Contact – Ginny Colbert, 802-828-2148 May 28, 2009
By now everyone in Vermont knows someone who has been directly affected by the economic downturn. Maybe a relative has lost a job, or a friend cannot sell a house, or a local business is thinking about closing its doors. During times like these, we need to come together as a state. Whether we are running state government, working in local office, or as neighbors and friends, getting Vermont’s economy moving again must be an important priority. That is why the Secretary of State’s Office, working with the Vermont office of the United States Small Business Administration (SBA), and the Vermont Small Business Development Centers (VtSBDC), has kicked off an important new project, Community Business Connections.
There are a wealth of resources available to help new and existing businesses and Community Business Connections was developed to get this information to the people who need it most. Community Business Connections includes three components:
In each of our communities there are people who are losing their jobs and need to figure out what they’re going to do next. Starting a business may not be right for everyone, but if we all took a moment to reach out, I bet we would be surprised by the number of people in our communities who are ready to take the plunge. Find out more about how you can get involved in the Community Business Connections project by contacting us at 802-828-2148.
Contact: Ginny Colbert, 802-828-2148
Getting Value for our Tax Dollars
By Deb Markowitz, Secretary of State
As a mother of three, I always look for value. Whether buying groceries or car insurance, I want the best quality for my family at the lowest price. Every Vermonter does. In our family, we ask ourselves before we buy something if we “really” need it. I remind my kids that even a bargain is a bad deal if it turns out to be something we won’t use – like the time I bought ski boots on sale only to discover that they didn’t fit my bindings.
I believe this kind of common-sense thrift is something government should apply when spending taxpayers’ dollars. Especially during tough times, that means not just asking, “How much?” but making sure we’re asking for the right things, and then getting what we need.
Conservative commentator John McClaughry recently wrote for the Ethan Allen Institute that Vermont state government needs to undergo a performance review. He says that a performance review “requires time and money, but it produces rational plans for restructuring state programs to maximize efficiency in getting measurable results from taxpayer dollars.” I agree.
During hard economic times like these, we can’t afford to waste a dime on unnecessary or inefficient programs. We need to be clear about the mission of our agencies, re-evaluate those missions to make sure they still serve the needs of Vermonters, and then find the most efficient ways to accomplish our goals. This is not just a theoretical exercise. Successful businesses do it all the time. Agencies of government must be clear about their goals, focused on their customers’ needs (whether the general public or other government agencies) and be ready to respond efficiently and creatively to changing needs.
Last year my office took over responsibility for the public records division of state government, consolidating this department with the State Archives. We undertook a comprehensive and critical examination of all the programs of that division and discovered that tax dollars had been paying for a department that performed work that was obsolete. In our digital age, it is rarely necessary to microfilm records for storage or protection. By eliminating that department, we are saving the state hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, and we did it without compromising access to, and the maintenance and preservation of our government records.
It’s time that our state government finds more ways to provide better services more efficiently. Over the next few weeks, the legislature and governor will be looking for ways to solve our budget crisis. But they will miss the point if they think marked-down government is the answer.
Proposals to cut VPHARM (providing prescription drugs to low income seniors and people with disabilities), and cutting the jobs that ensure women who need it get screened for cancer may provide a short term financial fix, but this will surely cost the state more in the long run. To arbitrarily fire workers without regard to the mission of the agencies involved and without regard to whether the jobs are supported by the state’s general fund will neither help balance the budget nor serve our citizens. The answer is a better-run government that improves services, quality and efficiency. Vermonters know the difference.
If you have thoughts about what programs should be saved or how the state might save money by cutting or delivering services more efficiently, go to www.sec.state.vt.us and click on Contact the Secretary to let me know.
Contact: Ginny Colbert 802-828-2148
The Time for Marriage Equality is Now
By Deb Markowitz, Vermont Secretary of State
I was surprised and disappointed to see that Governor Jim Douglas has stated that he will veto the marriage equality bill that is now moving through the legislature. Vermont was a national leader when we adopted the civil union law in 2000. Since that time we learned that civil unions are not good enough.
My office was charged with assisting in the implementation of the civil union law. It was our job to train the clerks and justices of the peace and explain the law to the public. I was also asked to report back to the legislature on the success of its implementation. As I reported to the commission appointed to study marriage equality, “unlike a person who has been married in Vermont, a person who has obtained a civil union here leaves the state, and enters into a legal limbo that has meaningful consequences for the individuals and their families.”
For many families this is a very personal issue. In my family both my sister and my stepsister are in long term lesbian relationships. My sister and her partner have been together for 21 years. My stepsister and her partner have a beautiful daughter together. It is hard to explain to my children why Laura and Rachele do not have the same right to marry that Paul and I have. I love my sisters and want them to have every possible benefit in life – including the right to marry the people they love.
There is no question that these are difficult times for many Vermonters and that the legislature must, and will focus on getting Vermonters back to work and helping our struggling businesses. There is no question that the legislature must and will pass a tough and balanced budget and they will decide how best to use the federal stimulus money to create new jobs, to make our roads and bridges safer, to bring fast internet connections to our rural communities, and to help more Vermonters tighten up their home to save on energy costs.
By threatening to veto the pending legislation the governor has taken a step to further divide the state rather than using his unique position as governor to bring us together in recognition of our common interest to have stable loving families. It is divisive and will create a greater distraction.
I know firsthand that separate is not equal when it comes to this important civil right. The legislature is capable of addressing multiple issues, so the argument that there are more compelling problems facing the state is no excuse. Standing up for the rights of all Vermonters to join in marriage is the right thing to do.
