Tag Archives: Shumlin Administration

The Hoffer report: an indictment of inertia

State Auditor Doug Hoffer did something unusual on Friday: he pre-released one of his reports, embargoed until this morning at 10 a.m. Usually, he just releases them when he releases them.

The reason he did so, I infer, is that this may be the most explosive document to emerge from his office, and he wanted to give us media folks time to digest it. The report is entitled “Sole Source Contracts: Extraordinary Use in Ordinary Times.” The topline: state agencies issue a whole lot of contracts without any competitive bidding. And while sole-source contracts are absolutely justified in many circumstances, the quantity is staggering — and, too often, the stated rationale for bypassing the bidding process was wafer-thin.

Background: In the course of his work, Hoffer had repeatedly come across instances of sole-source contracts. Eventually he decided to assess the scope of the situation. His team reviewed nearly 1,000 contracts issued during FY2015 by five state agencies. (Reviewing all state contracts would have been a monumental task.)

The report paints a picture of administrative laziness at best, corruption at worst. Some key passages from the Executive Summary:

The SAO [State Auditor’s Office] found that while sole source contracts are intended for extraordinary circumstances, this selection method is commonplace for some departments and agencies. … Sole source contracts accounted for 41% of these contracts, and they valued $68 million, or 27% of the total amount.

… While some sole source selections were justified, many were not. Numerous memos lacked a justification for using a sole source selection, and others lacked evidence to substantiate claims. We identified memos based on erroneous information and time constraints that appeared to be of agencies’ own making. …Furthermore, familiarity with contractors often took precedence over an open and competitive process.

… The high frequency of sole source contracts across the five departments and agencies in this analysis raises serious questions about the effectiveness of the State’s contract management.

Yeah, it sure does.

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VPIRG still serious about carbon tax

Interesting hire by VPIRG. They’ve signed on businessman and veteran Democrat Tom Hughes as Campaign Manager of Energy Independent Vermont. EIV, for those just tuning in, is a coalition of businesses, nonprofits, academics, and advocates with the goal of addressing climate change and as VPIRG puts it, “grow[ing] the economy by putting a price on carbon pollution.”

Also known as the carbon tax. Well, not exactly, but more on that later.

The hiring of Hughes is a little unusual, in that advocacy organizations like VPIRG usually fill their staffs with energetic and (ahem) cheap young people. Hughes has been around for a while. “Our partners and our financial resources allowed us to bring in a really seasoned person,” said VPIRG chief Paul Burns.

Hughes was a top Democratic activist in the late 90s and early Aughts. He served a shift as VDP Executive Director and held the same post for Howard Dean’s Democracy for America, he was a staffer in five presidential campaigns, and managed Doug Racine’s gubernatorial campaign in 2002.

He’s spent the past several years in the business world, as a division president of Country Home Products and co-founder of a renewable energy firm. Burns cites the combination of political and business experience as key in the EIV campaign. “Tom has a stellar reputation,” he said. “He’s not a partisan hack. He’s distinguished himself as someone who can run campaigns and be effective in the business world.”

Speaking of the carbon tax, despite the scare-mongering of Vermont Republicans and the timid response from leading Democrats, EIV will actively promote a carbon tax in the 2016 legislative session. Not that they expect to prevail: “I won’t predict that a bill will pass the Legislature and land on the Governor’s desk in 2016,” said Burns. “But we’re making progress each day toward our goal.”

Still, “2016 is a really important year to move the conversation forward. The challenges are really great for passing [the carbon tax], but there’s an awful lot of progress we can make and a lot of conversations we need to have.”

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Much Ado About Meatballs

Very curious event took place yesterday. A business announced it was locating in Vermont, and nobody from the Shumlin administration was on hand.

Phil Scott was.

His buddy and nominal Democrat Dick Mazza was.

House Republican leader Don Turner was.


Good Ol' Phil, pleased with himself. Screenshot from Seven Days.

