- Tim Newcomb
Here's something you don't see very often. In fact, it may be unprecedented in Vermont. One of the six statewide officeholders — governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, attorney general, treasurer and auditor — has hired a paid political staffer outside of her official, state-funded office in the first months of a new term.
"I never had paid political staff in the odd-numbered years that I recall," said former Democratic governor Peter Shumlin in response to a question from Fair Game. "In fact, because I'm such a frugal Vermonter, I put off having a paid campaign staff as long as I possibly could. I usually didn't start that until the legislature adjourned in the election year."
Jason Maulucci, spokesperson for Gov. Phil Scott, gave a similar answer when I asked if his boss had ever hired political staff this early in an odd-numbered year. Maulucci waited until after 5 p.m., the standard end of the state workday, to return Fair Game's call, so he could answer a political question on his own time. Maulucci said Scott doesn't maintain a political staff in the off-election years, though he did hire people in December 2015 when the then-lieutenant governor was gearing up to run for the top job the following year.
So governors typically don't have paid political staffs early in odd-numbered years, but now we have a lieutenant governor who does. Liz Brown, a veteran of Democratic U.S. Senate and congressional campaigns in the Midwest, returned to Vermont (she grew up in Burlington) in January and has been working since then for Team Molly, also known as Molly Gray for Vermont. It's a 32-hour-a-week job.
Gray, who grew up on a farm in Newbury and was working as a lawyer in the Vermont Attorney General's Office, rose from political obscurity last year to win the No. 2 job in her first election bid. A former intern for U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), she's had help from some key Leahy supporters. Speculation is widespread that she would like to be the first woman Vermont sends to Washington, D.C., but she's being reticent about that for the time being.
"My sole focus, right now, 60 days into my job as lieutenant governor, is meeting the needs of Vermonters," Gray said. She added that she hired Brown to help her keep "a clear distinction between official work and political things that may come up from time to time." Among the latter: "making sure that we're staying connected to those individuals in Vermont who helped get me elected."
While Hazel Brewster, Gray's chief of staff in the lieutenant governor's office, has put out official news releases about events such as the "Seat at the Table" public issue discussions Gray has been hosting, Brown has run a parallel operation, sending emails about the same events to supporters of Team Molly. The Brown emails include notice that they are "paid for by Molly Gray for Vermont."
Brown's hiring could be a sign that Gray wants to be ready in case Leahy, who turns 81 on March 31 and is the longest-serving current member of the Senate, announces he won't seek reelection in 2022. Or it could be, as Gray says, simply a good way to separate the official from the political roles of a lieutenant governor.
Either way, said former legislator and former Vermont Democratic Party chair Steve Howard, it's "brilliant."
'For Crying Out Loud!'
Vermont is about to get a boatload of federal money to address its long-standing rural broadband problem, but deployment of high-speed internet might not get the scrutiny it deserves.
Of the roughly $1 billion Vermont is slated to get under the federal stimulus bill passed last week, a significant share will go to expanding broadband. One regional broadband board was told last week that between $300 million and $400 million would be spent building out internet service statewide in the next few years.
But let's imagine for a moment that you're a citizen-critic who has watched millions of dollars earmarked for rural broadband over the past couple of decades get doled out to private internet service providers. Let's say you've seen those companies spend the money to build in highly populated areas, leaving tougher-to-serve and less profitable rural areas behind. Let's say you want to provide some tough-love public scrutiny of where the new money's going.
Forget it. And by the way, happy Sunshine Week.
Sunshine Week, led by the News Leaders Association, formerly the American Society of News Editors, promotes the message that democracy requires open government and is harmed by secrecy. This year's Sunshine Week comes as Vermont lawmakers consider H.360, a bill that would enhance Vermont's push to make a new kind of municipality — a communications union district — the main vehicle for building broadband statewide.
Communications union districts were established in law a few years ago. Like towns and school districts, they're able to soak up state and federal financial support and to borrow money cheaply. For towns and schools, those advantages come with a caveat: They have to allow public scrutiny of their spending decisions, which means they have to pay close attention to Vermont's open meetings and public records laws.
