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Secretary of State Race: Can "Transparency" Have Two Sides?

Local Matters


Published September 22, 2010 at 9:34 a.m.

Jason Gibbs drove his car into a ditch in the wee hours last Friday morning. The Republican candidate for secretary of state was forthcoming with the details; he told the media he fell asleep at the wheel after a long day of campaigning.

The next day, the Dems pounced on Gibbs for waiting six hours to report the crash to state police, asking openly if Gibbs had something to hide from the cops.

Meanwhile, Republicans say Democrat Jim Condos has some explaining to do, too. They claim Condos favored secret meetings when he was chair of the South Burlington City Council and therefore shares responsibility for that city’s multimillion-dollar pension shortfall.

“Transparency” is the buzzword in the race for Vermont’s secretary of state — both Gibbs and Condos have promised to make government more accountable and user friendly by making campaign finance reports and government documents just a mouse click away.

From there, however, the two candidates differ sharply on key policy questions, especially those related to election laws. Gibbs opposes same-day voter registration and instant-runoff voting, for example. Condos condones both.

This is as contentious as it gets in the geeky, arcane, multitasking world of the secretary of state. Although Vermonters vote for the top arbiter of elections, it’s a relatively low-profile job that in other states is handled by a gubernatorial appointee. The secretary of state oversees myriad laws and regulations relating to elections, archives, campaign-finance laws, open-meeting and public-records laws, and dozens of professions, from nurses to realtors. With 60 employees and an $8.6 million budget, the office is usually the first stop for new and expanding businesses: It’s the place to file incorporation papers and also to record new trade names.

Despite the nonpartisan, glitz-free nature of the office, it produced at least one governor: Jim Douglas. After 12 years as secretary of state he served as treasurer before ascending to the state’s top job.

Secretary of State Deb Markowitz, a Democrat, has served since 1998; last year she announced her own intention to run for higher office. She finished third in the five-way gubernatorial primary last month. In recognition of her role as Vermont’s overseer of elections, Markowitz has said she is not endorsing any candidate in the race.

Liberty Union candidate Leslie Marmorale is also in the mix.

You could argue that Condos, 59, has experience on his side. He’s served on the South Burlington City Council and four terms in the Vermont Senate. As chair of arguably the wonkiest committee in the chamber — Senate Government Operations — Condos oversaw many of the laws germane to the secretary of state’s office. For the past two years, his day job has been managing government and community relations for Vermont Gas Systems. He’s worked at the statewide utility for 12 years.

“A vast majority of the issues that came before the government operations committee pertain to the role of secretary of state,” said Condos. His private-sector work for a regulated utility, he adds, gives him the necessary insight into how the office could better serve the professionals it oversees.

Gibbs, 34, a younger and more exuberant candidate, has an eight-year track record in public service. Gibbs distinguished himself as a top aide to Gov. Douglas, serving as his spokesman and in the ceremonial post of secretary of civil and military affairs. From there, Gibbs was appointed commissioner of the Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation, with a $20 million budget and a staff of more than 100 — twice that in the summer.

During his 18-month tenure, Gibbs successfully increased park attendance through creative marketing, contests and social networking.

“I think a key question in this campaign is which of us has the energy and expertise to make the office much more innovative, more efficient and more valuable,” said Gibbs. “At Forests and Parks, we helped Vermont fight back against the recession and began focusing on areas to reduce the department’s reliance on taxpayers, and I’m very proud of the work we were able to do. That is a demonstration of the kind of leadership I’m capable of providing.”

Transparency Tools

In keeping with their transparency promises, both candidates plan to enlist outside help to make the inner workings of Vermont government more accessible to the public.

Gibbs was first to come up with the idea of creating an outside commission to review the 200-plus privacy exemptions embedded in state law. These exemptions keep secret certain information, such as Social Security numbers, but material gathered as a part of an “ongoing investigation” can also be kept from public view.

Condos agrees with Gibbs about the commission, adding Vermont should study how other states balance private and public information.

“I think we need to look at the 200-plus exemptions and bring them into one place in statute so that it’s clear to the public just what is being withheld and why,” said Condos.

His view is that the secretary of state’s office should have more regulatory authority to enforce laws governing open meetings and public records. To that end, Condos wants to add an “ombudsman” to the staff who would be able to issue binding opinions. Any such change would require legislative action.

