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Friday, May 26, 2006

Mayor Kiss calls for greater gun control

Another controversial issue being addressed by our Burlington mayor...
May 26, 2006

BURLINGTON, Vt. --Mayor Bob Kiss, stepping into sensitive political territory in just his second month in office, responded to a shooting incident in the city by calling for greater gun control.

Kiss distributed to reporters at a news conference to discuss budget issues a news release from the police department about a shooting in the Old North End of the city in which a 22-year-old man was seriously injured by a single gunshot. It was the second such shooting in Burlington this year and Kiss said it demanded his attention.

"I really have concerns in general about handguns and the fact there's maybe more prevalence in the world to the use of violence," Kiss said. "I don't think two events suggest a change, but it's definitely something we all need to pay attention to in our personal lives and in the life of the city. And I think we can do more around the issue of handguns in particular."

Gun control traditionally has been a sensitive issue in Vermont, and there are few restrictions. Kiss said he did not want to project an image that the state or its largest city were a convenient place to buy weapons.

"There's a billboard as you go into Boston now that lists states that contribute to handgun availability in the state of Massachusetts," Kiss said. "And Vermont is on that list for Massachusetts because it has concerns that we don't do as much as we could to control the purchase and availability of guns. In the world at large there's room for Vermont and Burlington to look at the issues of handguns." -- from AP wire

And now from WCAX:

BURLINGTON, Vt. Burlington Mayor Bob Kiss is responding to a shooting incident in the city by calling for greater gun control.

Kiss called a news conference to discuss budget issues.But he opened it by discussing an incident in the city in which a 22-year-old man was seriously injured by a single gunshot.Kiss says he has concerns about handguns and the prevalance of violence.The mayor didn't offer any specific proposals on what might be done, but he says the public and political officials need to pay attention.

If Mayor Kiss doesn't think the two events suggest a change, then why is he even mentioning this issue? Stick to the main reason why the press conference was called - the budget & our increase to taxpayers. I would much rather like to see him working more on the budget (& addressing the future budgetary problems) & repairing the abundant potholes around town, as I believe that is something that should be at the forefront of the administration's agenda.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Medical Marijuana's 'holding pattern' in Burlington

Image -

This entry is in regard to this week's Seven Days article about problems that a medical marijuana recipient undergoes that lives here in Burlington. Here's the text of the article:
Smoked Out
Could the feds snuff out a Vermonter's medical marijuana?
by Ken Picard (05/24/06).

Shayne Higgins flinches and shields his eyes from the sun as though it were a laser beam cutting through his skull. He sits helplessly in his motorized wheelchair and waits, in visible pain, as two friends hastily assemble a makeshift ramp so he can roll into the house and out of the daylight.


Higgins is pale, gaunt and skeletal, with hollow, sunken eyes and limbs that are withered and curled from the ravages of advanced multiple sclerosis. He appears drained by the 10-minute ordeal of getting into the home of his friends "Willy" and "Tessa" (not their real names). Willy is Higgins' medical advocate and registered marijuana caregiver. About once a week, Higgins makes the laborious, 40-minute trip from his home at the Starr Farm Nursing Center in Burlington to this house in rural Chittenden County so he can smoke medical marijuana.

Higgins, 45, was diagnosed with MS in 1998 after suffering a seizure. Since then, he's lost his eyesight and most of his mobility. Higgins speaks in slow, slurred sentences and fades in and out of lucidity. His spaced-out demeanor is only partly due to the MS, Willy explains; mostly, it's a result of the 14 to 17 prescription drugs Higgins takes every day to control his pain, seizures and muscle spasms.

Higgins is one of 29 Vermonters registered with the Department of Public Safety to legally consume cannabis under the state's medical marijuana law, which took effect in October 2004. But unlike other medical marijuana patients, Higgins isn't allowed to consume cannabis in his own home. Starr Farm's administrators have told him that they could lose their Medicaid certification and federal funding if they allow him to possess or use a drug the U.S. government considers illegal.

Last summer, a Starr Farm staff member found a marijuana cigarette in Higgins' belongings and called the police. Although he had a Marijuana Registry ID card, the Burlington officer confiscated the joint; no charges were filed. Since then, the nursing home's administrator has told Higgins that he may not keep marijuana in his private room or smoke it anywhere on the grounds.

