Category Archives: Department of Children and Families

Shumlin identifies the real culprit: “Anonymous blog sites”

In response to the killing of social worker Lara Sobel and three other women, Governor Shumlin has issued a plea for change. But he’s not calling for tougher gun laws or even better enforcement of the ones we have*. He’s not calling to boost staffing to make the Department of Children and Families more effective. Heck, he’s not even calling for better security arrangements for state workers — although he has “ordered a full review of our security procedures,” so we’ll see where that goes.

*Reportedly, Jody Herring should not have been able to acquire the gun used in the murder spree.

The real problem is “hateful speech” delivered on “anonymous blog sites and unfiltered social media.”

I realize the Internets provide an easy target in times like these, especially for a politico capable of writing “anonymous blog sites” without a trace of irony. But even aside from that inelegant phrase, there’s a real “You kids get off my lawn” feel to the whole piece.

Yes, “anonymous blog sites” can be wretched hives of scum and villainy. But is this our real problem? Was Lara Sobel’s death triggered by “anonymous haters who use vicious language to incite public ill-will toward others,” as Shumlin seems to argue?

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Kill Vermont Exceptionalism.

(A warm welcome to visitors from K9K’s Facebook community, and thanks for giving me a sizable bump in pageviews.)

Been looking for a reason to use this picture.

Been looking for a reason to use this picture.

A couple things are bugging me today. Both have to do with a deeply-held, and only partially merited, sense of satisfaction Vermonters feel about themselves.

Us Vermont liberals scoff at the conservative idea of American exceptionalism. We see America, not as the shining city on a hill, but as a nation with noble aspirations and our share of flaws. A work in progress; a development project on a hill, perhaps, with its ultimate shape to be determined. At the same time, however, we have an unspoken belief in the equally absurd notion of Vermont exceptionalism.

Anyway. My first item comes from yesterday’s Mark Johnson Show. I happened to drop in during an open-phone segment and heard a caller say that it takes at least three generations to make a real Vermonter. That’s how long it takes to inculcate the unique values and perspectives that make Vermont such a special place.

Good gravy on toast, are we a little full of ourselves?

I’ve lived here for nine years. By the caller’s measure, my great-grandchildren will be worthy of the name “Vermonter”. Until then, flatlanders all: uninvited guests in these verdant provinces.

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A grim reminder

In recent years, there’s been a lot of criticism aimed at Vermont’s Department of Children and Families. Heck, there’s even a Facebook page entitled “VT and DCF Exposed,” which is a compendium of every news item, large or small, that reflects poorly on DCF. The coherence of its argument is best encapsulated in a comment posted by one Jeannie Flanagan Marchese:

Personal opinion, dcf takes kids away that shouldn’t be. Leaves kids that should be taken!! It’s a crap shoot!!! No excuses for them!!! Sorry just have seen a lot and read a lot!!

Okay, so DCF simultaneously does too much and too little. Got it.

Well, if the senseless tragedy of last Friday’s quadruple murder should teach us anything, it’s that DCF has an impossible job, as do its overburdened, oft-criticized social workers.

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Here’s an idea: Lock up the social workers

Is it just me, or is this the early front-runner for Worst Legislative Proposal of the 2015 Session?

Anyone who cares for but fails to prevent harm to a child could be charged with a felony and face up to 10 years in prison under a new crime created as part of a long-awaited child protection bill unveiled Wednesday.

…The penalty for failure to protect a child would be up to 10 years in prison or a fine of up to $20,000.

This proposal is part of a bill to impose “sweeping changes in the state’s child protection system. And maybe the rest of the package makes sense. But that?

We have a child protection system that’s understaffed, underfunded, and poorly organized, according to not one, but three separate studies of the Department for Children and Families, all carried out last year after the deaths of two young children under state supervision.

So we know that social workers are overworked and inadequately trained. And our response is to hang the Sword of Damocles over their heads?

Honestly, if I were a social worker, there’s no way in Hell I’d work for the state of Vermont if the threat of a felony conviction and incarceration were hanging over my head.

But that’s not the only problem with the “lock ’em up” solution to DCF’s problems.

