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Douglas' Campaign Communicators 

Fair Game

Published September 10, 2008 at 5:45 a.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.

The release last week of hundreds of Douglas administration emails shed light on how the governor's office tends to the people's business - and its own.

Additional emails provided to "Fair Game" show the administration is using thousands of dollars of Agency of Transportation funds to pay for communications positions within the governor's office.

These emails show that, while struggling to find jobs to cut, AOT officials debated whether they could eliminate an agency-funded position being used by the governor's office.

At issue in one June exchange is a position in the governor's office previously held by Dave Coriell, who was listed as a "principal assistant" at AOT. He left the $32,000 post in May.

Here are portions of that exchange, between Tina Brassard, AOT's special projects manager, and David Dill, who was AOT's deputy secretary at the time. The emails discuss whether Coriell's replacement will remain in Douglas' office or go back to AOT:

"You will see position number 10 is the one I changed," wrote Brassard, referring to an attached Excel spreadsheet. "I did not provide a lot of information on this one as it was not reporting here. This one is a bit political . . ."

"This is the position that was being used in the Gov's office?" asks Dill, who is now agency secretary.

"I don't want to raise any flags with the information that is put with this position," Brassard wrote.

"I want to make sure the Gov's Office has no further use for the position," replied Dill.

Brassard thought AOT could retain the position, but, in the end, Dill told her the governor's office wanted to keep it.

No word from Dill, Douglas press secretary Jason Gibbs or chief of staff Tim Hayward about what Coriell's replacement does for Douglas, or if there are other similar positions in the governor's office.

An administration official said taking money from one agency to pay for a position in another department is not unprecedented. "The former administration also utilized this practice," said Linda McIntire, Douglas' deputy secretary of administration.

Sources tell "Fair Game" they believe these AOT-funded positions are used to groom "communicators" for higher-level positions - or to work for Douglas' political operation.

One person who held an AOT-funded position within the governor's office is now the chief communicator for the Agency of Human Services, Kim O'Leary. She had been listed on the state payroll one year ago as a "private secretary" within AOT.

As for Coriell, he's now at a well-funded outfit called "Jim Douglas for Governor," where he earns about $2000 a month. Joining Coriell on the campaign trail are two other Douglas aides - Dennise Casey and Erik Mason.

Casey, Douglas' current campaign manager, used to be the gov's secretary of civil and military affairs. She was earning around $64,000 at that post, but took a pay cut, to about $3600 a month, to join the campaign, according to finance reports.

The woman who held that post in Gov. Howard Dean's administration, Kate O'Connor, also ran Dean's gubernatorial and presidential campaigns.

Mason, Douglas' deputy campaign manager, served as the governor's director of the Vermont Commission on National and Community Service. Mason earned around $46,000 in that post. He's now pulling down about $3000 a month with the campaign.

Think the governor's office is "saving" money when these folks take leave from their taxpayer-funded jobs? It's hard to say. While Douglas did trim $24,000 in payroll costs and another $50,000 in office expenses in the recent round of budget reductions, his office has so far been spared any job cuts.

Grooming talent within an administration is nothing new, nor is it out of the ordinary for a top aide to take a leave of absence to work on a campaign.

The Douglas folks have defended the administration's communications positions, claiming the taxpayer-funded staff does more than put the best spin on agency news.

That's true - it appears they also come in handy in a re-election campaign. Nice work if you can get it.

Ducking Debates - One thing's for sure, Douglas needs no communications help when debating.

He held his own earlier this year at the first campaign debate sponsored by the Vermont Natural Resources Council. That debate focused on food, farming and the environment. At the time, Douglas was coming under fire for actions his administration was taking against key compost operations.

Then-Progressive Anthony Pollina was in solid form that night and was a crowd favorite. Now, Pollina believes Douglas and Symington are doing all they can to duck future debates.

"A total of five gubernatorial debates have been cancelled so far, four of them in the last week, when either Douglas or Symington decided not to take part," Polllina said. "This is completely unacceptable and is an insult to voters. We know they will spend big money on ads, but they can't find a few hours to provide Vermonters an opportunity to hear from the candidates together? What are they afraid of?"

That last line is reminiscent of vintage Ben & Jerry's, taken from the company's most prominent protest campaign, "What's the Doughboy Afraid Of?" The "protest" consisted of co-founder Jerry Greenfield picketing Pillsbury headquarters, asking why the food conglomerate was trying to keep Ben & Jerry's out of stores where its Haagen-Dazs brand was sold. Both Ben Cohen and Greenfield back Pollina.

It's clear that with little or no money coming in to help spread Pollina's message via the airwaves, he needs the free media that comes with public debates.

But Symington won't debate Pollina one-on-one. Instead, she will only attend if Douglas also takes part. Her reasoning? It's not a gubernatorial debate without the incumbent governor in the hot seat.

