Lawmakers gave the Vermont State Colleges retroactive approval to relinquish two radio licenses, closing a legal question about the public university system’s move to unload the stations.
Vermont’s Joint Fiscal Committee, which is made up of lawmakers from both chambers of the General Assembly, voted on Monday to approve the state colleges’ decision to divest itself of two campus radio stations. One, at the former Castleton University, was shut down in 2019. The other, at the former Northern Vermont University’s Lyndon campus, was sold to Vermont Public in the past year.
Castleton University and Northern Vermont University are now part of Vermont State University.
“The Vermont State Colleges’ campuses have had difficulty recently holding student interest in traditional broadcasting,” Patty Turley, the Vermont State Colleges’ general counsel, told lawmakers on Monday. “Students are more interested in streaming content over the internet.”
The colleges are also exploring a potential sale of Vermont State University’s Johnson campus radio station to another unidentified nonprofit organization, Turley told the committee.
“The plan is to likely sell the Johnson license,” she said.
Last December, the state colleges announced an agreement to sell the Lyndon campus license, which broadcast at WWLR 91.5, to Vermont Public for $80,000.
VTDigger reported in May that Vermont statute could complicate the sale. According to Vermont law, “no instrumentality of the state” could relinquish radio frequency spectrum without the approval of the Legislature or, when the General Assembly is not in session, the Joint Fiscal Committee.
That statute was repealed weeks later when Gov. Phil Scott signed Act 53, sprawling legislation that altered some of Vermont’s many boards and commissions.
But the law was still valid — and those approvals had not been granted — when the university system relinquished its licenses.
“To be candid, we were not aware of this law at the time of the sale of the Lyndon license sale nor the prior relinquishment of the Castleton license,” Sophie Zdatny, the chancellor of the state colleges system, wrote to the Joint Fiscal Committee last month.
Because of the now-repealed statute, the two previous divestments of radio licenses — as well as three separate leases of broadband spectrum, in 2007 — “suffered a procedural defect,” Maria Royle, an attorney at the Office of Legislative Counsel, wrote in a memo last month.
But, Royle noted, “the (Joint Fiscal Committee) has authority to retroactively approve all five contracts and thereby cure the procedural defects.”
On Monday, the Joint Fiscal Committee voted quickly and overwhelmingly to do so.
“It’s an unusual circumstance, no question about that,” said Sen. Jane Kitchel, D-Caledonia, the chair of the Joint Fiscal Committee.
Disclosure: VTDigger partners with Vermont Public to share a reporter.