Monthly Archives: June 2021

The Land of Generic Expertise

The appointment of Don Rendall as interim chair of the state Natural Resources Board reminded me of something I’ve been pondering for quite some time: Our state government relies heavily on generic expertise. People are often hired to state positions outside of their professional experience. People within the executive branch are frequently swapped around as if they are interchangeable pieces. And people from the same small pool get hired over and over again to different positions. Rarely is someone with specific outside expertise hired for a relevant public sector post. Rendall has been a gas and utility executive, but he has no particular experience in environmental or land-use matters.

This is a long-running theme in state government, but it seems more prevalent in the Scott administration. Every time a top-level vacancy opens up, it’s filled laterally from elsewhere in the executive branch (Mike Schirling, from Commerce to Public Safety) or vertically from within an agency’s ranks (Lindsay Kurrle replacing Schirling, Wanda Minoli replacing Robert Ide) — or the hire goes to someone like Rendall, who brings no specific expertise to the job.

These kinds of hires do have advantages. If you’ve got experience in one part of state government, you have a base of knowledge that’s useful elsewhere. (Susanne Young has been an effective administrator in multiple roles under Jim Douglas and Phil Scott.) If you’ve been successful outside state government, you have skills that can be brought to bear in the public sector. Neale Lunderville has had success in both spheres, and has been called upon more than once for crisis management.

But there are also drawbacks. Hiring from within an agency, or swapping people around within state government, can foster stagnation, satisfaction with the status quo, a lack of vision for positive change. Two examples: The DMV under Ide and Minoli, which has had repeated issues with undocumented immigrants (and has been slow to adapt modern technology); and the Department of Corrections, whose upper ranks are full of DOC lifers — and where interim commissioner James Baker has been struggling to “change the culture.”

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When It Comes to the Environment, Who Better Than a Gas Man?

Is it just coincidence that Gov. Phil Scott appointed a former natural gas mogul to a state environmental board at a time when global warming is wreaking havoc on large swaths of the planet? Or is he indulging in uncharacteristic irony?

Scott announced Monday that Don Rendall, former CEO of Vermont Gas, will become interim chair of the Vermont Natural Resources Board. I have to admit I had no idea what the NRB was, so I visited its website. And there I found quite a bit of food for thought.

The Board, for those as clueless as I, oversees and enforces Act 250, Vermont’s land-use law that seeks to minimize the environmental impact of development. As the only full-time state employee on the board, the chair tends to dominate the process. As the Board’s website makes clear, “The [Act 250] Enforcement Program is directed by the Chair of the NRB.”

Rendall retired last fall after five years as Vermont Gas CEO. During his tenure, the company launched its Addison County pipeline project which was the subject of protests and lawsuits and, as VTDigger put it, still faces “multiple ongoing Public Utility Commission investigations.” Previously, Rendall had been an executive at Green Mountain Power. No hint of environmental expertise in his C.V.

Vermont Gas has touted natural gas as a low-cost, environmentally-friendly fossil fuel. The climate activist group 350Vermont, which created the above illustration, would call that “greenwashing.”

So why is the man who pushed the pipeline the right choice for this job?

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Love That Dirty Water

The Ol’ Toxic Swimmin’ Hole, Pike Copper Mine

A little good environmental news, courtesy of the Valley News by way of VTDigger: The long, expensive, difficult cleanup of the Elizabeth Mine Superfund site may be finished by the end of this year.

Huzzahs all around. Great news for our environment and for the town of Strafford, which has borne the brunt of the cleanup effort.

But the story also mentions two other Superfund sites in eastern Vermont: the Pike Hill Copper Mine in Corinth and the Ely Copper Mine in Vershire. Which made me wonder, how many Superfund sites does Vermont have, anyway?

The answer, according to the EPA’s website, is 14. (Not counting the Saint-Gobain site that’s wreaked havoc with Bennington-area water supplies. The actual site is in New York.)

Next question: How does our total compare with other states?

The answer: in absolute numbers, pretty good. On a per capita basis, not so much.

I ran the numbers for other New England states and threw in my home state of Michigan, a former industrial powerhouse that might be expected to have a lot of Superfund sites. Sad to say, Vermont’s the worst of the lot.

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YOU Get a Veepie! And YOU Get a Veepie! And YOU Get a Veepie!

Once again, the ocean trawler of political commentary has dredged up a boatload of dead things, old boots and trash… and now we get to display it proudly at our unofficial stall just outside the fish market.

First of all, the What On Earth Did You Think This Would Actually Accomplish? Award goes to everybody associated with the candidacy of Christopher-Aaron Felker for Burlington City Council, from Felker himself to the entire Burlington Republican Committee to our old bicoastal buddy Bradford Broyles, who took a break from developing D-List TV and movie ideas to sign on as Felker’s campaign manager.

Setting aside Felker’s horrifically offensive stance on transgender folk (i.e. that they don’t exist), let’s focus on the practicality of this enterprise. Felker, who looks for all the world like a character from an Ayn Rand novel, is a libertarian-type conservative with views that would make Steve Bannon blush — and he’s running for council in Ward 3, which has been a Progressive stronghold for four decades. How on Earth does he think this is going to end?

Maybe he’s doing it because it’s a great way to be a real-life concern troll. Maybe the party was so happy that someone — anyone — stepped forward that they didn’t do their due diligence. (Or maybe they share Felker’s views.) As for Broyles, I have no idea why he’s bothering with this. I’m sure he’ll inform me and his 324 followers via Twitter. Anyway, congrats, Brad. I’m sure you’ll find a prominent place to display your Veepie amongst all your Oscars and Emmys.

After the jump: Media misdeeds and covering the blue ass.

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It’s So Hard to Find Good Republicans These Days

Amidst the endless parade of articles bemoaning the plight of poor businessfolk who can’t find enough workers to fill their low-paying, no-bennies jobs, let us take a moment to pour one out for the group that has by far the hardest time finding a few good people: The Vermont Republican Party.

You almost have to feel sorry for the VTGOP. They’re so underfinanced and disorganized, so out of touch and few in number, that their every ticket features a frightening quantity of blank slots. They’ll take almost anybody with a pulse who’s willing to step out in public with an “R” next to their name.

Two cases in point today. First, we have Christopher-Aaron Felker, the surprise entry into Burlington’s special election to fill the seat of former councilor Brian Pine. Second, Gov. Phil Scott’s latest nominee to the Vermont Commission on Women.

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Will the Vetoes Be Overridden? (to the tune of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”)

The stage is set. The players are in the wings. On Wednesday morning, the Legislature will return — virtually — for a brief veto override session. All three of Gov. Phil Scott’s 2021 vetoes are on the agenda. The action, for those of us who believe a YouTube screen full of tiny politicians’ faces constitutes “action,” gets underway in the House and Senate simultaneously, at 10:00 a.m.

The House will be first to take up Scott’s vetoes of H. 177 and H.227, the charter changes for Montpelier and Winooski respectively to allow noncitizen residents to vote in local elections only. Meanwhile, the Senate will take up S.107, which would raise the minimum age for public release of information about the arrest and charge of an offender.

This all seems perfectly normal. But in reality, it’s not.

While the Republican governor has set a new record for vetoes with 23, the Democratic Legislature has been loath to even attempt overrides. Scott has vetoed 20 bills from 2017 through 2020; only two of them have been overridden. In the vast majority of Scott’s other 18 vetoes, the Legislature didn’t even try.

So, attempting overrides on three vetoes in a single year is unprecedented during the Scott administration, and I’m guessing unprecedented in Vermont history.

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The Assassination of OneCare Vermont by the Coward Douglas Hoffer

Not exactly convincing, I have to admit

The townsfolk are all horns and rattles, I never seen such a fuss. Must be that cold-blooded sidewinder Doug Hoffer’s back in town and up to no good.

This time, the ol’ gunslinger has taken aim at OneCare Vermont. Hoffer’released an audit on Monday finding that OneCare, which was supposed to glean savings from the healthcare system, has cost millions more than it’s saved.

The normal official response to a Hoffer audit is along the lines of “Well, he found some interesting information, but nothing we didn’t already know and weren’t already doing something about.” But the reaction to this audit is more direct, if not downright hostile. Mind you, they didn’t contest Hoffer’s findings, not at all. But they didn’t like his conclusions, not one little bit.

One might even detect a faint whiff of panic. Considering that free-lance health care expert Hamilton Davis just called OneCare “a dumpster fire,” I can see why Our Leaders would be unreceptive to a critical audit right now.

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How Many Schembechlers?

The Man They Called Goldfinger.

The University of Michigan, my alma mater, has been rocked by an unthinkable sexual-abuse scandal. Dr. Robert Anderson served as an athletic team doctor for thirty-five years and throughout that time, he sexually abused male students so frequently that it was a running joke among athletes. Except for those who were traumatized, of course.

This story has been out there for a while. But the latest disturbing turn is that several former football players — and many observers of Michigan athletics — say that legendary coach Bo Schembechler absolutely knew about Anderson’s abuse. Some say they told Bo; others say that he kept such a tight fist on his program that he couldn’t possibly have been ignorant. Just like Joe Paterno at Penn State.

And just like Paterno, the statue of Schembechler that adorns the athletic campus will almost certainly be removed sometime.

But what does this have to do with Vermont politics, you say?

These scandals have become so commonplace that I can’t help but believe that there are many more like them, so far undiscovered. And if you think this state is exempt, well, check your Vermont exceptionalism at the door.

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Through a Monitor, Darkly

More happy tidings concerning the much-ballyhooed “culture change” in the Vermont Department of Corrections in a VTDigger story about how state prisons are being reopened to visitors. The answer is slowly and incompletely, with strings attached. Unlike, say, the Scott administration’s policy toward the reopening of Vermont otherwise, which is to immediately remove all restraints.

The story also contains other tidbits that underscore the administration’s broader attitude toward inmates: that they don’t really deserve to be treated with dignity. There’s an undercurrent of “Inmates did something wrong and must be punished.” You see this over and over again in administration policy.

The DOC refused to prioritize inmates for vaccination, despite multiple outbreaks of Covid-19 inside our prisons. (Human Services Secretary made an absolute hash out of trying to explain that policy.) It put Covid-positive inmates into solitary confinement, which meant cruelly restrictive conditions normally reserved for the worst miscreants.

Now, the DOC is taking a go-slow approach to allowing visitors. “We want to make sure everybody is safe when we do this,” said Al Cormier, DOC director of operations. Gee, too bad that wasn’t the policy when inmates were made to wait their turn for vaccination even though they were demonstrably at high risk, and they could have been easily served because they’re all gathered in a handful of locations.

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Dan French Says the Quiet Part Out Loud

The Education Agency’s proposed new logo (not exactly as illustrated)

Vermont’s education secretary let the cat out of the regulatory bag on Wednesday. He acknowledged that state regulation of approved independent schools is, as Willy Shakes put it, “more honored in the breach than the observance.”

Dan French was speaking to the state board of education, a body not known for an aggressive attitude toward the AIS’s. But this time, they’d had it up to here.

VTDigger’s Lola Duffort reported on French’s testimony, casting it primarily in terms of the troubled Kurn Hattin Homes for Children. Kurn Hattin gave up its license to operate a residential treatment program in the face of enforcement action by the Department of Children and Families (the department cited a pervasive culture of abuse) — and yet, the Ed Agency rubber-stamped Kurn Hattin’s status as an approved independent school.

Well, on Wednesday we found out how the agency arrived at that curious conclusion. And it ought to send shivers down the spine of every parent and educator and, heck, every taxpayer in the state.

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