It seemed like a good idea at the time.
In January, at the start of the legislative session, a group of VTDigger reporters and editors were discussing the ethics disclosure forms every member of the House and Senate would soon be required to file. Given how difficult they were for the public to access, we thought, why don’t we just build a database for our readers?
I’d participated in a similar endeavor years earlier while working at Seven Days — and evidently had forgotten how labor-intensive it actually was.
So we got started. And by “we,” I mean VTDigger’s extraordinary data reporter, Erin Petenko, who built the database and — with a team of hardworking and detail-oriented interns, Kate O’Farrell and Taylor Slonaker — started populating it.
The process was pretty convoluted. Because the Senate forms were only available in the Senate secretary’s office, reporter Sarah Mearhoff was charged with picking them up at the Statehouse and bringing them back to our Montpelier office. There, Petenko scanned and uploaded them, and the team began entering the handwritten answers into the database.
Penmanship and spelling were definitely a problem, according to Petenko. “There were some nasty ones,” she said. “There were some that misspelled Vermont, health, UVM.”
By late February, the database was nearly complete, and our reporters were well on their way to filing the stories that would become our “Full Disclosure” series. Then we hit a snag: In separate interviews, Mearhoff and fellow Statehouse scribe Lola Duffort realized that, while we had been focused on the House and Senate disclosure forms, we had neglected to consider a separate set of disclosures every candidate is required to file each election cycle.
We decided to expand the database to include those, and Petenko, O’Farrell and Slonaker got back to work — this time entering three pages worth of data for all 180 legislators. Weeks later, the database was finally complete, and this morning we made it live and published the first story in the Full Disclosure series.
You can’t blame us for missing the candidate disclosure forms. As Mearhoff reported in today’s story, they are “buried deep within the Secretary of State’s website, requiring a journey through a series of webpages that ultimately leads to a spreadsheet labeled simply, ‘2022 General Election Candidate Listing.’”
We’re not the only ones who struggled to locate the forms. Senate Secretary John Bloomer said Tuesday that he happened to go looking for them a couple weeks ago. “I tried to find the stuff on the Secretary of State’s website, and I could not find it,” he said.
Even Secretary of State Sarah Copeland Hanzas — who, to be fair, inherited the system when she took office three months ago — had a hard time tracking it down on her own website.
“It isn’t doing anyone any good if people can’t find this information,” she said. “And I was surprised by how many clicks it took to find this information.”
VTDigger’s reporting is already prompting state officials to commit to reform.
Copeland Hanzas said Tuesday that, at the very least, she plans to make the existing campaign disclosure forms easier to find and more accessible to voters. After that, she said, she expects to explore whether the state itself should create a database or portal for the public to peruse them — though such a project “will take some resources,” she said, and might be more appropriate for the State Ethics Commission to undertake.
“I think it’s great that you’re doing this,” she said of VTDigger’s work. “It’s a wonderful service to the public and also hopefully will spark a conversation about whether there are some things that should be done differently.”
Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Baruth, D/P-Chittenden Central, said he’s also ready for change.
“I can’t see any reason why we can’t put the (Senate) disclosure forms online,” he said, pledging to bring the matter to the Senate Rules Committee forthwith. “I’m going to work on doing it as efficiently as I can.”
Baruth, who advocated for establishing the Senate disclosure process when he was serving as majority leader in 2016, said he was also open to revisiting what questions are included in the Senate forms. Over the years, he said, some have suggested that senators disclose their spouses’ finances and details of their investments, as well as other information that might illuminate potential conflicts of interest.
“I think it’s fair to say, in part because of your reporting, we’ll be discussing this and trying to figure out if the way we’re doing it makes sense,” he said, adding that on Tuesday he had tasked the Senate Government Operations Committee with beginning that process.
But Baruth said there was one reform he was not contemplating: policing his colleagues to ensure they fill out the forms completely and accurately.
“I guess I would say that’s your job,” he said. “That’s why we have a vigorous and active free press.”
— Paul Heintz
IN THE KNOW
A tripartisan group of lawmakers in the lower chamber wrote to House Speaker Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington, on Tuesday to press for additional Act 250 exemptions in S.100, the Legislature’s omnibus housing bill.
