Guest editorial: The Vermont Senate’s most shameful vote
In the closing hours of the 2018 Legislative session on Saturday night, May 12, the Vermont Senate cast one of the most shameful votes I can ever recall in its decision to reject Karen O’Neill, Gov. Phil Scott’s nominee for the Vermont Labor Relations Board.
Shameful, as it was the legislative version of a kangaroo court, since there was clearly prejudicial bias on the part of the Senate resulting from an intense lobbying effort from the Vermont State Employees Association. The result: for the first time in a quarter century, the Senate refused to give its advice and consent to a Governor’s nominee after the union spent weeks pressuring and haranguing Senate Democrats to reject O’Neill.
The Senate carried out the political assassination late in the day by a cowardly voice vote rather than by roll-call so that all Vermonters would not know how each individual Senator voted.
After the political murder, the state employees’ union on May 15 bragged on its website how its “deluge of calls and emails to Vermont Senators” opposing O’Neill had been successful for the first time in 25 years in stopping a gubernatorial nominee.
Sadly, no one will know how each Senator actually voted on the Senate floor on what had become a matter of controversy after Sen. Michael Sirotkin, Chair of the Senate Economic Development, and Housing Committee, and a long-time former labor lobbyist, engineered a 4-1 vote against her nomination before his committee. Voting no were four Democrats with the lone Republican Senator supporting her nomination in committee.
The union heavily lobbied against O’Neill’s confirmation because she cast the deciding vote in favor of the Scott Administration’s “last best offer” in contract negotiations between the union and the Administration. This lobbying and subsequent vote against O’Neill was nothing more than pure political retaliation intended to pressure the Vermont Labor Relations Board to reconsider its vote in favor of the Scott Administration.
The union has also gone to court seeking judicial help in overturning the Labor Board’s decision.
THE NEUTRAL POSITION
The Board is a six-member body with two members representing management, two representing labor, and the remaining two classified as “neutral.”
The Senate rejected O’Neill’s nomination arguing that she did not meet the “neutral” standard as outlined in Vermont law. The law defines a neutral person as “individuals in high standing not connected with any labor organization or management position, and who can be reasonably able to serve as an impartial individual.”
O’Neill applied for the neutral position because she is retired from a career as a federal prosecutor, a lawyer for Green Mountain Power, as well as General Counsel for Vermont Electric Power Co. She also did a stint working at Gravel & Shea, a Burlington law firm, where she specialized in helping clients comply with employment law, including providing training to managers and supervisors on topics like sexual harassment, discrimination, and effective management performance.
After she applied for the job, her candidacy was vetted by an independent panel that included a very well-respected labor representative from the United Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the very union that has long represented unionized electric workers in Vermont. By a unanimous decision, the review panel sent four well-qualified candidates to the governor for his selection for the vacant “neutral” slot. Gov. Scott selected O’Neill.
POLITICAL HATCHET JOB
I applauded the Governor’s nomination because I worked with O’Neill for many years at Green Mountain Power where her ability to deliver fair and impartial advice on many issues, especially employment issues, were highly respected by union and management employees. Her willingness to give back to Vermont in her retirement was admirable and totally consistent with her character and values. Her nomination to the Labor Relations Board also brought much needed gender diversity to the all-male Board. My ever-lasting regret now is that I was not able to testify in favor of her nomination when a parade of witnesses inspired by the Vermont State Employees Association ganged up on her to bludgeon her credibility and character.
The political hatchet job on O’Neill is also the result of the hyper-partisanship that is now becoming business as usual in the Vermont State House. This is a trend that results from the deep divisions on key issues between Republican Gov. Phil Scott and the Democratic leadership in the heavily Democratic dominated Legislature.
Recently, lawmakers from all political allegiances – Democrats, Republicans, Progressives and Independents- will tell you, privately, that Montpelier is becoming more and more like Washington, highly- partisan where legislators are instructed by party leaders and powerful interest groups on how to vote.
I have been resisting that odious comparison as it is not in the character of the Vermont Legislature I have been intently observing since 1965. But now, after the shameful, cowardly, vote on the O’Neill nomination, I sadly admit that I was wrong.
Stephen C. Terry of Middlebury has observed the Vermont Legislature in action since 1965 as a reporter, newspaper editor and a member of the Vermont business community. He serves as a political analyst for WCAX-TV.
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