- File: Oliver Parini
- Power boating in Lake Champlain
The first month of the legislative session has been dominated by two questions: What will Gov. Phil Scott say in his budget address, and how will the legislature respond to a costly, federally mandated cleanup of Lake Champlain?
That's become the universal shorthand for the issue: "Lake Champlain cleanup." It's the identifier — used in media coverage and in casual conversation alike.
Trouble is, it's completely misleading. The Lake Champlain cleanup isn't about the lake, and it's not a cleanup. This has a number of implications, none of them positive.
Take "Lake Champlain." The plan focuses not on that great body of water, but on the rivers and streams that feed into Champlain — not to mention the Connecticut River and Lake Memphremagog.
Now, take "cleanup." The plan doesn't actually clean up existing pollution. It would reduce future pollution by improving water quality upstream. There's an indirect effect on Champlain; as fewer pollutants flow in, some of the old stuff will flow out. Eventually.
The mismatched moniker is making the plan a tougher sell in Montpelier.
"Every time they hear "Champlain cleanup," my constituents wonder why it's important to the Connecticut River Valley," says freshman Rep. Paul Belaski (D-Windsor). "They say, 'Why are our tax dollars going to fix Champlain?'"
"Most lawmakers now realize that the funding will benefit their area of the state as well," says Jon Groveman, policy and water program director for the Vermont Natural Resources Council. "I see it more in the comments in the articles on the subject, where Vermonters who live in other places are saying, 'Why do we need to subsidize Lake Champlain?'
"The sentiment is out there, and lawmakers will hear it from their constituents, and it will continue to be an issue," Groveman concludes.
"The Lake Champlain Basin is 136 towns," says Sen. Chris Bray (D-Addison), chair of the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee. "Most of them are so remote that they don't feel like they have a connection. But they are all sending water to Lake Champlain."
Vermont is trying to meet a federally mandated target for phosphorus flows into the lake, called a "total maximum daily load," or TMDL. That mandate touches on all of those 136 towns. Separate TMDLs are in place for Memphremagog and for Long Island Sound, the ultimate destination of the Connecticut River. "There's almost no part of the state that's not covered by a TMDL," Bray notes.
But try telling that to a taxpayer who lives in Windsor or Weston or St. Johnsbury.
And then there's the fact that, as expensive as this plan will be, it has no direct impact on existing water quality problems. TMDLs, by definition, focus on water flowing into a lake — not the water already there. "Lake Champlain cleanup" gives people too big an idea of its impact.
"It's not a plan to stop all discharges into the lake, it's not a plan to dredge up all the pollution in the lake;" says Groveman. "It's a pollution-reduction plan to meet targets that the Environmental Protection Agency has set to one day have water quality standards met in the lake."
"In some cases, the scientists predict that we're looking at 30, 40 years, perhaps, and perhaps not at all seeing any sort of relief from existing pollution," says Lake Champlain International executive director James Ehlers.
Not to mention that the Champlain TMDL addresses only one pollutant.
"Dealing with phosphorus is not going to deal with the some-65,000 chemicals that the EPA does not regulate," Ehlers adds. "You've got pharmaceuticals, emerging contaminants, micro-plastics, mercury deposition. These issues are all inextricably linked together."
"By no means are the environmental groups saying that this is enough," says Groveman. "It's not enough, but we need to get this passed."
The Slow Walk
The Senate Government Operations Committee continues to work toward an ethics reform bill and hopes to pass a measure by early next week. Its deliberations tend to work in one direction: limited authority and inadequate resources.
Or, in the words of Sen. Claire Ayer (D-Addison), "We need to keep a light touch wherever we can."
Last week, the panel removed municipal governments from the jurisdiction of a proposed state ethics commission. Secretary of State Jim Condos had hoped to include local governments because that's where ethical problems often fester, without much scrutiny from the press.
The committee does plan to impose one new requirement on localities: All towns must adopt conflict-of-interest policies.
And when will this new mandate take effect? July 1, 2020.
Towns will have three and a half years to enact simple conflict of interest standards.
This shouldn't be tough. In 2015, the Vermont League of Cities & Towns issued a model conflict-of-interest policy and made it available to all its members. It's not like towns have to create a conflict policy out of thin air.
The only committee member who objected to the delay was Sen. Alison Clarkson (D-Windsor). After Sen. Jeanette White (D-Windham), the committee chair, suggested January of 2020, Clarkson reacted strongly.
"I'm sorry, it should be sooner," she said, suggesting July 2019 — a mere two and a half years away.
