HARTFORD, COMMISSION DIVIDED OVER DEVELOPMENT
By Jon Wolper | Valley News | May 5, 2013
Hartford — The proposal by a prominent Upper Valley businessman to build an office and retail center on land near the Interstate 89 exit along Route 4 has created a divide between the town of Hartford and the regional planning commission to which it belongs.
Differing interpretations over whether the 168-acre parcel in Quechee should be designated a “growth center” have also kept the Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Commission from approving the town’s most recent master plan. The lack of approval precludes Hartford from certain benefits, such as downtown designations, which can be used to bring more grant money to the town.
It all started, though, with a special zoning district, created in 2005 and called the Quechee Interstate Interchange, which was ostensibly meant to keep gas stations and rest stops away from the Route 4 corridor while adding protection for wildlife corridors and natural resources, according to town officials.
The town’s residents “don’t want it to be truck stops,” said Lori Hirshfield, Hartford’s Planning and development director. “They don’t want it to be high-rise buildings.”
The proposed Quechee Highlands development would include 120,000 square feet of retail stores and residential units, and is being spearheaded by Scott Milne, the owner of Milne Travel American Express and co-owner of B&M Realty. The proposed project near Interstate 89’s Exit 1 needs approval from the District 3 Commission, which has jurisdiction over significant property developments in the area under Vermont’s landmark Act 250 law.
The last two iterations of Hartford’s master plan, which was adopted in 2007 and again last year, includes the zoning district in which the proposed development would be located.
But the Quechee Highlands parcel, which sits between White River Junction and downtown Quechee, is not designated a growth center in the regional commission’s plan. In fact, the commission’s plan, also adopted last year, asserts that the site is not the right place for extensive development.
“This interchange is not an appropriate location for a growth center,” reads the regional plan, noting that White River Junction, which is 3.5 miles to the east, is meant for development and the Quechee Highlands project would move commercial activity out of the downtown center.
But the Hartford Planning Commission, which approved the Quechee Highlands application last year, disagrees.
“The Commission does not anticipate that the project will pull any business from existing village or growth centers since those centers have well established patterns of commerce,” wrote Bruce Riddle, the Planning Commission’s chairman, in a memo to the Act 250 board.
On the evening of March 20, members of both the Hartford Planning Commission and Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Commission met at the commission’s offices in Woodstock to discuss the dispute.
The meeting provided an opportunity for the two sides to hash out their differences, though no votes were taken. Peter Gregory, executive director of the regional commission, said his commission stated its issues about the zoning district in its 2007 approval of Hartford’s master plan.
“We were concerned,” he said.
Riddle responded that the concept of the Quechee Interstate Interchange was in the master plan when it was approved. Gregory countered that the regional plan still “stipulated against it.” “Given that this is a human document, that is adopted by people, that is the result of compromise, it can be the result of further compromise,” said Peter Merrill, a member of the Planning Commission.
The two panels will meet again on May 1 to hear from Hartford residents. The meeting will begin at 6:30 p.m., at the Municipal Building.
Creating the District
In the early 2000s, Chuck Wooster joined Hartford’s Master Plan Steering Committee, a 17-member body of town officials, commission members and residents. The committee was tasked with overhauling Hartford’s master plan, and held a series of public meetings to ask what Hartford residents wanted to see.
“They liked the balance that we had between the five villages, and also the undeveloped countryside around it,” said Wooster, a farmer who also served on the town’s Conservation Commission, and is chairman of the Selectboard. “Then it turned out that the zoning that we had in place was going to do the opposite.”
So the committee decided to make changes meant to shift emphasis away from creating suburban sprawl. Halfway through the process, the nascent Quechee Highlands project was introduced.
Under prior zoning laws, buildings on the parcel would have been less concentrated, and there would have been fewer protections for wildlife. In a memo sent to the Act 250 board, Hirshfield wrote, “The (Quechee Interstate Interchange) Zoning District is much more restrictive in how development occurs at this gateway” than the previous zoning.
“It was created expressly to prevent the kind of proliferation of fast food restaurants and gas stations at all the interchange districts down south,” said John Jalowiec, a former member of the Planning Commission who served during the creation of the new zoning district. He said the zoning district wasn’t created for Milne as much as it was meant to discourage those rest stops and fast food restaurants.
