MIDDLEBURY — Forest Dale native Jason Gibbs has moved steadily up the state’s political ladder since graduating from Otter Valley Union High School in 1994.
The past decade saw him serve as Gov. James Douglas’s spokesman for six years before being named commissioner of the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation (FPR) in 2008. After serving an eventful 19-month stint as commissioner, Gibbs now hopes to climb another rung on the political ladder. He is in the midst in his first statewide campaign, competing for the post of Vermont Secretary of State.
Gibbs, 33, pledged he is ready for the rigors of a statewide campaign along with the challenge, if elected, of making what he believes are some needed changes in the secretary of state’s office. Those changes include making the office more streamlined and user-friendly for political candidates, businesses and residents in general.
“I do believe there is an opportunity in state government to make a transformation that I think intuitively the vast majority of Vermonters understand needs to take place,” Gibbs said.
The ingredients for transformation are fairly simple, according to Gibbs: “Flatten” the hierarchy of government so there is more of a direct line of communication between workers in the field and supervisors; think outside the box when it comes to getting tasks done, changing rules on the fly if necessary; and approach new ideas with the philosophy of “yes, if… ” rather than the more defeatist, “no, because…”
Gibbs said he used all of the above techniques as FPR commissioner in a manner that allowed the department to reduce its General Fund taxpayer-financed spending by more than 30 percent (around $2.2 million) during his 19-month tenure. During that time, FPR trimmed its 120-person workforce by 15 percent, mostly through attrition (with six actual layoffs). The department generated more of its own revenue by bumping its timber sales by 28 percent, attracting 10 percent more visits to state parks, and increasing on-line sales of FPR products by 18 percent.
Gibbs said he was get some concessions from lawmakers in return for the general fund savings his department produced. Those concessions included more job security for remaining FPR workers and greater flexibility — or “nimbleness,” as he called it — in rules that have historically handcuffed the department in making purchases and accommodating special events at parks.
“Just about every citizen I think understands that the ‘old’ model of operating government doesn’t meet the needs of the environment we’re in right now,” Gibbs said. “I feel like we are at a transformative point in history, in governance, where we could be constructing the framework for a public management system that lasts for many more generations.”
Gibbs said the secretary of state’s office has reached that “transformative point,” and he hopes to be in charge to oversee the transition. Among his ideas:
• Simplify and streamline the business registration process. He said the secretary of state’s Website leaves too many unanswered questions for businesses seeking information on topics ranging from Vermont’s workers’ compensation law to unemployment insurance. Consumers are instead given phone numbers to other state agencies to get answers, according to Gibbs.
“There ought to be, at a minimum, some level of cooperation between the (state government) entities in order to streamline that process,” Gibbs said.
• Increase communication between the office’s elections division and its business registration/corporate licensure functions. Gibbs said he got two different answers when he asked if had to register his campaign as a business.
“Their offices are on the same floor in the same building, and we got to completely different answers,” Gibbs said.
• Make the office more consumer friendly and transparent. For example, Gibbs said the office could send out e-mail notices to businesses warning them of impending license renewals. On the elections side, Gibbs said he favors posting “real-time” financial disclosure of campaign contributions online.
If Gibbs is to advance to the Nov. 2 General election, he will have to top Williston-based attorney Chris Roy in a GOP primary on Aug. 24. Middlesex Democrat Charles Merriman had also filed papers to run for secretary of state as the Addison Independent went to press on Friday.
“I fell like I have the energy, the expertise and the ideas to make a difference,” Gibbs said.
Reporter John Flowers is at firstname.lastname@example.org.