Good Ol’ Phil, pleased with himself. Screengrab from Seven Days.

The event was Bove’s announcement that it will locate a sauce plant in Milton. According to the Burlington Free Press, Bove’s currently makes its sauce in Youngstown, Ohio, God knows why, and its meatballs and lasagna in Shelburne.

Yum, long-distance interstate food, just like Grandma used to make. Well, it’s all coming home to Milton.

As for why two Republicans and a go-ahead-admit-it-you’re-a-Republican were the invited guests, company owner Mark Bove offered some cagey remarks.

Bove was flanked by several legislators, including Phil Scott, the Republican lieutenant governor; Sen. Dick Mazza, D-Grand Isle, and Rep. Don Turner, R-Milton. The restaurateur said each helped Bove’s find its way back to Vermont.

“I just couldn’t get back to Vermont, as much as I tried,” Bove said of previous efforts.

Well, okay then.

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Our still-broken inpatient psychiatric system

One of journalism’s highest purposes is to lance the boils of society — to expose unpleasant truths that everybody is doing their best to ignore.

A prime example appears on VTDigger today: a story by Morgan True about the continuing problems in the state’s psychiatric care system, and particularly the brand shiny new state hospital in Berlin.

Among the key points:

— Even after the facility’s opening, some psychiatric patients have found themselves parked in emergency rooms for days or even weeks.

— There have been 59 documented attacks by patients on hospital staff, some resulting in significant injuries.

— The hospital houses a couple dozen of the most severely ill people in Vermont. Many have been convicted of violent felonies. One doctor told True that the hospital is “one of the most dangerous workplaces in Vermont.”

— State law strictly limits the restraint or medication of patients against their will. Even the most violent.

— In part because of this dangerous work environment, the hospital has been consistently understaffed since its opening. As a result, it has yet to operate at full capacity.

Which brings us back to point one: several months after the hospital’s opening, severely mentally ill people are still being warehoused in ERs.

This is a whole lotta bad stuff. It shows a mental health care system that’s still functioning poorly even after the Shumlin Administration’s entire plan has been put in place.

The Department of Mental Health, for its part, seems to be taking a remarkably lax and unforthcoming attitude toward the situation. DMH knows the total number of attacks on staff, but it won’t release any information on staff injuries.

And according to DMH Deputy Commissioner Frank Reed, the department “has not tried to compare the number of violent incidents at VPCH to other psychiatric hospitals.”

Well, why the hell not? I’d think you’d want to know whether our problems are unique, or simply the natural consequence of caring for the most severely mentally ill.

Reed also flunks the transparency test when it comes to waiting times in hospital emergency rooms. He says average wait times have decreased, but…

Reed was unable to provide documentation of average wait times, saying those figures are still being “pulled together.” The numbers will be presented to a legislative oversight committee in January.

Perhaps Mr. True should apologize for inquiring at an inopportune time. But it shouldn’t be that hard to assemble those numbers. Indeed, I’d expect a Department that’s doing its job to compile those figures on an ongoing basis.

In fact, I’d be very surprised if DMH doesn’t have the numbers already. It’s Management 101, isn’t it? Keep track of your most important statistical markers?

True’s report raises all kinds of questions about state law, the Shumlin Administration’s concept of a mental health care system, and how many resources were spent trying to develop a system that was undersized from the start. DMH officials are talking about supplementing the system with a new 14-bed secure residential facility, but acknowledge that it’ll be a tough sell when lawmakers are under the gun to cut the budget. DMH may have already squandered its best opportunity to create a good system.

And please don’t insult me with the “No one could have foreseen” excuse. The people responsible for inpatient care were all saying the same thing after Irene: the Shumlin Administration’s plan was so bare-bones that it was almost doomed to fail. While their advice was ignored, how many millions did the Administration spend on inadequate plans, patchwork facilities, and extra costs? (One example: according to True, the state has paid more than $1 million since 2012 for sheriff’s deputies to monitor psychiatric patients in hospital ERs.)

