FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE – MARCH 31, 2017
Bill Mathis again made headlines amid controversy last week when he was elected as vice-chair of the State Board of Education (SBE). Two new members of the board voted against him because of his involvement in proposed changes to how the state treats independent schools.
This argument, however, misses a more important point. In January, a group of independent legislators questioned whether Mathis’ employment at a national education research group that received funding from teachers unions violated the Vermont Executive Code of Ethics. “Much of the work conducted by the NEPC – including materials authored by Dr. Mathis – have direct bearing on public policy matters before the SBE,” they wrote.
The group directed their complaint to then-chairman of the SBE Stephan Morse. Morse responded that he has no authority to enforce the Executive Code of Ethics. He was correct. The existing code of ethics is quite vague about enforcement, and essentially leaves this important aspect to the discretion of the Governor.
This is undesirable for two reasons: first, it allows the Governor to give a “get out of jail free” card to political loyalists; second, it makes any enforcement action inherently political. This is not a process but rather the lack of a process for addressing potential ethical violations in state government. Because there is no independent oversight authority, both action and inaction degrade public trust in our government institutions.
Further, there is no place to go with complaints or concerns about the ethical conduct of public officials. The Mathis situation illustrates this perfectly, the original complaint was directed at the SBE itself and then deferred to the Governor. This confusion about where to direct complaints and whether or not they are listened to or adjudicated does not serve Vermonters well.
Campaign for Vermont Prosperity released a report in December of 2013 detailing the lack of accountability for public officials – Vermont is one of only three states in the country without comprehensive ethics laws. While Vermont can be proud of being exceptional in many ways, this is not one of them. The most important finding in the report was that it doesn’t matter how strict ethics laws are if there is no strong enforcement mechanism. An independent ethics commission with investigatory, subpoena, and enforcement powers is essential to the success of any ethics legislation.
Last month the Senate unanimously passed S.8. A bill creating conflict of interest laws, a ‘revolving door’ prohibition, pay-to-play regulations, and an ethics commission. The bill is just now being taken up in the House Government Operations Committee. While the commission set up by S.8 meets the test for independence from both the executive and legislative branches of state government, it falls short in having no real enforcement powers. This commission has only one part-time employee and they are given limited authority to investigate complaints and have no subpoena power or authority to enforce penalties for ethical violations.
Secretary of State Jim Condos has advocated for a much stronger commission and others have joined him. A strong ethics commission is the linchpin for the success of this ethics legislation and for restoring trust in government at a time when it is desperately needed. Condos has put a price tag of $300,000 on such a commission – a small price to pay for a transparent and accountable government.
In fact, some research suggests that an ethics commission could save Vermonters millions of dollars through exposure of government malfeasance. Regardless, it is far past time Vermont join the 47 other states that demand the highest level of conduct from public officials.
Find out how to get involved at CampaignForVermont.org/call_to_action_ethics
Benjamin Kinsley is Executive Director of Campaign for Vermont Prosperity and a native Vermonter and graduate of Norwich University. He is committed to government reforms in transparency, accountability, and sustainability and has been outspoken on issues ranging from local control to animal rights.