An Ethics Panel is Just the Beginning

There’s been much discussion this summer about the need for an ethics panel – an independent oversight body to address concerns about the ethical behavior of public officials. Although the idea was proposed by Campaign for Vermont back in 2013, it’s just now become a popular position.

This is mostly likely due to a series of questions raised about potential conflicts of interest with the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and lawmakers. The increase in support may also be a result of an upcoming election when relationships become at least as important as money.

While the discussion focuses on the need for an independent ethics panel, we mustn’t forget the broader issue. Vermont lacks ethical standards except for some gentle suggestions. The House of Representatives has Rule 75: “Members shall not be permitted to vote upon any question in which they are immediately or directly interested.” Rule 71 in the Senate is essentially a carbon copy.

Governor Shumlin signed in 2011 an Executive Code of Ethics that applies only to exempt employees in the Executive Branch of government, roughly 7.6% of the state workforce. The Code of Ethics is further limited as “guidance to gubernatorial appointees” and does not include specific sanctions.

The bottom line: Vermont still falls woefully behind 47 other states with regards to comprehensive ethics standards, an independent oversight body, and strict and enforceable prohibitions on specific behaviors. Vermont remains vulnerable to the small minority of public officials that would take advantage of the public trust.

While the creation of an ethics petition is a critical component, it is but one component of comprehensive reform. A full cadre of reforms would include:

  • A two-year waiting period before a former lawmaker can be paid to influence policy (commonly known as the “revolving door”).
  • A prohibition on nepotism - intentional favoritism of friends, family or business associates.
  • A requirement that lawmakers disclose their conflicts of interest publicly prior to casting a vote, and an explicit definition of what constituted a conflict of interest.
  • Disclosure of all gifts given to public officials. Current law requires the disclosure of gifts from registered lobbyists only.
  • A prohibition on the use of public resources for personal gain such as the use of confidential information for personal benefit.
  • And annual disclosure of financial interests for all constitutional officers and their spouses.

By enacting a comprehensive set of reforms, Vermont will join the vast majority of other states that have found it necessary to protect the public interest. That’s why we’ve organized a citizen petition to let the Legislature know it’s time: http://www.vtethics.org.

A common argument against setting ethical standards is that it would make recruiting public servants even harder. My response is that without common standards for public officials, questions about their ethics go unanswered. To me, the lack of clarity is the ultimate deterrent.

Cyrus Patten is the Executive Director of Campaign for Vermont, a nonpartisan, nonprofit advocacy group. He lives in Williston with his wife and two children.

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