Rep. Ashley Bartley is a freshman legislator representing Georgia and Fairfax who probably thought her appointment to the House Committee on General, Housing, and Military Affairs was a plum assignment. Vermonters have identified the lack of housing as their number one concern. She would be in a front-line position to help guide a meaningful response.
Little did she know how accurate Otto von Bismarck was when he said, “Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made.”
In a letter to the editor on Page 8, Ms. Bartley articulates just how ugly the process is, and how, as a newly elected legislator, she felt not only disappointment, but immense frustration in not being allowed to represent her constituents.
Her committee had been given two days to consider S. 100, the 62-page housing bill passed by the Senate; not enough time by anyone’s standards. Despite the time squeeze, Rep. Caleb Elder, D-Starksboro, had an amendment that would propose three Act 250 exemptions, one of which had enough support from the committee to pass. Ms. Bartley was at least pleased her committee would be able to consider amendments she thought were valuable to protect its work and to actually be effective.
The amendments were important because, as Ms. Bartley points out, the House Energy and Environment Committee [like the Natural Resources committee in the Senate] is considered hostile to any and all Act 250 reforms. Her committee’s work was perhaps the only chance to broaden the bill and incorporate some meaningful regulatory reform.
Ms. Bartley called for a vote on Mr. Elder’s amendment and it was seconded. But before the vote was called, the committee’s chair called for an immediate recess and met behind closed doors with the House leadership. When the committee’s chair, Rep. Tom Stevens, D-Waterbury, returned, he told the committee there would be no vote on the Act 250 reforms, and he adjourned the meeting.
Why, is abundantly clear. The House would follow the Senate’s example and not countenance any change in Act 250 housing regulations. That was the House leadership’s edict. The committee’s role was essentially eliminated.
Ms. Bartley, a Republican, was upset. So were other committee members, including Democrats. As Ms. Bartley wrote: “I was not elected to rubber-stamp the viewpoints or political postures of the Majority Party. It is clear the process is broken. Status quo can no longer be an excuse. All of us in Montpelier worked hard to campaign for a seat at the table. We have rules that clearly outline the process. But despite this, the process was changed at the eleventh hour and meaningful progress on the housing crisis took a major step backwards.”
It’s good Ms. Bartley registered her opinion. Few do. More should. Being denied the opportunity to openly and fully debate an issue, which includes voting, is central to the democratic process. It’s not always friction-free, but it’s the process. It’s why people like Ms. Bartley chose to run for office in the first place.
It’s been noted that parliamentary moves like Ms. Bartley experienced are not unusual and that she will become used to it the longer she’s there. But why get used to something that’s not only wrong, but disrespectful? Why become numb to leadership that rids legislators of their voice?
For the newly elected in particular, this borders on the emotional, as was expressed by Rep. Saudia LaMont, D-Morristown, also on the committee with Ms. Bartley, who said: “I thought as an elected official that I was here to serve people in a way that was going to do things, and I didn’t realize how splintered it was. So I guess this is the job, is what I’m being told,” she said. “This is what it is. And this is how it’s been done. And that was unbeknownst to me. It makes sense now that our country and our nation and our state and our systems are the way they are and that so many people are underserved.”
So not only is the House set to pass a housing bill that will not address the state’s housing needs, it will do so putting our “broken” process on full display, introducing freshmen legislators to a power politics approach that not only reduces transparency but alienates the public from its elected officials.
As the Legislature entertains the proposal to double our legislators’ pay, perhaps it would be best for the leadership to start the conversation with a sense of respect, and openness to new ideas and to parliamentary procedures that guarantee that everyone’s voices are heard.
By Emerson Lynn
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