Willy calls the nursing home's position unjust, unreasonable and absurd. "They say they can't allow Shayne to use medical marijuana because they receive federal funding," Willy says. "Yet they're using a federal van and a federal driver to bring him here." Willy also points to Starr Farm's own "Resident Admission Agreement," which states that each resident "has a right to be free of interference, coercion, discrimination or reprisal from the facility in exercising his or her rights."

Higgins appears to be the only medical marijuana patient in Vermont caught in this cloudy legal area, but his case raises a number of larger questions: Does federal law always trump state law when it comes to the use of medical marijuana? Can the U.S. government use the threat of prosecution and financial penalties to enforce federal policies that are incongruous with state laws? And, more generally, do nursing home residents have the same privacy rights and protection from unreasonable search and seizure as people who live in private residences?

Once Higgins is inside the house, Willy goes into a bedroom, where two nearly mature pot plants are growing in a closet, bathed in the orange glow of an expensive lighting system. By law, Willy can only grow two mature plants and one immature plant at a time, and can keep no more than 2 ounces of dried, smokeable weed on hand. One of the plants, about 3 feet tall, is thick, green and bushy. Willy shakes his head at the other one, which is shorter and scrawnier. "This one's called Jack Hair. It's piss-poor and has no medicinal effect. I'll probably have to destroy it," he says.

Next, Willy opens a locked cabinet where he stores a vial of dried buds harvested from an earlier plant. Back in the living room, he hands the vial to Tessa, who packs Higgins a pipe full of the spongy, green bud and helps him light it. Higgins draws a deep puff and starts coughing slowly. Minutes later, the effects are visible. Higgins' curled fingers unclench from the armrests of the wheelchair and his taut frame relaxes, like a twisted rubber band returning to its natural shape. He reclines his head, closes his eyes for a moment, and manages a brief smile.

"I'd smoke at least once a day if I could," Higgins says slowly, putting the pipe down after two hits. "It calms my nerves."

Several minutes later, Tessa brings him a sandwich. Higgins' appetite is much better after he's smoked, she says. Before his arrival, Tessa expressed concern that her friend has lost a lot of weight, especially after a recent bout with bedsores. Several weeks ago, the swelling in his leg got so bad, they feared it might have to be amputated.

Willy retired from IBM after 30 years as a technician. He became Higgins' marijuana caregiver about six months ago after going through a state-mandated criminal-background check. Willy isn't paid for his work; in fact, it costs him $100 a year to be listed on the marijuana registry. He also covers the other expenses of growing Higgins' pot.

Willy has learned a lot about MS and cannabis' unique ability to relieve its symptoms, as well as many of the side effects of the pharmaceuticals commonly used to treat the disease.

Much of what Willy knows he learned from his friend, Mark Tucci, a marijuana patient who lives in Manchester. Tucci, 49, has had MS for about 12 years and grows his own herb. Although the state registry is confidential, Tucci has met four or five other marijuana patients in Vermont, and occasionally advises them on proper growing and harvesting techniques. The Vermont law didn't create a legal means for patients to obtain marijuana seeds or plants. Basically, patients are on their own, and must buy what they need on the black market.

Tucci admits it was hard for him to visit Higgins -- it was like looking in the mirror and seeing himself from several years ago.

"I was like Shayne -- all stoned, ripped, narc-ed out, laying in a ball and sleeping all the time," Tucci says. "Don't get me wrong. I still have MS. But I don't have a catheter in me. I know what day it is. I'm raising a family. I'm getting out and doing stuff around the house. I couldn't do any of that before."

Unlike Higgins, Tucci speaks in a clear and coherent voice. He can walk -- albeit with a crutch -- and is raising two teenaged boys on his own, though he can no longer work. He's reduced his daily meds from 17 to three. And he credits most of those improvements to his use of medical marijuana.

Tucci smokes about five joints a day, or about 2 ounces each month. He's figured out which strain works best to control his muscle spasms and which one manages his pain. In fact, Tucci has nearly finished writing a guidebook for other medical marijuana patients in Vermont on how to grow medical cannabis.