She got no support from her four colleagues. Indeed, Sen. Chris Pearson (P/D-Chittenden) then proposed July 2020 rather than January — without giving any reason. The panel quickly agreed.
What's the hurry, anyway?
Vermont's public records law is a mainstay of journalism in the state. It ensures access to government documents that tell a much fuller story than the bland statements of politicians and their flacks.
VTDigger.org has relied on public records in its years-long investigation of the EB-5 immigrant investor visa scandal at Jay Peak. Its reporting has been crucial to bringing the alleged fraud to light.
And throughout, it has been frustrated by state officials' compliance with the law. So says VTDigger founder Anne Galloway, who recently told the House Government Operations Committee that the law needs to be scrapped and replaced.
"You need the documents to get at where the truth lies," she says. "I'm convinced the Public Records Act has too many exemptions — and that the exemptions are exploited at the expense of the public."
Galloway says the EB-5 probe has been hamstrung by denials, delays, redactions, refusals and outrageous invoices.
In one case, the office of then-attorney general Bill Sorrell estimated the cost of compliance with two public records requests at $200,000. In Galloway's view, that's obstructionism.
"The billing is done by the very people with an interest in preventing us from seeing the information," she asserts. "So it's another 'fox guarding the henhouse' situation."
Even after years of investigative reporting, Galloway is convinced that the full story remains untold.
"I think the state was way more involved [in EB-5] than we know, but we have no way of finding out," she continues. "We can't get to the bottom of it because we haven't been able to access the materials."
Galloway insists that Vermont could simply use model legislation from another state as a template. But in an email, Rep. Maida Townsend (D-South Burlington), chair of the House Government Operations Committee, sees it as a tougher climb.
"Creating an entirely new law of this import and magnitude would be a huge task," she says. Townsend expects no action for another two years, at least.
Further, the chair suggests the black hole of legislative deferral: "Perhaps a study committee would be in order."
Obsessive followers of Vermont journalism may have noticed a familiar byline on a recent story from the Associated Press, published by several news outlets around the state and elsewhere.
The piece, "Community Once Home to Norman Rockwell Scared After Homicide," covered the aftermath of an elderly woman's murder in East Arlington.
The writer: Susan Allen, who was one of Democrat Peter Shumlin's closest aides throughout his governorship — starting as his spokesperson in 2011 and finishing just weeks ago as his deputy chief of staff.
The Arlington story was her first effort in her new role as an occasional AP stringer — a writer with no formal position who is paid on a per-story basis.
It's far from Allen's first spin through the revolving door between press and politics. Since moving to Vermont in 1986, she has worked for the Associated Press, the Burlington Free Press and the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus. Sandwiched in between was a six-year stint as Democratic governor Howard Dean's press secretary. She's worked in just about every aspect of print journalism, from reporter to editor to columnist to editorial writer. She also spent most of 2010 as executive director of Renewable Energy Vermont, an organization that advocates for renewable power.
Allen says she's aware of the ethical implications. Clear guidelines were established in conversations with the AP's Vermont chief, Wilson Ring.
"We spoke very carefully about what I can and cannot write," she says. "No politics, no government. There was no disagreement on that."
Well, perhaps. But in a small state like Vermont, Allen is a big name. Her past could come into play in various and unexpected ways. When could her connections give her easy access? When could her Democratic associations affect the way she's perceived — and what she reports? The AP seems willing to manage the risk. And more may be coming.
"I've been approached by another respected news organization in Vermont about doing some stringing," she says, refusing to name names.
The revolving-door phenomenon is, to some extent, a natural consequence of living in a state with few opportunities. But members of the Vermont press corps may see bitter irony in the move. Much of Allen's work for Shumlin involved media relations, and those relations were prickly at best — and downright antagonistic at worst. The Shumlin press office had a reputation for being quick to anger and slow to inform.
When asked for comment, Ring punted.
"I will have to send you to New York," he said, referring to the AP's corporate headquarters.
An inquiry about the wire service's policy on using political operatives as journalists, emailed to Lauren Easton, the AP's director of media relations, produced the following nugget: "Susan would work at a distance from any possible conflicts with her past role."
Gee, thanks for sharing.
Here's another bitter irony: This move comes less than a month after the AP pink-slipped 31-year veteran reporter Dave Gram as part of a nationwide cost-cutting effort. The AP is still looking to hire a three-month temp to cover the Statehouse, having cut ties with one of the most respected members of Vermont's political press corps.