And it turns out, to the surprise of no one who works in the field, that a 24-bed hospital costs nearly as much to run as the old 50-bed facility, and costs more on a per-bed basis because the foundational staffing needs are so high.

And, given that the new hospital has some of the same kinds of problems as the old one, I have to ask if our laws are out of whack. I mean, look: We’re talking about the two dozen  sickest people in Vermont, many of them violently, dangerously sick. The restrictions on restraint or medication without patient approval may be the best thing for the vast majority of patients; I believe different standards should apply to the very sickest. They are the ones least capable of exercising sound judgment, and most capable of inflicting harm on staff or fellow patients.

One commonality between the old hospital and the new is our strongly patient-centric laws. It seems clear to me that those laws are on point for the vast majority of patients, but that there should be a different standard for patients in the state hospital.

Of course the right wing is still Grubering

Yesterday, I wrote about Neal Goswami’s journalistic self-sacrifice — reading 2,400 pages of government emails so we don’t have to. The emails in question were between the newly-notorious Jonathan Gruber and various Shumlin administration functionaries. And Goswami found a conspicuous absence of scandal. Indeed, the emails painted a picture of some very dedicated people working very hard to devise the best possible single-payer system.

Naturally, though, the lack of scandal hasn’t stopped the right wing from desperately fanning the Gruber flames. This is not at all surprising; in fact, it’s the right wing’s modus operandi. Talking Points Memo:

Gruber-mania has gripped the conservative mediasphere in a way that few stories have, becoming another brand-name controversy like Benghazi and the IRS. An academic who had been little known outside of Washington or Boston has been mentioned nearly 2,800 times in English-language news since news of the most recent video broke last month. Prior to that, across a career that spanned decades and after playing an important role in Massachusetts and national health care reform, he’d been named less than 1,000 times, according to a TPM LexisNexis search.

The lesser members of the mediasphere who operate in this lonely outpost are taking their cues from their big brothers, and trying to make mountains out of molehills.

Take Rob Roper, the Eddie Haskell of Vermont conservatism. He pulled out one brief excerpt from Goswami’s report, which I’d cited as a positive. Key quote from Gruber:

I am really excited to work with you all — I think we have the chance to really make history here.

In Roper’s imagination, this statement immediately disqualifies Gruber. He’s too enthusiastic, see?

So would Gruber mislead Vermont voters because he’d rather make history than not? With over $2 billion at stake, we have to assume the answer is yes.

One little evidence-free assumption, and we can dismiss the entirety of Gruber’s work. Plus any proposal Gov. Shumlin makes because, even if he fired Gruber today, all the work on single-payer has already been thoroughly Grubered.

This is exactly the same rationale used by the far right for ignoring climate science: the scientists have a stake in climate change, so their work can be dismissed.

Look, it’s only natural that an expert would have a lively engagement in her/his field of study. Aren’t you interested in what you do? I hope so. But the academic world — unlike the world of conservative faux-outrage — has ethical standards and principles. Academics have an interest in doing honest work, to ensure that their work has an impact. And, of course, academics who commit fraud see their careers end in shame.

But the Rob Ropers of the world know nothing of this, because their purpose is rousing the rabble. Adhering to the truth is a professional impediment. And fraud is a tried and true method of career advancement.

And that, by the way, is it: The only thing Roper could find in Goswami’s story to yammer about is Gruber’s enthusiasm for his work.

Meanwhile, serial failure Darcie “Hack” Johnston has been busily retweeting stuff from Breitbart.com, one of the sleazier outposts of the conservative mediasphere. For some reason, Breitbart has posted a series of stories about Gruber’s work in Vermont. Seems like small potatoes for a national website, but whatevs.

Johnston is so far out there, she seems to believe that Breitbart is a convincing source of news. In fact, the guy who’s writing its Vermont stories is a proud Tea Partier with no journalistic credentials outside the conservative mediasphere.

