Committee confirms Laroche, 4-2 vote

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(Host) A key Senate committee has approved Governor Jim Douglas’ choice for fish and wildlife commissioner. But the Senate Natural Resources Committee was divided over the nomination of Wayne LaRoche. Some senators questioned LaRoche over his recent strong criticism of environmentalists and their role in Vermont’s Champion land deal.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) Wayne LaRoche was the most controversial of Governor Jim Douglas’ nominees. Senators say they’ve received more mail on LaRoche than any other nominee in recent history. And when LaRoche came before the Senate Natural Resources committee, about 85 people packed into the hearing room.

LaRoche, who lives in Franklin, is a fisheries biologist who has worked as a consultant for the Vermont ski industry on snowmaking cases.

But it was not LaRoche’s scientific credentials that concerned the Senate Natural Resources Committee. Instead, some senators wanted to know why his nomination had become such a polarizing issue. LaRoche tried to reassure the panel that he could work with all sides.

(LaRoche) “If there are individuals that feel that they have a problem with me, then it’s very simple. You come and see me, you sit down with me, you say, ‘Here’s the problem that I see.’ And I’m going to either say, here’s the reason why that’s not true, or yes that is my position and I am sorry that we disagree. Or maybe we can compromise in some way.”

(Dillon) Hanging over LaRoche’s nomination was last year’s contentious debate over the Champion lands in the Northeast Kingdom. In a newspaper column published shortly before he was nominated, LaRoche sided with Champion opponents. Although the public is allowed on all the land, the opponents believe the state was wrong to set aside a 10,500 acre parcel that’s off limits to logging.

LaRoche said in the article, “broken promises and backroom deals” were associated with the Champion issue. He also referred to ‘so-called environmentalists’ who want to create wilderness areas at any costs. In his interview before the committee, LaRoche said his choice of words was tactical and deliberate. But he says he’s now on the inside, and will choose different ways to make his arguments.

(LaRoche) “I can use tactics and I think I can use tactics depending on my position. My position has now changed and I’m not sitting back there any more, I’m sitting up here. I’m the fish and wildlife commissioner of the state of Vermont. I have to choose my tactics carefully and appropriate to the situation.”

(Dillon) Orange County Senator Mark MacDonald says LaRoche seems to have two sides to him. He described LaRoche as both a mild-mannered scientist and a warrior on the issues. MacDonald told LaRoche that scientists deal in data, and don’t plot out political tactics.

But MacDonald also joined the majority in voting to confirm LaRoche. MacDonald said he’s voting for the scientist, and will leave the warrior for the administration to deal with. Caledonia Senator Julius Canns agreed that Governor Douglas should have the commissioner he wants. Canns said LaRoche was well qualified for the job:

(Canns) “In this case, I think he tried to be very honest and sincere and that he is not exactly a different person. And his philosophies will change according to what the public demands of him. And I think with that we ought to give the governor his chance to put his pick on the table and give him the opportunity. Certainly, he doesn’t have to keep him if he does find that he does throw bombs. And I’m sure he won’t, because the governor won’t put up with it.”

(Dillon) In the end, the committee voted 4-2 to approve LaRoche’s nomination. Chittenden County Senators Ginny Lyons and Barbara Snelling cast votes against the nominee.

Senator Lyons, who chairs the committee, said the department needs someone who can ease the tensions and build consensus. She wasn’t sure if LaRoche is the right person for the job. The nomination now goes to the full Senate.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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