Contact: Ginny Colbert
This Sunshine Week Read a Newspaper
By Deb Markowitz, Secretary of State
Since this is Sunshine Week, a celebration of making government open and transparent, let me start with a confession. This is not the column I thought I was going to write. Like other elected officials I wanted to add my voice to those who support open government. Indeed, it has been a priority of my office to support Vermont’s open meeting and public record laws in an effort to make government as transparent and accountable as possible; and we are developing a host of wonderful programs in the Secretary of State’s Archives and Record Administration to make government more accessible to Vermonters. I will write that column, and soon.
But today I was reading one of the local papers and saw an article whose headline read: “made-to-order magazine lets readers choose articles they’re interested in.” As I understand it, the magazine, called “Mine,” allows readers to select categories of stories they are interested in and then the “editors will pre-select the stories” for each issue based on those preferences. Readers cannot change their preferences, but will receive customized advertising. There will be a limited number of print versions of “Mine;” the rest will be available through online subscription services.
So, rather than become, at the moment, another politician expounding on what government transparency should be, I would like to pause and talk about the news media. In particular I would like to focus on the print media, and its importance to our ability to understand and engage with our government. There are many pressures on the local news media as it confronts the more dispersed world of digital communications. Even in Vermont we have seen dramatic cutbacks that have affected the ability of our local news media to cover what is happening in Montpelier and around the state. And while there are many innovations that promise a whole new world of instantaneous, interactive observations of our world and our politics, these innovations will not substitute for professional, in-depth reporting.
I confess that concepts like “Mine” magazine make me nervous. Our news media, particularly the press, have had a time honored role in peering into the recesses of government. As the person who is charged with overseeing our democracy I know first hand how important our news media is to ensuring that the public know and understand the issues facing the state and the nation. The joy of the local paper is that you can read a piece by a reporter who knows her way around government and has personal knowledge of politicians; who can provide context and challenge assumptions. A secondary joy of the press is serendipity, the chance encounter with a story that you would not normally have sought out but, for whatever reason, catches your eye and teaches you something you didn’t know or hadn’t thought about.
Magazines like “Mine” threaten that joy. If we have reached a stage that we only see pre-selected stories—things we know we want to know—we will become less informed, we will lose context, we will become participants in what observers call the “daily me” in which serendipity can no longer survive.
We also become ghettoized in our understanding of the world. We see it already with cable news. People watch the programs that will tell them what they already believe and what they want to know. They never get the full picture or are given an opportunity to challenge their own assumptions or see issues from a new perspective.
Indeed many of the new applications of technology to our right to know create more clouds than sunshine. Blogs can provide quick insights, but they can also become platforms for people who mistake opinion for fact; volume, for research.
Give me instead the experienced voice of Candy Page writing on Vermont environmental issues. Give me the thoughtful reflections of Emerson Lynn. Give me the insights, based on personal contacts with officials, of Nancy Remsen, Dave Gram and Louis Porter.
So this Sunshine Week let’s give pause and not simply celebrate our local papers, but support them as well.
Make A Difference At Your Town Meeting
On Town Meeting Day, the first Tuesday in March, citizens across Vermont come together in their communities to discuss the business of their towns. For over 200 years, Town Meeting Day has been an important political event as Vermonters elect local officers and vote on budgets. It has also been a time for neighbors to discuss the civic issues of their community, state, and nation.
While some of our towns vote all of their issues at a polling place (by Australian ballot), most of our communities still decide local issues and set municipal budgets at a meeting of the voters. The beauty of Vermont’s tradition of debating and voting on issues at a meeting of the voters is that every citizen can have a real impact on the direction and decisions of the town. But to be effective at Town Meeting, you must be prepared.
At the Secretary of State’s Office we have compiled a number of resources to help. Visit our Town Meeting Website http://www.sec.state.vt.us/TownMeeting/index.html or email firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 802-828-2148 to order our Citizen’s Guide to Town Meeting or our Moderator’s Handbook.
Here are some tips to help you get the most out of your town meeting.
1. Find out what will be decided at Town Meeting. Every town must publish and make available to voters a Town Report. The Town Report can tell you a good deal about what to expect at your town meeting. It includes the warning –the official agenda of the meeting. The warning is a list of the issues that will be discussed and acted on by the meeting. Reports from the town officers explain what has gone on in the town over the past year and may suggest what is planned for the future. Finally, a close look at the budget (what is proposed to be spent in the coming year) and the audit report (what was actually spent in the prior year) lets you assess whether the town is spending your money wisely and whether you agree with the priorities for the coming year.
2. Get to know the rules of procedure that will govern the meeting. In most of our towns, Town Meeting is run using Roberts Rules of Order. A good moderator helps ensure that the meeting is fair and that everyone who wishes gets an opportunity to speak; but if you take some time to understand Roberts Rules of Order beforehand it can make a real difference in your effectiveness. To help you navigate Roberts Rules, we have reprinted on our Town Meeting website a short publication by the Vermont Institute of Government: This Meeting Will Come to Order – A Voter’s Guide to Town Meeting Procedure. Of course, when you do speak it is important to keep your message direct and simple, and to avoid getting personal even in the event of a heated debate.
3. Find out who is who in town government. Before going to your town meeting it is good to take a minute to review who-is-who in town government. Town meeting is a good time for us to show our appreciation for those who work hard for us all year: the volunteers who serve on our boards and commissions, the folks who work in the town offices, our road crews and the people who manage our parks. There is no better way to make a difference in our communities than by saying thanks to those who serve – except perhaps by taking a turn in office yourself!
Town meeting may be a piece of our past, but it is still shaping our future. So, make a difference in your community and go to Town Meeting!
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