Ethics commission has role to play

Our Senate bill is only a start, but we will learn from its first steps

PUTNEY — The issue of ethics and the lack of an ethics commission has been of great interest over the last year or so to the media.

How many Vermonters are passionate about the issue is not clear, but we in the Senate have taken the issue seriously and have just passed a bill out of the Government Operations Committee that will come to the floor of the Senate sometime this week.

While at first blush it seems pretty straightforward to set up a code of ethics and an ethics commission, once we got into it, it was not so straightforward.

Here are some of the issues that were raised:

• Our Vermont Constitution specifies that the House will regulate House members and the Senate will regulate senators. So farming that role out to an ethics commission immediately raised issues; other states do not necessarily establish that relationship in their respective constitutions.

• Aside from the issue of legislators, establishing a code of ethics for state employees means four types of employees: elected statewide officials, who are answerable to the voters; governor appointees, who are answerable to the governor; exempt employees, mainly attorneys; and classified employees, who also have contractual rights.

• The original bill called for an ethics commission, which would have cost in the range of $600,000 to 750,000. We felt that level of spending was uncalled for in these tight budgetary times.

So we looked at many other states and their commissions and whether their policies actually resulted in decreasing any unethical actions.

New Jersey was used as a model by one proponent. Rhode Island has a commission. Florida, too, has one. But we did not see that their respective legislatures had necessarily changed behaviors.

* * *

So what does this Senate bill do?

In terms of behaviors, it mainly enacts three measures:

1) The bill asks the Department of Human Resources to work with others to establish language that could apply to all.

2) It prohibits what is called the revolving door: lobbying by legislators or appointed state officers immediately after they leave office.

3) And it requires certain disclosures by candidates for statewide and general assembly offices, and all statewide appointees. It would require disclosure of income sources (not amounts) totalling more than $10,000, contracts with the state greater than $10,000, and a list of the boards/commissions/associations on which the candidate serves.

* * *

The disclosure element of the bill is one of the reasons it has taken so long to get out of committee. We were clear that we did not want to impose any mandates on others that we as sitting Senators were unwilling to comply with ourselves.

So we worked with the Senate Rules Committee to make sure we could coordinate as much as possible. The committee members are also setting up an internal ethics panel that would hear complaints about sitting Senators.

The bill also sets up an ethics commission, but not as extensive as the original bill called for. But we know that it is better to make a start that can be built on than to not do anything.

If the bill comes to pass, this commission will have five members and a part-time paid executive director. The members are appointed by the Supreme Court, American Civil Liberties Union, League of Women Voters, Human Rights Commission, and Vermont Bar Association. The commission members will hire the executive director and will meet periodically.

The duties of the commission/director will be:

• Give advisory opinions on questions of potential ethical issues to anyone who requests confidentiality.

• Receive complaints of alleged violations. If a complaint concerns a legislator, it will be referred to the appropriate ethics panel; if it concerns an employee, it will be referred to the Department of Human Resources.

If it concerns campaign finance, it will go to the Office of the Vermont Attorney General; and if it concerns a governors' appointee, it will go to the governor. If any of the allegations involves criminal activity, it will be referred to the proper authorities.

While the commission does not, at this point, have power to investigate and enforce allegations, it will have a role to play.

One of the points we heard from an ethics-compliance officer was that the original bill was about four-fifths enforcement and one-fifth education. She felt it should be the reverse.

So an important role for the commission, as envisioned in the legislation, will be to gather the types of complaints, analyze how they were resolved, and inform us lawmakers where we need to pay the most attention.

* * *

This legislation certainly does not go far enough, in the opinion of those who feel that we have something to hide, that we are not facing the issue, and that we are only policing ourselves.

Up to this point, we have not seen a lot of cases of unethical behavior - and some would argue that we have not been presented with rampant unethical behavior.

But this bill is a start.

We do feel it is important to begin the process and see where it might lead us. We might find that this bill will take us as far as we need to go. We might find that we will need to tweak the legislation. And we might find that we need a fully-funded ethics commission that has investigative and enforcement abilities.

Those needs will be determined as we go forward, and they will be decisions for a future legislature - after we have gathered some data.

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates