On the fourth day of our unprecedented heat wave, tragedy struck the Northeast Kingdom town of Lyndon. One of the many wildfires ravaging Vermontswept through the town, destroying virtually everything in its path and causing an unknown number of deaths and injuries. Search and rescue operations are on hold until the fire can be contained.
Today’s high temperature in Lyndon was 113 degrees. It was the fourth consecutive day of temperatures over 110 in a town where the normal July high is less than 80 degrees. Firefighters had to be pulled from the field because of the oppressive heat and the drought that struck Vermont in the spring.
“Our hearts go out to the people of Lyndon,” said Gov. Phil Scott, promising to do “everything I can” to bring help to that town and so many others. Wildfires are burning throughout the Kingdom, as well as the Green Mountain National Forest, the Champlain Valley, the Mad River Valley, and along the Connecti — let’s just say that there are fires all over the state. Areas not directly threatened by fire are dealing with extreme heat and heavy smoke; health commissioner Dr. Mark Levine has urged Vermonters to stay indoors due to the poor air quality.
We’ll get to the regular edition of The Veepies (awarding those who commit acts of stupidity and/or obtuseness in the public sphere) in a day or two. But right now, it’s time for A Very Special Veepie that deserves the solo spotlight.
The honoree is none other than Governor Nice Guy Phil Scott, for adding yet another veto to his all-time record. On Friday he vetoed S.79, a bill that would have established a rental housing registry and enforcement of safety standards. That, in and of itself, is sadly par for the course. But his fractured attempts at explaining the veto? That elevates this one into a class of its own.
The governor argued that the bill would “reduce the number of housing options for Vermonters.” Well, that would be true if some rental units would fail a safety inspection and get pulled from the market, right? And that’s kind of exactly why we need a registry and inspections, right? Because the current “system” of relying on town health inspectors clearly isn’t doing the job.
I mean, the Vermont Chamber of freakin’ Commerce supported the bill and was ““surprised and disappointed” at Scott’s veto. How intrusive could it have been?
After I wrote my post about the Chittenden Senate district, I found out that Sen. Kesha Ram has decamped to the suburbs. Specifically, the tony confines of Shelburne. Her Legislative bio still says “Burlington,” but oh well.
This dramatically changes the calculus for reapportionment, or at least my version of it. Rather than try to amend the original post, I decided to start afresh here.
For those just joining us, Vermont is preparing the once-a-decade task of redrawing legislative districts to reflect population changes. The Legislative Apportionment Board will draw up a proposal in time for the House and Senate to approve it or make changes during the 2022 session.
Thanks to a 2019 law, districts cannot include more than three House or Senate seats. This will mean dismembering the six-seat Chittenden district, which is a good thing. Multi-member districts are basically incumbent-protection schemes.
Because Chittenden County is growing while many other areas are shrinking, the district will get at least one more seat and possibly two. (By sheer population, it warrants 7 1/2.)
Adding a Chittenden seat means taking one away somewhere else, so let’s assume the new district will have seven seats, not eight. That means shifting one sizeable community out of the district. Colchester is currently in the Grand Isle district, and it’s likely to stay there in order to protect eternal incumbent Dick Mazza.
But for purposes of this thought experiment, I’m going to focus entirely on Chittenden County and try to describe districts that would be as even as possible population-wise, and keep communities intact whenever possible. On my map, no district would have more than two seats — and the lines could easily be drawn so that each district would have a single senator.
Interim Update: I’ve been told that Sen. Kesha Ram has moved to Shelburne. If so, that dramatically changes my calculus. I’d consulted her legislative webpage, which lists her residence as in Burlington. I’m pursuing confirmation, and will rewrite that section if need be.
Update Update: Sen. Ram confirms she has moved out of Burlington. That changes things quite a bit; I’m writing an amended post instead of trying to change this one.
Thanks to a law adopted in 2019, the state will have make some major changes to the Chittenden County district during the reapportionment process. The law sets a maximum of three lawmakers in multi-member districts, and Chittenden currently has a ridiculous six at-large seats. It’ll have to be split in half, at minimum. Since the Senate itself has the final say, I expect the new boundaries will give all six Chittenden incumbents a smooth path to re-election. Which probably means the new boundaries won’t be the best possible ones.
Also, sensible boundaries would make it possible for Republicans to pick off a seat or two. Now, Vermont Dems don’t abuse their redistricting power nearly as much as Republican majorities in other states, but I bet they want to keep Vermont’s biggest county to themselves. One factor will make it easier to protect incumbents: The Chittenden district will almost certainly acquire a seventh seat. Either that, or more of Chittenden County will have to be moved to non-Chittenden districts, as is already the case for Colchester.
By; sheer population, Chittenden County should have 7 1/2 Senate seats. I expect the most likely outcome is that it will get a seventh seat, and Colchester will continue to round out the Grand Isle district. (If any incumbent’s going to be protected, it’s Dick Mazza.) And then the bloodletting will commence; maybe the Northeast Kingdom will lose a seat. Could the newest and most conservative of senators, Russ Ingalls, get the shaft?
So let’s do some irresponsible speculating re: the Chittenden district, on the assumption that it gets a seventh seat. We’ll try to keep communities intact while distributing the population evenly.
In Which I Answer the Apportionment Board’s Questions
Vermont’s Apportionment Board is preparing for the once-a-decade redrawing of legislative districts. The process has been delayed by months due to the Trump administration causing the first delay in American history for the Census, but the board is doing what it can before it can get its hands on the numbers.
That includes seeking public input on apportionment issues. The board recently posted a piece on VTDigger asking people to answer a few basic questions. So, here are my answers.
What is more important to you: making sure the populations in each district are as close to equal as possible, or allowing larger (within constitutional guidelines) differences in populations to maintain district lines closer to the status quo?
As close to equal as possible. You may already be aware of my general feeling about “the status quo.” The question, I infer, is mainly about district lines following town/city boundaries whenever possible. But that’s already more a polite fiction than an actual reality. It’s sort of a faint yearning for the days when each community sent a single Representative to Montpelier. And those were not the Good Old Days.
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.”
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?
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.
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.
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.