McClaughry: John Mitchell on regulatory harassment

By John McClaughry

My very good friend John M. Mitchell died at 80 on March 28 in Rutland. He was the CEO of Swiss-owned OMYA’s North American operations, managed from Proctor, until his retirement in 2000, and a founding director of the Ethan Allen Institute in 1993.

Elsewhere I have fondly remembered John for his personal qualities and service, but here I’d like to share the message he gave in 2006 to Vermonters about the way the state of Vermont regulates companies doing business here. In this talk he described not huge new projects, like Omya’s proposed Danby Mountain mine, but recurring regulatory practices imposed on operations that had gone on for years.

John McClaughry

John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute.

“The Town of Proctor asked the Company to let the Town locate its sewage plant ponds on the place where the Company’s settling ponds were located — because it was the lowest point in town. The Company said, “sure” and moved its ponds north a few hundred feet. Like a dutiful citizen, it filed a permit application.”

“The Company had extracted water from Otter Creek since the 1880s. By use of its ponds that settled out limestone dust, the water returned to Otter Creek in the same condition. The State accused the Company of despoiling a wetland, and told it to accept a permit the details of which were unknown. So the Company closed its historic Vermont Marble Company plant, terminated 37 heads of households, and tore down part of the old plant building to lower its property taxes.”

“Around 1900 the company installed a hydro station in Center Rutland to provide power to its plant there. In due course, the plant had to be re-licensed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and obtain a water quality certificate from the State.”

“Among the more interesting requirements of this State permit were: one, the Company had to build a fish ladder to let fish that weren’t in the river swim upstream; two, it had to build a visitors’ center with five parking spaces and a carousel slide show; and three, it had to build a canoe portage on land it didn’t own. The Company prevailed in a Federal Appeals court, at the cost of $40,000 in legal bills.”

“By 2000 the Company had invested half a billion dollars in plant and equipment in Vermont. It asked for a permit to increase the number of trucks bringing rock from its Middlebury quarry to its Florence plant, 25 miles away via US Route 7. While Governor Dean was telling the Company’s president on the phone that he was doing everything he could to expedite the permit, his Secretary of Administration was doing everything she could to limit the number of trucks to “help solve the governor’s transportation problems on the west side of Vermont”. In the end, the State limited the number of trucks on the basis of aesthetics, and growth at the Florence factory stopped.

“You may think this is no more than a tale of woe from one big company. But this is really everyman’s story. When the government embarks on regulation that adds little or nothing to real environmental benefits; regulation that ignores the benefit of paychecks for workers and taxes that support the needs of government; regulation that strangles the enterprise that sustains a local economy — then we are all in deep trouble: the big limestone company, the farmer, the logger, the grocer, the hotel owner, the ski area, the insurance agent, the town government, all of us. That’s what the state of Vermont has done for at least the better part of the eighteen years that I’ve lived here.”

Not long after John’s retirement, the Swiss owners moved Omya’s administrative and technical personnel and payroll from Proctor to Cincinnati, Ohio.

Now I readily admit that a large limestone mining operations like Omya’s inevitably raise environmental concerns that require regulation — but that regulation must be fair, certain, and responsibly applied — not vague, arbitrary, or treating an applicant as a cash cow to underwrite some bureaucrat’s environmental wish list.

John Mitchell’s philosophy featured several important beliefs:

  • A belief that liberty is fundamental to a free and progressive society
  • A belief that private property is essential to the preservation of liberty
  • A belief that competitive free enterprise is the greatest engine of prosperity yet devised by the human race
  • A belief that government is essential to maintain order, to prescribe rules against force and fraud, and make investments in an economic infrastructure to be used by all – but that too much government, and too much redistribution of wealth from those who earned it to those who want it, will defeat our progress toward an ever more prosperous society.

I wish more Vermonters shared those beliefs.

John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute.

