The True Cost of Electricity

The ongoing discussion about the proposed solar farm on Cheney field seems to be coming to a head with public sentiment firmly opposed.

As a water and electric ratepayer, I support the construction of a commercial-scale solar farm.  The business side is straightforward.  Northfield Electric Department is required to meet Vermont’s Renewable Energy Standard.  If we oppose development of renewable energy in Northfield, NED will eventually pay fines and purchase Renewable Energy Credits, raising electric bills for NED customers.  A local solar farm would be the first renewable energy facility completely owned by NED, and it’s what we need to do.

An alternative to Cheney Farm?  If residents are opposed to one solution, we should take responsibility in finding another, feasible, apples-to-apples solution.  The Wellfield lies on a floodplain — so that’s not going to work.  Maybe we can use our parks at Memorial Field and Northfield Falls.  (Yea, not happening.)  Perhaps we can find 5 acres of rooftops to generate an equivalent 1.2 MW of electricity — but that’s a lot of rooftops, a lot of insurance liability, and a lot of public-private partnerships.  Who knows, maybe it can work.  It won’t work as efficiently as a single-site solar farm.  But a conversation about an alternative is much better than just saying, “We don’t want it here.”

We need to become responsible for our own renewable energy and bear the true costs of electricity.  It’s really easy to flick a light switch without appreciating immense environmental damage done elsewhere.  But let’s be clear:  when you flick a switch, someone pays the environmental price.

For example, a significant percentage of your electricity comes from Hydro-Quebec.  The James Bay Project is a series of dams impacting rivers, people, and natural habitats across an area the size of New York State.  And this is just one of Hydro-Quebec’s projects.

The environmental impact we offset to others by purchasing Canadian hydro is massive.  In northern Quebec, these costs have included, besides what you might ordinarily imagine,  the drowning of 7,100 to 22,000 caribou and decades of continuous political struggles for the James Bay Cree and Inuit peoples to protect their land and way of life.

In 1984, Hydro-Quebec released 1500 cubic meters of water per second from a dam upstream of an annual caribou migration path.  7,100 carcasses were counted, with an estimate of total losses between 10,000 and 22,000.  Quoting the New York Times:

The accident was called ‘‘a major environmental catastrophe” by the Audubon Society. Leaders of the Inuit, or Eskimos, termed the event ”an environmental disaster of unprecedented proportions.” The animals were trying to cross the Caniapiscau and Koksoak Rivers about 60 miles upriver from Kuujjiaq, a town on Ungava Bay.  The caribous, which were making an annual migration, were swept over waterfalls or carried away in the rapids of the two swollen rivers.  Witnesses said carcasses were piled five or six deep in some places on the river banks. 

This isn’t a sad anecdote from long-forgotten history.  It’s an ongoing reality directly related to electricity consumption.  In April of this year, Hydro-Quebec proposed releasing 750 cubic meters of water per second, which would raise river levels 12 inches, causing renewed concerns about what happened in 1984, along with questions about immediate impacts to fishing, hunting, and gathering.  As recently as May, Hydro-Quebec was still mulling the decision, reportedly saying,that, “if it doesn’t spill the excess water in the reservoir, it could result in a big, uncontrolled release.”

This is just one dam of many massive, massive dams in Northern Quebec.  Native and non-native people alike fight to preserve and protect some of the most pristine environments on the planet.  We need to think about this when we turn on our lights.  

I support a commercial-scale solar farm because it seems that, too often, Vermont wants to pass the buck on energy production responsibility.  We’re masters at energy efficiency — and we’re pretty good at energy hypocrisy, too.  See the Times Argus’ “State of renewables not what you might think:

“What is extremely troubling to me as a Vermonter whose family roots are deep in this state is that we’ve had a lack of transparency and a big focus on the perception of Vermont being green when it comes to renewables, without that largely being the case in reality,” said Kevin Jones, director of the Institute for Energy and the Environment at Vermont Law School and an author of the report.

and VTDigger’s Vermont not meeting renewable energy goals, report says.”

The report suggests that despite the state’s progress on renewable electricity, in-state production of renewable electricity is not “flourishing in Vermont,” as shown in a Public Utility Commission report last year. The majority of Vermont’s renewable electricity comes from imported hydropower rather than from in-state renewables, according to the Energy Action Network report.

