Sunshine Week: Vermont on Long Road to Accountability in Government

Posted in Vermont Watchdog on March 13, 2017.

Two studies since 2013 have shown that Vermont government is doing poorly when it comes to everything from independent oversight of state officials to public access to information.

State lawmakers have a proposal that aims to address those shortcomings.

Vermont is ranked among the lowest of the 50 states in government integrity laws, according to the Better Government Association. And the state received a D- grade, when it comes to integrity, by the Pulitzer Prize-winning Center for Public Integrity.

While governed by laws that address criminal activity, state legislators and officials have yet to receive independent oversight in the areas of ethics, accountability and professional conduct.

“Vermonters assume that the state has conflict of interest laws in place, and they are surprised to learn that just isn’t so,” according to Ben Kinsley of Campaign for Vermont, a public-interest lobbying group with government ethics reform at the top of its agenda. “When they find out there’s nothing holding their legislators accountable, it’s a bit of a shock. … They just don’t have any idea.”

In 2013, a questionable land deal by former Democrat Gov. Peter Shumlin received widespread attention and helped focus scrutiny on Vermont state ethics. That same year, Karen Marshall, Shumlin’s telecommunications “czar,” accepted an executive position with VTel, one of the companies she was responsible for overseeing. Republican Gov. Phil Scott has been criticized for how he financed the sale of his company, DuBois Construction, before being sworn-in as governor in January.

“As a practical matter, there is no process to which everyday Vermonters can turn if a government officials’ behavior is ethically questionable. We can do better,” according to Bruce Lisman, co-founder of Campaign for Vermont and an unsuccessful 2016 Republican candidate for governor. Beginning in 2011, Lisman became among the most visible of citizen advocates of government accountability and ethics reform in the Green Mountain State.

Got transparency?

The question of government accountability dates to Vermont’s entry into the Union as the 14th state in 1791.

Chapter 1, Article 6, of the Vermont Constitution, written in 1793, includes a passing reference to ethical behavior by state officials, although it can hardly be considered a code of ethics: “That all power being originally inherent in and consequently derived from the people, therefore, all officers of government, whether legislative or executive, are their trustees and servants; and at all times, in a legal way, accountable to them.”

“Open and transparent government is good government. Vermont’s citizens deserve accountability in their government,” according to Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos regarding one of his recent statewide “Got Transparency?” tours to discuss open meeting laws and access to public records with state employees and citizens serving on a variety of local government boards.

But, Condos acknowledged, “we recognize that these laws are not always clear and we need to hear from them regarding the challenges they face and the questions they have. I look forward to engaging in an open discussion about the importance of access to public records and public meetings.”

According to the 2015 report by the Center for Public Integrity, Vermont officials perform poorly, receiving a D- grade overall. The report delivers failing grades for individual categories such as public access to information, executive, legislative and judicial accountability, state civil service management and ethics enforcement.

According to the National Conference of State Legislators, Vermont is one of the few remaining states without ethics laws for its state public officials; it doesn’t require financial disclosure or bar the establishment of non-profit groups by officials to reward political supporters. Lack of public access to government meetings is an oft-cited problem as well.

Legislation introduced early in the current session is designed to address some of these concerns.

According to S.8, state legislators and executives would be prohibited from certain types of employment after leaving office (harking back to telecom czar Marshall). The measure would also prohibit soliciting or receiving “payment, gift, trip, or favor” from any person with the intent of influencing an elected or appointed official. The bill would also require all executive officers to submit a disclosure form twice a year. And it would create a State Ethics Commission.

“There’s so little trust in government, so the moment is right,” Kinsley said.

‘A first step’

Although the proposed Ethics Commission would not regulate government on the local level, it may encourage a broader effort of reform within the state. Vermont has one of the highest rates of embezzlement by public officials on the municipal level, according to a recent study.

Kinsley also said that Vermont fared poorly in two areas relating to ethics and corruption: confidence in government and in the number of officials convicted of federal corruption charges. “Vermont’s in the lower third in both areas. We didn’t rank particularly high,” he said. (The federal corruption charges noted have been on the municipal level.)

As far as creating a House Ethics Commission goes, Kinsley said he sees it as just a start on the road to letting in more sunshine in Vermont government.

“This version is a first step,” Kinsley said.

The commission’s members would be appointed by the chief justice of the state Supreme Court, the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, the League of Women Voters, the state bar association and the executive director of the state Human Rights Commission.

It would not have subpoena power, but would conduct preliminary investigations and forward findings to the legislature, the attorney general or state’s attorneys.

“We’re not opposed to getting this in place and then strengthening it,” Kinsley said.

 

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