The crime of “failure to protect a child” is vaguely defined: it’s when someone knows or “reasonably should have known” that a child is in danger. Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn “said the new crime would likely be difficult to prosecute.”

No kiddin’.

The bill would not just apply to social workers, but to anyone having “custody, charge or care of a child.” Like, for example, babysitters.

Well, in the real world the chances of a babysitter facing a felony charge are probably remote. But why open that door with such a broadly-worded statute?

Speaking of broadly-worded:

Drug crimes include exposure to unlawful possession of a list of drugs, including narcotics and two or more ounces of marijuana.

Okay, you’re telling me that anyone with “custody, charge or care of a child” should be expected to know if that child’s parent has a couple ounces of weed stashed in a kitchen cupboard?



The “brains” behind this awful bill is Sen. Dick Sears, who seems to believe that the threat of prison will help social workers more than, say, adequate staffing and support.

“If there are kids who need protection and this system leads to protecting kids, what’s the problem?” he said.

Hmmmm. Maybe he’s got a point. But if we’re going to apply it to social workers, why not to DCF administrators who oversee a flawed system? If poor training and high caseloads led to a social worker’s mistake, shouldn’t they be held responsible?

How about the folks who made such a pig’s breakfast of Vermont Health Connect? Or the economists who spun out the overly-optimistic forecasts that left our state in a $100 million budget hole? Or maybe a Governor who dumps his signature initiative after vowing action through three election cycles?

Or lawmakers who know, or “reasonably should have known,” that they were passing budgets that starved DCF of the resources necessary to protect children?

“If there are kids who need protection and this system leads to protecting kids, what’s the problem?” he said.

You’re right. What’s the problem?

Felony crime, ten years in the slammer. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, right?

Dan Feliciano, man of ideas. Well, three ideas.

Saturday’s gubernatorial debate was a big moment for Dan Feliciano, Libertarian candidate for Governor and presumptive usurper of Scott Milne’s mantle as the real conservative challenger to Governor Shumlin.

Dan the Libertarian Man. Photo by VTDigger.

Dan the Libertarian Man. Photo by VTDigger.

So, how’d Dan the Libertarian Man do? About as well as he could have done. Which is, as you might imagine, a two-edged sword.

Feliciano presented himself as the conservative candidate with ideas. And yes, he has ideas. But to judge from his debate performance, he has precisely three of them: Cut taxes and spending, cut regulation, and institute school choice.

That’s it.

He repeated them over and over during the debate because, well, that’s about all he has to say. It was a good performance but, at the same time, it defined his limit as a gubernatorial candidate. His ideas are simply out of the mainstream.

And, worse still, lacking on specifics.

Let’s take, first, his call for lower spending. What’s his big idea on how to cut the cost of state government?

Challenges for Change.

Stop laughing. I’m serious.

Dan Feliciano wants to reintroduce Challenges for Change, the discredited Douglas Administration plan. This… is our Libertarian’s call to arms? A years-old, formerly bipartisan initiative that was abandoned in 2010 because both parties agreed it just wasn’t working?

Until now, I thought that Tom Pelham was the only True Believer left. But no: it’s him and Dan Feliciano. Sheesh.

I suspect that this is one of Feliciano’s attempts to make himself look less scary to mainstream voters. Don’t start with Libertarian ideas for privatizing schools, prisons, police, fire, and snowplowing; start with a mainstream reform plan. A failed plan, but a mainstream one.

On health care reform, he’s dead against single-payer. His “idea,” though, is weak: cut health insurance regulation to foster competition. We’ve already seen how that works: the competition turns into a race to the bottom, with affordable insurance available only to the healthiest, all kinds of exclusions to minimize claims, and a maze of complicated legalese designed to frustrate consumers.

And Feliciano tried to have it both ways when it comes to community rating, Vermont’s rule that prevents price discrimination against the elderly, the sick, and others with high risk factors.  He claimed to support community rating, but he also called for Vermont to scrap its own exchange and adopt the federal one, as New Hampshire has done. Well, Dan, New Hampshire and other states operating in the federal system don’t have community rating. Which is it?

