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Seeing Double Standards 

Fair Game

Published September 17, 2008 at 5:28 a.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.

The recent kerfuffle over the Douglas administration's effort to hide aspects of its plan to cut state jobs is keeping tensions high between union members, key lawmakers and the governor.

State employees made public hundreds of emails, in some of which key aides to Gov. Jim Douglas called lawmakers "whiners." Other emails showed Douglas aides looking for ways to hide the true titles of the jobs they were cutting. You know, change a job title to "clerk" when it's really "social worker."

Lawmakers were outraged. That demeaning, deceitful, doo-doo head Douglas! Passing notes in class like that!

So, legislators must keep a meticulous record of all the emails they swap with each other, state officials and the public. Right?


Turns out that emails on the legislative server are automatically deleted after 90 days. That means unless an individual lawmaker decided to archive his or her messages, emails from this past session are - poof! - gone forever.

We have Curtis Hier, a social studies teacher in Fair Haven and founder of First Class Education of Vermont, to thank for bringing this double standard to light.

Hier asked several key lawmakers to provide emails related to education finance. In particular, he was looking for their correspondence with the Vermont-National Education Association, the Vermont Superintendents Association and the Vermont School Boards Association.

Among the recipients of his request were House Speaker Gaye Symington, Majority Leader Carolyn Partridge, Assistant Majority Leader Floyd Nease and Rep. Janet Ancel, chairwoman of the House Education Committee.

According to Hier, Nease failed to reply, while Ancel said the request should be redirected to the custodian of the emails.

Symington replied - twice - and claimed no such emails existed. Her first response informed Hier that the only back-and-forth discussion about education funding was between herself and constituents, all done by letter. The second told him that, by the way, her archived emails only go back 90 days.

Hier is not satisfied with the response. "They've basically shredded public documents, the way I look at it," Hier told "Fair Game."

As if that wasn't bad enough, the Legislature's top attorney says lawmakers' emails shouldn't be subject to the open records law at all.

Emily Berquist, chief counsel at Legislative Council, said allowing legislative emails to become public record would stifle internal legislative debate and citizens' right to petition their representative, both of which are protected by the state constitution.

As a past member of the executive committee of the Vermont Press Association, I have to say that's a new one on me. There are 35 exemptions in the key statute governing access to such records. About 200 more are scattered throughout various Vermont laws.

A couple of First Amendment attorneys I spoke with (and some media colleagues) were also puzzled by Berquist's assertion that legislative emails are not public records. They don't think that argument will hold up should it be challenged in court.

Hier plans to talk over his next step with his attorney, Paul Gillies, a former deputy secretary of state under Douglas and a strong believer in the public's access to government.

The 90-day rule took effect in 2001, when the GOP ruled the House and was led by Speaker Walt Freed, a Republican from Manchester.

Then, as now, the reasoning behind the purge is technological not ideological, said Duncan Goss, the Legislature's IT chief. But the Legislature is working to address the issue and hopes to move away from the 90-day purge cycle within three to five years.

"We've known this is unsatisfactory and it was forced on us by the technology at the time," said Goss. "Now we're working through the process to get a more appropriate policy in place that is based on the content of the record."

The question remains: Who will decide what qualifies as content - 180 individual lawmakers or an outside arbiter?

Raising the Standards - Last week's revelations about how our public dollars are being used by Douglas to help groom some of his campaign staff raised some eyebrows.

It also revealed another double standard - Douglas is willing to keep on key PR aides while he trims hundreds of state workers.

During a gubernatorial debate on "The Mark Johnson Show," Douglas balked at Symington's notion that he should cut the PR jobs. They "answer important questions from constituents and provide a valuable service to the people of Vermont," he said, "and that's not going to change."

Prominent aides to previous governors let me know this week their bosses never had PR flaks stationed throughout state government.

And, they added, few of them were paid as well as is the Douglas crew.

State employees made a stink when Douglas took the helm, as many of the top aides he recruited received significant pay boosts over their Dean counterparts.

As of 2008, 15 top Douglas officials earned salaries in the six figures. When Dean left office, only two top department heads earned that kind of dough.

Then there's the governor's salary: Douglas earns more than $150,000. When he left office, Howard Dean's salary was $103,000.

A nearly 50 percent boost in six years? Too bad that portion of Douglas' "affordability" agenda didn't trickle down to the rest of us.

Rumor Blogging - This was an easy double standard to spot: Burlington Free Press business reporter Dan Maclean posted a blog item this week about layoff rumors at IBM.

Funny, I didn't see anything about the ongoing purge of talent from the Freeps.

