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Help Wanted: Scott Races the Clock to Fill His Cabinet

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Governor-elect Phil Scott on Monday at his Montpelier transition office - PAUL HEINTZ
  • Paul Heintz
  • Governor-elect Phil Scott on Monday at his Montpelier transition office

Asked Monday to identify his greatest challenge before taking office January 5, governor-elect Phil Scott answered without hesitation.

"Lack of time," the construction executive and Republican lieutenant governor told reporters during his first press conference in more than a month. "But, you know, my entire life has been trying to adhere to deadlines and tight construction time frames and so forth. So it seems to me like a giant construction site at this point. But we'll get there."

Scott doesn't have much time to finish this construction project.

In the next 22 days, he's hoping to hire an extended cabinet of 64 secretaries, commissioners and their deputies. At Monday's presser, held in Scott's Montpelier transition office, the governor-elect expressed confidence that he'll fill the top jobs — but not all the many deputy positions — by the time he swears his oath of office.

Scott's running well behind the schedule set by his immediate predecessor, retiring Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin. By the end of November 2010, then-governor-elect Shumlin had appointed secretaries and commissioners of administration, agriculture, labor, commerce, finance and management, transportation, human services, and child welfare — not to mention many of their deputies. By six years ago this Wednesday, he had also picked his chiefs for natural resources, public safety, financial regulation, public health, health care reform, utility regulation and tourism.

But by Monday morning, Scott had named just two cabinet officials: Deputy Attorney General Susanne Young, who will serve in the all-powerful post of administration secretary; and Green Mountain Care Board chair Al Gobeille, who will run the sprawling Agency of Human Services.

The next day, Scott tapped a few more: Julie Moore, who ran former governor Jim Douglas' Lake Champlain cleanup efforts and now works for Stone Environmental, will lead the Agency of Natural Resources. Tom Anderson, a deputy general counsel for the U.S. Department of Justice and a former federal prosecutor, will run the state's Department of Public Safety. Both Department of Finance and Management Commissioner Andy Pallito and Natural Resources Board chair Diane Snelling will keep their jobs.

Scott's defenders argue that, because Election Day came six days later this year than in 2010, he's had less time to fill out his team. But his inauguration falls one day earlier than Shumlin's did, so there's no additional time on the other end.

"I'm a true believer in having the right chemistry, and building a team takes a little bit of time to do so. I don't want to make any mistakes," Scott explained Monday. "I don't feel that we're behind at this point — and I'm being realistic about that."

Given that Scott won election on a message of change, it isn't likely that the Republican will retain many cabinet officials from the outgoing Democratic administration. He signaled as much last month when he sent them all a "notice of separation," effective at the close of business on January 5. Scott did invite them to reapply for their jobs — and a surprising number took him up on the offer.

"More than half of the incumbent cabinet secretaries and commissioners have expressed interest in reappointment," Scott's pick for chief of staff, Jason Gibbs, estimates.

For some, the reason is simple. Fish & Wildlife Department Commissioner Louis Porter, who is hoping to keep his gig, calls it "the best job in the world."

"But I also understand that governors are ultimately responsible for running their own departments and agencies, and they often want their own people in these jobs," he says.

Outgoing Administration Secretary Trey Martin, who is coordinating Shumlin's side of the transition, says he and his colleagues have forged "a very cordial relationship with the Scott transition team." But he acknowledges that it has been "a tough process for people who are leaving." They are anxious to learn their fate — and to ensure that their agencies and departments are in good hands.

"I know my colleagues have expressed the desire to really get started working with the incoming folks sooner," the secretary says.

Though he had hoped to keep his job, Martin says he is heartened that Scott chose Young — a veteran state employee who served as Douglas' deputy state treasurer and gubernatorial legal counsel before her current stint as Democratic Attorney General Bill Sorrell's No. 2.

"Susanne is exactly the kind of roll-up-the-sleeves person we need," Martin says.

Young, whose appointment has been widely praised, has a tough job ahead of her. Scott's first budget proposal is due to the legislature two weeks after he takes office — and Young still has a day job. She says she's been waking up early and staying up late to help Scott set up his office even as she helps Sorrell close down his. Young does have some help: Former Douglas administration secretary Neale Lunderville has been working on Scott's budget since Election Day.

"I don't have any concerns about not having a budget on the day it's due to the legislature," Young says.

According to several outside advisers involved with Scott's transition, its slow pace is due, in part, to the governor-elect's desire to avoid hiring what he called on Monday "the normal suspects." To that end, Scott last month appointed a Transition Leadership Advisory Committee and charged its members with shaking the trees for potential applicants — particularly those outside of the Montpelier bubble. Notably, 12 of the committee's 17 members are women.

"At that first meeting, the governor-elect talked to us about the importance of having a diverse administration," says Kristin Carlson, a Green Mountain Power executive who serves on the committee. "In particular, I'm trying to think about women and trying to make sure state government is balanced, in terms of gender equality."

The transition committee includes some surprising members, such as Marguerite Dibble, who describes herself as a "26-year-old millennial woman running a technology company."

