This morning on central Vermont’s meeting place of the minds, the Mark Johnson Show, David Mears announced his departure as head of the Department of Environmental Conservation. The move, he said, has nothing to do with DEC or the Shumlin administration or his performance:
“I was given an opportunity to go back to my old gig teaching law at Vermont Law School, and decided I just couldn’t turn that [down]. …It just happened to be that the position came open now, and law professor jobs don’t come along very often, so I took it…
“In all honesty, I would have liked to have stayed throughout the remainder of the Shumlin administration, but like I said the chance came along so I decided to jump at it.”
I have no reason to doubt him, but as VTDigger’s Morgan True pointed out:
Mears is the 11th agency or department head to leave or retire from the Shumlin administration since Racine was fired last August #vtpoli
— Morgan True (@true_morgan) July 16, 2015
This is where Shumlin’s lame-duck status could be most impactful.
It won’t seriously hamstring his ability to lead and it won’t make him any less relevant to the legislative process, because Democrats have a strong interest in moving forward. But the closer we get to this departure date, the more of his functionaries will be heading for the exits.
It’s not a matter of disloyalty, it’s merely enlightened self-interest. None of his political appointees can count on continued employment after January 1, 2017, so they’re lookin’ around. In Mears’ case a great opportunity presented itself, and with only a year and a half left on the Shummy Countdown Clock, he couldn’t count on a better chance if he passed this one up.
As a purely administrative matter, this is a big problem. Day-to-day government operation has never been Shumlin’s strong suit; a year and a half of top-level churn won’t help matters. We’re likely to see relatively junior staffers take significant steps up, and/or obvious caretakers accept short-term gigs.
My sense is that Shumlin and top Democrats are on the same page in wanting him to remain relatively strong throughout his term; even as he exits the stage, the Dems’ electoral fortunes are tied to the success or failure of state government over the next 16 months. It’s in all their interests to make continued progress on key issues. It’s in all their interests, for instance, to see Vermont Health Connect finally up and running.
But the hands-on, day-to-day operation of the enterprise will inevitably be hampered, at least somewhat, by the inevitable turnover at the top levels of government. Those of us on this side of the aisle can only hope that the damage will be minimal and no big scandals will erupt.