When I think about opposition to the solar farm on Cheney Field, I can’t help but wonder:  What sacrifice has Northfield  made?  How are we part of a renewable energy solution?

On Sunday I took a walk up to Cheney Field and imagined what a solar farm would look like there.  Cheney Field can be seen only from the highest residences on Dole Hill, Tracy Hill, and a short section of West Hill.  A solar farm there would not disturb anyone’s viewshed.  Neither would it imperil wildlife — at least, not any more so than the multitude of single-family homes popping up like rural sprawl in our woods and fields.  It would not contaminate our water supply, which is stored in two quarter-million gallon concrete tanks.  It would not bar people from hiking, biking, or running on the trail which runs through it.  As I looked around, I could see a solar farm which, even one year after its construction, very few people would worry about.  In that sense, I could accept Cheney Field as the true cost of electricity in Northfield.

I say all of this knowing how many friends disagree with me.  I’ve seen the petitions.  Many of you are more than neighbors.  You are people I admire, love and respect.  Over the last few weeks our face-to-face conversations have been civil, understanding, genuine.  This is the part I appreciate most about Northfield.   The true cost of friendship is the effort we put forward in being honest with each other.

 

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Cheney Field: “I think we’re missing something.”

It’s encouraging to read a robust conversation about a proposed solar project in Northfield. One of the most interesting comments I’ve read thus far was Anne Donahue’s insight, “I think we’re missing something.”  In fact, we’re missing quite a bit.  In my view, the underlying issue hinges on local governance.  We can talk about beautiful fields, climate change, alternative options, etc. etc.  But everything hinges on the understanding of how municipal utilities operate within local government as independent enterprises. 

In brief:  The Water Department owns the field and the Electric Department is facilitating (or owns?) the project.  No matter how anyone feels about it, five people make the call.  They don’t need to listen to voters, ratepayers, or even the Selectboard.

Who is in charge of what?  Not us.

The decision makers are two elected officials and one appointed official on each board.  Over the last several years there have only been five — not six — decision-makers because one individual (Steve Fitzhugh) sits on both Boards.

Who put five people in charge of the proposed Cheney Field project?  Ratepayers who voted for the Commissioners, and residents who voted for Selectboard members.

Why does it work this way?

Northfield’s utility governing model isn’t required by State statute.  It’s just the way our Town Charter was written.  In a way, it makes sense because Northfield is small and not enough people are willing to run for public office.  But in another way, it doesn’t make sense because we’ve concentrated important decision-making power to a handful of people who serve on multiple Boards.  This isn’t a model of best practice in local government.  It’s just the way we’ve always done it.

The Business Question

A question that comes to mind is, “Who owns the project?”  Is the Electric Department going to lease Cheney Field from the Water Department?  Or is the Water Department going to own the solar panels as a customer of the NED?  This is an important question because funds can’t be mixed between the utilities.  If the Electric Department leases the land from the Water Department, then water rates might go down.  If the Water Department owns the solar panels, the Electric Department loses revenue.  I haven’t seen the details of the proposal, but I’m guessing not many others have, either.

Natural Aesthetics vs. Climate Change?

Open fields are beautiful and an important part of our landscape.  Assuming responsibility for siting local renewable energy is an important, ethical response to climate change .  Finding the right place to do it is controversial.  Meeting renewable energy targets is state mandated.  Utilities must meet their bottom lines.

All of these factors merge into a complicated soup of decision-making.  This is the reason Anne Donahue’s bit of wisdom rings true.  As in many public debates, an issue gets boiled down to a choice between two points of view.   And as with almost every issue, the Cheney Field solar project proposal is more complicated than this.  The questions should focus on what we are missing, as compared to what we already know.

So Nate, what do you think?

Great question.  I think more people should be interested in either running for local office or supporting more people to run for office.  It’s satisfying and productive to participate in decision-making.  It’s more effective than protesting single issues.  And it’s healthy for — what do we call it? — democracy.  If you don’t participate in self-governance, others will make decisions for you.

Full Disclosure

As many of you know, I’m now a teacher in Alaska.  This means I am now a seasonal resident in Northfield and I am no longer a voter here.  I’m no longer eligible to run for local or state offices, nor do I endorse or recommend any candidates running for any local or state office.  However, as a seasonal resident and former local official, I sometimes feel I can contribute to a discussion for educational purposes.