But again, I’m not surprised. This is SOP for Johnston: Accept (and broadcast) every conservative source, no matter how shameless, as the Gospel truth.

When, in fact, “truth” has nothing to do with it.

The Milne Transcripts, part 1: An inauspicious beginning

On Friday July 25, Scott Milne sat down for his first extensive media interview since launching his Republican candidacy for Governor. He was a guest on The Mark Johnson Show on WDEV Radio; Mark has archived the interview as a podcast. 

It’s a rich vein of material, and I’ll be rolling it out in sections over the next couple of days. I’ve transcribed the first 15 minutes so far, working my way through dense overgrowths of verbiage and sudden shifts of topic, delivered in a quick, stumbly, nervous monotone.

Let me pause here and say that I have a lot of respect for Scott Milne the businessman, and I appreciate his courage in taking on the thankless task of challenging Governor Shumlin. And just as he doesn’t mean to “vilify” Shumlin by referring to him as brazen, bullying, headstrong, radical, and ultra-progressive, I don’t mean to vilify Milne when I say that his performance was so inept as to be almost unlistenable, or that his campaign is off to a terrible, horrible, really bad start, or that any chance he had of mounting a serious challenge to the Governor has already evaporated like the mist of a midsummer morning. Nor when I call him the political equivalent to the 1962 Mets.

Nope, no vilification here.

He came across as a — well, here’s a choice quote:

I’m more interested in the campaign, making sure I’m out meeting Vermonters and reconfirming the reason I got into the race, which is a real fear of the direction the Shumlin Administration is taking the state, and the need for a, hopefully what the people will judge me as an articulate voice of opposition to that. 

Emphasis mine. “Articulate voice of opposition,” my Aunt Fanny.

Milne is a novice to the big political stage, and it may seem unfair to criticize his first sally. But good grief, he put himself in this position by jumping into the race at the last minute. He has no time for missteps, and he surely has no time for on-the-job training. He needed to hit the ground running with a coherent, convincing narrative. Instead, he’s hit the ground face first.

Want more? Oh Lord, there’s more.

There are some real problems with the economy in Vermont, there’s some real lack of leadership from the Shumlin Administration over the last four, or I would argue six years, ’cause he spent his last two years as President Pro Tem of the Senate really running for Governor. So he’s got six years into this, he still can’t even tell us too much about how he’s going to pay for VHC, to say nothing about taking accountability for the total mismanagement of it.

“Six years.”

Peter Shumlin’s been Governor since January 2011. Three and a half years. I don’t know what Milne is hoping to pull off with this six-year bit — which he also hammered home in a media scrum after his campaign launch. It’s transparently phony and unconvincing.

Milne then pivoted to another talking point, delivered with the same skill and grace.

Secondly, we’ve got this big problem with the school system, and we’ve got a Governor who, between vacations in Bimini or wherever his Caribbean vacation home is, and flyin’ all over the country to raise money from special interest groups, he found all kinds of time to do that during the Legislative session, but didn’t find the time or the need to roll up his shirtsleeves, walk across from the Pavilion fifth floor to the Capitol, sit down with House and Senate leaders and get something on the table that’s going to restructure property taxes so that, you know, you’re talking about my announcement in Barre, I stopped at Central Market, which has been there for at least two generations, I stopped in there for a coffee on my way over to my announcement on Wednesday at the Aldrich Public Library, ran into three people all of whom supported me emotionally, all of whom live in Florida and don’t live in Vermont anymore.

You can practically smell the smoke when he shifts mental gears from one talking point to another. He sounds like he’s been stuffed full of briefing notes and hasn’t had time to digest them. They just come spewing out in raggedy chunks whenever he opens his mouth.

Again, I am not vilifying Scott Milne, whom I respect as a person and businessman.

That’s enough for part 1. Coming up in the second installment: Milne makes a striking accusation against Governor Shumlin, the man he is not at all vilifying. And he provides not a speck of evidence.

Stay tuned, and getcha popcorn ready.