As legal municipalities, communications union districts "currently, and on into the future, are going to be subject to open meeting laws, and people can attend their meetings," said Rep. Tim Briglin (D-Thetford), chair of the House Energy and Technology Committee and a key architect of broadband legislation.
At the same time, the districts are going to be collaborators and competitors in an unregulated marketplace with players such as Comcast, Consolidated Communications, VTel and other private companies. They'll collaborate when districts contract with private firms to string fiber down rural roads; they'll compete when they race to sign up customers.
That's likely to make district boards less friendly than the average town clerk or school board when reporters or other citizens come looking to attend meetings or gather information about what they're up to. Consider these three case studies:
Dodge No. 1: You can't come to our district board meeting — or even find out what was discussed — because we've signed a nondisclosure agreement with a private company.
Ann Manwaring, board chair for the DVFiber internet district in southern Vermont, said the board's vendor committee recently signed such an agreement about a meeting with Consolidated Communications. Under Vermont's open meeting law, a public board can go into private executive session to discuss sensitive topics, such as labor contract negotiations. But it must publicly identify the topic to be discussed, and it must not stray from that topic once behind closed doors.
Rural Vermonters naturally want to know when they'll start getting broadband service. But when I asked Manwaring whether the timing of deployment had been discussed in the meeting, she said that the nondisclosure agreement barred her from answering.
"They could have done that, yes, and we could not disclose it," she said. "They could have said anything in there, and we could not disclose it. We could have talked about the weather, and we couldn't disclose it."
So much for the executive session rule about telling us at least what the topics will be.
Dodge No. 2: Let personal pique influence decisions about access to records.
Longtime telecom gadfly Steve Whitaker wanted to see public documents related to network design at the ECFiber communications union district in east-central Vermont last summer. He was turned down and appealed that decision to ECFiber board chair F.X. Flinn.
Here is Flinn's ruling, delivered in an email: "For crying out loud, Steve. The people and institutions who will take responsibility for this will obviously have access to all the information they need. You are not one of them, nor is any other member of the general public. Appeal denied."
Flinn said in an interview that some of what Whitaker was asking for was sensitive from a security standpoint. He said Whitaker didn't make clear the legal grounds for his appeal.
Dodge No. 3: You don't have to produce a record if you can avoid creating it.
Elijah Emerson, a lawyer who has been a key player in getting Vermont's communications districts organized, provided a coaching session on the public records and meetings law last week to the board of NEK Community Broadband. To my ears, Emerson's advice promoted secrecy. He called the open records law's exemption from disclosure for business information "the big one that you guys will probably be using most often" to deny members of the public access to information.
Here's Emerson on how board members should communicate with one another: "If it's just as easy to make a phone call rather than send an email ... think about making a phone call. Think about not making a public record if you don't need to."
So there you have it: Vermont heading into the age of information by choking the open meeting law with nondisclosure agreements, letting decisions about disclosure be tinged with personal annoyance and figuring out ways to skirt the transparency laws.
As I said, Happy Sunshine Week.
Media Note: Dillon Departs
John Dillon, Vermont Public Radio's first full-time staff reporter when he was hired in 2001, has announced he's dropping the mic in May.
Dillon, now 66, was already established as one of the state's best journalists when he left the Rutland Herald and the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus for radio land. In the new-to-him medium, Dillon kept up his groundbreaking reporting on energy, the environment and agriculture with work that included series on the plight of undocumented immigrants working on Vermont's dairy farms and the social and environmental harms of Hydro-Québec, Vermont's biggest source of electric power. He won several regional awards and one national Edward R. Murrow Award.
Dillon served as news editor for four years, helping stock VPR with a new generation of journalists. He later returned to reporting but broadened his role as the VPR staffer assigned to the New England News Collaborative.
"They'll carry the torch. They're doing a great job," he said of his colleagues on Monday. He added, "I really do admire VPR, its mission and the people. I am really grateful for the chance they took in hiring an ink-stained wretch to do radio." He said he plans to continue "working at my own pace on my own projects."Correction, March 18, 2021: A previous version of this story failed to note one of Vermont's six statewide elected officeholders — treasurer.