Tucci asserts that Higgins could make comparable improvements if he were allowed to smoke every day instead of just once a week. "If that man could have a constant supply [of cannabinoids] in his body, you give him three or four months and you could wean him off all that other crap," he says. "That poor sonofabitch just lays in bed and suffers. Who can live like that?"

Rachael Parker, administrator of the Starr Farm Nursing Center, refused repeated requests by Seven Days to be interviewed for this story. However, shortly before press time she issued the following statement: "We care about our resident and will continue efforts to assist him in managing his health needs. However, we must abide by state and federal laws with regard to this matter."

Last August, after Burlington police seized Higgins' marijuana, the nursing home also refused comment but issued a statement to the press: "A registry representative informed us that because our facility receives federal funds, and federal law prohibits the possession and use of marijuana, its possession and use in our facility is against the law, and therefore is strictly prohibited."

But Department of Public Safety Commissioner Kerry Sleeper denies that his office or the registry was ever queried on this issue, or offered an opinion on whether a nursing home's federal funding could be compromised by a resident's medical marijuana use.

Senator Jim Leddy (D–Chittenden), who chairs the Senate Health and Welfare Committee, says that although DPS initially opposed the medical marijuana bill, Kerry has since made it "very clear" that his agency would not violate the spirit or intent of the law. While Leddy recognizes that the Burlington police officer was put in awkward position because he was told that a crime was being committed, "That's where the nursing home exercised exceptionally poor judgment.

"We did not anticipate, nor did we ever think, that state or federal drug agents would come in and raid an individual, let alone a nursing home, and bust them," Leddy continues. "How the nursing home is handling this appears to be somewhat irresponsible and, frankly, inhumane."

Jackie Majoros is director of Vermont's Long-Term Care Ombudsman Project, which is part of Vermont Legal Aid. She advocates for people who are homebound or living in nursing homes, residential homes or assisted-living facilities. Majoros asserts that Starr Farm is Higgins' legal residence and he should be allowed to use medical marijuana in the privacy of his own room.

"It's hard for us to believe that federal prosecutors would prosecute someone like Mr. Higgins, who's struggling to manage symptoms of a debilitating disease," Majoros says, "or that they would choose to prosecute the nursing home for allowing him to get that relief in his own home."

When this issue first arose last summer, Majoros says she tried to contact administrators at other federally funded facilities around the country to see how they handle this dilemma. She didn't get very far. "There wasn't a whole lot of willingness to talk about it," Majoros admits. "They're all doing it below the radar."

The divide between the states and the feds on medical marijuana use has only grown wider in the last year. In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that California's medical marijuana law, which was the first in the nation, does not protect cannabis patients, growers or distributors from prosecution under federal law. And in April, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a statement denying that there are any medical benefits whatsoever from using marijuana.

But there's been no evidence thus far that the feds are pursuing federally funded health-care facilities that condone medical cannabis use, according to Kris Hermes, legal campaign director of Americans for Safe Access. The Oakland, California-based nonprofit tracks legal issues on the medical marijuana front. In California, it's estimated that 200,000 people use cannabis for medicinal reasons.

Hermes says he's never heard of a nursing home being threatened with the loss of its federal funding or certification. Nevertheless, "There's a lot of fear out there," he says. This is particularly true among low-income patients who live in federally subsidized housing. Some landlords who accept Section 8 housing vouchers are also wary, fearing federal asset-forfeiture laws if they condone medical pot growing or distribution on their property.

"It's something that the federal government has the ability to scrutinize," Hermes adds. "The drug laws are extremely draconian about what conduct is acceptable in subsidized housing."

Back in Vermont, Higgins is in a "holding pattern," according to Majoros. The Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union is researching his case and considering a lawsuit. According to Vermont ACLU director Allen Gilbert, plenty of case law covers the privacy rights of hospital patients, but very little addresses the privacy rights of nursing home residents.

In the meantime, Higgins says he'd be happy if Starr Farm just allowed him to smoke discreetly outside, the way other Starr Farm residents are allowed to smoke tobacco. But Higgins also says he'd prefer to move to another facility altogether, where, he says, he could get a shower more than once a week, the residents are closer to his own age, and the administration "isn't paranoid" about him smoking pot.

