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Covert Caucus: Senate Democrats Debate Behind Locked Doors 

Fair Game

Precisely who will foot the bill for any new state spending next year is the question of the moment in Montpelier.

But the real debate isn’t taking place in Statehouse committee rooms — or on the House or Senate floors. Last Thursday afternoon, at least, it was going down in a basement conference room in a locked building at 113 State Street.

That’s where 17 of the Senate’s 30 members met to consider a menu of new revenues presented by Finance Committee chairman Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden). Which they settle on will determine who pays tens of millions in new taxes.

As senators filed out of the Statehouse in ones and twos to attend the meeting of the Democratic caucus, several were elusive about where they were headed. One pair joked they were going out drinking.

“I don’t know about any caucus,” Sen. Peter Galbraith (D-Windham) said with a grin.

Senate President John Campbell (D-Windsor) was no more forthcoming.

“Is there a caucus? I don’t usually go to those. Ask what’s-his-name — Phil. He usually schedules those,” Campbell said, presumably referring to Senate Majority Leader Phil Baruth (D-Chittenden).

Ten minutes later, Galbraith, Campbell, what’s-his-name and a majority of their colleagues were sitting around a conference table in a basement two doors down from the Statehouse. When a reporter wandered in, a few senators appeared as if they’d been caught with their hands in the cookie jar.

In a way, there was nothing extraordinary about the meeting. Each party in either chamber of the legislature typically convenes midday on Tuesdays to talk shop and plot strategy. While the gatherings are technically party meetings, these caucuses are open to all — and they tend to be well attended by reporters, lobbyists and members of other parties.

“Vermont has a long history of open caucuses,” says Sen. Bill Doyle (R-Washington), the dean of the Senate. “The Democrats go out of their way to invite us if we’d like to come.”

But that’s less true of each group’s so-called “off-campus” caucus meetings, which are not publicized and take place at nearby offices, bars and private residences. Until last week, Senate Democrats had been holding theirs most Thursday nights at an apartment rented during the legislative session by Sens. Claire Ayer (D-Addison) and Jeanette White (D-Windham).

The venue choice didn’t sit well with Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington), who contends that when more than half the Senate convenes, their meetings should be accessible to the public. After a contentious floor debate broke out two weeks ago over campaign-finance legislation, Sears complained to leadership that the bill had never been discussed in the party’s open caucus meetings — only chez Ayer and White.

“I’ve always felt that was wrong,” Sears says of the off-campus confabs. “I’ve gone to a few, but I generally feel that it’s just not good practice. If five of us want to get together for dinner and talk, that’s fine. That’s not a majority.”

In Sears’ view, the legislature should hold itself to the same standard it sets for town selectboards and city councils: namely, Vermont’s open-meetings law. Under that statute, a quorum — or majority — of a public body may not meet to discuss official business outside a regularly scheduled and publicly warned meeting.

“We’re telling towns if you’re a seven-member selectboard and four members get together, it’s a meeting,” Sears says. “It just seems hypocritical to me.”

After hearing complaints from Sears and others, Baruth said last week he’d permanently relocated the Thursday caucus to the subterranean State Street conference room. Unlike some of his colleagues, the majority leader was more than willing to divulge its location to an inquiring reporter. But he maintains there was nothing wrong with meeting at the residential location because those caucuses never attracted a majority of the Senate.

Quorum or not, Campbell says the point is moot.

“The fact is, we’re different from a town selectboard,” the Senate Pro Tem says. “The general assembly is not subject to the open-meeting law.”

Campbell argues that even when a majority of the Senate meets informally, they are “not making any policy” and don’t take any binding votes — though he concedes there’s an occasional straw vote to gauge opinion within the party.

Given the Senate’s ongoing budget and tax negotiations with both the governor and the House, he argues, it’s important to find consensus within his caucus before debating in committee or on the floor.

“When we’re trying to develop strategies, it doesn’t do anybody a favor by having it on the front page of the newspaper the next day,” Campbell says. “There’s nothing unethical or illegal about what we’re doing, so I don’t think it’s a problem.”

But Secretary of State Jim Condos, himself a former Senate Democrat, says he doesn’t think the legislature is exempt from the open-meeting law. While the statute in question does not specifically say the legislative branch must comply, neither does it specifically exempt it, as it does the judicial branch.

Condos acknowledges he’s not a lawyer, but in his reading of the statute, “the legislature is accountable to the people and should be following the open-meetings law.”

