Mike Smith: Politicians say the darnedest things

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Mike Smith: Politicians say the darnedest things

Mon, 07/24/2017 - 3:01am -- tim

by Mike Smith Over the past several weeks the Vermont attorney general, a prominent prosecutor and a state representative have all said or done things that have left many Vermonters shaking their heads in disbelief. Let’s start with the attorney general, TJ Donovan.

Soon after taking office in January, he quietly asked the National Association of Attorneys General to conduct a management and organizational study of his office. New ideas, new approaches and more efficiency can be identified by such a study, so who could argue against the need for such a review? After all, Donovan had succeeded an attorney general who had been there for nearly 20 years.

When the media caught wind of the study and began to inquire about the review, Donavan had two choices that would have set a good example for the rest of state government: Ask the consultants to put their findings and recommendations in writing and release the report to the public; or verbally recount to the public the major findings in the review.

Donovan chose to do neither, saying he wasn’t releasing the results of the report and wouldn’t put the findings in writing because he didn’t want to upset those whose positions may have been mentioned in the study. He also countered that Vermonters need to judge him by his work as attorney general rather than on the results of implementing an organizational and management study.

But here’s the rub: The attorney general’s office is not a private law firm, it’s a public entity subject to many of the same disclosure laws that any other state governmental agency would be required to abide by when conducting such a study. So it’s hard to argue this is not public information.

Long ago, I worked for a Boston consulting firm that specialized in conducting organizational and management studies for governmental entities. I was the lead consultant on studies in various states, and I can’t recall a situation where a report was not a public document.

Donovan is now in the position of seeking transparency from other governmental agencies, and yet he refuses to be transparent for those matters in his own office. In essence, he’s saying to the rest of state and local government: “Do as I say, not as I do.” Setting this type of example does not inspire others to be transparent.

Donovan’s previous gig was as Chittenden County state’s attorney. Sarah George is Donovan’s successor, appointed by Governor Phil Scott to finish out Donovan’s term. Like her predecessor, George is making news for all the wrong reasons.

According to an article in VTDigger, George is on a mission to limit nonmotorized boats — in particular, rowers and scullers from the Craftsbury Outdoor Center — on a very narrow, 2-mile-long pond so she can use her power boat and water ski on the pond at her convenience.

And get this: George is confident that the Agency of Natural Resources is going to support her in this effort — and she argues that the state needs to go further and restrict canoeists, too.

George, whose family owns four camps on Great Hosmer Pond, is saying she is doing this as a private citizen, apparently believing that somehow this will inoculate her from public criticism as Chittenden County state’s attorney.

But it’s precisely because she is a politician, and not simply a private citizen, that this battle is a no-win situation for George. Here are the reasons.

First, former Olympians Dick Dreissigacker and Judy Geer, who established the nonprofit Craftsbury Outdoor Center, live on the pond as well, and are well-known philanthropists and successful business owners in Vermont. At Craftsbury they have established a world-class training facility for American athletes — not only for rowers and scullers, but also for cross-country skiers and biathletes. The couple have probably done more for American programs in these sports than almost anyone else in the United States. As a result they are universally respected and well liked. George’s decision to try to restrict the center’s use of the pond is likely to generate more enemies than friends.

Second, the outdoor center is a thriving local organization; it employs many in the area and contributes significantly to the economic vitality of the region. The optics of this fight — and optics are always important in politics — is that a Chittenden County politician is trying to use her influence to cause harm to a popular local employer and nonprofit organization.

Third, Craftsbury Outdoor Center is recognized for its land conservation and environmental stewardship, including the construction of energy-efficient buildings. The environmental community, which is vast in Vermont and holds the outdoor center in high regard, is an important constituency for any politician.

Why George decided to take the lead in this “personal” fight is baffling and may have ramifications on her political career. In this case, the perception among many — that are observing this battle from afar — is that George’s self-interest is superseding any public interest.

It will also be interesting whether the state decides to rule in George’s favor as she has predicted.

And then there is state Rep. Jessica Brumsted, D-Shelburne, whose recent comments at a health care budget briefing for lawmakers had many wondering what in the world she was thinking.

At that briefing, conducted by OneCare of Vermont (an entity called an accountable care organization), the issue of the proposed Green Mountain Surgery Center was raised. Brumsted joined the conversation, offering her opinion that Vermonters should be concerned about opening up this new for-profit surgery center.

Normally this is not a problem; a state representative has every right to question any aspect of our health care system. But in this instance the spouse of Rep. Brumsted is Dr. John Brumsted, the CEO of the University of Vermont Health Network, an organization that is opposed to this new surgical care facility.

At best, there was an appearance of a conflict, and at worst there was a conflict. Why Rep. Brumsted didn’t recognize this before she spoke is puzzling, especially since she sits on the House Government Operations Committee — the legislative committee responsible for ethics in state government.

What leads politicians to make these unforced errors in judgment and action? All of these politicians are new to their current jobs. One would hope it is inexperience combined with a lapse of common sense that led to their actions, and not arrogance or entitlement. Hopefully the media attention to the actions of Donovan, George and Brumsted will help change their behavior.

Most Americans have lost confidence in our national media, yet state and local media are still highly regarded and a valued source of information. It’s critical that our media continue to report on instances where politicians appear to be less than transparent, seemingly act in their own self-interest rather than in the public interest, or may forget there are boundaries in promoting policies where you or your family might have a direct interest in the outcome.

Without the media’s scrutiny, and absent Vermonters’ holding public officials accountable for their actions, then our politicians are apt to say and do the darnedest things.

Mike Smith is a regular columnist for VTDigger and Vermont Business Magazine. He hosts the radio program “Open Mike with Mike Smith” on WDEV 550 AM and 96.1, 96.5, 98.3 and 101.9 FM and is a political analyst for WCAX-TV and WVMT radio. He was the secretary of administration and secretary of human services under former Gov. Jim Douglas.