On schools, he wants spending cuts but doesn’t provide any examples. His Big Idea is school choice, which is going to reduce costs in a way he doesn’t explain. I wonder why. Could it be because the savings are based entirely on free-market dogma? Could it be that, in a system already short of students, spreading them around to more institutions will make the situation worse, not better?

When asked about problems in the Agency for Human Services, he said “We need a wholistic approach to families and children.” Without explaining what in the world he means by that. And when asked about supporting agriculture, his one idea was — you guessed it — cutting EPA regulations.

In spite of rampant pollution in Lake Champlain, to which agriculture is the single biggest contributor.

This is Feliciano’s unique position, and his glass ceiling. He is a man of ideas, certainly. But it’s a small handful of endlessly repeated dogmatic ideas that don’t work in the real world. Much as he tries to water it down, he is stuck with Libertarian dogma. It gives him a clear outline, unlike the endlessly foggy Mahatma Milne. But it also consigns him to fringe status in any race with a credible Republican candidate.

If Milne keeps on soiling the sheets, Dan Feliciano might get into the double digits on November 4. But he’ll never be anything more than that. And whenever the Republicans run a viable candidate, he’ll be back down to Emily Peyton territory.

Scott v. Corren, round one: a spirited, informative debate

The two major-party candidates for Lieutenant Governor stood their ground and clearly articulated their positions in their first debate this morning. Incumbent Republican Phil Scott and Prog/Dem Dean Corren debated on WDEVs Mark Johnson Show, broadcasting from a windy, chilly Tunbridge World’s Fair.

(Johnson has posted the audio as a podcast for your listening pleasure. Also, the video is available here, thanks to CCTV.)

Scott and Corren provided the voters with a clear choice… although the Scott option involves his usual bobbing and weaving on the issues. But that’s Phil Scott, and he said as much in his closing statement: if you like the job I’ve been doing, I promise two more years of the same. Corren made a strong, understandable case for his progressive agenda, particularly single-payer health care.

Neither candidate made any notable stumbles. If you went in a Phil Scott fan, you almost certainly left as one. Ditto Dean Corren. Undecideds were given a lot to think about, and a clear choice between two contrasting styles and philosophies.

I also have to say a word on behalf of host/moderator Mark Johnson. He conducted the proceedings without a hard-and-fast format, which often results in a stilted faux-conversation; instead, Johnson was able to maintain a flow and pursue follow-up questions as he saw fit.

The first half of the debate was dominated by health care reform, and especially whether to

Dean & Pete: Best buds

Dean & Pete: Best buds

pursue single-payer. That was to Corren’s advantage; since he has a clear position.

He began with the fiscal case for single-payer. He argued that single-payer would be simpler than the former or current system, and far better for controlling health care costs. It will require new taxes, he acknowledged, but the current system is extremely burdensome; single-payer will reduce the overall burden. As Lieutenant Governor, he would be an advocate for single-payer, communicating its virtues and being a “watchdog” to ensure that the details are done correctly.

Cost control efforts have failed, Corren argued, because no one entity has full control over all the costs. If a reform cuts costs in one area, those costs are actually shifted to an unregulated area. Single-payer would allow for a unified effort to cut costs.

Phil & Pete: Best buds

Phil & Pete: Best buds

Scott remains “skeptical” — his favorite word, as he himself admitted. He wants to see the details before making a decision on single-payer, but he clearly prefers to stick with the current system instead. Which involved a bit of tortured logic: he said that the rollout of Vermont Health Connect has been “disastrous,” but that nonetheless, having a health care exchange “makes sense.”

He also said that reform may be difficult because Vermont is such a small state, and offered the idea of a tri-state insurance “coalition” involving Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine.  Not sure he articulated the advantage of such an approach, but there you go.

Personality and approach: Scott kinda tried to have it both ways — but hey, that’s the way he is. He played up the advantage of his “collaborative” approach but also claimed that “I stick to my guns.” When asked to cite an example of an issue he feels strongly about, he offered the environment and growing the economy. Not a convincing display of passion or principle; everybody is in favor of both. The devil is in the details.

Corren portrayed himself as a strong progressive voice on the issues. As such, he’d be a valuable part of Governor Shumlin’s team. But at the same time, he’d be independent enough to take stands when he sees fit. As such, he argued, he’d be a better “watchdog” over health care reform than Scott because he truly wants it to be successful: “We need a Lieutenant Governor who will work for reform, not be skeptical.”

