Over-Board? To Cull Commissions, Vermont Creates a New Commission | Politics | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Over-Board? To Cull Commissions, Vermont Creates a New Commission

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At the end of each legislative session, former state employee Otto Trautz takes it upon himself to read through every new law in search of any board or commission Vermont lawmakers saw fit to create. Without fail, he uncovers a fresh crop.

Trautz keeps an unofficial tally of state-created panels, which has surpassed 250. "No one else was in a position or interested in doing it," said the Cabot retiree, who was the Department of Finance and Management's budget operations director.

Nearly a decade after Trautz began his painstaking passion project, state officials are taking an interest. To assess the bureaucratic sprawl, naturally, they created a new board: the Sunset Advisory Commission.

Commissions — peopled by lawmakers, state officials and private citizens usually appointed by the governor or legislature — run the gamut from very powerful to impotent. The influential Green Mountain Care Board oversees health care reform and approves hospital budgets, for example, and the Public Utility Commission sets electric rates.

On the other hand, the state still has a commission to oversee horse racing, though Vermont's only race track closed a quarter century ago and members haven't met for a "long, long time," according to its chair, Harlan Sylvester, a politically influential financial executive at Morgan Stanley first appointed by then-governor Madeleine Kunin.

Vermont has commissions to approve pesticide application, monitor milk prices, promote maple products, oversee petroleum cleanup, ensure elevator safety, reduce school bullying, encourage snowmobiling and study migratory waterfowl. One commission is devoted solely to the Atlantic salmon.

Some have unexpected powers. The authority to name geographic features rests with the Vermont Board of Libraries, which recently rejected a man's request to rename Mount Ascutney as Mount Kaskadenak.

Commissions allow policy makers to delve into thorny problems, and they can provide a venue for citizens to influence state policy. Some are quasi-judicial. Some dole out money or conduct research. And some don't do much of anything.

Creating a commission can be a convenient way for state officials to show, with minimal effort, that they're serious about a given issue.

The state's boards, commissions, panels, task forces and committees can take numerous forms. Many were created in statute, but some were formed by executive order or federal mandate.

"We seem to use the terms willy-nilly," said Sen. Jeanette White (D-Windham), cochair of the Sunset Advisory Commission.

It's not uncommon for commissions to have overlapping missions or to have long outlived their purposes. "Unfortunately, I don't think the Vermont legislature is different than any other state legislature. It tends to create things and not eliminate them," said Rep. John Gannon (D-Wilmington), the other cochair. "There's a hot issue, so you create a board or commission, and then the issue disappears."

The state has no official count of these commissions, nor does it know how much they cost. Lawmakers don't necessarily know which bodies still meet, who serves on them or whether the bodies perform their intended roles.

Unless created for the sole purpose of advising the governor, boards and commissions are subject to the state's Open Meeting Law. But not all of them follow it, and the fragmented system doesn't breed transparency.

"It's a concern," said Deputy Secretary of State Chris Winters. "We get the calls and the emails and the complaints about various boards and commissions possibly not following the Open Meeting Law.

"It's usually not a matter of willful noncompliance," Winters added, noting that commission members may not know they need to alert the public to their meetings and post their minutes. "It's more a matter of education."

Trautz was involved in an effort to pare back the system in 2010, before he retired from his state post. Facing budget pressures, then-governor Jim Douglas' administration thought it might be able to reduce costs by cutting the number of commissions.

Commissions can serve as a cost-effective way to outsource work, because some members are unpaid and volunteer labor is cheaper than paying state employees.

But it's not free. In many cases, members can pocket a modest per diem; the default is $150 for lawmakers and $50 for non-lawmakers. Some members of panels with major responsibilities, including the Green Mountain Care Board and the Parole Board, receive an annual salary.

Perhaps more costly, but harder to quantify, is the time state employees spend assisting these bodies. Administrative duties, such as posting agendas and meeting minutes, often fall to them.

"It's not a lot of money in the scheme of things, but it consumes a lot of staff time to provide support for these entities, and it just becomes more burdensome than it's worth," former governor Douglas said.

