Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan has asked for a “comprehensive” review of his office.
To that end, a group from the National Association of Attorneys General interviewed dozens of employees over a three-day period from June 5-7.
It is the first time the Vermont Attorney General’s office has undergone a management review in 20 years — since Bill Sorrell, the former AG, took office.
“I think it’s helpful to have outside folks with expertise come in and look at the office and see what’s working, what’s not working, what can be improved what doesn’t need to be improved,” Donovan said.
Donovan asked the association to review morale, caseloads, management and information technology. The newly installed Vermont Attorney General also sought help from the association for the development of a strategic plan. The request for a management review was made in February.
“There are areas that I’d like to improve upon and I think for me there are a few things we’re going to work on internally and better serve and protect Vermonters,” Donovan said.
The newly installed 43-year-old Vermont Attorney General, however, doesn’t see the review as an opportunity to give the public a glimpse of the internal workings of the office.
Donovan says he has no interest in releasing information about the review to the public.
There will be no written report, no recommendations and no written findings. Donovan has requested nothing in writing from the National Association of Attorneys General. While he may consider the release of an IT report, even that may be “privileged,” i.e., not released to the public.
“That information [the review] will remain private internally within the office,” Donovan said.
“Because it is with regards to people participating in the review, because it’s with regards to my decision making, to my internal communications,” he replied.
Why doesn’t that bear scrutiny? “It does.”
Then why isn’t it public?
“The final arbiter of whether or not I’m doing a good job is the next election,” Donovan said.
The Vermont Attorney General rebuffed a VTDigger records request placed on June 16 that asked for information, reports and/or communication about the management review.
In response, Sarah London, an assistant attorney general and former general counsel for Gov. Peter Shumlin, confirmed that there is no written report. Nor will recommendations be memorialized.
It appears there will be no paper trail, except for the notes taken by Deputy Attorney General Joshua Diamond and Chief Assistant Attorney General Bill Griffin.
The review consisted of interviews of “all levels of employees” of the Vermont Attorney General’s office and “resulted in verbal feedback” from the national association to Donovan, Diamond and Griffin “regarding their performance and the performance of other managers in the office.”
London says those records will “likely” be exempt under the Vermont Public Records Act. In her response, London did not make a determination about whether the request was denied. Instead, claiming an exemption under the public records law for “personal information,” she said the records are “likely exempt from public inspection as they are information related to the evaluation of employees of the Attorney General’s Office.”
In order for personal documents to be exempt under the state public records law, the records must relate “to an individual, including information in any files maintained to hire, evaluate, promote, or discipline any employee of a public agency.”
The Vermont Supreme Court has ruled that the term “personal documents is vague and potentially limitless.”
Court rulings indicate that the exemption must be interpreted narrowly. The law does not “exempt all personnel records, but only those ‘personal’ documents which reveal ‘intimate details of a person’s life, including any information that might subject the person to embarrassment, harassment, disgrace, or loss of employment or friends.’”
Both Donovan and Al Lama, the chief of staff of the National Association of Attorney Generals, said the review was a broad analysis of the office. No personnel or personal information was gathered, and neither the association, nor the Vermont Attorney General was targeting individuals.
The review was focused on “opportunities for improvement” in operations, processes and the performance of the Vermont Attorney General’s office more generally.
Nevertheless, the management review is off-limits to the public, Donovan said.
“To get this review and have it be worthwhile, we certainly relied on unfiltered, frankly full autonomy so we could get an honest assessment, and I certainly want to protect folks’ confidentiality about what they said to the management review team,” Donovan said.
Lama said the association hasn’t been asked by Donovan to put anything in writing. Reviews are typically conducted by a handful of lawyers from other attorney generals offices who volunteer to conduct interviews with staff. He declined further comment about the Vermont review.
“Oftentimes offices request written findings, often they don’t,” Lama said. “We also provide sometimes additional training as a result of the review, training staff on management principles. It varies, depending on the needs of the organization on and what the attorney general requests.”
In all, there are 2,000 pages of communications about the review, including thank you notes and scheduling emails, London said. The cost of employing attorneys with the AG’s office to redact the documents (blank out portions of the records) will be billed at a rate of 45 cents a minute for an average of 2 minutes per page. The pricetag? $1,516.50.
In his first six months in office, Donovan has delayed public records requests placed by VTDigger regarding the Coventry Town Clerk case over a six month period and his office has engaged in a court battle over Vermont EB-5 Regional Center records. In addition, the Vermont Attorney General’s office fought a request for public records kept on his predecessor Bill Sorrell’s private accounts in a case that is now before the Vermont Supreme Court. (VTDigger filed an amici brief with other news organizations in the case.)
Donovan insists he is trying to “improve services to Vermonters.”
“It’s not about hiding anything, it’s not about keeping things confidential,” Donovan said. “This is about providing the best service to Vermonters. And it’s going to be up to Vermont citizens whether they vote for me or not.”