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Downton the Tubes: Vermont Public Television Faces Federal Inquiry and Staff Revolt 

Fair Game

Published January 22, 2014 at 12:55 p.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.

There’s plenty of drama on Vermont Public Television — but off-camera, the station’s experiencing its own turmoil.

Upset with a board of directors they say has “gone rogue,” VPT staff members are in open revolt against the station’s volunteer leadership. They say a majority of VPT’s employees plan to attend a board retreat next Monday to demand that chairwoman Pam Mackenzie and vice chairman Rob Hofmann resign.

“We feel betrayed by the board,” says VPT major gifts director Chuck Bongiorno. “I’ve been in the nonprofit world for 30 years, and I’ve never seen behavior like this.”

“This is a rogue board that has gone out of control and is acting in a way that’s hurting the institution they’re supposed to be supporting,” says Brennan Neill, the station’s on-air fundraising manager. “I find it appalling.”

The staff insurrection stems from an anonymous complaint submitted to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting on Christmas Eve. The letter alleges that Mackenzie, Hofmann and others held at least 20 secret board meetings over the course of two years, during which they “conducted business, voted and acted on behalf of the board.”

“Board leadership has routinely, deliberately disregarded open meeting requirements, despite repeated attempts by [president and CEO John King] and staff to provide recommendation and training on CPB open meeting and certification requirements,” the anonymous complaint says.

VPT announced on January 8 that CPB, which provides nearly 16 percent of the station’s $7.7 million operating budget, is investigating the complaint. The station’s spokeswoman, Elizabeth Metraux, declined to answer questions about the situation, saying, “Management and staff can’t speak to ongoing legal issues with the board, so we have no comment on the CPB investigation.”

VPT could face significant fines — including complete withdrawal of CPB support — if it is found to have violated the Communications Act of 1934, which mandates that federally funded stations hold “open meetings preceded by reasonable notice to the public.” CPB assistant inspector general for investigations Helen Mollick, who is overseeing the VPT inquiry, did not respond to a request for comment.

According to Bongiorno, Neill and other staff members who would not speak on the record, VPT employees have expressed outrage in recent staff meetings over the prospect that board intrigue could threaten the nonprofit’s bottom line.

“If a major fine is instituted as a result of whatever the inspector general finds, it doesn’t impact the board. It impacts us,” Neill says. “And it impacts potential cuts in service, cuts in programs, cuts in jobs at VPT.”

Even though staff members were not aware of, nor involved with the alleged secret meetings, Bongiorno says, “Once an organization’s reputation is damaged, it’s very, very difficult to fix that in a quick time period. So we’re mad.”

Why board members would convene in secret remains unclear, though several people close to the situation say that the meetings had to do with the “toxic relationship” between current board leaders and King, who joined VPT in 1987 and became its president and CEO in 1998. In recent months, at least two senior managers have left the station.

On the same day VPT disclosed that it was under investigation, Mackenzie announced at a board meeting that its former chairman, Jim Wyant, had resigned from the board in November. Shortly after that meeting, board member Scott Milne tendered his resignation.

Both men say their departures were not directly related to the CPB complaint, but they each hinted at dysfunction within the board’s ranks.

“I know they’ve got a lot of work to do to get this straightened out,” says Milne, who owns Barre’s Milne Travel. “If, in fact, as the complaint alleges, there were 22 meetings that were not properly open to the public, I think that’s a problem.Whether it’s a selectboard, a volunteer fire department or anyone relying on public funds, a basic responsibility is transparency in operations.”

Wyant, a business consultant who continues to serve on the board of the affiliated Public Television Association of Québec, says VPT’s problems stem from a discernable change in board culture.

“Two years ago a new board leadership took over, and I think at that stage the whole concept of policy governance pretty much got thrown over the side, and the board began to take a more active role,” he says.

Mackenzie, a business consultant who also serves as chairwoman of the South Burlington City Council, became VPT’s board chairwoman in July 2012. Hofmann, the vice chairman, is a senior vice president of Morrisville’s Union Bank. He served as commissioner of finance and corrections and then secretary of human services under former governor Jim Douglas.

Both board members declined to comment, deferring to Northfield Savings Bank president and CEO Tom Pelletier, who chairs the board’s audit committee. He says the board is conducting its own inquiry into the matter, apart from the CPB’s.

“I can assure you that the board at VPT is committed to proper corporate governance, adherence to the rules and regulations that apply to Vermont Public Television,” Pelletier says. “In the event we had a misstep, we need to correct it. Whether we’ve had any missteps is still open to question.”

Staff members, who express support for King, say they believe that if Mackenzie, Hofmann and others allegedly involved in the situation resign, the CPB may show some lenience.

“There will be fines levied unless there are resignations,” Bongiorno says. “To what level those fines are going to be, we don’t know.”

Case Closed

A much-anticipated rematch of the 2012 Democratic primary for attorney general ended this week not with a bang, but a whimper.

Since he lost to Attorney General Bill Sorrell by a mere 714 votes, Chittenden County State’s Attorney T.J. Donovan has publicly and privately contemplated a second run for the state’s top cop job.

But on Monday, Donovan told Seven Days he’s decided against it. Instead, he said, it’s “likely” he’ll seek a third four-year term as state’s attorney.