Trautz said that back in 2010, he read through every state law, with help from his staff. Based on that work, the Douglas administration identified roughly 50 boards it thought the state could do without. It succeeded in getting rid of about 30, including the Motorcycle Rider Training Program Advisory Committee and the Outdoor Lighting Committee. But those eliminated hadn't actually met in recent years, so dissolving them didn't save much money.

And even getting rid of the defunct commissions wasn't easy. "The [Statehouse] rooms would fill up with advocates for boards that haven't met in years saying, 'Well, they should be meeting,'" Trautz recalled.

Moribund commissions are sometimes resurrected. The Ethan Allen Institute chronicled one such revival in an online post with the headline "Zombie Milk Commission Given New Life."

The Vermont Film Corporation, also known as the Vermont Film Commission, was created in 1996 to promote Vermont for movie and TV production. The Douglas administration tried, but failed, to eliminate it, along with its $171,000 state grant.

Governor Peter Shumlin's administration took up the cause in 2011, managing to fold the film commission into the Agency of Commerce and Economic Development. But that same year, the legislature created a new body — the Film and New Media Advisory Board — to advise the agency on how to promote Vermont to movie and TV producers. (According to a document submitted to the Sunset Advisory Committee, the commerce agency never actually created the board.)

Boards and commissions are easy to create but can be hard to get up and running.

"The governor, frankly, at some point runs into trouble trying to find people to populate them, and that takes a lot of his staff time, as well," Douglas said.

Last week, the New Motor Vehicle Arbitration Board, which enforces the lemon law, met at a Montpelier state office building in an elegant boardroom with carved wooden columns and sconces. It was hearing a case brought by an Enosburgh man who claimed that the Ford Motor Company had leased him a defective truck. After the hourlong hearing, one of the five commissioners, David Curtis, said he volunteered to serve on the board eight years ago because his wife, who worked in the Douglas administration, told him how difficult it was to fill the seats.

In other cases, high-profile individuals have agreed to serve on obscure bodies. Jane O'Meara Sanders, wife of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), is listed as the alternate member of the Texas Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Compact Commission, created to facilitate the shipment of Vermont's nuclear waste to the Lone Star State.

At the urging of Gov. Phil Scott's administration, lawmakers passed legislation in June that eliminated several bodies, including the Board of Funeral Service, and created the Sunset Advisory Commission to inventory the remaining boards and commissions and determine which are still relevant.

"It's been in the back of people's minds for a long time," said Sen. White. "Why do we have all these boards and commissions?"

Scott's staff had good reason to push for reform. By their estimate, the governor is charged with appointing one or more members to 60 percent of the state's boards and commissions. That amounts to roughly 1,200 people. When Scott took office, 75 percent of gubernatorial appointees had either left their posts or were continuing to serve even though their terms had expired.

"Obviously, the backlog created some problems," said executive assistant Hayden Dublois. "We are doing our best to fill all these vacancies."

Since taking office, Scott has announced at least 530 board appointments.

The process prompted a bigger question. "If people aren't being appointed to these boards and commissions, what are they doing and how can we make their work valuable?" Dublois asked.

A full answer may take years.

The inventory was supposed to be finished by January, but White asserted in an interview last week that there's "no way" that will happen.

"It's a monumental task," explained Deputy Secretary of State Winters, whose office is supposed to maintain the inventory once it's done.

During a meeting Tuesday, the commission discussed which kinds of bodies belong in the inventory.

The Sunset Advisory Commission has already started requiring that other state boards and commissions fill out a questionnaire, which, among other inquiries, asks how much they spend; whether they actually meet; where they post agendas, minutes and other public information; and whether they still serve a purpose. The commission will propose legislation to eliminate a handful of these bodies at the start of the 2019 session and will continue its review over the next four years.

Among those slated for dissolution: the Film and New Media Advisory Board, the Commission on International Trade & State Sovereignty, and the Sustainable Agriculture Council.

However, the Sunset Advisory Commission wasn't ready to part with the Agricultural Fairs and Field Days Capital Program Advisory Committee, which doles out small grants. Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets officials offered to take on that role, but White said she'd rather regular citizens make those decisions.

During an interview, Rep. Gannon suggested one simple step lawmakers could take to cut down on future commissions: Ensure that each one has an expiration date, which would spark an automatic review.

Radical change, he suggested, is unlikely: "At this point, my sense is it would be a modest reduction."

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