On Sept. 9, Gannett axed 100 managers from its community newspaper division, two of them at Vermont's largest daily. Larry Stasulis and Ed Bartholomew were the latest casualties at a company that has seen steep income declines thanks to the tanking national economy.

Stasulis was the paper's production director and Bartholomew its comptroller. Both had worked at the paper at least 20 years.

The pair's roles on the Freeps operating committee will now be filled by counterparts in Wilmington, Delaware. This is part of Gannett's push to regionalize its approach to managing local papers.

Six lower-level employees at the Freeps were laid off in August as part of a company-wide purge of 600 staff. Another 400 unfilled positions were trimmed, too. No word from Free Press Publisher Brad Robertson on how many total positions the paper will lose.

Is that a giant sucking sound I hear?

Pollina: The Comeback Kid? - Independent Anthony Pollina may not be raking in the campaign dollars, but he's racking up the endorsements and the debate kudos.

Pollina is steamrolling Symington when it comes to endorsements that traditionally go to liberal/left candidates. He picked up support last week from the Vermont State Employees Association (8000 members), a band of Abenaki (1500 members), and the Vermont AFL-CIO (10,000 members). This week, the state's largest union - the Vermont chapter of the National Education Association (11,500 members) - threw its support behind the independent.

Pollina's union endorsements are to his campaign what Sarah Palin is to that of Sen. John McCain - wind in the sails and grassroots energy for core supporters. The key question is whether any of this will put more money in Pollina's campaign bank account. He had less than $10,000 as of late August; the next finance reports are due Sept. 25.

For her part, Symington thinks rank-and-file union members know she has been a voice for them in Montpelier.

"They also know that in tough times you have to make tough choices, and during those times I have listened to state employees and unions," Symington told "Fair Game." "I'm not in the position of just making big promises, and that may mean I miss an endorsement or two."

Symington did get the backing of Teamsters Locals 1 and 597 (1300 members) last week. Sen. Hillary Clinton announced her support for Symington on Monday. I didn't see that one coming, did you?

No word on who Sen. Barack Obama will endorse.

Welch vs. the War - First-term Democratic Rep. Peter Welch appears unbeatable for reelection - well liked, a million bucks in campaign cash and no big-name challenger.

Welch has taken heat on the issue that mattered most in 2006 - ending the Iraq war. But his campaign points out that he voted six times to force troop withdrawal and nine times to cut off war funding.

Welch's wishes have yet to come true. In the meantime, 4725 U.S. military personnel have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with thousands of civilians.

Barre Progressive and Iraq war vet Thomas Hermann is challenging Welch and the incumbent's claims of consistently voting against the war.

Hermann points to two specific votes - on May 10, 2007, and on Sept. 26, 2007 - as examples of Welch lying about his record to the media and the public.

"He repeatedly voted to fund the war without any provision to bring any troops home," said Hermann. "He should forthrightly admit that he voted to fund the war without any timeline for withdrawal."

The May 10 bill provided $95.5 billion in war funding, but not all of the money could be spent until the president provided Congress a war status report (due in July). It delayed a vote on troop withdrawal until it received the war report from the prez. The measure passed with Welch's support.

The Senate later stripped out the troop-withdrawal amendment and returned it to the House. Welch promptly voted against the Senate version.

Also on May 10, Welch co-sponsored a bill to force withdrawal of troops within 90 days. It failed.

In September, Welch supported a measure to fund the federal government for six weeks while Congress finalized the year's budget, which included about $9 billion for the war but nothing about troop withdrawal.

Hermann supporters - including impeachment activists Jimmy Marc Leas and Dan DeWalt - say the budget vote proves Welch is lying. He did fund the war without a troop-withdrawal measure.

So, did the congressman renege on his promises? Or is this just sour grapes from antiwar activists?

That's what elections are for.

Out and About - I had the pleasure of introducing a number of authors at the Burlington Book Festival this past weekend (thanks to organizer Rick Kisonak), ranging from Katherine Paterson to folks from The Onion. I also had the chance to meet and introduce John Elder Robison, author of Look Me in the Eye.

I profiled Robison's book last week, and organized a private event with him and about 20 local kids who have Asperger's, including my 12-year-old son. Robison spent two hours talking about the challenges, joys and fears of living with Asperger's in a society that ridicules "geeks" yet reveres their quirky interests in computers, for example, when they hit the workforce.

Speaking of talent, I'll be joining the popular morning talk show hosts Charlie & Ernie on WVMT (620 AM) starting Tuesday. I'll be on the show the first, second and fourth Tuesdays at 8:40 a.m. to talk about politics and tease my Wednesday column. Or, get teased about it.

So, turn on, tune in, and call in.

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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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