“I believe Quechee Highlands is a common-sense development,” Milne wrote in an email. “I am comfortable with the public legal arguments we have been forced to submit in light of Two Rivers’ opposition to the project.”
After multiple meetings with the public to gauge its views, the new zoning district passed in 2005. Two years later, it was assimilated into the town’s master plan, at about the time then-Gov. Jim Douglas, a Republican, came out in support of development near some of the state’s interstate interchanges — a marked departure from his predecessor, Democrat Howard Dean, who had largely opposed development near interstate exits.
The regional commission approved the Hartford master plan, zoning district and all, in 2007, though not without some reservations. Specifically, the regional commission worried about that new district, and how it is “not located near an existing downtown or village area.”
It did not find “major conflicts,” but did find “minor conflicts.”
The approval later states that the Act 250 board, in order to award a permit, must find a project in conformance with a town’s master plan and the regional commission’s plan, and when an application is found to be “vague, unclear, or ambiguous,” it can hurt the applicant.
According to Hirshfield, the concerns raised in the approval letter were taken by the town as a request for the bodies to work together, not as an ultimatum from the regional commission.
“We knew it was an issue, but we didn’t realize it was going to prevent them from approving our plan update,” said Matt Osborn, Hartford’s assistant zoning administrator.
Also, Hirshfield said, the quantity of public input the town sought before creating the new zoning district was — and is — an important factor.
“Even if (the regional commission) didn’t concur with that, it doesn’t mean the town is just going to change its opinion,” Hirshfield said, adding that the zoning district should be considered a local one, not a regional one.
Hartford’s master plans in 2007 and 2012 did not change in regards to the zoning district, Hirshfield and Osborn said. Hirshfield said required changes were made to other sections of the plan, such as a census update, but the increased workload following Tropical Storm Irene, and the perception that changes to zoning language were not needed for regional commission approval, prevented the two sides from discussing the new zoning district until this year.
“I don’t think there’s any breakdown,” said Gregory, of the regional planning commission. “I think it was extremely clear that there were discrepancies.”
Though regional approval is optional, towns whose master plans aren’t given the OK by their regional planning commissions are not, for instance, allowed to renew downtown designations, which in Hartford’s case would stymie the Tax Increment Finance district in White River Junction, Hirshfield said. Without approval, the town can’t apply for state planning grants. Hirshfield said that “quite a bit of planning activities (are) done through those grants.”
Gregory also said that towns without regional approval can’t levy impact fees, which are fees charged to developers to defray the cost of the public services they use during the development process. Hirshfield said she was unaware of regional approval affecting those fees. Hirshfield said the money is diverted to various funds, but didn’t know the total amount.
“There’s a lot of money there that is collected,” she said.
These downsides contribute in part to that meeting back in March, at which the two bodies first met to start the road to an agreement.
“The regional planning commission and the town realize that, if there is a way to come to a middle ground, let’s do that,” Hirshfield said.
Back and Forth
Caught up in the dispute is the possible Act 250 approval of Quechee Highlands.
Over the past several months, documents ranging from zoning maps to traffic studies to letters of testimony have become part of the public record in the District Commission’s review. As of a week ago, 129 separate documents of varying lengths had been uploaded.
In order to award a permit, the Act 250 board must find a project compliant with 10 predetermined criteria. Two of the final criteria, which deal with growth areas and local and regional plan compliance, have created the greatest stir, leading to a volley of memos over whether the project should be approved.
All of the documents will contribute to the board’s eventual decision. Linda Matteson, the District 3 coordinator for the state’s Natural Resources Board, said she was unsure when that decision will be issued.
“The Quechee Highlands project is not sprawl,” Paul Gillies, who represents B&M Realty, Milne’s company, wrote in a February memo. “It is the opposite of sprawl. It is not low density development. It is a well-planned community of buildings with a thoughtful design in a pedestrian-friendly environment. … It is what Exit 1 needs, what Hartford wants, and what will bring traffic and highway improvements to the interchanges that are sorely needed.”
The regional planning commission responded in a memo.