Party problems: When asked about past differences between Progs and Dems, including his own criticism of the Dems, he said that was all behind him, and asserted that the Democratic Party and the electorate in general have moved to the left, making a better fit between D and P. “I feel very comfortable working with the Democrats,” he said. “I’m proud of what the Democratic majority has done.”

Scott was asked why the Republican Party struggled so much in Vermont. He blamed perceptions of the national party’s stands, especially on social issues. He said the “core of Vermont Republlicanism” was embodied by leaders like George Aiken, Bob Stafford, and Jim Jeffords, and said “We lost that, and we need to refocus.”

Property taxes and school funding: Scott said he was “disappointed in the Legislature” for failing to tackle the issue this year. He said “we need to do it,” but acknowledged that “it’s difficult.” He said that education costs need to be brought under control and acknowledged that might require some school consolidation. But he said it should be on a “case by case basis” instead of an overall mandate.

Corren said the school funding system has hurt the middle class more than anyone; the wealthy pay a smaller proportion on a per capita basis, and income sensitivity eases the burden on poor and working Vermonters. He advocated expanding income sensitivity to the entire populace — which would presumably shift some of the burden upward. He also pointed out that health care is perhaps the biggest driver of school cost increases, and again stumped for single-payer.

Energy. Corren is a strong proponent of developing renewables, including wind. He referred to the “imagined horrors” of living near wind farms, which won’t make him any friends in the Annette Smith camp. He did say that the state should have a clear plan that includes specific areas where wind should be developed and where it should not.

Scott is, to use his favorite word, a wind power “skeptic.” He declared himself a “big proponent of renewable energy,” but emphasized solar power over wind. He repeated his earlier support for a moratorium on new wind projects.

On the Vermont Gas pipeline, Scott tried to have it both ways, expressing his support for the project as a “bridge to the future,” but also supporting a second look at the project by the Public Service Board. Corren declared himself a “skeptic,” saying the economic and environmental benefits of the pipeline are “not proven.”

Children and DCF: Neither candidate had much to offer. Corren said that “problems persist” but acknowledged that he’s “not sure what to do.” Scott said that the Department of Children and Families is full of “good people doing good work,” and wondered if they needed more resources without committing to it. And he returned to his hobby-horse of economic development, arguing that the “affordability crisis” puts more “stress on families.”

Top priorities: As a closing question, Johnson asked each man what they would pledge to do in the next two years.

Corren: He would “work on the details of health care reform, and make sure we have a sustainable plan.” He also promised to work on jobs and development, particularly in the renewable energy sector. He sees that as a major growth opportunity for Vermont.

Scott promised “the same thing as in the past. A collaborative effort to bring people together as a team to move Vermont forward.”

And then, given the last word, he fired a shot at the Democrats. In the last legislative session, he said, there were hundreds of bills, but only about 20 of them had to do with growing the economy. And most of those, he added, failed to pass.

The truth of that assertion probably depends on your definition of bills that have to do with the economy. But Corren didn’t have the chance to respond.

With that, the debate was over. I have to say that, thanks to Johnson’s stellar work as moderator and two candidates who can articulate their positions well, it was one of the more informative debates I’ve ever heard. Too bad there will only be three more, thanks to Phil Scott’s reluctance.

The limits of messaging

Just finished listening to a Reporter’s Roundtable on VPR*, with three of the better reporters around — VTDigger’s Anne Galloway, VPR’s Peter Hirschfeld, and the Freeploid’s Terri Hallenbeck– examining the entrails of last week’s primary election and the prospects for November. 

*Audio not yet available online, but it should appear here later today. 

Thin gruel, to be sure; the key races are essentially over, with the possible exception of Phil Scott vs. Dean Corren for Lieutenant Governor. But when the race for a mainly ceremonial position is your biggest source of intrigue, well, that tells you all you need to know. 

There was a lot of dancing around the fact that November is in the bag for the Democrats, with the noble exception of Galloway coming right out and saying that Governor Shumlin was going to win. The dancing is understandable, considering that (1) journalists want to appear objective, and (2) as political journalists, they’ve gotta cover this puppy for two more months, and what fun is it when there’s no intrigue? 

