MONTPELIER — Lawmakers this week have been responding to new security protocols being implemented to protect their safety.
The new measures follow high-profile events over the last year that prompted protections on the addresses, email and home and cell phone numbers of lawmakers previously posted on their official legislative website pages.
The action began with removing information for House representatives. Senate lawmakers will have to request changes to their website page information.
The changes in security protections followed racial comments and threats of violence against former Rep. Kiah Morris, a Bennington Democrat and the only black member of the House. She did not seek re-election in November as a result.
There also were threats made towar Republican Gov. Phil Scott and other legislators who voted for new gun laws in the wake of a failed school shooting in Fair Haven in February.
The action taken on behalf of House members includes substituting the Sergeant-at-Arms telephone number where messages can be left for them. Personal email addresses were also taken down, but constituents and others can still contact House members through their official legislative email address. It has raised concerns about the reducing the access of constituents to their representatives versus their safety.
The action caught many lawmakers by surprise and some this week said they would request to have personal information restored to their legislative website pages.
House members received an email Friday from House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, noting that the action was taken in consultation with Sergeant-at-Arms Janet Miller, Capitol Police Chief Matthew Romei and IT Director Kevin Moore.
“We have seen an increasing number of threatening behaviors and phone calls,” Johnson wrote. “The fresh start of the new biennium, especially with the large turnover of members, was a good point to look at alternatives that allow Vermonters the kind of access we pride ourselves upon, with a balance of safety for members who choose to use those options.”
Johnson also said lawmakers could still publish personal or private contact information, if they chose to do so. Lawmakers could also opt to pay for a post office box to receive mail, rather than at their home address, Johnson said. Legislators will also be provided with a 10-digit telephone that could receive message or have calls forwarded to their cell or home phones.
“Given the times in which we serve, I believe it is responsible to offer options for colleagues who wish to be less public about personal contact information for themselves and their families,” Johnson said.
“I sincerely apologize for not getting this note and explanation out to you all sooner and am happy to talk with you about any concerns or ideas you may have,” Johnson added.
Legislators contacted by The Times Argus this week had a range of opinions about the new safety protocols. Some recognized the need for safeguards while many others said they would remain accessible to the public and would still publish their personal information.
“For now, my phone number is in the phone book, so I don’t see much sense in removing it from the website,” said Democratic Sen. Anne Cummings. “I do understand the concern of those who are charged with protecting us. The best way to do it is to limit our exposure to risk.”
Newly elected Democratic Sen. Andrew Perchlik said he believed legislators’ emails should be up on the website and a phone number, although, it didn’t have to be their personal cell phone, where messages can be left.
“Constituents need an easy, central location where they can find contact info for legislators” he said.
Montpelier Democrat Warren Kitzmiller said he was appalled by some of the events that led to the security changes, but added that his information was widely available.
“Having said that, I understand that others are perhaps more concerned than I and looking at what happened to Kiah Morris down in Bennington and the incredible harassment that she and her family had to endure,” Kitzmiller said. “That’s just shameful. So, I’m not opposed to these measures; I just personally don’t feel the necessity.”
Rep. Peter Anthony, D-Barre, said the revised protocols to not publish legislators’ private information was welcome, but added that the possibility of a problem could never be completely avoided by public figures.
Rep. Rob LaClair, R-Barre Town, noted that legislators were not consulted before the security changes were enacted.
“I understand there are some folks that are a little concerned about it, but I want to share that I have never had any concerns or issues, so I want to see what I can do to get that info put back up so people can contact me,” LaClair said.
“I understand the reasons for the newly-announced security measures, but question their practicality and effectiveness,” said Rep. Tommy Walz, D-Barre. “I am OK with not publishing my home address on the legislative website bio, but would prefer to leave in an email address and phone number to make it easier for constituents to contact me. I will continue to make my email and phone info available to the public.”
Rep. Janet Ancel, D-Calais, said she could make a judgment about whether the changes were needed.
“I have not been a target or had any threatening calls,” Ansel said, but welcome the option to opt out of posting private information. “I also have a concern that it will be another barrier between legislators and the people they represent.”
Kimberly Jessup, D-Washington-5 added: “I’m aware of the challenges around security and am confident that we’ll find a way to balance access and security in a small state like Vermont.”