service to western Massachusetts. Amtrak currently provides train service once a day in each direction from Boston to Albany through Worcester, Springfield and Pittsfield. From Worcester east, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority operates frequent commuter train service to Boston. But except for the single Amtrak run, the rail line west of Worcester is now used only by CSX freight trains.

DOT officials said they have not met yet with representatives of CSX, which owns the rails west of Worcester, to explore the feasibility of adding new passenger train service to Springfield and beyond. That conversation likely won’t happen until the state has a more concrete proposal for service, they indicated.

The Eagle reported that the six options presented at the forum covered a wide range of ambition and likely cost. At the low end – a train from Boston to Springfield and a bus to the west – it would take four hours and 10 minutes to get to Pittsfield. At the high end – a newly built rail line following the path of the Mass Pike – a travel time of two hours and 40 minutes could be attained.


White nationalist faces new charge
A self-described white nationalist from Bennington whose racist online commentary helped to drive a local legislator from office has been charged with violating a court order that barred him from purchasing firearms.

Max Misch is accused of buying a handgun from a Bennington dealer on March 30 – nearly two months after a judge barred him from buying, possessing or using firearms or other weapons. Bennington police said the new charge was lodged after authorities learned of the weapons transaction last month. Although Misch paid the full price of $350 for the weapon, he left it in the possession of the dealer, police said.

The Bennington Banner reported that Misch’s ex-wife told police last month about the weapons purchase. The court order barring him from buying weapons was imposed earlier this year after he was charged with violating a new state law banning large-capacity ammunition devices. Misch is challenging the constitutionality of that ban, which was among a package of new gun control measures adopted by Vermont legislators last year.

Both cases against Misch are being prosecuted by the office of state Attorney General T.J. Donovan. The Banner reported that at a July 22 hearing, Superior Court Judge William D. Cohen rejected a request from Donovan’s office to impose bail and instead released Misch on his own recognizance pending a future court hearing.

Misch, 36, gained notoriety over the past couple of years after he was accused of stalking former state Rep. Kiah Morris, D-Bennington. Morris, who had been the only black woman serving in the Vermont legislature, abruptly dropped her bid for a third term last August, saying she had been the target of death threats and harassment by white supremacist groups for more than a year. She resigned her seat in September.

An investigative report by Donovan’s office, released in January, identified Misch as the author of a series of “extremely racist” online messages targeting Morris. The report also noted that, in December 2016, a judge ruled that two of those messages met the definition of stalking under state law and issued a one-year protection order barring Misch from having contact with Morris.
Although Donovan’s office concluded that Morris and her family were the victims of a series of property crimes as well as online messages that were “clearly racist and extremely offensive,” it did not pursue charges against Misch or anyone else in connection with these incidents. The attorney general said he concluded there wasn’t enough evidence to identify any suspects in the property crimes – and that the online comments were likely protected by the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech.


-- Compiled by Fred Daley