Much of the dancing centered on the idea that good “messaging” could carry a Republican candidate into a competitive position. The Dems aren’t invulnerable, the reasoning goes, it’s just that neither Scott Milne nor Dan Feliciano seems capable of delivering a solid, appealing message. 

That’s true, insofar as it goes. But there are three much more powerful factors operating against the Republicans: most voters pay little or no attention to messaging, the electorate is solidly center-left, and today’s Republican Party has little to offer on the key issues in Vermont. 

First, reporters and insiders overestimate the impact of tactics and strategy and messaging. The vast majority of voters have their minds made up before the campaigning starts. The only thing that could change their minds is some sort of shocking revelation or catastrophic event. Some voters do actually watch debates and bring an open mind to campaign coverage, but they only matter when an election is otherwise close. 

Second, it’s obvious from the results of the last decade or so that most voters prefer Democrats. The Legislature has been solidly Democratic for years. Among statewide Republicans, only Jim Douglas and Phil Scott have been able to buck the trend. Both have done so because of their unique personal appeal and by projecting an image of moderation and willingness to compromise. 

And third, Shumlin and the Dems are potentially vulnerable on issues like health care reform, the Department of Children and Families, the economy, taxation (especially school taxes), and the environment (Lake Champlain, the natural gas pipeline). 

On all those issues, the most appealing solutions involve more government, not less. Shumlin is more vulnerable to his left than to his right. 

In spite of Vermont Health Connect’s troubles, health care reform remains popular. Republicans have no answer aside from letting the market do its magic. Fixing DCF would require more resources, or at the very least more effective management. Have the Republicans given anyone reason to believe they care more than the Dems about poor people? Hell, no. Do the Republicans have a track record of good management? Only in the minds of Jim Douglas and Tom Pelham. 

Would the Republicans be better stewards of the environment than Dems? Ha ha. Can they plausibly portray themselves as defenders of public education, which remains extremely popular in Vermont? No; their only solutions are competition and union-busting. Can they convince voters that they’d preserve local control? Not if you could saw money by centralizing. 

On the economy, the Republicans have little to offer aside from the tired, discredited supply-side nonsense. Which took another bullet yesterday with the news (from the Federal Reserve Bank) that our post-Great Recession “recovery” has benefited the wealthy while middle- and working-class wealth has actually declined. One-percenters and corporations have a larger share of our wealth than ever, and all the Republicans can offer is policies that will further enrich the rich. 

And as for taxation, Vermonters may be dissatisfied with rising school taxes and worried about the cost of single-payer health care, but they also favor a robust government that can tackle problems effectively. Most voters don’t want a mindless “cut, cut, cut” approach, and that’s the standard Republican line. 

Here’s what a Republican would have to do, to be competitive on a statewide level: Bring an established reputation for effective governance, or at least an open-minded attitude toward the notion that government can actually solve problems. Express skepticism about political dogma, especially the cherished beliefs of the right. And do that without, somehow, losing too much support among the Republican base. And, finally, regain the support of the business community, which has largely abandoned the VTGOP in favor of a cooperative relationship with the Democrats. 

Now. If a Republican can identify and execute a strategy that accomplishes those things, s/he can win. Otherwise, no amount of good messaging will carry the day. It’s not impossible; there’s at least one potential Republican candidate who could manage it. But he ain’t running this year. 

Dave Yacovone’s astoundingly well-timed job opportunity

In a hastily-scheduled news conference, on the second working day after Governor Shumlin’s return from vacation, Dave Yacovone announced today he is resigning as head of the Department for Children and Families. He’s taking, as Paul “The Huntsman” Heintz puts it, “an undisclosed job outside state government.” He and the Governor both insisted Yacovone’s departure was “unexpected and entirely voluntary.” 

So why is my bullshit detector pinging nonstop? 

Perhaps because the timing is awfully convenient for an Admininstration wishing to put a controversy behind it. 

I have absolutely no inside information on this, but here’s what it looks like to me. DCF’s well-publicized troubles led to the forced ouster of Human Services Secretary Doug Racine on August 11. Three weeks later, Yacovone suddenly finds a new job. Which he won’t disclose. And which requires his immediate resignation. 

