- Taylor Dobbs
- Rep. Kari Dolan
Less than a week after taking office, Rep. Kari Dolan (D-Waitsfield) found herself staring down her former bosses in a House committee hearing. The first-time lawmaker had just stepped down as director of the state's Clean Water Initiative Program and stepped onto the House Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife Committee.
In one of the panel's first hearings, Environmental Conservation Commissioner Emily Boedecker and Natural Resources Secretary Julie Moore, who oversee the clean water program, took their turns in the witness chair.
Dolan said she left the position to avoid conflicts of interest. But the state's personnel rules give her priority in seeking a state job after the legislative session ends, and she isn't aiming for the Department of Motor Vehicles. "I'll most likely work at DEC, but it's unclear what that will look like," she said.
That could give Dolan some incentive to treat her once and future bosses with kid gloves. Did the situation give her pause? "I wasn't uncomfortable at all," Dolan said of the hearing. "I've thought a lot about how to occupy my position in a way that is transparent and avoids conflicts of interest."
Dolan's interpretation of "conflict" is rather narrow. "Conflict of interest is if a person is benefiting personally from their position," she said. "My salary won't be affected by my work on the committee."
In fact, the actual House and Senate rules are even narrower. They prohibit voting on legislation "in which [members] are immediately or directly interested." Which means unique personal financial gain. The rules do not address committee service at all.
Dolan is one of at least four lawmakers who work for the State of Vermont, according to a new Seven Days database of financial-disclosure data (more on that below). She is one of two who accepted a seat on a committee that sets policy for the agency in which they work —or recently worked.
The other, Rep. Nader Hashim (D-Dummerston), is the first Vermont state trooper to serve in the legislature. He sought and accepted a seat on the House Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over law enforcement issues. "As a representative, I don't answer to my superiors," Hashim said. "I'm here to represent the people of my district."
Dolan and Hashim may risk the appearance of conflict when they hear testimony from their superiors or take part in committee discussion on issues relevant to their employment. But for House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero), the risk is outweighed by the experience they bring. "Because of turnover in the legislature and the lack of staff, legislators' life experiences add to the discussion," she said. She pointed out that no single lawmaker has too much influence. "You're one of 180 in the legislature. Your experience informs the process, but you're not determining outcomes."
Other state-employed lawmakers attempt to avoid potential conflict. Rep. Dylan Giambatista (D-Essex Junction) works for state Treasurer Beth Pearce. When he took office in 2017, he requested a seat on the House Education Committee. "I prefer a personal policy where the lines are clear for all to see," Giambatista explained. "Choosing a committee with relatively no overlap with my employment was prudent." He said he would have preferred serving on the House Government Operations Committee, but it has jurisdiction over public-sector pensions, one of Pearce's core responsibilities.
Similarly, newbie Sen. Andrew Perchlik (D/P-Washington) is director of the Clean Energy Development Fund, which operates within the Department of Public Service. He specifically requested not to be placed on the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee. "If advocates were seeking funding [from CEDF], I didn't want to be involved. If my superiors came in to testify, it could create the appearance of a conflict," Perchlik said. He was seated on the Senate Transportation Committee, where he will have a say in energy policy not overseen by the DPS.
Each of the four gave substantial thought to potential conflicts and came to their own conclusions. Which serves to highlight the vagueness of Vermont's conflict of interest rules.
In fact, "vague" is the defining characteristic of legislative ethics rules. Recusal from voting is left to the conscience of the individual lawmaker. For the past few years, they have been required to submit financial disclosure forms — but the forms demand minimal disclosure and seem to place legislators' privacy above public interest. There's no penalty for failing to disclose required information, and no one fact-checks the reports.
By midday Tuesday, all 180 lawmakers had filed their forms, but the paperwork isn't easy to find. The House buries scanned PDFs of its disclosures online, and the Senate doesn't post its at all. To spare you the trouble of tracking them down at the Statehouse, Seven Days has created a searchable, sortable database with all the relevant info.
Each chamber's disclosure form is less than a page long. Neither chamber requires any specific dollar figures. State representatives are asked to disclose employers (but not salary information) and membership on boards and commissions. Senators don't have to list their employers but must disclose any source of taxable income over $10,000 and any controlling interest in a corporation.
"This is financial disclosure in its weakest form," said Paul Burns, executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group. "It gives citizens very little actual information about the financial interests of their representatives."
House and Senate leaders defend the forms. "People get a good picture of income sources," said Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden). "We tried to strike a balance. If there are suggestions for improvement, we would entertain them."
House Speaker Johnson called the forms "appropriate." She added, "We need to balance disclosure with respect for officeholders' privacy."
The forms are brief, and some lawmakers appear to have spent little time filling them out. Their handwriting is sometimes illegible. No one checks the forms for accuracy or completeness; it's all on the honor system.