Still, Higgins' marijuana caregiver recognizes that moving him into another facility may not solve his problems. "We don't know that yet," Willy admits. "If they receive federal funding, we'll have to play this game all over again."

Personally, I believe that it is up to you to choose what types of medication you want to take for an illness, as it is your body and no one else's.

More info about this topic:
Medical Marijuana

WVMT monthly interview with Mayor Kiss

Just listened to our Mayor's monthly commentary & interview on WVMT, and I'll summarize a few of the points of the 20 minute segment for you here:
  • Sanctuary city update:
    • Mayor Kiss is currently waiting for City Attorney McNeil's report about the issue before he proceeds wtih anything
    • A caller had just suggested that he'd much rather see US citizen child molesters given amnesty rather than illegal immigrants.
      Quite a viewpoint to take on the issue... just an example of how controversial the issue is becoming.
  • About the new UVM alcohol policy: City is set to have meetings with UVM about the policy, Mayor Kiss would have liked to have known about the new policy *before* it was given publicity.
  • FY 07 Budget was handed out at Monday's Council meeting. The tax increase will put the city 'in good shape'
  • Also, Mayor Kiss is set to participate in this weekend's Vermont City Marathon
For those interested, Mayor Kiss makes a monthly visit to the Charlie & Ernie show the 4th Wednesday of month at 8AM.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Burlington and Eminent domain

Yesterday, May 17th was the anniversary of a low point in Burlington's history, the 40th anniversary of the beginning of the Champlain Street Urban Renewal project. Homes and small businesses were taken by the City of Burlington in eminent domain, calling them slums or blighted areas. On May 17th, 1966, the first homes were knocked down for the new commercial development, with square blocks of residential homes & small businesses eventually being reduced to rubble.

For those that watch the Channel 3's 6 o'clock news the past couple of nights, you may recall their coverage marking the anniversary of the project; the story was entitled A Neighborhood Lost.
For those that missed it, please feel free to read the links in this entry & watch the video coverage online at the WCAX site - Part 1 and Part 2
For those who would like to know a more personal perspective about this from those families who were displaced, there is also a DVD available on loan at Fletcher Free Library, only 30 minutes long, called the Champlain Street Urban Renewal project. For those new to Burlington, or those that are not aware of Burlington's history, I highly recommend that everyone watch the DVD to see the personal result of eminent domain.

Here are a few main points of the project From Ch. 3's coverage:

  • Before Urban Renewal, all of the streets ran straight through.157 families lived in the 27-acre urban renewal district, which stretched along the Battery, College, Pine and Pearl streets. Whole streets disappeared in the process, including several blocks of South Champlain Street.
  • In order to knock down the old neighborhood in 1966, Urban Renewal required the use of eminent domain-- the taking of private property. At the time officials believed-- and still believe today-- that this was for the betterment of the community.
  • Like other cities around the country, Burlington used Urban Renewal to buy out property owners under eminent domain. Some fought the taking of their homes in court-- and ultimately lost.
  • By June of 1968, over two years later, the neighborhood had been leveled, the demolition complete
  • Forty years later, some say Urban Renewal was not the best policy, given the widespread demolition and dislocation. Community & Economic Development Director Michael Monte told Channel 3, "You know, frankly it was a mistake, broadly, as a policy...[today] We would not come close to bulldozing an entire neighborhood"
  • Burlington has not used the power of eminent domain since Urban Renewal, although, like other municipalities, it has the power to condemn properties. The city has used the threat of eminent domain to obtain properties for public projects like the long-delayed Southern Connector.
  • Sam Matthews of the Greater Burlington Industrial Corp. said, "...the methodology might not have been the best. But this last piece, the hotel, is, I believe, going to ensure a sustainability to this community. Could it have been done better? Yeah. Has it been effective? It would appear so."
You'd think that the government would realize their mistake, and would stay away from this type of procedure, but eminent domain is happening even still today. On June 23rd, 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the government seizing private homes in New London, CT, in order for a Pfizer office building to be developed. The case has come to be known nationwide as the Kelo v. New London case. Luckily, some non-profit organizations such as the Institute for Justice are helping homeowners that are being pressured to give up their homes.