“In the final analysis, I came to the conclusion it’s not the right time for me personally and professionally,” the 40-year-old Burlingtonian said.

Evidently, the decision wasn’t easy.

“I’ve been struggling with it for quite some time,” he said. “Literally my mind would change every morning when I woke up. I’d feel one way one day and the next day I’d feel another way. And, you know, I had to make a decision, so I did.”

Donovan said that after several of his 2012 campaign proposals were signed into law, he had fewer issues on which to run. He said he also hopes to focus on helping Gov. Peter Shumlin spread Donovan’s rapid-intervention community court to other counties. And he said he worried that a rematch would devolve into a “personality conflict.”

Sorrell said Monday he is “pleased there’s not going to be a rematch of 2012.” He announced in October that he’d seek a ninth full term.

Sorrell said he’s already raised “over $20,000” for his reelection campaign and plans to hold a fundraiser in Florida on Friday. No other candidates have yet emerged.

So what’ll happen to Donovan? The scion of the politically connected Leddy and Donovan clans has long been rumored to harbor gubernatorial or congressional ambitions. But with no clear path to the top at present, he appears to have chosen to play it safe, rather than forfeit his current position and risk a second statewide defeat.

“We’ll see what the future holds. I really don’t know, and that’s okay. I go by what my uncle tells me,” Donovan said, referring to Burlington attorney John Leddy. “‘Fight the good fight, keep the faith and good things will happen. And just work hard.’”

Way to Pay?

What on earth is Sen. Peter Galbraith (D-Windham) thinking?

That’s a common question in the Statehouse, where the ex-diplomat has distinguished himself as the resident enfant terrible.

And so it was that Galbraith found himself last Thursday happily telling Senate Republicans — and a couple of TV news cameras attending the GOP’s weekly caucus — that Gov. Shumlin’s signature priority, universal health insurance, is gonna be wicked expensive.

“In terms of revenue, it’s not only the biggest tax increase in the history of Vermont, but it is, in fact, a tax that would exceed the current revenues of the income and the sales tax individually,” Galbraith said, referring to the payroll tax he says is “the only way” to finance Shumlin’s so-called single-payer plan.

Senate Minority Leader Joe Benning (R-Caledonia) could barely keep a straight face. Sitting in front of him was a Senate Democrat, repeating, nearly verbatim, the very threat that conservative super PAC Vermonters First issued throughout the 2012 campaign season.

Benning, no doubt, was imagining what Galbraith’s words would sound like when endlessly looped on GOP TV ads this fall.

Whether those words are accurate or not is a question of semantics, context or worldview.

“To some degree, it is the largest tax increase, but it’s also a shifting,” says Sen. Kevin Mullin (R-Rutland). That’s because, in theory, even as individuals and businesses pay more in taxes to cover health care costs, they’ll no longer pay premiums.

At the caucus meeting, Galbraith proceeded to outline legislation he introduced earlier this month that would finance the health care overhaul mostly through payroll taxes. Experts say the new system would require between $1.6 billion and $2.2 billion in new revenue.

Galbraith’s proposal isn’t exactly original. The architect of Shumlin’s plan, William Hsiao, suggested much the same, and the governor himself told Barre-Montpelier Times Argus editor Steven Pappas in October that the payroll tax would “play a major role” in financing the new system.

But Galbraith is the first legislator to actually introduce legislation explicitly identifying a financing scheme. He says the time is now to settle on a plan.

Shumlin and legislative leaders, on the other hand, have said they’d prefer to wait until 2015 to vote on it. That has some skeptics questioning whether their timeline is politically motivated.

“I truly believe they do not want to have this discussion until after the next election,” Mullin says.

Not so, according to House Ways and Means Committee chairwoman Janet Ancel (D-Calais), who says, “I think everyone is working along the path that they think is going to get us to the end result.”

Senate Finance Committee chairman Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden) says he “welcome[s] a discussion about financing options,” though he thinks it’s “premature” to vote on one this year. Until he knows more about how the reforms would impact individual Vermonters and businesses and how much money the feds will pony up, he argues, “putting an arbitrary date on when we should vote … is to me irresponsible.”

“If we’re not able to design a system we want, approve a financing system we think is appropriate, while giving individuals and businesses time to implement these changes, I think the implementation date should be pushed back,” Ashe says, suggesting that Shumlin’s 2017 start date is not carved in stone.

As for whether the debate Galbraith is provoking will hurt his fellow Democrats at the polls, the Windham County senator says that’s beside the point.

“I don’t think this is a partisan issue,” he said after Thursday’s caucus. “I think this is about getting Green Mountain Care done, and that means facing up to the facts, presenting them and getting people to agree.”

Besides, he said, “There’s an election every two years in the state of Vermont, and, in the upcoming election, there seems to be no prospect of a serious challenge to the governor or anybody else who’s on the statewide ballot.”

Not yet, anyway.

Disclosures: Tim Ashe is the domestic partner of Seven Days publisher and coeditor Paula Routly. Paul Heintz is an occasional paid guest on VPT's "Vermont This Week."

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About The Author

Paul Heintz

Paul Heintz

Paul Heintz was part of the Seven Days news team from 2012 to 2020. He served as political editor and wrote the "Fair Game" political column before becoming a staff writer.


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