That last item is a big one. Usually, top administrative jobs are filled in the course of months, not days or weeks. Yacovone had to have been looking around for a while now. And transitions are built in to the timing, so an executive has time to ease out of the old job. Not Yacovone; he’s out the door right now. 

Doug Racine was fired, not for job performance, but for “style,” for failing to be a cheerleader for the Administration’s policies. Yacovone was a vocal defender of the agency’s work, so when it came time for him to go, he was allowed to pull the ripcord himself. 

Perhaps a nice job opening was even arranged on his behalf. 

The unspecified job is in Lamoille County, and involves human services in some form. Professionally, this has to be a significant step downward. There may be other factors in Yacovone’s case; he lives in Morrisville and he might want a job closer to home. He’s old enough that he might be looking to wind down rather than climb the ladder. 

This is all speculation. What isn’t is the timing: three weeks after Racine’s departure, and a few days before Shumlin formally begins his re-election bid. Time to shove a skeleton back in the closet. 

Personally, I don’t believe that DCF’s troubles warranted anyone’s departure, voluntary or otherwise. The Department has been chronically underfunded and understaffed, and the most capable administrator in the world can’t fully compensate for that. But political considerations are apparently more pressing at DCF than at Vermont Health Connect, whose problems, IMHO, are more serious and politically damaging. I’ll be interested to see if there are any conveniently-timed, face-saving departures at VHC in the near future. 

If you can’t improve your product, get a better salesman

Let’s start with the thesis (for once): I still don’t understand why Doug Racine was fired. I have some guesses, but the official story doesn’t wash. 

From Governor Shumlin, we’ve heard the usual “time for a change” bullcrap. From Racine, we’ve heard that the Administration wanted more of an “ambassador,” while he’d been keeping his nose to the grindstone at the Agency of Human Services. Racine offered the following comments in a Wednesday interview on VPR’s Vermont Edition: 

They mostly focused on style. [They said it wasn’t about the troubles at the Department of Children and Familes, and never mentioned Vermont Health Connect.] I had been focused on the Agency… What they said they wanted was somebody who was going to be out there a little bit more, in front of the media, and in front of local groups and constituent groups, and just to be talking more publicly about the good work of the agency. They said I wasn’t the right person to do that.

Well gee, Doug Racine spent a lot of years in politics. I’d think he could be an effective “ambassador” if needed. And if he believed in the product. Besides, a problem with “style” doesn’t seem urgent enough to warrant the sudden and immediate dismissal of an original cabinet member. Hell, Racine cleared out his desk right after his firing: they wanted him gone, and gone NOW. They didn’t want him wiping his hard drive or stealing office supplies. 

I don’t have any inside information, but here’s what I think. The Shumlin Administration knew it would be cutting the budget, and that most of the cuts would happen at AHS. They knew the agency was already overstretched, and that Racine had long believed it was badly under-resourced. 

I look at the ratios, I look at the work they do, I talk with a lot of the workers. They’re very stressed. They’re dealing with families in exceedingly difficult situations.They need more people, there’s no question about it.

And then Racine said something I found telling: 

 I met with some of the [DCF staffers] who testified [at Tuesday’s legislative hearing], I met with them last week, and I urged them to go and tell their story to the Legislature. …I’m glad that they were there, I’m glad they testified, and I hope the Legislature was listening.

That hearing gave voice to the frustration and despair among DCF staffers. In the context of this week’s budget cuts — which Racine had to know about last week — their testimony was a big fat warning shot across the Administration’s bow. And he encouraged them to speak out. Not very ambassadorial, that. 

When Doug Racine ran for Governor in 2010, concern about Human Services was one of his top priorities. As AHS Secretary under Shumlin, he has tried to stretch the available resources as far as he could. He was a loyal soldier, trying to preserve human services programs in very tough times and not complaining in public. 

And then came another round of cuts, and the primary targets, per VTDigger, were (1) the already overextended DCF, and (2) Shumlin’s pet project for 2014: substance abuse treatment. 

