A Governor who listens is a step up from one who doesn’t

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When Governor Phil Scott started his Capitol for a Day thing, where he and his Cabinet members spend a day touring a particular county, we weren’t all that impressed.  It had the smell of campaigning on the taxpayer’s dollar.

Maybe we’re a suspicious lot when it comes to politicians.

This time around we have a better opinion.  They visited two schools, several businesses, a childcare center, breweries, nonprofits, and more.

Among other things, the Governor and three Cabinet members — Administration, Education, and Finance and Regulation — spent over an hour in our office that day talking, and listening.

It’s the listening part that matters most, though it was useful to have a handful of captive government officials to question rather than having to go through the usual runaround — no you can’t talk to her or him, you have to talk to the press secretary, blah blah.

Rebecca Holcombe, once Education Secretary, now running for Governor, may have many virtues, but accessibility wasn’t one of them when she was Education Secretary.  We recall trying to talk to her during the Act 46 debate and running up against an assistant who was aghast that we thought we could just call and ask a question.  For that, we were told, reporters needed a pre-arranged appointment. 

Oh my goodness.  When did Vermont officials begin to think of themselves as that precious?  Until Peter Shumlin we were able to just give a call to the Governor himself.  And, to be fair, they’re not all like that — we have the cell phone numbers of some Cabinet members.

Shumlin, as Governor, didn’t set foot north of Montpelier except for an EB5 project ribbon-cutting, and we all know how that played out.  It wasn’t a complete disaster — a lot of things did get built.  But Newport was left with a big hole on Main Street, everyone was left with seriously dashed hopes, a sense of betrayal, and the biggest fraud case in Vermont history.

We told this Governor that we appreciate the fact that he recognizes the Northeast Kingdom is part of Vermont, and we asked him why he does these daylong tours.  What’s the point? 

Two things, he said.  One is that, sometimes government on the ground can actually solve a problem.  For instance, he recalled an Essex County man on a visit to that county who was frantic about his lack of a permit.  Turned out the permit had been issued; the man simply wasn’t aware of it for whatever failure of bureaucracy.  The next day he was in business, the Governor said.

But, he added, the main point is to listen, to see and hear what troubles people in every part of Vermont.  An isolated government can’t govern well. 

A Governor might get out and wander the state in the interests of being re-elected, but we’re going to give Phil Scott some credit here, remembering that, as Lieutenant Governor, he did much the same thing — going out now and then to spend a day learning someone else’s job.  Even though, at the time, he was balking under pressure to run for higher office.   He actually appears to like this hands on stuff. 

More important, maybe, is that he drags his Cabinet with him.  Politicians have a political reason to visit daycares and plywood plants.  Political appointees don’t, so it’s refreshing to see them hauled out into the real world, too.

Prior to his visit, we asked you what issues you’re concerned about.  There was a variety:  Transportation, mental health facilities, the landfill, substance abuse, roads, schools, emergency services. 

We wish we could report that Governor Scott, or his Cabinet, have come up with solutions for all those problems. But they haven’t.  Some, like opioid use and all the associated issues are a work in progress.  Some depend on money Vermont doesn’t have. 

We took up the eternal problem of urban Vermont passing well intentioned laws that simply don’t play out well in the Northeast Kingdom.  Recycling, for instance.  What genius decided that the way to get people to recycle was that trash haulers would do a double route and pick up recycling for free?  If you’re in Chittenden County, and your route is five miles long, that might work.  But no one with any sense will say that traveling 50 miles to pick up recycling for free is a sustainable business model.

“There are two Vermonts,” the Governor said. 

Chittenden County is okay, he said, could be doing better.  But rural Vermont is doing worse.  The whole state has gone from lack of jobs to lack of employees.  And traditional rural industries, like dairy, are floundering.

The Governor and his Cabinet members weren’t evasive, and didn’t shuttle questions aside.  But it would have taken an hour or more to hash out any one of the problems rural Vermont faces. 

We’re not endorsing Phil Scott for Governor here (he wouldn’t tell us if he’s running again, saying he thinks people are sick of politicking, particularly in view of the national election, and he’d rather talk about concrete problems, and he’s got some things he’d like to do).

We do think a Governor who makes it a point to get out to every corner of Vermont, and drags his Cabinet with him, to at least hear what’s on people’s minds, is a step up from a Governor who doesn’t, however meager that praise might be. 

We wish urban legislators would also take that step.  Staying in one’s personal bubble with those who share a worldview and similar life circumstances is a bad recipe for government.  — T.S. 

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