A civil war has ignited at Vermont Public Television — and we’re not talking about the Ken Burns documentary.
Factions divide the 46-year-old station, with current and former board members and employees pitted against one another — and allegations of sexual harassment flying. Who’s responsible for the internecine warfare? Either president and CEO John King or board chairwoman Pam Mackenzie, depending on whom you ask.
For the past two years, the duo has been duking it out behind the scenes, according to several people involved. At issue: whether King, a 27-year veteran of the station and a leading national figure in public television, should stay or go.
Since the station announced three weeks ago that it was the subject of a Corporation for Public Broadcasting investigation, the press coverage — including last week’s Fair Game — has mostly focused on whether the board held at least 20 meetings in violation of federal open meetings laws. That’s what an anonymous critic — seemingly with inside knowledge — alleged in a letter sent on Christmas Eve to the CPB, which provides VPT with 16 percent of its funding.
But a better question is why the board would meet so frequently behind closed doors.
According to four people with knowledge of board business, a preponderance of the secret meetings were held to discuss anonymous allegations lodged against King by a former employee in February 2012.
That former employee told Seven Days on Monday that King repeatedly directed sexually explicit remarks at her. She alleged that King made “inappropriate” sexual comments in her presence roughly a dozen times, contributing to what she called a hostile environment. She also accused him of engaging in questionable practices when fundraising and managing grant money.
King vigorously disputed all the charges.
“There was a complaint filed two years ago by a former employee, which was fully investigated over the course of several weeks and found to be unsubstantiated,” King said in a statement responding to Seven Days’ questions.
Backing King up was former board chairman Jim Wyant.
“During 2012, the board undertook an investigation of complaints that had been made by a former employee and concluded that they were without merit,” said Wyant, who resigned from the board in November.
But the allegations were taken seriously enough at the time that in the four months after the former employee approached Mackenzie with her allegations, the board’s executive committee met in secret at least 13 times to discuss the matter. In March 2012, board members hired Church, Engle & Associates — a Shelburne-based human resources firm — to investigate the matter and interview current and former employees.
What came of the inquiry — and the secret meetings — remains unclear. But in an email she sent to the former employee on April 20, 2012, Mackenzie wrote, “Thank you for participating in the investigation. The Board has taken the information you provided seriously, and has followed up.”
In addition to the original accuser, four other former VPT staffers spoke with Seven Days — and all expressed grievances with King.
One accused him of “intimidation,” while two others said they witnessed him engaging in “inappropriate” behavior. The fourth described witnessing King making sexually explicit comments to the original complainant four times and routinely making “raunchy” and “sexual” comments about and toward other female employees. They variously described King as presiding over an “unhappy place,” with “an environment of fear” and a “culture of real paranoia.”
Not everybody at VPT shares the ex-employees’ concerns.
In a letter sent to board members in December 2013, four senior managers expressed support for their boss in the face of what they called a “strained relationship between a few members of the Board and our President.”
“Again, we understand that John has lost the confidence of several members of the Board,” the senior management team wrote. “We speak unanimously, however, when we say that he has not lost ours. We look forward to moving ahead with the leadership of our CEO and the support of our Board.”
And while some ex-employees may place the blame for the station’s public relations problems at King’s feet, many current employees appear to find fault with Mackenzie and her fellow board leaders.
When the board met Monday at Burlington’s DoubleTree Hotel, 10 VPT staffers stood up as major gifts director Chuck Bongiorno read a letter signed by 19 of the station’s 32 non-managerial employees. The letter’s signers expressed concern that the CPB’s investigation into the board’s private meetings could result in fines that would deal “a financial blow” to the station.
“It is our understanding that the resignations of board members referenced in the complaint may help to expedite the investigative process and minimize catastrophic impact to VPT,” Bongiorno said, reading from the letter and referring to Mackenzie and vice chairman Rob Hofmann. “With that in mind, we would urge you to consider this possibility.”
Thus far, it doesn’t appear that Mackenzie and Hofmann are going to take that advice. The two joined a unanimous vote Monday morning to accept a trio of recommendations pitched by the board’s audit committee designed to mend fences with the CPB. Those include reviewing the station’s public meetings compliance policies and assuring the CPB — in writing — that the board is addressing the matter.
So what’s next for Vermont’s most dysfunctional television station? One that relies on the good will — and cold hard cash — of the state and federal government, loyal viewers and corporate underwriters?
For now, it looks like relations between King and the board may get worse before they get better. When asked for comment Monday about the ex-employee’s allegations, King suggested that the board was responsible for leaking information about the situation.