Grade 4-5 Teacher Needed!

Just a short post to help spread the word that my school in Atmautlak, AK, needs a Grade 4-5 teacher. Please share widely in your network and help spread the word about this great opportunity!

Here’s the skinny:

  • $52,000 starting salary for teachers with a BA and 0 years experience.  Pretty good, eh?
  • $3,000 signing bonus for a 2-year commitment.  $1,000 bonus for a 1-year commitment.
  • 100% cost of rent is tax deductible.  Rent is deducted from your paycheck.
  • Up to $12,000 in loan forgiveness after 5 years
  • 3-year Principal Endorsement Program if you want to pursue an Admin position.
  • Small classes.  K-12 enrollment is ~150.
  • Excellent stepping stone if you want to pursue International Teaching or LKSD Administration.

Anyone interested can contact me or LKSD.org to learn more!

This has been a challenging year for new teachers in Vermont to land a job.  Positions are fewer and competition is high.  Atmautlak’s recent loss of an elementary teacher can be a your opportunity!

And, wow, a $52,000 starting pay with a $3,000 bonus — that must put a ring in somebody’s ears!  Excellent salary schedule for those with more experience!

Joanne A Alexie Memorial School logo

 

Alaska in range for North Korea attack

Among well-wishers upon my move to Alaska, several people have suggested it would be great to read posts from afar on NatesUpdates.   Oddly, I received one note from a not-so-well-wisher, “…no wonder you’re fleeing to Alaska.”  North Korea News agency photo of missile

That’s just one person, but it gave me pause to think, “Who would ever ‘flee’ to Alaska?”  It can be a cold, dark, harsh, and kind of lonely place in the winter.  And as of today, there’s yet another reason Alaska would be even less of a destination for cowards:  North Korea.  

Today, North Korea launched a missile which has the range to hit the nation’s largest state.  The Las Vegas Review Journal reports “US says missile was North Korea ICBM that could hit Alaska.”

If you haven’t noticed the news, North Korea is quickly becoming an existential threat as the world’s newest member of the nuclear club.  Folks in Alaska have been paying attention because, while not prime strategic targets, they are geographically closer to Kim Jong Un than Los Angeles, New York, or DC.

Mainstream newspapers have covered the Alaska connection since the July 4th missile test, but Alaskans have been reading about it since at least last March.  Here’s a sampling of articles from the Alaska Dispatch News (ADN) documenting the increasing threat:

Senator Dan Sullivan missile defenseEarlier this year, Alaska Senator Dan Sullivan introduced a bill in Congress to add 14 missiles to Fairbanks’ Fort Greely aresenal.  He’s been pushing the bill with increasing urgency.  Just the other day he made a speech at the Heritage Foundation, “What a North Korean Ballistic Missile threat Means for the US Missile Defense System.”

But is Alaska really a potential target?  ADN columnist Dermot Cole is skeptical in his post, “North Korea poses an urgent challenge, but don’t kiss Alaska goodbye just yet.”  Cole suggests Sullivan’s  “America’s Missile Defense Act” is more about politics and war profiteering than strategic military interest.  He quotes David Wright, an expert on nuclear weapons policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists as follows:

I suppose if there were a military attack on North Korea, it might decide to fire something at Alaska as a way of responding against US Territory if that’s all it could hit,” he said.  “But even in that case, it’s more likely to launch against US troops in South Korea and Japan.”

Who else is skeptical?  Apparently Alaskans aren’t in a panic.  Alaska Public Media published “Alaskans greet DPRK missile test with a shrug not a shriek” one day after Kim Jong Un’s July 4th test launch.  But the same article acknowledged that Alaskans are more interested in fishing than talking politics during the summer months.

Alaska July 4th parade

“I was at the 4th of July parade in Seldovia,” ADN columnist Charles Wolforth said by phone from Kachemak Bay Wednesday. “Somebody said ‘Hey I heard that Korea tested this ICBM,’ and the conversation didn’t really go any further because everybody’s out in the sunshine and watching the fish toss.”

