In a highly unusual move, the Vermont Senate voted Saturday against confirmation of a gubernatorial appointee.
With a voice vote, senators rejected Gov. Phil Scott's appointment of retired lawyer Karen O’Neill to the Vermont Labor Relations Board. Rejections are so rare that lawmakers said they weren't sure how much weight they have. It's possible the governor could install O'Neill on the board without the Senate's consent. Calling the decision “incredibly disappointing,” Scott communications director Rebecca Kelley said, “we’re considering all of our options.”
Scott chose O’Neill, who worked as an attorney at Vermont Electric Power Company, the Burlington law firm Gravel & Shea and Green Mountain Power, to fill one of two neutral seats on the board. The remaining four seats are divided between those with management experience and labor backgrounds.
The vote came during a rare Saturday session, as lawmakers sought to wrap up business and adjourn for the year.
Making the case against O’Neill, Sen. Michael Sirotkin (D-Chittenden) described her as “eminently qualified” to serve in one of the management positions. But he argued that she didn’t qualify for a neutral one, given her extensive background working in management. Sirotkin pointed to state law, which stipulates that neutral board members can’t be connected with any labor organization or management position.
“We did not hear of any experience representing labor that might have balanced out this consistent management experience she had for 30 years,” he told the Senate.
The governor still considers O’Neill highly qualified to serve in an impartial role, according to Kelley, who added, “It’s difficult to see how politics didn’t play into the decision.”
She also suggested the Senate’s vote could have “a chilling effect on individuals who might want to volunteer for public service.”
The Vermont State Employees' Association first raised concerns about O’Neill’s confirmation and, along with other labor groups, campaigned against her in the Statehouse.
During Saturday’s debate, Sen. David Soucy (R-Rutland) defended Scott’s appointment. “I believe that Ms. O’Neill can be neutral in her decisions,” he said, adding that, "she’s qualified, she has legal experience, which the board needs badly, and she also brings diversity to the board.”