“This assertion apparently is based on (Gillies’) belief that ‘sprawl’ is merely a subjective term for development that an individual does not like,” commission stated, noting that the commission’s definition of the word has to do with development outside of village centers, along highways or in the countryside. “This development would not be the opposite of sprawl. It would be sprawl.”
However, both sides of the argument expressed a desire to come to some sort of agreeable conclusion soon.
“We have had a very good working relationship with the regional planning commission in the past,” Hirshfield said.
FIREFIGHTER HURT IN LEAP TO SAFETY
By Jon Wolper | Valley News | Feb. 21, 2013
Windsor — A Windsor firefighter who jumped off an Interstate 91 overpass to avoid an out-of-control tractor-trailer truck was recovering from injuries yesterday, officials said.
Molly Wood, a four-year member of the fire department, came away from the estimated 25- to 30-foot drop with a concussion, cuts and bruises and a likely broken ankle, Fire Chief Mark Kirko said.
“She’s very lucky that she actually survived the fall,” Kirko said, adding that Wood’s helmet and turnout gear likely provided protection as she hit the pavement.
Rick Adams, a spokesman for Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, said that Wood was in “satisfactory” condition yesterday afternoon.
Though Wood’s was the only serious injury from the event that started above County Road early yesterday morning, it was only part of a wild few minutes that saw at least five vehicles — including three semi-trailer trucks — lose control on the icy interstate.
The initial call was made to Vermont State Police at 2:15 a.m., police said. While heading northbound on the highway, C.J. Stevens, of Delhi, N.Y., lost control of his Dodge Caravan minivan and hit a guardrail.
Police and the Windsor Fire Department responded, and determined Stevens was uninjured.
Soon after, Douglas Bennett, of Springfield, Vt., lost control on his Honda Accord on the icy curve leading to the same overpass and also hit a guardrail. Two Windsor firefighters, Wood and Cory Austin, went to check on him, said Kirko, who was also on the scene.
Austin began walking north with Bennett down the length of the bridge. Wood lagged about 100 feet behind.
A northbound tractor-trailer truck lost control on the same curve and struck the Accord.
Austin and Bennett began to run, Kirko said. They cleared the span and leapt over the guardrail, falling three or four feet to the grassy embankment and were uninjured.
Wood was forced to scramble over the guardrail where the distance to the road below was far higher. A sign on the overpass says the distance from the underside to County Road is 14 feet.
North of the bridge, farther from the out-of-control truck, tow-truck operator Richard Meunier was in the process of hooking up the minivan to the tow bed. He too went over the guardrail and landed farther up the embankment from Austin and Bennett.
“I looked up,” Meunier said, “and I saw a body flying through the air.”
Jan Fournier, of Coaticook, Quebec, was operating the errant tractor trailer, which ended up hitting Bennett’s Accord and pushing it into the back of a Windsor fire truck.
Yesterday, debris — a twisted piece of metal, a shard of headlight cover — dotted the slushy embankment on County Road. A set of footsteps stretched from the pavement up the embankment to the I-91 guardrail.
A man who answered the telephone in Wood’s room at DHMC declined to comment on her behalf. Austin did not return a message seeking comment.
“I figured this tractor-trailer was coming over the guardrail,” Meunier said.
He recalled Kirko and a Vermont State Police officer asking if he was hurt, and said he turned their attention toward Wood , who had landed on the pavement.
As Kirko began to head toward his command vehicle to get medical supplies, another tractor trailer lost control.
“I got right about here,” Kirko said yesterday, standing in the firehouse, about one-third down the length of the fire truck.
Realizing he didn’t have time to make a run for it, Kirko threw open the driver’s side door of the truck and dove across the middle console and into the passenger’s seat.
The tractor-trailer truck ended up hitting the fire truck’s side view mirror and scraping its front.
According to police, the truck’s trailer had struck another tractor-trailer, which struck the back of the truck that first sent people scrambling over the guardrail.
Bennett and Michel Drolet, the driver of the third truck, were brought to Mt. Ascutney Hospital with minor injuries.
The fire truck itself suffered only minor, cosmetic damage, Kirko said yesterday.
