Behind Closed Doors, Senate Panel Shuffles Committee Assignments | Off Message

Behind Closed Doors, Senate Panel Shuffles Committee Assignments


Lt. Gov. Phil Scott swears in Sen. Helen Riehle Wednesday in the Senate chamber. - PAUL HEINTZ
  • Paul Heintz
  • Lt. Gov. Phil Scott swears in Sen. Helen Riehle Wednesday in the Senate chamber.
The day after Gov. Peter Shumlin bypassed a public process to fill a vacant Senate seat, leaders of the body met behind closed doors Wednesday afternoon to dole out new committee assignments.

After swearing in South Burlington City Council Chair Helen Riehle as the newest member of the Vermont Senate, Lt. Gov. Phil Scott met in his Statehouse office with the two other members of the Senate's powerful Committee on Committees: Senate President Pro Tempore John Campbell (D-Windsor) and Sen. Dick Mazza (D-Grand Isle). A Seven Days reporter attempted to cover the meeting but was asked to leave.

"We're talking about personnel issues," Scott explained before a Senate aide closed the door. 

Ten minutes later, the three men emerged and said they had made two changes to the Senate's committee assignments in response to Diane Snelling's resignation from the Senate the day before. Scott said they had appointed Riehle to Snelling's seat on the Natural Resources and Energy Committee and Sen. Richard Westman (R-Lamoille) to her seat on the Appropriations Committee.

By taking the Appropriations position, Westman had to vacate his seat on the Senate Finance Committee, which meets at the same time. The panel did not immediately fill that seat, nor did it assign Riehle to a second committee. Scott explained that because another Appropriations member, Sen. Dick McCormack (D-Windsor), was out sick, they thought it prudent to immediately fill the vacancy on that committee. He said the panel would meet again later this week to settle on other assignments.

"This takes the pressure off," Scott said.

The game of musical chairs was precipitated by Shumlin's unexpected announcement Tuesday that he had appointed Snelling to the state Natural Resources Board. At the same time, he said he had appointed Riehle, a former member of the House and Senate, to fill out her term. Like Snelling, Riehle is considered a moderate Republican.

Typically, county parties get the opportunity to nominate up to three people to fill a Senate vacancy. A governor can choose one of them or make his or her own pick. Shumlin said Tuesday that he had decided to skip that process and appoint Riehle immediately because the legislative session is expected to adjourn within six weeks.

Snelling, whose resignation took effect Tuesday, made brief remarks to her former colleagues Wednesday after the Senate gaveled in for the day. She thanked the voters of Chittenden County for sending her to the Senate for 15 years and said she was "very, very grateful and very proud of the work we've been able to do."

"I'll see you soon," she concluded. 

Four senators then ushered Riehle into the Senate chamber, and Scott administered the oath of office. 

Lt. Gov. Phil Scott's office door - PAUL HEINTZ
  • Paul Heintz
  • Lt. Gov. Phil Scott's office door
Shortly before the Committee on Committees met Wednesday afternoon, Campbell explained why the press and the public would not be allowed to attend.

"The Committee on Committees has never been open," he said. 

Asked why, the pro tem said, "You'd have to ask the lieutenant governor ... All I can tell you is that, for all the years I've been here, it's never been open to anybody — not even to other [senators]. It's only open to the three members of the Committee on Committees."

Though the Senate's own rules require that committees be open to the public — except to discuss gubernatorial appointments, legal issues and matters of public safety — Campbell and his colleagues have long excluded the press from meetings of the Committee on Committees. In January 2014, Campbell asked a Seven Days reporter to leave one such meeting, explaining that the committee wasn't actually a committee.

Though Secretary of State Jim Condos has long maintained that the state's open meeting law applies to the House and Senate, the legislature's lawyers disagree. They also argue that a provision in the Vermont Constitution requiring the Statehouse doors to be "open for the admission of all persons" does not apply in this case.

Scott explained Wednesday that the panel's meetings should be confidential because its members discuss matters related to "employment."

"I think it's more personnel than it is anything else," he said. "Certainly when you're trying to put people in the right places in terms of legislators on the appropriate committees, sometimes you get into personalities, and it's not something we typically discuss with the press."

Asked whether he considered senators elected officials or employees, Scott said, "They are elected officials, I believe, in some respects. They're elected. But they're employed because they get paid."

Scott said he was not worried that the public would think the Committee on Committees conducted the people's business in secret while chomping on cigars. 

"To be perfectly clear, I've not ever had a cigar — ever," he said.

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