Thursday, January 19, 2017

Opinion
Walters: Slouching Toward Transparency

Posted By on Thu, Jan 19, 2017 at 11:05 PM

Vermont Statehouse - FILE: JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • File: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Vermont Statehouse
The two branches of the state legislature each made the tiniest of moves toward financial transparency on Thursday. The Senate’s was almost devoid of meaning, while the House took a brief sidestep on the long and winding road to full disclosure.

First, the House. In a session expected to be brief and painless, lawmakers heard first readings of a number of bills and then took up House Resolution 6, which would make minor changes to existing financial disclosure procedure. Currently, state representatives’ disclosure forms are only available in person at the House Clerk’s office; H.R. 6 calls for the forms to be posted online. It had unanimously passed the House Rules Committee, and was expected to sail through.

But lawmakers are very particular about disclosure rules applying to themselves, and a flurry of questions ensued.

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Family of Syrian Refugees Arrive in Rutland as Resettlement Begins

Posted By on Thu, Jan 19, 2017 at 8:59 PM

Center left to right: Erica Wallstrom, Madison Akin and Bex Akin in September - CALEB KENNA
  • caleb kenna
  • Center left to right: Erica Wallstrom, Madison Akin and Bex Akin in September
A family of Syrian refugees arrived in Rutland on Wednesday, according to the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants. Another family is expected to make it to the city on Thursday evening, said Stacie Blake, the USCRI's director of government and community relations.

The newcomers will live with host families for "just a few days" before they move into their own apartments, Blake said. Such an arrangement is "not unusual when you're staying at a new resettlement site." It acts as a "way to help the first families get on their feet," she explained.

Mayor Chris Louras, who put his political career on the line by proposing Rutland as a resettlement site, said he learned that the first family would arrive just hours before they showed up.

His first words to his city's newest inhabitants? "I'm so happy and delighted to have you as our new neighbors," Louras recalled.

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Scott Appoints New Chittenden County State's Attorney

Posted By on Thu, Jan 19, 2017 at 5:20 PM

Chittenden County State's Attorney Sarah George - COURTESY: GOV. PHIL SCOTT'S OFFICE
  • Courtesy: Gov. Phil Scott's office
  • Chittenden County State's Attorney Sarah George
Gov. Phil Scott on Thursday appointed Sarah George, a Chittenden County deputy state's attorney, to her office's top job.

“I view the position of State’s Attorney to be a non-partisan role, best filled by someone with a strong moral compass," George, who has served as a deputy prosecutor since 2011, said in a prepared statement. "That is how I will approach this position, as I work to speak for — and fight on behalf of — victims and the community.”

George replaces former Chittenden County State's Attorney T.J. Donovan, who won election as Attorney General in November. George will serve the remaining  two years of Donovan's four year term. She is a graduate of the University of Connecticut and Vermont Law School.

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Montpeculiar: 'Economic Opportunity' Knocks — Twice

Posted By on Thu, Jan 19, 2017 at 4:56 PM

SCREENSHOT
  • Screenshot
When Gov. Phil Scott proposed this week that the Agency of Commerce be transformed into a new Agency of Economic Opportunity, it had a familiar ring to it.

Turns out, despite all the words available in the English language, these very ones are already employed in Vermont state government.
montpeculiar2.jpg
The Office of Economic Opportunity is part of the Department for Children and Families.

It appears economic opportunity means many things — because these two entities are on opposite ends of the economic spectrum.

Scott proposed his Agency of Economic Opportunity as a mechanism to entice businesses, put people to work and to spur the economy.

The existing Office of Economic Opportunity is focused on poverty. It's the place where low income people turn for help finding housing and weatherizing their homes.
Commerce Secretary Michael Schirling (left) and Gov. Phil Scott talk Tuesday about the proposed agency reorganization.
  • Commerce Secretary Michael Schirling (left) and Gov. Phil Scott talk Tuesday about the proposed agency reorganization.
“It’s going to add to the confusion,” said Rep. David Yacovone (D-Morristown), a former DCF commissioner, who picked up immediately on the name duplication. He added, “That’s the least of the problems we have.”

Jason Gibbs, Scott’s chief of staff, said members of the administration were aware of the first economic opportunity entity when naming the second one.

"We think there's a future conversation we should be having about the Agency of Commerce and its role in helping people escape from poverty," he said.

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Anticipated State Revenues Are Down in Economic Report

Posted By on Thu, Jan 19, 2017 at 2:32 PM

Gov. Phil Scott and the legislative money committee chairs listen to economists Tom Kavet and Jeff Carr on Thursday. - TERRI HALLENBECK
  • Terri Hallenbeck
  • Gov. Phil Scott and the legislative money committee chairs listen to economists Tom Kavet and Jeff Carr on Thursday.
Economists told the state's Emergency Board on Thursday that Vermont is likely to see less money coming in over the next two years than previously thought.

For  fiscal year 2017, which lasts through June, the state can expect to see $24.6 million less in general fund revenues than had been anticipated. For the 2018 budget, Gov. Phil Scott and legislative leaders were told to expect $7.7 million less than previously thought. And in 2019, expectations were curtailed by $104 million.

To handle the blow in the current 2017 budget, Scott's financial team doesn't seem to be sweating the details. Finance Commissioner Andy Pallito said he is proposing to tap into various reserve funds and areas where spending was less than expected.

The 2018 figures are being built into Scott's much-anticipated first state budget, which he will release next Tuesday. "We were forecasting this," he said. But he bemoaned, "We're starting with less revenue than last year."