Images courtesy of Omya and John McClaughry

12 thoughts on “McClaughry: John Mitchell on regulatory harassment

  1. In 1998 I enineered and proposed an inovative project called TransLink 2000, in Fair Haven (western side of state also). It was $200,000,000 multi-modal/intermodal freight distribution project, truck to rail, rail to truck and bulk freight storage facility that would have saved Vermonters a great deal on products including things like fossil fuels, road salt, dry goods, feeds, wood products, propane and much more. After myself, Vermont Railway, and several vendors collectively spent close to $1,000,000, and were looked at favorably by all permitting agents including the District One Environmental Commission and the Legislature, that same Governor, Howard Dean, literally, single handedly killed the project.
    Pure socialism in its literal form.

  2. The problem, John, is that the cited philosophical list should not presented as a supposition….i.e. ‘a belief’.

    Liberty, Private Property, Free Enterprise and Limited Government are proven human conditions required for society’s prosperous development and well-being, with the absence of those conditions proven to create diminished motivation and interest while fostering irresponsibility and resentment.

    Not only has every experiment in Socialism failed to enhance the human condition, academic peer reviewed studies on cognitive development and intrinsic motivation, from Jean Piaget to Lawrence Kohlberg to the more recent studies on Self-Determination by E. L. Deci and R.M. Ryan, clearly show the importance of Autonomy, Competence and Relatedness to human development and well-being.

    What is Autonomy, Competence and Relatedness? In the parlance of the founding of the United States, it is Life, Liberty, Property and the Pursuit of Happiness.

  3. John, great article about Mr. Michell and it just goes to show the demise of the Vermont
    I grew up in, it’s a shame we let this happen.

    All the flatlanders that have moved in and have destroyed our way of life for what, just
    a feel-good agenda.

    If we want Vermont to be Vermont we need to take back our state, we welcome people
    but those that feel we need a change to there way, need to stay where they come from.

    It’s a sad, sad day for our state.

    • Hard to put the genie back in the bottle.The biggest employers in Vt. now are disability checks from the government or having children as an income.Older people even adopt children as a means of income.

      Between heat subsidies,section 8 housing,foodstamps,free medical insurance,cash vouchers(clothing),free back packs for kids,and free breakfast and lunch for children it’s just not even worth working a job in Vermont.

      I’m looking for a candidate that will support vacation and car rental vouchers for low income people.Therapists say vacations are great for stress relief.

  4. What happened here is also happening to the slate industry in Western Vermont. This is a result of two things; 1) no peripheral vision in the legislative process in Montpelier and 2) nobody looking out for the interests of small businesses there. We’ve hit a point of diminishing returns because of what is happening in the regulatory processes of the state of Vermont. These small businesses can no longer afford to not have someone in the state house looking out for their best interests.

  5. This is such a great piece, it goes to the heart of the problem(s) then and un fortunately, things are much worse now than back then, in terms of the items John M. was relating to. These people in charge now, including in some respects our governor, will not be happy until all the conservatives have either died or moved out of the state. The ends justify the means, history is being re-written and everything else is secondary to their goals. The worst of it is, we let it happen.

  6. Dear John,
    Thank you for remembering John Mitchell in the way I believe he would want to be remembered….as a man who championed the American principles of liberty and free enterprise and was sharing his experiences of regulatory strangulation as a warning to Vermont freedom lovers. I’m so glad I got to see him one last time on the campaign trail this fall. He was funny, self-effacing in the cantankerously memorable way that made his principled observations hit home. May he Rest In Peace.

  7. Thank you for this well written piece. I hope that it opens the eyes of at least a few Vermonters who have fallen prey to the siren song of socialism before things get any worse. Right now the signs are not good and Vermont seems destined to destroy all of the things that made it great and strong.
    I realized how much trouble we were in when, as a business owner, I was chastised by the Vermont unemployment appeals board for firing an employee for theft and for failing to put in writing in the employee manual the fact that employees were not allowed to steal.
    It is sad that those who dream of bigger and more powerful government can’t be made to suffer the consequences of their desires without dragging the rest of us down into the sewer with them.

    • We have the same problem in school systems. In Bennington we couldn’t fire a teacher for taking a student to her home to live there — because it wasn’t in the manual. The idiots are in control, and nothing is going to stop them until everything collapses.

  8. And the folks in Montpelier think everything is honky dory. Little wonder the state is in a mess.

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