Municipal Ethics (H.875) - April 16, 2024

The Senate Government Operations Committee spent their committee time listening to twelve individuals who were slated to testify on H.875Chairwoman Hardy also noted the numerous written testimonies that were on their webpage with comments on the bill.

Jaye Pershing Johnson, the Governor’s counsel noted that as a general matter, they have no objections to the bill.  But they do have two concerns as follows:   

  1. She hoped that requirements are clear and reasonable and not so onerous as to discourage those best qualified for public service.
  2. She noted the need for safeguards to avoid attempts to weaponize the ethics commission by simply making an accusation.  She said the bill does a good job avoiding those pitfalls but did pose a few questions regarding income disclosures related to investment accounts.

Johnson supported the expansion of the definition of ‘public servant’ and has no objected to expanding the power of the Ethics Commission, although noting that this will be “resource dependent.” 

She questioned whether the Commission really needs subpoena power and the authority to administer oaths. She recommended that they qualify this power but including language saying the Commission “shall first request voluntary cooperation.” 

Representatives from the judicial system were concerned about the conduct of judges would be under the purview the Ethics Commission which they believe raises constitutional concerns.

A school board member testified that he saw “quite a bit of misbehavior” and is disappointed that school boards are not included in this bill. He said while the issues are not “rampant,” they do exist and gave some examples to the Committee. 

Another individual presented her personal story of harassment because she tried to flag some ethical violations on her selectboard. The harassment was relentless, and she eventually had to get her own lawyer to fight the issue and was disheartened to learn through this experience that she was not alone. Because of this experience she strongly supports this bill as it would have given her a place to go instead of her selectboard (the Ethics Commission).

Interestingly, one individual asked the Committee to have a two-tiered system: one for towns under 500 individuals and another for 500 or more people. He said that truly small towns would inherently have conflicts of interest particularly since 10% of the town are involved in the town, on boards, elected positions, etc.

Another individual expressed concern about the mandatory training because of how busy municipal employees are. However, she did go on to say they did need to know open meeting laws and public records. Several people testified (as they had in the House) that they were not in favor of the bill as their towns had ethics procedures and a policy already in place.

A citizen commented on her own personal experience by watching Development Review Board meetings in her town and was shocked to witness board members repeatedly violating her town’s Code of Ethics including numerous and blatant conflicts of interest.  She explained the behavior in detail and voiced her support of this “much-needed” legislation.

One select board member noted that volunteer time is already “stretched to the max.”  He believed the bill “may have good intentions, but it will have more bad consequences.” He argued that local town officers base their reputations on being honest and hard-working members of the community. He stated he thinks the bill will open up the use of state resources to field “frivolous complaints on local issues.” He also believed that elected officials should be given ethics training when they are sworn in and be asked to sign a statement that they would abide by the code of ethics. If they violate the code then they could be charged accordingly.

We wrapped up by stating that the state should “focus on elected officials at the state level and let the municipal governments in Vermont have the same privilege of focusing on ethics in our communities.  No offense to State Government, but we’ll do a much better job.”

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