Anchorage_on_an_April_evening

Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz expressed faith in the US military for Alaskans’ lack of heightened concern.  “We have complete confidence in the military to defend us, and we have the assurance that no matter what happens to us here in Alaska we’ll be able to take care of ourselves,” Berkowitz said.

Across the whole, I think most Americans are generally confident that even Kim Jong Un isn’t crazy enough to make a pre-emptive strike against the US.  It’s probably not likely that he’ll lob a nuke at US troops in South Korea, either.  But still, it’s important for Congress and the President to come up with new strategies in response to North Korea as a nuclear power.  Give up the One Korea policy?  Sanctions against China and Russia?  Increasing our missile defense system?  Whatever it takes, quite frankly.  Army Chief of Staff General Mark Milley summed it up yesterday in a speech before the National Press Club:

“War in the Korean peninsula would be terrible, however a nuclear weapon detonating in Los Angeles would be [even more] terrible,” Milley said in a speech to the National Press Club in Washington, about America’s security threats.  “North Korea is the single, most-dangerous threat facing the international community and the U.S. today”

general-milley
Credit:  Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Water Street Park update: Photo Essay.

Just a quick post to show the latest developments for the Water Street Park with some pictures.

It’s easy to see how big the park is going to be now that the construction fencing is up.

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Here are the two utility poles which will be removed from their current locations.  They will be relocated across the river.  The building in the background with the blower on the rooftop will be razed to make room for the poles.

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The next two images show the large, man-made berm which was built to keep the Dog in a narrow channel.  The purpose in removing the berm is to open the width of the river, allowing it to flow in a more natural path.  This, in turn, reduces erosion and the intensity of river flow during rainy periods

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Five years before Tropical Storm Irene devastated the Water Street Neighborhood,  Vermont’s River Management Program published a white paper,  “Alternatives for River Corridor Management”. The report discussed the conflicts between land use and healthy rivers.

The conflict goes like this:  A hundred or more years ago, settlers began to farm and live in flood plains.  Then they built berms to protect their homes and farms.  It’s a human vs. nature thing.  Moving into a flood plain and having to deal with floods is kind of like moving into bear country, then having to deal with bears.

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Well, it turns out, berms don’t really work.  This berm clearly didn’t make a difference in August 2011 or back in 1972, when the Water Street neighborhood was flooded due to an ice jam.  Removing the berm is a good idea.  An added bonus is that it will give easy access to the river for fishing, skipping stones, or to just appreciate the lull of flowing water.

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Last Fall, access to the river last fall looked like this:

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But when we got through the mess, the river looked quite lovely:

 

 

As you may know, the Class of 1957 has raised thousands of dollars to build a pavilion or gazebo.  They’re encouraging other graduating classes to join them.

To the best of my knowledge, there isn’t an official design for the project.  Here’s a design proposal based on our community’s new (unofficial) logo.

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(If anyone knows of a current design, send me a note.  I’ll make the update and post the pictures on NatesUpdates.com.)  picnic shelter_01apicnic shelter_01bpicnic shelter_01d

Maybe by this time next year, someone will be making river cairn art at the Water Street Park.  Whatever happens, I’m looking forward to the new river park.  : )

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A New Chapter for NCDN!

Some folks have been asking, “What will happen with NCDN now that you’re leaving for Alaska?  

It will go on, just like the founding directors had planned from the beginning!

NCDN logo small

NCDN is lead by an incredibly talented team of highly-qualified professionals who meet twice a month, all year long, driven by a vision of economic prosperity and community development.  See the folks in the picture at the top of the page?  They are the driving force behind NCDN.

Tuesday night NCDN will present its work to the Selectboard at the Brown Public Library Community Room.  This will be the last meeting I attend — as a member of the audience — and I hope you join me.  : )

Here’s the team!

Lindsay Cahill Lord, is Projects & Production Manager at Norwich University and serves as Communications Director for Vermont Young Professionals.   Lindsay’s leadership skills are evident as soon as you meet her.

 Annee Giard and Jason Endres make up NCDN’s graphic design team.  Annee is a Graphic Designer at Norwich University.  Jason works for a firm in Manhattan, telecommuting from his home here in Northfield.

Kahwa Douoguih is co-founder of Access.Mobile and Assistant Professor of Economics at Norwich University.  She’s much more than that, but she won’t let me brag about her.