Do you think that might have forced a confrontation with Racine? It looks to me like the Administration not only wanted him to swallow more bad news, but wanted him to get out in public and actively promote the budget. He could have done the former, but he couldn’t bring himself to do the latter. 

Again, no inside information, just educated inference. 

The only explanation I can think of for the timing is (1) the pending budget cuts, and (2) the election campaign. Shumlin wanted a cheerleader, and Racine wouldn’t pick up the pom-poms. 

Meanwhile, the interim AHS chief, Dr. Harry Chen, is by all accounts a good guy and an able administrator. But when I read Terri Hallenbeck’s story in the Freeploid, I saw some obvious holes in Chen’s game. First of all, he describes himself as very much a hands-on manager coming to a job where that might not be possible: 

Chen… said the management style he brings to the job includes lots of interaction with staff. 

“I wander the halls,” Chen said, acknowledging that as secretary of an agency that oversees such a vast array of services, there may be too many halls to wander in too many far-flung buildings.

And Senator Kevin Mullin pointed out that “two key areas where Chen may lack expertise the agency sorely needs is in information technology and child protection issues.” Which happen to be the two biggest challenges facing AHS. 

Dr. Chen’s interim appointment expires at the end of the year. He’s got four months to “wander the halls” and, he says, make recommendations about changes in the agency. In his first day on the job, reports Hallenbeck, he met with central office staff to give them reassurance. But he’ll have to make some tough decisions in a hurry. Sort of like his former job as an emergency room doctor: get as much information as you can as quickly as you can, and then do what you have to do. 

Might be more blood on the floor in the not too distant future. And I suspect that when Dr. Chen isn’t wandering the halls, he’ll be facing the cameras and telling the people of Vermont something that sounds a lot like this: “These are challenging times but the Agency is up to the task, and the Shumlin Administration is giving us all the resources we need.”

Rah, rah, sis boom bah. 

A head has rolled

Shocking, but not surprising news this morning out of the capitol city. Paul “The Huntsman” Heintz:

Gov. Peter Shumlin has dismissed onetime political rival Doug Racine as secretary of the embattled Agency of Human Services.

“These decisions are difficult, but the governor felt a change in leadership at AHS was needed at this time,” Shumlin spokeswoman Sue Allen said Tuesday morning.

Doug 'n Pete in a happier moment. (Photo from VPR)

Doug ‘n Pete in a happier moment. (Photo from VPR)

Laura Krantz at VTDigger writes it as a Racine departure, not a firing. Which makes me wonder if the last straw was last week’s emergency budget adjustment, with its calls for further cuts in an already-overstretched agency. Maybe Racine stood up for his people, and got shot down for his trouble. I have no inside information on that point, but the timing certainly fits.

Whether a push or a jump, the shock is the suddenness of it all and the fact that the scythe took its first cut at the top level rather than, say, taking a Mark Larson or a Robin Lunge. It’s not surprising because sooner or later someone in state government had to take the fall for Vermont Health Connect’s continued troubles.

I say so not because any one of the three is more or less culpable for the VHC mess, but because Larson and Lunge were more directly involved. And because a cabinet member is a key gubernatorial appointment, this is a more direct reflection on the Governor himself.

But as Heintz points out, the trouble isn’t all health care-related. AHS’ Department of Children and Families has also come in for criticism following the deaths of two young children under its supervision. In that context, Racine was the most relevant target.

Health Commissioner Dr. Harry Chen will be interim AHS chief, with an appointment through the end of the year.

My take, and I have absolutely no knowledge of how AHS works or doesn’t: It was an almost impossible job. In fact, when Shumlin appointed his chief political rival to the post, I wondered whether it was an honor or an exile. AHS is a big, complicated operation that’s usually overtaxed and underresourced. Racine took the job after years of Jim Douglas-mandated cuts, and the disastrous implementation of Challenges for Change. It was the kind of job that was almost certain to leave Racine with a tainted reputation as a manager, especially with the Governor’s aversion to tax hikes and obsession with cost-cutting. And on top of all that, AHS was home base for health care reform and its myriad pitfalls.

It was a thankless job, and Racine kept at it for almost four years. And did his job largely out of the public spotlight, with a dignity and dedication that speaks well of him.