Sen. Dick Mazza (D-Grand Isle) was one of several small-business owners who listed their firms under employment but did not disclose corporate ownership — in his case, of his Colchester grocery store. "Yeah, it probably should have been on there," Mazza acknowledged, promising to look into correcting his form. "It's a small corporation, just my wife and I," he added.
You'd think Mazza would be fully cognizant of the form's requirements. After all, he serves on the Senate Rules Committee, which drafted the disclosure form.
There's not much room for mischief in these omissions, but it's one more sign that lawmakers don't take the process seriously. An unspoken attitude permeates the Statehouse: We're all good people here, and ethical standards are an unnecessary intrusion.
Most of them are good people. As are most Vermonters. But we still need cops on the beat and troopers on the interstates. The House and Senate's disclosure processes depend on the goodwill of lawmakers. Is that a secure enough foundation?
As limited as the forms are, they do provide some useful insights into lawmakers' nonofficial lives. Many, for instance, don't list an employer or occupation at all. Which underscores the number of retirees who represent us and the difficulty of serving in the Statehouse while also holding down a regular job.
A substantial number are involved in local government. Fourteen legislators are members of town selectboards or city councils. Ten are on property-related bodies, such as zoning boards and planning commissions. Ten serve on school boards. Nine are on boards of civil authority, which oversee local elections. Three are town employees; two serve on library boards; and one, Rep. Randall Szott (D/P-Barnard), works at a town library.
Which may explain why the concept of local control is so highly prized under the golden dome. Serving one's community, especially when also serving in the legislature, is an honorable thing. But it does give many lawmakers a town's-eye-view of state issues.
Some lawmakers have jobs that provide color to the oft-repeated phrase "citizen legislature." Rep. Terry Norris (I-Shoreham) is a captain and deckhand on the Fort Ticonderoga ferry that traverses Lake Champlain. Rep. Bill Canfield (R-Fair Haven) owns a barbershop called Hair Haven. Rep. John O'Brien (D-Tunbridge) has produced and directed three films, including the Fred Tuttle epic Man With a Plan. Beyond that, O'Brien is a sheep farmer and a justice of the peace.
Rep. Lucy Rogers (D-Waterville) waits tables at the Village Tavern in Jeffersonville. Rep. Patrick Seymour (R-Sutton) works for the St. Johnsbury Distillery.
Rep. Tristan Toleno (D-Brattleboro) is, among other things, the operator of a mobile pizza oven, while Rep. Vicki Strong (R-Albany) lists her employer as Weight Watchers. One fattens you up; the other slims you down.
Rep. Brian Smith (R-Derby) will gladly sell you a new ride at Key Auto Sales, and Rep. Tom Stevens (D-Waterbury) will set your kids right as director of Christian education at the Waterbury Congregational Church.
Many lawmakers serve on boards of nonprofit organizations. Rep. John Bartholomew (D-Hartland) is a board member for Nordic Fiddles and Feet, a summer camp devoted to the music and dance of Norway and Sweden. Rep. Peter Fagan (R-Rutland) is a trustee of STARBASE Vermont. Sadly, it's not an actual space station but an organization that fosters youth education in science, technology, engineering and math.
Rep. Martin Lalonde (D-South Burlington) serves on the board of the Vermont Watercolor Society. Rep. Avram Patt (D-Worcester) is president of Salvation Farms, an organization that coordinates gleaning and other efforts to maximize use of Vermont's farm produce.
The legislature's financial disclosure forms provide a window on the humanity of our elected officials. That's a good thing, and I'd love to sample Seymour's wares or ask Norris about captaining the Fort Ti ferry.
Unfortunately, the window on their finances is much less revealing. There's a vicious circle here: The legislature's ethics system is designed to identify unethical conduct, but it rests entirely on the integrity of lawmakers themselves. It seems unlikely that the system would uncover any actual misbehavior, unless the dishonest parties are also really, really stupid.
Column continues below the table. Jump to next section.
The already-skinny paper edition of the Burlington Free Press just got a lot thinner. Starting on Monday, the Free Press stopped publishing the daily insert of material from USA TODAY, the national outlet of its corporate owner, Gannett. Instead, the paper announced in a brief article bylined "Free Press Staff" that it's including USA TODAY stories in its A section, which used to be devoted to Vermont news. According to executive editor Emilie Stigliani, the decision "is Gannett-wide."
Stigliani wouldn't say what prompted the change, but here are two guesses: The company needs to cut printing costs — and its dwindling staff can't fill the A section with locally produced journalism. But it's hard to imagine anyone paying two bucks at the newsstand for something that's barely more than a pamphlet. And whatever you think of USA TODAY, the Free Press just gave you one more reason to cancel your print subscription.
Disclosure: Tim Ashe is the domestic partner of Seven Days publisher and coeditor Paula Routly. Find our conflict-of-interest policy here: sevendaysvt.com/disclosure.