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The Obam-Applause-O-Meter 

Fair Game

Published April 4, 2012 at 11:19 a.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.

Good thing President Barack Obama’s fundraising rally wasn’t held outside last Friday. His screaming fans probably would have violated every noise ordinance in Chittenden County.

The president whipped the 4400-person audience at the University of Vermont’s Patrick Gym into a frenzy reminiscent of Beatlemania. His half-hour speech touched almost all of liberal Vermont’s sweet spots: ending the war in Iraq, repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and mandating equal pay for men and women, among other highlights of his presidency. Obama’s reward? An estimated $750,000 for his reelection campaign. The president was in Vermont fewer than four hours and banked three-quarters of a mil to take on Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum or whoever ends up being the GOP nominee.

Now that’s change he can believe in.

Notably absent from his speech was any mention of same-sex marriage, conspicuous in a state that twice led America in granting legal rights to same-sex couples.

Generally, the audience’s reaction ranged from ecstatic to slightly less ecstatic. Still, some applause lines went over better than others. In this totally unscientific Applause-O-Meter, Fair Game attempts to plot the crowd response to Obama’s one-liners in graphic form.

No Spin Zone?

Gov. Peter Shumlin took a hard line against public relations positions in state government in January, when he deep-sixed the hiring of flacks, er, communications coordinators, at two state agencies.

The gov has zero tolerance for using taxpayer dollars to hire “spin doctors,” Secretary of Administration Jeb Spaulding said, so Shumlin put a freeze on hiring a communications coordinator at the Agency of Natural Resources and a director of communications at the Department of Tourism and Marketing — even though the cabinet secretaries of those agencies said they needed them. Shumlin also successfully pressured the supposedly independent Green Mountain Care Board not to spend $50,000 on a public relations consultant to market the governor’s universal health care program.

As a state senator, Shumlin criticized former Republican governor Jim Douglas for spending more than $400,000 in taxpayer money on appointed communications directors for his administration. Shumlin risked looking hypocritical if he did the same. So he hired two people to handle press for him but appointed few others to PR posts.

After the January hiring flap, Human Resources Commissioner Kate Duffy launched a review of all jobs in state government that could qualify as communications positions.

The report is forthcoming, but Fair Game got an advance look at the list. And guess what? State government is littered with communicators. Very few of them are appointed positions, but all work in service of the administration — and the public, of course.

A spreadsheet supplied by Duffy to Seven Days lists 49 state positions with a combined payroll of $2.2 million that have communications as part of the job description. In some cases, that’s the primary function.

The departments of Public Safety and Public Service each have five such positions. The Agency of Transportation, Department of Education and Vermont Lottery Commission each have three. The departments of Labor and Corrections have two apiece.

Only two of the 49 positions are currently appointed by the governor. The rest are classified jobs subject to union contracts.

As the Burlington Free Press reported Tuesday, Jen Butson, formerly of Ski Vermont, has been appointed communications director at the Agency of Commerce and Community Development, earning $51,001. Butson joins another political appointee at that agency, chief marketing officer Kathleen Murphy-Moriarty, who earns $76,003.

Team Shumlin also just green-lighted the hiring of two classified — as in, not appointed — communicators in the Fish and Wildlife Department: a director of public affairs and a fish-and-wildlife information specialist.

Duffy defends the marketing jobs as appropriate because they promote Vermont and economic development. She says she’s more concerned about several classified jobs at the Department of Health, which has a communications director (salary: $69,804), two communications/media coordinators ($48,755 apiece) and a PH Lab information specialist ($50,107).

“That jumps out at me, and I’ll look at that,” Duffy says of the health jobs. “With bird flu there was a whole communications aspect to that.”

Duffy has convened a panel to help craft a policy around communicator jobs that includes Charlie Smith of the Snelling Center for Government, Lisa Ventriss from the Vermont Business Roundtable and Maria Archangelo, publisher of the Stowe Reporter and president of the Vermont Press Association.

Duffy maintains that her review shows there are very few appointed “spin doctors” left in state government. She plans to review the union jobs with an eye toward determining whether a reduction in workforce or reclassification of job duties is appropriate.

Her takeaway from the review so far? “It’s interesting how much we need to communicate. That is a significant function of what state government does.”

Right to No

The Vermont Supreme Court struck a blow to the public’s right to know last week.

On Friday, the Supremes ruled against the Rutland Herald in a case closely followed by media organizations and First Amendment watchdogs. The daily newspaper had sought records related to a criminal investigation of child-pornography possession by employees of the Criminal Justice Training Council, which runs the Vermont Police Academy in Pittsford.

In January 2010, state police seized computer equipment from the home of training coordinator David McMullen. The next day, he committed suicide. State police investigated the death and the underlying child porn allegations, but Attorney General Bill Sorrell said there wasn’t enough evidence to bring charges.

With the case closed and its sole suspect dead, the Herald sought — and eventually sued for — records related to the high-profile case. But Superior Court Judge Geoffrey Crawford ruled the documents were exempt from disclosure under Vermont’s open-records law as “records dealing with the detection and investigation of crime.” The Herald appealed the case, arguing that investigative records should become public once a case is closed.

The Supreme Court disagreed, concluding that the legislature’s intent in writing the exemption was “to permanently and categorically exempt all criminal investigatory records from public disclosure.” If anyone is going to change that, the justices wrote, it should be the legislature.

CORRECTION: The original version of this column incorrectly included Katherine Betzer in the examination of state “communications” positions. Betzer serves as information and education specialist at the Agency of Human Resources, where she works on the AmeriCorps program. There is no public-relations component to her job.

Rutland Herald state editor Rob Mitchell says the ruling is overly broad and “sets a very bad precedent.” Vermont’s open-records law is riddled with exemptions that let public agencies withhold records from citizens, he says, and trying them in court one by one is “the only way to find out what you can and can’t know about what our public servants are doing.”

The ruling left the door open a crack, however. In a dissenting opinion, Associate Justice John Dooley said the newspaper could refile to seek “inquest” records from the investigation — documents produced during closed-door court proceedings — and Mitchell says the daily intends to do so.

“What is really upsetting about this is that if we were a regular person asking for the same oversight, it would take tens of thousands of dollars in litigation fees to even find out if we actually have access to them,” Mitchell says. “I’d call that a severe limitation on the public’s right to know, and something our legislature needs to get moving on.”

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About The Author

Andy Bromage

Andy Bromage

Andy Bromage was a Seven Days staff writer from 2009-2012, and the news editor from 2012-2013.


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