Kaitlyn Keating is an Associate Attorney at Caffry Law in Waterbury.  She graduated cum laude with a J.D. from Vermont Law School and specializes in children’s needs planning.

David Feinauer is Assistant Professor, Electrical & Computer Engineering at Norwich University.  David teaches entrepreneurship on his own time, having hosted startup business pitch events at least two years in a row.

Carolyn Stevens, a recently retired CPA from her accounting and consulting services firm, is NCDN’s treasurer.  Carolyn was NCDN’s lead in become recognized as an IRS tax-exempt non-profit organization.  She’s developing NCDN’s capacity to act as a fundraising fiscal-agent for local groups and organizations.

What I like the most about NCDN’s team is that they are very methodical and purposeful when embarking on new initiatives.  They reach out to our community and listen to feedback.  And most importantly, they are willing to do the bland, time-consuming, behind-the-scenes work to create a platform for future activity.  dsc04585

No one gets a pat on the back for culling through the 2011 Town Report, or 2014 V-DAT report, or the 2016 Area Wide Plan.  But these people do the homework and base their work on prior planning.  They know this type of work sets the stage for tangible outcomes which takes a few years to realize.

To speed things up, this team needs the support of a professional economic development director.  The NCDN team brings excellent soft services and technical expertise to economic development, but lacking a professional executive director, they are limited in how much they can accomplish.  The reason for this is simple:  If you don’t have staff, you can’t close deals, you can’t apply for construction loans — you’re not in the game.  

I brought up the idea of a non-profit economic development corporation at an Economic Development Committee meeting in 2015.  The response at the time was favorable, and this is one of the many reasons NCDN was created.  NCDN’s business model is specifically designed to partner with a municipality, state agencies, and private businesses for community and economic development purposes.

Now, the NCDN team isn’t ready to ask the Town to hire an economic development director — but as a community, we need to start thinking about when that might happen.  Northfield is woefully behind other communities in Central Vermont simply because we haven’t invested in economic development staff yet.

If Northfield chooses to support it, NCDN can become a financially sustainable, job-creating non-profit business.  It can help Northfield grow its tax base by focusing on property development — the #1 driver to grow the Grand List.  It can bring more people to live in our lovely town, increasing foot traffic for local businesses.  NCDN is ready to go.  It just needs tangible support from a community that wants to prosper and succeed.

As I depart for my teaching job in Alaska, I ask all Northfield residents and taxpayers to consider NCDN as the Town’s economic development partner and its vehicle for prosperity.  NCDN was never about me.  It’s about making Northfield better for all of us.

