MONTPELIER — Gov. Phil Scott and a top aide are directing administration officials and staff in the governor’s office to avoid fraternizing with lawmakers and lobbyists at restaurants and bars during the legislative session.
Chief of Staff Jason Gibbs said the “informal directive” was relayed to most people hired or appointed by the governor as Scott worked on putting his administration together.
“When folks are hired they’re encouraged to exercise great discretion, particularly as it relates to going out in Montpelier during the legislative session and participating in after-hours activities,” Gibbs told the Vermont Press Bureau.
Gibbs said he discussed the idea with the governor prior to Scott taking office last month and both agreed that staff and appointees should be directed to limit their after-hours interactions.
“It was a conversation that started between me and him about whether we wanted to provide some guidance to members of the team about the governor’s expectation for their participation in the after-hours scene associated with the legislative process,” Gibbs said.
Gibbs said the message sent to members of the Scott administration was simple — too much socializing with lawmakers and lobbyists could have a negative impact on the administration’s ability to govern.
“There’s a social element of the legislative session that doesn’t get a lot of attention that can be counter-productive to the priority of governing. That’s not to say that members of the cabinet, members of the administration, aren’t free to have private social lives. They are, of course, free, to have their own lives outside of work,” Gibbs said. “It’s just participating in the extra-curricular activities associated with the legislative session, to a great extent, can be counter-productive.
It appears the message was not delivered to all of the governor’s appointees. At least two department heads told the Vermont Press Bureau they did not receive the informal directive.
The social scene during the six-year administration of former Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin typically included high-level members of the administration. It was a common practice for members of the administration to socialize with both lawmakers and lobbyists after hours.
Gibbs declined to discuss how the Shumlin administration handled itself.
“We’re not going to comment on the practices of previous administrations, but we just wanted to set the right tone. Believe me, I’m all for going out with friends and enjoying fun social time. There’s nothing wrong with that. We just wanted to let our team know that there should be responsible limits to how much time they spend engaging in that activity,” he said. “It’s one thing to go out and have lunch or dinner or a cocktail with friends and family. It’s another to spend hours and hours and hours at a bar socializing with members of the Legislature.”
Gibbs also said he wanted staff and appointees to know they were not expected to fraternize at Montpelier-area establishments as part of their jobs.
One longtime lobbyist said the directive has largely gone unnoticed so far. But members of Scott’s administration were noticeably absent from a recent gathering hosted by Leonine Public Affairs, one of the state’s most prominent lobbying firms that was formerly known as KSE Partners.
According to the lobbyist, informal gatherings at bars and restaurants have helped lobbyists, lawmakers, administration officials and even media build relationships in the past that help them conduct business at the State House during the day. Having administration officials avoid such interactions could lead to an insular administration, the lobbyist said.
Another veteran lobbyist wondered if the policy would hurt the administration’s ability to gather useful information that would help them govern.
“Politics is all about people, engaging with one another,” said another veteran lobbyist. “When you say something like that to your staff you are diminishing your governor’s ability to get intelligence and understand things before they’re going to happen.”
Gibbs said the policy is based on one that was in place when he worked for former Republican Gov. Jim Douglas, who served before Shumlin.
Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe, D-Chittenden, said he has no issue with the governor asking staff to limit their off-time with lobbyists and lawmakers. Ashe said he has not instructed his fellow senators to follow a similar directive but would caution fellow members to use discretion when socializing.