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January 16, 2012

Shumlin Halts Hiring of State "Spin Doctors"

DSC01412When Gov. Peter Shumlin took office, he pledged to eliminate all the "communications" people from state agencies. He ended up hiring two press secretaries for his own office and gave new titles to some of the communications directors appointed by his predecessor. But the agencies have largely remained free of new flacks.

So it was surprising to find two employment ads in the Seven Days classified section this week looking for a "communications coordinator" at the Agency of Natural Resources and a "director of communications" at Department of Tourism and Marketing.

In addition, the Green Mountain Care Board, the panel devising the governor's universal health care plan, has set aside $50,000 to hire a public relations firm to "build public confidence in our process and decisions," "inform the public of actions of the GMBC" and "develop and communicate a GMCB identity distinct from the State agencies and Legislature."

Seven Days asked the Shumlin administration about the seemingly contradictory policy over the weekend and got a swift response from Secretary of Administration Jeb Spaulding.

"I'd say the governor was about as angry and frustrated as I've heard him at the end of the week, first over the PR firm, then when I told him about the positions being advertised, which neither of us were aware of," Spaulding said by telephone Sunday. "He's made it clear individually and through me to the cabinet on multiple occasions that he does not want PR spin doctor communicator positions in state government."

Spaulding said the gov ordered "the immediate and full stop" to the two agency job postings so they could be reviewed, and urged the Green Mountain Care Board to shelve its public bid for PR assistance.

Communications jobs in state government have been controversial for years. Shumlin's predecessor, former Republican governor Jim Douglas, appointed a host of press secretaries to various state agencies
at a collective price tag of around $400,000.

The employment ad for ANR states the agency is looking for "a communications coordinator to assist the Secretary and the Assistant to the Secretary in developing and coordinating agency communications with stakeholders, legislators, the media and the public. Duties will include reviewing the agency website to ensure that information is current, drafting and sending out press communications, and helping to coordinate public communication efforts of the various departments."

In addition to that, the employment ad states, the communications coordinator would assist in reviewing and tracking legislation and communicating with legislative staff. The posting on the state's website said the job would pay $18.52 an hour, or around $38,521 annually, and is a "classified" position, meaning it falls under a union contract. 

The Tourism and Marketing job, by contrast, is an "exempt" position — a political appointment. In the ad, it was described as a "mission-critical" position designed to "generate positive tourism-related coverage of Vermont in the national and international marketplace." Job duties also include business outreach and managing the department's social media. The salary was advertised as $45,000 to $50,000. The opening was apparently created by the recent departure of Tourism and Marketing communications director Erica Housekeeper.

Spaulding said he asked the Department of Human Resources to pull both ads.

"[The governor has] had a long-standing aversion to state taxpayer dollars being spent on PR for state government. He's not going to tolerate it," Spaulding said. "Having said that, when I looked at the one that's advertised for Tourism and Marketing, certainly there's a need for marketing professional to promote travel and tourism or farmers' markets or cultural opportunities or what have you. And there will be some departments like Emergency Management, where they have an education outreach need. And I think when we do the analysis, it may be the case where travel and tourism does need some kind of a marketing person to sell Vermont. But for the moment, he was angry and frustrated and directed me to make sure we put a full stop filling the positions and hiring the PR firm."

Spaulding said the governor's "senior staff let the Green Mountain Care Board know they should not go forward" with hiring the PR firm. However, he adds, "The Green Mountain Care Board is meant to be quasi-independent but he really let them know that he wants that to stop, too. So I would expect it would."

Spaulding could not say who authorized the job postings (stay tuned for that tidbit) but said he intended to find out and remind the cabinet that such jobs should not be advertised or filled.

"This is hopefully a teachable moment for secretaries and commissioners," Spaulding said.

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