streetscape

Northfield News: Not Local, Not Original, Not News

I was proud to make the top of the front page in The Northfield News this week.
This hasn’t happened since 1994, when Mark Albury wrote the headline “Freeman Unveils Three Men.”  The piece was about the granite art monument in my front yard, titled, not surprisingly, “Three Men.”
Mark’s piece, as with everything he wrote, was written in his own words.  He called me for a short interview and turned out an original story.  The headline was cringe-worthy, but all in good fun.  Mark wrote what he saw with a sense of humor and an original twist of literary style. 
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I couldn’t help but think of this when I read “Selectman Nate Freeman Leaving for Alaska.”  The writing was lifted almost entirely from this website — without permission or attribution to NatesUpdates.com.   My Update, “North to Alaska, is certainly newsworthy.   But Editor John Cruickshank’s quote-dependent article lifted well over half of my original work.  Basically, I wrote 65% of an article he published as his own.  
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My disappointment with Cruickshank’s article isn’t about the story.  My soon departure to Alaska is relevant news.  However, as a professional writer, I am flummoxed with Cruickshank’s utter laziness in reporting.  I found the article so amazingly quote-abused, I decided to take the time to see what else Mr. Cruickshank printed as if his own.  I’ll get to that in a minute — what I discovered is important for you to know.
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Before we get there, let’s put the quality of local reporting in context.  The magic of The Northfield News has always been about local writing and reporting.  What made the Paper of Record vital to our community was its voice.  Editors wrote engaging, funny, and thoughtful columns — the tone of each piece reflected unique perspectives and personalities.  Reporters conducted face-to-face interviews, attended public meetings, and roamed through the community to see what people were up to.    It didn’t matter what was written — the magic was that we could count on the paper to be local, original, and interesting.  
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We don’t have that anymore.  We don’t even get news anymore.  The News looks like a newspaper, but it’s not.  
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If you read the paper, you’ll probably notice a call to action and contact information at the bottom of almost every article.  This is because you’re reading a series of press releases.  9 out of 14 reading pieces in this week’s edition of The Northfield News are press releases.  Here’s the breakdown of what passes as original content in this week’s edition:
  • 9 Press releases.
  • 1 Syndicated Column
  • 1 “Staff Report” plagiarized from the Selectboard meeting minutes.  
  • 2 Local Columns
  • 1 headline article written almost entirely by me without my knowledge
There are several reasons to find the state of The News disturbing.  Here are the first four that come to mind:
1.  Not Local.  The “news” this week comes almost entirely from towns outside of the paper’s coverage area.  You can read all about what’s going on as far away as Weston, Dorset, and Enosburg Falls.  Two pieces  are from Randolph, one is from Brookfield, one is from Montpelier, and another is from Berlin.  For a paper that covers Northfield and Williamstown, there’s not much of a sense of what’s going on locally.
2.  Not News.  As noted above, The News has become a weekly rag stuffed with unedited press releases.  It’s not a newspaper — it’s a press release aggregator.
3.  Not Original.  Yes, I’ve made my beef about unknowingly writing the headline article for this week’s Northfield News.  But surprisingly, this is the most original piece in the entire paper.  Cruickshank wrote about 100 words from his own pen.
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4.  Plagiarism.  The Staff Report copies the Selectboard Meeting Minutes verbatim.  Seriously, you can’t get a better example of plagiarism than this.  The News is free to publish any public document in full — but it can’t credit itself as the author.
Here’s an excerpt from “Northfield May Get Gold Star Monument” credited as a  “Staff Report” at the Northfield News:
Mr. Wobby said about six  months ago he was approached by a national group that designs Gold Star Families Memorial Monuments about situating a monument in Vermont.  After consultation with Governor Phil Scott’s office, Mr. Wobby recommended that the best location would be in Northfield adjacent to Norwich University.
Now take a look at the June 27th official meeting minutes published on the Town’s website:
“Mr. Wobby said about six (6) months ago he was approached by a national group that designs Gold Star Families Memorial Monuments about situating a monument in Vermont. After consultation with Governor Phil Scott’s office, Mr. Wobby recommended that the best location would be in Northfield adjacent to Norwich University (NU).
The “staff report” is copied directly from the minutes.  The quote above is just a sample.  If you read The News side-by-side with the Meeting Minutes, you’ll simply be amazed.  This is the kind of stuff that gets students kicked out of college.  It gets reporters fired.  Claiming credit for someone else’s work isn’t just unethical — it’s illegal.  
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The funny thing is, all Mr. Cruickshank needs to do is credit the article with a byline, “Selectboard Meeting Minutes.”  Plagiarism problem solved.  Instead, he credits the public document to “staff” and copyrights the article under his own banner.  “All Rights Reserved.”
This is why I got a little rankled this morning when I read my North to Alaska post almost in entirety in The Northfield News.  What is this laziness about?  This isn’t the article Mark Albury would have written.  It’s not what John Donahue would have written, nor Edna Cain, nor Brad Denny.  The News has a long history of editors who took pride in their work.  They crafted articles with thought and rigor.  They wrote The News as the voice of the community.   They were leaders who wrote about Northfield in whatever way they believed was appropriate.  Whatever words landed in print, the one thing you could count on was that they did the writing.  
This is no longer true.  Today’s Northfield News is empty, lacking vigor and value.  Imagine for a moment you were visiting Northfield for the first time.  You pick up the paper.  What does The Northfield News say to you?  This week on Page 5, The News says, “Go to Weston, Dorset, or Enosburg Falls. Go to Randolph.  Go to Berlin.  Go away.  There’s nothing here.”
It doesn’t have to be this way.  All you need to do, Mr. Cruickshank, is to please write your own stuff.  Write whatever you want.  Be pleasant, be mean — be whatever you want to be.  Stop copying stuff.  Pay attention to Northfield and Williamstown.
And while you’re at it, please request permission to quote from my privately owned and operated website, NatesUpdates.com.  It’s a professional courtesy thing.

 

 

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