Vermont sergeant-at-arms ousted over inauguration protests
MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) — Vermont lawmakers ousted the Statehouse’s sergeant-at-arms on Thursday after he came under fire for the handling of a protest that disrupted the governor’s inauguration in January.
Statehouse Deputy Operations Director Janet Miller defeated four-term incumbent Francis Brooks, who had served in the House, including a stint as majority leader, before moving to the post responsible for overseeing security and other logistical aspects of Statehouse operations.
Brooks stood at the back of the hall during a joint session of the House and Senate, listening as the 128-47 vote in Miller’s favor was announced.
After Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, the presiding officer, thanked Brooks for his service, the lawmakers who had just voted resoundingly to fire him gave him a standing ovation. Brooks then left the chamber quickly and left the building, his staff said.
Gov. Peter Shumlin’s inauguration ceremony last month was briefly interrupted by protesters seeking a single-payer health care system. Shumlin backed away from pushing for such a health care system in December. Protesters’ singing could be heard in the House chamber as the ceremony progressed. Some of the protesters moved into the House chamber after Shumlin completed his inaugural address as a prayer was being said.
It was a stunning downfall for Brooks, 71, a former Montpelier High School chemistry teacher who held one of the city’s two seats in the House for more two decades, including a stint as Vermont’s first African-American majority leader. He was elected sergeant-at-arms in 2007.
Brooks said in an interview he had never been told there was a problem with how he handled security or accommodated lawmakers’ complaints about parking and other logistical concerns.
“I was not told there was a disappointment or a problem” with his oversight of the response to the inaugural demonstration. “If parking was one of the extenuating circumstances ... well, everybody wanted to park inside the door.” He added: “I was unable to defend myself. If people were unhappy, I don’t know who the people were.”
Lawmakers were reluctant to criticize Brooks on Thursday.
“Francis did a lot of good work in this building,” Rep. Alice Emmons, D-Springfield, who nominated Miller to replace Brooks, said in an interview. “I have a lot of respect for Francis. It’s a sad day.”
As deputy director of operations, Miller has handled legislative payroll and managed other nuts-and-bolts logistics for lawmakers. “Janet is the go-to person for us,” Emmons said. “She’s very welcoming and helpful.”
Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, chairwoman of the Senate Operations Committee, said of Brooks, “I think people had begun to feel that he wasn’t as accommodating to the public and helpful in running the Statehouse as he could have been.”
Speaking with reporters after her election to the $64,500-per-year post, Miller offered few definitive answers as to how she would handle Statehouse security or other logistical matters in the capitol.
“I don’t have specific agendas because I don’t have all the facts yet,” Miller said. “So now that I have the job, I’m going to be looking at all things and talking to the joint committees and figuring out what we need to do, what might be lacking, and what are our strengths. I hope to do a good job.”
Lawmakers hold a joint session in odd-numbered years to elect a sergeant-at-arms, adjutant general of the state National Guard and three lawmakers to join six others serving six-year terms on the UVM board.