After the series of tractor trailer crashes — all of which took place over a period of about two minutes, Kirko said — police closed I-91 between exits 8 and 9, detouring drivers down Route 5. The highway remained closed until about 7:30 a.m. yesterday.
Scott Reed, of S.G. Reed Truck Services Inc., He said that everything on the northbound side last night seemed to have a “glaze of ice” atop it.
“It was super slippery,” Reed said. “It was very hard, even, to stand up.”
Kirko said all the trucks and cars were ultimately towed.
“It was carnage,” Kirko said. “It was absolutely carnage.”
WINDSOR CLERK ASKED FOR SHORTER WORK WEEK, RECORDS SHOW
By Jon Wolper | Valley News | Sept. 21, 2012
Windsor — The town clerk who recently rescinded her resignation is now asking the Selectboard to repay the wages she claims were “illegally” cut between October 2010 and June 2011, or she may consider suing the town.
However, emails sent by Town Clerk Sandra Micka to the Selectboard and town manager two years ago show that she volunteered to take the 5-hour weekly pay cut she received.
On Sept. 28, 2010, the board considered cutting hours and wages of employees in various departments, including eliminating a vacant police officer job and highway worker position, as well as slashing the hours of the lister/assessor by half, according to Selectboard minutes. At the time, then-Town Manager Steve Cottrell estimated the cuts would save Windsor approximately $90,000.
According to an email Micka sent to the Selectboard and Cottrell the day after the September 2010 meeting, Micka offered to split the cut with the town’s lister/assessor, bringing both positions down from 40 to 30 hours per week. She altered that request more than a week later, offering to instead have her hours cut to 35 per week so she could retain benefits. Ultimately, the Selectboard shaved five hours per week from the clerk and treasurer posts, plus 10 from the lister/assessor.
“This way, by the three of us sharing it, it made it a little better,” Micka said. “It didn’t mean I agreed with it, because I didn’t.”
Current Selectboard Chairman Justin Ciccarelli said town officials were simply following her lead on the matter.
“The Selectboard has the power and the right to set her hours and her rate, but the fact of the matter is we didn’t touch them,” he said. “And we did not initiate trying to take hours away from Sandra.”
The reduction in hours went into effect on Oct. 25, 2010, and the hours have remained the same since. Micka currently earns a salary of $41,000 per year, about $5,000 less than if she was compensated for a 40-hour week.
In an interview this week, Micka said she was operating on faith when the changes were made and she believed that, when she needed an assistant clerk or a return to a full 40-hour workweek, town leaders would oblige.
“I really didn’t think it was going to be something that they were going to set in stone,” said Micka, who has held the job for 12 years. “I thought that the Selectboard and the elected officials could work together. I didn’t realize that they were going to turn into being so heavy-handed and not even listen like reasonable people.”
On August 30, Micka announced that she would resign from her post due to the reduction in hours and pay. But then, in the wake of what she described as an outpouring of support from townspeople, she rescinded that resignation.
She then took it one step further. In a Sept. 11 email to the Selectboard and Town Manager Tom Marsh, Micka wrote that getting her hours cut in October 2010 — four months into fiscal year 2011 — was illegal. She also said Vermont law mandates an assistant for all town clerks, a job the town cut at the same time.
“Suddenly, in October, the Selectboard and the manager decide they’re going to take money out of our wage lines, cut our hours … when the budget year still had eight months to go,” she said. “So I question the legality of that.” Micka wrote in the email that she is prepared to sue the town if her requests aren’t granted.
Town officials, some of whom have been consulting with the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, don’t agree with her interpretation.
“My understanding is we do have that authority” to reduce the hours, said Selectman John Tansey, whose late mother, Gloria Tansey, was a longtime town clerk in Windsor.
Treasurer Joins Protest
Town Treasurer Debra Ouelette said that she also assumed her hours would be reinstated by the Selectboard for the fiscal year 2012.
She said that former Town Administrator Don Howard, who held the position before Cottrell, had done something similar in the past when hours were cut to save money but then restored when the budget was flush.
Tansey, who joined the board during Howard’s tenure, confirmed Ouelette’s account, but added that circumstances were different: In 2006, when the hours were restored, the town was over budget, he said. In 2010, it was looking to permanently cut positions in order to free up money to repair the town’s infrastructure.