"I voted for Sue," discloses Dibble, referring to Scott's Democratic gubernatorial rival, Sue Minter. "But I think that's part of what makes this great. That was never part of the question."

Whether Scott will succeed in finding the diversity he seeks is another matter.

"That's a great goal to have," says Dennise Casey, a public relations consultant who served in the Douglas administration and is a member of the advisory committee. "But in order for the governor-elect to achieve that goal, we need more women and more minorities to step out and apply and see themselves as leaders and as public servants."

It's likely too soon to draw many conclusions about the cabinet and gubernatorial staff Scott is assembling.

Some appointees, such as Young and Pallito, are closer to "the normal suspects" of which Scott is wary. Both have spent decades in state government, worked in multiple agencies and are experienced managers.

Others — particularly on Scott's executive staff on the fifth floor of the Pavilion Building — are known for their political résumés and involvement in his campaign. Those include Gibbs, secretary of civil and military affairs-designee Brittney Wilson, and affordability and economic growth director-designee Tayt Brooks.

But at least two appointments — those of Moore and Gobeille — have been genuinely surprising. Though Moore worked in the Douglas administration, the engineer and environmental scientist appears to have credibility with the environmental community. Plus, she took part in Emerge Vermont's training for Democratic women interested in seeking public office.

Gobeille, a 52-year-old white male businessman from Burlington, doesn't exactly check the diversity box. But his close association with Shumlin's health care reform proposals — particularly the state's recently inked all-payer agreement with the federal government — makes him a somewhat unconventional choice. Even now, Gobeille remains a champion of all-payer, while his next boss continues to express doubts.

So far, liberals and conservatives alike seem cautiously optimistic about the appointment. Outgoing Human Services Secretary Hal Cohen, who had hoped to keep his job, calls his successor a "really innovative thinker" and a "good leader" who will be a "great secretary." Rep. Bill Lippert (D-Hinesburg), who chairs the House Committee on Health Care, calls Gobeille "committed to health care reform."

"My first reaction, to be honest, was: I was surprised," Lippert says. "Then I was pleased that he would be in a key position within the administration."

Even Darcie Johnston, who fought Shumlin's health care reforms tooth and nail — and later served as president-elect Donald Trump's Vermont director — hails Gobeille as "one of the most knowledgeable" in the field.

Gobeille, who won't reveal his party affiliation, says he's happy to be a political cipher.

"I had close friends who, when I was appointed [to the Green Mountain Care Board], thought I was a socialist. Now I have folks wondering if I'm a Reagan conservative," he says. "I think that's a good place to be."

Now, if only Scott can find 59 more people like that — in the next three weeks.

Media Notes

Not too long ago, the Montpelier bureau of the Associated Press was the powerhouse of the Vermont press corps. But over the past decade, the nonprofit news cooperative has allowed its Green Mountain outpost to whither on the vine — eliminating three of six positions by attrition.

Now, according to spokeswoman Lauren Easton, it's about to lose another — as part of a companywide layoff of 25.

Precisely which Montpelier reporter is taking the fall remained unclear Tuesday as Seven Days went to press. Bureau chief Wilson Ring and reporter Dave Gram declined to comment, and reporter Lisa Rathke could not be reached.

The truth is, Vermont can't spare any of the trio. As regional papers have cut back on their own statewide reporting in recent years, they could at least count on copy from the AP. But with just two reporters remaining in Montpelier, they won't be able to provide much.

And what happens when newspapers don't have enough real reporting to fill their pages and websites? They print press releases — and pass them off as journalism.

Just this week, the Burlington Free Press published a "story" about the Vermont Air National Guard's recent deployment to an undisclosed base in Southwest Asia. It wasn't written by one of the Freeps' few remaining reporters, but by a "Master Sgt. Benjamin Wilson."

The piece, originally published online Sunday evening, included Wilson's rank in the byline, but it did not disclose the fact that he's a "public affairs asset" for the U.S. Air Force's 407th Air Expeditionary Group.

"His story is posted on the Defense [Video Imagery] Distribution System," Vermont National Guard Capt. Dyana Allen explained Monday, referring to a military PR clearinghouse. "As you know, all imagery and stories we post to DVIDS is for public use and is free of copyright restrictions."

Free of copyright restrictions — and also free of the independent, journalistic rigor that readers expect from a legitimate newspaper.

By Monday afternoon, the Freeps had tweaked the story slightly. It replaced Wilson's byline with "Free Press Staff," identified Wilson as a source rather than the author and added a few lines of additional reporting. But whole sentences remained virtually unchanged. That second version ran in print on Tuesday.

Asked whether the paper had acted ethically in passing off Wilson's press release as reporting, Free Press executive editor Denis Finley told Seven Days that he had been out of town when the piece ran and "did not see the item in question."

"We do not publish PR releases word for word," he said in an email. "If that's what happened here, it was a mistake."

Finley's right. It was a mistake. In this era of "fake news," no credible journalistic outfit should be publishing a story about the military, by the military.


The original print version of this article was headlined "Help Wanted"

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