So, again, if you haven't seen either the Channel 3 coverage or the Champlain Street Urban Renewal Project DVD, I would recommend that you and anyone you know: friends, family, coworkers, etc. see the coverage, discuss this issue, and pass the word along, as it is still a viable option for the government to use.

Monday, May 15, 2006

An update to 'Lookout Burlington...'

Just back in from being kicked out of the Council meeting for their usual executive session. They seem to have one at every meeting, so much that it's a rare thing to see a meeting go by without one.

Anyway, a slight update to the last post about the impending taxes...
Straight from Leopold's office, the city has a current estimated $40 millon debt in the Fiscal Year 07 budget. (Note - the draft of the 07 budget will be available by the end of this week). Based on the current estimates (which do not include the Retirement portion), Leopold estimates it would take a 2.4% tax rate increase just to cover the shortfall, and this is with the city taking about 1/2 of the Local Option Sales Tax (or LOST, as I call it) revenue to be applied to the 07 budget.
(On a side note, Leopold's changed the date of when LOST will take effect to July 1st, instead of January 1st for more money in the budget)

A few good comments & questions where brought up by some councilors after the presentation:
  • Councilor Bushor (Ward 1): I do understand that this estimate doesn't include the retirement portion, but what does the 2.4% increase mean to the average homeowner? Hopes it is addressed in the draft budget.
  • Councilor Shannon (Ward 5): I cannot understand how the uncollected taxes portion of the budget got to over $1.3 Million...
    • Leopold: They are outstanding or delinquent property taxes, which make up 4-5% of the total property tax portion of the city budget (the amount also includes interest, and late fees); the amount also includes gross receipts taxes, which the decision by the Liscense Committee made a deal with the late applicants that they would grant the liscense renewal, but only if they committed to a payment plan, otherwise no liscense would be granted. This guarantees the money from the gross receipts tax.
So this is all I have on the budget so far, aside from a few handouts comparing the tax rates, and deficits from previous years. John Briggs of the Free Press was also in attendance, so there probably will also be coverage there too.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Lookout Burlington, here comes the taxes

As mentioned at the last Burlington Business Association meeting with Bob Kiss, our mayor is proposing increasing taxes... here's the story from the AP:

Burlington Faces Tax Hike To Cover Pension Underfunding

POSTED: 10:43 am EDT May 13, 2006
BURLINGTON, Vt. -- Burlington's new mayor said the state's largest city faces a tax increase because there hasn't been enough money set aside to cover employee pensions. Over the past two years, Burlington has underfunded the pension system by nearly $2.8 million.Mayor Bob Kiss said he'll ask for a tax increase to cover all of this year's pension requirements and to begin reducing previous obligations. Kiss has formed a task force to help him deal with problems in the city's budget. Former Mayor Peter Clavelle's administration had estimated the city would be $1.7 million short of meeting its budget. The state has since approved giving Burlington authority to collect a 1 percent local sales tax that is expected to generate $800,000.

So now here's a little list I've come up with of more money Burlingtonians will have to dole out to the government:

  • Local option sales tax
  • Burlington Electric rate increase
  • Increase in Dept. of Motor Vehicle Fees (starting July 1st)
  • Some Burlington residents (including our home) will be or have already gotten from the Assessors office, a 're-estimate' of the property reappraisal - our home's estimate increased by $3,000
  • And of course, the extra taxes as mentioned in the above article that our Mayor will be asking us for very soon...
It wouldn't suprise me to see even more For Sale signs start springing up like weeds around town.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Burlington gives extensions to 4 late applicants in debt

This entry's a bit delayed, as it was to be posted on May 1st... it's been wicked busy for work lately... but without further ado, here it is:

Just heard about this article from the Vermont Hum blog's 4/30/6 entry , and couldn't believe what I read... the city allowing select applicants get by the rules... Does it seem fair to allow this to happen to some establishments, and not let all the other businesses get by as well?

Here's the article from John Briggs:

City grants liquor-license extensions to late applicants

This issue will further be discussed at Monday's Council meeting.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Burlington as a 'sanctuary city'?

For those who haven't heard about Mayor Kiss' comments, here's the Ch. 3 Story.

Free polls from
Do you support Mayor Kiss' proposal of Burlington as a 'sanctuary city' for undocumented immigrants? (One Answer)
Yes No Undecided