Politics

Lawmakers debate the benefits and potential power of a Statehouse ‘CEO’

Rep. Janet Ancel, left, speaks at a meeting of the Joint Legislative Management Committee on Oct. 29. Speaker of the House Mitzi Johnson, right, looks on. Photo by Grace Elletson/VTDigger
Rep. Janet Ancel, left, speaks at a meeting of the Joint Legislative Management Committee on Oct. 29. Speaker of the House Mitzi Johnson, right, looks on. Photo by Grace Elletson/VTDigger

Discussions in the Joint Legislative Management Committee this week focused on whether an executive director of the Legislature, or a Statehouse “CEO,” would bring about better organization or introduce unnecessary bureaucratic burden. 

The recommendation came from the Legislative Branch Workforce Comparative Evaluation report, produced in March 2019 by the National Conference of State Legislatures. 

The report analyzed the organizational structure of Vermont’s Statehouse, and made suggestions about how it could be improved. It also made recommendations that the Legislature hire a human resources director and add more tech support.

The CEO position, which the report notes many other similar-sized state legislatures already have, would aim to create a more efficient, streamlined chain of command in the Statehouse. The executive would handle all personnel issues, prepare the General Assembly’s budget, handle staff planning and have the ability to hire and fire office directors. 

The legislative executive director for the Maine Statehouse is paid between $94,973 and $162,001. 

Because there is no current formal mechanism to address personnel issues in the Legislature, House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, said she has had to field complaints. She said this needs to be corrected. 

Johnson is hesitant, however, to endorse the creation of an executive director position, which she sees as “too big.” She’d rather create a supervisory post that takes on personnel responsibilities with less authority over other offices. 

Rep. Janet Ancel, D-Calais, who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee, said she is also concerned that an executive director position could become too dominant, given the responsibilities the report proposes it take on. It suggests that the executive director have the authority to hire the Chief Fiscal Officer and Sergeant-at-Arms, a position that lawmakers currently elect.

“I think we would see too much power concentrated in one place,” Ancel said.

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Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, chair of the Senate Institutions Committee, said that if an executive director is not the answer to the current organizational issues plaguing the Legislature, the committee should come up with an alternative. 

He said the committee has heard enough testimony from legislative staff that shows “turf wars” have formed in the Statehouse that need to be resolved with more administrative structure. 

“We’ve had testimony that there are problems and we can’t ignore them,” Benning said. “We have the opportunity to make corrections.” 

The committee’s recommendations on the NCSL report will be delivered to the Legislature sometime in December. 

Luke Martland, director and chief counsel for the Office of Legislative Council, speaks during a meeting at the Statehouse on Oct. 29. He criticized lawmakers for rushing when it passed a motion earlier this month making Information Technology an independent office.
Luke Martland, director and chief counsel for the Office of Legislative Council, speaks during a meeting at the Statehouse on Oct. 29. He criticized lawmakers for rushing when it passed a motion earlier this month making Information Technology an independent office. Photo by Grace Elletson/VTDigger

Luke Martland, director and chief counsel for the Office of Legislative Council, also testified before the committee Tuesday. The beginning of his testimony was held in executive session, during which members of the public and media had to leave the room. Johnson approved the executive session because sensitive personnel matters were discussed. 

Following the executive session, Martland concluded his testimony by criticizing the committee for passing a motion at its Oct. 17 meeting that made the Legislature’s IT department an independent office and changed Kevin Moore’s title from deputy director to director of information technology.

While Martland said he supports the change of Moore’s title, he disagreed with the way lawmakers on the committee passed the motion before securing full approval for the adjustment. He said he was concerned that because the committee rushed into the decision, Moore could lose the “promotion” that came with the change.

“You can’t promote someone and then three months later demote someone. What were you guys thinking?” Martland said. “Please don’t be rash. I think it’s a bad message to say ‘You’re promoted, you’re in charge. Oh it’s not permanent, we may reconsider.’ That’s not a way to treat people.” 

Moore said he supported the decision to make IT an independent office and that he had no comment on Martland’s criticism of the committee. The title change did not come with more responsibilities or a pay adjustment. 

Johnson said Martland’s criticisms were valid. The committee made the motion swiftly because it was unanimously supported by every staff member who testified about the change, she said. The motion allows the changes to go into effect immediately. Final approval is authorized in the budget adjustment bill, which will be taken up in January.

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Grace Elletson

About Grace

Grace Elletson is VTDigger's government accountability reporter, covering politics, state agencies and the Legislature. She is part of the BOLD Women's Leadership Network and a recent graduate of Ithaca College, where she was editor in chief of the Ithacan. She previously interned for the Chronicle of Higher Education, The Christian Science Monitor and The Cape Cod Times, her hometown newspaper.

Email: [email protected]

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