Gov. Peter Shumlin today appointed Neale Lunderville, an executive at Green Mountain Power and former top aide to Republican Gov. Jim Douglas, to coordinate the state's recovery efforts in the wake of Tropical Storm Irene.
Lunderville is taking a four-month leave of absence from his post at GMP, the state's second largest utility, to help coordinate disaster relief and recovery efforts between federal, state and local governments as well as private and non-profit sectors.
Shumlin said Lunderville will be paid a salary comparable to that of other secretaries and commissioners in his administration, likely in the low six figures, though a final dollar amount has not yet been agreed upon. The governor added that the state expects the federal government will end up picking up the tab for Lunderville's salary.
In the Douglas administration Lunderville led — at separate times — the Agency of Transportation and the Agency of Administration. Lunderville ran Douglas' campaign in 2002 and helped get him elected to office. He remained involved in Douglas' campaigns, and in GOP politics, since then.
Lunderville is a also close ally of Harlan Sylvester, a powerful political powerbroker in Vermont who is chair of Shumlin's Council of Economic Advisors — a post he has held with every governor since Madeleine Kunin. Sylvester backed former Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie in the 2010 gubernatorial election and supported Douglas, despite being a lifelong Democrat.
Political connections aside, Lunderville's current boss — GMP — has plenty of big-money business before the state, too. GMP recently won final approval to build 21 wind turbines on a ridgeline in Lowell and is seeking regulatory approval to merge with Central Vermont Public Service, the state's largest utility.
Lunderville told reporters he would avoid any duties that posed a conflict of interest between his role as recovery coordinator and his "day job" with GMP.
Shumlin dismissed reporters' questions about whether politics or his administration's cozy relationship with GMP played into his decision to hire Lunderville.
"This is not about politics," said Shumlin. "Irene and the damage it inflicted knows no party and no partisanship and we're facing a monumental task to rebuild."
Shumlin said that Lunderville's expertise would be an asset to the state for this short-term appointment, which expires in December. Shumlin's chief of staff, Bill Lofy, was the first to reach out to Lunderville to gauge his interest in the job, Shumlin said.
"The challenge from the governor's perspective is this: My team has its hands full trying to wire the state by 2013, reform health care, making us an education state and managing a tough budget," said Shumlin. "We can't ask the people who are working so hard for me to do everything I just mentioned and oversee this massive recovery effort. I'm looking to Neale to harvest the opportunities given us by Irene to build a better infrastructure as we move forward."
Lunderville joined Shumlin at the press conference in Montpelier, while Administration Secretary Jeb Spaulding and Transportation Secretary Brian Searles looked on.
"I am honored to come in and do my small part to get Vermont working again and build this state up better than before and make this state stronger than ever," said Lunderville, noting that his immediate focus is to help get the main roadways re-opened and make sure people displaced by the flooding have adequate housing.
"We have extensive damage across the state and we have a tremendous challenge ahead," said Lunderville.
According to the governor's office, the recovery's short-term goals are restoring basic services, housing the displaced and rebuilding vital transportation corridors. The mid-term goal is to stabilize communities and infrastructure and develop plans for the rebuilding. This work is currently underway. The state’s ongoing efforts to aid communities are focused on four key areas, the governor said:
- Family & Business Assistance: Helping Vermonters recover from personal, property and community loss. Coordinating with FEMA, VEMA and state agencies to take care of immediate needs like food, housing, employment, transportation and education. Developing a strategy for restoring long-term health of families and communities.
- Infrastructure Reconstruction: Rebuilding roads, bridges and culverts, including a thorough assessment of current damage, plus development of a priority list and realistic timeline for the work.
- Harnessing Vermont’s Strength: Coordination of community relief efforts already underway to maximize resources, volunteers, donations and manpower.
- Building for the Future: Where possible, use the opportunity of rebuilding to reposition and strengthen Vermont communities to compete in the decades to come. For instance, where possible, use this opportunity to lay fiber.
"I am bound and determined to make sure that when we are fully recovered that Vermont is in better shape than the way Irene found it and found us and we will succeed at that," said Shumlin.