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Taking another swing at impeachment

By Christian Avard | Vermont Guardian

Posted February 9, 2007

Uncle Sam has a task for Vermonters: He wants you to impeach the president.That’s the message that dozens of activists in Vermont are bringing to Town Meeting Day around the state.

“We are in a very dangerous moment in this country, and I think people don’t realize how close we are to losing our constitutional form of government and our rights enshrined in the Bill of Rights,” said David Lindorff, co-author of The Case for Impeachment, who spoke recently in Windham County and believes the issue of impeachment will be a large issue this year if more Vermont towns pass the resolution. “If you get even close to 100 towns, that’s huge, and the Legislature passing it would have a constitutional significance, a page-one story nationwide.”

Last year, seven Vermont towns passed a version of the impeachment resolution and the result was the “shot heard ‘round the world.”

The town of Newfane, which passed the first resolution in the state, received letters and phone calls from around the world, good and bad. Dan DeWalt, the organizer of the impeachment drive, wound up on the FOX News programs Hannity & Colmes and Heartland with John Kasich to defend his case. The New York Times and other major publications began to take notice. Soon thereafter, the Vermont Democratic Committee followed suit. What started in Newfane became a national groundswell and some Vermonters now want to take it further. Their hope is to see 100 towns pass the resolution on Town Meeting Day.

“[This] is a local issue because since [Thomas] Jefferson saw the need to have states be able to bring it up to Congress then the states need to hear from the public. The legislators need to hear from the public and what better way than the very democratic town meetings,” said Lindorff.

Stirring the pot
Regardless of how one comes down on impeachment, some selectboards across the state are struggling with how to handle the issue.

A recent Supreme Court ruling codified, for the first time, the notion that a board can refuse a citizen’s petition to put a question before voters if it does not directly pertain to town business. Before the ruling, this issue was murky and most town officials erred on the side of allowing such questions.

“The majority of the board felt that the question was not a question for town meeting in the sense that it was not related to town business,” said Robert Forbes, a Londonderry Selectboard member. The board, by a 4-0 vote, refused to warn the resolution. “The sense of the group in our conversations about these particular ones [is that] we argued that they have to have some sort of relevance to town governance and these articles don’t have that.”

Others, however, felt it was necessary that regardless of the issue, it was their duty to listen and act on what the town wants.

“I felt that if we had denied it, we would be actually doing what the resolutions are trying to stop. You know, they’re saying President Bush says he’ll sign something into law and then says, ‘I’ll sign it into law but I’m not going to obey it.’ I mean, I’ve seen him do that right on the news and so he’s kind of a one-man show,” said Dennis Franklin, who serves on the Guilford Selectboard, which agreed to put the resolution on the Town Meeting Day ballot. “As far as what goes on the town meeting warnings for the town of Guilford, pretty much if they can get enough signatures from the townspeople, we have enough respect for our townspeople that we’re not going to just shut them out, just because we have the power to.”

Other boards were split on the issue.

“I had an overriding concern that the people of Grafton would feel there was a disconnect between them and the board if we did not warn the article,” said Chris Moore, who voted in favor of the Grafton resolution that failed on a 2-2 vote. “Thirty people signed that petition, and although the petition was circulated by an organized movement, the citizens that signed the petition were not part of that organization. They were Grafton citizens that wanted to be heard. The worst thing that could come of this is for Grafton citizens to feel that they are not in power. I believe that they are and we are their slaves.”

Forbes, on the other hand, was concerned that the issue’s controversial nature may divide a town and felt the Londonderry Selectboard should not be the arbiter. “We’re trying to do town business, not to take sides on either side of an issue. The discussion on either of those issues could be very antagonistic, divisive, and maybe not helpful to the town. It’s not something that we as a town are in a position to decide.”

As a Newfane Selectboard member DeWalt believes, there’s nothing to worry about.

“Look at the town of Newfane. We were in the spotlight. We’ve survived that and we have not lost any civility in our government [and even the] interaction between neighbors,” said DeWalt. “The passionate discourse of last year’s town meeting didn’t do anything except strengthen Newfane as a town, because it means that Newfane is engaged, we’re not sticking our heads in the sand and trying to pretend that we’re some bucolic place in the countryside that doesn’t have anything to do with anything. We have people on both sides of the issue and we came out of it friends and neighbors unscathed. This is something that builds democracy, not tears it down.”

Along with the 23 towns that have agreed to officially warn the question, 19 towns have also agreed to warn a resolution asking that troops be withdrawn immediately from Iraq.
And, prior to Town Meeting Day, impeachment supporters will be making a tour of Vermont — joined by Cindy Sheehan — urging people to support the measures. To date, rallies are scheduled for Bradford, Brattleboro, Burlington, Castleton, Hardwick, Middlebury, Montpelier, Norwich, St. Johnsbury, Springfield, and possibly Manchester.

Statehouse efforts
There are efforts in the Legislature to draft a resolution that would call for the U.S. House to begin impeachment proceedings. A similar resolution was introduced near the end of last year’s session, and was not voted on.

Modeled after section 603 of Thomas Jefferson’s A Manual of Parliamentary Practice, the bill is authored by Rep. David Zuckerman, P-Burlington, and roughly 17 co-sponsors. Rep. Daryl Pillsbury, I-Brattleboro, is helping collect sponsors for the legislation and at this point is unsure when or how the bill will be brought up.

“I have no clue when it will be brought up. I don’t know what the leadership is going to do. It’s up to [House Speaker] Gaye Symington,” said Pillsbury.
Symington, a Jericho Democrat, said a resolution calling for an orderly withdrawal of troops from Iraq — also in the draft stage — is likely to see quick debate and action, and pass easily.

On impeachment, however, she doesn’t believe as quick an action or focus will occur, and doesn’t believe the Legislature should spend much time debating it.

“The Legislature has a very short amount of time to do its work and needs to focus its work on the issues most affecting Vermonters — property taxes, health care, and our energy future,” Symington said. “We have a very limited amount of time dealing with national issues. The Iraq War has a direct impact on Vermonters in terms of the lives lost and the budget pressure that gets pushed onto the property taxes when we’re cutting Medicare, Medicaid, and special education reimbursements.”

Symington expects that if an impeachment resolution is introduced it will be referred to the House Judiciary Committee. However, she cautioned, with the amount of work on the committee’s plate she would be “surprised” if it moved back to the floor.

And, she added, leaders in Congress have already said they are focusing their energy on other pressing matters.

“I think we should be focusing this energy on the next election cycle,” Symington said.

Vermont’s lone member of the U.S. House — Rep. Peter Welch, D-VT — believes accountability is necessary and that our main focus should remain on bringing U.S. troops home.

“As a new member of the House committee charged with oversight of the executive branch, I will be working in Congress to hold the president accountable for the faulty intelligence leading up to the war as well as its mismanagement. I believe these issues must be thoroughly investigated and they should follow the facts,” said Welch. “I also strongly believe that Congress needs to look forward, focusing our efforts on changing the direction of the country, most importantly, ending the war and ensuring the safe and responsible return of our troops as soon as possible.”

Regardless of where Vermont leaders stand, Pillsbury holds out hope that constituents will respond to the impeachment bill. “Let me tell you, for somebody who’s spent seven years in the Legislature, people may not think their voices are heard but enough are calling, and they’re heard. Believe me.”