In making the case that their branch is exempt, both Campbell and Baruth cited a memo drafted in a previous session by the legislature’s lawyers, but neither could produce a copy. After Seven Days inquired further, Campbell met with those lawyers Tuesday and instructed them to revisit the issue in order to confirm his interpretation. As of press time, they had nothing more to offer.

Putting aside the question of legality, is it ethical for the majority of a legislative body to meet behind closed doors to informally discuss pending business?

Given that Democrats hold sprawling majorities in both the House and Senate, it’s hard to imagine any other way to strategize and coordinate.

House Majority Whip Tess Taylor (D-Barre) says it’s important for her Democratic colleagues to get together outside the Statehouse and grease the political wheels. She says that in addition to House Democrats’ weekly open caucus, leadership tries to hold an off-campus dinner every month.

“It’s a time for the whole group to be together and have a different kind of experience,” she says. “We’ll discuss issues, but it’s usually a way to speak openly about some things without talking about direction and decisions.”

House Minority Leader Don Turner (R-Milton) feels more conflicted. On the one hand, he says, it’s unfair for the legislature to subject town selectboards to rules it refuses to follow itself. But as a party leader — albeit one whose caucus would never come close to constituting a quorum — he understands the utility of informal gatherings.

“I guess it doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t look right. It doesn’t seem right to me,” he says. “But at the same time, I’ve taken my caucus off-site twice in the last month.”

To be sure, decrying secret meetings in the political arena is somewhat akin to being shocked — shocked! — to discover gambling in Rick’s Café. Regardless of where, when and in front of whom the caucuses meet, everybody knows the real decisions in Montpelier are made behind closed doors in the governor’s office.

And perhaps there’s something to be said for smoothing out the political wrinkles before bringing bills to the full House or Senate. After all, didn’t everybody get on Campbell’s case last year when chaos ruled his chamber and debate spiraled out of control?

Then again, there’s a reason we subject every other public body in the state to the open-meetings law: It prevents a majority from secretly predetermining the outcome of a debate without the input and scrutiny of the minority — or the public.

When our legislators have to grapple with tough questions in a public setting, we can judge them by the clarity of their arguments and the strength of their cases. When they hash it out in private, we don’t know what they’re fighting for — or, more to the point, whom.

Let’s Make a Deal

For Burlington City Councilor Joan Shannon, the sixth time was the charm.

After a deeply divided council ended five rounds of voting in stalemate, the Ward 5 Democrat won reelection to a second term as the body’s president Monday night with a final, unanimous vote.

Shannon’s path was cleared after she and her six fellow Democrats cut a deal with six non-Democrats who’d initially sided with her sole opponent: independent Ward 6 councilor Karen Paul.

“I very much appreciate the spirit of compromise of this council,” Shannon said after Paul ended her candidacy. “It really says that we’re all trying our very best to work in the interest of the city of Burlington, to get to the business of the city and to not delay any further.”

Paul first announced her opposition to Shannon a month ago and quickly lined up support from a motley crew of four Progressives, a Republican and a fellow independent. When the council met last Monday to elect a president, that coalition held strong — and all six stuck with Paul through three tie votes.

But according to several councilors involved in negotiations, Paul’s support began to fray the day before Monday’s re-vote.

“It got to the point where we were really feeling we needed to make a deal to move city business forward,” says Councilor Max Tracy (P-Ward 2), who initially supported Paul.

“Someone had to make a move,” says Councilor Jane Knodell (P-Ward 2).

The night before Monday’s meeting, Shannon says, came an offer to split the president’s one-year term — allowing Shannon to serve six months and Paul to serve six months — but the Democrats rejected it.

That proposal evolved into a new one, Knodell says, which guaranteed non-Dems the council presidency next year in the event of another 7-7 split. In addition, Paul’s supporters secured a pledge to split committee chairmanships and membership equally among the factions.

Most importantly, Shannon’s supporters agreed to allow non-Democrats to hold a majority of the seats on the powerful, five-member Board of Finance, which plays an outsized role in city affairs.

After the council sealed the deal Monday night, Ward 4 Democrat Dave Hartnett praised his colleagues for ending their stalemate and coming to consensus.

“I just want to make clear that I do think the message from this council in the coming year and from this administration is that we will work together to get things done no matter what party you’re from,” he said. “And I think that’s important.”

Disclaimer: Tim Ashe is the domestic partner of Seven Days publisher and coeditor Paula Routly.

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About The Author

Paul Heintz

Paul Heintz

Paul Heintz is Seven Days' political editor. He writes the weekly column, "Fair Game."

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