Additionally, because there was no agreement in writing that the hours would be restored, members of the Selectboard said they don’t feel they had made a commitment to do so.
“I think you can imagine anything you like,” Ciccarelli said. “I can imagine that next year I’m going to get a 25 percent pay raise, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen.”
Town officials also note that Micka ran for and won re-election in March 2012, knowing the hours budgeted for her office.
Micka said she understood the budget, which passed the same day she was elected, but assumed the latest town manager, Marsh, would be able to help her iron out issues she had down the line.
“It was my hope that our new manager would be a little more reasonable and stand up for the offices here a little bit more than our past one,” she said in an interview. “So I was really hoping things might change that way.”
After helping a customer, she went on.
“I was hoping for more reasonable help from him, and then I also thought that probably I could keep up with the work and then, suddenly, it’s just gotten so busy this summer,” she said, noting the myriad duties in an election year. With interest rates at historic lows, she said she’s also seen an increase in people turning to her office as part of the process to refinance.
Micka’s Aug. 30 resignation letter said she would work through November so the general elections would go smoothly in town.
Town officials said they didn’t dispute that she does a good job, but just don’t believe it requires 40 hours of work a week.
“I think the office runs well over there, I think the customers are well served, I just don’t think we see eye to eye,” Marsh said.
Marsh said he could not say definitively whether Micka’s hours legally have to be restored or if she’s entitled to back pay from fiscal year 2011.
He said the town attorney is going to prepare a document displaying the town’s interpretation of the state statutes and personnel plan that Micka cites.
“I’m not aware that it was inappropriate, but again, there’s documents that need to be referred to,” he said, regarding the cutting of hours a few months into the fiscal year.
Vermont Deputy Secretary of State Brian Leven wrote in an email, “it is unclear whether reducing a town officer’s compensation midway through a budget year amounts to an illegal action.”
Micka said she is still undecided about whether to file a lawsuit if she doesn’t get her way; for now, she’s been reaching out to organizations for guidance on how to approach the situation.
One piece of advice she’s chosen to accept — a petition for wage reinstatement that, if it garners 150 signatures, can be put on the ballot at Town Meeting in March — came from Sandra Pinsonault, the Dorset town clerk and president of the Vermont Municipal Clerks’ and Treasurers’ Association.
Ouelette, whose hours were also cut to 35 two years ago, is joining Micka in her petition. Ouelette, though, didn’t offer up her hours in 2010; in fact, she said, she was on vacation when her job was reduced to 35 hours per week.
Both have petitions taped to their desks, and both have given copies to private citizens to pass around. Micka said they’ve received approximately 60 signatures so far.
In an email, Leven wrote that he doesn’t know of any statute preventing the women from petitioning in this manner.
Ouelette said the purpose of the petition was to allow the people of Windsor who elected her to have their voices heard.
“It’s their voice. It’s their vote. And that’s what we’re looking for,” she said.
Despite testy exchanges between parties, Ciccarelli, the Selectboard chairman, said he hopes the fallout from these events doesn’t affect Micka’s work.
“I’m going to hope that Sandy is going to continue doing the good job that she does and there won’t be any issues,” he said. “I’m sure right now there’s probably some feelings that have been hurt and some issues that need to be cleared up. By the sounds of her letter stating that she did not want to resign anymore it sounded like she was angry, and I just hope that doesn’t translate into work, into what she does on a daily basis.
“She does do a good job, and that’s the bottom line,” he said. “I hope that continues.”
“I know that I’m doing a good job,” Micka said in an interview several weeks ago. “I just can’t understand the unfair treatment.”
Micka said she won’t be able to attend the next Selectboard meeting on Tuesday because she will be at the annual meeting of the Clerks’ and Treasurers’ Association in Killington, Vt.
According to Marsh, the issues of back fee payment, wage reinstatement and the assistant clerk job will be broached by the Selectboard, but not truly debated until a meeting is held that Micka can attend.
He said that he didn’t expect a “donnybrook” at that meeting, though, but rather a presentation of conflicting opinions that may lead to some sort of resolution.
