Daily Archives: April 15, 2015

The Quango Follies

Funny little piece of news, strikes me as just a bit off.

Mike Smith, former Douglas Administration functionary, then president of FairPoint and briefly co-prez of Burlington College, has a sweet new gig. He’ll be paid $70,000 for a six-month consultancy at the Emergency 911 Board.

This comes after the extremely sudden retirement of longtime E-911 chief Douglas Tucker. Smith’s brief is, curiously, both comprehensive and vague.

Smith will examine staffing and call volumes, and assist the interim executive director with day-to-day management issues.

… Smith will be responsible for developing a process to recruit and hire a new executive director. He will need to prepare a report for the E-911 board about how emergency telephone services should be organized in Vermont, and what models “could result in efficiencies.”

Now, the E-911 Board is what the Brits call a “quango” — a quasi-autonomous non-governmental organization. It’s an entity with a public purpose but not directly answerable to central government authority. Quangos can perform critical functions; they can also be dumping grounds for hangers-on who need to be parachuted into a well-paid but not terribly demanding job. (See the classic “Yes, Prime Minister” episode, “Jobs For the Boys.”)

The E-911 Board didn’t have to get approval for the Smith contract from the Shumlin administration. And the contract is an interesting move for a number of different reasons:

— Smith is a notable Republican who serves as part-time “political analyst” for WCAX-TV. He has also written some unflattering opinion pieces about the Democratic administration.

— The E-911 Board faces a substantial budget cut that would force consolidation of its four call centers into two.

— The Shumlin administration has proposed folding the Board’s responsibilities into the Department of Public Safety, which would bring an end to its quango status.

— Because of his tenure at FairPoint, Smith “will not involve himself in any matters concerning FairPoint in order to avoid any perceived conflicts of interest.” Well, considering that FairPoint is in the middle of implementing an $11.2 million state contract for a new E-911 system, Smith will have to recuse himself from an awful lot of Board activities. If he keeps his promise, it seems to me that his ability to fulfill his duties will be limited.

Know what this looks like to me? An independent but publicly-funded agency, under pressure to cut costs and submit to administrative controls, has hired a prominent Shumlin critic to look for ways out of its situation — thus inflating its spending in the short run. If Smith comes up with savings comparable to the proposed call center cuts, then the Board will have grounds for insisting that the cuts don’t have to be made and its independence doesn’t need to be taken away.

Yeah, kinda smells a little.