“It is the obligation of the Board to protect all personnel matters,” he said in the statement. “I would be outraged if any personal information of staff or management was compromised. I’m not going to jump to any conclusions here, but there are serious consequences for a Board that cannot protect personnel matters of its staff.”
And King quickly sought to redirect the conversation toward the board’s alleged misdeeds.
“The matter at hand is the Board’s compliance with open meeting requirements — not a closed and confidential personnel matter,” he wrote. “Let’s focus on improving VPT’s compliance, not changing the subject.”
No doubt everybody at VPT would prefer to change the channel. But it’s difficult to imagine how a volunteer board can continue to govern a paid staff that’s called for the ouster of its leadership. And it’s difficult to imagine how a president and CEO can continue to run an organization whose board wants his head.
In a war of attrition, nobody wins. Just ask Ken Burns.
For more than 30 years, lobbyist Michael Sirotkin has walked the corridors of the Statehouse, haranguing legislators to vote in the interests of his mostly liberal clients.
But on February 11, Siroktin will join the ranks of the harangued. That’s when the Queens native and South Burlington resident will be sworn in as Chittenden County’s newest state senator.
The occasion will surely be bittersweet. Sirotkin will be replacing the late senator Sally Fox, his wife of 35 years.
“It was a hard decision, but I think I can do the job well and honor Sally’s work of the past and continue it,” he said Monday after he was appointed to the seat by Gov. Peter Shumlin.
Sirotkin’s ascension to the Senate was a sudden development. In the weeks after Fox’s January 10 death, no fewer than six Chittenden County Democrats expressed interest in completing her two-year term. Several of the candidates — including former Vermont Democratic Party chairman Jake Perkinson and Reps. Kesha Ram (D-Burlington) and Tim Jerman (D-Essex Junction) — were well known and well liked by local Dems.
Still grieving his wife, Sirotkin did not put his name into the running until late last Tuesday, on the eve of the county Democrats’ meeting to nominate three potential successors.
As word spread of Sirotkin’s interest, Perkinson and Ram quickly dropped out. Jerman followed suit Wednesday evening. With just three candidates remaining, the county Dems recommended all three — Sirotkin, Williston selectboard member Debbie Ingram and Burlington management consultant Dawn Ellis — to Shumlin.
According to Shumlin spokeswoman Sue Allen, the governor spoke with Ingram and Ellis and met with Sirotkin late last week.
“There were several exceptional candidates interested in this Senate seat,” Shumlin said in a written statement. “But Sally wanted her husband to fill her seat after her death, and recognizing Sirotkin’s strong qualifications, I’m honoring that request. I’m confident that Michael will continue the great work Sally did for the district and the state.”
In order to avoid conflicts of interest with his current clients, Sirotkin said he planned to quit his day job and sell his interest in his lobbying firm, Sirotkin & Necrason.
“I’m hoping to disengage both informally and formally as soon as possible, but certainly before I’m sworn in,” he said.
In the Statehouse last week, several fellow lobbyists said they felt confident that Sirotkin would be able to vote independently of the interests of his former clients, which include the Community of Vermont Elders, the Vermont Troopers Association, Gun Sense Vermont, the Marijuana Policy Project and Comcast.
“I think people who understand the role of government in society understand the need to wear one hat and then take that hat off and wear another hat,” said Ellis Mills lobbyist Kevin Ellis. “Because Michael’s a lawyer, he gets that.”
Sirotkin’s appointment didn’t take effect immediately, Shumlin explained in a written statement, because he wanted to give Sirotkin some space.
“In light of Sally’s recent passing, I asked Michael to take a little time to himself before assuming his duties in the Senate,” the governor said.
The Associated Press’ Montpelier bureau has been shedding jobs for years. Since 2007, its staff of six has been cut in half. Just last year, the bureau lost its dedicated staff photographer position when Toby Talbot retired.
Last week, the AP announced some good news: It had dispatched Brookfield native Beth Garbitelli to Montpelier for a “temporary assignment” covering her home state. Garbitelli previously worked at WNET in New York and at the PBS NewsHour.
Explaining the nature of her “temporary assignment,” AP spokesman Paul Colford said, “AP typically adds reporters during the busy legislative sessions in some capitals around the country.”
But does that mean we’ll lose poor Beth before we even knew her, when all the legislators return to their rabbit holes come May?
“She’s not expected to go elsewhere after the legislative session,” Colford says. “That is, her ‘temporary assignment’ … means that this isn’t a permanent staff position, though some temporary hires do move on to other assignments.”
Disclosure: Paul Heintz is an occasional paid guest on VPT’s “Vermont This Week.”