“If she or the two of them have issues, or their associations have issues with the way this is handled, I want to be able to give them a document that says conclusively, ‘Here’s where the town stands,’ ” Marsh said. “I want to give them every opportunity to look at what our rationale is.”
But just a few feet down the hall on Tuesday, Micka remained unhappy with the way she says the town has treated her — when there’s communication at all.
“This is how our government is here,” she said. “They’re a shadow. They’re a shadow government.”
EYEWITNESS: THETFORD MAN WASN’T THREAT
By Jon Wolper | Valley News | June 23, 2012
Thetford — A 39-year-old man who died Wednesday after being shot in the chest with a stun gun by a Vermont state trooper was not threatening police officers at the time, an eyewitness said yesterday.
On Thursday, Vermont State Police officials said Macadam Mason was shot after he refused to comply with a command to stay on the ground, got up with a clenched fist and began yelling and moving in a threatening way toward Trooper David Shaffer. That’s not so, said Aleks Davidonis, 25, the son of Mason’s longtime girlfriend, who said he arrived at the home on Sawnee Bean Road about 10 minutes before Mason was shot with the Taser and collapsed. Efforts to revive him failed.
Police said they responded to Mason’s home after he made suicidal and homicidal threats in a phone call to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. In an interview with the Valley News, Davidonis said he was looking for Mason on the property when he heard someone shouting, “Get on the ground!”
He looked down on the lawn and saw Mason sitting on the hillside, he said, with two troopers facing him. One held a rifle; the other a handgun. Theresa Davidonis, Aleks’ mother and Mason’s companion, shouted at the officers to “put the guns down,” he said.
At that point, Mason stood up and raised his hands, Aleks Davidonis said. At no point did Mason ever clench his fist and charge toward the officers, he said. The officer, Shaffer, put away his handgun, pulled out his Taser and shot Mason, according to Aleks Davidonis.
“There were four cops around,” Davidonis said. “They could have taken him. Macadam’s a wimp. He’s completely harmless.”
While its manufacturer says the Taser is generally a safe way for authorities to subdue subjects, the device — which delivers 50,000 volts of electricity designed to temporarily stun a person — can pose a greater risk to the infirm, elderly, children and pregnant women. Vermont State Police guidelines on stun gun use note that “special consideration must be given to special populations that may be more susceptible to injury from (stun gun) use, including but not limited to … those who the officer has reason to believe are in ill health.”
After police had arrived but before the final confrontation, Theresa Davidonis said she had told officers that Mason had suffered multiple seizures in the past — one just the day before.
“I was talking to the police officers and I told them about his epilepsy and I told them he had a seizure the night before,” she told the Valley News. She said she told the troopers Mason often behaved erratically the day after a seizure.
“I told them that this is normal behavior,” she said. “This is the way he calls out for help.”
Mason initially disappeared into the woods near his home, but reemerged and encountered state police on his lawn. Both Theresa and Aleks Davidonis said that Mason put his hands in the air and told police, “Shoot me.” Theresa Davidonis continued: “I said, ‘Put the (expletive) guns away.’ I said, “Don’t Taser him; he just had a seizure 24 hours ago.’ ”
An instant later, Mason was shot in the chest with the electrified barbs and collapsed. He was pronounced dead at DHMC a short while later.
Vermont State Police declined last night to comment on the account given by the Davidonises. Family members and police agree that troopers and onsite medical personnel immediately began to perform CPR on Mason. Col. Thomas L’Esperance said the trooper who shot Mason with his Taser had followed department protocol.
State Police say it will be several weeks before autopsy results are released, and the cause and manner of Mason’s death won’t be known for sure until additional toxicology tests are completed in several weeks.
Maker Warns Of Chest Shots
Taser International, the company that makes Tasers, issued a statement yesterday in the wake of the shooting to remind users that the chest area should be avoided when firing its weapon.
“When possible, avoiding chest shots with (electronic control devices) avoids the controversy about whether ECDs do or do not affect the human heart,” the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based company said.
Vermont state officials nonetheless did not see the confrontation with Mason as a reason to dismiss use of stun guns.
“I think that (Tasers are) a very meaningful tool for law enforcement,” Keith Flynn, the commissioner of the Vermont Department of Public Safety, which oversees state police, said yesterday. “It allows us to use less than lethal force.”
