Government Ethics - Jan 24, 2024

The first person to testify on the draft ethics bills in front of the House Government Operations Committee was Ted Brady (Executive Director, Vermont League of Cities and Towns).

NOTE: Brady had submitted a letter to the Committee which we had read when preparing our last newsletter. In my mind, the letter did not clearly present the League’s position on a statewide ethics bill. In listening to this week's presentation, it became very clear what his position is.

Brady noted that the bill being considered by the Committee did not reflect the League’s core values as it takes a "cookie-cutter approach." The League believes that ethics issues should be handled on the local level as they do not work against the wishes of a town’s selectboard. With that said, he noted that it is "nice to have" the Ethics Commission in place to provide feedback when there are questions. They also appreciate the bill adding a position for the League on the Commission. Brady was also supportive of more training for municipal staff, but did express concern that if the state is mandating ethics training, he wondered what other training will the state require.  Many towns have conflict of interest policies and, in many cases, selectboard members have to sign a conflict of interest policy.

One concern he had was that if there is no deadline for a resolution that an issue could be raised later and if a conflict of interest is shown to be valid, whether that would that wipe any the original decision (presumably by a select board). He believed it is better to have the issue handled at the time it occurs and not down the road. There "needs to be accountability," he claimed.

NOTE: It is unclear whose accountability he is referring to here, but it seems like accountability for the person raising the potential conflict of interest complaint.

Brady's recommendation the Legislature should worry about state level ethics and leave the conflict of interest for municipalities with the municipality.

Members of the Committee asked for clarification around the "cookie cutter" comment. Brady explained that the policy is different when it is applied to a municipalities vs. The state. The bill also does not present new ways to hold people accountable, in his opinion, but allows the Commission to investigate and enforce. He also questioned why the enforcement language is not in the state’s ethics policy. He would rather first see how enforcement works in the state level before it is applied to the municipalities.  In 2018 a model policy was developed by the league.  It has had 47 inquiries since then.

NOTE: There is a second bill the Committee is considering that would create enforcement powers for the Ethics Commission. There may be a legitimate argument around seeing how this works before applying oversight to municipalities. However, the argument against having minimum ethics standards for municipalities makes little sense and most other states do this.

Chairman McCarthy expressed his concern that he doesn’t think the public perceives a culture of accountability with regard to ethics at any level within the state. He noted that if we had resources available to support towns, he felt it would make sense to have one policy for everyone (the state and municipal governments). Brady responded that there is also not a culture of unethical behavior in Vermont. He thinks people can be educated about the conflict of issue policies in their towns.

NOTE: The number of municipal employees embezzling money from their town might suggest otherwise.

Christina Sivret (Executive Director, Vermont Ethics Commission) commented that she looks at the function of the Commission as a service to municipalities. A member of the Committee spoke to the importance of self-governance and local control. She wondered why we shouldn’t just let them govern themselves?

Sivret noted that in the beginning of the Commissions work, the majority of calls were about municipalities. That volume has since been reduced to approximately a third of their calls. She stressed that the Commission is an impartial place for people to go and a central resource which would rely on the same definitions to ensure consistency in how the code of ethics is applied. The calls are confidential and the caller can also request an advisory opinion which are published on the Commissions website. It is based on a uniform approach and not a cookie cutter approval.

T.J. Jones (a consultant for the Ethics Commission) noted that a statewide bill to include municipalities will provide a common understanding among elected people. He did note that the model policy put forth by the league was a good one, but his concern is that towns can pick who must comply and also decide what the definition of a conflict is for their town.

NOTE: Also important here is the independent oversight. Having friends and neighbors police each other is not a recipe for success. That's how the current system is set up.

Lewis Mudge spoke to the Committee last. He is in his second term as a member from the Charlotte selectboard. He reviewed scenarios where conflicts of interest were brought before the town and how they handled the inquiries.





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