Lynn Editorial: Vt. Senate Hypocrisy

by Emerson Lynn , St. Albans Messenger, 5.11.18

If you ever wonder why women continue to struggle to be recognized for their accomplishments, and why they often fall prey to the political pettiness that dominates our lives, consider the case of retired Burlington attorney Karen O’Neill.

Ms. O’Neill was appointed by Gov. Phil Scott to the Vermont Labor Relations Board to fill out the term of retiring board member Gary Karnedy, one of two “neutral” positions on the six-member board. She took the position in the last moments of the contract negations between the administration and the Vermont Sate Employees Association.

She cast her vote with the “last best offer” put forth by the administration. And with that vote she became public enemy number one of the state employees union. Ms. O’Neill’s nomination to the board has to be confirmed by the Senate, and the journey this session began with the Senate Economic Development Committee. The committee is made up of four Democrats and a Republican and is chaired by Sen. Michael Sirotkin, D-Chittenden.

On Wednesday, the committee voted 4-1 against confirming Ms. O’Neill’s nomination.

Sen. Phil Baruth, D/P – Chittenden, one of the four voting against Ms. O’Neill, said the Democrats on the committee came to the same decision that the labor union did, which was that Ms. O’Neill could not be “neutral” as she approached her task. He said there was nothing political about the decision to oppose her candidacy.

That’s ridiculous. That doesn’t pass the straight face test and every member of that committee knows it. Labor opposed her. It has targeted her for defeat. The Democrats on the committee are labor supporters. It’s an election year. Figure it out.

It’s not complicated.

But that’s at least understandable, and, as such, is not as insidious as the underlying message the committee sent with its rejection.

Mr. Sirotkin, to illustrate the point, noted that Ms. O’Neill’s professional career was largely one of holding management positions, a practice he thinks should have disqualified her for being considered for a neutral seat on what he thinks should be a neutral board.

Ms. O’Neil has undoubtedly led a distinguished career. She was Vice President, General Counsel and Secretary at Vermont Electric Power Company [where she also oversaw the HR end of the business.] She worked for GMP, she practiced law at Gravel and Shea PC, she worked at the U.S. Department of Justice and served as an Assistant United States Attorney in the U.S. Attorneys Office for the District of Columbia.

In other words, she is smart, she’s been successful, and she’s highly experienced in labor law, qualities that should be seen as essential for the job.
Most important, however, is that her profile is almost a mirror image of the person whose “neutral” position she took, Mr. Karnedy.

Here’s Mr. Karnedy’s profile as outlined on the web site: Best Lawyers: “Gary concentrates his practice in the areas of commercial, regulatory, and administrative litigation, and employment law. He defends a variety of business clients in court, alternative dispute proceedings, as well as regulatory proceedings before agencies of the State of Vermont.” Mr. Karnedy is a member of the Primmer Pipe Eggleston & Cramer law firm. Among other things the law firm advertises itself as a “trusted advisor to businesses, institutions…, etc.”

Ms. O’Neill accepted the nomination knowing of the neutrality requirement; in fact, she accepted that understanding that according to statute no one would be disqualified for the “neutral” position on the board because of past management positions.

She examined the board’s history and saw that those who had held the neutral positions on the board also had extensive management experience and that their qualifications had never been challenged.

Which makes sense. It is hard enough to find people who want to serve on such boards, let alone people who are qualified. In a state the size of Vermont, that pool of talent is small and writing exclusive standards only narrows the selection that much further, which is why it’s rare that a governor’s appointment is challenged.
Ms. O’Neill had little reason to expect that her nomination would be treated differently. The only difference between Ms. O’Neill and the examples she relied upon is one of gender.

They were men.

What the committee has done is confirm that the gender bias is alive and lives within the committee.

This, of course, is something the committee would deny vehemently. Be that as it may, that is the impression that is left and the only conclusion any “neutral” observer could draw. Her experience is the same as the person’s experience she replaced, the rules for appointment haven’t changed. The difference is gender, reinforcing the old saw that a woman has to be twice as good at something just to be seen as equal.
That this discrimination is purposeful is not the charge. The offense is that the hypocrisy was never considered, the offense is that Ms. O’Neill very specifically raised this point, and that the double-standard was not even recognized by the committee.

Talk about gender blindness.

This is what makes it difficult to attract quality people to public service and why women might have little confidence that their qualifications are given the same consideration as men’s.

Let’s hope the full Senate opens its eyes and reconsiders Ms. O’Neill’s nomination.