A Vermont Senate committee chair on Wednesday turned off the live video feed of a policy debate so senators could discuss a bill in private, a decision Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint (D-Windham) called "inappropriate."
Sen. Michael Sirotkin (D-Chittenden) abruptly terminated the broadcast of the public meeting of the Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs Committee when he grew concerned that the conversation had strayed from policy into strategy.
Sirotkin, an attorney who chairs the committee, said his members quickly changed course and never discussed anything substantive offline.
“It was a harmless error,” Sirotkin told Seven Days afterward.
Four members of the committee were discussing the latest COVID-19 relief bill, H.315, at the time. Members of the executive branch, including Labor Commissioner Michael Harrington and Economic Development Commissioner Joan Goldstein, had testified earlier but were no longer participating.
The senators were well in the weeds on unemployment benefits when Sen. Alison Clarkson (D-Windsor) asked about the alignment of state and federal tax policies on the benefits.
“Have we resolved the synching up of the feds and the state …” Clarkson began to ask before Sirotkin interrupted her.
“You know, do you guys feel that this conversation is, should be on YouTube or not?” Sirotkin asked. “I don’t know the protocols, really.”
Sirotkin was first appointed to the Senate in 2014 and has been chair of the influential Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs Committee since 2018.
“We’re talking about a strategy and a negotiation with the House. I’m not sure that’s the kind of thing we usually publicly talk about in committee,” Sirotkin said.
He said he saw Sen. Randy Brock (R-Franklin), the Senate minority leader, “nodding his head,” and said, “so why don’t we just go ...”
At that point, the public feed cut off and never returned.
There were 63 people watching the conversation when Sirotkin ended it. That’s about five times as many people could even fit into Sirotkin’s committee room in the Statehouse. Cutting off the video feed was the virtual equivalent of him kicking all members of the public out of the room and closing the door.
Sirotkin said he and Brock immediately reconsidered the move.
“If you look at the YouTube, he was agreeing with me that we should take this offline,” Sirotkin said. “And as soon as we went offline, he said maybe not because we’re in a committee, and we all agreed and we just stopped the discussion.”
In an email, Brock confirmed Sirotkin's account.
"As we were going off-line, on quick reflection, I said that since we would be discussing committee businesses, we had best do it in public," Brock wrote.
Balint, the Senate president, has repeatedly stressed her commitment to conducting the public’s business openly during this second year of virtual legislating. She has argued that the live broadcasting and recording of legislative hearings, while not ideal, increases the transparency of the legislature’s work.
In an email, Balint said she was clear with committee chairs at the beginning of the session that all committee meetings should be livestreamed for transparency. If technical glitches interrupt the livestream, the meetings should pause, and there are rules for holding executive sessions, Balint noted.
“A Chair asking that YouTube be turned off and suggesting that a committee discussion would continue is inappropriate, and I will be clarifying with Sen. Sirotkin and all Senate Chairs,” she wrote.
The Senate committees can go into executive session to discuss some sensitive subjects, but only for a handful of reasons and only upon a two-thirds vote of the committee in public, explained Senate Secretary John Bloomer.
Those reasons include “contracts, civil actions at law, prosecutions by the state,” or similar issues “where premature general public knowledge would clearly place the state, municipality, other public agency, or person at a substantial disadvantage,” Bloomer said, reading from Senate rules.
They also include “matters constituting a clear and imminent peril to the public safety.”