Not sure that's the best strategy for someone who needs some help honing her debating skills. If I were Symington, I'd think of Pollina as a sparring partner.

Douglas either refused to attend or didn't get back to organizers in time for debates sponsored by the Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility, Renewable Energy Vermont and Ohavi Zedek Synagogue. Another hosted by the Vermont Alliance of Conservation Voters is being rescheduled.

Douglas' campaign manager said the governor still expects to debate his foes a minimum of 14 times, so there's plenty of opportunity to quiz all three.

All three candidates are scheduled to appear Thursday on "The Mark Johnson Show," live from the World's Fair in Tunbridge. They're also scheduled to attend a forum, at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, September 10, in Randolph, hosted by the Vermont chapter of the National Education Association. That debate will be broadcast live on Vermont Public Television. And next week, the trio will be at the Associated Industries of Vermont's annual meeting in Burlington.

Becoming an independent has caused Pollina to be turned away from only one debate so far. Officials from the Vermont League of Cities and Towns dis-invited him from their Oct. 2 debate. League officials sent Pollina a note in July stating he could keep his slot in the program if he was shown to have at least 10 percent support in the polls by this Thursday.

The last polls we know about had Pollina in the single digits. With little money in his campaign coffers, he'd better hope someone else pays for another one - and soon.

The Union Label - With Labor Day behind us, it's time for unions, newspapers and other organizations to begin issuing their endorsements.

Pollina has racked up the most endorsements among labor unions, including the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 2326, which represents FairPoint Communications workers; and Ironworkers Local 7, which represents workers in Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine and Massachusetts.

Douglas has earned an endorsement from the Professional Firefighters of Vermont, which has consistently backed the governor.

Symington has yet to pick up a union endorsement.

This weekend we may see endorsements from the Vermont chapters of the National Education Association and the AFL-CIO, which is hosting its annual convention Saturday and Sunday at the Hampton Inn in Colchester.

The VT-NEA, representing 11,500 teachers and education professionals, and the roughly 8000-member Vermont State Employees Association are also poised to make their endorsements soon.

Word is, Pollina will receive the AFL-CIO endorsement. It's anyone's guess whom the VT-NEA or VSEA will endorse, but it probably won't be Douglas. The governor didn't return VSEA's calls to meet, and the teachers didn't ask to meet with him.

No surprise there: Many VSEA members would probably like to hand Douglas a pink slip.

Putting Compost to Bed - Intervale farmers, gardeners and composters may find out Friday if they'll need to find new pastures.

So says Glenn McRae, the Intervale Center's executive director.

The break in the months-long logjam occurred last week when the Chittenden Solid Waste District agreed to take over Intervale Compost Products. The move helped reinvigorate talks between the Intervale Center, the attorney general's office (which is representing several state departments), the feds and the City of Burlington.

At issue is how to allow farming, gardening and other ag-related activities, along with passive recreation, at the Burlington site. Last year, the state decided that much of the composting operation needed land-use permits the center didn't have. Meanwhile, the state's historic preservation division designated the whole area as a culturally sensitive site due to the presence of Abenaki artifacts.

Lately, however, the Douglas administration seems to be turning over a new leaf when it comes to composting.

Earlier this year, the Natural Resources Board ruled the Vermont Compost Company in Montpelier needed an Act 250 permit and issued an order that could have shut down the nationally renowned composter and forced owner Karl Hammer to pay $18,000 in fines. But last month the administration did an about-face and reached an agreement that allows Vermont Compost to stay in business without an Act 250 permit until 2010. (The company agreed to curtail some of its operations and hours to accommodate neighbors.)

Douglas took heat over the heavy-handed approaches to Vermont Compost and Intervale Compost for two reasons: First, the state's only other large compost operation is run by his brother-in-law, Robert Foster. To his credit, Foster didn't support the administration's actions against his fellow composters. (For more on that, see this week's "Local Matters.")

Second, the state hasn't acted as tough with OMYA, a major polluter in Rutland County whose execs have raised thousands for Douglas' campaigns in recent years. OMYA may also be dumping mine tailings without the proper Act 250 permit.

Additionally, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) has secured $60,000 in federal funds to help update the city's flood maps, which will allow the Intervale Center to continue farming. The maps need to be updated because current zoning doesn't allow farmers to place some temporary structures, such as hoop houses, in parts of the Intervale.

McRae, who inherited the mess when he came on board in August, told "Fair Game" he is looking forward to a resolution. "Everybody is talking and everybody is looking for a good solution to all of this," he said. "Nobody is stonewalling or not being engaged - which is a big difference."

Speaking of stone walls, I hear a permit is needed to build one these days.

As Robert Frost might put it, fences may make good neighbors, but Act 250 makes for damn poor poetry.

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About The Author

Shay Totten

Shay Totten

Shay Totten wrote "Fair Game," a weekly political column, from April 2008-December 2011.


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