Authorities see the Taser, which has been used by state police since 2006, as a safe weapon to stop the movement of a person who refuses to comply with officers and must be subdued with less than deadly force. From a relatively short distance, an officer can shoot the weapon, which releases two electrified barbs. When they hit their target, they transmit 50,000 volts of electricity through the body, effectively shutting down the nervous system for a five-second interval.
Taser International markets its product as a “less lethal” weapon, one that is less risky than a traditional firearm. The company says there is a less than 0.25 percent risk of death following use of the stun gun. A May study by the U.S. Department of Justice found that a shock from a Taser is 100 times more powerful than what the average person considers “intolerable” pain.
The upside, according to police, is that the weapon is designed to avoid long-term injuries, whereas a more traditional weapon such as a nightstick can shatter a kneecap or cause a permanent brain injury.
Lt. Michael Henry said that Tasers have gained another advantage as they have become more widely adopted by law enforcement.
“The mere display of Tasers has de-escalated a number of incidents,” he said.
Allen Gilbert is executive director for the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which has campaigned against the use of Tasers unless deadly use is justified. Gilbert said that, from 2001 to 2009, there were more than 400 deaths following Taser strikes in the country. In more than 30 of those cases, Gilbert said, medical examiners ruled the Taser shot was a cause or contributing factor in the death.
But Gilbert added there is a murky gray area when it comes to determining causes of death.
“It’s actually very, very hard to find too many cases where you can definitively say a person died (due to a Taser),” he said. “The barb itself, when it sticks in your skin, almost never causes death itself. There’s usually some other thing that happens that may or may not be related to the Taser.”
Holly Davidonis, 27, the eldest daughter of Mason’s longtime girlfriend, said he suffered from epileptic seizures brought on by scar tissue in his brain from a car accident two decades earlier. Davidonis, a mother of three children who regarded Mason as the stepgrandfather of her children, said police erred in shooting Mason in the chest with the Taser.
L’Esperance said at Thursday’s news conference that the Vermont State Police currently have 207 Tasers in the field. Last year, the weapons were deployed 32 times, and were withdrawn without being fired an additional 49 times. They have been fired 16 times so far this year, L’Esperance said, with 13 additional showings.
L’Esperance said that Shaffer, the trooper, was following standard operating procedure.
“Protocol is just to acquire the target and to deploy the Taser,” L’Esperance said at Thursday’s news conference. “In last night’s incident, that’s where the Taser landed.”
Critics, however, contend that stun guns can be misused, even by police.
Jeffrey Dworkin, who last year chaired a Montpelier research committee that ultimately advised the city to not deploy Tasers for its officers, said that officers have no effective way to identify whether a target is suffering from a mental illness, and as such Taser use in general is suspect.
“You can have all the training in the world,” he said, “but if you can’t know enough about the circumstances of your subject, then it’s almost always a rolling of the dice as to whether you’re using it safely or not.”
This isn’t the first time the Vermont State Police has had a high-profile Taser incident.
In 2009, the state’s attorney general’s office paid a $40,000 settlement to Lawrence Fairbrother, a Fairlee man who claimed he was Tasered by state police in 2006 while he was having a seizure. At the time, police thought he was resisting arrest.
Last October, Disability Rights Vermont reached an agreement with state police after police used a Taser on a 23-year-old man with Down syndrome when he didn’t comply with officers’ orders. According to the police’s rules and regulations, which were revised this month, those with “cognitive impairments” should be given special consideration before a Taser is used. A person with cognitive impairments is defined as someone who has a disability that makes him or her unable to communicate or follow directions.
In 2006 the Vermont State Police Tactical Services Unit shot 40-year-old Joseph Fortunati with Tasers, beanbag shotguns and assault rifles. Fortunati suffered from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder and was off his medication. Police said he drew a gun, prompting them to shoot him fatally.
The TSU was the first division of the state police to receive Tasers, Henry said.
L’Esperance said Thursday he would look into the state’s Taser policy and see if any changes need to be made once all the pertinent information about the case has been collected.
“They’re living documents,” he said. “We have to review the policies, and we will review the policy as it pertains to the incident and the actions that took place last night.”