Sue Blair is keenly aware of the impact she has on Vermonters’ lives.
As director of the Vermont Parole Board, Blair supervises operations of the group that regularly decides which offenders will remain behind bars and which earn another chance at life outside.
“It definitely isn’t truly black and white,” Blair said. “The key in any corrections involvement or for the parole board: You’ve got to see gray.”
Blair’s four-year appointment to the directorship is one of more than 150 to various state commissions announced by Gov. Phil Scott earlier this month. Among those tapped to advise the state in everything from livestock care to workforce development are six Colchester residents, Blair included.
Blair has worked in corrections longer than she’s lived in town, though – 33 years compared to 16. She started as a corrections officer and eventually became superintendent of two Vermont prisons before retiring from the latter role in 2007.
She stayed involved, earning her first appointment to the parole board later that year. For five years she sat as a member, considering offenders’ eligibility for parole.
When the director stepped down, Blair stepped up, foregoing retirement to re-enter the field in a new full-time position.
“I figured this would be a little different spin on how you’re dealing with offenders,” she said.
It was, and Blair recalled a year of negotiating the learning curve. That involved keeping an open mind and understanding the methodology board members use to determine a parolee’s risk level.
That tool, called a risk instrument, is scientifically validated and invaluable to members faced with supremely personal – and difficult – decisions.
“It’s really easy to get caught up into the gut and the heart,” Blair said. “You’ve got to use some science.”
This considers an offender’s “static” factors – unchanging elements like criminal record, employment history and past drug and alcohol use – and “dynamic” factors like level of education, relationship status and behavior in prison.
The instrument determines low, medium or high risk. The board paroles offenders at all three levels, Blair explained.
A massive barrier to effective parole is substance abuse, a factor in most cases.
“Keeping people in jail because they’ve got a drug problem isn’t the answer,” Blair said, bemoaning a lack of sober houses and long-term treatment facilities in Vermont.
It’s hard to preside over violations and even harder to send someone back to jail, she said, “but sometimes it takes a while for someone to hit rock bottom, and sometimes people hit rock bottom more than once.”
There are good days, though, that make the job rewarding, like one recent hearing for a young woman who struggled with substance abuse. Blair recognized her from her time working in the prison.
When she recently came before the board, “she just looked so good,” Blair recalled, a smile growing. “That young woman turned her life around … you can see in her just the pure happiness, and those are the cases – you want the best for people.”
At her core, Blair believes “people deserve a chance,” she said, and she’s proud of the board’s ability to measure that belief against risk assessments, resulting in “good, sound decisions.” In 2015, DOC data shows, the board paroled 1,072 people, a 5.2 percent increase over the prior year.
“I don’t think the board has ever made a decision that they can’t stand by,” Blair said.
‘IT’S OUR VERMONT BRAND’
After eight years on the Livestock Care Standards Advisory Council, Dr. Ruth Blauwiekel thought she was done.
“I offered to step down, but I just got my letter of reappointment,” the university veterinarian at UVM said. “I guess they want me to stay on.”
Blauwiekel’s first appointment occurred with the six-member council’s formation in 2009 after reported animal welfare issues at a local slaughterhouse.
Membership includes representatives of food safety and regulation, beef industry, slaughter, livestock auction, a state college’s agricultural department and a licensed livestock veterinarian.
The dean of UVM’s College of Agriculture tapped Blauwiekel to serve, but she also brings a few decades of experience in the dairy industry and medical research as a vet.
The council meets quarterly and has previously advised the state on proposed legislation – essentially anything relating to cattle, Blauwiekel said.
More recently, the council developed materials about the humane transport of livestock in Spanish, an effort to reach the many Vermont farm workers who hail from non-English speaking countries.
The council has yet to decide on its next project, but Blauwiekel said the group will meet in November and again before the legislative session begins.
“I’m kind of proud and happy [to be part of it],” she said. “It’s our Vermont brand – we want to be known as a place where people do things correctly and keep animal welfare at the forefront of that.”
VOICE FOR CONSUMERS
Gerald Doody and Sherrie Brunelle were each named to three-year terms on the State Rehabilitation Council for the Blind and Visually Impaired, a 37-year old commission that advises the state division of the same name.
Brunelle, a paralegal with the Disability Law Project at Vermont Legal Aid, represents the Client Assistance Program on the council, which is federally mandated.
Brunelle serves in the same capacity for the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation.
“We’re the consumer’s voice,” Brunelle said. “We’re bringing a consumer’s perspective to the table, and we are making sure that both entities are complying with the federal law.”
Brunelle was a nurse for 15 years before advocating for her own children with disabilities prompted a career change. She’s been in her current job for nearly 30 years, and she often draws on her own experience – both with her children and her late husband – when helping clients access services.
She would likely serve on the same councils no matter what her job, but “it just happens to be part of my work now,” she said.
Maintaining necessary funding is a perennial challenge, Brunelle said, and she hopes to help the state update its policies and procedures to comply with federal law and include a consumer perspective.
“I’m speaking for adults with disabilities who want to work, who want to be able to work,” she said.
Colchester’s Kiersten Bourgeois is part of a more recent effort in the State Workforce Investment Board.
Established to advise the state on the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act of 2014, the robust board counts among its members private and public sector representatives.
Bourgeois, who works as business development and communications manager at the St. Albans Cooperative Creamery, said that diverse membership offers insight into how other companies handle challenges in workforce development.
David Coates rounds out Colchester’s representation in the latest round of state appointments with a two-year term on the Vermont Municipal Bond Bank.
Established by state law in 1969, the bank uses funds, borrows money, issues bonds and enforces rules of conduct.
To that end, Coates brings experience as a former managing partner of KPMG’s Burlington office. Coates has also served on boards for Green Mountain Power, Vermont Electric Power Company, Vermont Student Assistance Corporation, National Life and A.N. Derringer, Inc. and is a member of the governor’s Council of Economic Advisors.