More authority isn’t the answer, Gibbs reasons. He thinks the office needs to work more closely with municipalities to encourage better behavior.

“I would certainly encourage municipal partners to do the right thing,” said Gibbs. “I don’t think it’s an issue of just throwing more authority into the statutes.”

Professional Regulation

During the primary, state Auditor Tom Salmon questioned whether Markowitz was overcharging for “office costs” to the various professions regulated by her office.

Markowitz defended the practice, saying other departments of state government do the equivalent to cover phones, office equipment and office space.

Condos and Gibbs both believe the practice is appropriate, but agree it’s time to take a closer look.

“There is a certain amount of administrative cost to be charged to all of the licensed professionals overseen by the Office of Professional Regulation,” said Condos.” I would welcome an audit to see how we’re doing it and if we need to make any changes.”

Both candidates want to find ways to more expeditiously adjudicate cases before the OPR. On average, cases take 200 days to resolve, noted Gibbs. “That 200 days is too long for not only the professional whose license hangs in the balance but also for the consumer who has not been properly served by being asked to wait that long.”

So Sue Me

The competitors are on the same side of the courtroom on an issue of particular interest to the media: awarding attorney fees to plaintiffs who have been unfairly stonewalled by state agencies.

Vermont judges have the power to punish state agencies for withholding public information unnecessarily, but they rarely, if ever, use it.

Several years ago the Vermont Press Association, the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and Common Cause tried unsuccessfully to change state law so judges would have to punish state information withholders.

The measure never gained traction in the Senate and was opposed by the Douglas administration.

“I was iffy on it at the time, but I’ve come around on it,” said Condos. “At the time, I considered it an unfunded mandate and believed that if a judge felt an agency was being egregious, then they would impose legal fees. But that has happened very, very seldom.”

Condos said that, while the more expensive public-records cases often involve special-interest groups and the media, average citizens are impacted by the prospect of paying exorbitant legal fees to take a case to court.

“The average citizen would have to hire an attorney and might not be willing to do that, and might be intimidated if they stand the chance of not recouping those legal costs,” said Condos. “I think if we can do everything from the perspective of the average citizen, the rest can take care of itself.”

Gibbs wouldn’t say whether he and Douglas clashed on this issue, but as a candidate for secretary of state, he supports the statutory change.

It would send a message to state agencies, Gibbs said. “If they feel there is a financial risk to their department or agency if they falsely withhold information, then they will err more often than not on the side of transparency.”

Vote “Yes” or “No”?

On a basic level, Vermont’s secretary of state is responsible for making sure elections run fairly and smoothly— something we all take for granted. On the loftier side, he or she is the keeper of the state’s democracy, weighing in on the laws that regulate how we recruit and elect our leaders.

Despite his youth and entrepreneurial spirit, Gibbs is a traditionalist when it comes to election law. He opposes same-day voter registration, a national popular vote for president, instant-runoff voting and a current proposal to amend Vermont’s constitution to allow 17-year-olds to vote in primaries so long as they turn 18 before Election Day. He also opposed moving Vermont’s primary date to August, rather than keeping it in September.

“In each of these instances, my views have been shaped by an important constituency — town clerks,” said Gibbs, reflecting a conservative view of the people who administer democracy in Vermont’s small towns.

Condos disagrees and contends not all clerks oppose these changes. “We shouldn’t just close our eyes to these issues, but have a conversation about them,” he said. “My goal, overall, would be to make it easier to vote and harder to cheat. I want a system that is accessible but maintains its integrity.”

Campaign Finance

Both Gibbs and Condos agree that campaign-finance information should be more user friendly, detailed and timely.

“I would like to see us develop a system, over time, that is like the federal system, where candidates fill out the information online and hit ‘send,’ and then it becomes available for everyone to see,” said Condos. “This would not only improve how quickly the public can see the information, but it would all be in a standard format.”

Condos said he isn’t sure how much such a system would cost.

Gibbs was first to call on each candidate to provide more up-to-date summaries on their own campaign websites so interested citizens could track their donations and expenditures in between filing deadlines. He dismisses the notion that it will cost millions of dollars to be more transparent. It just takes a different mindset.

“If we keep doing what we’ve always been doing in government, we’re going to keep getting what we’ve always been getting,” said Gibbs.

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