A wide-ranging bill, S.100 primarily focuses on easing regulatory barriers to development. But debate has largely centered on Act 250 reform and whether the bill should tackle it alongside municipal zoning changes.
Thirty-three members of the House’s Rural Caucus asked Krowinski to insist on additional changes to the more than 50-year-old land-use law, and specifically its “10-5-5 rule,” which requires a developer to go through Act 250 review if they create 10 or more housing units in a 5-mile radius in a 5-year period.
The Senate-passed version temporarily ups the 10-unit threshold to 25 in designated downtowns, neighborhood development areas and growth centers. (This provision would sunset in 2026.) The rural caucus also wants to include village centers with permanent zoning and subdivision bylaws — and to exclude projects of four units or less from counting toward the 25-5-5 limit in any town with zoning.
Reactions inside the building were not exactly unexpected.
“We would oppose anything that just allows unlimited incremental development over an extended time without some review,” Brian Shupe of the Vermont Natural Resources Council told the House Environment and Energy Committee, which now has possession of the bill.
Moments later, Vermont Housing Commissioner Josh Hanford, who has consistently called for further Act 250 reform on behalf of the administration, urged the same lawmakers to consider the proposal.
While it may be wise to direct more development in certain areas, the ones included in the Senate bill only amount to 0.3% of the state’s landmass, he said.
“They were not designed to allow housing development. They were designed for commercial and civic corps to allow historic tax credits to fix up those buildings and other goals,” Hanford said. “It’s been used in practice as a proxy for places we agree are smart growth, but there simply is not enough area in those areas to adequately build the housing we need — let alone with an equity lens.”
We’ll see what happens on the floor.
— Lola Duffort
ON THE MOVE
Vermont is likely to become the first state in the country to make aid-in-dying medication available to people who have terminal illnesses but do not live in the state.
The state Senate gave preliminary approval to H.190 on Tuesday morning, following House approval of the bill in February. The legislation would remove the current requirement that only Vermont residents can be prescribed a lethal drug combination after following a multistep physician-assisted process.
A final vote is expected tomorrow after which the bill will be sent to Gov. Phil Scott, who told reporters at a press conference on Friday that he was “OK” with the change.
— Kristen Fountain
ON THE FIFTH FLOOR
Gov. Phil Scott has appointed Danielle “Danny” Fitzko to lead the Department of Forest, Parks and Recreation, which is responsible for the state’s forest resources, operating its state parks and supporting outdoor recreation.
Fitzko, who has worked at the department for 20 years, had been serving as interim commissioner since January, when then-commissioner Michael Snyder stepped down.
— Emma Cotton
ON THE HILL
Vermont’s U.S. senators, Peter Welch and Bernie Sanders — a Democrat and independent, respectively — have signed onto a letter along with colleagues from the House and Senate calling for an ethics investigation into U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
In the missive, sent to Chief Justice John Roberts on April 7, the bicameral group decried revelations uncovered in recent reporting by ProPublica, which found that Thomas and his wife, Virginia, have benefited from gifts, trips, accommodations and real estate transactions thanks to Harlan Crow, a billionaire Republican megadonor, for decades. According to ProPublica’s reporting, Thomas failed to disclose his activities with Crow, including trips on the billionaire’s private plane and superyacht, and a stay at Crow’s private resort in the Adirondacks.
The members of Congress implored Roberts to launch an ethics investigation into “these and other outstanding allegations of unethical, and potentially unlawful, conduct at the Supreme Court.”
“To date, the Court has barely acknowledged, much less investigated, these allegations,” the members said in their letter. “Amidst all of this — perhaps due in part to the Court’s inaction — the American people’s trust in the Supreme Court has plummeted to an all-time low.”
Welch sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee. In total, 22 House and Senate members signed the letter. Vermont’s sole U.S. Rep. Becca Balint, a Democrat, did not.
— Sarah Mearhoff
WHAT WE’RE READING
Legislators young and old talk generational politics and ageism (Community News Service)
Drug-checking gets new legislative life (VTDigger)