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Shumlin to Head to Harvard as Visiting Fellow

Posted By on Thu, Jan 19, 2017 at 12:56 PM

Then-governor Peter Shumlin in the Statehouse - FILE: JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • File: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Then-governor Peter Shumlin in the Statehouse
Former governor Peter Shumlin has a new gig — enticing Harvard undergrads to get involved in politics.

The Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics has selected Vermont’s recently-departed gov as one of its visiting fellows for Spring 2017. Shumlin will mingle with students, professors and researchers, imparting political wisdom based on his experience in the governor’s office, and in the state Senate and House before that.

The institute was established in 1966 with the purpose of “inspiring undergraduates to lead lives of purpose by committing themselves to the practice of politics and governing, and to public service and the countless opportunities to serve at home and around the world.”

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Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Jericho Voters Nix Zoning Changes That Targeted Sprawl

Posted By on Wed, Jan 18, 2017 at 5:31 PM

Jericho residents attend a workshop about land use rules Tuesday night at Mount Mansfield Union High School. - MOLLY WALSH/SEVEN DAYS
  • Molly Walsh/Seven Days
  • Jericho residents attend a workshop about land use rules Tuesday night at Mount Mansfield Union High School.
 Vermonters are divided when it comes to wrangling suburban sprawl. That appears to be one of the takeaways from the narrow defeat Tuesday of zoning changes in Jericho that were intended to keep strip development at bay.

In the days leading up to the vote, residents participated in a flurry of debate about the rules online. And then voters rejected the new zoning 493-485 in a special election. The vote means that the rules, which the selectboard adopted in November, are voided and the town reverts back to its former zoning regulations.

That’s a good thing, according to critics of the changes who saw them as nanny-type meddling with land use.

“I don’t like people telling me I can’t have a clothesline, that sort of thing,” said Patrick McCarthy, who said he voted no. He said he also worried that the zoning would make the town less affordable for newcomers and stifle developments such as senior housing.

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Document Details BHA Director’s Departure Agreement

Posted By on Wed, Jan 18, 2017 at 3:52 PM

Sign on Burlington Housing Authority headquarters on Main Street - MOLLY WALSH
  • Molly Walsh
  • Sign on Burlington Housing Authority headquarters on Main Street
Craig Zumbrun, the former executive director of the Burlington Housing Authority, collected $18,000 in severance pay and $7,000 for accrued benefits under the terms of a separation agreement he signed in December.

Seven Days obtained the agreement under a public records request earlier this month. The authority initially denied access to the pact. Seven Days was successful in appealing to BHA board chair Mike Knauer, citing state law that says compensation to public employees is a matter of public record.

Zumbrun’s rocky tenure at the public housing agency began April 1, 2016. He was placed on paid leave October 20 and resigned in December.

“BHA does acknowledge that it would have terminated Mr. Zumbrun for cause if he had not resigned and that he did not engage in misconduct or gross misconduct,” the signed agreement reads.

Zumbrun will be paid $100 an hour for any additional work he performs for the authority, the largest provider of subsidized rental housing in the region.

Zumbrun declined to comment Wednesday.

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Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Judicial Board Agrees to Give Scott More Justice Candidates

Posted By on Tue, Jan 17, 2017 at 9:16 PM

The Judicial Nominating Board discusses its powers during a meeting at the Statehouse on Tuesday. - ALICIA FREESE
  • Alicia Freese
  • The Judicial Nominating Board discusses its powers during a meeting at the Statehouse on Tuesday.
On Tuesday afternoon, yet another legal conundrum arose in the state’s Supreme Court saga.

The unusually convoluted process to appoint a new justice to the Vermont Supreme Court is provoking some existential angst on the Judicial Nominating Board, an 11-member body tasked with submitting candidates to the governor.

In response to an eleventh-hour legal challenge, the Vermont Supreme Court stopped Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin from choosing Justice John Dooley’s replacement on his final day in office. That left the decision to incoming Republican Gov. Phil Scott, who inherited the same list of six candidates the JNB offered to Shumlin.

Last week, Scott asked the board to give him more names. According to his lawyer, Jaye Pershing Johnson, the governor has not even looked at the names on the original list. But he’s concerned that the legal challenge dissuaded potential candidates from applying the first time around, she added.

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Lawmakers Leery of Scott’s Proposed Labor, Commerce Merger

Posted By on Tue, Jan 17, 2017 at 5:41 PM

Commerce Secretary Michael Schirling (left) and Gov. Phil Scott talk Tuesday about the proposed agency reorganization. - TERRI HALLENBECK
  • Terri Hallenbeck
  • Commerce Secretary Michael Schirling (left) and Gov. Phil Scott talk Tuesday about the proposed agency reorganization.
Bringing oversight of the state’s information technology programs
under one agency? That proposal from Gov. Phil Scott makes sense, legislative leaders said Tuesday. His idea of merging the state Liquor Control Department and Lottery Commission? That, too, probably has merit.

But merging the Labor Department with the Agency of Commerce and dubbing it the Agency of Economic Opportunity? That’s not going over as well.

“This will better align putting workers with employers,” Scott said Tuesday in explaining the proposed change, which he seeks to make through executive order that he formally filed Sunday.

Of Scott’s three reorganizational proposals, the Labor/Commerce one stands out as the most problematic, said Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden).

“The two organizations have two different missions,” said Rep. Bill Botzow (D-Pownal), chair of the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee. Commerce’s job is to attract business while Labor’s job is to regulate business, he said.

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